Monday, June 30, 2014

Why don't we teach every child like they are gifted?

The curriculum in any quality gifted program emphasizes creativity, critical thinking, and social/emotional skills. These skills are believed to be very important in helping gifted students reach their potential.

Our youngest son is gifted. Actually, all of our kids are gifted in a variety of ways, but he met the criteria established to qualify for the gifted program at school. As a result of his designation in this program, he has had opportunities to do amazing projects, perform plays, attend space camp, and get extra support with social and emotional aspects of life. In his gifted classes, it always seemed content knowledge was secondary to creativity, critical thinking, and problem solving. Learning was designed to be an experience and not just a standard or objective to check off the list.

So why don't we teach every child like they are gifted? The question is especially relevant if you believe that every student is gifted, even if they are not identified as a gifted student by a test. All students have unique needs, but all have in common the need to develop creativity, critical thinking, and social/emotional skills.


Saturday, June 28, 2014

What to do when you don't have enough technology in your classroom


Forward thinking educators are constantly promoting the use of technology in the classroom. There are unlimited ideas on the web for using all sorts of devices and digital platforms for learning. But what if you find yourself in a classroom that isn't equipped with the tools needed for modern learning?

Although our school has more resources than many, I still feel we are behind. We aren't able to fully implement so many of the good ideas that are out there because we just don't have the tools yet. We have a few classrooms that are much better than others, but across the board our students don't have the consistent access to technology that is needed.
pic from http://www.freephotosbank.com/1066.html

But the good news for us is that I believe we will move forward in a big way, and soon. We are committed to implementing a 1:1 program for our students. I'm not sure if it will be Chromebooks, or iPads, or PCs or Macs, but I'm confident that in the near future our students and teachers will be able to create, communicate, and collaborate consistently in a blended learning environment.

But there are many schools that don't have the vision or the resources to make that happen. If you are teaching in a classroom where you don't have the digital tools needed, you can still be an innovative teacher. Instead of focusing on what you don't have, think about how you can solve the problem to create a modern learning environment for your students.

Here are a few suggestions that might help you get what you need.
 
1. Ask for more technology. You may get told no, but it never hurts to ask. I always appreciate when teachers ask for resources, even if I sometimes have to say no, or not now. When a teacher advocates for his or her classroom, that sends a message that you are trying to create the best learning experiences possible for your students. If you don't get what you need the first time, give it some time and ask again in a different way. Keep trying.

2. Get involved with any technology planning committees in your district. If you are involved in the planning for district technology initiatives you may have influence to help bring new technologies to your school. You can make your voice heard and advocate for why these tools are important in the classroom.

3. Donorschoose.org is a great way to crowd source your classroom project. You simply create a listing for what you need for your classroom and wait for donors to choose your project to fund. The more compelling your request the better chances it gets funded.

4. Apply for other classroom grants. You might have a local foundation, or PTA, that funds classroom projects, or you might check with Best Buy or Walmart. At a previous district, one of our teachers completed a grant from Best Buy for a computer, projector, and screen.

5. Use BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) strategy. If you can't provide devices for your students, have them bring their own, if allowable under school policy. Many things can be done cross platform so it isn't necessary for everyone to have the same device.

6. Connect with students through social media, a website, or blog. Even if it's difficult to connect digitally with your students during class for lack of technology, you can still connect outside the school day. Be a digital leader in your school by using online tools to make learning visible and connect with your students and their parents.


7. Involve your students in fundraising to get what you need.  There are a million ideas for fundraising. Use your students as resources to help plan and carry out your efforts. Your class might earn those tablets sooner than you think.

8. Think about digital learning. Until you are able to acquire the tech you desperately need, you can still bring digital vocabulary and thinking into your classroom. Ask your students questions that involve using tech as a tool. How would we approach this problem or this task if we had iPads or laptops? Or, ask students to respond to a prompt by writing a Tweet on...gasp...paper. But remember it has to be less than 140 characters!



Wednesday, June 18, 2014

I love being an educator because...

My previous post detailed how my decision to become an educator wasn't based on the typical reasons one would expect from a passionate educator. It was great to read Jennifer Houlett's #blogchallenge post about how she always wanted to be an educator. It's awesome to see this type of enthusiasm from the beginning.

Although I came into the profession for different reasons, as I have grown personally and professionally over the years, I've developed a strong sense of purpose about the work of creating the most dynamic, empowering, and life-changing environments possible for student learning. I have grown in my passion and in my commitment to help others be successful.

