Friday, August 29, 2014

When Teachers Talk About Students

Driving to school in the morning is one of my favorite times.  I get to listen to my favorite hair metal and classic rock CDs.  Call it a some me time with the sound turned up to 11.  This morning, however, I chose to turn off the music and call my wife to share with her a couple of stories from our Latin III class.

This class meets the last period of the day, so it would be natural to expect less than enthusiastic engagement with the material.  It is a large class, so no one would be surprised if only a few really participated well.  Neither is the case with this group of young scholars.  They daily come in well prepared and with some of the most brilliant questions I have had the opportunity to hear.

For example, we have been reviewing some basic grammar at the start of the year.  This is hardly the most exciting thing in the world, but recently one young lady asked why the present subjunctive almost sounded like the future.  Her question stunned me in my tracks.  She had moved from mere decoding of the language to picking up on its nuances and developing a feel for it.  This led us to discuss the inherently fuzzy nature of the subjunctive mood, the reason why it contains no genuine future tense as the indicative mood does, and the sense of the very near future that the present carries with it.

As we explored conditional sentences yesterday, another student said that to her the passive voice in English reminded her of an adjective and wondered why.  I was again rendered motionless and speechless for a moment by the depth her comment.  We explored as a class the nature of the English passive system and how it is constructed by the copulative verb and a participle, which is, of course, part verb and part adjective, giving us essentially parallel sentences like The boy was defeated and The boy was tall.  

So on my way to school today, I turned my rock 'n' roll down from 11 to 0 and called my wife.  I had not had the chance to tell her these stories, and as we discussed the depth of inquiry and insight of which students are capable, the morning darkness gave way with the first hints of light, and I arrived at school charged up and excited, which is not a bad thing for a Friday.

Sound Off  What have your students done recently that  really excites you and that you would share with someone?  

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Whether to Play Polkas

In the Robin Williams classic Good Morning, Vietnam, General Taylor (Noble Willingham) points out an obvious fact that Lt. Hauk (Bruno Kirby) fails to grasp.  He observes that it makes no difference "whether you play polkas or don't play polkas.  The men just like him better than they do you."

I thought of this line when I read an article on Common Core in the New York Daily News. Jenny Sedlis, executive director of StudentsFirstNY, writes, "Only 37% of New York State students graduated from high school prepared for college or a career. So while adults can argue about their narrow self-interests and political agendas, this is the only Common Core statistic that matters: Last year, we failed to meet our obligation to two-thirds of our kids."  She then states that adopting the Common Core State Standards is the solution.

To paraphrase the good general in the movie, this is not about whether Common Core is good or bad.  There is a much larger picture that is being missed.  If 63% of New York State students are not prepared for life after school, then what are New Yorkers doing wrong?  What are New York parents and community groups, churches and synagogues, doctors and sports teams and yes, schools, doing wrong?  It is absurd to claim that one group is uniquely responsible for such a vast problem.  Are the teachers the ones who are supposed to be teaching the children that 2+2=4?  Yes.  But short of telling them that 2+2=cats or speaking in Klingon, teachers alone cannot be the sole or even necessarily the primary cause of such failure.  Do some bad teachers contribute to the problem?  Undoubtedly they do.  As do poor administrators, a lack of resources, wretched home lives for the students, parents who hold their name only through biology, and additional social factors both great and small too numerous to list here.

And if there cannot be one cause for this massive problem, then there cannot be one solution like the adoption of Common Core.  Common Core may be the greatest educational innovation since John Dewey first sliced bread, but no set of standards is solely capable of righting such a complex wrong.

Sound Off  Pick one of the other contributing factors to student achievement and offer some concrete ideas for how to address them.  The comment box is open!

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Way of An Educator

L-R:  My mom, Patricia; our daughter; my wife, Melissa; and our son

They named a road for my dad.  This is not the kind of thing to happen every day or for every person, so our family was pretty excited about it.  The road, Norman R. Perkins Way, is in Floyd County in southern Indiana.  It could, of course, have been Norman R. Perkins Street/Avenue/ name it.  I am glad they chose "way," however, for it made me think.  Just what was my dad's way, his particular way of doing things?

He was born in 1930 and grew up in Jeffersonville, Indiana, which is on the Ohio River in Clark County.  After serving in the Army in Korea, he used the G.I. Bill to earn his undergraduate degree in education from Indiana University.  From there he went to the University of Michigan for his Master's in education.  After teaching sixth grade there, he moved back home and spent the remaining thirty-three years of his career in the New Albany-Floyd County Consolidated School Corporation.  Nine of those years were as a sixth grade teacher at Mt. Tabor Elementary, and twenty-four were as the principal of Galena Elementary.

When he passed away in 2009, I listened to stories from an unending stream of people at the funeral home.  The details may have differed, but they all told the same basic tale, one I had heard from countless colleagues and students of his over the years.  Without a doubt, his work as an educator influenced many people, including me.  Here are some of his ways.

Dress professionally  My dad did wear Bermuda shorts to mow the grass, but for the five working days of the week and on Sundays for church, my dad wore a coat and tie.  When I began my teaching career, I simply never gave any thought to dressing in any other way.  It is a practice I advocate as we talk increasingly about the professionalization of education.

Have fun with students  He drew smiley faces with ketchup on the hamburgers of his students at lunch time.  He added syllables to their names to make them long and funny, drawing laughs and smiles.  To this day I do the same, at least with names.  A student named Miles became Kilometers.  Whenever I have a student whose name is in a song, that song gets sung.  It is no surprise that when he retired, the students at Galena Elementary drew pictures of Mr. Perkins with one consistent feature...a huge smile.

Work as if nothing is beneath you  It was nothing for my dad to stay late after school-wide functions to make sure everything was cleaned up.  When he had a student whose wheelchair made it difficult for her to disembark from the bus in the morning or board it in the afternoon, he was there to carry her.  He spent the lunch period in the cafeteria when many other principals swore they would never set foot in such a place.  It makes me think of the perhaps apocryphal story of Abraham Lincoln.  An aide saw him blacking his boots and admonished him, "Sir, Presidents do not black their own boots."  Without missing a beat, Lincoln replied, "Then whose boots do they black?"

Pay what you owe  My dad was responsible for making out the deposits for the milk money and the lunch money each week.  His accounts always balanced to the penny.  When other principals talked of rounding things off, my dad would have none of it.  Our family once went out to eat at Pizza Hut.  As we prepared to leave, my mom went to the restroom, and instead of paying, my dad and I began talking.  We walked out without paying and without realizing it.  Later that night, it hit my dad what had happened, and he made it a point to go back to that restaurant the next evening to pay our bill.

Support those around you  Galena Elementary was one of the first in the district to make computers a regular part of instruction.  This was in the late '70s and early '80s when the Apple II and the Apple IIe were the hot products.

Computers were not exactly his thing, but my dad recognized their value and, more importantly, the passion and the ability of his teachers for whom computers were the thing.  As one of them told me recently, he supported them in their efforts to bring this technology into the school and encouraged them to help make Galena a cutting-edge school for its time.

I said that his work influenced many educators, and another of those was present the night the Floyd County commissioners passed their resolution on Norman R. Perkins Way.  She is Donna Atwood, my dad's niece, and my cousin.  Donna has done just about everything there is in the field of education, including drive a bus.  She is currently the special needs coordinator at Pleasant Ridge Elementary School, also in southern Indiana.  That evening she told our children a bit of her story and what inspired her to become an educator.  Not surprisingly, it had to do with an early childhood memory of visiting her Uncle Norman's school.  I am sure my dad would say he had nothing to do with her becoming a teacher, but then again, that was just his way.

With my cousin, Donna Atwood

Monday, August 18, 2014

I Would Make a Bad Teenager

I am a fake.  A sham.  A charlatan.  To my credit, I'm a pretty good faker, but I am not the genuine article, the real deal.

If you looked at my tech footprint, you would think I am a reasonably tech-savvy guy.  I have a personal iPad and one from my school and I use both.  I have a Bluetooth keyboard, a Bluetooth speaker, and an iPhone.  At school I have a desktop computer, and at home we have a laptop.  I have e-books on both my tablets, on my phone, and on my Kindle.  I store a lot of music on my phone.

As for my web presence, I maintain a personal website, a business website, and a website for my classes.  I host three different Twitter accounts and three blogs.  I am on Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn.  I check three different email accounts multiple times per day.  Colleagues laugh when I post pictures almost faster than I take them.

Yet for all that, I would make a terrible teenager.  For you see, none of that activity and none of those tools are my first thought or choice.

I noticed this when I recently spoke to a class of student teachers at Ball State University.  I had tweeted about the activity prior to speaking and thought I would get some pictures to tweet from the event.  Yet as I sat in the parking lot responding to tweets from new followers, I realized I had forgotten to take any pictures.  Why was that?  After my talk I was engaged in several conversations with undergraduate education majors.  I spoke with faculty from the school of education.  In all of that I was focused on the person in front of me.  I simply forgot about the cyber world.  I was captivated by the human-to-human conversation at hand.  It just never occurred to me to take out my phone.

I doubt that a teenager would have had to think of it at all.  It would have been as natural as breathing.  While I do wish I could have had some pictures from the event, I am rather pleased by this particular example of forgetfulness.  It shows me that while I use the tools of the age in which I live, I have not completely forgotten the ultimate purpose for why I use them.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Swimming Against the Current

The Indiana State Fair is home to many wonderful things, not the least of which are the finest soft pretzels in the world.

