Wednesday, June 29, 2011

ISTE 2011 - Day Four and Final Thoughts

Now that I'm home, I want to reflect on my last day at ISTE 2011 in Philadelphia and share a few thoughts on my experiences at the conference.  The past four days have been a whirlwind of learning, networking, and discussion that was one of the most intense and enlightening periods of my teaching career.  For the first time in my career, I was in an environment where the majority of people I interacted with shared my passion and vision for transforming and/or revolutionizing our current educational practices.  That was an amazingly powerful experience that I find hard to fully describe.

Here are some of the things that I took away from my last day at ISTE:
  • I started the day by having breakfast with Dyane Smokorowski at an Amish eatery in Reading Terminal Market.  Speaking with her was one of the highlights of my trip.  I am a great admirer of what she does in her 8th grade classroom and her views on global collaboration.  Even though we had never met face-to-face before this conference, I feel like I've known her for a long time.
  • I got another chance to browse the poster sessions in the morning.  It seemed like a lot more of the sessions were math based, which made me happy.  One teacher was showing how to use one of my favorite tools, Geogebra.  In the student showcase section there was a group of high school girls showing off the robotics they had created and the software they used to design them.  Their session was mobbed, and unfortunately I didn't get a chance to speak with them or get more information.  Their work was very impressive.  
  • For the first time, I saw Kevin Honeycutt present.  I feel fortunate that I got to spend quite a bit of time with Kevin and got to know him over the past few days.  His presentation was awesome.  He speaks with an authenticity that I've never heard from a presenter before.  The audience was as engaged as any I've ever seen.  One of my favorite quotes from his talk came when he was discussing cell phone policies:  "Kids used to pass notes on paper.  We never banned paper!  Get real!"  The video below is Kevin presenting the same session last year.
  • After that session, I said my goodbyes to the people who have been so incredible to be around for the past four days.  I look forward to the next opportunity I have to see them in person.  Until then, I appreciate the fact that they are a part of my PLN. 
  • As incredible as ISTE was, the best part of my day was when I walked in the door at home after a 2.5 hour drive and my two children came running up to me and gave me a big hug while yelling, "Daddy! Daddy!"  In moments like that I am reminded that I am the luckiest man in the world.

ISTE 2011 - Day Three

As I mentioned in my last few posts, I am fortunate to be attending my first ISTE conference this year in Philadelphia.  Yesterday was another fantastic, exhausting day, and I wanted to share some of the insights, resources, and information that I learned as a way to "pay it forward" to those who aren't attending.  The volume of information that came my way was so overwhelming that I cannot possibly share all of it, so I'm passing on what I found most illuminating.  If you want more info from the conference, those attending and tweeting the conference are using the hashtag #ISTE11.
  • Brandon Lutz from Philadelphia presented "60 Tools in 60 Minutes."  I was blown away by the number of tools that I had never heard of before.  My speed typing skills were tested as I tried to get them all into my Delicious account.  You can get all of the tools, videos, Prezis, and the backchannel for the session here.
  • Walking the Expo Hall was loads of fun (see the cheesy picture above).  I saw lots of awesome products that I can't afford and met loads of interesting people.
  • I spent more time browsing the poster sessions.  One that was really good was "Using Tech to Promote Young Adult Literature" by Colette Cassinelli.  You can see all of her information on this Google Sites page.
  • I found out about an amazing new tool that just launched - a free, online graphing calculator  from a company called Desmos.  Instead of me explaining more, watch the video below.  
  • Around lunchtime I had a cup of coffee with Mary Garrison from Math Solutions, a company founded by Marilyn Burns that provides professional development for teachers so that they can teach math in a way that emphasizes conceptual understanding.  I really like what they are trying to do.  
  • I met my goal of learning enough about Livebinders and Edmodo to use them effectively in my classoom next year from some of the amazing people in my PLN.  It's been fantastic to meet some of these educators in person.  While it's sad that after tomorrow I probably won't see many of them until at least next summer, it's wonderful that sites like Plurk and Twitter allow us to keep in contact throughout the year to learn from each other and give each other the support that allows us to grow as teachers.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

