Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Real World Tips For Rookie Teachers

Twenty-one years ago I was in your position, energy bouncing off the walls, ideas swirling like gases from the beginning of the universe. But underneath it all was a mild case of panic, I got the contract now what? How do I not stick out as a rookie any more than I already do? Most important how do I not let the little things overwhelm all the good I'm actually doing?

From the fog of those anxious days came little tidbits of info spat out casually by a number of people during my training and two decades since. Each one was simple, yet so obvious. None of them are grand educational theories that are totally impractical for surviving and success during your rookie year. Instead, these are simple things, casual bits that will help you to keep your energy and enthusiasm up over the next ten months.

1- Get to know the school office staff. School secretaries/administrative assistants are the backbone of the school. They know everything that is going on in the building, especially how the principal likes things to be done. Take good care of them, find out their Starbucks drink, what type of afternoon candy they like, the names of their children.  Show them you appreciate the myriad of hats they must wear every day. In return, when you forget to turn in certain paperwork, AND YOU WILL, they will quietly remind you before the principal visits your door.

2- Introduce yourself to the custodial staff and ask them point blank what you can do to make their lives easier. In my experience they are no-nonsense types and will tell you the do's and don'ts. Staying on their good side usually means getting things fixed, moved, etc. much sooner.

3- Organize your computer filing system. Create folder for school year. Inside have folders for each subject, lesson plans, parent letters, field trips, continuing education, time sheet, etc.. Doing this now will make for quick file searching later on.  Do the same for saving various types of emails.

4- Keep in your desk several large zip-lock storage bags. In them put found pens, pencils, colored pencils, markers, crayons, paper clips, and dry erase markers in each bag. This will keep your desk drawers much neater.

5- Find a spot in your room well AWAY from your desk for the student tissue box and sanitizing soap. Limiting exposure to germs especially in your first year is critical to staying healthy.

6- Every week wipe down desks, chairs, door knobs and jams with anti-bacterial cleaner or wipes. Also, anytime a student falls ill during class and is sent home wipe down their desk. You'll be surprised at how much healthier the class and you will stay.

7- If you teach multiple subjects pick your favorite and make it the one you devote to placing your creative stamp on. In my case it was 8th grade American History. The other classes I stuck closer to the text with typical teacher modifications.

9- Chances are the previous teacher left all sorts of teaching material. Look all of it over and know where it is in case you use some of it later. At the end of the year toss out what you didn't use as chances are you'll never use it.

10- Do what you can to personalize your room within school policy. A sterile room that doesn't reflect your personality will drain you of energy especially during the second half of the year.  Don't feel bad if other teachers don't. Remember it's all about what works for you and your students.

11- Get to know the backgrounds of the veteran teachers around you. There is no greater knowledge source than that of your coworkers.  One of them you will find a strong professional connection and will likely become your unofficial mentor.

12- Stop by the local dollar store and pick up a set of micro screwdrivers for a buck. Next, visit a nearby optometrist and purchase a multi-pack of eyeglass screws (if you tell them you're stocking up for classroom emergency repairs they may just give them to you), as you will be repairing glasses and clear tape does NOT work.

13- If budget cuts have left maintenance staff shorthanded, spend the $10-$20 for an emergency tool kit.  I use mine (even with a great maintenance staff) several times a year.

Once The Year Begins
Thirteen- Stand at the doorway and greet each student. Try to be unique in your phrasing based upon something about them, be it a team jersey, type of shoes, anything.  Make sure to have on the board information on seating and any supplies they will need to have out.

14- Classroom rules. Unlike a few education "experts" who claim that rules aren't needed, you need to have a framework. In my case I have just one "respect everyone and everything". The positive message makes it very easy for students to follow and admit when they didn't live up to it.

15- Have a rotating classroom cleanup list posted. Assignments should change weekly. Giving the students responsibility for the physical appearance of the room does much to cut down on messy appearance, as well as wear and tear.

16- Laminate a student list to use as a lunch count sheet. I put mine on the podium with a marker each morning. Make one announcement to sign up, otherwise they have to mooch off another student. Remember, you'll be too busy handling all sorts of questions that matter.

