Sunday, April 23, 2017

Life and Song - Great video for writing prompts in music classes

I really enjoyed this TEDx Talk by Jon Foreman. He's a prolific songwriter and the lead singer of Switchfoot. I've been a fan of his work for years. Here he "dares" the listeners to live out their own unique songs.

I think it's worth watching all 18 minutes, which includes three songs. If that's too much, you could easily select key sections.

Depending on the curriculum, you can tie some written reflection questions to songwriting, thoughts on his performances (I liked them, but they're not perfect) or the students' favorite songs or artists. All of this, of course, would tie in or culminate in Foreman's call to find and live their song.


If you find this post useful, you might be interested in these:

Saturday, April 8, 2017

When You Wonder If You're Crazy

This is an honest post. As I set out to write it, I'm not sure it will end on a hopeful note. The best I can say is I'm not completely giving up. Maybe it can connect with another teacher who sometimes feels this way. Maybe it will provide contrast to a positive story later.

It's been a rough school year in ways I never anticipated. I decided last month (again) that as long as I'm in the district, I'm going to give it 100%. I'm going to keep believing even if I'm the only one.

So a couple weeks ago I signed up to present at the 6th Grade Orientation. It's the event where we tell the fifth grade students and their parents what to expect at our middle school. I wanted to talk about the exciting opportunities that our technology program offers students.

That Monday morning I was thinking about this when I heard Vicki Davis' interview with Angela Maiers. (If you only want something positive, stop reading and just listen to that. It's good.)

I love Angela's message that every student matters and her passionate talk in that interview was a bit of encouragement to me.

I actually had already considered using the quote that launched her mission (which I believe first came from Seth Godin.):

"You are a genius and the world needs your contribution." 

I tell that to students a lot when I talk to them about technology. It's a great starting point to grab attention, since they generally expect me to talk about apps, how to use Chromebooks and what will happen to them when they break the rules.

I decided to modify it slightly for my talk at the orientation. I wrote on the slide, "You have a gift and the world needs you to use it." As I developed my presentation, I have to admit I wondered if I still believed that for every kid. I considered leaving the quote out. Even moments before I spoke, I thought about deleting the slide.

But I left it in. I told them all--parents, students and the other teachers--that I believed it. I explained that technology offers connections that will allow students to learn and create so their genius can be unleashed in exciting ways.

I continued the talk, then ended with that same slide. Gifts, contribution, etc.

No one said a thing about it when I was done. To be honest, I didn't know if I encouraged anyone or if I looked like an idiot. I wasn't even sure anyone heard me, since the sound system wasn't great. .

The next morning, even before first hour, a couple teachers teased me about it. They weren't being terribly negative. To them it was just good fun, worth a laugh that Mike still thinks every kid is a genius. I expected that response, so it in no way hurt my feelings. I was somewhat relieved to know the sound system actually came through.

I told them it's what I have to believe if I'm still going to keep at it after all these years. For me it has been 23, longer than any of the others in the huddle. I think one of them sort of understood that I was taking it very seriously. She later said she was just kidding, so at least she was thinking about it.

I wish I had a better story to tell, but that's the real one so far.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Along for the Ride - An Analogy for the Classroom

When I was young, I lived about thirty miles away from Flint, Michigan. That's where we'd head every so often when my parents wanted to do some shopping. I remember my mom laughing with a friend once, saying even though she had made the trip so many times, she never could have driven there herself. She just trusted my dad to know the way.

Of course, as a kid I never gave the details of the trip any thought. I recognized some buildings and roads enough to know I was close to the mall. I couldn't have listed the names of the roads we took, though, or directed a driver how to get there.

My mom and I were along for the ride. We got in the car at home and out of it at the mall. Shopping was the goal.

As the title of this post suggests, I've found a strong parallel between travel and the classroom. I shared this with my teenage daughter once when she was struggling in her math class. It seemed to connect with her and (at least so far) it has been the last time she had trouble keeping up with that subject.

I told her about how some students think class is like just such a trip. Maybe we could imagine everyone on a bus going on a field trip. They all board the bus at the school, they all get out at the destination. They were along for the ride and they arrived.

In class, this amounts to listening to the teacher, maybe even taking some notes and doing an assignment. Their butts were in the seat, writing is on the paper and credit was achieved. In their minds, they arrived.

I see many students who genuinely believe that's all that mattered.

The problem with this, I told my daughter, is that the goal of the classroom is not just to arrive. It's that everyone and anyone on that bus would be able to drive there themselves. 