ISTE 2011 - Day Two

As I mentioned in yesterday's post, I am fortunate to be attending my first ISTE conference this year in Philadelphia.  Yesterday was my first full day, and I wanted to share some of the insights, resources, and information that I learned as a way to "pay it forward" to those who aren't attending.  The volume of information that came my way was so overwhelming that I cannot possibly share all of it, so I'm passing on what I found most illuminating.  If you want more info from the conference, those attending and tweeting the conference are using the hashtag #ISTE11.
  • My first session was on the Common Core (CC) and Project Based Learning (PBL).  We all know the CC is coming in a few years, and I've been heavily involved in my district's integration of the CC math standards into our curriculum.  At the same time, PBL is a philosophy that I believe in strongly.  The presenters were from the Buck Institute for Education.  They shared some great student work and their website seems to have some decent resources for PBL.
  • I really enjoyed browsing the poster sessions throughout the day.  There's great information there, and I love being able to talk shop with the presenters instead of just listening.  One of the highlights of the day was when a 3rd grade student from Alabama came up to me shaking with excitement, handed me a beaded necklace to put on, and asked me to come over and see how her school uses Web 2.0 in their classrooms.  Her enthusiasm was contagious, and it made me think of how incredibly powerful engagement and passion can be.
  • I learned some new tools for creating bibliographies:  EasyBib, BibMe, Noodle Tools, and Zotero.
  • A flash mob broke out in the afternoon near the Blogger's Cafe.  That was fun.  
  • The Follett software company put together an amazing panel during their reception that resulted in some great conversation:  Kevin Honeycutt, Dean Mantz, Diane Cordell, Steven Anderson, and Shannon Miller.  The topic was "Rethinking Education."  There were so many points that were made that resonated with me.  Here's the one that hit me the hardest - If you have a blog, you have a voice.  Those of us who understand the devastation that the culture of standardized testing is bringing to our children have a responsibility to make others aware of it.  It's our moral imperative to do so.  This blog is my voice.  Please help me make it louder by passing it along to others, whether they be educators, parents, legislators, businesspeople, or anyone else.
  • I went to my first "Digital Jam" last night, and it was a great experience.  20-30 teachers singing at karaoke together at the top of their lungs, playing every kind of instrument from tambourine to xylophone on their iPads, and showing how technology and music can inspire people (and students) to find their passions.
  • Spending time with members of my PLN, meeting new educators, and being surrounded with people who are as passionate about the need to change education in ways that put our students first has been simply incredible.  I can't wait to see what Day 3 brings.  

Monday, June 27, 2011

ISTE 2011 - Day One

I feel very fortunate to be attending my first ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) Conference this year in Philadelphia.  Since I've gotten so much incredible information from attendees at past conferences to which I was not able to attend through tweets, plurks, and blog posts, I want to share my experience.  You can also follow the conference on twitter.  Those tweeting the conference are using the hashtag #ISTE11.

I could write dozens of blog posts on what I learned just during yesterday's opening keynote and my interactions with members of my PLN.  Actually, I'm sure that the experience will lead to numerous posts in the future, but in order to keep this post reasonable, you'll have to forgive me for using a bulleted list.  Here's a snapshot of my learning and experiences from the first day of ISTE 2011:
  • It's hard to imagine the scope of the conference before you experience it.  I've been to other 10,000+ people conferences at the Pennsylvania Convention Center before, but nothing has been like this.  Almost every space in the 3 connected buildings and 4 floors is being used.
  • Meeting so many members of my PLN was a wonderful experience.  These educators have been incredibly influential in my career.  Interacting with them has fueled my passion for teaching, but I had only met two or three of them in person before yesterday. It's a strange experience to introduce yourself to someone who've had discussions with for years, yet it happened many times yesterday.
  • As soon as I arrived, I learned a new tool through a discussion with a member of my PLN:  My Brainshark.  It's an add-on for Google Apps that allows one to upload video, pictures, and other files, and then comment on them in several ways (microphone, telephone, etc.) It looks really useful.  I'll have to play around with it.
  • I really enjoyed the opening keynote by Dr. John Medina, author of Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School.  I'm putting that book on my list to read.  Many of the things he said solidified my personal beliefs that our current system of education does not meet the needs of our students, nor our society as a whole.  Here are a few of the many points that he made that I found especially interesting:
    • Brain science doesn't say anything about how we should teach people, but we do know the conditions in which a human brain is designed to function best.  If you were to design an environment that was the extreme opposite of those conditions, you would get a classroom.
    • The emotional stability of the home is the greatest predictor of academic success because instability erodes executive function.
    • The most important quality a teacher can have is "Theory of Mind" - the ability to diagnose others' gaps in knowledge and their brains' punishment and reward systems.
    • Demanding that students do nothing more than memorizing will create a bunch of robots.  There needs to be problem solving and improvisation in order for students to reach their potential.
  • There's a lot of educators here who understand the direction we need to take to revolutionize our education systems.  It's great to be among them.  All revolutions start with a small group of determined people who stick to their convictions and fight for what they believe in.  I feel like I am among those people here, and I believe that eventually we will change the standardized testing culture that is so devastating to our students, and the minds of people who cherish data over learning.  

