Tag Archives: lessons from students

Wow – Where Did the Time Go! Or, Was I Procrastinating?

I meant to take a short break from writing… due to the busy time of the Holidays.  I reread my last post and, apparently, my student’s question about Thanksgiving and Christmas being the same break was a prophesy for me.   After I graded over Thanksgiving, I assigned another essay to be due before Christmas break.  I encouraged students to turn it in early for some extra credit, and five students did.  The rest, well, they validated the reason I do not give weeks to write an essay or create a project.  We work in class for 2-4 days and then it is due two days later.  This gives the kids a chance to turn it in early for some extra credit or ask me for help before the due date.  But I digress…

Of course, I have Romeo and Juliet essays to grade right now, but procrastinating by writing can be more fun.  See, I learn from the students every year.   The essays were due on Friday by 7:30 a.m.  and we did not have school.  The busses would not start due to the extremely cold weather we are experiencing.  Luckily for the students, our district began using Turnitin.com this year.

Little side story here: Eleven years ago several of us asked for the district to purchase a license to use the website.  However, we were told the money would have to come out of the English Department’s budget of $500.  Yes, you guessed it, the license cost more than that.  Evidently, none of the administrators saw a use for checking the originality of science, history, foreign language, and every other subject’s writing assignments.  Thus, while the English department was teaching proper citation of sources and how not to plagiarize, the rest of the school may have been fine with copying from Wikipedia, the bane of all researchers!  Never fear, we asked again around year six, and were told there was no money, which was true.  In fact, the district had to layoff dozens of teachers and two curriculum department administrators. Luckily, this year the Teaching and Learning Department, formally known as the Curriculum Department, has grown beyond pre-cuts days and saw the advantage to using Turnitin.com.  (I guess it makes one sound more intelligent or more powerful if the department has two names.)    

So far, only the English and Language Arts Department is using it, but I am sure the Math, Science, and the rest of the departments will learn how to use it during one of our weekly Professional Development meetings.  

Back to the main topic (Procrastination): My favorite feature of Turnitin.com is the time stamp.  I can have the submission deadline  be midnight or 7:30 a.m. or whenever.  I can then learn when the student turned it in.  I also do not have to deal with using instructional time to have students staple papers together (no one owns staplers), needing to print during class, and listening to excuses of forgotten folders containing essays at home.  Some students still have the excuses, “I couldn’t submit my essay” or “I do not have Internet” or “My printer was out of ink or broken, or “the dog urinated on my laptop.”  Therefore, I have instructed them to (A) email a copy to me or share it with me on Google Docs, (B) bring a typed or hand- written copy to class to give me as they explain the problem, (C)  print from our computer lab before school, or (D) take ownership of YOUR problem and solve it.  The reality is that 92.4%  of the excuses come about because of procrastination.  (I found that statistic on the Internet, so it must be true!)

Although, the company checks originality, it also enables teachers to grade the essays online.  There is an automatic grammar and punctuation checker; however, it is not always correct.  For example, it always indicates the title of the essay and the first sentence is a run-on-sentence.  Teachers are able to create their own comments; thus, no more writing the same comment over and over again.  We merely highlight the mistake and click the comment!  I am finding it an easier way to grade, as long as I have an Internet connection.

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Filed under 21st century skills, Education, Goals, Humor, Learning, Lessons from students, Measuring Student Success, Writing

Gift Ideas for Teachers

Yes, it is that time of year when my wife shops for the teachers of three of our children.  It’s not that she doesn’t like our fourth child.  The girl is just too old.  There seems to be an unwritten rule that once your child reaches junior high school; gifts for teachers are no longer needed.  Sympathy cards seem more appropriate to adults who willingly subject themselves to the moodiness of teenagers.

Nevertheless, I have been fortunate enough to receive a few presents over the years.  And as the Trojans learned  to beware of Greeks bearing gifts, I am cautious when students give me baked goods without a list of ingredients.

During the past twenty-three years I have been given some really good gifts, though.

Being a graduate of The Ohio State University and fan of their sports teams, I have been given T-shirts, buttons, book marks, socks, and my favorite, a wolverine hunting license.  On the other hand, sixteen years ago, one malicious student gave me a M!#H&$@n shirt.   He still wonders why he is in my class, again.

