Monday, April 27, 2015

What Should You Say When Your Students Ask You About Baltimore?

You should say what you think and feel.

Why? Because you are a human being with human feeling, ideas, and emotions. You are entitled to explain your thoughts, ideas, and opinions. Occupying the high profession of educator doesn’t change that basic truth. There is no need to persuade or lecture, to hide, to lie, to feign neutrality.

Be honest. Be vulnerable. Be yourself. Your voice is your own. It is your perspective. The students’ voice is their own. It is their perspective. Their thoughts may be different. This is good. It is possible to create a critical dialogue between different thoughts and perspectives. Critical dialogue paired with reflection creates a powerful praxis. This praxis lays the foundation for a classroom able to actively participate in the creation of its own knowledge.

Students crave this type of dialogue. Students deserve to have this type of dialogue. Students want to know what you think, and they want to express how they think. There is nothing wrong with allowing this type of dialogue.

I used to think I could remain neutral. I used to think I could hide my thoughts and opinions. I thought I could always play the other side. Education doesn’t work that way. Education is not neutral, and my students deserve to hear my individual biases. Is it better to be transparent or to be unconsciously subversive?

Freire (1993) writes: In the name of the respect I should have for my students, I do not see why I should omit or hide my political stance by proclaiming a neutral position that does not exist. On the contrary, my role as a teacher is to assent the student’s right to compare, to choose, to rapture, to decide (p. 68).

So what should you say when your students ask you about Baltimore? You should tell them what you think and feel. You should let your students do the same.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Why I Teach

This post is a response to the prompt Why I Teach?

John Spencer recently wrote, "I encourage creativity because it matters - not to the world or to the future or to the economy, but to the students. Right now. In this moment, it matters. And it matters because we are naturally creators. We are makers. It's part of what makes us human."

What a powerful reminder.

When I'm at my best as an educator I don't teach to prepare my students for this year's standardized test. When I'm at my best I don't inspire students to learn something they might need to know later.  When I'm at my best I am not prepping my students for university. When I'm at my best I am not readying students for jobs that don't exist yet.

When I'm at my best I empower students to be the creators of their own history starting in the very moment. When I'm at my best I'm teaching with, and learning from, the human being right in front of me. In the present.

This is why I teach.

Last year, my students worked through 20% time each week. I had the privileged of facilitating student driven learning. Students got to learn what they wanted to learn. They dove deep into content that mattered to them, developed passion projects, set goals, failed, picked up the pieces, and presented to their peers.

I originally justified 20% time as a way to prepare my students for the future. I passionately advocated for 20% time as a opportunity for students to develop skills that would make them attractive employees later in life. Students needed 20% time. Their future depended on it. 

In reality, 20% time had more to do with the present than some undefined future. The individual talents, experiences, and wishes of the students were valued. This mattered to them. Students looked forward to this time every week. 20% time gave them a chance to be themselves, not some future caricature of 21st century success. They were creators, teachers, learners, and discovers. As Spencer writes, "They’re not thinking about a job that doesn’t exist. They’re thinking about the joy of making stuff."

That's why I teach.

One of my students, "Haley", wanted to do something with the Makey-Makey. Haley wanted to challenge herself. She wanted to expand her knowledge of code and electronics. Haley found a blog post using the Makey-Makey to create an "Operation" type game. She decided to use her 20% time to make a Makey-Makey "Operation" game. Each and every week, she grabbed the Makey-Makey off my desk, read different blogs, and tried various designs. Haley dragged her dad to Home Depot to buy copper wire and her own wire cutters. She was going to figure it out.

Haley asked for help, pushed through frustrations, and asked her classmates to collaborate. Haley came to me with problems and challenged me to find solutions. After weeks of effort, she ran to show me her game. It worked.

When Haley presented her game to the class, nothing else mattered. The class was in the zone. Haley beamed with pride. Time stood still. Nobody worried about the report cards sitting on my desk. Nobody was bored. Nobody asked about the future. Nobody asked if this was going to be on the test.

Instead, the class cheered and shared high fives. Everyone was happy to be in this moment, in the present. That is why I teach.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Book Spine Poetry

"Have you heard of book spine poetry?"

"You have?"


"Like twenty years ago Tim."

This won't be the first or last time I arrive late to the party. Heck, most of the time I miss the party completely. No matter. Today I had a blast playing with book spine poetry. Thanks Loyola Marymount University Library for raising my awareness to this beautiful and absolutely merry literary activity.