Friday, June 24, 2011

Friday's Five: Things I'm Looking Forward to at ISTE

Friday's Five is a feature every week where I pick a new topic and list five items that I think fit best.  Then I ask you, my readers, to share your thoughts in the comment section.  For an archive of past topics, check the Friday's Five Page.  If you'd like to make suggestions about future topics or discuss topics I bring up on the blog with others, make sure you click the "like" button on the right hand side of the page to join A Teacher's Life for Me on Facebook.  Don't be shy about sharing the blog and Facebook Page with others.  Each post has a "Tweet" button on top and buttons on the bottom that allow you to share in several ways, including e-mail, Facebook, and Twitter.

For the first time this year, I'll be attending the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Conference.  It is the world's premier education technology event and according to ISTE's website it draws about 20,000 people from 60 countries.  This year's conference is in Philadelphia, PA.

Attending a conference this large is a bit overwhelming.  The number of sessions, events, and opportunities is incredible.  To help me navigate through them, I've identified these 5 things that I would most like to do while in Philadelphia:
  1. Meet members of my Professional Learning Network (PLN) in person - My PLN has been exceedingly helpful in giving me new ideas, supporting me, and giving me opportunities to collaborate.  It's not a stretch for me to say that I wouldn't be nearly as successful as a teacher had I not found my way to the amazing network of teachers on Plurk.  I find it incredible that a group of educators that I've never met face-to-face can be so influential.  It will be great to put faces to names and be able to talk in person with many of these teachers.  
  2. Learn more about how to use Edmodo in my classroom - Edmodo is a secure social learning network for students, schools, and teachers.  I know some members of my PLN do amazing things with their students using Edmodo as a tool to allow for collaboration, distribution of resources, and communication.  I signed up for an account a while ago, but I've never gotten around to leaning enough about this tool to use it.  I'd like to get familiar enough while at ISTE to be able to use it with my students next school year.
  3. Meet and discover new people - The world is full of amazing educators.  Conferences are great places to meet and/or discover them.  Many of the people that have influenced my career I have learned about for the first time in sessions, keynotes, or while mingling at conferences.  I'm curious to find out who I will meet or learn about for the first time in Philadelphia.  
  4. Find out what's the big deal about Livebinders - Many in my PLN are discussing, utilizing, and raving about Livebinders.  I've been curious for a while what the rage is about, but haven't had the chance to explore the site.  According to their homepage, Livebinders is "your 3-ring binder for the web."  Like Edmodo, I'd like to get to know more about this tool while at ISTE.
  5. Browse the Exhibitor Hall - One of the great things about large conferences is the expo hall.  I've been to the National Soccer Coaches Association of America's (NSCAA) National Convention many times, and I've always come home with bags of free goodies, great professional contacts, and knowledge of companies that fit what I was trying to accomplish with my girls high school soccer program.  I'm hoping that the expo hall at ISTE affords me the same opportunity to talk to ed-tech companies and make good contacts.  I wouldn't complain about free stuff, either.  
Now it's your turn.  Let me know your thoughts in the comment section.  If you're going to ISTE, let me know what you are looking forward to.  If you've been there before, what are your thoughts?  Any suggestions for a rookie?  If you aren't going, what would you want to learn if you were?  

