The Learning Divide

Jonas made it’s mark on West Virginia this weekend.  In Parkersburg, WV where we live we got about 13 inches of snow.  On Friday as the snow was dropping my family decided to drive about 20 minutes north to my aunt and uncle’s house because they have a fantastic hill for sleigh riding.



Powell House

It turns out we got snowed in and the roads were just too much for our Ford Fusion to travel so we decided to spend the night Friday.  Jonas continued to pour into Saturday so we were forced to stay another night away from home.  My aunt and uncle were keeping their eight-year-old granddaughter Kiera for the weekend so my four-year-old daughter Miley had a playmate.  As you can imagine, this was an excellent deal for Miley.  As she was climbing into bed with Kiera Friday night she told us “this is my first big girl sleepover!”

I brought my Macbook Air with me as I figured I could use the time stuck inside to get some work done.  I got it out Saturday afternoon and attempted to access the wireless internet available at my uncle’s home.  For reasons unknown to me, my Macbook would not connect despite entering the correct password.  It appeared to try to connect over and over but I never received the typical message telling me it was unable to connect.  I honestly don’t know what happened and the issue exceeded my own level of expertise.  My eight-year-old cousin Kiera noticed my frustration and asked me what was wrong.  I told her my computer wouldn’t connect to the internet.  She asked if I wanted her to try.  I smiled politely under the guise of frustration.  I had reached the point where I just wanted to toss something out the window.  Kiera asked me again if I wanted her to try so this time I took a deep breath and kindly said “Kiera, I’ve tried to input the wifi password correctly, but it still won’t connect.”  Do you know what Kiera did?  Kiera grabbed her Ipod Touch and proceeded to ask Siri how to fix my Macbook.

Sunday morning my family got up and I told my wife Julie that we should begin packing our stuff and heading home.  I was certain that by this time the hill leading into our neighborhood would likely be cleared enough for us to make it.  Kiera and Miley were determined they were going to eat ice cream for breakfast.  It was a weekend long party for these two!  Kiera told us she wanted to make ice cream with snow.  Do you know she did?  She grabbed the Ipad and looked up a recipe on Youtube.  Within 30 seconds we had a recipe for making ice cream with snow.  Outside we went with a couple bowls to scoop up some snow.  IMAG3403It wasn’t until we got home Sunday afternoon till I started thinking about what my eight-year-old cousin had taught me.  I considered how Kiera so quickly attempted to learn the things she wanted to learn using Siri and Youtube.  I had the opportunity to observe how an eight-year-old leverages technology that is as ubiquitous to her as a pencil is to me.  In fact, as I replayed the situations in my mind I realized she didn’t even think twice about seeking a solution from Siri or about searching for a recipe on Youtube.  What implications does that kind of access have on today’s classrooms?  Consider your own classroom, is it engaging to today’s students?  Is there still a disconnect between the way students learn outside of school and the way students learn inside of school?



Looking Ahead… 2016

In the last year I was fortunate enough to attend five Edcamps, two of those I helped organize.  During Edcamp Leadership at Gahanna Lincoln High School in Ohio, I broke down and signed up for Voxer, downloaded the app on my phone, and engaged in conversation.  I say I broke down because I was initially worried about the time commitment it would require and I was beginning to monitor my time a bit better.  In reflection, I am proud to say Voxer has been a transformative addition to the informal learning options that I’ve engaged in during the last few months.  The time commitment is extremely low and it’s so easy to use.  It has strengthened my relationship with educators that mentor and influence me in ways I could never have imagined.  Once again, I am in awe of the power of connections.  To have the ability to reach out and receive quick and specific communication is incredibly empowering.