I also enjoy teaching mythology and use many allusions in my writing, speech, and teachings.  Over the years I have been given a few books on mythology that I keep in my classroom.  This gift idea allows my future students the opportunity to research, learn, and giggle uncontrollably when they look at the nude gods, goddesses, and heroes or read about Zeus and realize he had more affairs than a Presidential candidate.  Gifts for my classroom are always welcome and they benefit so many.

I always put a thought of the day, not an inspirational quote, on my board.  For example, “Why are actors IN a movie but ON TV?” Or, “If all the world is a stage, where is the audience sitting?”   Sometimes students laugh; sometimes they don’t.  Some kids think I have a sense of humor; some kids tell me not to quit my day job.  It doesn’t seem to matter which opinion a student has because I have been given joke books from kids who think I am funny and from kids who have no sense of humor.  Either way, I get to laugh.

To be candid, I am not a great shopper.  Ask my wife.  She usually returns half of the stuff I buy her.  I would like to just give her gift cards; oh wait, I did: a visa, a master card, and a discover card.  However, that takes the fun out of the holidays for her.  She says the fun is opening gifts.  I think she really enjoys the thought of me walking around a mall with a lost-child-look on my face, trying to figure out what clothes she would like, and guessing what size would fit her because women’s clothing sizes vary.  And, she makes me take the kids, so she has a quiet afternoon – the true gift.  But I digress.  A good gift for a teacher would be a gift card.  Many teachers use their own money to buy things for the class room or the students. A gift card shows appreciation and allows the teacher to treat himself or herself.

Lastly, I appreciate a card or note.  Too often communication between a high school teacher and a parent is minimal.  When it does happen, it usually is about a concern or problem.  So, a little note with some personal information about the student helps build the relationship to effectively teach the child.

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Deep Learning for the 21st Century

At the beginning of the school year,  I spent part of a day in meetings with other freshmen teachers to discuss “Deep Learning”.  As anyone can guess, it is the opposite of shallow learning.  To quote one handout, “Deep learning promotes understanding and application for life.”  This reminds me of what John Dewey, a late 19th century-early 20th century educator and philosopher, said, ” Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.”  Life is full of conflict or problems.  Dewey made a point to say, “We only think when confronted with a problem.”  This must explain why my brain hurt so much after math class.  It had to have been all of the problems.

In this way our schools have not changed much; we are still trying to get our students to solve problems.  At our meeting, I laughed because of this lack of change.  Someone wants to reinvent the wheel with new educational jargon.  The truth is “a rose by any other name would still smell as sweet.” Teachers today are doing a great job of challenging the students to think.

For example, one teacher showed us her website  http://HarrisEnglish.weebly.com/ she uses for her lesson plans and to communicate with parents.  And, we found out we can have students blog on it, which is Deep Learning.  Students will have to think about what they write, communicate effectively, collaborate with others, and analyze the topic to a point that they truly understand what they are writing about.  I have set up a blog using http://wallwishers.com for students in several of our English classes to discuss To Kill A Mockingbird.   

Only fear prevents some teachers from shifting the way they challenge students to learn deeply.   We must not forget another John Dewey philosophy: “The path of least resistance and least trouble is a mental rut already made.  It requires troublesome work to undertake the alternation of old beliefs.”  By embracing the technology available to us, by listening to the younger generation, and by accepting change, we can succeed and learn.


Filed under 21st century skills, Education, Measuring Student Success

Run, Run, and Read!

My students came up with the greatest idea yesterday.  We were reviewing vocabulary words, and as usual, the words ignited some ideas for integrated learning.  For example, our elementary students now have integrated physical education, art, and music.  With this as a base line, my students used critical thinking skills to brainstorm ways to incorporate physical education into our high school English class.

They decided that we need a treadmill room, much like we have a computer lab.  The decision was made that the bus drivers would frown on students bringing their own tread mills to school.  Therefore, teachers would reserve the treadmill room in the same manner as they do the computer labs.  The “treadmill lab” will allow students to read their novels or short stories while walking or running, depending on their fitness level or fitness goals.  After all, we see adults reading and working out at the gym everyday.