As always, if you enjoy the blog, please share with your friends, colleagues, and PLN by clicking the "tweet" button on the top of the page, sharing on facebook, or sending a plurk!  

Monday, June 20, 2011

First Reflections


At the conclusion of a school year, it's natural and professional to look back at what you did right, what you did wrong, and what can be improved.  An honest reflection of our practices is the one of the most powerful tools we have in improving our craft as teachers.  Below are some things I've thought about in the past few days, now that I'm on summer vacation.

Here's what the standardized testing data says:  84% (16 out of 19) of my students passed the state reading test.  One student missed passing by one question.  The same student had passed in 4th grade by one question.  100% of my students passed the state writing test.  I was slightly surprised and very happy about that.  It's not a surprise that all of my math students passed the math test, but 2 students fell from "advanced" in 4th grade to "proficient" in 5th grade.

I've been pretty vocal (or whatever the blog equivalent is) about the evils of standardized testing.  The way we use tests to evaluate teachers, judge schools, and drive every aspect of our school day from recess to pedagogy has been devastating to our educational system.  However, standardized tests do have a small purpose in education.  Using the data generated to see students' strengths and weaknesses, and then help those students overcome their weaknesses has been done successfully for decades.  State assessments don't measure what's most important, but the data they generate shouldn't be totally ignored.

This year I think I did a good job at expanding my use of technology to effectively teach collaboration and creativity.  Our class wiki received over 15,000 hits during this school year alone and now has had visitors from 122 countries.  Most of those hits came from people searching Google or Bing for information and getting it from the content my students created.  That's a pretty powerful thing for a bunch of 10 and 11 year olds in a tiny town in Pennsylvania.

I demanded more critical thinking from my math class and saw more learning from this group than any other math class I've taught.  The results on the math final exam were excellent (all but one student scored a 91 or higher), but what really exited me was the one question I gave them after the final was over.  It basically asked, "Joe Smith ran his best mile in 6 minutes.  Later that month he ran his first 26 mile marathon.  How long did the marathon take him?"  Almost every one of my students resisted the urge to multiply 6 by 26 and added on time to account for fatigue.  They thought about the problem instead of just manipulating numbers.  (Thanks to Dan Meyer for that problem.)

As the Head Teacher in the building, I'm proud of the way our discipline program has continued to evolve and the leadership role that I've been allowed to take.  Our office discipline referrals fell 30.1% from last year.

I'm extremely proud of some successes that I've had with students in tough situations and personal triumphs that I've seen in some of our students in different aspects of their lives that I can't mention here.  If you are a teacher, you can imagine the types of situations to which I refer.

I continue to feel unsatisfied, however, with my pedagogical practices when I'm with my reading class.  I love teaching math and American history.  I can't say the same for reading, and I think that comes across to my students more than it should.  In math, I have the confidence to let the textbooks gather dust while I focus on good teaching and learning.  In reading, I don't have that same confidence.  I'm hesitant to stray from the textbook, although at the end of the year I used our wiki to create book clubs based on interest that went very, very well.  You can see the results here.

Since I am well aware that the best way to teach reading is in the content areas, I'm a bit disappointed in myself that I did less direct reading instruction this year within American History that I've done in the past.  Those subjects had a lot more separation between them than I would have liked.

I need to get better with passing control in the classroom to my students.  This is difficult for me.  I want my students to be able to work the way adults do.  Right now I'm typing in a comfy chair with my feet up.  Most of the time when I read it's while relaxing on the couch or lying on the floor.  When I do my taxes, I usually have a snack and a can of diet soda next to me.  But in my classroom, I demand that my students sit in those ridiculously uncomfortable blue plastic chairs for much too long.  They may have the snack they brought only at 9:30.  I think my students would learn more if I gave them more freedom, but I've found that hard to do.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Friday's Five: Summer Reading Books

