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Showing posts from 2015

Top Five Posts of 2015

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As I finish my second full year of blogging, I'd like to take a look back at 2015 and the five posts that got the biggest response from my readers.  But first I'd like to thank some of the many fellow bloggers that I've read and (sometimes) responded to over this year.  These professionals have caused me to pause and think about the various issues in public education that (perhaps) need to be changed; or that need to at least be debated.  I've also read many, many inspiring stories about teachers who work very hard--with little recognition--to help their students to succeed.

       Thank you to Alice Keeler, Starr Sackstein, Justin Tarte, Annie Murphy Paul, and Daisy Dyer Duerr.  I used to think that these were Super-Hero People who had some special gift or ability in the area of education.  But I've come to understand that they are just regular people like you and me who are eager to share their thoughts and ideas with the rest of us.  I, for one, am extre…

Students Remember the Fun Stuff

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I remember my Algebra 1 teacher taking off his shoes and socks in class one day.  He did it to demonstrate the need to do certain things in a proper order--otherwise, it just doesn't work.  The Algebra lesson probably had something to do with Order of Operations, but the real lesson was to complete each step in a process in the correct order.

       That lesson happened over 30 years ago and I still remember it because it was a little silly; a little goofy.  It wasn't a lecture; it wasn't a worksheet; it wasn't the normal classroom.  It was strange and odd and that it probably why I remember it.  As an educator (now), I think I also remember this event in class because it showed me that my teacher was willing to be a little silly to make a point.  He didn't have to be the Big Formal Authority in the classroom at every second of the class.  He was allowed to have some fun with his class--and still be a great teacher.

       I often tell teachers that it is no…

A Passion to Make Education Better

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I often say to my children, "It takes less time to do the thing I'm asking you to do than it takes to argue about it."  Am I allowed to say this to adults who are critical of public education?

       Of course, I don't mind if people disagree with decisions made about their child's school or school district.  But mere negative comments don't usually help to make our schools better.  If everyone who disagreed with a school-level decision, instead, were to offer a possible solution, or make an effort to understand the reasons behind the decision, or step up to make things better we could accomplish a lot.  We can help to improve attitudes about public schools AND we can help to improve our schools.

       We want people to be passionate about their local schools and we want people to be partners with their schools.  Education is important.  It's more important than sports; it's more important than grades; it's more important than social status…

Teachers That Inspire Students

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Who is your hero?

       Who do you look up to?

       This is a very common essay question for students at all levels.  The list of people who fill the pages of these essays is long: parents, athletes, friends, teachers, grandparents, historical figures, authors, poets, leaders,....  The world is full of inspiring people.  It is easy to think of such a person and maybe difficult to think of only one such person.

       These people make us believe that we can do anything.  They help us to overcome obstacles, to work harder, and to be better people.  They ask for very little in return--usually nothing.  They come to mind during the times in our lives when we think that we can't go on or we can't achieve.  They are our own, personnel superheroes.

       Most people can think of a teacher who has inspired them.  Usually a teacher who demanded high performance and worked hard to help you to achieve.  Our favorite teacher(s) were the people who believed we can do more than …

Soft Skills Education

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Our public schools' biggest offering is opportunity.  Students learn from qualified professionals and from a long list of course offerings--probably the longest at the high school level.  But we are not just teaching our students the R's, we are preparing them for the adult world.  This means that we are also tasked with teaching our students the so-called "soft skills".  Here is a short list of some of these skills:

ListeningPresentation SkillsGiving FeedbackDecision MakingInspiringPersuasion Interpersonal RelationshipsDealing with Difficult PeopleConflict ResolutionSelf ConfidenceResilienceAssertivenessFriendlinessEmpathy Problem SolvingCritical ThinkingOrganizationPlanningSchedulingTime ManagementEmployers tell us that high school and college graduates who have these soft skills are much more likely to be successful employees than those who don't.  Students aren't "graded" on these skills in school, however many of these skills are incorpora…

Tinkering Around the Edges Isn't Sufficient for Significant Improvement in Our Schools

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There's a joke among some educators that says if a child doesn't understand the lesson, then we will just say it again slower and louder.

       It's not a funny joke.  In fact its really sort of a put down to teachers who struggle to help students to learn.  If the teacher presented the lesson in the best way he knows how, then he may not know of another way to present the lesson and (so) when a students doesn't get it, he just repeats the same thing (sometimes slower and louder).  This usually does not help the student to learn any better than the first time, but it does lead to frustration for both the student and the teacher.

       These situations are far too common in our nation's classrooms today.  Improving these situations is haphazard at best.  Sometimes some students try harder; sometimes some teachers try different strategies.  But most of the time, instructional change is small (or absent) and academic results remain the same.

       Still, this…

It's Time for Our Schools to Leave the 20th Century

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You know the old joke about Rip Van Winkle and schools?  He falls asleep for a hundred years and upon waking up he sees everything he used to know has changed dramatically.  The houses look so different.  The clothes that people wear are very different.  And the cars...wow.  Then he finds a school and walks inside.  He goes into a classroom and he is comforted to see that schools and classrooms haven't changed a bit.