The next chapter in my career as an educator appears to be on the horizon.  In the next few months I’ll complete my coursework and begin pursuing leadership opportunities immediately.  It’s humbling to think back on the impact that social media has had on my classroom and my students.  But I’m also thankful for the role it has played in preparing me for the next chapter.  I want to list a few of my hopes and dreams for 2016:

  • First, I hope to see educators in West Virginia make a commitment to informal learning opportunities.  To be honest, in my conversations with leaders from others states, leaders who have seen this investment take hold, I’ve learned that educators who rely solely on school or district provided learning opportunities are now irrelevant to today’s students.  I understand how brash that sounds.  That’s not an indictment of today’s learning opportunities provided by schools and districts.  The fact is, those opportunities have become fewer and fewer over the last decade, and in general, the bulk of those opportunities are dictated by policy changes, funding, and top-down mandates.  Learning opportunities that leverage educators voice and choice, provide time for conversation, and implement structures that engage ongoing feedback are just far and few between.  Conferences and professional development are quality opportunities for educators, but not everyone is provided the chance to attend those.  Let’s be frank, informal learning opportunities won’t take hold unless West Virginia’s leaders begin modeling the change themselves.  How can school leadership make growth a part of the evaluation process?  How can statewide organizations that lead professional development opportunities empower educators and leaders across the state to engage and invest in edchats, podcasts, book studies, webinars, Voxer chats, reflections, innovation, risk taking, sharing, and growth?  I believe the question facing most WV educators, leaders included, in right now is why?  Why engage?  What’s the benefit?  It’s a legitimate question and too many educators don’t see the need for change.  How can we take an honest look at what students are experiencing in classrooms and examine what needs to change?
  • The mentors who have influenced me the most are all servant leaders.  They all invest in developing capacity in those around them.  I hope to inspire in 2016.  This will require I listen more than I speak.  It will require that I disrupt the status-quo and empower others to step outside of comfort zones.  It will require that I act with intention, evaluate my options, and relentlessly pursue above the line responses to events I encounter.  Choke on Greatness
  • Last, I want to engage my students in opportunities for deeper and uncommon learning.  2015 ended with my students creating Kahoots, Quizlets, and Nearpod lessons to prepare for their semester exams.  The best value from that experience came from the questions my students asked themselves.  They spent a lot of time thinking about how to design accurate formative assessment opportunities.  I got to have conversations with students about how to measure whether a person can or can’t meet a specific target.  I hope to expand on that momentum and continue to develop metacognition in my students.  We’re going to start 2016 with this form.




What Are You Waiting For?

I’ve had this thought on my mind for a while now and I believe I just received the message I needed to go ahead and release it.  Neil Gupta and Mark Weston recently published posts that I read back to back one evening.  Both posts struck a similar cord with me.  I write often about the impact that social media connections have made on my practice.  I use caution to be sure my tone isn’t condemning of more traditional means of professional learning by teachers.  It’s not that traditional school or district provided professional development isn’t effective.  It definitely can be and I hope yours is effective.  I just can’t imagine any school or district leader believing that school or district provided PD occurs often enough.  The issue is the school calendar just doesn’t allow enough opportunities for educators to engage in reflection, sharing, and growth.  In fact, if you’re relying exclusively on school or district provided opportunities to grow, you’re likely an irrelevant educator to today’s students.  Don’t believe me?  Ask your students.  stayrelevantMany connected educators have been exercising patience with non-connected for years now.  Tom Whitby has wrote about this several times.  Educators have been collaborating for years, this is not a new phenomenon.  The methods by which educators are collaborating have changed due to the impact technology has had on today’s classrooms and the learners that fill our classrooms.  To remain relevant, educators are turning to social media to increase the frequency of collaboration that engages reflection, sharing, and growth.  Every education conference available has it’s own social media component typically leveraging hashtags to connect educators, build community, and expand the conversations.  Point is, using social media to increase informal learning opportunities speaks for itself.  The value is there.  What are you waiting for?  I no longer believe schools or districts can transform without the impact that tools like Twitter can have on educators.  Neglecting to connect to opportunities for reflection, exposure, sharing, and growth is a recipe for mediocrity, status-quo, and irrelevance.  It’s time for district leaders to aim higher!  So what can school or district leaders do to aim higher?