Friday's Five is a feature every week where I pick a new topic and list five items that I think fit best.  Then I ask you, my readers, to share your thoughts in the comment section.  For an archive of past topics, check the Friday's Five Page.  If you'd like to make suggestions about future topics or discuss topics I bring up on the blog with others, make sure you click the "like" button on the right hand side of the page to join A Teacher's Life for Me on Facebook.  Don't be shy about sharing the blog and Facebook Page with others.  Each post has a "Tweet" button on top and buttons on the bottom that allow you to share in several ways, including e-mail, Facebook, and Twitter.
flickr/Simon Cocks
Since today marks the last day of the school year and the beginning of summer vacation for me, I thought I'd share five books that I plan to read over the summer.  After all, summer is the time when we, as teachers, finally get the chance to read and go to the bathroom.  Not all of the books are education based, but that's OK.  Being well-rounded is one of the things that makes us good teachers.

After reading my list, please share a book or two that you plan to read or that you suggest in the comment section.  I'm always looking for a good book, and I'm sure others who read the blog would appreciate suggestions and/or recommendations.

  1. The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch - This book was highly recommended and loaned to me by a colleague.  It's the story of Randy Pausch's last lecture at Carnegie Mellon University, where he was a professor, just before he died of pancreatic cancer.  
  2. The Vault of Walt by Jim Korkis - I admit it.  I'm a Disney Geek.  I love the stories behind the parks, stories of Walt's life, and stories about the company that very few people know or remember.  That's what this book is filled with.  It's a collection of short anecdotes from the memory and research of Jim Korkis, former Disney employee and respected Disney historian.  The forward is written by Diane Disney Miller, Walt's daughter.   
  3. Why We Do What We Do:  Understanding Self-Motivation by Edward L. Deci - The High School principal in our district loaned this book to me a while back.  It's time that I read it and gave it back to him.  When he gave it to me there was a sticky note on the cover that said, "Mike, Read with caution.  This one has made me rethink everything we do in education."  Sounds like my kind of book!
  4. Galen Rowell's Inner Game of Outdoor Photography - When people find out that I am a photographer, or see my portfolio, I often get asked, "Who is your favorite photographer?"  The answer is Galen Rowell.  The guy was an amazing photographer, writer, and person.  His passion for outdoor adventure photography is evident in his work, and contagious.  It's unfortunate that he died in a plane crash in 2002 because the world lost one of it's great creative minds and artists.
  5. A World in Transition:  Finding Spiritual Security in Times of Change - This anthology of essays and talks has been sitting on my shelf for many years, but I have yet to read it cover to cover.  I have found the parts I have read to be inspirational, thought provoking, and enlightening.  The inside of the book jacket claims, "Today there is a great emphasis on external solutions to our problems.  Yet, peace, happiness, and prosperity all come from within."  That message is similar to Gandhi's "Be the Change" quote that I referenced in a previous post.  
Now it's your turn.  What books do you plan to read this summer?  What books would you suggest to others?  Have you read any of the above books?  What did you think?  Let us know in the comment section.

Also, don't forget to share the blog with others by clicking on the "Tweet" button up top, sharing on Facebook, sending a plurk to your PLN, or all of the above!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

What's Important

During the past few days I've been doing what teachers do at the end of the school year.  I've been cleaning out my classroom and analyzing standardized test data for the year.  It's been depressing.  I'm always at conflict when looking at the data because I know that doing poorly is bad for our school, and that putting a great deal of emphasis on the tests is bad for our students.  I want to see good scores, but I also want to not care about the scores. 

I was feeling this stress and conflict his morning when I started going through my e-mail account to see what could be deleted.  I came across the letter below that was sent to me from a former soccer player just before her graduation a few years ago.  I'm sharing it (without correcting mistakes) because it shows exactly what is important.  It's not test preparation.  It's not the ability to fill in the correct bubble on an answer sheet.  It's the skills that are needed in life. 

