Tuesday, August 27, 2013

You like Ice Cream? Me Too!.. Now What?

This is my 7th year teaching middle school math. Some would say that I'm now guaranteed a place in heaven for my time spent here. I think that's being kind, and those spots probably are saved for elementary school teachers! - I seriously wouldn't want that job!! :)

I've learned a lot about teaching over that time, and I think the main thing was emphasized with my beginning of the year activity. I've done something like this activity before, but this year, I was able to help tie together the main point.

Instead of doing one of those normal "ice breakers," I broke my students into groups of 3 or 4 to compile a few lists. I handed out a piece of paper to each group and the person that started with the paper wrote down the first topic. Then passed the paper to the next person to write down an idea, who passed it to the next, and so on.

The first topic I gave them was to list the qualities that make a great teacher. I'm sure you're thinking, "It's 7th graders! Why would you do that?" Well, because I trust them to be honest. Sure I'll get answers like: pay us money, give us candy, don't give homework. But I knew that, and made the joke before starting, so they could focus on the real things. Each class list was different, but the main things were:
The list from 4th period

  • Be responsible
  • Be understanding
  • Explain things well
  • Be fair and respectful
  • Have a sense of humor
  • Good Listener
  • Thoughtful
  • Unique
  • Enjoy Teaching
  • Be Encouraging
  • Creative
  • Caring/Like kids

Not a bad list, huh? When they were asked, they could spell out exactly what they thought makes a great teacher. When I pressed further, I was surprised at how many of them could mention more than one teacher from their past that they felt was a "bad" teacher, and gave crystal clear examples to support the claims! It's always eye opening to hear their perspective on classroom situations! 

The next list was about them. What did they have to do to be successful in math class this year? The answers... even better:

* Work hard                                             * Raise my hand                       * Ask questions
* Turn work in on time                            * Be respectful                          * Don't waste time
* Listen to the teacher                              * Be prepared                           * Care about my grades
* Focus                                                    * Study                                     * Follow directions 
* Pay attention                                         * Don't give up                         * Have a positive attitude

After we had put all of their ideas up on the board, I stepped back and congratulated them. I told them how proud I was that they already knew what it takes to be a great student. I then promised them that I'll do all that they asked of me in the "great" teacher lists they created. I would do all of that, and all they had to do was everything on their list! 

It is at this point that the main point came into view: They can't be successful without me being great, and vice versa! They can expect me to be all of the things they want out of a great teacher if they can live up to the qualities on their list. I promised to hold them accountable if they hold me accountable. 

I am the best math teacher they will have this year, and they are the best students I will have this year. And if we work together, it will be the best school year they have ever had. I loved creating this moment for them to see that I'm here to work with them, not against them. I'm a teacher that they can trust will be what they are asking me to be. I've created a relationship with them within the first few days of school that goes beyond the simple "I like Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream TOO" type of Ice Breaker. We now have a contract that is printed and up on the wall, so that if I'm slacking or if they are, we can point to our list, smile, and fix things to make it a great year! I can't wait! 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Seriously? Because of testing?

My wife and I are reality TV watchers. We don't watch them all (it's hard watching anything at all with 4 kids, a business, and teaching), but we do have our favorites. There is something about vegging out to the silly drama in the lives of others that helps us transition to sleep time.

One of our favorites right now is Master Chef. It's a cooking competition on FOX that is another in the TV empire of Chef Ramsey. I personally love the guy! Would love to meet him and talk soccer, cooking, and family. (So if you know him.. let me know!)

The focus of the show is to pit 20 "home cooks" against each other to win the title of Master Chef. They cooks compete in different individual and team challenges and in each episode one chef is asked to turn in his/her apron. It's awesome seeing the wonderful creations that these self-taught cooks can pull together in a timed challenge.

In the most recent episode that my wife and I watched, the show started with what is called a "Mystery Box Challenge." The aspiring chefs have to cook with whatever ingredients are in the box coming up
with their own unique creations. The best dish gets an advantage in the elimination challenge, so it's a big deal!

But for this challenge, there is one huge box at the front of the room. When the box is lifted family members of the cooks are revealed (to be used as inspiration to cook something new... not to be cooked!). However there was one contestant that didn't have a family member there at all. The hardest part, is that it was the contestant that is a single mother, and her love for her son has been her motivation through out the season. Naturally, everyone is thrilled to see their loved ones, and the camera pans to her crying in the back wishing her son was there.

I'm sure my wife and I weren't alone in immediately wondering where her son was, and if something had happened. So, when Ramsey walks an iPad back to show her a video message from her son, we were ready to figure out what was going on. You can only imagine my surprise when the reason he couldn't come be there for his mom was because of state testing! And when Ramsey leaned over and said, "That's important," I nearly lost it!

Seriously? As a teacher, and a parent I'd rather see my child after two months than not! Especially when the reason is that he has to take a state standardized test! Really? There isn't a plan in place to do a make up test? Or maybe in Philadelphia missing the "test" comes with heavy fines or something? But to me, it just seems ridiculous that a child miss any opportunity to see a parent after a long period of time when the reason is because of state testing. Where is the cut off here? What if it was a chance to see his mom who had been deployed in the military? Or if she had been in the ICU out of state and there was an opportunity to see her that happened to fall on a state testing day? Does the kid miss seeing a parent in all of those situations? I just don't get this line of thought.