At the state fair you will find all manner of deep-fried goods, great music, crafts, animals, rides, and thousands of Hoosiers who enjoy this annual celebration of what our state produces.

Yet when I recently attended, I witnessed something near the Indiana State Police booth that was disheartening.  A woman was walking with her son who had just obtained a free yardstick.  The boy appeared to be about four or five.  His behavior must have been inconsistent with his mother's expectations, for she said yelled, "If you don't act straight, I'll get that stick on your butt.  I'll tell him (indicating one of the officers) to get out the handcuffs and put you in kiddy jail so you can learn to act straight."  

My wife and I are parents of two, ages 13 and 9, so I am quite familiar with how a parent's buttons can be pushed.  I also know that a person may make an extreme statement in jest, e.g. "Our team is going to KILL you on the field Friday night!"  My reading of the mother's tone and body language suggested she was not playing cute with her child, and I had not seen anything in the child's behavior to warrant her comments if indeed they were meant to be taken by him at face value.

I also could not help but connect this scene with the product being displayed at the next booth.  It was a spa, the kind you install on your deck.  The salesman was demonstrating the various currents that could be produced at one end so a person could swim against them and get a workout.

Teachers are the swimmers, and there are many things, including bad parenting, that form the current against which we swim.  If we are swimming with the current in a community that supports education and in which parents understand what is best for their children and work to achieve it, we can go far.  Of course, going far for teachers means taking everyone else with us.  If, on the other hand, the current against us is strong, stirred up by parents who threaten to beat their children, for example, then the going can be tough.  We do not make much headway, and we end up feeling like the swimmer in the spa, expending a tremendous amount of effort without going anywhere.

 A recent article that Sean McComb, 2014 National Teacher of the Year, shared with some of us makes a distinction between communities with great schools and schools with great communities.  No school, good or bad, exists in a vacuum.  When the results are less than what we want from a particular school, perhaps it would be a good idea to explore the conditions of the community.  What percentage of the children are living in poverty?  What percentage have their physical needs well met?  How many have supportive families?  How many are living in environments that no one could reasonably call a home?  It just may be that the schools in that community have some teachers at the level of Michael Phelps, but they are swimming against the current.

Monday, August 4, 2014

School Is For Dreamers

It is the first day back to school for our students, and my thoughts are with this young man at Purdue University in 1958.  His name is Sam Carlile, and he came from the small, southern Indiana town of Scottsburg.  Born in 1935, he did not grow up in the easiest years of this country, years that for him were made more difficult by the drowning of his father during a Fourth of July celebration at Fall Creek in Indianapolis in 1943.  His mother moved him, his older brother, Bob, and his younger sister, Patricia, back to her home in Scottsburg where she reared them on a single parent's income as a bank teller.

At a time when many of his classmates did not go on to college, Sam did, following in his brother's footsteps to Purdue University where he would study engineering.  His sister went to Indiana State and majored in education, eventually earning her Master's as well and making all three of them the first generation of their family to graduate from college.  Upon graduating from Purdue, Sam went to work for General Dynamics and spent his career in the space program at Cape Canaveral in Florida.

I know a lot about this family because it is my family.  Patricia is my mother, and her brothers are my uncles.  For my eleventh birthday, Uncle Sam...yes, I am one of the few people who can claim to have an actual Uncle Sam...sent me a note and some pictures of his work.

Among the pictures he sent were photographs of the Titan/Centaur-4 Viking A rocket and the Titan/Centaur-3 Viking B, both of which soft landed on Mars.

He also sent one of the Atlas/Centaur just prior to liftoff carrying an Intelsat communications satellite to geosynchronous orbit.

These and other pictures gave me an image of what my Uncle Sam did down at the Cape.  They certainly filled a fifth grader's head with great dreams.

I was reminded of these dreams when I joined teachers from around the country and ten other nations for International Space Camp at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, this summer.  As I trained for a lunar mission, performed space-related experiments, and stood in awe of the Saturn V rocket while marveling anew at human achievement, I could not help thinking of Uncle Sam.

I do not know what inspired him toward his engineering degree or what led him to work in our space program.  What I do know is that such stories are inspiring, and by that I mean both my uncle's story and the story of the American space race.  They show us what we can do.  They show us that obstacles and setbacks and difficult circumstances cannot derail dreams but quite often fuel them.  They show us what happens when human beings dream of achievement far beyond what is possible at the moment, and in this I think it entirely appropriate that thoughts of my Uncle Sam are on my mind at the start of the school year, for school is and must always be for the dreamers.