Thank you to all of the teachers, coaches, and administrators who are remembering what's important.
Dear Coach,
I wanted to tell you that because of you I am going to be just fine next year when I step out into the real world. Its going to be very hard for me, but I truly believe that because of what you taught me, how to be mentally strong, how to try to stay positive when there’s really nothing to look forward to but uncertainty, and to have the drive and passion to do what you enjoy, even if its not the ideal situation, and even to overcome obstacles beyond my control, that I am going to get where I want to go. I think that I more than any other person on that team know what "mental toughness" is. Everyone may have their own definition, but to me I don't think I could have learned a better lesson. I still think sometimes that it wasn't worth it, but then I realize that it was probably one of the only lessons I can apply to anything. Even though I wanted to quit, I didn't. Even though I felt that I was working towards nothing, I did it.  I want you to know, that you really are a good coach, and its not just because you can teach soccer to your players, but you can tech them lessons they can't learn in a classroom, or at least at the level they can on YOUR field. Thanks coach, for making me the dedicated, driven, and most hard working individual I can be, and for making me "mentally tough". Now I know what you meant... I know I have what it takes to make it in anything I do.
I'm forever grateful for everything you've taught me,

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Teacher Frustration - We're Losing Great Teachers

Last week I wrote that I'm the problem with education.  It was a post in which I expressed that teachers should spend less time complaining about things they cannot control and more time focusing on what they can do better.  That post created more conversation, debate, and discussion than any other post I've written this far.  One of the conversations I had was so meaningful and illuminating, that I felt I had to share it.

After school one day, a teacher shared that our current culture of standardized testing and pressure to "teach to the test" makes it almost impossible for those in our profession who want to be great teachers to do so.  She explained how she wants to teach her students essential skills like critical thinking, responsibility, and collaboration, but is instead forced to teach what will be on the tests that her students will have to take.  Even if she wanted to pursue something her students find interesting or important, she can't without risking some of her students failing the all-important test, which leads to the majority of her students being totally unengaged.  
fickr/Zach Klein

Basically, she complained that she is forced to teach content instead of teaching students, and this makes her job increasingly frustrating to the point that she may not be able to stay in the profession.  

I must stress here that this is an excellent teacher with whom I was talking.  This particular teacher is meticulous in her lesson planning, cares deeply about her students, routinely gives up her own time to help her students in any way she can, and is well respected by all who know her.  This is the kind of teacher that every parent would want their child to have.  This is the kind of teacher that we cannot afford to lose.  

Yet, I believe that she expressed a feeling that many in our profession are sharing right now.  We want to do what's best for our students.  We're desperate to make school meaningful and relevant for them.  We're frustrated because it's almost impossible without being almost insubordinate to administrators who are forced by the current laws to demand test results over anything else, including the very things that make school relevant and meaningful.  

As I said in a previous post, the most important things we do in school can't be measured on a test.  Show me someone who disagrees, and I'll show you someone who doesn't know what's important.

Great teachers are being forced out of teaching because they are being forced to do things in their classrooms that they know are detrimental to students.  As Sir Ken Robinson would say, we are educating the creativity and passion out of our students.  Our students believe that what we teach them in school will have no impact on their lives, and that the time they spend in our classrooms is a waste of their time.

Unfortunately, they are pretty much right. 

What's worse, teachers who want to change that feel that they can't.  Almost every teacher I know went into education because they thought they could make a difference for the next generation.  If you take that away from them, what's left?  

If we don't dramatically change what we're doing, I'm afraid we're going to find out.  