       We educators don't think this is very funny.

       In fact, it is embarrassing for us carry out the important work of education today in the same way that we did this work 50 or 30 or even 20 years ago.  Doing so ignores the research about learning that has been done over the past few decades.  It ignores the research about how the brain reacts to the stimuli that occurs in classrooms.

       For instance, we know that most students can't learn to the best of their ability strictly by sitting in class for a whole class period and listening to th…

Improving Education is Harder than Going to the Moon

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I often hear people say, "We have been able to send men to the moon.  Why can't we improve education?"  The implication, of course, is that the effort to send people to the moon is certainly more difficult than educating children.  So if we could do that, why can't we accomplish this--much easier--task?

       I would contend that improving education for all students is much more difficult than--the extremely complex of task of--sending people to the moon because (even today) educators are dealing with many more "unknowns" than NASA had in 1969.

       I doubt that anyone at Mission Control watched the Apollo capsule heading toward the moon thinking, "I'd say that we have a 20% chance of missing the moon by a hundred thousand miles."  They knew how far away the moon was; they knew the amount of force needed to break out of the earth's atmosphere; they knew how much food the astronauts needed.  It was certainly a complex task.  Mista…

Group work is a Necessity for Students

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Our school district recently had an essay contest in which students were asked to describe their Ideal Math Class.  Submissions came in from students in grades 4 to 12.  Nearly every student said that they wanted to work in groups for at least a portion of the class time.  Students want to have the opportunity to ask each other questions and to share their ideas with a small group of peers.


       In fact, the benefits of group work in the classroom are well known.  The Center for Innovation in the Research and Teaching has compiled the following list of benefits of group work:


Students able to take ownership of the subject matter.Students develop communication and teamwork skills.Content is reinforced as students work together and "teach" each other.  This improves understanding through additional discussion and explanation.Content may be broken down into parts.  This allows students to tackle larger and more complex problems and assignments than they would be able to…

Crack the Code of Learning

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How does a teacher enable students to learn?  How do students learn?  How do people learn?  Teachers who seek to reach their students struggle with these questions all of the time.  Experience (and research) tell us that students learn differently.  When we teach a lesson to 30 students; some get it right away, some get part of it, some don't get it at all.  How is that possible?  All of the students heard the same lesson; yet not all of the students had the same level of "Learning".

       This can lead to a difficult and awkward situation in which the teacher feels offended that the his or her efforts went to naught; and the student feels embarrassed that he or she wasn't able to learn as well as other students.  Our best teachers understand that all students don't learn in the same way and (so) they try to find different ways to present information.  They present is verbally; they present it visibly on a whiteboard on a screen; they use videos; they ha…

PARCC Results are all about Learning

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2010 - Common Core Standards go public
       2010 to 2014 - School systems throughout the country align courses to these updated standards
       2014 - PARCC Field Test takes place in all "PARCC" states
       2015 - First full administration of the PARCC assessments
       Fall 2015 - We get to see the results of the PARCC assessments


       I feel like I'm the only person who is happy to see the results from these new tests.  Once again, the press is constantly talking about bad results, bad tests, bad schools.  To me, these results are all about learning.  They tell us how well our students are learning based on the world-class standards that are being taught in our classrooms.  Isn't this what we really want???

       It doesn't help to compare our students to each other in their school or to the students in the school on the other side of town.  The comparison that matters is the comparison to the standards.  This comparison will help us to know if …

Teachers that Promote a Growth Mindset

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Every teacher has had "the phone call" with parents in which the teacher says,  Your child has the ability, she just needs to apply herself.  And then the teacher and parent (typically) talk about school rules involving turing work in on time and not talking in class.  Essentially, we are saying to the child, We're the adults.  These are the rules.  If you don't follow the rules, then you will get a bad grade.  (Of course, if the student was concerned about her grade, we wouldn't have this discussion in the first place.)

       There are a lot of "old school" problems with that phone conversation.

The conversation emphasizes following rules and getting grades, and there is very little talk about actual learning.The first part of the famous teacher line is, Your child has the ability....  If the child already has the ability to do the work, then the solution to the problem should concentrate on why the child isn't doing what she is already capa…

Learning is a Social Activity

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Learning is a social activity.

       A quick search of respected sources such as General Psychology, Psychology Today (article by Dr. Matthew J. Edlund, and one of my favorite education writers Annie Murphy Paul will help all of us to understand that the best learning requires active participation by the learner.  (View an excellent talk by Dr. Paul here.) The old days of "sit and get", don't-talk-in-class, teacher-in-the-front-of-the-room-doing-all-of-the-talking have been shown to be effective for an incredibly small percentage of our students.


     The problem is that most of our current teachers grew up in a school setting in which less student talk was the norm.  The teacher was the sole source of knowledge in the classroom and the students were discouraged from sharing their thoughts and ideas with each other.  Hence, many current classrooms engage in this same classroom structure that existed 20 and 40 and 60 years ago.  "It was good enough for me, an…

Five Steps to Effective Schools

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I should have titled this post, Five Humongous Mountains to Traverse that Lead to Effective Schools.  But anyone who has ever worked within our public school system already knows that the best results only ever come from hard work and massive efforts.

