On the need for mentors…

I wrote in an earlier post here and in another here about collaboration and how I firmly believe that teaching is a group activity. I’ve been fortunate in my career to have been mentored by a number of remarkable individuals. To my regret, I have not kept up with them as much as I should have, as I (or they) moved on from a particular job. About a decade ago, I began tracking down my former high school teachers who made a big impact on me. It was a powerful experience, for me at least, to be able to thank those individuals for the time and energy they put into me that I very clearly didn’t appreciate at the time. (One of my former teachers, who will remain unnamed, fell off her chair laughing when she found out I was going to be a teacher. She also told my future mother-in-law that she couldn’t believe Shirley was going to let her daughter marry “that Velto boy.”)

Like many of my high school teachers, some of my early mentors have died before I could really thank them. Hugh “Gunner” Gunnison and Peter van de Water both died a few years back – Peter in 2014, and Gunner earlier. Both had a profound impact on how I thought about teaching. In fact Peter is the one who actively encouraged me to use my theatrical impulses, honed by many years on stage, in the classroom. Sue Burwell, who died this fall, taught me the value of going above and beyond simple activities and how imagination could be the most powerful tool in a teacher’s kit. All three also taught me about creating a climate in a classroom where hard work would happen, but there could still be laughter and fun.

At this point in my career, I have gone from being the “wet-behind-the-ears” youngest teacher on the staff (I was 22 when I started teaching) to being one of the grizzled veterans. Not only could my students be my kids, some of my colleagues could be as well. This realization made me wonder whether I had repaid my mentors adequately enough by being a good and available colleague to others. (I won’t call myself a mentor, because I don’t think that’s a title I can bestow on myself. If others want to use it to describe me, I’d be honored…but that’s their right, not mine.) Early on, I decided I would adopt the “what’s mine is yours” approach. If I have a lesson you think you could use, here it is. If you are stuck and ask for me to help you figure something out, I’m happy to give you my time and thoughts. If I have a skill or knowledge of a task that you need, I’ll gladly help you learn it. By and large, this approach has served me well. Many folks have generously given back to me, enabling me to continue my education. But could I, should I do more?

This foray into impostor syndrome is brought to you by my doubts. Like many teachers, I suspect, I often ask myself what more I could be doing for my students – to better enable them to learn, to lessen their stress, to model curiosity and a love of learning. Periodically, I have similar thoughts about whether I am a good colleague. When I collaborate on a class (as I am currently in the French Revolution class), am I really bearing my fair share of the work load? Am I making whatever knowledge I have on various topics or tools available to my colleagues so that they know they can come to me if they have questions I might be able to answer? Am I doing this in a way that makes me sound like an insufferable know-it-all? (Probably – as a white, straight, male history teacher of a certain age, I’m guessing I was “man ‘splaining” before it became a “thing” but at least now I’m actively trying to NOT do that.)

I don’t have a way to answer my doubts definitively. I look at myself in the mirror each morning and promise to do the best I can on that given day. Thanks to my mentors, both young and old, I have great examples of being a good colleague. All I can do is try my best to learn from their example. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll have a positive impact on one of my colleagues as well.



What Next?

I’ve spent some time over break catching up on looking over the work my students completed in the weeks since Thanksgiving. (Isn’t that what breaks are for?) The last class before the break, I asked the students in the human trafficking class to do a reflective writing piece. We’ve spent about three weeks exploring various types of slavery in the world today, watched a number of videos, read case studies about those who have survived and those still ensnared, and explored the complicated ideas around why twenty to forty million people today are enslaved in a world where it is supposedly illegal.

William Wilberforce, in a speech to the British Parliament in 1791, said “Having heard all of this you may choose to look the other way but you can never again say you did not know.” I gave this quote to the students and then asked them now that they knew what they knew, what were they going to do about it? Many of the responses were centered around the idea that they wanted to talk with their families about choices being made regarding consumption of certain products. We’d had the discussion before break about how this is an issue that they CAN do something about, because they all buy stuff. Choosing what to buy (or not buy) and leveraging their social connections to talk with others to do the same, can have an impact. That’s why the Harry Potter candies are no longer made with slave-produced chocolate.

