Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A PBL-Student is Born

    This week we have our Freshmen participating in their first "project."  Throughout the school freshmen students are learning the ins and outs of projects and they are seeing each teacher's take on what a project should look like. We all have the same terminology.  We all have the same pbl logistical items.  But the structure looks different from classroom to classroom.

    Even in my subject, Introduction to Engineering Design, the project looks different in my room than it does in my co-teacher's room down the hall.  And he and I get together at night and collaborate via Google IM, Facebook and Twitter.  Plus, we get together before school for 5 to 10 minutes to rehash our plans.

     To set the hook for every project, we start with a driving question and a entry event.  For this project we are examining the evolution of technology in the 20th century.  So, we start with a 4 minute video about the SX-70 camera.  The driving question is "How and why do products change over time?"

     What is the goal of this project?  There are many goals here.  Students need to learn how to work in groups and they need to learn how to use our computer system.  They need to understand how we organize resources in our "Project Briefcase."  They need to understand the typical flow during a class period and the classroom expectations.  And, they need to learn how to do a presentation.

     There are other things that the students learn throughout this week. But what I described is what we hope every student experiences during their first week of school.  They will have learned as much as possible about the logistics of being a PBL student.  That way they will be better prepared to handle a more in-depth project, with an increased level of expectation from the teachers, during the second round of projects.


Saturday, August 27, 2011

Reflections on My First Week of School

      If you are a new teacher or are wanting to be a teacher, the post you are about to read may send you away from the profession.  I have worked in 4 high schools, 2 middle schools and 3 community colleges and the first weeks of school only felt successful at the community colleges.  Why?  It was because I had nearly complete control over everything I did at the community colleges.  Teachers will never have that much control at a public school.

      Now that I've been all negative, I need to say that my present school is MORE organized than any of the other 5 middle/high schools.   Any of our teachers reading this are not going to believe that because, at times, our school seems incredibly dis-organized.  Are there better ways of doing things?  Absolutely.  Will we improve the first week of school next year?  I hope so.   Who knows, we will cross that bridge when we get to it.

        This year, as in last year, I am teaching two 9th grade classes and two 11th grade classes.  They are beautifully distributed.  Freshmen in the morning and Juniors in the afternoon.  Teaching Freshmen means you have to teach everything about school: how to work in a group, how to log into computers, how to log into, and navigate, our learning community (ECHO/Google Apps), how to understand our school schedule, the district/school/classroom rules or norms, where are the bathrooms, when is lunch?

     How can this be done better?   First, for some reason we NEVER have school log-ins for the students on the first day.  I understand any kid who just moved to the district during the week before school.  But why can't the system make this happen between the end of June and the beginning of August?  They would then have a very simple task of updating and adding/dropping students who arrive or leave after the 1st of August.   There have been dozens of people in the last 20 years who have tried to explain it to me but it never makes sense.  If this was the military we wouldn't be having this discussion today.
     The computer log-in problem is especially true at our school.  We deliver materials for our projects through our Project Briefcases in ECHO.  We collaborate on work via Google Apps such as Docs and Sites.  Students communicate with their group partners via email and IM.  We are a connected classroom.  So, what does a teacher at our school do during the first week?  They prepare as though they are going to have no technology.
    That is where my rookie mistake made for one of my most miserable weeks ever.  I know I haven't had a worse 1st week in the 5 years I've taught in Texas.  I made the mistake of assuming we would have our computers to work with for the upperclassmen.  I planned everything for the first two days to be completed online.  I blew it - big time.  Students at our school expect a level of detail from the teachers.  If the level of detail is anything less, they will revolt.  Now, revolution at our school doesn't take the form of anarchy that I've read about from other schools.  No, what our students do is they become "normal" teenagers.  They do nothing.  They talk, have fun, but refuse to find a way to do actual work.
     What would this look like to an outside observer?  Well, there would be the teacher.  Frantically trying to get computer systems or programs to operate as needed.  There would be the students sitting around in groups getting more and more animated and loud.  Then we would see the teacher trying to suggest things for the students to do while he (or she) "fixes the problem."  The student response?
Look at the teacher like a cow looking at a new gate.  Then the students would revert back to their conversations - only louder.  Then the teacher gets louder and more agitated.   The divergence would grow until either the teacher snapped or the class period ended.  Fade to black....

     One thing that always leads to this craziness is the fact that school districts demand to train teachers during the week before school.  How could this be improved?  Demand that teachers get professional development (PD) or take college classes during their summer.   To make this demand more palatable, districts should give credit for attending non-traditional trainings and un-conferences like Edcamps, Barcamps, and Mobicamps.  

     I've now gotten away from my main idea so let's look at this first week and do some self grading.  Teaching my freshmen about working in groups?  A- .  Teaching how to log-in to computers? A- (we finally had access on Friday).  How to log and navigate within ECHO?  A - .  How to understand the school schedule? A (but we haven't had our first Monday and Monday's are a different schedule).  Rules and Norms? C (lots more work to do here).  Where are the bathrooms and when's lunch? A (again, Monday lunches are weird due to schedule).

     So why was my week miserable?  All of the things in the previous paragraph were things with my freshmen.  I did great with them and I feel good about the coming year.  But, my Juniors?  Final grade for last week?  D- (would have failed if anything else went wrong).  Monday can't come fast enough.  I need to get back into the ring and get control of those two classes.  Wish me luck and stay tuned for updates in later posts.


Sunday, August 21, 2011

You Need to Teach How to be in a Group

     Next week is our first week of school and that means, yet again, we need to teach our Freshmen how to work in a PBL environment.  When every class is being taught this way it means that in every class they will be working in groups of 2 to 5 people.  In some classes they may have to be a group leader.    In other classes they may have specific roles to do.  In yet another class they may just be working in a collaborative role.

     When students get to us they don't, usually, understand how to work in a group.   There are assigned roles with individual responsibilities and expectations.  There are also expected behaviors of each member of the group and behaviors by the entire group.

     Last year we came across a Ted Talk by Tom Wujec where he described a challenge (presented by Peter Skillman).  This is now, famously, known as the Spaghetti Challenge.  Here is a great video to show what a typical classroom is like in the last few minutes of this challenge.

     The rules are simple and we like to present the challenge as an engineering design brief (got to get the vocabulary started too).  During the first day of class they are given the challenge.  The next day we introduce roles and the students break up into expert groups based upon their roles.  The roles are Designer, Tester, and Builder.  Therefore the expert groups are the Design Team, the Test Team, and the Build Team.  Before the expert groups get started we reflect on what we observed the previous day.  What went well?  What hurdles needed to be overcome?  What frustrations did they feel?  And other thoughts as they come up.  We then ask how we could make the experience better.

    On the third day the expert groups have a quick meeting and then the students are sent back to their original groups to make the tower.  The groups are reminded that each person in the group has a role and they are not to do anything that isn't specifically related to their role.  Once the challenge is completed we take measurements but instead of a "winner", based upon height,  we recognize groups that worked well together.  We take time to talk, again, about what worked and what frustrations were felt.

     By the end of these three days, the students have learned most of the other students' names and (more importantly) I know many of the students' names.  They have also worked in groups where no one is assigned as the "group leader."  Each of them has had an important role that was needed for all of the group to be successful.  Finally, they have seen what group relationships worked and what relationships were not as effective.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Are You Ready For a Flat School Organization?

 For the last week our school has joined the thousands of school districts across the country with back to school preparations.  This process usually provides professional development (PD) in topics particular to the school, the district, and the state.  They also provide PD in topics related to areas of concentration and might include classroom management techniques or trainings on new technologies adopted by the school district.

     At our school you might say it is just as I described with one major exception.  Our staff is small (29 teachers) and we pride ourselves in all being leaders of the school.  Because of this, and the fact that every one of our teachers is incredibly passionate about his or her subject and PBL,  these meetings can, um, not sure of the right word here....be ...interesting(?).  
     Allow me to give you a taste.  Our school grades students on Learning Outcomes (LC's).  They are based upon 21st Century Skills and are: Written and Oral Communication, Critical Thinking, Collaboration, Work Ethic, Numeracy, Global and Community Engagement (GCE), Tech Literacy, and Content.  The school district has chosen 5 of these to use in every school.  Our very first task, then, was to look at the district's wording for the 5 LC's they are using and compare them with the wording of the corresponding LC's for our school.  In short, all we have to do is decide if we like their wording better, our wording better, or should we change our wording to a combination of the two.  How long could that take? 

