Monday, December 24, 2012

Time to Arm Teachers?

Unlike many in the chattering and political classes, I have experience with both guns / self-defense training and teaching, so I thought I'd offer a few thoughts on a nasty issue.

I should begin by stating I'm not concerned about my own school - I can see the dedication to safety my administration displays. I've also had conversations with an area first responder team member (think a SWAT team guy) who was very impressed with my school's commitment to safety.  He explained to me just how quickly a tactical unit would be in control, should a dangerous situation arise.

I'm more worried about all schools in our country, generally speaking: When seconds count, the police are just minutes away - as the saying goes.

Five quick observations from my inside perspective:

1. Gun violence is here to stay.  Things are getting worse, not better, out there. I understand guns and schools should never mix in a perfect world. In our actual world, we must address this issue practically, not with platitudes.

2. The cultural conversation is currently being dominated by arrogant, agenda-pushing elitists. David Gregory mocked the NRA president for suggesting we staff schools with armed guards on a recent Sunday program ... yet Gregory sends his kids to an elite school protected by a large staff of armed guards. It's frustrating when the people calling the loudest for less guns are often themselves protected by lots of guns.

3. Many of us are ignorant about the actual training the average police officer has under his belt. My close-quarters combat instructor (a veteran cop himself) won't teach other cops.  They are too arrogant, and the most likely to be no-shows on training day, in his experience. He finds many of the cops he works with to be radically under-trained in all aspects of actual combat - including firearms training.

Related: On the topic of teachers being armed, a friend recently observed: "Great, now students will run up and grab guns from the hips of teachers."

See above - why do we assume a police officer has a special understanding of how to protect his sidearm? A Navy SEAL - absolutely you do not want to grab at his gun. But a cop who graduated with a history major and joined the police academy when he couldn't find work?

Bottom line: Cops are obviously an incredible safety resource and I thank God for the work they do, but they are also costly (often cost-prohibitive), and we often over-estimate their abilities and actual training. I know several "civilians" I'd trust with my life or my child's life in a heated situation over the average police officer.

4. My students feel like "sitting ducks." Their words. One argument against armed teachers is students will not feel safe. Guess what? They already don't.

Our kids are far smarter and more intuitive than we often give them credit for ... they understand current, standard-procedure lockdown drills are actual demonstrations of vulnerability in many ways.  I feel the same way: Few times in my life am I rendered as helpless and ineffective as during a lockdown drill.

5. Back to the perfect world versus actual world: As the gun debate rages on, criminals remain unaffected by this entire conversation. Insane murderers are unaware of Maureen Dowd's musings on guns. The folks in Chicago killing each other by the dozens every weekend don't slow down and consider Mayor Bloomberg's latest press conference.

While politicians hash out theoretical solutions, we need to consider real solutions to stopping violent offenders from killing our kids.

I'm not calling for guns in schools; I'm just calling for more real conversation - currently all but impossible based on our deep and ever-widening cultural divide. A prominent teachers union put out this statement, in response to the NRA's call for more armed personnel in schools:

"Schools must be safe sanctuaries, not armed fortresses. Anyone who would suggest otherwise doesn't understand that our public schools must first and foremost be places where teachers can safely educate and nurture our students."

So we have come full circle to my first point - we're at odds as we hash out how to achieve a perfect world, versus accepting the reality of the world in which we live.

The sign below will likely either make you nod your head in solemn agreement, or shake your head in disgust. While the polarizing values, visions, dreams and agendas of adults continue to clash, our kids are still counting on us.

I don't want guns in schools, and I sure don't want to carry a gun into my classroom. But safety is not about feelings: If called upon I'd go through the identical training a police officer receives. So would thousands like me, with strong reservations but without any actual hesitation.

I'm not a wanna-be hero, or a cowboy ... I'm every bit as scared as most parents and educators. I hate this "solution," as it addresses no root causes, and brings a host of new problems to the surface.

I hate it, but I'd do it.

I'd do it because David Gregory and Barack Obama's children are of no greater value than mine ... regardless of a $34,000 / year tuition bill.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A Case for the Classics

This year in North Carolina, most of our History courses will receive a final exam made by the state ... versus a teacher-made final we've been able to create ourselves in years past in many courses (such as World History, which I teach).

We are all trying to figure out what's on this test, and the gut feeling and analysis at this point - by people a few levels above me - is that the test will be heavily focused on modern events.

If we get this test for the first time and find out that yes, there's a huge emphasis on World War I and beyond, we'll have to go back as a collective group and revamp our lessons to reduce the time we spend on the classical periods.

It's my hope we don't drift too far from our classical roots: To me that's the beauty of the ancient periods where law, philosophy, democracy and the beauty of the individual were cultivated. Americans appear so divided these days, and many of us seek out to define ourselves by our differences ... versus focusing on the ideas and traditions that bind us together.

In a sense, we are all ancient Greeks; we are all Romans; and all Americans share in the rich legacy of Africa - and the cradle of civilization Alexandria held so carefully for all of posterity.