17- Let the students get to know you as a person. Tell them from time to time a funny experience/story from your youth or something you saw over the weekend. I use them as rewards for working hard on an assignment. In doing so I'm teaching them what I consider to be one of the most important keys of life, laughing at one's own foibles.

18- Let parents know when their child has done something good. Whether it be in drop off or pickup line, or by phone or email.  You'll be surprised how quickly the parents will be offering assistance or support.

19- SMILE, SMILE, SMILE.  The old adage that teachers aren't suppose to smile until Christmas is pure baloney.  You can't expect your students to be in a good mood and positive if you don't show it yourself. I'm a self admitted grinning fool, and because of it I can get students to do difficult assignments with far less negativeness.

20- Don't try to grade everything! During my first year my wife only half joked that the only time she saw me was in a recliner grading papers. Near the end of the year as I was running on fumes the principal came to and all but ordered me to pick one concept to check for on each assignment. For math teachers that means grading only certain questions in different orders each day.

21- Condense your lesson plans. Find out what your principal wants to see and in how much detail. Chances are it's about 10% of the insanity you had to write during student teaching. Remember, you are going to be spending approximately 80 hours a week this year working, learn how to save time.

22- Get in regular exercise. I walk every morning with a fellow teacher for thirty minutes. Other teachers workout at a nearby gym. Besides the obvious general healthiness, exercise is a great stress release, and you will feel the pressure quite often during your rookie year.

23- Arriving and departing school each day must be balanced. Don't think that it is ok to arrive just before the students and leave right after the last bus each day is ok.  That is a recipe for chaos. If you stay late to prep after school for the next day you should come in at least 30 minutes before the students. If you're an early bird, stay after for 30-45 minutes, give your colleagues a chance to meet with you. Nothing is worse as a teacher then being harried. 

24- Each Monday morning right after pledge and announcements the class takes five minutes for the "Activities/Sports Report". This gives the students an opportunity to tell about their successes. For myself, I get precious info that I can use to engage them on an individual or group level.

25- Keep two journals, in the first record how each lesson went. What to add and remove for the next time the lesson is taught.  Keep it brief, no story-telling needed. The second is for at home, and it is a memory book for reflecting on the wonderful insanity of your first year. I didn't do this and it still haunts me.

26- Rest, relax, eat healthy, and have fun. Give one day on the weekend to yourself. Spend time with family and friends. Sleep in, and or take a nap. You'll be surprised at how much better an extra hour of rest each weekend does for the mind, body and soul. Spend the day doing anything but school work, go see a concert, play a sport, visit with the neighbors. Anything that doesn't have to do with classroom. Eat well balanced meals each day, and remember that coffee and soda pop are not food groups. Every evening give yourself a timeout. If you're a parent, enjoy your children. Listen to music, watch a television show. Taking a break will renew your focus.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Genius Hour/Time- End Of The Year Review

The school year is over, the room is packed up, and quiet reigns inside its walls. Nothing visible remains of the grand experiment that took place among the 49 sixth graders that came thru the door in two classes. But the silent echo in the memory of this teacher still resonates.  By implementing the Genius Hour concept into four twenty-minute blocks each week the aptly renamed Genius Time became the overwhelmingly favorite learning experience of a very intelligent, boisterous collection of students.

A year ago I was trying to figure how to keep such an active, sharp group focused on learning. They needed a change up each day in their routine that ignited and kept their interest.  Genius Time did all that, and in the process allowed for the blossoming of a few, shy students into confident learners.

"Failure is just a marker on the road to success"
During the year many of the students experienced the "brick wall". They saw this as failure.  The toughest lesson of Genius Time was getting them to understand that failure is ok, as long as they get up, dust themselves off and use that painful lesson as knowledge in their quest for success. One student tried endlessly to create music using GarageBand on an iPad. They just couldn't find the sweet spot of instruments coming together.  Then one day while listening to another student's musical composition, the disappointed student quietly sang a few words, then grabbed a piece of paper and began writing.  A few days later a complete set of lyrics that blended wonderfully with the music was being listened to by several classmates. This student found a potential gift in being a lyricist.