I teach in a school that is more than 60% military. I've learned that I'll get the most out of my students if I show understanding and support when they miss something school related in order to spend time with a parent that hasn't been home for a long period of time (weeks, months, or years!). I get the most out of the parents as well.

I think the producers needed to push a little harder on this one, and not have so easily allowed state-testing to be a good reason to not bring the kid to Cali to see his mom. It's not. It's just a test. That's right, I said it! It's JUST a test! And I think this little example proves how stupid-crazy we've become over the concept of testing. It's just silly!

And the worst part is this kid is going to grow up and a part of his memory of this entire thing will be missing this opportunity because of testing!! It's just another example of something school related leaving a bad impression on a student! A test that matters not one bit to his possible future success in life prevented him from an awesome memory with his mom.

Life is about the memories you create with your loved ones, and this was a lost opportunity blamed on state-standarized tests. Not cool!.. ok.. my rant is over. Thanks! :)

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Help me choose a school!!....for my kiddo.

It's August! I'm just as surprised and freaked as you are! For the last 2 years, August has been a little too crazy for my family. Our oldest will be in 2nd grade this year, so 2 years ago we were trying to figure out where to enroll him for school. We were left trying to answer that same question again last year at this time... I don't want to talk about his Kinder-year, so don't ask! ... or ask, but buy me a beer or two first!

With the amount of stress and anxiety we've been through, I thought I would write a little (my first attempt was WAY too long!!) about our experience in picking the right school for our oldest. My wife and I started by looking at the local public school. For reasons I don't want to get into, he couldn't go there.  (yes.. I'm saying that as a public school teacher!)

We explored all of our options for him within the district, and applied to the lottery system for two of the three charter schools in the area, but also did a few out of area requests for schools outside our "boundaries." Both the charter schools had an educational focus that fit our son. Really that is where you should start this process, by using your expertise on your own child to find the best school fits. We felt these two were hands down the best. We did the "out of area" requests as back-ups to the lotteries, but we also considered private school, and homeschooling.

For our oldest, we know how inquisitive he is, and that he loves to explore a variety of different learning topics. We also know that he is super social. He loves to be around other kids, and kids love to be around him. For those reasons alone we knew that homeschool just wouldn't happen for him, but would be our last resort. For private school?... well, like many, we just weren't in a financial position to tackle that one. But, there are many good things to consider when looking to take that path. 

As things started playing out, we were completely at the mercy of the lottery system, and the individual school principals considering our requests. For his kinder-year, we watched every good option pass us by, and were left enrolling him in a school we were not happy with. Even as a teacher in the district, not a single shred of additional consideration was given. All doors felt slammed in our face. We were shattered.

But, for first grade, we found out days before the start of the school year that his lottery position for one of the charter schools was green-lighted, and he was in. The rush to get everything together for him to be there was crazy, and we truly felt like we won The Lottery. The school is such a great fit for him, but if it hadn't worked, he would have been homeschooled for his first grade year. It had gotten that bad, and our very last resort was the only option. As a teacher in the district, I felt so disappointed, and unappreciated. So when this all worked out the way we needed it... it was just so wonderful.

So, the breakdown when considering schools for your kiddo:

  1. Start with focusing on your child. You are the expert, so you know what learning environment will be best for his/her learning.
  2. List out all of the school options: Public Schools, Charter Schools, Private Schools, Home School. What is feasible? What isn't?
  3. Review the curriculum. Sometimes that will be a deciding factor. What do they use? What is the reputation of the material? Why was it chosen? Is it best for the kids, or was it chosen as a Band-Aid? 
  4. Talk to the teachers/principal. You will know in the first couple of minutes if they are dedicated educators. Are they excited to meet you? Do they talk about their school with pride and not as a used car salesman? Are there award winners that work there? 
  5. Talk to parents of kids at the schools. What do they think? Who are the teachers to avoid? Can they name more of those than teachers to get? Is there a PTA? Parents will be honest, so ask your questions.
In the end, finding the best school for your kiddo is all about knowing the strengths and interests of your child and matching those to the best school option. Sometimes that will be easy and the local public school will be perfect. Other times, you may have to pray to the charter school lottery Gods in order to get into the best school for your student.

If your only option is one that you are not happy about, then make yourself present in the school. Advocate for your kiddo, and act like the expert you are. It's a hard job being a parent in this situation especially if you have working hours during your kiddo's school time. It may seem like you don't have any control, but I will tell you that you will be the driving force behind your child's school success. My students that have parents that make learning a priority by setting the right educational tone at home, are the ones that are typically doing the best. Don't ever let a teacher, administrator, and anyone at a school make you think they know your child better than you do. They all work for you, so set the expectations for them as well. Do it respectfully, but hold them accountable. The great teachers will work with you and your kiddo to make the experience beneficial for all! If you don't like how things are going, talk to the teacher, then the principal, go to school board meetings, talk to the superintendent, write a letter to the editor, get other parents involved, and take control of the quality of the education in your area.

I hope you found this helpful. Let me know if you have any questions or additions (if I missed anything) by leaving a comment! Oh, and please feel free to share this with anyone you think might benefit from reading it. Finding the right school can be so overwhelming, it's important you know that you are not alone in dealing with the stress.

The video below is news coverage talking about the charter school lottery in Buffalo, NY, 
and the stress parents go through.