Friday, February 12, 2016


I have been attending EdCamps for 3 years.  I have attended 5 in Pittsburgh, helping to organize 4.  I have attended one in New Jersey and one in Minneapolis.  I presented at all of these.

I believe firmly in the EdCamp movement.  I believe that the best way for teachers to improve their practice is to learn from each other in a low-pressure setting where they are highly engaged.  The EdCamp movement allows this because it incorporates choice into the process: you attend the sessions that are interesting to you.

Several months ago, my district sent out a survey asking people why they teach and what insights and skills they feel they could offer to their colleagues.  Behind the scenes, some incredibly hard-working faculty compiled this list and began moving towards an EdCamp-style professional development.

Shortly after, I was invited to help with the process.  We composed and sent out a second survey to the faculty of the district explaining the basic concept of the EdCamp and asked what sessions, if any, they would be willing to present.

The response was overwhelming! Almost 50 people said that they would facilitate or present on topics ranging from classroom management to physicality in the classroom.

This past week, faculty signed up for the sessions that they wanted with a cap of 30 per session, first come, first served.  During the past 5 days, I fielded tons of questions from people who were...dubious (that seems like a polite word) about the prospect of this inservice.  It was wildly different from anything that many of them had experienced.

Here's how my day went:

I arrived at 6:00, organized some items in my class and put the finishing touches on the presentation that I was planning to give.  I went to the lobby where people would be gathering and helped to set up the welcome tables.

At 7:30, people started arriving, signing in, finding out where their sessions were taking place.  They received raffle tickets for the door prizes and a name tag that read "Ask Me About_____." Our curriculum director provided breakfast for the district and people were able to mingle .

After the high-energy kick-off, we heard a lightning talk from one of our instructional coaches.  She spoke about the importance of integrating writing.  She was a very dynamic speaker and several people in the audience were in tears by the end.

The first session I attended was on the importance of building rapport with students.  The participants discussed the various ways that they build rapport as well as challenges to doing so.

They started us off by asking us to think about the kid who makes us the most insane and try to write 3 things that we know about them.  Our task this coming week is to keep these things in mind during the coming week and try to remember that their attacks on us are not personal.
**Spoiler alert** They did totally kill it!

We discussed the various ways that we build rapport with students, like greeting them at the door, making eye contact and imposing High Five Friday upon them with a religious fervor the likes of which haven't been seen since Torquemada. (Ok, that was me.)

In between sessions, I popped into the cafeteria to drop off my raffle tickets and take a picture for the #WhyITeach photo booth.
Most of these were donated by amazing individuals and companies! Thank you so much!!
After a quick stretch, it was on to session 2!  Katrina Bryan spoke about how she uses stations in her science class.

The majority of the science department was there and, while I can't speak for them, I will totally speak for them.  We were blown away!  Those folders behind her each contain a science station.  They are labeled with things like "Read It", "Illustrate It", "Assess It", etc., each with its own task for the students.  Students pick a task, complete it and pick another, working their way through the section.  This is such a simple, and yet brilliant, idea!  I should say that Ms. Bryan obtained these from another teacher and modified them for her needs.

I left that session having excited conversations with some of the other science teachers and already making plans about how we could do something similar.

The next session was one where I presented.  It was an honor to be able to talk to a group of my peers about what I've been doing in this blog and answer their questions about using blogging as reflective practice.

No worries. I started off by telling them not to write as much as I do.  At this point, I'm closing in on 800,000 words...

A large contingent of the science department attended, most with the intent to harass me.  Unfortunately for them, their plans were thwarted when I blew them away with my engaging, dynamic and interesting talk.

Seriously though, I think they were surprised.  There were several people there that I didn't know and several of them came up to me afterwards to thank me and ask some more questions.

After lunch, we gave out door prizes to some incredibly lucky faculty!

This was followed by another lightning talk from a district administrator about passion.

The 4th session I attended was from my colleague in the science department who got me started working with the Science Contracts.  He spoke at length about how he sets them up as well as why and the research behind the idea.

Once again, the audience, primarily primary teachers (hehe...see what I did there? I'm so clever) were fascinated and impressed.  Since I also use the contract, I was able to give a second point of view on how well they work.

At the end of the 4th session, the faculty separated into small groups, each facilitated by an administrator.  We debriefed from the day, talked about the sessions that we found interesting and useful and discussed whether we would be interested in doing another inservice in this style.

The response was overwhelming.  My favorite quote came right near the end.

This seemed to be the prevailing sentiment from what I heard and what was relayed to me.  As I said, many people started the day feeling wary and unsure about the concept.  I believe that many were converted by the end.

This fills my heart with more joy than I can express.  While it feels great to have people find joy in that which brings it to you, what I find most invigorating is that everyone seemed to benefit.  Several teachers spoke at the beginning of the day about how they didn't get into the sessions they wanted.  They were going to topics about which they had no interest, or thought didn't apply to them.