Of course, this activity could cause locker room smells and create the opportunity for a new cleanliness curriculum or create additional sales at the school store for Axe or other body sprays.  Obviously the latter brings in more money, and eliminates the need for bake sales which only add to our country’s obesity problem.

One problem that needs to be addressed is when a student falls asleep while reading.  When a student falls asleep at his or desk, I have given “wet willies,” tickles with a feather, dropped a book on the floor, allowed the class to leave two minutes early as long as they left quietly, or given a detention.  However, imagine the disruption if a student fell asleep while running on the treadmill.  He or she would slide off the treadmill and hit the back wall or another treadmill with a loud “THUMP!”  This, like a fart, would cause all of us to laugh and lose our place in our books.

Despite the chaos, I would enjoy watching a few students stumble, collapse, and hit the wall.  I bet I could film it and win money on America’s Funniest Videos or post it on YouTube and make a kid as famous as Fred.

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Filed under Education, Humor, Lessons from students

Ingratitude and Group Projects

Ingratitude.  A noun.  The state of being not grateful.

This was one of the vocabulary words today.  I thought I could count on the students to discuss for a few minutes what they were grateful for.  (Look!  I ended a sentence in a preposition!  see yesterday’s post).

Instead, I began the day with Mary asking, “What’s grateful mean?”  As I tried to hide my original feeling of surprise, which quickly turned to incredulousness, and ended with complete and utter angst that a student would not know the word grateful, another student nonchalantly came her rescue.

“It means thankful,” Scott interceded.

A student helping another student is not anything new.  When I was a student, I had one group project, and it was in my freshman English class.  We created a slide show of whales using a 35 mm camera and slide film.  Then, we found a song of whale sounds to accompany it.  This was our symbolic interpretation of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.  I am not sure of my grade, but I doubt it was good since I am still in freshman English.  Of course, all of my other teachers made us work by ourselves.

Over the last twenty-three years of my career, teachers have tried to incorporate teamwork and collaboration into lessons.  As a freshmen teacher, I have had to deal with students being able to get to get together with classmates outside of school.  I have also had to deal with one kid being a slacker, one person doing all of the work , and, of course, the one who could only give orders or negative feedback.  Next, I had to explain my logic in the grades to the parents.  The group project usually ended up with the parent, the student, and myself unhappy and full of ingratitude for the lesson.

I have found the best collaborative lessons to be similar to the impromptu lesson this morning: a student helping a student.  I can expand on the lesson by having each student in a group create a clause to use in a sentence with a vocabulary word or individually revise a paragraph then team up with others to discuss the best revision ideas or have a small group create thoughtful questions for a socratic discussion.

All of these ideas do not require time outside of class, nor do they require a complicated rubric to make sure everyone does his or her share.  These lessons require me to listen and observe.  It is not a perfect system, but neither is the work place.  There are committees or work groups everywhere that have slackers or people trying to make others look bad.  The lack of productivity will catch up with the person.  If a person hardly does any work on his or her own, I would be skeptical that he or she suddenly becomes the model student or employee when in a group.

The best collaboration brings out ideas or leads to more questions.  It is not always about producing a project or product.

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Failure is a Lesson

I look back on the first few years of my teaching career as one gigantic, humongous, epic learning experience.  I really owe an apology to the students who survived that experience with me.  These teenagers were trying to find their style and voice as I was trying to find my style and my voice as a teacher.   I was staying one day ahead of the kids and the lessons, and it was very difficult to plan ahead when I barely knew what I was going to do tomorrow.  Every night I was designing lessons that I hoped would be engaging and inspiring.  I am sure I failed a few times.

One idea, though, came from a student.  Chris had dropped out of school the previous year, but came  back.  He needed English 11 and Government class to graduate.  When other students, who looked at school as a prison, asked Chris why he would come back when he was free,  he responded simply yet powerfully, “It sucks without a diploma.”

Chris went on to explain to us that he had to move out and live on his own.  Of course, a few student’s visages lit up as if they were a five-years old and they discovered that Santa did indeed deliver toys.  Their imaginations went into overdrive as they thought of the late nights with friends, sleeping in every day, and being able to do whatever they wanted.