Like Alexandria's famed Pharos Lighthouse, I fear that if the guiding light of our collective classical heritage goes out, we'll forever lose our way.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Secret To A Great Observation

Well, I don't actually have any secrets ... but I do think I might be onto something.

As anyone in our profession knows, we are observed constantly - at least during the first several years of our  teaching practice.

During student, student teacher and probationary status, we're observed dozens of times: By professors, cooperating teachers, peers, mentors, assistant principals and principals. And, at the very start of my career I was told that if you know an administrator is coming ... well, you'd better put on a darned good show.

I now am really rethinking this advice. First of all, with this showmanship approach the observer isn't necessarily seeing the real you, and what really goes on in your class everyday. That's the whole point, right?

But secondly, why put on a show if you are confident in how you are running your class?  Lots of content, technology, student interaction ... why deviate from such a script, if it's working every day in the classroom?

That's my big secret ... that's my big "lightbulb" moment. Just teach consistently, and let the chips fall where they may, observation-wise.

Because I think that at the end of the day, my administration just wants a reliable, consistent professional in the classroom ... pushing both content and critical thinking skills while displaying strong classroom management.

I'm sure there's a chance for some future observations to go wildly off track ... but that's okay. If I try my best, each day, the details (and observations) should take care of themselves. 

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Teaching to the Test

I'll be giving a state-created and issued end-of-semester final for World History this year.

Actually most of my peers will be giving state-created tests - if not this year, then in the coming years.

I'm a pragmatist first and foremost, and I liken being a teacher to working in the drug / alcohol counseling business. Both are emotionally draining jobs, and the professionals in the trenches are often forced to accept challenging realities.

Wishing addiction would disappear will not get anything done; similarly, arguing the pros and cons of state-issued tests won't help my kids get the scores they need.

So I've adjusted this year - and I really think I'm a more professional, reflective, skilled teacher.

No, I'm not just saying that to kiss butt (in the event any of my superiors read this blog) ...

A few concrete differences this this year vs. last:

Last year I'd get through the facts quickly, then jump to big ideas and spend the rest of class wrestling with concepts, writing projects, etc.

This year I am really drilling the facts before we move on. We start every class with a quiz covering the material from the day before.

Next we do our notes / lecture - then as a class we create the quiz for the coming day. This focus on daily quizzes creates student buy-in, while reinforcing the content.

We are also buckling down in World History this year in terms of our Professional Learning Community: All of the World History teachers get together and create / give common assessments.

Final Verdict: Having my students practice test taking, and reviewing the material several times as we move collectively to the final exam, is not teaching to the test. But it is keeping all of us focused on daily, rigorous delivery of content - in addition to the big ideas and projects we all are tackling and undertaking in our classrooms.

The final may kick our butts, and if so, I will adjust. But as my kids sit down and take it, I'll know I did the best I could to get them ready.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Net Nastiness & Societal Spill-Over

Recently I offered a few thoughts in the comment section at - a typically thoughtful magazine with an online presence and a libertarian bent.

Another commenter wrote that I was "obviously a blithering idiot" for choosing to be a public school teacher. Hey, I've been called a lot worse, but this comment wasn't made in isolation; rather, it's part of a pattern where armchair Internet critics tend to 1. Attack their opponent in a highly personal fashion and 2. Then maybe - maybe - address the actual issue at hand.

So what ... is this just the nature of the Net? Or are there actual, important cultural spill-overs we should stop to think about?

We love to launch anti-bully campaigns (forgetting, much of the time, that many of us were in fact bullies in school). But we adults then turn around and bully each other.

My wife saw an all-out brawl in Walmart between two adult women the other day. Such events are so routine in our increasingly coarse culture that she almost forgot to even mention the fight to me. What used to be shocking is now the "new normal," to borrow a political phrase.

So where does this leave our kids? Confused as all hell, that's where. They get their butts whooped for getting suspended after a fight at school, then witness mom or dad attacking someone in the grocery store parking lot the next week.

Human dignity. Respect. Kindness. Love. Altruism. Quiet strength.

A colleague of mine is fond of saying you cannot teach barbarians. If you can't hear the pounding at the gates you need your ears checked.

I plan to, again, teach the above values as a cornerstone of my class, and build curriculum around it. I am not trying to force values on anyone. I never preach political views to my students. But I cannot ignore my moral obligation to share with them what I know to be the foundation of a good, meaningful life.

I see no reason why I cannot drill content, foster high-level analytic thinking, grow strong writers, and plant the seeds of universal values - values we once all at least agreed upon.

This is why I am here, this is what I do. It keeps me honest, even as I teach the kids what honesty is. Yes, I'm a blithering idiot. You don't have to be an anonymous Internet tough guy to make that observation.

But I'm also quite sure I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be. Here's to another great year, with an incredible staff, in a fantastic community. Thank you for this opportunity to teach your children.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The American Idolization of Our Culture

There's a feel good story buzzing around the web about a kid who was put on the University of Michigan's admissions waiting list.