Getting to a place was not the only goal. The how and why of the route mattered too.

So consider how differently a passenger spends his time on a trip when he knows he has to drive it himself. He'd be paying attention to every turn, trying to remember street names and landmarks. He'd be asking the driver questions if he missed something.

I've been learning a lot about John Hattie's work lately and he gives us this insight on what a good learner pays attention to.

"Their role is not simply to do tasks as decided by teachers, but to actively manage and understand their learning gains. This includes evaluating their own progress, being more responsible for their learning, and being involved with peers in learning together about gains in learning." (From Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning)

So ask them regularly, are they along for the ride or preparing to drive the bus?

Sunday, January 29, 2017

5 Reasons Every Teacher Should Present at Conferences

Early in my career my mentor, Bernie Cunningham, used to arrange for those of us in the math department to present at the international Texas Instruments T^3 Conference. I was far from a model teacher, but Bernie would help me pick one or two innovative ideas I could share with others. Those excursions were unforgettable. I felt out of league at times, but we bonded as a department and our vision of what was possible was stretched.

That was many years ago and I've since moved out of the classroom, but I've continued the practice of sharing my ideas at conferences. I also always ask other teachers in the district to present with me. I've been surprised at times by their unwillingness to do so. "I'm not techy enough to be presenting at that conference," they'll tell me. Or, "I don't have anything other teachers would care to see." 

I can relate perfectly to what they're saying. I still feel inadequate. But I also have seen the many benefits of preparing a presentation and putting the work out there to the masses. All I can say is it's well worth the risk. And there's always someone who thanks me for sharing.

Recently I created this graphic to sum up some of those benefits. I'll elaborate briefly on each one below.


It's empowering to know you positively impact several classrooms. - You see yourself differently when you know other teachers have learned from you. The thanks I receive at the end of my presentation, or maybe weeks later after they've tried out the activities I shared, help me realize what I'm doing for my students is worthwhile.

Trying out your ideas with your class requires you to stretch. - Maybe I do this differently than most, but I usually submit a proposal to speak before I tried out my session topic. Or I should say, I always promise a little more than I've already tested out 100%. I tend to dream big on those proposals! When I find out my proposal has been accepted, I'm then committed to pushing the limits with that innovative thing I had dreamed up.

I remember a few years ago when I received a grant in preparation for the conference. I had to deliver on the promise, but I was sick to my stomach with nerves the day we had to kick things off in class. I'm happy to say the activity and the conference session turned out amazingly well. It turned out to be an exciting experience, but I would have missed it had it not been for that requirement to present.

You (and your students, colleagues and administrators) will know you're not just a good teacher in your classroom, your building or your district. - It is easy for a teacher to exist in a bubble. The standard of a "good teacher" is subject to our students' limited perspectives and our own limited view of the other teachers in our buildings. Giving something of value to even a small group of teachers at a conference puts those standards to the test. In fact, one of the reasons I submit my work for conferences is so I'm sure it's of value to educators beyond my district. The students I teach deserve such quality.

Students are motivated when they know they play a part in a larger work. - I love to tell students that we are trying out something that I will share with other teachers across our state. It adds a lot more excitement to it, especially if I'm not sure it will work. They love to see how the project turns out and invariably they ask me later how the conference went. Some have talked to me about those projects years later.

Your PLN will grow. - We all know one of the greatest benefits of conferences is meeting other teachers. As a presenter, the opportunity for networking is increased. First, you are immediately recognized as a teacher of teachers. Many times just the badge around your neck will mark you as a bit of expert. You'll have plenty of opportunities to chat with other speakers. That chance to share ideas, or maybe just some laughs, greatly strengthens the bonds of the virtual networking that can continue past the conference. Of course, mentioning your Twitter handle and other contact information during your session gains more followers and increases opportunities as well.

So I encourage every teacher to look for opportunities to present beyond their district. Partner up with someone else in your building. Start with a small conference. It will take extra effort and cause some extra anxiety, but the benefits can be life changing.


Friday, November 25, 2016

Learning as a Story - A Google Drawings template for digital posters

When it comes to learning, we focus too much on the end product in school.

Instead, think of the whole process from initial curiosity to the struggles along the way and the final insights the learner gains. Could we start to see it as an interesting (maybe even exciting) story?

That's the basis for this digital poster activity I created as a Google Drawings template.

