Tag Archives: Schools

Do or do not!

A long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away I began my teaching career.  I like to think that I was the Yoda to the younglings in my classroom.  Remember in The Empire Strikes Back when Yoda tells Luke Skywalker, “No! Try not. Do. Or do not!! There is no try”?  It seems like Yoda is telling Luke to not try, just do it.  He must have had a Nike endorsement.

When I first began teaching, I had students write rough drafts, peer edit in class, and write a final copy.  Then, I noticed that their editing skills were weak.  True revising was not occurring.  Plus, freshmen prefer to use the time to socialize instead of do work.  I was incredulous! I am so glad all of the committees I have been on have not been like that.

So, my thoughts of students actually revising their essays into literary masterpieces on their final copy flew into hyperspace faster than the Millenium Falcon can jump into hyperspace.  I felt like Yoda, saying, “Do or do not!”

Within weeks I realized that that was not exactly what Yoda meant. Students had to learn how to be better writers by making mistakes and revising, revising, and revising, not writing perfectly the first time. In fact, I have rewritten this blog six times now. 

Ironically, Yoda’s words are an absolute, and as Obi-Wan Kenobi told Anakin in Revenge of the Sith: “Only a Sith deals in absolutes!”  Of course, Obi-Wan’s words are an absolute, but his meaning is that the dark side only allows the person to see everything as right or wrong, good or bad.  A Jedi knows that there are many shades of right and wrong.  But I digress.  To really understand what Yoda means, you have to see it in the context of the movie http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q3hn6fFTxeo

Yoda wants Luke to have a positive mental attitude.   This will lead to success.  Not just trying.

I recently wrote about one young man who set a goal for himself to get an A.  Last grading period he had a B-.  Last week he began a daily competition with another student to see who will achieve the higher grade.  I am happy to report they both have an A.

Lizzie is another student who has improved.  Last nine weeks she failed.  She was apathetic and not doing all of her assignments.  After she got the report card, we discussed her strengths.  She also discussed the ramifications of her lack of effort with her parents.  It seems she has changed her mind faster than a clone trooper asking Obi Won about two droids.  Lizzie is doing all of her work and currently has a B.  She does not see any assignment as difficult.  She has unlearned the negative way of thinking and now has the confidence to do the work.

Now if I can only get Carl to achieve a C.   



Filed under Education, Humor, Learning, Writing

Just another day…

Today has been an interesting and entertaining day.   About a week ago, the students were discussing their grade point averages and class ranks.  From what I overheard, over half of one of my classes must be in the bottom 10% of the class.  Their cavalier and insouciant attitudes troubled me.  However, today two of the hard-working students decided to compete for the highest grade in the class.  This made my day.   And, it may be premature, but perhaps the competitiveness is spreading.

For today’s activities, I had their class help each other revise narratives.  I gave them a handout that would force the students to really edit each other’s stories.  They were highlighting linking verbs and coordinating conjunctions and making suggestions for using action verbs and other ways to write it.  They were copying examples of figurative language that they thought were awesome.  In addition, they were looking for general statements that could be written with more details.  (For example, changing “it was cold” to “Freezing, I wrapped myself in a blanket, sat by the fire, and read a good book.”)  Positive feedback from peers was flowing like a swollen river in the Rocky Mountains.  They were trying to out write each other.  These kids who can be distracted by a dust mite were on task 90% of the time.   I don’t know about you, but committees I am on do not stay on task for 90% of the time.  I am able to lead the others astray more than 10% of the time.

My other classes were working on typing their narratives.   Listening to them discuss the changes they were making captivated me. However, one odd thing happened during the last class.  Arnie was on his laptop and asked me if a tortoise is a reptile or an amphibian.  In my most caring, yet sarcastic, manner, I responded, “I have no idea.  Perhaps you could “Google” it when you get home.”

“Well, I guess could do that right now,” he replied.

“Oh, yeah!”  I exclaimed,  “Now, why didn’t I think of that?”  By the way, the tortoise is a reptile. 

Well, Arnie’s quick research made me think of the # symbol used in Twitter.  The kids call it a hashtag, and no one could tell me about its purpose.  So, I took a minute and researched it during class.  The student’s reactions by my actions were priceless.

First, I was chastised for my ignorance:

“How could you not know what a hashtag is?”

Image representing Twitter as depicted in Crun...

Image via CrunchBase

“You actually looked it up?”

