Monday, June 30, 2014

I Remember, Episode 1: Diane Dougherty.

Today marks the start of a new podcast project--a conversation about our ancestors, our heritage, our family stories. Whether we focus on one person from the modern day or several people from generations ago, I am looking forward to being a conduit for people of all ages, from all cultures, to share their family stories with a broad audience.

My interest in family histories (any and all cultures) anchored itself deep inside of me when my wife and I visited Ellis Island a few years ago. So many cultures, so much meaning for the masses of people visiting that. I looked as much at the faces of the different people as I did the island.

My writing in school, alongside of my 8th grade students, keeps gravitating back to our heritage.

As I practiced podcasting with various pieces from my writing, the current interview format came from listening to many different examples of podcasting. While this is a fun and challenging project for me, I ultimately hope it serves as a positive example for the students I will teach next year and beyond.

You can subscribe to my podcast, I Remember, through iTunes or any free podcast app on your mobile devices. Search for "I Remember podcast" and/or my name, Brian Kelley.

Once you search for the podcast, the icons for the podcast will be either one of the following images depending on what device/app you use to listen:

If that does not work for you, you can always subscribe to my blog feed as I will post each episode here. You can listen right from this page by using the audio player below.

I Remember, Episode 1
Diane Dougherty

Diane Dougherty, one of eleven siblings, shares her memories of the circumstances of her grandparents immigration from Italy (and return to Italy after rejecting America), her mother and father getting together even though everyone wasn't quite behind it, her father's chasing of Pancho Villa, her father's participation in WWI as part of one of the last Cavalry units, and her father's work in the Pennsylvania coal mines alongside her grandfather, and host of other unusual and touching circumstances woven into her family's Italian-American heritage.

Music: Someone, Somewhere, Sometime written, composed, and performed by Ben Smith

Thursday, June 5, 2014

If This, Then That

My 8th grade student, Elizabeth, delivered her Genius Hour presentation today. Full disclosure: I am so thoroughly impressed and moved by what she wrote and shared.

I remember the loud applause from the students as it concluded.

And I remember the word vulnerable. A student thanked Elizabeth for creating a project where she allowed herself to be vulnerable.

And I remember another thanked Elizabeth for creating something that they could relate to.

And I remember another added that they liked that we got to experience two perspectives.

I also remember that my eyes welled a touch during the presentation. And after stifling any trace of tears happening, my eyes welled (briefly) again as I listened to kids praise Elizabeth. I had to too...for being brave as a writer.

I remember noticing Elizabeth holding her hands over her eyes, and then her face and forehand, when the podcast first started to play. I couldn't tell if it was anxiety, embarrassment, or what. She rubbed at her face, clearly stressed.

As Elizabeth's podcast unfolded, it revealed itself as an admission of guilt. 

A mistake she regretted and learned from.

Her writing was significant--not because it was a wish to go back and do it over--but because it was an affirmation that she changed. She learned. And by sharing her humanity, she hoped others might learn too.

Listen to her. It is only 3 minutes and 19 seconds long but its effect lingers. It will certainly become a mentor text for my future classes over the years for many obvious reasons...and one not so obvious:

It is an example of what students can produce without the restrictions of grades as rewards or rankings. In the article, Dan Pink: Why Rewards Don't Work we read,
In research, offering rewards for success in creative tasks has been proven to damage performance, over and over again. As Dan Pink says [in this TedTalk], this is one of the most robust findings in social science.
Grades are the musculature of education. We flex it all the time don't we? And we tend to think of kids as strong students or weak students. That is the language and imagery of education. 

Presently, grades are the measure of success and growth. There is no getting away from them completely. However, Elizabeth's project is another example (among several that I have shared on this blog and on Twitter) of how removing the reward system of grading freed my students to write with depth, honesty, and courage.

I did not grade their final project or presentation.

I scored the process along the way by meeting regularly with students. They wrote and set goals, and wrote about their progress, obstacles, and solutions. After they presented, the class asked their questions and then I asked my questions which are often built on reflection (what now? what would you do differently?).

After experiencing the Genius Hour concept for the first time this year, I feel confident heading into next year that it is well worth the time for it produces a different kind of "If Then" reward.

The reward is no longer a private deposit into a stodgy grade book, but a public investment in a sincere generation of young eyes and ears.

Their work can influence and change one another.

I suspect that change is already happening in some.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Teacher To Do List

Because a plan is not a plan unless you write it down...

To Do List to Improve as a Teacher 
(for the summer and throughout next year).

  • Improve as a writer of podcasts. Expand to interviews/conversations. Publish them more frequently.
  • Actively participate in the Talks with Teachers reading group online.
  • Revise my YA novel (again) and resubmit/query it (again). Stay on it.
  • Write, develop, the children's picture book outlines I put together this year.
  • Continue to share resources with colleagues in my building and around the world.
  • Continue to engage and participate in opportunities with the professional network of mentors and teacher leaders: Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project (NWP).
  • Get to know the students better in class and out of class (attend more of their events).