  • Todd Whitaker says often: “average teachers don’t know they are average.”  Social media can help expose your less effective teachers to more effective pedagogy.  In addition to peer observations that can occur within the building, social media provides a looking glass that can expose everyone.  It’s also convenient that the exposure and reflection on practices happens in non-judgmental environment that edchats and blogs can provide.  Truth: educators on Twitter sharing their practices are generally the most effective teachers in their respective buildings.  Want to improve your school?  Make your teachers more like the most effective teachers.  Get your teachers engaged.  Make it a part of your culture.
  • “Stroke ‘em, you gotta stroke ‘em. -Todd Whitaker”  How do your most effective teachers get students to do what they want them to do?  They stroke ‘em.  District leaders must be engaged, leading the way, stroking your teachers that are engaging in these opportunities to improve their practice.  Sustainable change won’t occur without it, I’m convinced of that.  You’ll develop capacity by making yourself visible, sharing your activity, and being the change that you wish to see.
  • Flip opportunities for information dissemination.  Make your teachers engage in the tools to participate in specific meetings, teams, book studies, etc.  Incorporate social media tools into your FACE (Family and Community Engagement) by leveraging a school hashtag to knock down the walls and share your school’s story.  Make this a part of your teachers’ practice in communicating with the home.
  • Get rid of the title!  Be title-less.  Every school or district leader I follow, seek input from, receive encouragement, support, and critique, serves first.  They didn’t stop learning just because they received a title.  They serve with an open heart, encouraging and stroking those most effective teachers.  They build capacity by empowering educators to serve others in leadership positions.




Shirley Feedme and Mr. Showme

For sake of a really long post, I hope you can understand, if even just a bit, the impact that technology has had on the way today’s students prefer to learn.  That’s rarely debated in the year 2015.  Tom Whitby said recently “If any teacher could take the content in their head and put that into the heads of their students, those students would still be limited.”  The days of teachers being considered masters of content are gone.  Students come to school with more content in their pockets.  Employers aren’t seeking workers who are loaded with content, rather, they’re seeking workers who are capable of learning because required skills to perform specific jobs are also changing quickly due to the impact of technology.  Read the title of this 2012 NY Times article:  stayrelevantMy point is, educators are not exempt from this action of nonstop learning.  Regardless of what century you were born in, teachers need to shift their mindset and take advantage of the learning opportunities all around them.  It’s more than just deciding to engage.  I believe what prohibits most teachers from learning and implementing new ideas, methods, and tools is a mindset.  Allow me to draw this out for you.  Shirley Feedme is a student in your class.  You have invested the typical time and energy you devote to designing quality lessons for your students.  You teach the lesson and everything appears to go as expected.  Students have their devices out, you’ve provided them the assignment, and the students begin working.  Shirley raises her hand beckoning for your assistance.  Shirley says she can’t do the required tasks because she doesn’t have a pencil.  So you walk over to the spare pencil tray, retrieve a pencil, and deliver it to Shirley.  A few minutes later Shirley beckons you again.  This time Shirley proclaims she doesn’t understand the assignment.  Despite your attempt to go over the directions with the entire class before providing the assignment, and despite the directions being written clearly in bold letters at the top of the page, you give in and explain it to Shirley once more.  Later Shirley beckons you once again.  Shirley tells you she can’t remember some important facts you provided about the topic during your lesson.  So you proceed to spend the next few minutes seated beside Shirley Feedme reviewing the facts with her one last time.  Spoon Feeding Teaches NothingWho’s doing most of the work in this scenario?  Who’s doing most of the learning in this scenario?  Go ahead, you’re allowed to smile.  Of course, what kind of teacher would read that and not have feelings of disgust at the actions of that teacher.  That behavior by that teacher denigrates the profession for all of us.  Yes, this situation is entirely fictional, but I wonder how often it happens in classrooms every day?  How empowering were those actions for Shirley Feedme?  I provided this scenario so I could shift to the next scenario:

The teacher down the hall, Mr. Showme, has been teaching for 20 years.  The school district just recently rolled out a 1:1 initiative with Chromebooks.  In addition, they released a district-wide learning management system too.  Mr. Showme attends the provided trainings over the summer.  School begins.  Fast forward to the next summer.  Mr. Showme’s evaluation last year indicated that he needed to increase collaboration in his classroom, begin issuing assignments via the learning management system, and decrease the amount of paper he uses each year.  Mr. Showme feels frustrated and defeated that the school is no longer providing anymore trainings on the Chromebooks and the learning management system.  In fact, the trainings they are providing are on a different topic that he’ll need to learn before the school year begins.  This scenario is once again fictional, but I wonder how often it occurs in school every year?  Mr. Showme is relying solely on school-district provided opportunities to learn.  He’s even hoping that those opportunities provide the time for someone to sit down with him 1:1 and show him exactly how to increase collaboration, use the LMS, and decrease the paper usage.  I see a connection between Mr. Showme and Shirley Feedme.  Could Mr. Showme be Shirley Feedme’s teacher?