       As I think about what is necessary for any school or school system to be truly effective, I keep coming down to these five propositions:

The purpose of school is learning.Teachers facilitate learning.#2 (above) requires a great understanding of how students learn.Teachers plan lessons that include strategies that are effective in helping students to learn based on the students' learning styles.  (That is, based on #3 above.)Students learn. The Purpose of School is Learning       Some people might have trouble accepting this first proposition.  The time and effort we put into sports and activities (and worrying about grades) may certainly lead some to believe that schools have other purposes or (at least) competing purpo…

Teaching Mathematics For Understanding

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There has been a lot of debate in the U.S. about our student's ability in mathematics for the past decades--certainly for my entire career (which started in the 1980's). How do we compare with students in other countries? (see PISA results - 36th out of 70 for mathematics in 2012)  How do we compare with each other state-by-state?  (see NAEP results from 2013)

       What are the causes for these discrepancies?  What do other countries do differently compared to what we do in the U.S.?

       Ask a hundred people and (it seems) you would get a hundred answers.  Everything from "nothing's wrong" to "the system is broken".  Everyone has their point of view; there are experts on both sides of the every argument.

       Recently, I've read two sources on this issue that make a lot of sense to me.  The first is from Phil Daro.  He makes the point that many mathematics teachers in America have the goal of teaching students how to get the right answ…

Motivated to Learn

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I often say to new teachers that it may not be your job to entertain your students, but it is certainly part of your job to motivate your students.
       We know that actual "teaching" is only a part of a teachers job.  The most major part of the job is ensuring that students are learning.  Our best teachers know that most students don't learn strictly by listening.  Learning requires doing, talking, asking questions, making mistakes, and doing some more.  Teachers plan lessons that keep their students engaged.

       Strategies to keep students motivated include lots of basic things such as:

Calling on students every class (preferably at least three times each class),Allowing opportunities for students to get out of their seats during every class,Playing games that require students to understand the objective for the day to do well in the game, Asking a lot of "Why" questions that require students to think and to explain their thinking,Allowing student…

The Bammy Awards

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Since I started this blog two years ago, from time to time I'd see something about this thing called The Bammy Awards.  I remember that I first saw it on the webpage of one of my favorite online colleagues Daisy Dyer Duerr.  As I continued to make connections via twitter and via reading other great blogs about education, The Bammy Awards would continue to pop up; and they were always linked to something great about public schools.

       Since my blog is all about the great things that are happening  in our public schools, it is time for me to do my part to spread the word about The Bammy Awards--which has the very same mission of spreading the word about the great people that work very hard to make our public schools the best they can be.  The Bammy Awards strive to reverse the narrative that is so often in the public press and minds that says our schools are always failing and our students are sub-standard.

       The Bammy Awards recognize the exceptional collaborators,…

Are Your Students Obsessed with Grades?

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Here's a quick checklist to see if your students are obsessed with grades:


They are constantly asking, "Is this going to be graded?"They refuse to do anything if it is not being graded.They ask for "extra credit" or make-up work at the end of the marking term to raise their grade to the next letter grade.They only see the grade at the top of their returned work and ignore the helpful comments that the teacher has written.They try to memorize the information they need to know for tests.They follow procedures in mathematics for unknown reasons just to get the right answer.        In short, students who are obsessed with grades are just "going through the motions" at school; they do what they're told, but they learn very little.  And when they take a test that can't be beat by memorizing (like a final exam) they show their true ability or lack thereof.  The challenge for these students is to do as little as possible to earn the grade they w…

We Are a Community of Learners

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Teaching students is not like like building a model airplane.  We don't have distinct steps to follow that will lead to a completed project in the end.  Students learn differently; they come to school with different experiences and different abilities.  Good teaching requires an understanding of the learners in each classroom and daily lesson plans that are designed to help those learners.

       Good teachers understand the difficulty of reaching each individual student and they seek out the best strategies from experts in the field of education and from the teacher across the hall.  We (educators) are a community of learners.  We have to be.  We can't learn everything from experience and we can't figure out everything on our know.  We can't be experts in child psychology and special education and mathematics and English Language Learners and student engagement and formative assessment and ....  We need each other to be the best teachers we can be for our stude…

World-Class Education

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I'm not a competitive person.

       I'm one of those people who sees the value in the journey and believes that there is something to be learned from every situation.   And, "Who Cares" if I did better or worse than the next guy.

       As our public schools are taking their first steps to endeavor to teach our students at the same academic level with the highest performing countries in the world, we stand to learn much from our colleagues.  True learning is a complex process and enabling true learning via classroom instruction is an evolving process.  No single teacher can do it alone; we need the expertise that we can only gain from working together.

       This isn't going to happen if we are constantly concerned with gaining some sort of higher ranking than our neighboring school.  This can only be accomplished through hard work and constant dialogue with the teacher across the hall in-between classes; and during department and team meetings; and in th…