When a person develops a passion and purpose for his or her work, it no longer becomes work at all. Fellow #MOedchat moderator Ted Huff made this clear in his #blogchallenge post. It is truly a privilege to be an educator and have the opportunity to work alongside forward-thinking, difference-making people every single day.

So I love being an educator because...
  • It's great to be in a profession that has a legacy of changed lives and building dreams.
  • We get to take risks and try new things and teach our students to be lifelong learners.
  • I get to share in all the successes and celebrations of our students and school.
  • I am surrounded by rock stars everyday. I am constantly amazed at the talents and contributions of students, teachers, counselors, support staff, and our entire awesome community.
  • Educators care about one another and care about kids!
  • It's great to have a sense of community and feel like we are all pulling in the same direction.
  • Our work has significance! We are part of something BIG, much larger than ourselves.
  • We get to have FUN! When students and teachers are smiling, there is more learning.
  • Teachers are super heroes!
  • It's challenging work! We have to be problem-solvers and find success even in impossible situations.
  • Parents entrust me with their most valuable asset, their kids.
As you think about why you love being an educator, I would encourage you to watch these videos. They inspired me to think about my purpose and why my life's work is important.




Two questions that can change your life from Daniel Pink on Vimeo.



Monday, June 16, 2014

Going into education for all the wrong reasons

Like many young people, I struggled with direction about my career path during college. As I finished the general education requirements and the pressure to choose a major was mounting, I was still uncertain of what I was supposed to do. Before it was over, I considered business, law school, and even the Marine Corps, but in the end I decided on education.

And although I have no regrets about that decision, I really went into education for the wrong reasons. You see I didn't really have a passion for making a difference in the lives of students (I know that sounds really selfish, but that's the truth). I wasn't passionate about teaching and didn't long to see young learners have that "aha moment." I wasn't even really that crazy about school when I did my first tour of duty as a student for 12+ years.

So why in the world did I choose education? Where else can you make that kind of money and have three months off in the summer? Just kidding obviously. However, I did have a distant relative make comments like that to me. He did not respect educators.

The actual reason I chose to be an educator was I loved basketball. That was my passion. And as much as I loved playing basketball, it just made sense for me to want to coach basketball. So I majored in English with a minor in History with the intent to find a teaching position where I could also coach.

To be clear, there were some other reasons for my decision. My parents both valued learning and loved me, and several family members had been successful teachers. My dad would talk about teachers who made an impact on his life and that always got my attention. And, I had some teachers who really made all the difference for me, that really helped set me on a better path. One of my coaches, who I wrote about in an earlier post, was especially inspiring.

But the main reason for my decision was I loved basketball. So maybe that's not the worst reason ever to become an educator (doing is for money, prestige, or fame are definitely worse reasons). But it's also not the best. The best reason to become an educator is because it's a calling, because you feel that it's your life purpose to make an impact on the lives of students and help them be successful. That's truly the only great reason to become a teacher, because you love students and love teaching.

Now my story doesn't end there. I followed my basketball dreams, and it was a good thing. I learned a lot. And as my career story continued to unfold I began to find a passion for teaching and for creating the best learning opportunities possible for students. There really is something to be said for doing something your very best and watching as your passion follows that commitment. Over time I became a passionate educator. And I still love basketball too.

Friday, June 13, 2014

What is critical thinking?


It seems we are constantly having conversations--and for good reason--about the importance of critical thinking and discussing ways to increase the critical thinking for our students. We all just seem to readily accept that we understand what we mean when we use the term, yet if you stop to think about how to define what critical thinking is, it's kind of hard to do. It's much easier to give examples of critical thinking skills. We understand what it means to infer, to compare, or to classify for example.

But let's try to identify what critical thinking is without going to exemplars. First, critical thinking is a mental act. We cannot just look at a product a student creates and determine if critical thinking occurred. Since there is a mental act underlying the product, we must ask questions of the student to learn the thinking behind what they have created or developed.

Another important aspect of critical thinking is revealed in the meaning of the word critical, indicating that it is a type of thinking, or a type of mental act, that is of high importance to knowing or understanding. There are lots of mental acts that are rote or automatic to the extent they can't be considered a critical thought. For instance, 2+2=4 or Jefferson City is the capital of Missouri. But critical thinking allows us to make judgments about the truth or reality of new knowledge against a convergence of knowing that is widely accepted as what is true or real.

Next, critical thinking is not limited to a content area or learning discipline. Critical thinking can be generalized across all disciplines. This characteristic is one of the reasons critical thinking is so important to our students. Whereas content specific knowledge is requisite to understanding a subject, critical thinking can help us to understand all subjects.