A number also talked about being more attuned to recognizing the signs of trafficking so they could call the human trafficking hotline if they saw something that was suspicious. Many reflected on the shock they felt when they learned just how pervasive human trafficking is in the United States today. They also appreciated being able to show evidence to parents, family, and friends who didn’t believe them. In addition, students talked about needing to become more informed themselves. Some also expressed some feelings of being overwhelmed (“EVERYTHING IS MADE BY SLAVES!!!!”), but they also recognized that small changes can be made to chip away at the issue. What I didn’t see: guilt.

Whenever I have conversations with students (or adults, for that matter) on trafficking, I work hard to inform without invoking guilt. I don’t want to blame my students. I don’t want to shame my students. I want my students to become informed so that they can begin to understand the role of trafficking in the world today and then take the steps they feel they can, at this place and time, to limit the use of products created through the use of trafficked persons as they can. One of the best tools to help build this understanding that I have seen is the Slavery Footprint tool created by the anti-trafficking group Made in a Free World. When we discuss the results, I never ask the students to disclose the specific results – again, I don’t want to shame the kids – but we do discuss what they saw in the exercise that contributed to the result.

Up next is a call for them to do something. I want to channel the knowledge they’ve gained and the reflections they’ve done into action. Over the next two weeks, the students will be working groups to create PSAs to raise awareness of a particular type of trafficking. Once they have finished, they will begin designing an advocacy campaign built around the PSA and other materials they create. The guiding question I ask them to answer is “How can I effect greater awareness in the United States of issues in modern human trafficking?” and then put their answer into action.

In past years, students have used social media and leveraged networks of friends, family, and other social groups to help spread the word. They talked to book clubs, worked with merchants in local malls, and led classes at their houses of worship. They made stickers and cards with the National Human Trafficking Hotline (888-373-7888) on them and left them in bathrooms in airports, rest areas, and truck stops across the country as they traveled on vacation or to compete in music or athletic events. The breadth of their ideas never fails to bowl me over. I am looking forward to seeing what the students this year decide to do.

Things I’ve learned…

When I started this blog, I had the idea that I would write something once or twice a week. HAH! I had based my (very flawed) conclusion on a number of folks whom I read and follow on social media who seem to be able to do this. I have learned that am not at that skill level. Perhaps some day… But that brings me to today. What have I been doing the past month and a half or so when not writing? I’ve been learning – and not just that it’s hard to do all the things teachers are supposed to do and write a coherent blog post each week.

So what have I learned?

I learned that if you set high expectations and show kids that you believe in them, they will hit or exceed those expectations.

I learned that if you ask students to come up with and research a “burning question” they have on a topic, they will throw themselves into it with abandon.

I learned that if you allow students to choose how to show you they understand concepts, you will not only see them demonstrate mastery, but also see dimensions of your students you never knew existed.

I learned the value of ducking off campus periodically for lunch with a colleague to vent.

I learned how lucky I am to have colleagues who are truly collaborative, and who cheer for me as loudly as I cheer for them.

I learned that pats on the back and kicks in the butt are not just occasionally needed by the kids, and how much I appreciate having a boss who will give them to me.

I learned that forging a partnership with parents creates a powerful team to help students succeed.

I learned that I can occasionally have a positive impact on my colleagues when they seek me out to listen or offer advice.

I learned how much I enjoy interacting with students outside of the classroom – in the library and halls during free periods, at concerts and games, and while chaperoning dances.

I learned how much I missed certain students when they come back to visit as alumni, and how much fun it is to get to know them as adults.

I learned it’s pretty cool to be at a school that encourages innovation and allows risks to be taken in classrooms, knowing that some will be awesome, some will be good, and some will be belly flops.

Oh yeah, I also learned some history and stuff while prepping for my classes.

