Some advice to somebody just starting out…

I was asked to put some thoughts together in a list form that would provide some advice to those starting out in the field of education and I’m not sure I can explain how difficult that is to do in some sort of simple, bulleted list. I’ll give it a shot, although I’m not exactly sure how I’ll be able to keep this short…

  1. Get involved — That sure sounds simple, doesn’t it? It’s extremely important for you to get involved in your school and community. It’s important for students to see you in a different light, and, more importantly, it’s important for you to see them in a different light. This helps in many ways – not the least of which is building a relationship with your students outside the four walls you are used to seeing them in. You might be shocked at how much a statement like “Hey, I saw you at the hockey game last night, you really know what you’re doing out there…” can come back to help. Not only does it show your students that you care, but it also goes a long way toward building community in your school. Go to a mock trial competition, chaperone a dance, attend their art openings, and go to a game now and then. Let them know they matter to you outside the classroom – get involved.
  2. Know that what you’re doing isn’t just important, it’s VITAL — You’re going to hear the snickers “You just teach to have weekends and summers off,” “You’re a teacher? Big deal, the system is failing,” blah, blah, blah. Don’t even bother arguing with these people, you’ll never change their minds. Just know that every single day you are helping somebody. We had a revered administrator, Mr. Paul Murphy – Murph as he is known – once tell us at our beginning-of-the-year In-Service meeting that every day we had a kid who came in to our room knowing full well that this was the best hour and a half of his life. This time is a safe zone for this student and it has nothing to do with learning about August Wilson’s take on father-son relations. And what Murph also told us is that this student would never let us know this was the case. Just know it is. And I do know this because, for many years growing up, I was that student. They’ll probably never tell you, but you mean the world to them.
  3. It’s easier to loosen things up than it is to tighten things up when they’ve broken down — This might seem like a no-brainer, but you need to set your expectations very clearly from the very first day. Contrary to what many people believe, our students are looking for guidance and we have to be clear in how we lay out our expectations for this to happen. If we aren’t clear about what we expect of them and how we expect them to do it, then they’ll just make up their own rules along the way, and while that can lead to some fun for a bit, it’s a difficult thing to rein in once it’s gone too far. On the other hand, it’s always easier to loosen things up as they go along. This summer I had the opportunity to see Buck Brannaman conduct a Horsemanship session with a bunch of riders of varying levels. If you haven’t seen the documentary on Mr. Brannaman, check it out (it’s currently available on Netflix). One of the things he said in the doc that really stuck with me is this: Gentle in what you do, firm in how you do it.

And here’s one for good measure — and it’s one that I’ve given a lot of thought to this summer as I’ve been driving through the country, hiking amongst Redwoods and Sequoias and staring at Yosemite Falls and waiting patiently on a geyser:

     4. Listen more and talk less — This one is a goal of mine for the year, and I don’t just mean that for my work in the classroom. This applies to everything — from our relationships with students and colleagues and others to our every day lives. Figure out which veterans you can trust and seek their advice — listen to what they have to say and figure out how to make it work for you. Beyond this it’s also applicable in our classroom settings — plan your lessons so that you are talking less and the students are speaking more. Put it on them. You might be shocked at what kind of incredible things your silence will bring out of  them. It sure sounds easy, but I think we all know how difficult it can be.

Best of luck with everything — work hard and you’ll see that it doesn’t really even have anything to do with luck. Know that there are going to be difficult days, and make sure you celebrate the great ones — because there will absolutely be both.

 

Guest post for McGraw-Hill Education…

This post originally appeared here, as I served as a Guest Blogger for McGraw-Hill Education. Honored to have been chosen…

“I’m not telling you it’s going to be easy. I’m telling you it’s going to be worth it.”  — Art Williams

 It’s just not possible, I said to myself, over and over and over. While sitting at my desk after hitting submit on my last set of grades for the 2015-2016 school year, it truly set in that I had just finished my 18th year of teaching. 18 years. No longer would I be working with students who were even born when I first started this journey – and make no mistake about it, it’s definitely been a journey.

It was at this point that I also thought about just how much I’ve seen change through those 18 years – and without getting too sentimental, what I’m really referring to here is the change in me.