Both of these individuals are going to struggle to succeed in today’s world.  Today’s world will pass them by, rather, individuals who leverage technology to receive information, facts, explanations, procedures, videos, etc. will do the passing.  Mr. Showme could have leveraged social media to connect with a group of educators who have been using Chromebooks in the same content and same grade level, but he didn’t.  Mr. Showme could have watched the 4-5 minute video tutorials provided on the learning management system’s webpage, but he didn’t.  Mr. Showme could have asked the teacher down the hall how they issue their assignments via the LMS, but he didn’t.  The real issue is, Mr. Showme needs to change his mindset.  It’s not that he can’t do those things.  I wonder if he ever thought about doing those things?  Perhaps he did think about doing them, but he didn’t feel it was his responsibility to do them.  Either way, Mr. Showme is quickly sinking into irrelevance because of his mindset.

Learners Inherit the Earth

Today’s educators must embrace the mindset that learning opportunities are all around us.  We won’t always have another to hold our hands during the training and show us exactly how to learn and implement the newest tool, method, or idea.  What we perceive as barriers e.g., lack of time, training, or people, are really not barriers at all.  Employees in all walks of the job force are being asked to adopt this very mindset.  Those that cannot acquire knowledge on their own are being passed by those who can.  Give a man a fish




I Hate Math

This post is entirely fictional, but, no doubt it rings true for far too many students.  There’s a lot here.  I’d like to hear your thoughts.


My name is Danny and I’m a little nervous about moving up to the middle school this year.  Math is my worst subject and my last teacher made me sit in the back of the classroom to keep me quiet.  I hope I can sit in the back of the classroom this year too.

The first week was ok.  I really liked some of my classes, but my math teacher was lecturing us about knowing our multiplication facts and I can’t remember anything past my two’s.  I might try to sit in the back of the classroom next week and see if he notices.  I just want to be left alone.  I got a C in math last year.  I hope I can get a C in math this year too.

I failed the first math test, but so did half of the class.  The teacher stood and griped at us for 15 minutes after passing the tests back.  I guess no one else studied for the test either.  I don’t know how he expected me to finish it because I didn’t know how to do half of it.

I don’t think I’ll get a C in math this year.  Maybe I can get a D.

The math teacher threatened us with more math again.  I swear, if I lose my recess and have to stay inside to practice this stuff I don’t understand!  I just wish they would leave me alone.

I got an F in math.  Maybe 7th grade math will be better.  Good thing I passed gym, library, and social studies.

This teacher seems cool, I may actually try this year.  I have some friends in math class too.

The teacher separated me from my friends because I guess we were talking too much.  I was bored, she had been talking for 20 minutes straight.  Now I have no one to talk to.

At least she’s letting me use a calculator.

I have no idea what she’s talking about and Shawn answers every question in class.  I’m glad I’m sitting in the back of the class.  I wish I was back in 5th grade math where I actually knew a little bit.

I spent the entire class period working on my science homework and the teacher never said anything to me. YES!

I actually tried to finish my math homework today and the teacher said it was a day late, she wouldn’t take it.  You’ve got to be kidding me, does she know how long it took me to do that?  I should have just copied off of Shawn before school.

I actually have a C in this class.  It’s a good thing she grades every homework assignment.  I can cheat on those and still keep a C in the class.  I’m lost when it comes to the tests.

Another F in math class.  I don’t know why I even try.  I’m good at gym class, computer class, and science this year.

I am dreading math class this year.  I hardly learned anything last year and now I hear this teacher is really hard.

I don’t know who I’m going to copy my hw from this year either.  I don’t even want to come to school.

All the teacher talks about is how high school is so much different and how he’s trying to “prepare” us for high school.  I could care less about doing 35 problems out of the book every night.  I don’t have time for that stuff.  I’m just going to put my head down.  I’d rather sleep through this class.  It makes me want to claw my eyeballs out.

Good.  I got my F, now let me move on.