This ambitious youngster jumped in front of a video camera and sang his way off the list, apparently swaying admissions with his determination and "unique appeal." Yong's YouTube video had been viewed about 50,000 times when the admissions team caught wind of it.

I respect the go-getter attitude this aspiring Wolverine displayed, and I respect out of box thinking. But ... here's where I get a little Debbie Downer. The headline of the article I source above is, "Accepted: Unusual methods by wait-listed University of Michigan student bring success."

However the web url for this page is a bit more telling, to me. Whoever laid out this page saw this story like I see it: ""

The key word in that link is antics. Synonyms for antics include: clowning, tricks, stunts, mischief, larks, capers, pranks, foolishness, playfulness, horseplay, buffoonery ... you get the picture. The dictionary then offered this example of usage: She tolerated his antics.

The newspaper editor was more politically correct in assigning that headline; however, the web editor who named this page was apparently a bit more blunt. He or she allowed an editorial comment to slip through - not a big deal as very few people probably read url addresses. But telling, all the same.

From the story:

"Typically, the admissions office suggests wait-listed students send letters detailing new information and accomplishments to increase their chances of getting in. Thinking that a letter might not stand out, Yong made the video.

"I'm a student on your waiting list and I am dying to get in and I was initially planning to write the traditional letter saying like, 'Oh I really want to be a part of your school,' " Yong said in the video. "But I thought, 'You know what, talk is cheap and this is a great opportunity for me to show some of my strengths.' "

Yong could have written an essay, but decided talk is cheap. That summarizes my beef with this story, and with the manner in which Yong chose to distinguish himself. Talk is not cheap - an essay is probably the best way to demonstrate one's ability to grasp complex topics, display analytic thinking, and showcase overall communication abilities.

What, exactly, does a mildly above average song performance demonstrate?

Interestingly, all negative comments on his YouTube channel appear to be censored. I bet many of the removed comments suggest thoughts along the lines of, "What in the world does singing have to do with academic performance?" Or perhaps, "What deserving student did this kid beat out with a random Michael Jackson rendition?"

The news stories on this student make no mention of his academic track record. Says Yong, "Out of all the schools I looked at, I really liked the campus," adding that "he plans on joining an a cappella group." He's undecided at this point in terms of a major, but he really likes the campus. Hmmm.

Years ago our culture began mistaking celebrity for achievement. The question might be asked: To what extent did his popular video put pressure on the admissions staff? What if he juggled on camera? Or flipped an omelette, or stacked cups on video instead? Those examples are just as random (and underwhelming) as Yong's sales pitch.

I figured I didn't coin the term "American Idolization of Culture," and when I googled it, I found an article that drives home my point here:

"Once upon a time, ambitious folk could argue whether it was who you knew or what you knew that got you ahead. Today, both have been trumped by how many people you know and how many will vote for you online.

What's at stake is a little scary too. Last year in Washington state, a community organization sponsored a talent competition in which 44 local high schoolers looking for college money uploaded videos of themselves performing and asked the public to vote for 10 finalists. It wasn't at all clear what their acts had to do with their financial need, their scholastic abilities or their educational goals.

At some point, handing out rewards based on this kind of popularity contest starts to obscure the idea of quality, let alone merit." (emphasis mine).

What if Yong were an aspiring architect student and he drew a 3D model of campus using design software? Or, if he were a communications major and wrote a mock press release, announcing his admission? Maybe if Yong was interested in graphic design, and put together an online portfolio of his work ... any one of these examples would display actual skill, ability, relevance and thoughtfulness of approach.

Maybe next year someone on the Michigan waiting list will send in a competitive hot dog eating video. Or maybe a really tasty cheesecake recipe will sway the admissions staff.

One thing's all but certain: Admissions staffers at Michigan will be bombarded with videos next year, as the stage for accepting fluff over substance is well set.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Talk About Mixed Messages ...

This is a T shirt being sold on the official website of the president of the United States; it was promoted on Twitter by President Obama's official Twitter account.

So, how angry should we be with kids who swear?

At least 17 states have legalized the medical use of pot. In the city of New York, the mayor recently backed a proposal to decriminalize the possession of "small" amounts of marijuana. (It's arguable that 25 grams is one heck of a lot of pot, however).

But drinking a large soda - that should be illegal, claims the mayor.

So, second question: How angry should we be with kids who smoke pot, since it's A) medicine, and B) apparently less harmful than a large Coca Cola?

I'm no one to preach; you don't need to dig too deep to find dirt on me, as the old saying goes. But I don't think it takes a genius to see we are bombarding our kids with mixed messages at every turn - and this has to be very confusing for young people in the process of developing their own personal moral codes.

Being a new father, this poem really has hit home after seeing it recently for the first time. Dear son, I will fall very short of the mark, but I promise to try.