The reality is that most of what I listed I already knew. But over the past few months, I had the opportunity to learn them again. And I think that’s important. It’s important for me to not forget the lessons I’ve learned along the journey. It’s important to not take for granted what I and others are capable of doing. It’s important to never stop trying to be better, but also to not beat myself up when I fall short – just like I tell my students. Probably the most important thing I’ve learned this fall comes from Monte Syrie (@MonteSyrie on Twitter): Do. Reflect. Do better. As life philosophies go, that’s a pretty good one.

Do. Reflect. Do better.

Providing Feedback to Promote Student Growth

So I wrote a little something on feedback and it was published on the Teachers Going Gradeless Blog.

Teachers Going Gradeless

For me, the purpose of feedback is about growth. Just as a coach provides feedback on improving a baseball swing or long jump form, I provide feedback on the use of historical evidence, thesis construction, and other discipline related skills.

One of the courses I teach is the mandatory first-trimester skills class for ninth graders where, through the vehicle of a term-long project, my colleagues and I introduce and help hone a number of skills related to writing, thinking, and research. We created the course about seven years ago to address the different level of skills our ninth graders had as they entered our high school coming from not only our middle school, but also other schools in our area, other parts of the country, and other countries as well because between fifteen and twenty percent of each ninth grade class is made of new students. The trick has been…

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Just laugh

Every so often, I need to stop and take a breath. It becomes so easy to get caught up in the seemingly never-ending routine of grading that I forget the joy I find in being with my students. Yes, pointing out the same error on notecard after notecard makes me want to pull our my (quickly becoming non-existent) hair. But it’s more than counteracted by the moments I share with them in the classroom, hallway, dining hall, or quad. Often, the time I am with them is punctuated by laughter.

Much of that laughter is student initiated.  These kids work so hard – much harder, I think, than outsiders realize. They take their studies and future much more seriously than I did at that age. That’s not a bad thing in an time of global competition for college acceptances and jobs. They also know how to laugh, though, and not take themselves or their work too seriously. Even seemingly trivial statements can evoke peals of laughter, especially as we all get a little punchy at the end of the trimester. I overheard the following exchange in class this past week, punctuated with lots of giggles:

Student 1: “I love terrorism! Wait. That came out wrong.” [referring, I hope, to my class and the inquiry project she’s been working on]

Student 2: “Well, it could be worse. You could have said ‘I love human trafficking or I love genocide!'”

Student 1: “You’re right. And since I’m taking those classes later this year, I guess I need to be careful what I say around other people!”

It reminded me of a time I was standing in from of parents and students on move in day of the North Carolina Governor’s School. A parent asked what I taught during the regular school year. “I teach terrorism, genocide…” but  my reply was cut short. A colleague, no doubt more attuned to the facial expressions in the room than I, grabbed my arm and said, “No Bill, you teach ABOUT terrorism, human trafficking, and genocide.” I busted out laughing along with a number of the parents and students present.

One of the seminal texts of the education program during my time at St. Lawrence was Carl Rogers’ Freedom to Learn for the 80s. I recently pulled it off my shelve and reread it for the first time in over twenty-five years. I remembered how much Rogers believed that it was important for teachers to be authentically themselves with their students, rather than adopting an artificial “teacher persona” devoid of emotion or connection to them as a fellow, flawed human being. [I had forgotten how much Rogers emphasized student choice and agency, though he used different words. That, however, is for another post.]

Throughout my teaching tenure, I have tried to be myself with my students. To let them know when I felt pride or disappointment in their accomplishments. To let them see my wonder and joy when they amaze me with their brilliance. To let them see my frustration and disappointment when I am not at my best. To let them see me laugh – with them if appropriate, but above all at myself. I didn’t start out that way. For far too long, I took myself way too seriously. What I did was important! The future of our country, nay our world, hinged on my success or failure as a teacher of social sciences!