Brighton Beach by Edward Henry Potthast
  • Take time and opportunity to mentor and be a good example (the best kind of mentor).
  • Track student independent reading more efficiently.
  • In addition to free-choice and open-ended writing, use the blog for student writing about strengths, weaknesses, goal-setting, reflection, and documenting struggles and successes.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Gift-Givers Amid a Thousand Faces

This is the time of the year when "thank you" notes or gestures appear out of the blue.

Today, a student surprised me in the hallway with a bag of fresh ground coffee from a farmer's market in Philadelphia. It was before school in a crowded, chaotic hall.

It is nice to be thought of in this way, isn't it? But we don't need money spent on us. A kind word offered back our way can often refocus a teacher's perspective on the year that just passed.

I made it a point to thank her in that moment (from a previous lesson learned, explained below) and to ask her what she bought for herself, what she enjoys at the farmer's market, how she treated herself when she was there.

On a related note, a pop-up message appeared on my desktop recently--it came from a student at the high school. She went through my class last year and has continued sharing her writing with me on occasion.

The kind words--the thank you--were like gold.

In a year where I experienced my fair share of questions and challenges, the affirmation that I may have done something right for at least one kid is refreshing and uplifting.

It reframed how I now see my year.

Several years back, on the last day of school, a student hand delivered a present. The room was chaotic. Kids were starting to move towards the hall to walk to the gym for the end of the year reception. Distracted by something else, my eyes hadn't even looked at my gift-giver as I took the gift. I quickly mouthed a truncated "thank you"--but barely--as I saw kids (pushing and shoving) who needed a little guidance.

My gift-giver disappeared in the crowd.

Something intuitive tugged at me and I opened the box as the last kid filed out into the hall. Inside was a handmade tiny flower pot. It was covered in photographs and sayings from our experiences together in the middle school play that I had directed. It was the sweetest thing ever and felt awful that I quickly dismissed her to make sure a couple of other kids would stop pushing and shoving.

When I got down to the final day's assembly in the gym I made it a priority to find my gift-giver amid a thousand faces to thank her properly.

It caught her by surprise. She blushed and smiled a huge toothy, silver-braced smile. And I remember thinking, my god, how cool is that...and my god, how I almost missed that opportunity.

As the year ends, it might be a good thing for all of us to make an effort to thank a colleague, an administrator, a student. It might be a good thing to make the conscious effort to take whatever energy, stress, anxiety, fatigue we may be feeling, and for just one more day, one more moment, remake ourselves into someone else's gift-giver amid a thousand faces.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Where is our oath, our vision?

We miss out on oath in education. Having read A Hippocratic Oath for Teachers?, it strikes me as unconscionable that nothing of its kind exists. Why is that?

The prevailing assumption in American education is that if we prepare the students for The Test, we have done our job.

If students excel on The Test, then we have done our job well. If students do not excel on The Test then we may be scored as an ineffective teacher.

Who needs an oath for such a short-sighted and short-term ethos?
What happens after the test--the next 70+ years of our students' lives--is on them, quite frankly. That is the message sent to teachers. Instructed by our leaders, we not only teach to The Test but also only up to The Test. The Test is the standard by which all excellence is measured and it has defined how many see their jobs or define their schools. In Pennsylvania, it doesn't matter which test (PSSA, Keystone, SAT, AP, et al.), just see to it that our kids get those scores up on The Test.

As Ken Robinson said, "For most of us the problem isn’t that we aim too high and fail - it’s just the opposite - we aim too low and succeed.”

That is our job according to what we do. Aim at The Test.

Before any leaders speak up, I caution them to remember that there is a huge difference between what we say and what we do. And ask yourselves, what have the actions of the state mandated your teachers to do?

An exasperated colleague said to me recently, "I don't just want to produce kids who know what cancer is, I want to inspire kids who cure cancer!"

I hope they write a test someday that allows for that.

I share the Teacher's Oath as proposed in Anthony Cody's article because in our state I believe we continue to drift so ridiculously far away from the mentality presented here:

The Teacher's Oath

I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant:

  1. I will respect the hard-won gains of those educators in whose steps I walk, and gladly share such knowledge as is mine with those who are to follow.
  2.  I will apply, for the benefit of my students, all strategies known to be effective, avoiding busy-work in favor of work with real meaning to the students and their families.
  3.  I will remember that there is art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the textbook reading or the multiple choice test.
  4.  I will work with my colleagues to inspire one another to achieve excellence. I will not be ashamed to say "I know not," nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed to help my students.
  5. If it is given me to enhance a life through teaching, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to cast a shadow over a life; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty.
  6. I will remember that I do not teach a lesson plan, or a reading deficiency, but a human being, whose skills may affect the person's future family and economic stability. My efforts will aim to teach the whole child, and help that child develop in mind and spirit.
  7. If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of teaching those who seek my help.
It is a nice oath. Individually, some still cling to its roots in their own way to the best of their abilities given the state mandates and teacher evaluation systems currently in place.

We would all love to get to a place where all teachers say, "I teach students, not curriculum."

I hope someday that we can begin to move closer to such an oath as a profession.