Another student who has regularly struggled with academic motivation wanted from the very beginning to create a cookbook of family recipes based on her proud East African ethnicity.  No matter how distracted she was during ancient history time, nothing could pull her focus from working on her recipes.  During the annual Specials Fair night in May, she beaming as she showed her family the results of her efforts.

Other original efforts included a video on how to wax skis/snowboards for different snow conditions, a gluten-free cookbook for teens, a board game involving sports trivia, and a passionate presentation on zoology.  It's topics like the ones above that makes Genius Hour/Time so valuable to students. Without this opportunity they never would have explored (with possibly one or two exceptions) that topic. Instead it would have stayed a fleeting curiosity.

Looking back I can honestly say that this is one of the very few concepts/ideas in education that is truly new. Most everything else we educators heater or attend seminars about is just tweaked and renamed  with new graphics. Genius Hour/Time is the epitome of student centered and lead education.  The best part is it opens doors , some unexpected that can ignite a lifetime passion.

As one student who explored science fiction movies put it to me, "I felt like Jody Foster in Contact, going thru the wormhole and coming back smarter, but with more questions to be answered."

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Lessons Learned II: Genius Hour/Time After One Trimester

Let's start with the obvious, Genius Time (Google 20% Time in the Classroom) is a success.  The goals of engaging a bright, high energy class and keeping them going when their projects hit a rough patch has been reached, but not without some anxious moments by students and myself. The key has been to coach everyone at both the class and individual level.  Regular reminders to all that nothing worthy is ever easy, and real world examples of people that have overcome adversity in two minute stories re-energizes the students.

Recognize the technology limitations-
Several of the students wanted to create "Apps", and had found websites that offered easy creation tools.  However, an overwhelming majority didn't support iPads.  Secondly, some were fee-based, while others wanted too much student information.  

A few students had ideas for creating a knowledge library (for example, scientific animal groupings) using some type of presentation app.  The problem is that multiple classes use the iPads and the students wanted secrecy.  Secondly, Google Docs presentation app doesn't yet work on iPads thus forcing the kids to use Keynote, which fine but most do not have Keynote at home, thus once the file is saved as a PowerPoint file it can't be saved back into Keynote. Most students shifted into writing everything into a simple document, with assembly into a slideshow only when research is completed.

Overcoming the "This is too tough" mentality-
Sadly, a few students either by internal or external reasons have never completed a project truly on their own at any level.  Because of this, they have developed a quick try then abandon mentality.  These few students require my time every day, keeping them focused on the single step in front of them, the big picture is too overwhelming.  After two weeks I had them go back through each day's work.  For the first time some were able to see what they and they alone had created.  

Eliminating the Scam Artists-
A small grouping of mostly boys in each class quickly tried to game the system by shifting into an idea that required the least amount of work with the highest level of entertainment. They discovered that "GarageBand" fit their plan perfectly.  They could create something musical with little effort.  After a few weeks of individual regular conferences I set into place a GarageBand requirement that all music creation required lyrics.  Next year, I'm leaning toward GarageBand being available only to those students as add-on instrumentation but only after a piece has been created using a traditional instrument.

Facilitator Organization-
Even though the Social Studies class is virtually paperless, after a month I realized that physical documentation was critical.  For each student I created a facilitator/conference sheet where I take notes and student initials.  All 48 are kept in a binder for easy, organized access.  The students know that what they said is followed up on, it's a cross between the flexibility of ownership and following one's plan.

Final Thoughts-
Overall, the 20 minute a day Genius Time has gone about as well as I could have honestly expected.  The students are engaged and enthusiastic, to the point that the most popular question I get asked at the beginning of class is, Will there be Genius Time today?  There have been a few mushroom clouds along the way including an update to the iPads that wiped out a couple of unsaved/backed up projects.  But, in value to the students it's been a positive and worthwhile learning experience so far.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Initial Lessons Learned In Genius Hour/Time For Students

Entering my 20th year as an educator I knew it was time to get out of my comfort zone again and try something radical.  During my research late last spring I found not one but two paradigm shifting choices I wanted implement.  The first involved switching my 6th grade Ancient History classes over to paperless environment, more on that in another blog.  The second involved my long held belief in igniting student interest in something that interests them.  What I discovered in my research was the education version of Google's 20% Time, known as the Genius Hour.

