Mar 29, 2011

How to Employ Student Potential

A student asks "Ey G, can I erase the whiteboard?" In past years, I'd be reluctant. After all, the whiteboard is sacred teacher space. This year, though, I've allowed myself to trust: "Sure, go ahead."

It started with the little things. Writing down the learning target and the homework assignment, collecting homework, passing out handouts, erasing the whiteboard, and picking up the phone. The more and more I let go, the more and more I realized: students LOVE to do the teaching duties I HATE.

So, we create a structure where their volunteership becomes official. G's employees - classroom jobs for the willing. I'm surprised to see hands shoot up in the air after I describe the duties of our "HW Returner." Wow, they're really into this. I may have struck gold in my 4th year of teaching.


Fast forward from September to February. My Assistant Principal invites me to his room and requests that I join a team flying to Oregon in a (dun, dun, dun!) all-expenses paid, work trip! (My eyes sparkle - "Me?" I ask "You want me?") I'm privileged to join 4 other teachers, 3 admin, and a few district heads to an SLC conference in McMinville. I revel in the opportunity to step back from the daily grind of teaching to pick brains and collectively brainstorm the future of our high school.

I'm SMH'ing myself at my neglect to my edublogosphere. I should share more of my revelations, experiences, and observations this epic 4th year. (Note: If I stay in teaching for life, I may look back at this year as the one that did it for me.) My experiences in McMinville are some that must be shared. Amongst these things -

There, I witnessed an employment of student potential at even grander levels. I thought it was great that my students volunteered to do measly classroom tasks. Well, in McMinville, I witnessed:
  • A cooking class that catered for any school function requiring a meal (I'm talking restaurant quality)
  • A student-run kinkos where teachers could drop off templates to be copied and picked up at a later time or date.
  • A store with merchandise all designed and sold by students, where business is managed, budgeted and ran by students.
  • A snack bar with a similar setup.
  • An in-house bank with students as tellers.
  • A day care center ran by students.
  • A school garden beautifying campus, maintained by students.
  • Performing arts courses where students are called upon to perform and provide entertainment.
Student enterprises left and right! While administrators may wince at the idea of budgeting off money to hire personell to run any of the above, McMinville found a way to do it for free.

The 'free-ness' is not what's important though. What I love is that they've found a way to tap into their student potential.

Students are allowed a space for their talents and creativity to thrive in a real world context. Rather than digging their noses into textbooks every hour of every day, these students are given an opportunity to bring relevance to their learning experience - mirroring what they may see in a future job.

Don't believe me? See here:

Ladies and gentlemen, that is of 5-star restaurant quality.

Here's Orphal making a withdrawal from students on-campus.

Got a younger brother or sister you need to take care of, why not bring them to the in-school day-care!


Fast forward from February to April and we are in the midst of programming what we plan to implement for next year. The latest of these employing a similar philosophy of 'classroom student jobs' and 'McMinville's student enterprises.' If we're looking to change the culture of our school, why not let the students make it happen. I like it. Stay tuned.

Mar 24, 2011

Good Day Sunshine

OK, so there is no sunshine to speak of in Berkeley, but today was a good day!

I’m glad for it, too, because yesterday was such a bad day. I was “putting out fires” for most of the period and ineffectively chastising students.

I started off yesterday’s period with a Do Now that asked students to identify reactants and products, to identify a reaction as a combustion reaction, and to predict whether the reaction requires heat or gives off heat. We then did a pre-lab as a class.

Students were bored, antsy, confused, and apathetic. As a result, they acted out. And as a result to that result, I reacted. Heck, I probably reacted because I was bored and confused.

At the end of the day, two tips that I’ve received previously from veteran teachers came to mind:

1. Science is hands-on – it’s fun! There’s no point in disciplining a class all day long if there is no science being learned or done. Once you bring out the activity materials, students will be so excited and consumed in the activity that they will not have any reason to act out.