About 10 years ago I literally almost threw punches with a colleague who had the nerve to tell me that part of our job description was to be both a friend and a father to our students. I was on fire at this suggestion and, if my memory serves me correctly, I believe I actually laughed it away in order to deal with the stress associated with this debate. There was just no way that he could be correct in this line of thinking.

That’s not my job. I’m here to teach English and get them prepared for college, no more, no less. That’s the Spark Notes version of what I had myself convinced was my purpose. And I believed it wholeheartedly.

And then the massacre at Sandy Hook happened. It left me stunned. It left me searching for answers about just about everything. And it left me searching for a better understanding of what my purpose is as a teacher. I just couldn’t get it through my head that somebody could be driven to believe that nobody cared about him and that shooting up a school was a reasonable answer to anything.

We can argue about guns until we are blue in the face and our jugular veins are bulging from the side of our necks – or we can come to the realization that a way we can work to prevent these types of tragedies is by simply letting kids know how much we care about them, that what they do matters, that they aren’t alone.

My high school created an Advisory period three years ago (30 minutes, once a week) after we decided that we needed to build a better community within our school. We decided to try to be proactive, to mix students amongst grades, and to try to create a core group of kids who would have the chance to see that they’re going through many of the same things – that they aren’t on an island when they think it’s all coming down on them.

I was so excited about the possibilities that this period of time presented us. I had all of these mini-lessons planned. I couldn’t wait to get this going. And then we started – and I pretty much fell on my face. The kids didn’t want to be there. There was rebellion, distrust, complaining, questioning, and just an overall lack of effort on (seemingly) everybody’s part. What I found out more than anything was that it was hard.

And that’s what brings me to my reflection on those 18 years. I wish that somebody had sat me down when I was just starting out, so full of enthusiasm and fire, and let me know that this is going to be hard. It’s going to take a ton of work, and even when you dig in and do that work, you’re going to have days that seemingly never end. You’re going to have days when you think it’s not possible to do anything right. In fact, you might have nine of those days in a row. Your lessons will fall flat, your interactions with students will fall short, you’re going to get a headache that won’t go away, and you’ll wonder why you chose to enter this profession in the first place.

And then you’re going to go to school the next day and everything will just click.

Your kids (and make no mistake about it, they are your kids) are all over your lesson and they’re demonstrating that they get it. You get a thank you card from a student for helping with a Senior Project. The little ding goes off and there’s a notification that you’ve gotten an email – and find that it’s a kind word of thanks from a parent who appreciates that you’ve pushed her daughter beyond where she ever thought she’d be willing to go. It’s jeans day (c’mon, aren’t things always better on jeans days?) and Chick-Fil-A is delivered to your door for lunch (I’m not kidding about that one, we do this as a fundraiser for our Red Cross Club).

I’d love to tell you that every day is a jeans day and that Chick-Fil-A will be delivered to your door on a daily basis, but we all know that’s not going to be the case. I’d love to tell you that I’ve made meaningful connections with all of my students or all of the members of my Advisory group. I’d love to tell you that I’ve become more of a friend or a father figure to all of my students. I’d love to tell you that I won’t get frustrated when a student isn’t willing to produce at a level that I know is possible – because it’s hard. I’d love to tell you that after 18 years I won’t make any mistakes next year – but we all know that’s not going to happen.

You get the idea…

And I’m just now starting to get the idea because I’m trying to take the same advice that I’ve given to my students in the form of the poster hanging in the front of my room – the one with Art Williams’ words on it. The one that reminds me that nobody said this was going to be easy, but it’s definitely going to be worth it.

 

When you doubt what you once professed…

This has been a long time coming. It’s been building in me and building in me, and, well, it’s time. You see, there’ve been movements in the Education field over the past couple years to reform just about everything. Most importantly for me, there has been a push to utilize resources such as Twitter and EDCamps and this and that, and I bought into it all for some time. But, I have to admit, I’m just about done. Now please hear me out — it’s just not working — for me.