And finally, critical thinking can be developed through practice and through quality instruction. Some educators seem to believe, if not outwardly expressed, that students' abilities to think critically are just a part of intelligence that is fixed. Clearly, this is not the case. As we have learned from Carol Dweck, critical thinking and intelligence can be developed through practice and hard work.

Center for Critical Thinking (1996c). Three definitions of critical thinking [On-line]. Available HTTP: http://www.criticalthinking.org/University/univlibrary/library.nclk

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Why AP courses aren't superior to dual credit

I just filled out another survey for a magazine creating a national "Best High Schools" list. This one
was for Newsweek, but every year we also see the same type of thing from U.S. News. I'm not sure why I take time out of my day to even complete the survey given the fact that they are using the information for profit, and I don't have faith in the metrics they use to determine the best schools.

The measure that is the most frustrating, and one these magazines use heavily to determine the best schools, is the participation rate and completion rate on Advanced Placement courses. We don't offer any AP courses at Bolivar High School, but we do offer 19 dual credit courses in partnership with Southwest Baptist University and Missouri State University, and it's not uncommon for our students to graduate from high school with 30 plus college hours complete.

It's not that I'm against AP courses in general. No doubt these courses are rigorous and help prepare students for college, but so does our dual credit program. Our teachers are qualified to teach college level coursework, and overall the dual credit route better meets the needs of our students. Instead of one test (AP exam) to determine if a student has successfully completed the advanced program, our students are able to earn the college credit each semester without everything riding on one exam.

Moreover, we've found the dual credit classes are generally better accepted for college credit at universities than AP courses. For our students, it just makes sense to for them to want to take dual credit courses over AP.

As we think about what's next for our dual credit program, we would like to add additional courses and perhaps the ability for students to complete an associate's degree while in high school. That would require approximately 60 hours of college credit during the high school years. While the goal would be for these students to continue their studies beyond the associate's degree, it would provide a target for students wanting to demonstrate academic acceleration through high school.

We would also like to greatly expand the opportunities for under-resourced students to take dual credit courses at a reduced cost or for free. We are considering the creation of a dual credit "Bright Futures" scholarship fund that could be used to help students with potential who might not have the current financial means to take dual credit courses.

Monday, June 9, 2014

What Apollo 13 can teach us about project-based, collaborative learning


Educators with an eye on helping students succeed in the future recognize that collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking/problem solving are the skills of the future. I learned about the 4 C's of 21st Century Learning at p21.org. (http://www.p21.org/storage/documents/4csposter.pdf).

But I would suggest that these skills aren't newly important. People have been using these skills to solve some of the most pressing problems of humankind throughout history. In 1970, the Apollo 13 mission suffered a catastrophic failure when an oxygen tank exploded. It left the crew to endure incredible hardships because of limited power, heat loss, and a critical need to repair the carbon dioxide removal system. Back on the ground, NASA was scrambling to support the mission and ensure the crew returned safely to Earth. This video clip exemplifies how the NASA team used "project-based" skills to begin the problem solving.


 

As I think about the types of problems that will fully engage and empower students, instead of asking questions that have predetermined right answers, why not ask questions and present scenarios that could have multiple right answers and require student creativity and critical thinking.

If I was preparing students to successfully bring Apollo 13 back safely, what would my students need to know? If teachers can design projects, or cooperative learning experience that replicate some or all of these characteristics, student learning will be empowering and of lasting value.

1. Sense of purpose--team members are working towards a common goal that has significant meaning beyond the self-interests of the team members.
2. Shared goals--the team is striving to achieve specific goals.
3. Interdependence--team members rely on each other for the success of the entire team. Everyone recognizes the contributions of each member are valuable for team success.
4. Risk of failure--success is not guaranteed and the team recognizes that it's best ideas are required to succeed.
5. No box thinking--it's required to think "outside the box." We can't rely on patterns or models of what's been done before. We need to think of new possibilities even in the face of seemingly impossible circumstances.
6. Extensive discussion--everyone provides input, even introverts, to make sure that all possible solutions are considered.

I think one of the best ways to facilitate this type of teamwork and problem-solving in the classroom is to have students working on real problems in your school, community, or broader context. There are plenty of compelling problems in our world that would bring instant relevance to the learning experience. Students want to solve real problems.

In the end, thanks to a brilliant team effort from those on the ground and in orbit, the crew of Apollo 13 was successful in rigging a carbon dioxide removal system created with items aboard the spacecraft. As a result, we know this story had a happy ending and the astronauts returned safely to Earth.








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