High school!  I would do anything to skip math class every day.  I have hated math for as long as I can remember.  At least they can’t keep me inside for recess this year, we don’t have recess at high school! HAH.  I don’t care what the math teacher says, I’m not wasting my time, there’s no way I can do this stuff.  I have failed math ever since 5th grade.  I wish I could go back to 6th grade math, I think I may actually do ok in that class now.



Putting The Problem Back On The Students

My classroom is student-centered and instruction is blended.  I’ve got 23 Macbook Airs in my room.  I don’t know for sure but I imagine this is my students’ first experience in a student-centered blended classroom.  I say that because their reactions to my classroom indicate pretty clearly the type of classrooms from which they have previously been a part.



In a very general sense, my instruction runs in three phases: Instructional, Practice, Assessment.  It’s a lot more fluid than that, but that’s enough to understand the purpose of this post.  The instructional phase represents the time that I offer the most support.  Perhaps it’s the phase that appears most like a 20th century classroom.  I incorporate a buffet of opportunities for my students to dive into the skill or concept.  The next phase represents the biggest phase, from the standpoint of time.  During the practice phase I often gauge the level of support needed by my students by the number of hands up in the classroom.  During this time, I rarely address the entire class as a whole, rather I spend most of the time down on a knee beside one student or a group of students.  I issue the daily agenda through our learning management system, Canvas, and this allows me to spend more valuable time with my students.  As I said, during the practice phase, students generally get my attention with a raised hand or a verbal cue.  During the class, I find myself constantly gauging the level of support needed by the class, diagnosing common weaknesses, and identifying common strengths.  This means I occasionally need to stop and address the whole class.

I’m realizing, through observation and conversations with students, that the number of hands and verbal cues I’m receiving during the practice phase doesn’t necessarily indicate the level of support students need, rather it indicates the level of support students want.  Putting the problem back on the students means I have to intentionally exercise caution during my interactions with students in order to continually put the problem back on the students.  Most importantly, I have to employ the right kinds of questions when dealing with students.  Questions that require them to think, because it’s likely they would prefer that I respond in a way that liberates them from thinking.  See, the number of hands up during class more accurately indicates the lack of thinking.  The system I have put in place in my class arms each student with opportunities to learn.  In general, I’m finding that they view these opportunities, even using Google, as a way for me to stop teaching.

Ultimately, I’d like for my students to develop resilience, grit, and perseverance that empowers them to relentlessly dig at their problems before giving up and seeking support from me.  

This goal is not achieved without a teacher that is intentionally aware of the effects of each interaction with students seeking support.  It requires the teacher to act more as a coach.  A coach empowers his/her students to hone the skill of learning by putting the problem back on the students.  The right questions are key for a teacher or coach to put the problems back on the students.  For example, one of my students held her hand up for 15 minutes in class this week waiting for me to make it around to offer support.  When I made it to the student, her question was “Is this a negative sign or a minus sign?”  First, bless her heart for holding her hand up in the air for 15 minutes.  I’m afraid she worked harder holding her hand in the air than she did in solving her problem.  My response could have easily been “that number needs to be treated as a negative” and I could have walked away and moved on to the next student.  That would have done nothing to foster resilience or risk-taking in that student.  The situation that exists with this student depicts the struggles in all of my students.  She has never been empowered to take control of her learning, take risks, and accept failure.  These skills are critical to success in today’s global society, yet they are perhaps the most neglected in today’s classrooms.  Students have been conditioned to believe that arriving at the right answer is the only measurement of achievement that matters.  Risking failure or making a mistake is shameful and not something that is embraced by many of today’s classrooms.  The following tips can help you begin to empower students to embrace failure as part of the learning process.  This is critical to putting the problem back on the students.

  • Be aware of your language and the impact that it has on cultivating learners.  Praise and encouragement are not the same thing.  Too often praise is given as a result of the product.  It’s more effective to provide encouragement during the process.  Be sure you’re emphasizing the process over the product.
  • Questions, questions, questions.  Your questions are key to empowering students to leverage the tools available to solve their own problems.  Your questions should require reflection and risk taking.  Too often students are spoonfed the answers, rather than provided opportunities to think.
    • Can you draw a picture that may help? 
    • What would happen if you tried it? 
    • Is there a similar problem we’ve done that may help us understand this one? 
    • Have you Googled it?  Yes, that’s right.  Teach your students to leverage the tools they will use in the real world.  If you don’t want your students Googling your answers, then start asking better questions.
    • What have you tried that hasn’t worked? 
  • Talk about a growth mindset.  Our students should know the term and understand that growth is not limited by prior experience or our genetic makeup.