I’ve always been a reader and have always felt that, even when things go well, they can go better with insight and another set of eyes and research and just about anything that forces me to take a hard look at what I’m doing. I like to think that I’m pretty good at what I do — but I also truly believe that I can get better — and that’s every single day. This is what we demand of our students and it’s exactly what we should demand of ourselves. Yet far too many of the seemingly self-designated “leaders” in this push for reform are simply looking to say “I know best, listen to me…” or “This worked for me, so it’ll work for everyone…” or “Because I have 10,000 followers on Twitter, I must know what I’m talking about…” or (my favorite) “Because I have 10,000 followers on Twitter and I’ve got this (essentially) self-published book — please buy it on Amazon, it’ll only run you $19.95 — I know what I’m talking about…”

Quite simply, the topic has allowed many to get on their bully pulpit on Twitter and essentially let everyone know that if you don’t believe in getting rid of grades or letting a student turn in an assignment 3 weeks late or getting rid of homework or letting a student take a test 8 times in order to get the A that his parent is demanding, then you’re an ineffective teacher. How dare you doubt us? 

I once led a Professional Development session in which I touted the merits of using Twitter for all things Ed. I stood in front of my peers and explained how many benefits there were in taking part in EDChats and networking with professionals across the world (I still stand by this one) and just listening to the wealth of knowledge that’s being disseminated by the leaders. I walked my peers through the basics, gave them a list of the EDChats, and another list that included all of the big “names” to follow.

And it didn’t take long for me to regret this.

I watched as these “leaders” got on their soapboxes and I watched as more and more of these “leaders” pushed those books. I watched as more and more Admins started buying in to what was being sold by these “leaders.” And I realized that we’re traveling down a slippery slope.

And the last thing that I’m trying to say is that I know more than “them,” or that I disagree with all that “they” are professing. I just think we’re being naive to think that this is easy and, more importantly, that we need to take a one size fits all approach to this. I also feel that we’re dumbing things down to the point of facing a true turning point in what we’re doing. We are assisting in making our students lazier and we aren’t doing them any favors by lowering our standards, and, in my opinion, when we tell them they can turn anything in whenever, that there’s no need for homework, blah, blah, blah, then we’re setting them up for failure when they move on to the next level and the level beyond that. We have lowered our standards and expectations to the floor.

And I’m not basing that statement on what some book tells me, I’m basing that statement on what I’m seeing with my own two eyes. I’m seeing Honors level High School students who cringe when you ask them what a gerund is or to create a compound complex sentence or to give me an adverb when I ask for the first adjective that comes to mind about Character X. I’ve listened as students have told me time and time again that “there’s nothing on my topic on the Holocaust” because Google didn’t return something with its first “hit.” I won’t even dive deeper into the inability to properly search for anything other than to say that we’re raising kids who give up if Siri doesn’t respond with an answer immediately — and Siri is pathetic, for the most part.

“But those skills aren’t important in the 21st Century,” you say. And, in my opinion, you’re wrong. They’re every bit as important as learning to collaborate and persevere and to exhibit more grit. And can somebody please give me a break with all of this grit talk? We’d never even have to worry about this if we allowed kids to fail in the first place, because nobody wants to fail and it’s only natural to learn how to right the ship, so to speak.

But what do I know? I’m simply a classroom teacher without X-degree and I certainly haven’t written a book or promoted it endlessly on Twitter.

I believe that there is something to be gained in everything that we do. I believe that Twitter can be a great thing for some people. I believe that some people gain from reading what works for others and then figuring out how to adapt it to what works for them. I believe that some people gain an incredible amount by attending EDCamps and bringing what they pick up back to their own situations.

I’ve just had it with the idea that there’s only one way to do things today and if you aren’t willing to do it this way, then you are unwilling to change or you’re difficult or you just need to get with the times. Perhaps some of us simply know that what you’re selling doesn’t work for us. Perhaps we’ve found something better for us. Perhaps what you’re selling works for you but not others. There’s nothing wrong with this idea.

But that idea doesn’t sell books, that’s for sure.

15 minutes?

