Monday, July 28, 2014

Reflections on "Teach Like a Pirate"

Reading Dave Burgess's book Teach Like a Pirate allowed me to reflect back to my days as an 8th grade U.S. history teacher and how I would have compared to the high standards and ideas outlined in the book.  It made me realize I was just starting to get good at my craft of "teaching" and the art of engaging students, before moving into an administrative position.  My 10th year in the classroom certainly was much better compared to my 1st year through my tireless quest to make learning U.S. history a “hands-on” experience.  I made improvements through hard work, trying new things, being open to change, and soliciting student input.   I like Dave’s Quote: “I’ve worked my butt off to build a class that is outrageously engaging, fun, educationally sound, and dearly loved by students.”  But, it takes time.

After reading through Dave's HOOKS, I realized that I had many excellent moments sprinkled in my teaching.  But, my favorite lesson, the one that approached many of the high expectations of “Teaching Like a Pirate,” was the Constitutional Convention simulation.

Each student was assigned to be "delegate" to the convention and completed some background information to their views, values, quotes, and voting record at the convention.  I did many things to set the tone for the next three days.  I called students by their delegate’s name (i.e. Mr. Hamilton, Mr. Morris) for the next 3 days, even outside of the classroom while students referred to me as Mr. Washington.  The heat was turned up in the room as we were meeting in July.  The windows were covered so others would not be able to "peek in" to know what we were discussing.  A candle was lit for light, as there were not fluorescent lights at the state house.  I played Washington and was able to ask specific (and differentiated) questions of each student which allowed all to appropriately contribute to the discussion.  As Washington, I also asked some "devil’s advocate" type questions to get the students to think critically and truly experience the monumental task of how the delegates may have felt.  For example, every time I did this simulation, the southern delegates would have to advocate for slavery and how to count slaves (i.e. 3/5's compromise).  We always had some interesting discussion on this topic.  I remember one student said, "I don't want to be a southern delegate anymore" after trying to advocate for slavery.  The students were highly engaged for three days of discussing and “writing” the constitution.  When students from classes later in the day came to class, they were excited to participate based on what students in earlier classes told them (even after I told them not to tell anyone about our discussion because of the secrecy of the proceedings).  I knew the students were hooked because they were talking about U.S. history outside of the classroom.  Some students even provided feedback on the simulation on the year end survey:

Just thinking about that lesson and many of the other engaging lessons stirs up that wonderful feeling of being a teacher in an engaging learning environment.  After moving from the classroom to administrative positions, I've noticed that student disengagement is relatively easy to find, especially at the high school level.  I believe all high school teachers should read “Teach Like a Pirate.”  At the very least, school administrators should use the book as a resource to raise the expectations for an improved and engaging learning environment for all students.  The discussion could start with the question, “Would you want to be a student in your own classroom?”  But, Dave raises the bar by asking the following question that I can only wonder how many would respond:

  • “If your students didn’t have to be there, would you be teaching to an empty room?” (p. 58)

How many teachers would be teaching to an empty room?  Student engagement has been a goal for many districts, schools and teachers, but yet so many students continue to go through the motions of "playing school" because some teachers fall short in providing an engaging learning experience for their students.  Why do we allow that to happen?  I believe that if students are engaged in their learning, discipline issues go down, academic achievement goes up, and the overall climate of the school environment also goes up.  The bottom line is that if you:

  • “Provide an uncommon experience for your students and they will reward you with an uncommon effort and attitude” (Dave Burgess, p. 55).

Friday, July 25, 2014

Just Ask the Students

In a previous blog post on being better (The Quest for BETTER), I made reference to having students complete a survey at the end of each school year and making changes based on their input.  This simple annual activity did more for my professional growth as a teacher than any of my master’s level courses in curriculum and instruction.  So, how do we get better as educators?  Quite simply, just ask the students.  But how many teachers are open to student feedback?

In the book, The Ten-Minute Inservice, Todd Whitaker and Annette Breaux dedicate 2 of their 40 training sessions on Teacher Report Cards (surveys).  After all, “...who better to tell teachers about how well (or not so well) they are doing on a daily basis than the teachers’ own clients? If you really want to know how a teacher is doing, ask the students.” (p. 121-129).

My last year teaching 8th grade U.S. history was in 2002-2003 which looked much different compared to my first year of teaching in 1993.  My ongoing goal was to increase the number of ways to allow students to learn history through a “hands on” approach.  At the end of every school year, I asked the students for their honest opinions about their learning experience in my class.  The 2 questions that received the most attention from me were:

  1. What did you like LEAST about this class?  Be specific.
  2. What did you like BEST about this class?  Be specific.

As a classroom teacher, I read through the surveys a few times and captured the general themes of BEST and LEAST in a qualitative way.  I recently came across the surveys from my last year of teaching and was interested in a more quantitative analysis.  I tallied up the responses and here are some of the top results of each category, in order, starting with the highest number of responses at the top.