  • Growth-v-Fixed

Math Class 2.0

I saw this tweet this morning and it almost consumed my thinking during my 45 minute commute to school:


I even responded to Andrew with:
 image (1)
If you don’t know Andrew Stadel, he is the mind behind Estimation 180.
Andrew, Dan Meyer, and a number of other authors are also the brains that created this awesome list of 3-Act Math Tasks.  I’ve been watching these guys (@mathletepearce is another good one) for a while and they really make you consider what your math practice looks like and how effective you are at designing memorable opportunities for students to develop conceptual knowledge of math over procedural knowledge.  They are THE evangelists of opportunities for deeper thinking in math class.  Just look up Dan Meyer on Youtube and his talks will likely blow your mind.  Dan speaks at NCTM conference every year.  He now works as a fellow for Desmos, and what he’ll do with an already amazing product at Desmos will be unbelievable I’m sure.
I also found this video Here’s Why Math Is Taught Differently Now  and it just seemed to fit the theme this morning.  The video is 8 minutes long but I really encourage you to view it when you have time.  The skill he dives into is two-digit multiplication and I know none of us really teach that specific skill, but the video is more than that.
I don’t write this post to condemn or judge anyone’s practice, in fact, like most of my blog, I’m judging my own.  The bulk of my own class, dare I say, all of my class is spent on memorizing algorithms and procedures long enough to pass a test, then forget it.  As is stated in the video, that works for some people (perhaps that’s why we chose to teach math, it worked for us) but for most people, it’s proven to be a miserable way of developing a joy for math and gaining a deep and lasting understanding of math.
Honestly, I thought of the conversation yesterday in dept meeting about quadratics.  I obviously have no clue how quadratics was taught last year and I’m certainly not making any judgments on that, but why did the students forget it all over the summer?  What prevented them from recognizing a quadratic this week on the POD?  I’ve taught 8th grade math for 5 years and it hasn’t went unnoticed that my own students forgot way more math that I taught vs what they actually remembered.  Teaching mostly freshman this year, it’s pretty clear that these students aren’t any different than the ones I used to teach in Parkersburg.
Consider this post from Dan Meyer about Photomath.  If you haven’t heard of Photomath, it’s a mobile app that allows anyone to use their device to scan a variety of math problems, and it spits out the solution along with a series of steps to solve the problem.  PhotoMath
Dan’s post epitomizes the changes that really need to occur in more math classrooms.
I just needed to get some things off my chest and this was the best way I could that.  I wish there was more time to talk about these things and there’s no people I’d rather talk to then the people I work with.  I’ve been trying to change my practice by myself and it’s hard.  I’m fairly connected and it’s still difficult to learn, integrate, and develop a more conceptual understanding in my students.  Not to mention all the other barriers that math teachers face: the products of an educational system that doesn’t require mastery of standards in order to pass.  However, I know this to be true:

Remediation: A call for change

Having spent about 4 weeks in the high school math setting, I can say with certainty that reaching those students that are hard to reach is not given enough attention in middle school, or at any level for that matter. The quality of math courses at the high school cannot endure the percentage of students sitting in those courses with monumental deficiencies.  A student that has failed 6th grade math, 7th grade math, and 8th grade math lands him or herself in 9th grade math at the high school level a high percentage of time.  That statement is not meant to condemn the practice or lack of practice of holding students back when they can’t perform to a minimum acceptable level.  The statement simply means the system places a growing percentage of students and teachers in a difficult position, to put it kindly.  This post really isn’t meant to spout statements that math teachers have been spouting for years.  Instead, I’m reminded of the importance of reaching EVERY student all the time, especially during the critical years where learning foundations are established.  More specifically, I’m thinking about what that requires.