“Who does that?”

I am glad I did not chide them for not knowing how to use commas properly, not knowing how to spell abyss, languish and immediately, or not knowing how to copy, cut, and paste parts of the story on their word document.  Or, worse, rebuke them for not knowing the difference between they’re, their, and there.

Secondly, they were incredulous that I used the computer to research it.  Funny, these are the same kids who used the computer to research mythologies from around the world.  Just because they have friends who may have taught them about Twitter doesn’t mean I do.  I will leave the previous sentence written like it is.  You can decide if I don’t have friends or if I don’t have friends who know about Twitter… 🙂 

 Of course, for most teachers, these events are routine.  Some students enjoy an activity or lesson.  And, some students enjoy laughing at an old person’s ignorance of technology or modern slang.  Ok, most kids enjoy the latter.

I hope you had a great day doing what you love.

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Things that make you wonder…

Have you ever wondered?  Of course you have.  Perhaps you wonder how the deer know to only cross at those yellow signs on the road.  Perhaps you wonder why black olives are packaged in cans and green olives are packaged in jars.  Or, perhaps you wonder how everyone seemed to know Lassie was barking because Timmy was in trouble.

I enjoy wondering.  My love for reading has allowed me to wonder what it would have been like in a different time and place.  My desire to visit new places all of the time has encouraged me to wonder what it would be like to live in that location.  And, I wonder why people act the way they do.

People’s actions are like character’s actions in a story.  When I teach literature, I focus on why characters behave the way they do.  Sometimes we can explain it; sometimes we cannot.  For example, it is difficult to explain why the jury found Tom Robinson guilty in To Kill A Mockingbird.

However, it is easy to explain why Heck Tate said “Bob Ewell fell on his knife” at the end.

Recently I have been presented with some strange behavior by students that have made me wonder.  Perhaps one of you can explain these teenager’s logic.

1. I went into the boys rest room to wash my hands and noticed someone sitting on the floor in the stall.  Fearing he was regurgitating his math lesson or the school lunch, I asked him if he was ok.  He came out of the stall and tried to lie.  He finally confessed to be cutting his class, which was in the media center.  Since when did a boys bathroom floor, where aiming to hit the toilet is not a priority, become a “cooler” place to be than the library?  In 23 years I have never seen this way to cut a class.

Stainless Steel Stalls

2. I was walking down the hallway to the lunch room.  I never get school food, for I am trying to live a long life.  However, today I did not pack my lunch.  I stopped a young man who was breaking our dress code and asked him, “what class are you in right now?”   He responded, “I’m going to get some food at the grab and go line.”   I said that I wondered when the grab and go food line became a class.  So, I asked him again and we proceeded to his class. He did not pass go, collect $200 or buy any snacks.  I wonder why someone tries so hard to attract attention to himself then complains about getting in trouble.  When you scream, people tend to notice.  

Tomorrow we have outlines due.  I wonder what creative excuses I will encounter.  I am certain that I will get five students saying “I didn’t understand the assignment” even though we spent two class periods working on it.  I will probably hear three students tell me “I forgot it at home or in the car.”  Of course, one or two students will tell me that they were typing it and left it on the printer.  I do wonder if I will get “my brother got mad at me and lit it on fire, again.”


Filed under Education, Humor, Lessons from students

How to Tell When You Are Not Teaching Well

I have written about some of my success stories, but there are failures sometimes.  I guess that is why we call it learning.  For the last month I have been teaching Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel To Kill A Mockingbird, my favorite novel of all time.  I even use it as a guide as I face the trials of raising children.  I often ask myself, “What would Atticus do?”  My passion never dies for this American classic.  The novel allows the class to discuss growing up, prejudice, family dynamics, and stereotypes.   Basically, I try to instill in the kids that different is not bad.  As Atticus points out, “you never really understand a person until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

With old-style gossip in the hall or lunchroom and the use of technology to be mean and bully, the themes of the book are  relevant to teenagers.  As our reading progressed, I had students write answers to response questions, discuss events and the themes in small groups and Socratic Seminars,  rewrite scenes from two characters’ perspectives, and had shown a documentary on the Scottsboro Boys’ Trial.  My goal was to have them climb into a character’s skin and walk around in it: to see how other people think.

Today we were going to be discussing how Scout is doesn’t understand her teacher’s disapproval of Hitler and his persecution of Jews while Maycomb and the United States were persecuting African-Americans.  Scout points out the hypocrisy for the readers.  Using a teachable moment, I ask the students what the historical significance of tomorrow is.  One student realizes it is the anniversary of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.  One student, ignoring the last month’s lessons, blurts out, “We should nuke Japan every year for that.”  So much for ending stereotyping and prejudice with all freshman.

Not one to give up easily, I began teachable moment number #2.  I told the students about an optometrist I know, a United States Citizen of Japanese descent.  His parents had to sell their restaurant for a dollar, pack one suitcase, report to a train station, and spend the next several years in an internment camp.  Yes, persecution seems to have existed for many years.

As the young man began to realize he may have engaged his mouth prior to starting his brain, I thanked him for playing along and helping me demonstrate how prejudice has occurred throughout our country’s history.  Now, I hope he has finally learned about prejudice and trying to see things from another’s perspective.

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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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Happy Face, Lying Face

“This is my happy face,” my youngest son showed my wife and I with a smile.

“This is my lying face.  I can tell the difference because I can hear the laughing in my head.”

This leads to the question, “How do you really know when someone is being mistaken about the truth, giving misinformation, or lying?”  I am no expert and I don’t mean to brag, but I have caught a few kids in lies during my tenure as a teacher and years as a parent.  When you can’t hear the voices in a person’s head,

  1. Watch their body language.  Once when I asked one of my sons if he had a cookie in his mouth, he covered his mouth with his hand and mumbled, “no.”
  2. Notice a lack of eye contact.  When I confronted my oldest son about his hitting his little brother, he hid his eyes from me by running away from me.  I know the little one was truthful when he told on his brother because I could see the tears in his eyes.
  3. Look for nervous behavior.  During a quiz, I noticed a student looking at me every thirty seconds.  I sat down next to him to help him feel safe and assuage his nerves.  I whispered to him, “Are you having trouble?”  He replied, “No.”
  4. Ask for details.  When I asked a young lady if she had read the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet last night and she said, “Yes,” I asked her about what happened.  She told me the two characters talked on a balcony.  I pressed for more details.  She told me they were brother and sister.
  5. Beware of negativity.  Several years ago I smelled cigarette smoke coming out of the bathroom at school.  When I informed the unknown young man that I had to escort him to the office, he denied doing anything wrong.  He kept claiming he didn’t smoke as he flushed a toilet.  He then accused me of always picking on him.
  6. Listen for the pause.  Often students will pause when confronted with a question.  They may utter an “um” or “ah” as they formulate their lie. Well, at least that is what I found to be true.
  7. Ask again.  One year on Christmas Day, I noticed about 20 candy wrappers on the table.  I asked my middle son if he ate them.  He denied it and was too young to immediately blame a sibling.  A little while later he complained of a tummy ache, so I sat on the couch with him.  He regurgitated all over the couch, carpet, and me.  I asked him again and he admitted he had lied.
  8. Listen for “honest” phrases.  This year I have several students who start their explanation for not having homework with phrases like, “to be honest” or “the truth is.”  Honestly, I don’t know why they try.

 I know some experts have more tips, like look at the pupils.   However, this seems obvious since pupils and politicians have a commonality: they lie like teenagers trying to get out of trouble.

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Integrated Learning

In the old days, high school teachers would disappear into their rooms, close the door, and lecture, lecture, lecture.  Today, a few dinosaurs continue this practice, but soon, they, too, will be extinct.  Most of us old teachers have adapted to changes and the fresh-out-of-college younglings are creative, energetic, and inspiring.

So, aside from Mr. T-Rex, our teachers of today have been trying to get kids to think.  Our new national curriculum, or Core Curriculum as the federal government prefers it to be called, does a great job in promoting thinking and collaboration.  Although it is only a matter of time until Old Man Triceratops retires, there are a few Neanderthals who are far from retirement and in need of being dragged into the Twenty-first century.  Thus, we have been mandated a “new” curriculum.

I write “new” because it is not so new in Language Arts.  We do many of the lessons already – teaching reading and writing skills.  The curriculum does offer many ideas for lesson planning, most of which we already use.  Nonetheless, one focus in the new curriculum appears to be integrated learning and teaching to the multiple intelligences of the students.