What students liked the LEAST
  1. Tests
  2. Notes
  3. Reading out of textbook
  4. Quizzes
  5. Worksheets

Any surprises from the LEAST list?  Why would I/teachers continue to do things students like least regarding their learning experience?  There continues to be way too much sit and get, teacher-centered, and passive learning in our schools.  There is a time and place for everything on the LEAST list, but teachers need to think of “outside the box” ways in which students can demonstrate their knowledge other than those listed above.

What students liked the BEST (General)
  1. Projects
  2. Cooperative Learning
  3. Activities

What students liked the BEST (Specific Lesson Cited)
  1. Native American dwelling project
  2. American Revolution (room size) timeline
  3. Constitutional Convention (simulation)
  4. Underground Railroad activity/simulation at University Park
  5. iMovie Amendments project
  6. Tom Snyder “City of Gold” Explorer group simulation (computer)

Any surprises from the BEST lists?  What do all include? All incorporate movement, cooperative learning, student-centered, some choice, critical thinking, engagement, etc.

Through the evaluations, my focus was to do less of the items in the “least” category and find replacement activities and projects that would be more engaging and meaningful to students.  In other words, I learned a variety of different ways to grade and assess students learning.  I then noticed, through survey results in subsequent years, the replacement activities and projects often made it onto the “best” list.  That’s what getting better is all about.

Why do teachers continue to make students learn in ways that are not engaging and meaningful?  I would encourage all teachers to ask your students for their honest opinions of your class (i.e. THEIR LEARNING EXPERIENCES), take their input seriously, and make adjustments accordingly.  We owe it to our students to always strive for better and make all of their learning experiences engaging and meaningful.
Final Note: Through my quest to solicit honest and critical student feedback, I received many positive comments.  These comments are reminders that what we do in our classrooms really does matter and provides motivation to always strive to be better. Here are just a few:

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Chromebooks: Reflections as we move from 50 to 1000

Through the 2013-2014 school year, two Grand Forks Public Schools high school teachers piloted a classroom set of Samsung Chromebooks.  Here is why we are moving from 50 to 1000 to start the 2014-2015 school year.   

Teacher’s Perspective
One of the pilot teachers teaches math while the other teaches English.  The teachers did an outstanding job of naturally integrating the Chromebooks into their curriculum areas. The best teacher endorsement came not through what they said, but from what wasn’t said.  Not one time throughout the school year, did the teachers contact me to say “these things aren’t working” or “the Chromebooks are difficult to use.”  In fact, the exact opposite occurred.  They loved having daily access to the Chromebooks and were easy for the students to use.

My Perspective
I have read much about the Chromebook itself and how other districts are successfully deploying Chromebooks.  My first impressions out of the box, were how easy the Chromebooks were to add to our Google Apps For Education Domain and organize into organizational units.  Also, being able to make changes and provide updates to the Chromebooks from my computer instead of touching each one is certainly a game changer.  I observed the students in both teachers’ classroom with the Chromebooks and noticed how well the devices functioned and how naturally the students used the Chromebooks for many aspects of their coursework.  Grand Forks Public Schools has been a Google Apps For Education for several years, which certainly adds to the overall ease of using the Chromebooks.

Students’ Perspective
I solicited input from the students through a Google Form.  Here is a summary of some of their responses:

  1. It's simple, easy to use, a nice layout. Everything is organized and simple.
  2. The Samsung Chromebooks are small and compact and easy to carry around. It is also easy to navigate around the computer.
  3. The OS on all of the Chrome systems is straightforward and easy to comprehend
  4. Nice and easy to use, small portable, if i ever wanted to get one outside of school.  They are fun and make daily work a lot easier.
  5. It is good for school
  6. I like the Samsung chromebook. The screen has a dull look to it that doesn't hurt the eyes which I like.
  7. The Chromebooks are a good resource to have in class. They make discussion easier and are a good device to have kids use in the classroom as technology integrates itself into the school setting.
  8. This is a very nice laptop.  Perhaps in the future, they could be issued for use by all students for paper writing and note taking.

With all of the positivity, not to mention the cost, we are moving towards getting Chromebooks into the hands of many more students.

1) We are currently 1:1 Asus netbooks in grades 5-8.  Although the Asus netbooks has served us well over the past 4 years, we will be phasing out the netbooks and replacing the devices per cohort group with Samsung Chromebooks.  Our middle school students keep the same device from year to year.  This cycle will allow for the 6th grade cohort (about 550) to receive new Chromebooks (1:1) this school year.
  • 5th grade - remain with the teacher
  • 6th grade - keep into 7th grade
  • 7th grade - keep into 8th grade
  • 8th grade - end of life, used for spares and parts

2) Currently, our high school students have access to a couple of labs and a couple of carts.  In order to increase student access to technology in core curriculum areas, 6 carts of 25 Chromebooks each will be dedicated to core curriculum areas at both Central and Red River.

