Monday, December 31, 2007

Happy New Year

I'm a bit busy trying to decide how to do a good job of teaching the Industrial Revolution in about 2 weeks, so my brain is pretty full of things besides resolutions and reflections right now. In a few hours its off to party time, and then home to grading. (I'm not really complaining, I chose to actually relax on our week of traveling to see various families, rather than stress out over grading and planning then.)

So have a happy and safe night.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

When do I change?

So here's a question mostly directed at other teachers:

When do you implement a new idea that's going to take a lot of work to get going in your classroom?

Do you wait until the next school year, so that you can spend the summer preparing and integrating it in to your lessons with all sorts of plans ahead of time? Or do you jump right in not long after deciding it's something worth doing in your classroom? How do you approach a radical changes to your classroom in the middle of the year (if you make them)?

I'm thinking about this because I know I didn't do a good job of setting up the foundations of "how we use tech resources in this class" at the beginning of the year. I didn't do a good job because I had no idea where I was going with it, and because many of the things now available to me were in progress, coming "some time in the fall". (Some examples: we got Angel LMS in early November, I got a SMARTboard last week, our new laptop carts weren't ready until early December.) Not having these resources at the beginning of the school year means that they didn't get the routines built into using them that make my classroom run well.

I have all sorts of ideas that I'm not sure how or when to implement. I've been coming up with a list of ways to use blogging in a history class, for example. I've always loved the idea of the History Alive! two-sided notebook, in which the right hand contains notes and fact and the left is the place for students to be creative, to think, to reflect, to make personal meaning of history. Why not turn student blogs into the "left side" of their notebook? It would make keeping up with them easier for me, too! (The main reason I don't use the History Alive! notebook idea is because I can't figure out how to keep up with reading 150 notebooks.)

I know that doing a good job of bringing these tool into my class is going to take time. Time to get the students set up on them, time to get students used to using them, time to communicate my expectations about how to use them, time to figure out the quirks. Time, however, is the thing I feel I lack the most. As a high school teacher in Virginia, my entire year is overshadowed with the threat of the SOL tests in early May. So as much as I want to integrate blogging, I can't help but keep thinking about how many class periods will be spent on it and how little time I have to cover the material.

I know I've gotten rambly here, but one quick example to show you why I'm worried about this: At the end of November, when my World History classes were going to be tested on our Age of Absolutism and Enlightenment unit (which had spanned most of the month) I tried to introduce them to Quizlet as a study tool. I schedule a period for it, walking them through getting signed up and create a set of cards and various ways to use them. I then turned them loose to create flashcards and study. I had badly underestimated the time they needed to even create the cards (there were a *lot* of people in that unit) and then few used it to study outside of class. I didn't do my traditional study guide, focusing on the quizlet cards. For those who took advantage of it, it helped, but many didn't and many wasted the class time provided. Test grades for that unit? Terrible. Looking back, I know exactly how I would introduce this tool to my students in the future to make better use of it, but that doesn't fix how much I failed to do a good job with it this time.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Skills and School

Sean, of Slam Teaching, asked a question I should probably answer.
Also, I'd love to hear more about this idea that school is for skills. What kind of skills? Are we talking broad, generalized skills (like knowing how to learn), or specific skills (like writing five-paragraph essays)? Any thoughts?
I'm going to attempt to answer this without digging out my giant concept map as referenced earlier, so this will be an incomplete list. The skills I'm talking about are primarily broad, generalized skills, the sort that you can apply all the time in life. Skills that aren't just needed for playing the school game, but for being an active citizen.

Take your example of five-paragraph essays. I want my students to know how to organize their thoughts, come up with a thesis, defend it, cite evidence for their opinion, and end with a solid conclusion. All of these skills are used in a good five-paragraph essay, but the essay in and of itself isn't the important thing. It's those skills, which can then be applied to other forms of writing, verbal debate, habits of mind, whatever. Similarly, if students spend time learning different writing formats in English class, I want them to do so with the idea that they are learning about making choices when expressing oneself.

In history and social studies, the major skills I see as relevant outside of schooly-ness are those having to do with analyzing and evaluating primary sources. I want my students to be able to look for bias, to interpret a variety of documents/photos/speeches/videos/artifacts/etc for information about their source, to use primary sources as data to support an opinion, and to evaluate the usefulness of these sources for a particular inquiry. All of these things are skills I see as critical for survival in the "Information Age." Sorting through the mass of documents available on a topic of research in order to determine what's relevant, after all, is pretty much the essence of the web.

I also see historical awareness as a highly important and lacking understanding. This is more of a perspective than a skill, though, so I'll come back to it some other time. Still, I'm convinced that if history classes in grade school did a better job of developing historical awareness, many of the myths of our national history and their negative consequences would not survive.

Knowing how to learn is important too! In my teacher-prep classes, we had a huge emphasis on reflection and metacognition. Why don't we do this with students?

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Hello World!

I know, it's a cliche title, but some cliches are meant to be.

So, hello world. Who am I?

I currently teach 10th grade World History II (1500-Present) and 11th US History in a public high school in Virginia. My philosophy of education is so complicated in my head that last time I sat down to write it all out it worked best as a very complex thinking web. (I wonder what I did with the Inspiration version of it I made...) Still, you could sum it up as the belief that the purpose of public education is to create good citizens, and that in order to create good citizens in this day and age we need to teach our children two main things: information literacy and decision making skills.

You may notice that despite being a social studies teacher (a field usually characterized by content-based tests, i.e. names and dates) I firmly believe that the point of school is skills, not knowledge. Yes, there is basic knowledge that you need to exercise these skills. Yes, there are things that my students ought to know about their own history before they graduate high school. But it's the skills that will serve them well wherever they go.

Enough philosophizing. Time to answer the question on all your minds.

The answer is 42.

Also, I decided to name this blog "Where's the Teacher?" for two reasons. The first is an attempt to deal humorously with the fact that because of my height and apparently youthful appearance, new students and parents on orientation night regularly walk into the room, look around, and wonder where the teacher got to. Even when I wear a full-on suit, somebody thinks I'm a student. The other reason is because I like to think that I am working towards a student-centered style of teaching that should mean that when people walk into my class, they have to take a minute to find me wherever I am in the midst of students working self-directedly, rather than just look up front for the lecturer.

Do I still lecture occasionally? Heck yeah. History is fun because it is a story. Someone's gotta tell the stories, and I get my turn too.