When it comes to telling a great story, I always start with Donald Miller's concise framework. He uses it as the basis of his Storyline book and conferences. There he says a story is...

  • A character
  • Who wants something
  • And overcomes conflict to get it

Whether it's your favorite movie,  that last page-turner you couldn't put down or how your grandma tells of winning your grandpa's affections, I bet the story fits that model.

What would happen if we helped students to see learning as a story within this framework?

To accomplish that, I made a list of questions and a template in Google Drawings for a Learning Story Poster that students could complete after a learning experience. These resources require them to consider four questions based on those parts of a story:
  • A character (or characters) - Who are they?
  • Who wants something - What do they wonder about?
  • And overcomes conflict - What challenges did they face?
  • To get it - What did they finally learn in the end?
Click here to open a copy of the question sheet. It has a link to the Google Drawing template, which you can also find at the link below.

Click here to open a copy of the template in your own Google Drive. Students will easily complete their poster by...
  • Adding or changing the text prompts as necessary
  • Deleting the shapes and inserting their own pictures in those places
  • Cropping the pictures into interesting shapes to make it visually appealing
  • Changing the background colors and elements as they like
  • Including images of any products they create, including physical charts or graphs
  • Adding a table to the Google Drawing if data needs to be included
  • Downloading the final product as a PNG or JPEG image

Here's a sample one I made using some pictures I had from our video announcement team. (Click here to see a larger version that you can zoom in on.)



A complete learning story poster like this requires students to consider a few things right from the start of the project. They will need to:
  • Make note of what they wonder or are curious about
  • Develop or be aware of the team identity (if working in groups) - Don't underestimate the importance of the "character" part. A team name and picture that represents the group personality can foster strong social connections that benefit for learning.
  • Get photos throughout the process - If they forget, some quick posed shots make an acceptable substitute.

Other Possibilities

If you don't want to use Google Drawings for this, you can still using the questions and have them present it in these ways:



Saturday, November 12, 2016

Problem Solving or Problem Finding?

A big part of "teaching like an artist" is being aware of our part in the environment we are making in our school. We do not create it alone, that's for sure, but we help shape it.

So sometimes my posts here turn into questions that I think could be useful for conversations between administrators or staff meetings. In this one I'll consider how we talk about problems in our schools.

If I could generalize to make a point, I see two distinct groups among the teachers I work with. Both can seem a little obsessed with problems, possibly to the point of being negative.

If you heard either group talking in the teachers lounge, you might not notice much difference. Their motivation is very different, though, and so is the end of their discussions.

One group wants to solve the problems. The other is happy to find the problem, as long as it has nothing to do with them.

No one wants to admit they're in the second group, but I think my co-workers would agree with me when I say I fall squarely in the first group. I want to identify the problem, get my brain around it and see what I can do to solve it. I'm sure I get caught up in "venting" or complaining sometimes, but my final goal is always to identify steps that will move us in the right direction.

So I talk about the problem...a lot. But what I started to notice recently is some people are content to stop the conversation before I am. It's as if they are convinced they found the real problem and (lucky for them) it was beyond their control. They aren't responsible and they can only do so much, right?

So of course we'll always have problems as we work in a setting involving so many people. We need to face the problems, identify them and discuss them. Sometimes we even need to vent our feelings about them.

But in all such conversations, we have to keep this question in mind:

Am I dwelling on this problem so I can find a way to make a positive difference? 

If not, what difference am I making?

Sunday, October 16, 2016

You Can Do Better

How would you feel if your boss told you that?

"You can do better!"

It probably depends a lot on his or her personality. Your feelings would also depend on how hard you had been worked at the task being evaluated.

But think about those four words:

"You can do better."

Taken at face value, it means there's something more in you that didn't quite show up...yet.

People often say the phrase as a softer way of saying, "These results aren't good enough."

But with the right mindset, couldn't it be a hopeful statement, filled with promise?

You could do better!

The simple fact is we can do better, and that's an exciting thought.

We probably can't do better on whatever we just finished. It's done. Maybe we can't immediately do better on the job at hand, since there are deadlines and limited dollars and other priorities.

But overall, in time, we can do better.

That's an inspiring thought for a team focused intently on an important, common goal. On the other hand, it will probably illicit groans from a group that is mostly content with the current state of things.

Does the idea bring up feelings of hope or resentment? Is it a sunset or a sunrise?

What factors from leadership, the culture and environment contribute to how it is perceived? What attitudes make the difference?