2. Engage in the practice of “need-to-know”; that is, only give students science jargon when there is a need to know it. Meanings for new words do not stick unless appropriate context is associated with the word. For students to understand its meaning, the word needs to be meaningful to the learner. Do not “tell” students filament and stigma, rather, give them a flower to analyze and have them describe and identify its parts. Only when a student asks, “what’s this skinny part?” do you as the teacher give them the new word.

I failed in both of these arenas yesterday. I made my students sit in their desks with nothing but a pencil and paper in front of them for the entire period. Their only opportunity for engagement and interaction was when I asked students to interact with me in “teacher ask, student answer” fashion.

I knew that I needed to scrap almost everything about yesterday (except for the Do Now! I’m never getting rid of that!). I observed my colleague, Natalia, at her student teaching placement yesterday after leaving my placement and learned a lot of tricks of trade. I was very excited to implement these strategies today. Her strategies included:

  1. Make it so students have no excuse not to do their work. Need paper? Here ya go. Need a pencil? I’ve got plenty. Oh, you want to use pen? I’ve got that, too. Forgot your book at home? Take mine. Can’t see the board? Try on my glasses.
  2. If a student is off-task, rather than badgering the student with: “get to work”, “stop talking”, “turn around in your desk”, approach the students instead with: “how are you doing on your work? Do you know what you’re supposed to be doing now?” Try to identify the reason for the students' behavior rather than simply addressing the behavior.
  3. Congratulate students often; do not let small successes go overlooked. When a student who is habitually tardy finally arrives on time, thank the student… etc. etc.

Anyway, all that to preface why today went relatively well. For my students’ Do Now, I had them finish the procedure section of their lab report. I figure, a Do Now does not have to be a problem to solve – it can be a silent task, too. Students entered the classroom slightly confused at the change of procedure at first, but I restated and clarified the directions over and over again and wrote the directions on the board until finally, everyone knew what to do.

Two of my students, D and T, are a tricky duo. They used to act out when they were separated, so I sat them together. That worked for awhile… and then it stopped working. I tried reminding them about how I am trusting them to monitor themselves and each other, to no avail. Finally, today I pulled them outside at the beginning of class. I tried asking them if they really are mature enough to sit together, but neither boy would make eye contact with me or answer my questions. I said “fine, I’m going to step inside for a moment and leave you two to decide with each other if you need to be separated or if you can sit together without disrupting the class.” I entered the classroom and attended to the rest of the class. Before I could return outside to check on the boys, they entered the classroom calmly and returned to their seats together. They were fine for the rest of the day. I made sure to praise them both, on separate occasions, for staying on task.

Students worked with chemicals today, exploring endothermic and exothermic reactions in Ziploc bags. Since they were only working with bicarb, phenol red, and calcium chloride, I could more or less leave them to conjuring up every combination they could imagine in various amounts. They had a lot of fun and acted very orderly because we had just reviewed safety procedures when in lab (handle chemicals carefully, do not walk around the classroom holding chemicals, take turns, etc.). They got curious and asked permission to add other things in their reactions to see what would happen (i.e., a lock of hair). I made sure to have them predict outcomes before running reactions and made sure that they notices certain physical changes lest they get too distracted by other physical changes (for example, “touch the baggie! Don’t be afraid! Remember, we are experimenting with endothermic and exothermic reactions today, what should you be paying attention to?” when they became too afraid that the expanding baggie was going to explode in their hands as it filled with gas).

We were all so involved in the chemical reactions that I did not have time to hand out their exit tickets. Instead, their exit ticket was to clean up their lab stations. The classroom has never been so clean!

I even assigned homework today and was met by reactions of “oh, that’s it? We only have to do this section, that’s it?”.

I love my kids!

Mar 17, 2011

"Letter to a Young Teacher"

Yesterday was a bad teaching day on oh-so-many levels. I'm talking kids out of their seats, chasing each other, cussing each other out... Never again. Never, never again will I let things get to that level. Well, if I can help it, anyway.