My own work:

Bright Maps,
In Plain View,
Forever Now.

A Country for All,
Justice for All,
Only Words. 

A Long Way Gone,
The Boy Next Door,
Run for the Border.

The Human Condition.

For those of you wishing to use #bookspinepoetry in the classroom (or for yourself) I found a few resources:
PBS Adventures in Learning
Poetry 4 Kids
Pinterest Board

Sunday, April 19, 2015

An Experiment in Educator Communication: Join the SlackEDU Slack Chat

*This piece originally appeared on the Medium publication The Synapse on Friday, April 17, 2015.

Believe it or not, educators are pretty cool people. Trust me, I’m a teacher and a lot of people in my professional learning network are equally hip. Therefore, I deduce our group is an awesome lot.

For some reason, the general public doesn’t feel this way. We teachers get a bunch of slack (pun intended) for being old-fashioned, boring people. Educators are stereotypically straight-laced and rather dull. So what if I like tweed and prefer my coffee black? Curse you, Ferris Bueller.

 I can wear a sweater vest and use the same tools as Silicon Valley! - — Image source, Pixabay

 People find it hard to believe that many educators are actually innovative, early adopters. Teachers rule the Twittershpere. Half a million educator pins are posted to Pinterest each day. Teachers have been podcasting way before it was cool. There are actually lessons that incorporate Instagram.

Teachers have a history of hacking nascent online tools to communicate with each other. As I recall, I wasn’t the only person on an education Ning. This very publication (The Synapse) is proof that educators are innovators, using the same platforms as tech startups, writers, and founders.

So with this in mind, I propose an experiment. I started an open Slack Chat for educators called SlackEDU. Why not use one of the hottest communication tools in the tech industry to build community in education? I think we are cool enough, and history shows we will probably gain from it.

Image by Unsplash, Pixabay
What is Slack and why Slack Chat for education?

Slack bills itself as team communication for the 21st century. Slack allows teams to keep all their communication in one place. Teams create channels to monitor and complete projects, each channel’s content is searchable on any device. Via Slack, “Channels include messages, files & comments, inline images & video, rich link summaries and integration with the services you use every day, like Twitter, Dropbox & Google Drive.” Basically, Slack is like a private Twitter on steroids.

Intentioned for private teams and companies, Slack is used by big players like Medium, Stripe, Airbnb, and Yelp because email was so five years ago. Fortunately, you don’t need to be in Silicon Valley to use Slack. In fact, more and more “public” communities are using Slack to communicate about common interests including music and whiskey. These “public” communities bill themselves as Slack Chats.

As I heard more and more about Slack Chats, I was shocked to see that there was not a home for educators on Slack. So I figured why not start SlackEDU? Why not create a place for teachers to come together and communicate over a new medium (pun intended)?

A peak at SlackEDU

How to get started with SlackEDU?

I am launching the SlackEDU community with this post, and I have absolutely no idea what to expect. I am currently the only person in the SlackEDU group. It may turn out to be the next big thing for building educator PLNs. It may be something where I write messages to myself. It may be something in between. I don’t know, but I really think there is potential. This is why I used the word experiment.

To join SlackEDU go to You will need to fill out a very, very short form and I will add you. Because Slack is supposed to be for private groups within companies, I need to manually add members. Filling out the short form will give me the information needed (basically name and email) to send you an invitation.

I want to make it clear that I don’t know what is going to happen. I just thought it would be a cool thing to try because, well, teachers are cool. I do not benefit financially from this project, or have any ties to Slack. I just like communicating and meeting other passionate educators.

I look forward to seeing you on SlackEDU.

You can also follow SlackEDU on Twitter. If you have any questions, comments, or ideas sent me a Tweet or add a note to the post.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Why I "Taught" Math in a Social Studies Class (Thank you PBL)

I used to be one of those people that loathed math. I was taught (like most kids) that math was a series of procedures and steps. Plug numbers into an equation, do some stuff the teacher said, and get the answer in the back of the book. One tiny misstep and the whole "problem" was wrong.

I never knew why I was doing the monotonous routines I repeated day after day. I never understood the concepts of dividing this number into that number, or substituting that variable for another. I just did what I was told. There was no room for debate (and boy do I like to debate) or creativity. This made math boring to me. This made math puzzling to me. It didn't help I received stupid grades for it, math class was always my lowest mark.