The concept involves allowing students to use 20% of their classroom time per week to investigate any topic that they are curious about.  In virtually every documented usage the students are given one class period per week to delve themselves into their choice.  At the end of the year the students present what they have learned in a "TED Talk". No grade is given for the project.

Normally, I try to take a vacation from focused educational theory until August. Not this summer, I was obsessed with gathering all I could. I knew I had very bright, and active students coming into 6th grade and they would need multiple activities during the class period to keep them on track.  Thankfully, my principal loves to see her staff take on new, well thought out challenges. After ten minutes showing that the time sacrificed would not impact the topics covered in Ancient History I was green-lighted.

Week One
In order to make 20% Time work for my students I had to accept the fact that their is no one way to run the program.  While driving thru the wide-open spaces of I-80 in Wyoming the template formed for how this student-led learning was going to function

#1- Change the name
I saw that many teachers running the program also saw that the name "20% Time in Education" is a snooze-festival for students.  It needed to be short, catchy, and appealing.  I liked the title "Genius Hour", but didn't seem to fit (explained in #2). Just a few minutes later as I passed thru Green River, Wyoming I began repeating the title "Genius Time". It has the instant buy in feature as well a bit of braggadocio that would make the kids feel that what they are doing is important.

#2- Working Time
As mentioned above, the incoming 6th needs change during the hour they are in my room.  Therefore, the one hour during the week was an instant no hoper of a choice.  The students needed time each day. Realistically, 20 minutes each class seemed just right based upon years of how I ran Ancient History class. Granted, they wouldn't get into a roll, but that was ok because it then forced the students to do some of their Genius Time work at home.  I very much want the parents witnessing what their child is fascinated about as often as possible.

#3- Classroom Management
If there is one thing that two decades in the classroom has taught me is that no matter how fun/interesting the class activity is, there will always be a few middle schoolers who need some form of external inspiration to keep them on track.  Since the whole idea of the program is that the resulting learning isn't graded, some other time on task framework needs to be used.  It had to be fair, simple to implement, not heavy-handed, yet impactful enough to keep the focus.  I came up with the 2,1,0 point system. Two points for consistent focus, one point if the student bounced between focus and distraction, and zero if they were having one of those days where anything/everything was more important than Genius Time.

#4- Introducing Genius Time
In order to inspire Genius Time with the students, I knew that how I introduced it was critical.  Asking a sixth grader to do extra work without a proper sales presentation is asking for disaster.  With the help of an online MOOC run by AJ Juliani via Schoology in July, I created a Keynote presentation sprinkled with tidbits of humor for the first day of class.  Each day following I added in a few additional details.  By the end of the first week the students had all the basics.  Purposefully, I avoided telling the parents anything until the weekend when an email was sent home.  I wanted from the outset the kids to be in charge of communicating with their parents about Genius Time.

#5- The Contract
Having the students sign a contract is the most overtly fun destroying aspect of Genius Time.  However, I felt the contract was crucial to keeping the kids going for the entire year. After a couple of failed writing attempts I searched the web and found one developed by Principal Greg Miller. With slight modifications it worked perfectly for my vision. The key addition was having the students list their 3 favorite choices in order of preference as I expected some minds would change after one or two days.

Week Two

With a week of student preparation Genius Time was launched at forty minutes after the hour.  Quickly, a short line appeared at my desk evenly divided between family tree builders and app designers.  Mistake number one was mentioning just five sample ideas to students.  Next year I plan on showing a "wordle" of at least 25 choices.  The goal being to give students the impression of endless possibilities.

Some of the family tree students quickly became overwhelmed from visualizing the final project instead of the first few steps. A few went to their parents requested a membership to Ancestry.com where they have found more chaos.  A second letter home helped to slow the march to signing up to paid websites. Others have shifted from the family tree to compiling family stories that get repeated during visits and reunions.

On day two the first two students to lose a point for being off task occurred, the other students saw/heard the judgement and since then only occasionally has a student crossed the line, the most flagrant was for sneaking a minute to play "Roads of Rome" on the iPad.  

Thursday could have been renamed second choice day, as approximately a dozen students came forward to inform me that they have moved on to their second choice.  A few came at the urging of their parents who could see an ensuing tsunami of frustration and tears.  The rest were the result of waning enthusiasm, as one student put it, It stopped being fun real quick.

With Friday's class I could finally start calling up students to check on progress, and act as a facilitator. At this point I realized that that there was no way that I could keep track of all 48 students.  The solution was to allow the students to blog within the enclosed digital walls.  The blogs can only be seen by fellow students and teachers. With that protection in place approval from my principal was immediate. Final step, an email home to parents updating how Genius Time has progressed and an explanation of the blogging activity.

Lessons Learned (so far)
First, communicate with the principal ahead of major decisions.  Just because the green light was given, don't assume the blank check exists.  Two meetings and approval of explanatory emails to parents has made my principal happy and in the loop.  

Second, keeping the parents informed via class-wide emails has kept my inbox clear and carline time free of questions, etc.. After all, informed parents are happy parents and positive supporters of the program.

Third, always refer to the process as small steps.  Keep the visualizing talk of the final result to a minimum with students.  For the musical students, tell them it's about practicing scales, athletes it's about drills, for the regimented it's all about organization.  

Finally, as the teacher, do your best to visit with every student weekly and be a chess master.  In other words, see the potential problems before they hit and have adjustments ready.


Saturday, July 20, 2013

Microsoft, Here's How You Empty The Surface RT Warehouse

On Thursday, Microsoft announced a $900 million write-down of their Surface RT tablet inventory.  At a very conservative value of $300 per tablet that equals 3 million unsold tablets sitting in boxes doing nothing.  They've even dropped the education price down to just $199. Now Microsoft is well-known for playing the long game when it comes to market share.  So why not use the now written off units and create a user base of schools to build on?  At the ITSE conference in San Antonio last month each attendee received a free Surface RT.  A brilliant move, but just a speck of sand compared to what could be done. The following are three examples of how Microsoft can leverage their way into the education tablet market.

Universal Giveaway:  With 160,000 public and private K-12 schools in the USA, Microsoft could create an immediate installed base of 19 Surface RT's per school. Each school would have complete control over how they use their allotted Surfaces. The options could be a classroom cart averaging 1:2 classroom usage. A second possibility is a specialized tech class to explore tablet learning experiences.  Third on the list is a rollout to special education.  Tablets have shown a good assist to special needs students and placing them in this sort of environment makes a great deal of sense. Fourth, is providing the Surface RT's to tech-saavy educators in the building, thus allowing for a potential organic development of tablets in the classroom.

Universal High School Giveaway: It's no secret that the iPad has a huge base in the K-5 to K-8 classrooms across the country including my own.  Instead of trying to fight a battle with way fewer education apps, focus instead where the market is still wide-open, especially with the growing prevalence of BYOD schools. With 37,000 public/private high schools that equates to 81 Surface RT's per building.  Once again distribution is wholly school dependent, from underprivileged students to a couple of specialized 1:1 paperless classes as a test bed for a future technology-based school.

Teacher Proposal-Based Giveaway:  Obviously the most subjective of the three.  It places Microsoft in the unenviable position of choosing winners and losers, though with three million tablets as long as minimum standards for the application are met it would seem to be a rubber stamp process.  On the positive side, the tablets go those with specific plans for immediate usage in predefined programs. To sweeten the deal those schools get a free school subscription to Office 365 (why it isn't free or at least ridiculously cheap to schools is beyond logic).

Microsoft has spent way too much time, effort and dollars to walk away from this market.  With any of the three proposals the gang in Redmond has a chance to truly rescue their position in education.  Between the move to mobile computing and the rise of Google Drive in education, Microsoft needs something to change the momentum.  Why not give it a try Mr. Ballmer, what have you got to lose at this point?