Friday, June 10, 2011

Friday's Five: Continue Your Learning This Summer

This week's Friday's Five is a special cross-post on summer learning that also appeared on Lee Kolbert's "A GeekyMamma's Blog." Friday's Five is a feature every week where I pick a new topic and list five items that I think fit best.  Then I ask you, my readers, to share your thoughts in the comment section.  For an archive of past topics, check the Friday's Five page.  If you'd like to make suggestions about future topics or discuss topics I bring up on the blog with other readers, make sure you click the "like" button on the right hand side of this page to join A Teacher's Life for Me on Facebook.  Don't be shy about sharing the blog and Facebook page with others.  Each post has buttons on the bottom that allow you to share several ways, including e-mail, Facebook, and Twitter. / graur razvan ionut  
When summer comes, many of the sources of stress that drain your physical and emotional energy during the school year disappear.  Along with having some extra time to do some of the things you love other than teaching, it’s a fantastic time to learn, share, and find new inspiration that will make your classroom more enjoyable for yourself and your students.  So, when you are not taking a little time to enjoy camping in the woods, lounging on a beach somewhere, or whatever it is that you do to relax, here are five ways to continue your learning during the summer:
  1. Participate in a Professional Learning Network (PLN) – Nothing that I have experienced in my career has taught me more or inspired me as much as my PLN.  Whether through collaboration using social networks like Facebook, Plurk, and Twitter, seeing different points of view on the blogs that I follow, interacting with those that follow my blog, or learning through my membership in professional organizations, I am constantly gaining insight as to how to better do my job.  During the summer, all of those resources are still available.  
  2. Read a Book – It’s often hard to find the time to read during the school year.  During the summer, though, I’ve been able to read some great books that helped me grow as a teacher.  If you’re not sure what to read, ask your PLN. I’m sure they’ll have great ideas.  Another option is to join a book group on a site like Goodreads.  Two of the more influential books on education I’ve read are The Element by Sir Ken Robinson and Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen.
  3. Attend and/or Present at a Conference – Educational conferences are fantastic places to both pick up new ideas for your classroom and network with other professionals.  Many take place during the summer months to make it easier for educators to attend.  Presenting is an extremely rewarding experience that often comes with the benefit of a free or reduced registration fee.
  4. Browse Through Bookmarks - During the school year I am flooded with great new websites and web 2.0 tools that are shared by my PLN.  Many I save in my Delicious account and never get the chance to play around with to see if they are useful in my 5th grade classroom.  There’s just not enough time.  Summer is a perfect opportunity to spend some time playing with these tools.  You might discover something you love. 
  5. Download Content from iTunes U - Many people don’t realize how much free content is available on iTunes for teachers.  There are over 350,000 free lectures, videos, and films available covering just about every possible topic.  The best part is that you can listen or watch them while you go for a run, garden, lounge by the pool, or even while you stick your feet in the sand on the beach.  
Now it's your turn. In the comment section, please share how you continue your professional learning. What books do you plan to read this summer? What conferences are you attending? Do you have any great ways to continue your learning that I didn't mention? What's your favorite iTunes podcast? Please share!

Monday, June 6, 2011

I'm the Problem

We know that our education system is broken, and we all like to point fingers.

The business community blames the politicians for not making teachers accountable enough. Politicians take turns blaming each other. Television gets blamed for corrupting our children. High school teachers point the finger at middle school teachers, who then in turn point the finger at elementary teachers for not preparing students well enough. Teachers claim that parents aren't doing their job. Students are blamed for being lazy.  Everybody points their finger at somebody else.

I'm pointing the finger at me. I'm the problem. The system is broken because of me.

I need to do better.

Because, if everyone takes the attitude that it's the fault of parents, students, politicians, television, society, or anyone else other than themselves, nothing will change. There is only one person who's actions I can change.

Mahatma Gandhi is quoted as saying, "Be the change you want to see in the world." If we all take his advice, stop pointing our fingers at everyone else, and point them at ourselves, we'll be just fine.

Stop complaining about what should be changed, and go be the change you want to see.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Friday's Five: Ways to Use Formative Assessment

Friday's Five is a feature every week where I pick a new topic and list five items that I think fit best.  Then I ask you, my readers, to share your thoughts in the comment section.  For an archive of past topics, check the Friday's Five page.  If you'd like to make suggestions about future topics or discuss topics I bring up on the blog with other readers, make sure you click the "like" button on the right hand side of this page to join A Teacher's Life for Me on Facebook.  Don't be shy about sharing the blog and Facebook page with others.  Each post has buttons on the bottom that allow you to share several ways, including e-mail, Facebook, and Twitter.

We've all had students that try blend into the background.  They are the students who never raise their hand, sit there silently when you call on them until you choose someone else, and go through the school year determined to participate as little as possible.

We've also all been in the situation where several of our students have failed a test when we thought they knew the content.  Even though we recognize that they haven't learned what they were supposed to, we often feel we have to move on because of the amount of material that needs to be taught in a school year.

Is there an easy way that we can make sure all of our students, even the ones who try not to participate, are learning?  Is there an easy way to determine whether our students really know content before testing them?