At the end of the day, however, many of these teachers expressed how they were able to get actionable information from every session they attended.

Several teachers also utilized the hashtag that we set up to broadcast the great things that were being done!

There was a sense of exhaustion as we exited the building, but it was the kind of exhaustion that comes from doing something satisfying with people you respect.

Everyone is an expert in something.  Every teacher is doing something in their class that they can share for the benefit of other teachers.  We don't need to be hiring outside consultants to tell us how to teach.

The resources that exist within our own district (or yours) are more valuable than anything else.

My deepest thanks to everyone who helped to put this day together and everyone who took a chance on something new.

While this project wasn't really my baby and I tried to stay out of the spotlight, I can't help but feel proud of the work that was done.  I have faith that it will continue in the future and our teachers will continue to rely on each other for the support and resources that we have to offer.

Thank you all.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Day 101: Blank

There were several large physical altercations yesterday.  My classes were quite small today.  I'm not sure if those are related.

With my classes at about 2/3 attendance, they were much less rowdy than yesterday.  I started my classes with a formative assessment quiz, asking questions which will be on their actual quiz on Tuesday.

When they realized that I was asking random students instead of just the ones with their hands up, many of them became more engaged and even excited to show off what they knew.  For the last few days, I've been asking review questions as my warm-up and it seems to be helping to solidify the ideas.

I should be thinking more about this stuff, but this week has exhausted me and I need to put my focus on the EdCamp-style professional development tomorrow that I helped to organize.  I have a ton of plates to keep spinning and hopefully doing so will distract me from this past week.

This post was dull and without heart, so here's the newest video from OK Go, which I was able to justify showing in my Astronomy classes.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Day 100: I Wish

Yesterday, instead of being in school, I was in court.

A few weeks ago, I helped to break up a fight across the hall from my classroom and I was called to witness in the pre-hearing conference.  I paid $14 to park at the courthouse, was never asked any questions, and was sent home 2 hours later when one of the defendants didn't have an attorney.

I returned today to find 2 students had been added to my roster in my largest and most boisterous class.

There seems to be an inverse relationship between student and teacher energy lately.  It's almost as though there is only so much energy and enthusiasm to go around and it must be split between the groups.

One of my other students asked me if anyone ever tried to bring a star to Earth.

Another student, who comes to school once every 2-3 weeks spent the entire class antagonizing the other students.

A colleague has come to a section in his class where the skill he's teaching is a multi-step process, the first of which involves counting.  A not insignificant portion of his students were stuck on that step.  We have spoken at length about students who are approaching the content from not just a deficiency, but a massive deficiency.  This is in no way the fault of those students and they are absolutely the victims.

I have no idea what to do about it.

I look around and I see challenges all over the place that feel insurmountable.  I feel as though I lack the tools, resources or abilities to fix any of these issues.

I'll let my man, Skee-Lo tell you all about it.

Wishes don't make things better, but they can give a direction for our goals.

In Physics, I was able to be the teacher I wanted to be.  I set up pulleys around the room and handed them labs as they walked in.  I was able to walk around putting out fires and working with them as needs arose.

I wish I could do this in Astronomy, but I'm not sure how.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Day 98: Not Personal

Why is it so hard for students to recover from a bad test, marking period or year?

So much of school is cumulative.  Each week builds on the previous one, each lesson uses information and skills from those prior.

If a student falls behind, even for a small period of time, it takes a supreme effort to try to catch up.  This is one of the reasons why deficiencies when a child enters school are such a huge problem.
 I started my classes today by asking some basic questions to review from last week.

"Name one method of exoplanet detection that we spoke about last week."'
"What does that method do to find planets?"
"What's one advantage of that method?"

If they couldn't come up with answer, I had them check their notes.  If they still couldn't, they shut down.

Angela Duckworth believes that in the face of adversity, students who are successful are the ones who push through.  Instead of giving up, they double down and try to make up for lost time.

She calls this grit.

I don't believe in Duckworth because I've seen these kids work their asses off on the things that matter to them.  For me to say that a kid is failing my class because they are lazy is overly simplistic and doesn't give credit to students who come from diverse backgrounds.

With that said, it's still very hard to be ignored and talked over.  It's hard knowing that you are trying to teach a subject that they don't care about at all.

It's difficult to watch a kid ignore your lesson and KNOW that in 5 minutes, you're going to have the conversation with them about how they would do the work if you weren't such a bad teacher.

I don't know how to convey to them that they COULD be successful if they were willing to focus their energy on my class.  I don't know how because I don't know what else they are going through and can't understand the situations that many of them face daily.

Diane Sawyer visited Strawberry Mansion High School in Philadelphia a few years ago and produced this heart-wrenching piece.