I’m not sure that I can put in to words how much I enjoy the 30 minutes that I get for lunch each day. Besides $5 Pizza Friday, I rarely even eat – it has much more to do with the people I am there with and the fun that we have in the middle of our days. It’s a respite from everything else and it is extremely rare that a week goes by that I haven’t laughed until I’ve cried at least once or twice. But when the phone rings in that room, it’s an immediate downer. When the phone rings and it’s for you, it’s even worse. And when you’re told by your Principal that he needs you to come up to the office and he’s arranging coverage for your class? Well, it took me right back to 1988 and being called up to see Mr. Albaugh…

So that’s how things started for me yesterday – and that’s a long walk up to the office when you have no clue what’s going on! Once I got there, however, I learned that Governor Wolf had eliminated the requirement that students pass the Keystone Exams in Biology, Algebra, and Literature in order to graduate and that Ashlie Hardway from WTAE was here to get student and teacher reaction to this announcement.

And then a different type of nervousness set in – what the heck am I going to say? How in the world am I going to get my feelings on this topic — which are strong, and by no means concise — into an acceptable soundbite? Am I going to make an absolute fool out of myself? Ugh…

WTAE report

I watched as a student I had the fortune of working with last year, Nicole, totally crushed her interview. Surely she had more than a couple of minutes to prepare, I thought. I am so proud of not only the way she handled herself in this situation, but also the way she represented our school and all of our students in this process. She spoke of how much pressure she felt when taking these tests — of how much she worried beforehand and the sleep she lost. Keep in mind that this is one of our best — a “high flier” as our Principal properly called her — and this is the effect that these High Stakes Tests had on her.

I thought about the end of unit project that she created for The Book Thief and how she had transformed a book into a piece that explained in no uncertain terms what she took from her reading of Zusak’s novel. And I thought about the fact that no standardized test would ever let her display this type of learning.

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After the spot aired I received a bunch of calls and texts and tweets, and several people were a little confused on what I had to say concerning accountability. Make no mistake about it, I believe in accountability — for both teachers AND students. I just don’t believe in High Stakes Tests being the way that this occurs. There are so many outside factors that come in to play with a test like this — to think that these truly measure a student’s learning is just flat out naive.

Want to see if I’m doing my job? Come in and take a hard look at what I’m doing — and come in over a period of time. I don’t care who you are or what position you hold — you’re always welcome — that door is open. Want to see if my students are doing their job, improving their skills and (hopefully) being challenged in the process? The offer above stands.

Come in to see our students write about Scout coming of age in To Kill a Mockingbird while relating it to their own struggles with the same; come in to see our students try to come to grips with the stark realities presented in Night that Elie Wiesel faced as a prisoner in a concentration camp during World War II; come in and watch a student perform her original take on the events portrayed in Zusak’s magical piece about children coming to terms with the perils of life in Germany during the Holocaust — and if you’d like a glimpse of what you’d see, here you go:

There are plenty of issues with our educational system — nothing is perfect — but this is a step in the right direction, in my opinion. After all,

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True words?

 

(ps – I can’t speak highly enough concerning how Ashlie Hardway and her photographer handled these interviews. I truly wish that all of my Mass Media and Yearbook students could have seen the entire process — they were on point the whole way through. Beyond that, she and I have had several interactions on Twitter and it was great to finally meet face to face).

GS Advanced Art & Portfolio Show 2015

Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the opening of this annual show, however, I did get the chance to stop by to see the incredible work produced by some truly talented GS Art Students. I’m constantly amazed by the work that our students are producing and their talent level. I’m also constantly in awe of the high interest assignments and the guidance that are provided by the members of our Fine Arts staff – some really, really hard working teachers are working tirelessly to foster these talents.

After seeing last year’s show at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art’s temporary location, it was great to see it back to being housed in the newly renovated Museum’s Community Room. It was also pretty cool to NOT be at the opening show when I was viewing the pieces, as there were several members of the community there at the same time that I was who had no tie to the artists or the school. I must freely admit that I did a little bit of eavesdropping while I was there and it was great to hear the unbelievably positive comments and compliments directed toward our students. Several were, appropriately, in awe of the work.

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The following are but some of my favorites – and the phone photos and crops do not even come close to doing them justice.

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henderson

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One of the interesting parts of the show, for me at least, is to read the artists’ statements. I’ve been fortunate to work with many of these students in the English classroom, but it’s great to see them put into words where they’re coming from, artistically. And while Sara certainly does a great job of explaining her motivations, I was struck by this portrait – I’m not sure that I’ve seen many that better capture what I see in a kid.