My head is still above water, though, and I am trying to congratulate myself for at least that.

This blog post, written by one of my teachers and mentors, is helping me hang on to my vision despite thoughtless (and painful) side comments from others ("Still sure you want to go into teaching?"). In a letter to a disheartened young teacher, he says, in a nutshell:

We go back to work again and again for [these] goals... The joy of working with kids. The commitment to organizing and social justice. The pay is bad but, really, not that bad. One can have a decent, if modest, living doing this. And we may be scorned by idiots but we are revered by parents, communities, and students. (--Rick Ayers)

I need to keep reminding myself that I can only do my best, and at that, my best is pretty good. Next year, my best will be even better, and so on. The important thing is that I need to keep showing up for the fight so that I'll have shortcomings to learn from and successes to celebrate.

Mar 8, 2011

Past Midnight Meanderings

I was on campus until 5 today. I got home and graded for 3 hours. I made phone calls home to about 20 parents. It's a lil' past midnight now and I am not fully prepared for tomorrow's lesson(s) - (2 things to prep for - geometry & algebra). I've got some friends who request an update on my teaching life and half-expect a "yeah, it's easy now." When they don't get it, the follow-up question is usually "but, didn't you plan for everything last year? Can't you just re-use it.. and stuff?"

There's nothing quite like the first year, but the work load does not stop there. Yes, each year you get better & each year you get a better handle, but this will always be the job that never ends. One parent tonight said to me, "well, I thank you for your work. I don't think people give y'all teachers enough credit. I mean, you guys should be the ones w/ the salaries that these ball players get." "Thank you. Thank you. But, you know, I definitely don't do it for the money."


There's a lot on the teaching mind I'm bound to get on paper, but for now -

Did you know, each year...

1 in 57 doctors lose their license.
1 in 93 lawyers theirs.
but, for teachers, 1 in 2,500 lose their credential.

As an educator in public education thirsting for what next steps we can take towards positive reform of our schools, how do you think I digest this fact? Just food for thought that'll (hopefully) drive my next post...

Mar 5, 2011

Old School Tricks/New School Application

Even though, I've studied self-fulfilling prophecies before, sometimes it takes a certain context to facilitate new ideas. I just started reading Outliers. You know you are a science dork, by the way when you get more engaged by the footnotes then the text. Here is a footnote that really struck me:

The way canadians select hockey players is a beautiful example of what the sociologist Robert Merton famously called a “self-fulfilling prophecy”-a situation where a “false definition in, the beginning...evokes a behavior which makes the original false conception come true.” Canadians start with a false definition of who the best nine- and ten-year-old hockey players are. They’re just picking the oldest every year. But the way they treat those all-stars ends up making their original false judgement look correct. As Merton, puts it: “This spacious validity of the self-fulfilling prohecy perpetuates a reign of error. For the prophet will cite the actual course of events as proof that he was right from the very beginning.”

At first, I thought of my experiences with Nelly this week as I read through this passage. Our relationship has changed in the past 3 weeks due to a series of events that have allowed her to make her own physical and mental space in the learning environment: a class job and the removal of a distracting buddy from class.

Her behavioral changes facilitated a rise in my expectations, my increase in patience with her cultivated a more intellectual relationship that has brought out a more intellectual engagement in class and in turn a greater understanding of biological concepts.

These connections between the Nelly incident and the self-fulfilling prophecy give me hope that I can create a self-filling prophecy for any student if I doctor the circumstances well enough.

Self-fulfilling prophecies in education are often discussed as a negative phenomenon often applied to lowered expectations of minority students and the criminalization or vilification of minority students especially African-American males.