Thursday, June 28, 2012

Adding Google Forms to Blogger

Techies are often quick to dismiss Blogger, and frequently ask me why I haven't moved to WordPress or another, "richer" platform. I think Blogger actually has plenty of capabilities ... you just need to dig a little bit for the best solution now and again.

Case in point: Adding a "contact me" form to your blog is simple with Google Docs ... you just build the form, then click more actions > embed. You can copy / paste the form's code right into your blog, in the html view, for both blog posts and pages.

Problem is, it will look funky. Your form won't match the formatting of your blog, and may bust out of the page margins.

Try these 5 steps instead, for a seamless look:

1. Build your form the way you want it (save it!), then return to your Google Docs home page.
2. Open up that form, then go to form > go to live form. You'll see where your form lives online, and see what it looks like to viewers.
3. Right click on the page, and view page source ... so you can get at the html code.
4. Do a control / f search to find the words "form action" in the code. Copy that code all the way down to where it says "< script >< div >"
5. Now plug this code into your blog. It should match your blog's theme and appearance much better.

Here's my test page after embedding the Google Doc code using the above steps ... now I've given visitors several ways to contact us. In the Web 2.0 world, more options are better!

Happy Blogging

Friday, May 25, 2012

Merit Pay? We Already Have It

I'm going to keep this simple so everyone ... even the experts on TV ... can understand:

Teachers get small, regular increases in pay.

Except in our state - our salary is frozen - but let's pretend for this example that pay raises are routine.

This year I'm twice the teacher I was last year: I have several hundred more hours of experience under my belt. I'm better in all areas. Content, class management, value to my school, etc.

Next year I'll be far better still. Experience + training + more schooling / mentorship = better.

I'm a good teacher. One day I hope to be great - and the system in place is prepared to compensate me each step of the way on that journey.

I agree - merit pay is a great idea. So unfreeze my salary, and let's get on with this thing!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Teachers in the News: Some Perspective

It's fun to make sport of teachers doing outrageous things ... talking heads and blogs come alive with chatter when something silly, stupid or scary happens.

I did a little research, and there were 7.2 million teachers in the U.S. in 2009, according to government data.

I teach for a solid 4.5 hours, minimum, a day. Someone help me with the math, but I think that 7.2 million teachers times 4.5 hours a day = 32,400,000 hours of teaching a day.

Thirty two million hours a day! The question isn't why teacher gaffes occasionally cross the media radar screen, it's how we have so few questionable teacher actions reported.

The answer is what we in the field already know: Most teachers are great at their jobs.

I'm sure if everything I said was uploaded to YouTube, I'd be blushing at times. And so would you.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Superintendent's PR Push

NC State Superintendent of Schools June St. Clair Atkinson is calling for us (teachers) to help spread the good word about the positive things we're doing in our public schools.

For me it's often as simple as countering "You all get three months off!"

Nope - two months, unpaid, filled with planning, conferences, meetings and much needed rest you'd never understand because you've never tried teaching.

As a PR pro I'm thrilled to see our superintendent A) blogging and B) calling for self-advocacy.

The teachers I know work way too hard, and care way too much, to sit back passively while others decide their collective fate again and again ... it's our obligation to intelligently and respectfully shape and guide dialogue concerning the issues we know best: Educational issues.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Teacher Appreciation Week

I'm so grateful for all of the great teachers who've been a part of my life ...

For my administrators who give me an hour of time when they literally don't have 5 minutes ... in the midst of their tornado-like days.

For my mentor, who's helped me personally and professionally as I'm adjusting to education.

For the college professor who worked one-on-one with me, as we put together the student newspaper ... he's one of those special educators who gave selflessly, and just might leave this earth never fully realizing his impact.

For my most important teachers: My parents. Thanks for the moral compass you've instilled ... though I may drift, I always know where to return to port.

Teachers do affect eternity, as one of my favorite teachers (and mentor) reminds us in her email signature file ...

... thank you everybody!

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Our Salaries ... Exposed!

Here's a link to a local Washington, D.C. TV news outfit, hyping a broadcast about their database of public workers' salaries.

Wow, this must be quite a scoop: "Watch and our broadcast tonight at 11:00 for an exclusive report where we'll give you White House reaction and agency explanations.

We'll also show who gave out the largest average bonus, and who paid the largest average salary."

This gotcha game and fake journalism is disturbing: Implied, of course, is the spoiled government workers are making out like bandits. As a teacher of two years I'm already quite used to this type of "reporting" ... I constantly hear TV pundits bemoaning our huge salaries and cushy union jobs*.

The Charlotte Observer has a database of CMS school employee salaries online, though the reasons appear far less sensational. Observer Education Reporter Ann Helms wrote to me:

"A full public payroll lets reporters and taxpayers truth-squad what officials say about everything from layoffs (are higher-paid employees being targeted?) to conflicts of interest (if relatives of public officials are on the payroll, someone is going to notice)."

Helms does a great job of reporting on our area schools, but if you want to get a glimpse of what the public thinks, the comments from her blog post on this topic are extremely telling (and entertaining).