I was involved in an integrated class in 1993-1995.  For the first year, our district allowed the science teacher, math teacher and myself a common planning period.  During the second year, the district added Spanish I to the integrated team and only the science and math teachers and myself shared a fifteen minute study hall with our students.  Needless to say, the integration of all four subjects for many lessons was either contrived or forced.  In English and Spanish we were able to compare and contrast mythologies and folk tales.  In English class, we could research some scientists or mathematicians.  Or, I would help students write lab reports.

The class was cancelled when our district changed school course offerings and science requirements at the junior and senior high school.  However, I was able to see how integration can work, and I began to develop ideas that would have students utilize multiple intelligences and promote creativity.  I found the projects to be successful when I gave points for creativity (with formats, media, and figurative language) and graded student’s effort,  yet I continued the focus on their writing skills.

This year, though, three of my classes had the opportunity to work with the choir director to create a visual and oral presentation for the 9/11 Remembrance and Veteran’s Day Concert.  I designed assignments to be used with the songs being performed.  I came up with four possibilities students could choose from:

1. Immigration and why people move here.

2. People’s reactions to the 9/11 attack.

3. Explain what happened at the battle of the La Drang Valley during the Vietnam War.

4. Use the novel we read, Sunrise Over Fallujah, to show the effects of the war in Iraq.

I was impressed with the quality of work produced by the kids.  It was difficult to choose four to be part of the choir concert.  The choir performed for the community on a Thursday evening and for the students on a Tuesday morning.

When I was in choir, we stood on the stage and tried to sing louder than the snores of our parents in the audience.  Some of the kids even tried to sing in tune.  Not me.  My philosophy has always been the louder the better.  However, this collaborative effort between my students, the choirs, and a multi-media class produced an entertaining and moving performance.  Several choirs moved around or danced.   Videos, accompanied with music and slide shows with narrations, were used as transitions when the various choirs entered and exited the stage.   The narratives and videos produced a few tears in the audience members as we thought of those who died on 9/11 or in military service.

What did the students learn?  They learned a little about the topics they researched.  They learned that freedom is not free.  They learned that our country is home to people from all over the world who came here to escape persecution or famine and to seize opportunities that seemed to abound in every city and every state.  They learned how words can paint a picture and pictures can stir emotions and songs can soothe the soul.  They learned that no subject is an island to itself.

Any ideas for our next integration project?

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ZAP!!! Electrifying Learning

Often, I am hit with ideas while teaching.  Although one of my students claims my latest idea is devoid of any intelligent thought, I can easily dismiss his opinion.  After all, he is only a teenager; what does he truly know about school, learning, and education in general?

The spark that ignited my idea was one of the vocabulary words of the day, interrogation.  Since it is Veterans Day, I required the students to create a sentence with a reference to the military.  As students shared their super sweet sentences with the class, one student mentioned torture while interrogating prisoners.

BAM!  My brain was on fire.

“Don’t teachers interrogate students everyday?”  I asked the class.

“Yes,” they responded with looks of curiosity and trepidation.

“Well, if I am interrogating, then I should be allowed to torture, too,” I hypothesized.  “Nothing too hurtful, just a little electric shock.”  I continued, “Imagine, what if I had a row of buttons that would give a little ZAP to a student who answered a question incorrectly?”   Of course, I might hit the wrong button and accidentally shock the wrong kid.  Oh well, feces occurs; the zapped kid probably didn’t know the correct answer either.

People never like great ideas.  For example, people told Walt Disney he was foolish to create a magical place for children.  Disney’s response: “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.”  Students can be just like adults, and immediately I was met with negative comments.  The naysayers in the class told me the district did not have enough money to wire all of the desks, the desks were made of plastic and would melt, and one smart girl even said we weren’t allowed corporal punishment.

I use to see the negative side of everything, too.  However, I have been working hard to persevere through problems that arise.  I decided I would invest in the students education and would pay for the set up myself.  (We teachers are always paying for supplies, books, and additional resources for our students.)  Preventing the melting of a desk would merely require testing out the zappers.  I really do not think anything would melt; my dogs do not burst into flames when they get shocked from the wireless fence in our yard.  The last argument given by a student deals with laws.  I am not a lawyer, but Atticus Finch, the lawyer and father of Scout and Jem in To Kill A Mockingbird is my hero.  I believe he would be able to successfully counter that the definition for corporal punishment does not include small shocks.  And, if Atticus says it is ok, then I believe him.

This weekend I will spend some time researching this way to motivate my students to excel.  Yes, we teachers do not always get our job done during the school day.  A few of us even work to become better during the summer.

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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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