Somewhere along the way, that changed. I do still feel my work is important. But my students have taught me to laugh. It’s ok for me to be myself in the classroom, imperfect and goofy as that can be, dropping occasional #dadjokes or history humor…or laughing at myself when I suddenly start channeling Elmer Fudd while answering a question or nearly fall on my face when I trip over my desk that I swear wasn’t there a few seconds earlier.  Allowing my students to see me as a flawed and vulnerable human being has led to the students doing the same for me. Together, we build relationships based on empathy that allows us to work collaboratively in ways not possible earlier in my teaching career. Those relationships make it easier for me to help my students be successful. When I snag a kid after class to talk about those dreaded notecards, they know I’m not nagging them. I’m not chewing on them or trying to be their parent, though I will [metaphorically] kick them in the fanny as needed. I also dole out ring pops, hot cocoa, shoulder pats, and fist bumps in prodigious quantities as needed. They know I care about them and their success and that I’m worried about them. Sometimes I find out that Major Stuff is going on. That relationship could not be built if I “didn’t smile until Christmas” as one former colleague advised me to do early on.

It’s popular in education now to frame teachers as co-learners in the classroom. I’d like to think I was a bit ahead of the curve on that idea. The relationships I’ve built by being authentic in the classroom have taught me much about being a better teacher. Doing what I do with whom I do it DOES give me a lot of joy, and I’m thankful every day for the opportunity to be a teacher. The most import lesson my students have taught me, though, is to step back and breathe and laugh.

Hell…and then Heaven

This past weekend, I was in hell. I’m not sure to which circle of Dante’s Inferno Sisyphus was condemned, but I on the next hill over pushing an even bigger rock up a taller hill, only to have it roll back down over me. Sixty times. Sixty times I pushed that rock up the hill and sixty times it rolled back down. What was I doing? Grading notecards.

At my school, all ninth grade students are required to take a course during the first trimester that functions as a skills boot camp. Using the vehicle of a trimester long research project, we walk the students through the skills we’ll expect them to use in social science (and frankly other) classes the rest of the time they are at the school. We teach them research question and thesis writing, how to research using databases, how to determine the credibility of a source, bibliography construction, notecards, citation, paraphrasing, and on and on. It ensures that all of the ninth grade students have been exposed to the same skills, the same way (it’s the only tightly lockstep course in the department) so future teachers will know what they know. Or at least, what they should know.  It’s a great idea and I’m glad we do it. It’s just no fun to teach it.

Friday, the students had their first set of twenty notecards due. This weekend I dutifully went through them, providing feedback when needed, so that they could correct those mistakes before moving on to work on the next set of cards due this coming Friday. One of the things that makes this course no fun to teach is the relentless timeline of deadlines. There’s always something new to grade and the turn around time is tight. Over and over, I wrote the same comments. This was missing from the source, that was missing from the paraphrase. Where’s the page number and/or URL? Where’s the tag? Why aren’t they in piles? I began to wonder if I had actually taught them how to do this. It was as though very few of them had even looked at the rubric, never mind been in class when I went over the directions. I had experienced the same frustration the week earlier when I went through their annotated bibliographies.

I gave myself a day off from grading, then took a deep breath to plunge into grading bibliographies for my terrorism class. They are researching individual burning questions they’ve generated. I went through the first one and it was virtually flawless. The next one was the same. As was the third and the fourth. These kids are geniuses! I didn’t even have to tell them how to do an annotated bibliography. I just said “Do it!” and it was done! This is why my colleagues and I labor so hard in the skills class. Will all of the students nail things by the beginning of their sophomore year? Of course not. But most will. And that will give me more time and energy to focus on the kids who are still struggling with whatever skill I’m asking them to use.