How I often felt as a kid in math class

While things didn't click in math class, I pored over statistics. My favorite statistics related to sports. I loved trying to unlock the numbers of performance. I obsessed over batting averages, E.R.As, and shooting percentages. I studied baseball cards and figured out career totals. I found the world of percentages astounding. What did a percentage mean? How did percentages relate to probability? What was the difference between statistics and probability? When I learned about the gambler's fallacy, my mind exploded.

Closer to the present, I started messing around with computer programming. I played around with geometry as an art form. I read how math is a beautiful and creative philosophical endeavor. I saw that math was all around me. I am no longer scared of it or intimidated by it. I just lack true practice.

I see some of my own struggles with math in my students. Math is taught to be a "different" way of thinking, a complete stand alone subject. We fool ourselves into thinking math is something you do for 50 minutes a day. We think there is a time for math. This special time usually comes with big textbooks and a multitude of "practice" worksheets.

I think project based learning (PBL) can help change this. Well designed projects are interdisciplinary by nature. To complete a well framed project, or challenge, students encounter all sorts of classic subjects working together. Their relevant learning adventures bring them into contact with the whole host of disciplines. Let me give you an example.

We spent a good portion of the year in my eighth grade Social Studies class on a community improvement project. Students grappled over the essential question of how they as citizens could improve local communities? Their mission was to identify a problem in the community that THEY felt needed fixing. Then the students created and presented realistic solutions to city council members and the community at large. The end result was inspiring, and one of the high moments for me as a teacher (blog post in the works). The students prepared themselves as experts, and our local councilmen were astounded by my students' expertise, composure, and professionalism. Through the process, a couple groups struggled with, wait for it, math.

Group 1: Unemployment rates

One group identified unemployment as a major problem in our community. The students told me they had family members who could not find work. The students also admitted to hearing a lot about unemployment in the news. As we worked through the problem of unemployment, it became very clear to me that this group was definitely engaged, but also having difficulties with the statistics they found. The students brought me research with state unemployment rates and community unemployment rates. Unfortunately, they had no idea what those figures meant.

"It's just a percentage," I would say.

They responded, "Ohh yes, of course."

I pressed them, "What does this percentage mean?"

"Ummmmmm, well, ummmmmm."

"How many people out of a hundred don't have jobs?"

"Ummmmmm, well, ummmmmm."

I have no doubt that many of the students in that group aced this math unit in years past. I am positive the math teacher explained the idea of percentages over and over again. But did it mean anything to them? Was there any context to the previous work?

No and no. The students probably learned some steps and some rules. They repeated those on a test. When faced with percentages in the real world, they were as indecipherable as ancient Greek.

So I became a math teacher. We worked through examples. We studied historical trends. We figured out how many people might be out of work if this percentage were true. When those students got on stage to present their ideas, they explained to the entire audience what an unemployment rate meant. They learned math through a social studies project.

Group 2 Mean and median income

Another student group started their work investigating how medical debt crushes families. Through their research another problem emerged. They discovered the horrifying nature of payday loans. I was so proud of this group and how the process of the project allowed for deep learning and iteration. As the students poured over their work, they noticed mean and median income statistics for various communities. They wanted to know what these figures meant. Why did some communities have high or low incomes? What was the difference between mean and median income? Was there a relationship between income levels and debt?

Once again, I know the students have repeatably gone over mean and median in math class. Mean and median is a repeating topic. Students seem to go over it every year. The issue is that they had never seen it outside of math class. Or maybe the students had come across mean and median outside math, but they didn't realize it connected to what they learned. I worked with the group to go over a bunch of examples. I gave them real problems, meaning students used conceptual knowledge to connect the dots and test solutions. By the end, the students were so enthralled by the relationships between mean and median income to other issues that they didn't want to end the project.

In the real world, problems do not come in prepackaged boxes. A mixture of disciplines and thinking is necessary to truly understand complex issues. Project based learning helps students understand this inherent reality. It breaks down the notion that math can only be done in math class, or social studies can only be done in social studies class. PBL builds interdisciplinary confidence.  PBL helps break down the notion that one is good at math or bad at writing.

Perhaps this idea would have helped a young kid who loved baseball statistics.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

My Flat Stanley Adventures

To complete my Flat Stanley video, I used three main tools - Blabberize, iMovie, and Superimpose. I had some trouble converting images and videos between the three services, but overall I think I have a fun, unique take on Flat Stanley.

Check it out: