Monday, January 31, 2011

What Do You Make?

I have recieved this several times in various forms throughout my years as an educator.
Each time I see it, I am reminded of why we do what we do.

What do you make?

The dinner guests were sitting around the table discussing life.
One man, a CEO, decided to explain the problem with education.
He argued: "What's a kid going to learn from someone who decided his best option in life was to become a teacher?"
He reminded the other dinner guests that it's true what they say about teachers: "Those who can: do. Those who can't: teach."
To corroborate, he said to another guest: "You're a teacher, Susan," he said. "Be honest.  What do you make?"                
 Susan, who had a reputation of honesty and frankness, replied, "You want to know what I make?"
"I make kids work harder than they ever thought they could.
I can make a C+ feel like the Congressional Medal of Honor and an A- feel like a slap in the face if the student did not do his or her very best." 
"I can make kids sit through 40 minutes of study hall in absolute silence."
"I can make parents tremble in fear when I call home."
"You want to know what I make?"
“I make kids wonder."
"I make them question."
"I make them criticize."
"I make them apologize and mean it."
"I make them write."
"I make them read, read, read."
"I make them spell "definitely & beautiful" over and over again, until they will never misspell either one of those words again."
"I make them show all their work in math and hide it all on their final drafts in English."
"I elevate them to experience music and art and the joy in performance, so their lives are rich, full of kindness and culture, and they take pride in themselves and their accomplishments."
"I make them understand that if you have the brains, then follow your heart...and if someone ever tries to judge you by what money you are paid, you pay them no attention."
"You want to know what I make?"
"I make a difference."
"What do you make?"

There is a great take off on this by Taylor Mali on a TED Talk.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Job or Vocation?

            Job satisfaction as an educator in California is more like an oxymoron than something that can be pinpointed in a reflective blog.  Despite being underpaid, overworked and wearing more hats simultaneously than a lunch time hat rack in January at a Chicago Numero Uno, I love what I do!

            Job satisfaction comes very simply from knowing that each and everyday I make a difference in someone’s life. But if I had to pinpoint five factors that are critical to my own job satisfaction I would  rank them as follows:
1.       Vocation
2.       Mission
3.       Students
4.       Colleagues
5.       Ah Ha! Moments

Vocation is clearly the top in the list because I have chosen education as my vocation.  Teaching is both who I am and what I do. I have come to this realization through a twenty year transition from coach who taught, to teacher and coach, to teacher who also coached, to teacher, and finally to educator as my vocation. Knowing the value of an education to those I have taught in the past and to the students who currently share my educational realm, I know that what I do is invaluable to each and every individual who I am fortunate to mentor, guide, inspire and educate.   

Mission is next because I am a Lasallian educator and both live and believe in the Lasallian Mission.  The tradition of Lasallian education is one guided by five principles: Faith in the Presence of God, Quality Education, Inclusive Community, Respect for All Persons, Concern for the Poor and Social Justice. In this tradition each student is valued for their unique set of talents and abilities. Students are encouraged to value education as a means to follow a simple idea of “Enter to Learn, Leave to Serve. It is in this living this mission that I find job satisfaction knowing that the students I teach will be making positive contributions to the world we share.

Students are the fuel for my educational engine.  I absorb their enthusiasm and energy and use that as a means of driving myself each day. Who would I be as an educator if it weren’t for students. 

As the Science Department Chair, I am very fortunate to have a tremendous group of educators to work with.  These people are not only colleagues but friends. We have developed a symbiotic mutualism as we work to make the educational process effective for ourselves but for the students entrusted to our care.  It is the respect we have for each other as educators that allow us to set aside ego and share the menial tasks of copying, filing, grading to make for a very efficient working model. But what I enjoy most is the sharing of ideas. We talk about everything.  Conversations in our common prep rooms can include classroom planning and management, Moodle (online education hub) development, lab preparation, or kid's soccer game, the mechinics of pitching, or excitement at the most recent science outreach, or last night’s family dinner.  I am blessed to have colleagues whom I can share my vocation.

Ah Ha! Moments are what all teachers live for.  That flipping of the switch when the light bulb goes on.  When the student who is just about to pack it in sees the light and I know that I was a conduit in that circuit. But for me, the best ah ha! Moments are those I get from voices from the past. When I run into a former student or get that phone call or email that let’s me know that I had some effect on their life.
They don’t come as often as I would like but just one is usually good for a year or two of inspiration to continue valuing the job I do.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Ready Made Values

When I need to introduce a topic on values, or would like to focus on the development of  a character trait of my students, I visit from the Foundation for a Better Life. We have all seen the Pass It On billboards located along the freeways or in our neighborhoods.

The Randy Pausch billboard above is one of my favorites, but that is for another blog, another time., provides, video clips, poster downloads, inspirational stories and slew of other motivational information to introduce, begin, continue expand any type of values discussion I would like to incorporate into my classroom.

I have created a PowerPoint in the movie below, that I use periodically as students enter the room or while they are working on an assignment in class. (You are not the only teacher in the room.)  I will close the PowerPoint and pose the following question to my class, "Which slide caught your attention and why?"  The possibilities for class discussion about values and character development are tremendous.  

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

92% Of What We Teach Each Other

In my classroom I have a chart of the work of Dr. Gary Phillips on Brain Research completed as part of the National School Improvement Project.

I use this chart to remind me that when we teach each other we solidify our own understanding of the material. I design my classes to be teacher guided but student driven.  I implore students to assist each other in the understanding of material as a means of increasing their own knowledge.  I purposely design projects, activities and lessons to initiate the student to student interaction. 

This is not cooperative learning, as some teachers mistakenly call it.  I spend a great deal of time discussing the integrity of the process.  This is not giving answers to another student, but truly assisting another student to understand and in doing so increasing their own knowldge base. 

Amazingly you will find that sometimes, the student who struggles the most is actually the best teacher of material once they understand it. These students usually had to deconstruct the information in order to undertand the material and therefore can do a better job of actually building up and explaining the basic components of the topic. 

Remember, It's not about you; it's about them - "a guide on the side" 

Brain Reaserach Summary

We learn and remamber after one month...

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Ishmael Will Change the Way Your Students Think

I adopted this text for my Environmental Science course four years ago.  Although I use it in a science course, the topics covered include: human culture, anthropology, religion, politics, ecology, biology and history, just to name a few.  The text creates just enough discomfort in the students to force them to take a look at their place in the world and how the choices they make have an impact on everything and everybody.

·        Ishmael by Daniel Quinn provides students the opportunity to question where mankind has come from and what the future holds if we continue upon our current path.
·        The novel questions our societal values from many points of view including anthropology, culture, ecology, economics, environment, ethics, industry, politics, prejudice, science and sociology. 
·        Ishmael’s teaching centers primarily upon the Taker versus the Leaver in society. Students evaluate the choices made by individuals, communities and countries and their ultimate effect on our own survival as a human race.   
·        More than 250 colleges and universities have courses based upon Ishmael or use Ishmael as a significant reading within the curriculum. 
·        Educators who use Ishmael report significant improvement in students approach to problem solving and critical thinking.  
·        The Ishmael Companion workbook is available for teachers for sample discussion points, activities and assignments.
·        The Ishmael community is an online resource for supplemental materials for both teachers and students. 

Ishmael is a half ton silverback gorilla. He is a student of ecology, life, freedom, and the human condition. He is also a teacher. He teaches that which all humans need to learn -- must learn -- if our species, and the rest of life on Earth as we know it, is to survive.

The book opens with a deceptively ordinary personals ad: "Teacher seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world." Seeking a direction for his life, a young man answers the ad and is startled to find that the teacher is a lowland gorilla named Ishmael, a creature uniquely placed to vision anew the human story.
Quinn says Ishmael is a story about hope. "I think we have a much finer and more exciting destiny than conquering and ruling the world," he says. "This book shows that we can learn about what that destiny is from the life around us -- and in Ishmael it just happens that life speaks with the voice of a lowland gorilla."

For more on Daniel Quinn and Ishmael visit:

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Planting Mangoes

I found this story  many years ago.  I keep a copy over my desk as a reminder that I may never see nor experience the seeds of education I plant in the minds of my students each day, but I believe that what I do for them in my classroom is invaluable to their development into adults who think critically, communicate effectively and work collaboratively to make positive change in this world that we share.     
It was time for the monsoon rains to begin and a very old man was digging holes in his garden
“What are you doing?” his neighbor asked.
“Planting mango trees” was the reply.
“Do you expect to eat mangoes from those trees?”
“No, I won’t live long enough for that.  But others will. 
 It occurred to me the other day that all my life I have enjoyed mangoes planted by other people.  This is my way of showing them my gratitude.”

Friday, January 21, 2011

Make Goals SMART

Students have a great difficulty defining their own progress toward success because they do not understand the value of setting goals.  I have adopted the ideas that goals should be SMART in order for students to set, define and accomplish goals. While also being able to measure their own progress and success.

S      Specific
M     Measurable
A      Action Oriented
R      Realistic
T      Time Bound

Students need to create that are straightforward and emphasize what they want to happen.
Specifics help the student to focus their own effort and clearly define what they are going to do.
Specific is the What, Why, and How of the SMART model.
  • WHAT are you going to do? Use action words such as direct, organize, coordinate, lead, develop, plan, build etc.
  • WHY is this important to do at this time? What do you want to ultimately accomplish?
  • HOW are you going to do it? (By…)
Ensure the goals they set are very specific, clear and easy. Instead of setting a goal to improve their grades, set a goal of increasing their GPA by 0.5 during the semester.

If they can’t measure it, they can’t manage it. In the broadest sense, the whole goal statement is a measure for the project; if the goal is accomplished, then there is success. However, there are usually several short-term incremental steps that can be built into the goal.
Students should choose a goal with measurable progress, so they can see the change occur. How will they see when they reach your goal? Be specific! “I want to read 5 books this summer before the fall semester begins."  This shows the specific target to be measured. “I want to be a better reader” is not as measurable.
Students must establish concrete criteria for measuring progress toward the attainment of each goal they set. When they measure theirr progress, they stay on track, reach their target, and experience the exhilaration of achievement that will spur them on to continued effort required to reach theirgoals.

Action Oriented
When students identify goals that are most important to them, they begin to figure out ways they can make them come true. In other words they match the goal to their own actions. They develop that attitudes, abilities, skills, and financial capacity to reach them. They will begin to see previously overlooked opportunities to bring themself closer to the achievement of your goals.
Astudent needs to be able to determine how their own actions are married to the success or failure in attaining that goal.  The ultimate achievement is not based upon another persons abilities and therefore they eleiminate any possible scapegoat.
A goal needs to stretch them slightly so they feel they can do it and it will demand an an authentic commitment on their part. A goal of losing five pounds in a week is directly linked to their own choice of action.  Are they willing to take the proper steps to attain that goal: choosing the right meals, excercising daily, and maintaining their life balance. 
The feeling of success which this brings helps to remain motivated and on task toward that goal.

This is not a synonym for “easy.” Realistic, in this case, means “do-able.” It means that the learning curve is not a vertical slope; that the skills needed to do the work are available; that the project fits with the overall strategy and goals of the organization. A realistic project may push the skills and knowledge of the people working on it but it shouldn’t break them.
Students will devise a plan or a way of getting there which makes the goal realistic. The goal needs to be realistic for them and where they are at the moment. A goal of never again eating sweets, cakes, crisps and chocolate may not be realistic for someone who really enjoys these foods.
For instance, it may be more realistic to set a goal of eating a piece of fruit each day instead of one sweet item. They can then choose to work towards reducing the amount of sweet products gradually as and when this feels realistic for them.
Be sure thet they set goals that they can attain with some effort! If goals are too difficult they set the stage for failure, and sabotage their own success. Goals set too low sends the message that they don't think they are very capable. Help them to Set the bar high enough for a satisfying achievement!

Time Bound
Students need to set a timeframe for the goal: for next week, in three months, by tenth grade. Putting an end point on their goal gives them a clear target to work towards.
If students don’t set a time, the commitment is too vague. It tends not to happen because they feel they can start at any time. Without a time limit, there’s no urgency to start taking action now.
The deadlines must be measurable, attainable and realistic.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

TED - Your own private forum.

TED is a small nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading. It started out (in 1984) as a conference bringing together people from three worlds: Technology, Entertainment, Design. Since then its scope has become ever broader. Along with two annual conferences -- the TED Conference in Long Beach and Palm Springs each spring, and the TEDGlobal conference in Oxford UK each summer -- TED includes the award-winning TEDTalks video site, the Open Translation Project and Open TV Project, the inspiring TED Fellows and TEDx programs, and the annual TED Prize.

These 10 to 20 minute videos provide an opportunity to expose students to the ideas, causes, challenges, solutions, that are currently and will be changing the world that we share.  I integrate these videos into my classrooom to introduce topics. I assign videos for homework and create forums for students to respond online to me and to each other about what they heard and saw in the video.  I use them to inspire my students to strive beyond the limitations and to believe in the possibilities that lie ahead.

TED is an acronym for Technology, Education and Design, however, the talks run the gamut, from a juggler who explain the patterns used in math and the challenge of overcoming difficulties in school  through the rythmic patterns of repetition or the educator who created a tinkering school that allows children to build rollercoasters using power tools at very young ages. I share these talks with parents, colleagues and friends.  I have yet to visit the TED site without finding something of interest.

A visit to the TED website will open unlimited possibilioties for you, your classroom and your students.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


Originally put together in 2001 by Chuck Salter, for Fast Company, this simplified list of the 16 ways to become a Smarter Teacher has become a checkpoint for me as I review my course development and lesson planning.  I constantly strive to be the 'Guide on the Side' rather than the 'Sage on the Stage' in encouraging my students to become fully engaged in their own learning process.

16 Ways to Be a Smarter Teacher

1. Students take risks when teachers create a safe environment.
Students have to acknowledge what they don’t know, take risks and rethink what they thought they knew. That can be uncomfortable - even scary - situation for anyone. A little warmth goes a long way.

2. It’s not about you; it’s about them - “a guide on the side”
The best teachers see themselves as guides. They share what they know but they understand they are not the focus - their students and their learning are.

3. Study your students.
It’s not enough to know your material. You need to know the people you are teaching - their talents, prior experience and needs.

4. Great teachers exude passion as well as purpose.
The difference between a good teacher and a great one is not expertise. It comes down to passion, passion for the material and passion for teaching. The desire is infectious.

5. Students learn when teachers show them how much they need to learn.
Students need to see the gap between where they are and where they need to be. Once they see that, they can begin to learn.

6. Keep it clear even if you can’t keep it simple.
One of the chief attributes of a great teacher is the ability to break down complex ideas and make them understandable. The essence of teaching - and learning - is communication.

7. Practice - vulnerability without sacrificing credibility.
Sometimes the best answer a teacher can give is “I don’t know”. Instead of losing credibility, the teacher gains students’ trust and that trust is the basis of a productive relationship. Acknowledging what you don’t know shows that you are still learning, that the teacher is, in fact, still a student.

8. Teach from the heart.
The best teaching isn’t formulaic; it’s personal. Develop your own teaching style based on your experience and watching exemplary teachers (your mentor, for example).

9. Repeat the important point.
If you want your listener (student) to remember something, you need to give it to them more than once. The first time you say something, it’s heard. The second time, it’s recognized. The third time it’s learned, especially if practiced. The challenge then, is to be consistent without becoming predictable or boring.

10. Good teachers ask good questions, and keep asking until they really understand.
Effective teachers understand that learning is about exploring the unknown and that such exploration begins with good questions: Questions that open a door to a deeper understanding.

11. You are not passing out information.
The best instructors are less interested in the answers than in the thinking behind them. They help people learn how to think on their own rather than telling them what to think.

12. Stop talking - and start listening.
Effective learning is a two-way street: it’s a dialogue, not a monologue.

13. Learn what to listen for.
Listening is what the students have to say helps them assemble the information and organize their thoughts. Allow them the opportunity to speak to the issues going on in the lesson and the class. Contextualized information is more easily understood and retained.

14. Let the students teach each other.
You are not the only one your student learns from. They also learn on their own and from their peers. Allow the students to work together to form deeper understandings.

15. Avoid using the same approach for everyone.
Good teachers believe that every student can learn, but they understand that students learn differently. Some are visual, some grasp the abstract, some learn best by reading. The effective teacher must adopt a differentiated approach.

16. You are always teaching.
Effective teaching is about the quality of the relationship between the teacher and the student. It does not begin and end with the bell. Your every action and word with students is teaching. Be aware of your influence at all times: in the hall, the cafeteria, the playground, etc.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

John Wooden - A Source of Endless Inspiration

While each year I begin by introducing my students to the Pyramid of Success created by John Wooden, it is his seven point creed that tends to have the most impact on students in getting them focused on the importance of maximizing each moment of each day.
Passed down from his father these points still ring true, no matter the time or place.   How simple yet true our own lives could be if we could find a way to live our lives under these guidelines.

John Wooden's  Seven Point Creed  
  • Be true to yourself.
  • Make each day your masterpiece.
  • Help others.
  • Drink deeply from good books, especially the Bible.
  • Make friendship a fine art.
  • Build a shelter against a rainy day.
  • Pray for guidance and give thanks for your blessings every day.
For more on John Wooden visit

Friday, January 14, 2011

Problem Solving Plan

Do our students truly understand that Problem Solving is a process they need to master. I really like this Problem Solving plan. I especially appreciate the (Put the Pencil Down)and (Pick the Pencil Up) notations. I spend a great deal of time making sure my students appreciate the process of problem solving rather than just finding an answer.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

If , as a teacher,

If, as a teacher,
I present the same lessons in the same manner that I have used in the past;
I seek no feedback from my student;
I do not analyze and evaluate their work in a manner that changes my own emphasis, repertoire, and timing;
I do not visit and observe other adults as they teach;
I do not share the work of my students with colleagues for feedback, suggestions, and critiques;
I do not visit other schools or attend particular workshops or seminars or read professional literature on aspects of my teaching;
I do not welcome visitors with experience and expertise to observe and provide feedback to me on my classroom practice;
I have no yearly individualized professional development plan focused on classroom changes to improve student learning;
and finally,
I have no systemic evaluation of my teaching tied to individual, grade/department, and school-wide goals,
Then, I have absolutely no way to become better as a teacher.

I recieved this poem about six years ago from a workshop at Concordia University. 
I have embraced the idea of invigorating my own learning curve as a means of making sure I do not stagnate in my methodologies to maximize the learning opportunities for the students entrusted to my care.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Sweep Like Michaelangelo

After reading Rafe Esquith's book "Lighting Their Fires: Raising Extraordinary Kids in a Mixed-up, Muddled-Up, Shook-up world",

I created a powerpoint using the quote from the Martin Luther King speech, "What is Your Life's Blueprint."

"If it falls your lot in life to sweep the streets: sweep them like Michaelangelo painted pictures, like Beethoven composed music and like Shakespeare wrote poetry."

I use this powerpoint throughout the semester to encourage students to maximize their effort in everything they do. Periodically I let students choose additional role models to add to the powerpoint.

Students have come up with examples like:  Theodore Gieselle, championed literacy, Jesse Owens, 'eraced' racism and Steve Prefontaine broke through the limits.

To learn more about Rafe Esquith access his website for the Hobart Shakespeareans.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Imagine Learning

The desktop for my computer is a photo I took of the John Lennon meorial in New York. I challenge my students each and everyday to IMAGINE the possibilities for both themselves and the world we share. This image on my SMART Board is a constant reminder of that challenge.