One of the things that makes teaching tough, for me at least, is there’s so little tangible evidence that you did a good job. Truthfully, I’m less concerned by whether my kids remember the causes of World War I or other historical facts that are so easily accessible online than I am by their ability to learn critical thinking and other skills and habits of mind. As a teacher, I’ve seen “ah hah” or “light bulb” moments from time to time, but I often wonder whether I’ve made much of an impact on the lives of the thousands of students who have come through my classrooms since 1989. Then I read the work done by my sophomores and I realize that if nothing else, they know how to write a bibliography. That’s a beginning. Perhaps some of the other seeds I’ve planted over the years have sprouted as well. And that gives me the renewed energy to dive back in and grade some more.

UPDATE: I just finished the second set of notecards from my ninth graders. They were awesome! By and large, they avoided the errors they had made in round one. Woo hoo!

Collaboration, part 2

A few years back, my school admin introduced the staff to the concept of Critical Friends Groups. This concept, which has been around since the 1990s, brings together a group of teachers and, using a specific set of protocols, allows a teacher to solicit feedback about a lesson or project. It could be a lesson or project that you are in the midst of developing and want feedback on an early draft or it could be a lesson that you’ve used and want to make better/stronger/different. Maybe a lesson blew up in your face (we’ve all been there) and you’re trying to figure out why. CFGs can help you see things that you might otherwise miss, but it takes a certain amount of trust in your colleagues to go through the process. It can also take time, which is often in short supply for teachers.

When we started, part of every other faculty meeting was dedicated to doing this. The groups were created by admin and had people from a mix of departments in them. Personally, I like that because it meant that I had eyes from folks who were used to thinking differently than me looking at how I do stuff. While that might happen in a homogeneous department grouping, I think it’s more likely to happen in mixed groups. My group had a biologist, physicist, German teacher, two literature teachers, and a mathematician. It was awesome. I received great feedback every time I asked for it. While that was nice, it was also forced…and people complained. First we changed to department based groups, then the CFGs stopped altogether as the time was allocated to other issues.

Recently I’d been grappling with redoing the project for my terrorism class. For a number of years, the project involved researching a group doing some analysis, and ultimately determining whether the student thought the group should be considered a terrorist organization. It forced the kids to come up with their definition of terrorism, something that they do at the beginning of the course and revise regularly though the term,  and then apply it to a group of their choice. They constructed “murder boards” showing links between different aspects of an organization. I’d tweaked the project a few times over the years, but never really felt like I’d made a substantive change…because I hadn’t.

After reading Dive into Inquiry by Trevor McKenzie, I realized that what I really had been trying to do was make an old school lesson into an inquiry based one, with minimal success. So I tossed it and decided to start over from scratch. I knew I couldn’t do a full on, free-range inquiry project because I only teach the class for a trimester and so I wouldn’t have time to scaffold my way to that level. On the other hand, I do some things earlier in the class that fall into the category of “guided inquiry” so I thought I could build on that. In fact this course was created because of questions. I was teaching World History during the 2001-02 school year and as we went through that year, my students and I had more and more questions we couldn’t easily answer in the post-9/11 world. At the end of the year, I went to my principal and asked if I could teach a course on terrorism. I took the next year to research and write my curriculum and taught it for the first time in fall of 2003. I’ve not taught it continually since then, but I have for probably a dozen of the years in between.

So I took my first draft of the project and reached out to a few of my former CFG folks. I chose folks from outside my department who were also interested in standards based/mastery learning. I sent them the draft and asked if they would be willing to look it over and give me whatever feedback they could  – good or bad. I wish we’d been able to do a full on CFG, but our time this week has been precious. We have class trips coming up, Meet the Teacher is tonight, I’m taking my daughter to college next week…you get the idea. I’ve heard back from one colleague, and her feedback was awesome. I can’t wait to hear from my other colleague too.

So, once again, teaching is a team sport. Could I have done this redesign on my own, without any feedback from my colleagues. Maybe. Would it have been as good? Nope. Collaboration can be so much more than teaching the same class as another person, so we split the lesson planning. It can be conversations about books and best practices, rubrics and pedagogy. The conversations can be casual at the copier or a formal meeting. Take advantage of the hive mind collected around you. It has definitely made me a better teacher.