Personally, I have no issues with the sharing of my salary. Just ask me and I'll tell you that I make 30K and change for the chance to work my butt off.

It's the "Us Vs. Them" mentality, furthered by agenda-driven talking heads, media outfits, and misinformed politicians, that is ultimately harmful for everybody.

*Those of you who read me regularly caught the sarcasm here: Unions are illegal in my state, and our (comparatively low) pay has been frozen for years.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Why Teachers Make Great Hires

Our district lost another new teacher to corporate America recently; I didn't know the guy well, but by all accounts he's sharp, put together, and very competent.

I've seen a lot of smart companies specifically recruit teachers: They understand the intensity and complexity that comes with our jobs.

A teacher with a few years' experience has taken it on the chin, several times, and kept on moving forward. That Monday morning staff meeting with the good coffee and the pastries, going over everyone's client account status, doesn't seem very intimidating after wrestling with 30 squirrelly freshmen during fourth period as summer draws near.

Big presentation due? He just gave 180 consecutive big presentations, to an often disinterested and challenged audience. Your product is hard to sell? Try selling history or math to a teenager every day.

Teaching isn't a job, it's a calling - and unfortunately sometimes really good teachers are called away from education because $30,000 and change isn't enough to live on, year after year.

I guess until we start taking education more seriously as a nation, and treating teachers with the respect they earn and deserve, we'll remain a fantastic training ground for corporate USA.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Self-Importance Put into Perspective

This woman just made my day ...

I got to the end of a story on MSNBC Tech about an 11 year-old boy who tinkled all over a cart of school computers - costing his school $36K in the process - and found this delightful blurb about the author:

Helen A.S. Popkin goes blah blah blah about the Internet. Tell her to get a real job on Twitter and/or Facebook. Also, Google+.

In an age of self-important journalists, social media experts, and all-around know-it-alls spouting off 24 hours a day, her sense of humor and understanding of context is refreshing.

Me? I'm just some dude with less than two years' experience in the classroom, going blah blah blah about values, and yikes! society is crumbling, yada yada.

Thanks Helen. I'm going to turn off the computer and do something important - spend time with my son.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Protecting Our Investment

Some studies show half of new teachers quit in the first 5 years.


I've been doing some marketing freelance work now and again, since moving from Ohio to lovely North Carolina. The firm I've helped out is a very cool, cutting edge place filled with incredibly sharp talent (I guess I am the exception. Ha ha).

I signed on, jumped in, and in a day was working along side my peers ... the learning curve was there, but almost non-existent.

Compare that to teaching ... well, you can't actually - there's no comparison. As my second year of teaching wraps up, there have been literally hundreds of man hours put to my training.

Starting with student teaching experiences, right up to the one-on-one mentorship, coaching and counseling I've been receiving from my very busy but hands-on assistant principals, I'm a walking taxpayer-funded work in progress.

I'm twice the teacher this year I was last, and I expect myself to continue to grow exponentially in this nurturing environment.

What's my point? One, parents and the community should feel very good about the intense level of training we all receive. Two, I'm very grateful for the support and the continued chance to grow.

But my third point goes out to the politicians and policy makers.

Without intending to be adversarial, I am wondering why, in the spirit of partnership, educators and politicians can't work together to better protect our massive investment in teachers?

I was in disbelief at the above-referenced study: half of new teachers quitting in five years. I poked around, asked some veteran educators in my building, and they confirmed this is absolutely the case in terms of their experience.

I also chatted with a first-year teacher as I put this post together, and he said he's very aware that he is a sharp guy who can make a lot more money somewhere else ... and he knows with the pay freeze he's stuck at his current salary of about 30K. (I agree, he could do anything he wants - he's very sharp).

So I asked him the big question: Why are you here? He replied that he wants to make a difference, and to live a life of meaning. Plus he loves being here, and truly loves his job.

Now that's an investment worth protecting.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Blogger's New Interface

Google bought Blogger years ago (2003?) and I guess it's surprising it took the designers at Google this long to monkey around with the user interface.

To my fellow Pinnacle Bloggers - it's not so bad; it appears Google's just made this product appear a lot more similar to gmail, documents, etc.

If you are freaked out, you can go under the settings symbol and revert back to normal (until we all are forced to change. Kind of like new Facebook).

But unlike Facebook, which has gone from super simple to having the appearance of a space shuttle control panel, Blogger's new interface seems clean and logical.

Having used the old GUI for over five years, I was a bit annoyed at the gently forced change this early a.m. But so far, no major complaints or problems!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Life-long Learners ... (Me Too!)

"Mr. Bank, what are the seven wonders of the world?" - a student from honors World History today. Me, "Uhhm ..."

"Mr. Bank, Pocahontas married John Rolfe? I thought it was John Smith! Tell us the story!"

Me, "Well, see ... "

"Mr. Bank, what was the capital for the early slave trade in the New World?" Me, "You see .... "

And my favorite, "Mr. Bank can you explain to me the situation with China holding our debt? Is it really that scary?"