The answer to both of those questions is a unequivocal "YES!"  There are several types of formative assessment - long term (like semester or end-of-year), medium term (end-of-unit, etc), and immediate (in-lesson).  It's the daily, in-lesson, formative assessment that is most important to increase learning for all of your students.  It also allows you to diagnose where you need to change your instruction so that your students learn what they are supposed to before they are tested.

Formative assessment is a way to diagnose the patient, instead of waiting for the autopsy.

Here are five simple ways to start using formative assessment to ensure all of your students are learning:

  1. Get a set of individual white boards and have your students use them.  Have your students constantly show you that they understand what you are teaching them by showing you on their white board.  A quick glance around the room will tell you who understands and who doesn't.  Make sure the students that need more help get it.  
  2. Stop having your students raise their hand to answer a question.  When that happens, you only get an answer from one student.  Instead, have every student write the answer to the question in their notebook or on an individual white board.  Maybe have them share their answer with a partner, and let the partner write it down, or have each student record an answer in a VoiceThread or Blabber.  It doesn't matter how they answer, just make sure that every student is responsible for giving an answer and justifying it.
  3. Use exit cards.  At the end of a lesson, pose one short question to the class that deals with the day's lesson.  Have them answer the question on an index card and hand it to you before they leave.  Take a quick look at the cards.  If all the students knew the material move on to something else the next day.  If many couldn't answer the question correctly, start the next day's lesson with a review.  If some of the students need more help, build in an intervention into the next day's lesson.
  4. Demand that students tell you when they don't understand.  I've found that colored cups work well for this.  I stack a green, yellow, and red cup on each student's desk.  If they understand what I am teaching, they show a green cup.  If the cup is yellow, they need me to slow down.  If the cup is red, I need to stop and re-teach something.  How do I make sure that they are telling me the truth? If someone has a red cup, I choose someone with a green cup to do the re-teaching. 
  5. Let them give you a "thumbs-up."  During your lesson, ask a few yes-or-no questions of the class. Have them respond with a thumbs-up or thumbs-down.  You'll be able to quickly assess which students are not understanding your lesson.  
Lately we've heard a lot about "Data Driven Instruction."  Too often it means sifting through standardized test data.  The data we need to be using to drive our instruction is the data we get from formative assessment techniques like the ones listed above.  That data is easy to understand quickly and allows us to make changes immediately to ensure that our students learn.  Dylan Wiliam had a great way of putting it when I saw him speak.  His quote went something like this:  "Teachers who do not use formative assessment and then wonder why their students failed a test are like pilots that never make course corrections and then wonder why they ended up in Cleveland instead of Miami."

Now it's your turn to share.  Do you use formative assessment in your classroom?  How?  Do you have other techniques or ideas to share?  Leave your thoughts on these questions, or anything else you want to add in the comment section below.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

What I Hope My Students Learned

Today is the first day of June.  The school year is winding down, and in a week or two the state assessment scores will come back.  We'll look at the data and determine which students learned math, which were proficient in reading, and which students are good at "being students."

To tell you the truth, though, I really don't care all that much.  To start with, I'm pretty confident that my students learned the content they were supposed to this year.  I don't need a standardized test to tell me that.  The formative assessments that I build into my lessons give me that data all year long.  There's a bigger reason that I'm a bit apathetic about the results, though.

The most important things I want my students to have learned this year weren't on those tests.  These things can't be measured by filling in bubbles with a #2 pencil.

I hope my students learned that learning isn't something that happens only in school, but is something that can and should happen all the time.  I hope they learned the habit of learning.

I hope my students learned that being right isn't as important as being able to think.  Our history books are full of individuals who failed many times and still rose to greatness.

I hope that my students learned to question the validity and bias of all information that is being sold to them, even if a teacher is the one selling it.  I hope they continue to ask "why?"

I hope that my students learned to seek their passion when choosing a career path.  5th grade is not too early to start thinking about your future, and doing what you love and what is rewarding to you is worth more than all the money in the world. 

Most of all, I hope that my students learned that the score that comes back on that state test, whether high or low, doesn't define them any more than their height or eye color.  It's what they do with their given talents that will be their legacy.