Chris tried to explain the reality of the situation: “I had to get a job to pay for everything.”

“That’s cool,” chimed Tony. He then added, “What did you do?  I bet you made some money!”

“I wish,” Chris hit them like a hockey player body-checking an adversary into the boards.  He told us how he tried to get a job in a factories; however,they would not hire him without a diploma.  He was only able to get menial jobs that paid minimum wage.  Plus, he had to pay rent, a car payment, and then he had a little money left for food.  He had been eating a lot of Mac-n-cheese and Spam.

“So you didn’t have parties?” asked Brad.

“Once.  And my so-called friends ate all of my food I needed to last for a week,” Chris muttered.

“At least you got to sleep in,” Missy consoled.

Chris laughed, “No, my job cleaning bathrooms at the gas station and stocking shelves at Dairy Mart had me at work by 5 a.m. five days a week.  In the evenings, I was washing dishes at a restaurant.  Coming to school allows me to sleep in.”

The other students started to add up expenses and think about what Chris had told us.  I am sure Chris was able to reach a few kids who would not listen to me.  Of course, there is a happy ending; Chris passed easily the second time around.  After all, this time he took ownership of his learning and cared.

Chris learned a valuable lesson in his failure.  And, he gave me an idea to help students improve their writing.  Thus began my REDO philosophy.  I began to allow students the opportunity to rewrite their essays, thereby improving their grades and learning from the writing experience.  I knew I evaluated my lessons and methods, so why not give the students the chance to do the same with their writing.    I began to see improvements right away.  I was having conferences with the students about their writing mistakes and watching them revise.  I also noticed that they started to care more about choosing the right words, improving the style, and having outstanding supporting examples.  Redoing was working!

Unfortunately, I moved to a bigger school district and almost doubled my student load.  I was having trouble keeping up with the grading, so I eliminated the opportunity for revising essays.  Sadly, I noticed kid’s writings were not improving.  They would write an essay; I would write comments on it and give it back; they would look at the score and throw the essay away.  My failure to communicate how to improve writing taught me a lesson.  I needed to return to the land of the REDO.  Now, we may write one less essay, but we are rewriting almost everything.

Today’s lesson: persistence prevails!  Didn’t Thomas Edison fail a hundred times before he found a filament that would work to make the light bulb?

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Nellie’s Club

Today my daughter signed up for Nellie’s Club at school.  It is an off shoot of the Nellie’s Catwalk 4 Kids, a non-profit organization started by Jenelle “Nellie” Krumlauf when she was 16.  Nellie’s Catwalk 4 Kids focuses on helping children and teenagers battling cancer.  A former student started Nellie’s Club here and has been working to expand the club into other area high schools.  It is her dream to continue the expansion throughout Ohio and other states.

When I was in high school, I was in Surf Club.  I am not sure what we were suppose to do since we were in Ohio and a few hundred miles from any real surfing.  One meeting we did change the name of our club to Serf Club and elected our feudal lord.  I remember going sledding with the club and having my Flexible Flyer sled stolen.  This was not exactly a club that would teach leadership skills, impress a college, or contribute to the community.

I am proud of my daughter for choosing to be a member of a club that has a purpose and plan:  to raise funds and awareness for fighting childhood cancer.   Sometimes I get on her case about not being able to read a clock; turns out about 70% of the freshman can’t do this.  However, she and many of her generation show more desire to help others, more discipline to get school work completed, and more dedication to friends, family, and neighbors than I ever demonstrated.

Every manager wants someone who shows initiative, takes risks, and contributes to the company in a positive manner.  The freshman experience keeps showing us that all can achieve success.

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Reflective learning

Rene Descartes’ statement “Cogito ergo sum, or I think, therefore I am” first appeared in my life when I was a freshman.  I wrote a short essay on him for my math class.  I know, writing in math class?  Today we call it “writing across the curriculum.”  I think my teacher called it “learning.”  The basic principles of education do not change; only the fancy names change.  It’s like a friend told me, “Today they call it ‘organic food.’  My grandmother called it ‘food.'”

I think, therefore I am.  There is much written about this philosophy and there is some disagreement on it.  I see it as thinking.  When I wrote my short essay, I learned about a mathematician.  I thought he had a girl’s name and was weird.  As I matured, I learned the French give weird names to their children, math was weird, and I liked to write.