     After 15 minutes we were still wrestling with the first LC and our principal turned to me and said, "I should have known, with this group, it wouldn't be easy."  We finished that first task within about an hour.  Then came an examination of the other 4 LC's.  We had to decide: (1) Do we want to keep the LC?  (2) If we keep the LC, do we need to change the wording?  (3)  How does each LC relate to the other LC's and the Content?  (4) Do we need to have a content grade if the other LC's can cover the content through the way the rubric is written? (5) How often do we assess each of the LC's - during each project, during a grading period, or during a trimester (our semester)?  And a few other questions.

     When the smoke cleared, about 3 hours later, we had decided that every LC, with the exception of Numeracy and GCE, would be assessed during every project.  Numeracy and GCE will be assessed at least 2 times during each trimester.  That, is now the official statement.  But each teacher, group of teachers, content teachers, grade level teachers and any other combination of teachers (I didn't just mention), can assess Numeracy and GCE more often.

     To recap: Our Principal came to us and asked us to look at the district's Learning Outcomes and determine how our Learning Outcomes compare.  We then decided whether to keep our original list or make some changes based upon the district list.   Our discussion, cut short because we were at the end of the school day, had taken over four hours to complete.  But, every single teacher gave input.  As a matter of fact several of us took turns facilitating the conversation and made sure that everyone had an opportunity for comment.

     We are a group of individuals who like to give input.  We like to dissect problems.  We like to have a voice in decisions.  We ask questions of anyone and everyone.  We are a flat organization.   There are many teachers who say they feel that they don't have enough say in what goes on at their school.  I wonder if they realize what could happen if suddenly they were given more of a leadership role.  One thing I know is that time would become their enemy.  

     Be careful what you wish for - you might find yourself in charge of a facet of running your school organization.   

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Carnival of Cities for August 10, 2011

Welcome to the Carnival of Cities blog carnival, where we tour the world in a single post, via submissions from a variety of different blogs, all about any aspect of one, single city (or fair-sized town)

Thank you for letting an educator host this great carnival for the first time. I welcome all of you to Edutech Musings, where I blog about education related matters and my family. Glad you stopped by! 

This is the August 10 edition. The previous edition was hosted on July 27 by Arrows Sent Forth and the August 24 edition will be on Sheila's Guide

Please submit your (ONE, non-spammy) blog post to the next edition of the Carnival of Cities using the carnival submission form



Anne-Sophie Redisch presents Appealing Alghero (Sardinia) posted at Sophie's World

Marc Fav presents Barcelona - - - A Dream posted at Marc Fav.


Nicole Wiltrout presents Georges Island: Tips and Photos posted at Arrows Sent Forth

Sheila Scarborough presents Slow down and appreciate the less exotic posted at Perceptive Travel Blog

Mary Jo Manzanares presents 10 Days of Seattle Summer Fun for Families posted at Traveling with MJ

Zhu presents Tourists in Toronto posted at Correr Es Mi Destino

Corinne McDermott presents Baby Friendly Toronto: Riverdale Farm posted at Have Baby Will Travel

We had a wonderful tour of the world. That concludes this Carnival edition. Thanks for visiting. 

If you would like to host a future Carnival edition on your blog, please contact Sheila Scarborough at Sheila “at” sheilascarborough “dot” com. I can now attest that hosting is easy and fun! (Who wouldn't want a sneak peak at all these great travel posts?!) Spots to host are available in September and October. 

Past editions and future hosts can be found on the blog carnival index page.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

My Teacher Essay Contest Submission


    This morning I submitted my entry into the Teacher Essay Contest for NBC News Education Nation.  Three "winners" will be selected and will be flown to NYC to be a part of the Teacher Town Hall on September 25th.  Here is the link to the contest, followed by my essay entry. 

The biggest challenge I face as a teacher is students arriving for high school with huge learning gaps.  But I do not place the blame on the teachers these students have had while they were attending elementary or middle school.  Many of these students have gaps due to things happening in their lives while foundational topics were being covered.