I got hit with these three questions all before 10 a.m. today.

When I don't know an answer, I fess up, get on Google, and get the students the answers as fast as I can. Sometimes I roll it right into the lesson; other times I look up the info and share it a bit later.

But one thing's for sure: These kids are forcing me to be a life-long learner in ways I never anticipated.

Since starting teaching, my factual / conceptual knowledge of history and literature has gone through the roof ... I can only wonder just how much a 10 or 20-year veteran educator knows about his or her areas of expertise.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Schools Verdict: Guilty (Just Not as Charged)

I could go on and on about the incredible teaching I see every day at my school.

But what about the bad stuff? What about the devastating criticisms launched steadily at my profession by all walks of people?

Here's my evaluation on the state of public education, based on what I've seen so far:

Yes, teachers are often encouraged to conform, and loyalty to the system appears to be rewarded over fresh thinking about the system. However, this is also true for corporate America: The easiest way to fail at a company is to walk in and question current management, rock the boat, or try and chip away at the status quo.

Where innovation flourishes is just where it should: In the classroom, as expressed by passionate and creative teachers. Every single day, in schools across this nation.

It's also true that longevity is rewarded, often first and foremost. This is also exactly the case in the corporate world. Starting with firm partners, there's always a clear organizational hierarchy starting at the top with those who've put in the most time.

This is because people who have been there the longest, in schools and in companies, typically know the most. No rocket science needed to figure this one out.

My biggest indictment of schools? Our loss of control regarding our own destiny. The teachers and administrators around me are the experts, but we are forced to defer to politicians who've never stepped foot in a classroom as a teacher.

The problems I see in schools are not inherent; rather, they are imposed, ironically, in the name of solutions from outsiders who could would lose their minds if they tried to teach my rowdy fourth period freshmen for a week straight.

Yes, we are guilty. just not of what the public, politicians and experts so often convict us of.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Cheating, Instant Everything, & Absolute Nothing

Our kids live in a world of instant gratification, where any answer they need is two seconds away.

Google's Instant Search (now two years old) makes finding info even easier ... users start typing and Google fills in the blanks, guessing where the searcher is headed. As one types, search results appear automatically ... without hitting enter.

Here's an article further pushing this instant info envelope: Future search engines may actually anticipate your searches for you, based on your user habits. Log onto the web, and your searches will appear before you even make them.

Now add studying to the picture. "Why did I need to study for this," a student wonders, "when all of the answers are available through the phone in my pocket?"

Technology clashes with moral relativism

It's a morally ambiguous time to begin with, and technology races forward as boundaries and social standards are constantly being pushed, redrawn or shattered entirely.

I'm taking a grad class right now in research - which one would think would be very straight forward. Not the case.

There are four basic types of research in the social fields, my textbook explains, and the most scientific of them is called "Postpositivist." The "post" in this research worldview signifies the fact that research now "challenges the traditional notion of absolute truth in knowledge."

Here's the part that got me: Since truth can't be found, a researcher no longer proves a hypothesis. Instead, he can only "indicate a failure to reject a hypothesis."

Got all that, students? You can find the answers to your test in .5 seconds, and there's no such thing as truth (and thus, right or wrong). But, don't you dare cheat!

Good grief, it's gotta be a confusing time to be a kid.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Fair and Balanced

I love getting political in the classroom. Political philosophy is my favorite area of study, maybe second only to media studies. Combining the two puts me in teacher heaven.

So I thought this Virginia teacher's assignment was very cool: He had his students do "opposition research" on the remaining Republican candidates ... and he even had his students source Obama campaign officials so they could, in theory, forward their findings onto the president's campaign team.

This assignment is awesome for several reasons. As a former PR guy, I recognize these kids are building real-world critical thinking and research skills. In my opinion it's a thoughtful, relevant, and probably fun assignment.

Except the teacher didn't assign any dirt digging on the president; instead, he had the kids focus entirely on the GOP candidates.

If he'd have simply opened up the assignment to researching both sides, he wouldn't be in the national news.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Misplaced Priorities

Got some great news today ... our school district is facing yet more tough budget cuts.

As far as I can tell, our superintendent is some kind of wizard. He's brilliant when it comes to saving cash, and cutting corners only when absolutely required.

But even the incredible competency of our fearless leaders isn't enough to keep at bay layoffs (234 positions, according to the news report above) when there is simply no more money.

We also got an all-staff email today letting us know we are out of computer / printer paper.

My freshman class is working on solving big problems today, combining art and science in the spirit of Da Vinci. Thinking about the state of our nation, a freshman girl just asked, "Mr. Bank, why do we spend so much money on wars ... but not enough to keep like three extra teachers?"

I had no answer for her.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Blogger Loves Google Calendar

When I started using Blogger as a classroom management tool a few years ago, I did it for one simple reason: Every new blog post = a new date and lesson. It made perfect sense to me, and still does.