Today, the term reflective learning is being bounced around education circles.  The idea is that students need to think about what they are learning.  I always thought that was learning.  A teacher’s job is to teach students to think, not what to think.  John Dewey expressed this philosophy over 100 years ago, so this is not a new concept.

I recently had my students listen to Veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as a pre-reading activity to the Walter Dean Myers’ novel Sunrise Over Fallujah.  Next, I had them write about what they learned from the veteran.  Then, I had them meet in a small group and share what they had heard.  It has been interesting to read that students did not realize the effects war has had on veteran or their families.  I have done this type of lesson since 1988.  The only difference this year is we went to a computer lab to listen to the stories of veterans.  (note to self – have students bring ear phones next time.)  In the past, I shared written experiences or background information and had the students write down what they learned.

I continue to learn that my students enjoy thinking.  A few have trouble with thinking on their own or being creative because they were never allowed to try it.  They were the kids who were told to only use the blue crayon for the sky, only write in blue ink, not indigo, and all paragraphs have five sentences.   But, the majority of the kids will think on their own when given the encouragement, support, and freedom to do so.

This is true of our employees.  Who were your best teachers?  The ones who thought up their own lessons, or the ones who seemed to use a formula method that was designed by a textbook company or someone else?  Our best employees in our businesses can think on their own and solve minor problems themselves.  We merely have to be willing to allow them to try.

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I enjoy assigning projects, especially creative ones.  Today, the students had to read a poem about themselves or prepare a slide show that showed “where they are from.”  The creativity was amazing, and I will ask some of the kids to allow me to share them on this blog.  I was very proud of the kids who encountered some problems and made decisions. They adapted, improvised, and overcame!

Of course, projects bring out creative excuses too.  I had several students tell me that the slide show website (Photopeach.com) would not save.  (It saved automatically for me and every other student, so I am a little incredulous.)  I had a few excuses of “I think I did it wrong.”  My response, “Let me see it,”  was met with another excuse, “I left it at home.”  And today’s favorite excuse: “My brother burned it.”  I can actually picture one of my sons doing that to his brother if I didn’t hide the matches in the gun safe.

Tomorrow, I will have the students who were not prepared write out their excuses.  I plan to do this with every assignment with the hope that students will see the school work to be less work than the excuse making.

Well, I have papers to grade, emails to answer, and miles to go before I sleep.  So, please excuse me as I say goodnight.


Filed under Measuring Student Success

Labor Day

Labor Day.  Did you know Oregon was the first state to make it a holiday?  Did you know it became a federal holiday in 1894? And, today it is still a great holiday!  We celebrate working with a day off!  Only, I never seem to take the day off.  My wife always gives me a long honey-do list, and as a teacher, I spend the day grading papers or preparing lessons for the week.  It reminds me of Ohio’s waiver days.  Teachers go to meetings to improve their teaching and the district gets to count the day as a school day for kids.  I guess after a day of meetings, teachers can learn how to speed up learning to make up for the missed day of instruction.  Now, if only I could learn how to speed up completing the honey-do list.

Of course, this labor day I assigned a poem or slide show project using photopeach.com to my classes.  I am not cruel; they have two weekends, all week, and class time to complete it.  Of course, when I first began teaching, I was cruel.  I thought that English class was the most important thing in the student’s lives.  Within one month, I remembered that they have sports, music, church, scouting, many other activities, and other classes like history, science, and math that require their attention.  I learned to give more class time for reading and writing and count the class work for a higher grade than the homework because I could not control what happened at home.

For example, the best excuse I have ever been given for not having homework was “my Mom took a shot at my Dad.  She missed, but while taking care of my little brother I forgot I had homework.”   Not exactly “my dog ate my homework.”  I had already met Dad in a parent/teacher conference that included another teacher, the guidance counselor, the principal, and eventually a police officer.  Needless to say, I believed Robbie* and gave him additional time to complete his work.

No one likes excuses.  However, listening and having empathy can help in understanding others.  Robbie reminded me that we all have “baggage” or issues we bring to work.  It is how we deal the adversity that defines us.

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