     These may include any of the following scenarios or combinations of scenarios:  

We have students moving into and out of homes with relatives, group shelters, or a car on the side of a street.  We have students taking care of sick brothers and sisters or grandparents. We have students who are really, really hungry.  We have students living where partying and all night activities are the norm.  We have students with no backpack, paper, or books in their “homes.’  We have parents who want to be supportive but they are pulled in multiple directions with multiple jobs, taking care of family and relatives, or a possible drug or alcohol addiction.  We have students who are surrounded by people who have never been to college – there is no role model to show them the way.

     I could add a few more scenarios but I want to make the point that students come to 9th grade with a lot of baggage.  It’s a wonder they can count to 100 or spell Mississippi with all of the barriers to learning that they have encountered.

     One of the really frustrating things, for me, is seeing high school freshmen willing to fail.  How should I react when a student tells me “I don’t care,” when I tell him or her that he needs to get his work done so that he can pass the class?  Should I respond, “well I don’t care either?”  They have seen so many low grades that they don’t think that it is strange to fail.  They have already given up hope of being a successful student.

     When I transitioned to being a teacher from a career in the military, my father-in-law gave me some sound advice.  He said, “You can’t save them all.”  What he meant was that you should try and help every student but when one of them refuses the help and falls through the cracks you shouldn’t beat yourself up – if you truly have tried everything.

     And so, as I drive home from school each day, I take the time to think about my students.  There are the ones who may only be making B’s and C’s but they try hard.  They do their work every day, and they are becoming good citizens of the world.  Then there are the high achieving students.  Am I challenging them enough?  Am I encouraging them and giving them praise for their work or am I ignoring them because they always do good work – I’ve got problem kids to worry about!

     Finally, there are my low achieving students.  One student might be dealing with a pregnancy (theirs or their girlfriends).  Another might be going home to a really bad situation every night.  And another might be actively involved in a neighborhood gang and all of the potential for trouble that entails.

     What about those students who don’t understand the material?  What is going on in class that might be causing this?  Or worse, what might be going on at home that could be causing this?  Am I actively listening to their discussions with their fellow students so I know whether they have any misconceptions?  Do I need to pull a student or a group of students in for extra help with a concept?  Is there a leader in the class who could do some peer tutoring and when should I schedule that?   Do I need to have our master teacher, who is bilingual, call in one of these students for a conference with a parent or guardian because I’m concerned something is going on that is effecting his or her work?   What can I add to tomorrow’s lesson, (or to a future lesson), to make class more interesting with real-life problems to solve?

      It seems like there are more negative influences on our students, today, than in any other time in my life.  Most students are able to overcome these obstacles and they do so without much assistance.  Many reach incredible heights of learning in spite of these barriers. 

     At the beginning of this essay I stated that I had one challenge.  However that challenge is a many-headed monster that I must face.  I measure my success by how well I am able to help students navigate this maze known as life.  One student may periodically get lost and never find the exit.  But most will reach the world outside of the maze.  And then, I will have succeeded as a teacher.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Hello Mother, Hello Father: Growing up at Camp

Sheila Scarborough Photo
If you hadn't read my post about my son going to camp you should do so. But, if you didn't, Tommy is at Camp Champions in Marble Falls a little over an hour away. He attended the camp 2 years ago as a 9 year old and he was miserable for most of it but ended up loving it so much he cried when he had to leave.

When your kid first goes away for camp they always tell you that if you get letters from the camper you can expect the first one to (usually) be all about being home sick and asking you to come get them. It really rips your heart out. But, they grow into the camp routine and they have fun and suddenly any follow up letters will be filled with "guess what we did..." types of passages.

Today we received two letters from Tommy. This is a significant improvement over the last time when we got 2 letters total and one of those didn't arrive until well after he was back home because he messed up the address.

When we opened the first letter it was folded so we could see "I am very homesick" in big letters on the fold. He continued in the letter saying "can you pick me up I miss ya"ll to (sic) much I can't stay here for two weeks." He adds a "P.S. pick me up as soon as you can" and a "or at least come visit me please I need you."

We sighed, didn't really say anything and then opened the second letter. There was no "I'm homesick" on the outside of the folded letter and inside he started with "Dear Mom and Dad I'm kind of homesick it's hard to sleep at night." He immediately started telling us that he loves swimming in the lake and that he did the Ropes Course (which his counselor from two years ago was in charge of) and he was excited that he didn't have to "swim the lake (he's not old enough yet)."