Last semester I taught English 12. Say I teach it again next year ... I can just copy / paste in my old posts ... change the date ... and presto - I have online lessons ready to roll.

I started using Blogger before Google bought it, and now they play even more nicely together. For example, I can grab the embed code from my Google calendar, and pop it anywhere on my blog. Like I did above.

Now kids have instant access to homework, test schedules, tutoring, my schedule, etc.

Blogger and Google - a match made in 2.0 classroom heaven.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Free Teacher Face Lifts = PR Train Wreck

When a story like this hits the press, it makes the PR guy in me cringe. And it's disturbing from a teacher's perspective. Heck, it's bothersome to me as a taxpayer, for that matter.

Apparently Buffalo, New York has been offering free plastic surgery - no deductible - to all public school teachers in the city for the past 40 years.

Police and firefighters have the same union-negotiated benefits, but of course the media focuses almost solely on teachers.

And, understandably, mainstream and conservative news outlets / blogs are blowing up with angry news stories ... and even angrier reader comments.

Every story like this is accompanied with a thousand comments from the public, such as "Wow three months off plus free breast implants!" And so our collective image slides further into the muck.

Teachers are unfairly attacked with frequency. But this nonsense does not help anyone (except plastic surgeons). I'm reminded of a favorite saying of my grandmother: God helps those who help themselves.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Google Docs Enhance Web-based Projects

Google Docs make mundane tasks easy, and even exciting.

In the past, recording student URLs for web-based projects was a hassle. Passing around a piece of paper and having them write down the link to their Prezi, for example, was bound to be a messy and error-laden process.

Now when we have lab days and do web-based projects, my students just click from our class website over to the Google Doc ... and paste in their link.

We are currently doing a class project where students are designing the perfect school. We are using Prezi, and in addition to using a Google Doc to house links, we're also using it as a brainstorming platform - and a place to showcase best ideas.

Students can collaborate, see peer work, get ideas, show off a bit, and offer constructive criticism - adding a very cool, impactful dimension to our projects.

I'll be honest. I'm not completely sure impactful is a word, but it really describes what Google brings to our web-based class projects.

Update: We had great success the first time our class did a Prezi / Google Docs for sharing combo - so we hit the lab again for a lesson tracing the origins of freedom and democracy. We used this document here ... and the entire lesson went more smoothly given the students were used to the basic ideas here (do a Prezi, share your link).

This lesson was almost entirely learner-centered: I give instructions and a few guidelines in the opening part of the assignment. Students had room to maneuver in terms of what areas they wanted to focus on: Some got philosophical and talked about freedom coming from God. Some did a great job tracing freedom's development through major time periods. And a few just copied some Wiki entries with no real understanding of what they were doing.

Offering the guidelines like I did ensured a tight relation to core content - a lesson I learned before, when students were having great fun using GoAnimate, but designing nonsensical cartoons.

I don't think tech was at all forced here - Google Docs is a secondary player - but an important one. Struggling students were all steered to see what "first period" did - the honors class that went first and put up some good examples.

I also think this lesson is a big boost to student achievement: We are doing papers on the exact same topic, and I planned for this to serve as a rough draft ... organizing their thoughts.

Reflecting on this assignment, my biggest victory was the collaboration / sharing aspect. Dozens of kids watched each others' work, to get inspired and grab at ideas before starting.

My biggest challenge remains, "What do we do?" Students stare at the screen and see words, but they do not absorb them. A few bright students realize they have all they need and then some, in terms of materials and instructions to get started.

But overall I see a huge, unfortunate pattern with our kids, where they cannot realize words have meaning ... and if they simply read what's in front of them, they will have their guideposts.

They want it spoon-fed, and even minimal lifting on their part is met with resistance. This is the question I am bringing to the group for help with!

Not to sound too provocative, but Review Me!

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Punishing Experience

When I was in PR, one of the biggest complaints from clients was getting the swap: They'd get a pitch by a firm VP / senior counselor - and then have their account passed down to a fresh college grad for the actual campaign work. This was upsetting because, generally, experience is a good thing.

Only in the bizarro world of education, where so many things are so often backwards, is experience viewed as a bad thing.

No, that's not quite correct: Educators recognize the obvious advantages to experience; it's the arm chair experts and paid pundits who always seem to know better.
From an article I read today:

"It (the North Carolina system) rewards longevity and credentialing. While we like to think an experienced teacher is a better teacher, it is not necessarily so. There is no research that cites longevity as a component of effective teaching or student achievement."

I'm not aware of studies proving senior PR counselors are better than junior ones, either.

I tore my chest muscle from the bone two years ago, while working out. My first question for the surgeon was, "How many of these repairs have you done?"

He replied several, at which point I sat back and thought, "Wow - I don't trust him. Is there an intern or fresh college grad who can give this surgery a shot?"

There's a healthy dose of sarcasm in this post, because it's helping me cope with frankly what is such a ridiculous concept. To doubt experience defies both logic and common sense.