That makes a total of 900 Chromebooks that will be prepared and deployed this summer.  This is a much smaller scale than some of the Chromebook deployments I have read about, but we are excited to get an increasing number of Chromebooks into the hands of our students.  After all, this project is closely aligned with Priority Area #2 of the Grand Forks Public School’s strategic plan: “Emphasize 21st Century Instructional Practices Which Foster Student Academic Engagement” and the sub goal #3 to: “Promote the utilization of appropriate technology tools to enhance the teaching and learning process.”

This blog post was about technology devices, but we continue to remind ourselves that any technology decisions made must be directly tied to student learning.  (The important role of our Curriculum Technology Partners will be another blog topic for another day).  I am looking forward to learn much more as we move forward on our Chromebook journey.  

Michael Fullan

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Power of One

So many of us take life and our health for granted while others are presented with serious challenges.  On July 16, 2008, I had the opportunity to be a Bone Marrow/Stem Cell donor for someone in need.  On this 6th anniversary, here is the story along with a message about how we can all make a difference and be "The Power of One."

Back in October of 2004, there was an urgent Bone Marrow drive to find a match to help Mavis Kelly (math teacher at Valley Middle School in Grand Forks) who was in need of a bone marrow transplant to aid in her battle with cancer.  I (along with 204 other potential donors) willingly went through the process to see if I was a match for Mavis and always wondered if I would be a match for another patient somewhere down the road. Sadly, Mavis passed away in 2005.  Then in 2008, I received a phone call from the National Bone Marrow Registry indicating that I could be a match and they asked for permission to pull my blood sample to do some further testing.  The tests further indicated that I was a match, but they would have to do a blood draw to complete additional testing.  After that testing, they informed me that I was a "perfect match."  I had a phone interview the following evening to learn more about the patient (35 year old female with aplastic anemia) and to confirm if I still wanted to continue the process.  I completed a full physical and was determined that I would be able to donate.  In preparation for the July 16, 2008 bone marrow/stem cell collection in the Twin Cities, I received 5 injections of filgrastim.  The side effects (headache, bone-joint-muscle aches, and fatigue) became increasingly bothersome as the collection date neared, but I often reminded myself that I was in no position to complain compared to the recipient of my stem cells and those who have and are battling cancer.  I felt fortunate to be healthy enough to donate and also knowing that the side effects would eventually fade away.

On the day of the collection (Wed. July 16, 2008), I reported to Memorial Blood Center in St. Paul at 6:00 AM.  After the final injection of filgrastim, I was ready to donate my stem cells.  The process is called apheresis.  It is like giving blood, but I had a needle in each arm.  This impressive machine separated out my stem cells and plasma and returned my RBC, WBC, etc.  I had to remain still for about 7 hours during the collection.  The people from the Blood Center commented on the high quality of my stem cells.  For the following few days, I was very tired, but the side effects faded away.  I did not learn anything more about the recipient, only that my stems cells needed to be on a courier plane within hours, so it could get to the patient to be "transplanted" within in 24 hours.

Some may wonder, why would I do this.  My response is always "Why wouldn't I?"  I did not know the 35 year old female patient, where she lived or anything about her, but I did know that I was an exact match when her family members were not and she was in desperate need of some of my bone marrow/stem cells to hopefully make her immune system healthy again.  I knew that the donation would increase her odds of survival.   Secondly, every one knows a personal cancer story so I donated in memory to those who have lost the battle to cancer, to those who have won the battle, and to those who are currently battling and WILL win.  Finally, I completed the process as my tiny contribution to an important research study that one day may help my family, friends, colleagues, or even myself.  My son Derek benefitted from the cancer research and was able to survive, so I felt lucky to have had the opportunity to give back.

In 2009, I received some wonderful news from the National Marrow Donor Program!  The patient (who received my stem cells/bone marrow in the summer of 2008) is "alive" and "doing very well."  "100% of the donor's [my] stem cells have been successfully engrafted into the patient" and she is "...improving better than expected."

In 2011, I received a letter from the recipient of my stem cells; Marina, a 38 year old female from Russia.  Here is the letter:

Reading that initial letter gave me a chance to reflect on how and why Marina was able to have this opportunity.  So, I re-read an article (below) written about  Dr. Mavis Kelley by Eileen Zygarlicke called "The Power of One."  Through Mavis's battle with cancer, she inspired people to organize a donor registry drive through the "National Marrow Donor Program" which led to people signing up to be tested and added to the donor registry.  Sadly, Mavis passed away, but through the bone marrow drive, I was determined to be a match and had the opportunity to donate stem cells to Marina.  I believe Mavis's spirit and legacy lives on through Marina in Russia.  As the article states; "everyone can make a difference," and all those involved with the donor registry drive should be proud of making a difference in the life of Marina.

What can you do to be the "Power of One?"  How can you create opportunities for your students to be the "Power of One?"  You never know how great even the smallest of efforts can have a wonderful and lasting impact on others.

(To access the article below in a format that is easier to read, click on this link: )