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And I had to share this one as well. I love when an artist is able to make a statement and I also love when she is able to poke a little fun at everything going on around her. I think that this artist did exactly that when she created this piece:

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Once again, bravo to all of the students and teachers who took part in this tremendous display of their talents!

 

 

Our students display courage on an every day basis…

(Stick with me on this one – it’s going to take a little bit to see that the title makes sense…)

As someone who grew up watching a lot of television in the 70s and 80s, my world was rocked when “Mork & Mindy” first appeared on ABC. Putting it the easiest way that I can, the show was just so different. And by different I don’t even mean that it was some show about some extraterrestrial who came to earth in an egg shaped vessel – it was just so different because Robin Williams was just bouncing off the walls nuts. If you watched the show then you know what I mean – you just couldn’t take your eyes off of him. He was all over the place and you never knew what was coming next – and I loved it. I can’t say as I really remember any specific episodes or the plot to any of them, but I really do just see in my head this Tasmanian Devil of a character all over the place. And it was just awesome.

Pam Dawber and Robin Williams

Pam Dawber and Robin Williams

And then, in typical form, I looked for him in everything. I actually enjoyed seeing him in “Popeye,” even though that one certainly hasn’t stood the test of time (give me a break, I was 8 or 9 at the time!) And then he was in some other things that didn’t really stand out until he portrayed Adrian Cronauer in “Good Morning, Vietnam,” and again, here he was playing this manic character. (By the way, I didn’t have to look up Cronauer’s name – Williams embedded that in my head – in a good way). It was in this role that I first saw that the guy could really act, though. While he was certainly funny, there were certain scenes where he just stole it by being serious. And these were the scenes that really stood out to me.

It was at this point, I’d say that his meteoric rise truly started (at least in my eyes – perhaps that’s not historically accurate – I’m not really sure). “Dead Poet’s Society” furthered my thoughts on his ability to play a serious role, even though he was still looked at as a comedic actor. And then, and I’m making a big jump here, time-wise, he was in “Good Will Hunting.” And it seemed as though everything changed for me. No longer did I even look at him for his comedic talents – I simply looked at him as this incredible actor. I think it was this scene that truly, truly did this for me:

And then, again, after jumping much further in time, he took his own life and I don’t know why it is, but it’s just really affected me. It’s not like I knew him by any means, I just wanted to, I guess. How could this man, who brought so much joy to so many, whether that be with his comedic or serious roles, be so distraught to do this? To this day, I get choked up when I see anything that he’s in. I can’t even think about seeing “Boulevard,” because I still don’t think I can get through it.

So here’s where I bring that title into play. I was walking into our faculty lounge yesterday for lunch and noticed a piece that had been hung on the wall near the door. It caught my attention, certainly, but I was so close to it that I didn’t really even take it all in. I came out of the lounge, so the piece was to my back now, and I didn’t even notice it as I went to get something to eat. And then I came back through, looking straight at the piece from a further distance and with some perspective. It was then that it truly, truly hit me.
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Now we have some unbelievably talented artists who have come through our school. Our art teachers do a fantastic job with them and have come up with some awesome assignments, while also fostering a sense of ownership of our school’s walls at the same time. That might not sound right, but it’s so cool to walk down the halls and see such great work that is student produced. I’m truly in awe of the talent – and that’s only magnified by the fact that I have none of it!

If you look close enough, you’ll notice that there’s no signature on it and no label, so I had no idea who created this piece. I tweeted out a pic and in no time found out who created this wonderful portrait. In just a few more minutes I found out that this was her first attempt at this type of work. Are you kidding me??? I’d kill (okay, not really) for this type of talent.

And then it hit me. And it hit me like a ton of stones landing solely on my chest, Giles Corey style. This subject was chosen purposely. You see, the young lady who created this has experienced the type of tragedy that nobody should have to face. And she’s done so with class and dignity.

This is a statement piece. There’s a clear purpose behind it and I truly hope that it helps to bring her peace. That’s probably not going to be tomorrow or next week or even this year. But someday she’ll look back and come to the realization that creating this — and putting herself out there while doing so — took an incredible amount of courage.

I’m truly, extremely proud of you, young lady.