I'm not calling the author of the quote I cite above as misinformed, please don't misunderstand me. His credentials, and the conservative think tank at which he works, appear impressive. I would have felt a lot better about his article if it had been written by an intern, that's all.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

This Classroom Brought to You by Coke!

My school district was the first in our state of North Carolina to sell advertising space on school-owned buses.

Love it! We seem to have tight regs in place, such as a business keeping its message education-related. For example, a lawn care company's ad might mention the "seeds of education," etc.

Desperate times call for smart measures, and as a marketing guy I just love this concept. I started to wonder, "How far is too far?" Could Coke buy space in my classroom - in exchange for technology and supplies?

Discussing it with two peers at lunch, one said, "absolutely." Another said sure, if she could have a say in the brand. Maybe water versus soda. Or a backpack brand?

"Today's lecture on Rome is brought to you by Pizza Hut pizza. Celebrate our collective Roman roots with a slice of pie after class, kids!"

Okay maybe that's a bit far, but still ... cool idea with interesting potential.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Where are the Parents?

We're having issues at my cash-strapped school. Teachers are getting repeated warnings to carefully watch our students in the computer labs ... because the students are destroying the equipment.

How is it high schoolers can't use a computer lab without leaving it trashed, and the equipment in it damaged?

More simply put: Why can't kids behave at school?

Being respectful is a learned behavior; however, respect is a foreign concept to so many of our kids. Can we take a moment of collective reflection, and figure out what the heck is going wrong with our culture?

Clint Eastwood just famously said it's halftime in America. Is he right, or have we already thrown in the towel?

Monday, January 30, 2012

Motivation: The Power of Why

I was at a presentation today that began almost mid-stream, with the presenter launching right into the features of the software she was demonstrating. She didn't begin with explaining what the overarching benefits were, or what the product was for.

In other words, as we got underway I had no concrete idea why it was I was sitting there. It got me thinking: We start off our new semesters laying down the law, explaining to kids what to do, and how to do it.

We get angry when they don't listen, and by gosh, there are consequences! Our students need to know what we are teaching them, and we will try strategy after strategy, from mild to extreme, to get the job done.

Do we ever tell them why?

Why they should bother to jump through what they likely perceive as our endless supply of hoops? "Because I said so," and "I'm an adult!" have certainly never worked with a stubborn donkey like myself. Why should abstract lines of reasoning, and seemingly arbitrary rules, work for our kids?

Maybe we should begin our instruction - all instruction - with why. Why leads to an explanation of our common, collective values. Why also leads to explaining the equation of hard work + responsibility = success.

Taking for granted that our kids understand the reasons behind instruction might be a misguided idea. Shifting values and sketchy environments have served as corrupting waves, washing away what were once safely assumed, collective societal anchors.

But knowing why leads to everything from buy-in, to heightened motivation, to ... dare I say ... genuine excitement for learners. I'm going to start with why, from now on - as a reminder to my students, and to myself.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Just Pretty Paint

"In 1960, there were far fewer government officials, far fewer prisons, far fewer laws, and far fewer lawyers — and yet the state was a far safer place than it is a half-century later."

- Historian and cultural critic Victor David Hanson discussing California - and comparing it to Greece - in a recent article.

Hanson points out that history is packed with examples of societies that slid backwards, sometimes rapidly, and argues effectively that America is on a similar slope. "In America, most would prefer to live in the Detroit of 1941 than the Detroit of 2001," he writes, and I'd agree.

I think back to my own childhood in the 80s, and how we bounded unsupervised from our houses in the morning, not to return until late in the evening ... sprinting home through neighbors' yards when we heard our mothers calling from the front porch.

It was a different time: There were no school shootings (many kids in Ohio brought guns to school during deer season!), and our parents had far less worries about abductions and the like.

Our entire lives were less structured, and more innocent, than what kids generally experience today. I'm talking about the 80s! Not some distant past, but a couple of decades ago ... before a kind of viciousness started to take root in our nation. Gun sales are not soaring because a Democrat was elected ... Americans are arming themselves because they are afraid. We sense this underlying coarseness, and it disturbs us on a deep level.

It's against this backdrop that I've, so far, defined and shaped my personal educational philosophy. A student said to me recently in a letter, "You taught me a little bit about history, and a lot about life."

She gets it. She sees what I'm trying to do: Impart values and character first, and content second. It's why I became an educator. Few students will remember the details of the Peloponnesian War; however, I'm pretty sure 31 freshman left my class with a firm understanding of where it is freedom comes from.

"The average Californian, like the average Greek, forgot that civilization is fragile," Hanson writes. "Its continuance requires respect for the law, tough-minded education, collective thrift, private investment, individual self-reliance, and common codes of behavior and civility."

He concludes with, "Washington, please take heed." I agree, and would ask my fellow educators to take heed as well. If we don't focus on values - and on what we collectively value as Americans - we are just applying pretty layers of paint on top of a serious problem.