It is time to use this cousin of reverse psychology, let’s call it front-loading psychology, in our favor as educators. In reverse psychology a person tricks the subject into doing what he or she wants by manipulating the subject into thinking that the idea was originally his or hers. The trickster does this by presenting oppositional viewpoints to incite rebellious desires in the subject driving this person to conceive his or her “original” idea.

Front-loading psychology would use the “self-fulfilling prophecy” as an advantage: trick the subject into believing they were chosen for their potential, when they are in fact participating in an open enrollment program that they selected. Educators could convince their students that they have been selected to participate in an “elite” small learning community or academic program. We could treat the students as though they had earned their way into a reward for their merit. Maybe students would react to school and teachers differently with this change in mindset. Maybe it will generate greater feelings of ambition, duty, and belonging.

This may seem like a simple concept and idea, I wonder how hard it would be to convince students of this though, since our program is open enrollment (as it should be in order to provide students of all backgrounds the equal access to high quality public education).

You may be thinking “Of course, I have high expectations of my students, that’s just good teaching.” First, I challenge you to consider who you punish during class the most and why and who is not succeeding in your class. Second, I am talking about a systematic and widely implemented application of this phenomenon to an entire school of approximately 2,000 students. Now, I just have to figure out how to do it.....

Mar 3, 2011


Each time that I post my mini-goal for the day, I am usually able to finish my day in a hopeful mood. So let's go.

Today, I will do a better job of setting my students up for success in their Exit Slip.
Today, I will encourage conversations about analyzing data.

= = =

I'm surprised that I escaped yesterday w/out anyone's hair catching on fire. For real. We're launching match rockets in class and students were having trouble staying clear of the runway and landing pad. Students were bouncing off the walls because they had just gotten out of an assembly, it was a minimum day, and there were big, bad high school students roaming the classroom visiting their old teacher. My kids just HAD to prove to the older kids how big and bad they could be, too. Did I mention I only had 15 minutes to teach something meaningful and catch it on video for my PACT?

Crossing my fingers, hoping that PACT graders find my students' behavior as endearing and my teaching as relentless.

Mar 2, 2011

Budget Cuts as Personal

I watch the news. I see the protests. I've participated. I have the discussions and read the articles. In the past two years, I've had new hires become friends... and then watched them become latest teacher whose enthusiasm for a blossoming career in the profession is transformed into anger towards a pink slip. Their stints at this school are reduced to but a year.

However, never have I felt the brunt of budget cuts on education like I have this year. Our principal held a meeting three weeks ago where he shared "we MUST cut 1,000,000 dollars from our budget." There's no typos here. 6 zeros. One MILLION.

This year, I've had the privileged to be more involved in the behind-the-scenes work of the school. I feel like a contributor towards it's future. We put in time. We have spirited discussions. Recently, I was part of a team of 8 to visit a school in Oregon whose models towards teaching fascinated us. We want something similar. But then we're hit with news like this.

The morale's been high, especially with the promise of continued positive restructuring in our school. But the morale is clouded when a dollar amount equivalent to 25 personnel positions is on the chopping block.

I love this job. And this 4th year has brought me to unprecedented levels of passion towards my craft, my school, and, especially, my students. I walk around w/ bags under my eyes like I have in past years, but there's a new willingness to do the work. There's a smile. There's investment.

It's disheartening to think this sort of passion (that's beyond just me and shared by my colleagues) is a passion not supported by higher ups in government. The folks that play the numbers game and say education must take a cut. These cuts run deep. My principal shared, "I've been in this profession doing what I do for a long time, but I've never seen it this bad." We are expected to do more and more with less and less. We lost two math teachers last year. How many will we lose this year? What if I'm on the chopping block?


During advisory today, we had a class meeting driven by this sort of discussion. I love to hear my students opinions and I love to hear them engaged in impassioned debate. The issues brought up mirror the ones I just heard in our faculty-wide budget meeting. The students know what's up.

Three of them have taken the role of mini-activists, leading students to participate in this March 2nd day of action. More power to them. Fist in the air.