He finished the letter by stating " the good thing is I've lost weight! I run and drink water every day. Camp isn't so bad I guess. Love Tommy."

Total time between writing the two letters? Two days!

So, if you have kids getting to that age where they are ready to go away to camp remember, they will survive, they will (usually) have a blast, and you can expect the first letter to be awful. They wouldn't do that if they didn't love you.

     If you haven't heard before or just can't remember the lyrics to Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh by Allen Sherman, here are the lyrics:

Hello Muddah, hello Fadduh,
Here I am at Camp Grenada

Camp is very entertaining
and they say we'll have some fun if it stops raining.

I went hiking with Joe Spivy
He developed poison ivy
You remember Leonard Skinner
He got ptomaine poisoning last night after dinner.

All the counselors hate the waiters
And the lake has alligators
And the head coach wants no sissies
So he reads to us from something called Ulysses.

Now I don't want this should scare ya
But my bunkmate has malaria
You remember Jeffrey Hardy
They're about to organize a searching party.

Take me home, oh muddah fadduh, take me home, I hate Grenada
Don't leave me out in the forest where I might get eaten by a bear.
Take me home, I promise I will not make noise or mess the house with
other boys, oh please don't make me stay, I've been here one whole day.

Dearest fadduh, darling muddah,
How's my precious little bruddah?
Let me come home if ya miss me
I will even let Aunt Bertha hug and kiss me.

Wait a minute, it stopped hailing,
Guys are swimming, guys are sailing,
Playing baseball, gee that's better,
Muddah Fadduh kindly disregard this letter.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Hiring Teachers in the Digital Age

     Yesterday and today I was honored to be interviewing candidates for 2 positions at our school. Honored, yes, because in these trying economic times the candidates came to us with incredible resumes. Teacher positions are hard to come by and only the best (or luckiest) are getting hired. Add to that the fact that our school is considered to be a great school, where innovators of education reside, and there really isn't a dearth of applications.

     An added strangeness to this school year is the fact that school districts were late to the game in releasing openings for positions. This was directly linked to the late passage of the state budget.

     So, here we are 3 weeks until students are coming through our door, and we are just starting the interview process. Our principal had narrowed the more than 70 applications down to a dozen or so. Many of these came with recommendations from people at the University of Texas and Texas State University and were easy pushes to the interview round.

     And so with laptop and iPad in hand we entered the room to sort through our interviewees. I had an initial list of questions on the iPad Notes app and was able to (if needed) do more extensive searches with my laptop. (Note: that was only the case because I've only had my iPad for a month or so and I really don't have my driver's license for it yet).

     When the interviewer came in I would try to tell them that I was going to be keeping notes on my iPad and that I wasn't reading emails or on twitter during the interview. Two of the interviews were held via Skype and so I didn't have to make a reference to using my iPad.

     What I found myself doing was a quick Google search of their name while they were introducing themselves. I would look to see if there were any interesting things that popped up on the first page, good or bad. None had anything bad come up by the way. But I was able to pull up school websites and see what the environment of the school they were coming from, or had done student teaching at, was like.

     If they threw out that their school had 80% Low SES (an indicator of students on free or reduced lunch) I could pull up those statistics to see if they were trying to sway us with these numbers (again, none were wrong). And, I could instantly see that there were some things (all good) that hadn't really been pushed to the forefront. One candidate was the Head Baseball Coach at his high school and another was on the U.S. Paralympic Team at the Nagano Olympics and brought home a Medal!

     Should we have had time to do a more extensive study of our candidates I would have checked their Twitter stream (if they had one), their LinkedIn Profile (if...), or their Facebook Profile and status.  Because that's where we are these days.  Nothing is, or should be, a secret unless it is so small it is insignificant.  For example our district is pretty conservative.  Although what you do in your private life is of little importance to me, there are people who would take offense to what you do if you are involved in something that's, say, less than Christian.

     And so we forwarded a couple of names to our principal and one of those will become part of our Manor New Tech staff.  We feel very blessed because there wasn't one candidate that I interviewed that I wouldn't be happy to work with.   When I find out the selection I'll have to invite them to twitter and Facebook and see if they are the type I would send a Google + account to.  Only then will we really be connected as a co-teacher.