Monday, December 28, 2015

Top Five Posts of 2015

       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 extremely grateful to include them among my professional learning community.  (And so are tens of thousands of other educators who follow these folks!)  I am continually inspired by your words; you keep me going and keep me writing.  Thank you.


       Here are my top five posts from 2015:

#5) Open Letter to Teachers

       This was the second (and most popular) of a three-part series of Open Letters to the three most important stakeholders in our educational system: Students, Teachers, and Parents.  I wrote this "letter" to teachers on the eve of the 2015 - 2016 school year.  It was published on August 19th.  In it, I talked about how excited teachers are when a new school year begins--something, I bet, a lot of students don't realize.  I wrote about the tough job of teaching and I applauded the men and women who accept this responsibility.    Sometimes being a teacher involves difficult conversations with students about the need to continually struggle to learn something that isn't easy at first. Teachers shape the minds that shape the future of our country.  Teachers' influence over student achievement is well documented.  We always need great teachers.

#4) Learning vs. The Appearance of Learning

       Published on March 28th, this is an issue in which I feel very deeply.  The issue of the best way to measure learning and the problem (at times) of students appearing to be learning well (i.e. - getting good grades) but its only an appearance and it isn't real learning.
       I feel that P-12 education is the time when we have to be honest with students and their parents.  We don't want students to believe that they are achieving at a high level only to learn later in life (perhaps while sitting in a college class) that the grades they earned in high school did not represent their true ability.  The job of schools is to help students to learn.  We need to use multiple measures to get a true picture of their level of learning.  "Getting-a-good-grade" is not the job of schools.

#3) We Should Value Good Thinking More Than We Value Good Memorizing

       This post, from May 29th, quotes from Dr. Jo Boaler and Cathy Seeley.  In it, I talk about how our students'  thinking should be rewarded more than their ability to memorize math facts.  Sometimes elementary children who are very good at memorizing their multiplication facts (and recited them quickly) are viewed as being more able than students who cannot do this.  But we really don't students who can merely memorize facts.  What we really want is students who can think and reason and build on known facts to gain further knowledge.  Sometimes students memorize facts without knowing why the facts are true.  Later in their P-12 education they struggle because of this lack of understanding.  The goal isn't speed; the goal is learning.

#2)  No More Worksheets

       I began this post (from April 3rd) with a simple question:

Does you your child's mathematics teacher assign a lot of worksheets for homework and classwork?

If the answer is YES - Not a very effective teacher.
If the answer is NO - Likely to be a more effective teachers.

       Of course, this is an exaggeration, but the point is that this staple of P-12 education (the worksheet) should be a thing of the past.  They are boring; they are very un-engaging; and they de-emphasize thinking over mere "following steps".  They represent the opposite of what we want to see in our classrooms today.  Students should be spending class time reasoning and thinking and debating; they should be sharing ideas and thoughts.  They should hear from other students.  By the response I got from my readers, I'm thinking that this idea is not as radical as it may sound to some.

#1)  Growth Mindset Teachers

       This post had the most views of any post I've written since I started blogging more than two years ago (142 posts).  I talked about the idea of Growth Mindsets as created by Carol Dweck.  Specifically I talked about teachers who have the mindset that says anyone can learn.  These teachers help their students to understand that learning is always possible; productive struggle is a good thing; and their past negative learning experiences does not predict their future learning.

       Thank you to everyone who have shared this journey of learning and thinking with me in 2015.  The best of us are always trying to improve and to learn more.  Continue on and find your way to be the best educator you can be.

       All the best!

Peter Cincotta

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Students Remember the Fun Stuff

       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 not our job to entertain.  But it is part of our responsibility to motivate students to do their best.  Students don't think in educational terms such as "student engagement", "participatory learning", and "stations".  Most students just this fun.  It's not a show; it's not entertainment.  "Fun" to students is when the math class or the English class involves the students in the learning.  Its when students are not forced to stay seated for the whole period; to listen and not talk for the whole period; to take notes and learn on their own for the whole period.

      What students call "fun", teachers call "good teaching".  You don't have to be an entertainer to be a good, engaging teacher.  Chances are most teachers are already excited about the content that they teach.  The job is to convey that excitement to your students.  Involve them in the learning.  Allow for time out of their seats; time to talk and argue with other students; time to think and create and share their thoughts and ideas.

       Students don't just "like" the class better when they are involved, they actually "learn" better.  And isn't that the whole point of school in the first place?

Thursday, December 24, 2015

A Passion to Make Education Better

       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.  Education helps everyone: students, businesses, society.  The effort to improve schools has to be a group effort.

       Be passionate about education.  We need you.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Teachers That Inspire Students

       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 we believed we ourselves could do.

       Teachers that inspire students to do their best are the teachers that every parents wants their children to have.  They make learning adventurous, exciting, and thrilling.  They give their students the tools to tackle difficult problems and the self confidence to keep trying when they don't "get it" the first time.

       Be the teacher that inspires your students.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Soft Skills Education

       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:

  • Listening 
  • Presentation Skills 
  • Giving Feedback 
  • Decision Making 
  • Inspiring 
  • Persuasion 
  •  Interpersonal Relationships 
  • Dealing with Difficult People 
  • Conflict Resolution 
  • Self Confidence 
  • Resilience 
  • Assertiveness 
  • Friendliness 
  • Empathy 
  • Problem Solving 
  • Critical Thinking 
  • Organization 
  • Planning 
  • Scheduling 
  • Time Management
       Employers 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 incorporated into classrooms as rules of behavior (friendliness, conflict resolution, planning), suggested steps in completing assignments (decision making, resilience, organization), and learning strategies (problem solving, critical thinking, giving feedback).

       Students who are successful and confident usually possess these skills at a high level.  Students who are only concerned with the "book work" of school may possess the knowledge needed for their future, but they may also struggle with relationships with their co-workers.  This "soft-skills" education is an important part of our school system.  The ability of our students to get along with other students and to organize their thoughts, ideas, and lives is all a part of growing up and being responsible.  

       And everyone gets to receive this education for free in our public schools.  

Public Schools and Choice

       Is it true that public school kids and their public school parents don't have choices?  I'm sure that I will expose my igno...

Teach100 blog