While my school isn't ANYWHERE near this one in terms of poverty, violence, or need, there are absolutely students in my building who are.  They have needs that I can never hope to meet.  What I can do, however, is provide them with a space in which they can feel safe and heard.

Man, is it hard not to take their lack of engagement personally.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Day 97: Teach Like Gandhi

I am tired of being ignored.

I'm tired of being spoken over.

I'm tired of having to answer a question that I just finished answering.

I'm tired of being told how boring I am.  I'm tired of hearing how boring other teachers are.

I'm tired of being called a racist for asking students not to scream profanity.

I'm tired of the bigotry, homophobia and misogyny that I hear on a regular basis.

I'm tired of the anger and hatred and frustration that I see all around me.

I'm tired of being afraid to stand up for what I think is right.

I'm tired of thinking that there will be a perfect school/class/lesson/activity.

I'm ready to be finding the things that work and building on them.

I'm ready to accept my students and colleagues for who they are and where they come from.

I'm ready to set an example for how I want them to be, but not be angry when they don't step up.

I'm ready to acknowledge that different people have different wants and needs.

I'm ready to stop setting goals for others.

I'm ready to clarify my goals for myself. to figure out how to do those things...

Totally unrelated, I'm worried that my blog is turning into a cat poster.  I'm going to take the weekend and try to get more edgy.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Day 96: Blue Goals

It seems appropriate that today was talked about the Doppler Effect in Astronomy.

As a wave source approaches an observer, the frequency of those waves increases.  As it moves away from the observer, the frequency decreases.  This is manifested in the sounds made by a police car as it speeds by a pedestrian.

This same concept applies to light.  Unlike sound however, when light increases frequency, there is no sound to shift.  Instead, the color shifts slightly more blue.  Objects moving away are shifted slightly red.

Next Friday, my district will be holding a district-wide EdCamp-style professional development.  We put out a call for proposals last week and had 47 teachers and administrators volunteer to facilitate or present!

I will be presenting on one of the only things I know: Blogging As Reflective Practice.

There is a huge variety of topics being offered by our staff that range from data usage to classroom management to how to use Kahoot.  Everyone has something that works for them.  Much of the faculty is excited!

And many are not...

Several have expressed concerns about the format in respectful and professional manners.  I have had many discussions over the past week, especially with those who know that this is somewhat my baby.

There are others, however, who have complained very vocally about the idea.  They have done so in the manner that suggests that they are not open to conversation about the idea.  A few have openly scoffed the notion and denigrated the organizers in my presence without knowing that I'm on that list.

I'm writing this not to complain about my coworkers, but to remind myself of something important.

This is not personal.

I truly believe in the EdCamp-style professional development.  I know that I have claimed great benefit as a result of what I have learned there.

I also know that it took me a long time to get the point where I was even open to this type of development.  I don't blame others for not being willing or ready.

Much the way that the lack of interest displayed by a student in my class may be completely unrelated to me or my instruction, the same can be said for my peers.

The lack of desire to participate in this event is created by a long list of situations with my own existence not being anywhere on the list.

All I can do, just as in my classroom, is remain an advocate for positive change.  I will make myself available to answer questions as they arise and be positive about the benefits of this experience.

I will support those who need it.

I will also recognize that there is simply no way to please some people.  No matter how great something is, there will be people who will always find fault.

So how are these things related?

I don't think that I'm an amazing teacher, or an amazing colleague.  I know that I have many shortcomings in both areas.  In many cases, the opinions of my colleagues are well-founded.

I am, however, moving in the direction that I wish to be.

I see my goals and they are blue-shifted.  The distance doesn't matter nearly as much as knowing that I am on the right path and will stay the course.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Day 95: Notes

After watching my students take notes yesterday, and coming to the solid conclusion that most of them have no idea how to do so, I decided that today would be instructive on that point.

I began class by discussing with the how copying words verbatim from the board are a pretty terrible way to take notes.

Today's class was more of a discussion.  We recapped the topics from yesterday and talked about writing the salient points in the notes rather than every little mark that's on the board.

After that, I handed out a new article about exoplanets for us to discuss as a class.  I pointed out the headline and the sub-headline as ways to quickly summarize what the article is about.

I had my students write:

3 main points of the article
2 questions that were raised for them by reading
1 new piece of information that they learned

We took 10 minutes to read the article and discussed what it meant.  I was incredibly impressed with the engagement and will continue to reinforce it over the next few days.  Tomorrow, we'll be talking about the methods of exoplanet detection and I'm planning to go through it slowly, giving them a chance to reflect on their notes as we do.  In addition, I'm hoping to bring more articles into class, giving them more opportunities to read and write.

They prefer to take notes because it's mindless, but they learn much more from discussion.

I'd rather have that.

Perhaps I'll have another student build me a satellite model to continue decorating the room.

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