To combat this cruel series of events that plays out every year, many schools are turning to extra periods of remediation and intervention, loss of recess, extended class periods for math, and a deluge of other techniques that really only increase the time to “learn” math.  Instead, I wish more schools, administrators, teachers, etc. placed more of the focus on improving the experience for those students in their regular math class.  I’m not talking about adding time, taking away an elective so the student can be placed in remediation classes, or doing more of the same thing only longer.  I wish more teachers considered why that student was failing their class instead of how they can get that student to spend more time doing math.  None of that is to say that more traditional means of remediation aren’t or can’t be effective.

It’s time to look at remediation from a comprehensive whole-child perspective.  I feel like we’ve completely overlooked reaching that child during class and jumped straight to “what can we do to that kid during remediation?”  The following list represents the tip of the iceberg, but I wonder what results these would yield in comparison to traditional remediation techniques.

  • The failure that is occurring, by teacher and student, can only be remedied if a relationship is present.  In fact, if you’re talking remediation but the conversation doesn’t begin with “How do I get into this student’s bubble?  How do I break the shell?  What can I do to reach his or her heart?” you’re wasting your time talking strategy, technique, or pedagogy.
  • Have you called home?  The first call home should be on purpose, it should be early in the year, and it should be positive.  Not sure which students need called?  Unfortunately if you just listen to the previous grade level teachers, they’ll probably indicate who needs a phone call.  The names usually follow “just wait till you have…”
  • A handwritten note takes a mere seconds to write.  “Never underestimate the value of a well placed compliment. -Todd Whittaker”  The students that need the most love, the most reinforcement, and the most pats on the backs, ask for it in the most unloving ways.  Don’t let that stop you from writing a 30 second note.  This practice seems easy, but when you’re talking about these students, you have to watch for something positive, on purpose.  I know, positive behaviors may be like Bigfoot, you hear about him every once in a while, but you never see him.  If you watch on purpose, you’ll find something to write about.  Think about it, we watch for negative behaviors all day long and often find them.  Try watching for positive behaviors a while and see what happens.
  • Have you given up a lunch break to eat with a student or group of students?
  • Have you visited the home?
  • I know what you’re thinking, “Gee Wiz Oldfield, there’s no way a person could do all these things.”  The perpetual and consistent failure that these students experience year after year acts like a huge weight on the everyone: teacher and students.  The quality of courses is not enduring this weight that is only getting heavier year after year.  The level of performance is declining and bars are lowering.  What we’ve been doing isn’t working.  Nothing great is accomplished by doing something easy.

I’ll be honest, the focus of this post came from my own frustration entering the high school math realm for the first time this year.  I was previously an 8th grade math teacher for five years.  I often wondered back then how teachers at the high school actually taught their courses at the level required by the standards without failing more students.  I thought one of two things were occurring: the teachers were extraordinary teachers of the kind of talent I could only dream about, or the teachers recognized the cavern between the instructional level of the students and the performance required of the standards and spent the year measuring student learning at the current level then stamped a grade on the report card under a course name that did not really represent what was being taught.  I believe the cure involves better reaching those students who are hard to reach.  Consider the penalty if they get left behind?  Prior to high school, the penalty is… they move on.

Now don’t get me wrong, do I believe instruction and pedagogy need to improve?  You bet I do!  I believe too many students sit in classrooms designed for a style of learning that is irrelevant and disengaging to today’s learners.  That’s for another time.


The Handwritten Note




I adopted the practice of writing handwritten notes about 3 years ago.  It wasn’t until this year that I really began to harness the power.  Before, I would occasionally write a note when a student performed extraordinary in class.  If I recognized that a student had overcome a large obstacle in content, I would try and write the note and deliver it within the same day.  At my previous school, we had Blennerhassett Middle School post cards that you see in the above picture.  I moved schools this year and realized that as far as I knew, I didn’t have anything similarly suited for writing handwritten notes to students.  I have used Vistaprint this year to order business cards that include my contact information, website, and instructions on signing up for my Remind class.  On the back of the card, I included a motivational image from Dave and Shelly Burgess, authors of Teach Like A Pirate. IMAG1052 IMAG1054

In addition to ordering the business cards, I also ordered postcards for handwritten notes.CYMERA_20150820_075401


This year I determined to leverage the power of a sincere note to a greater degree than I had before.  During the first few days of school, I made literal and mental notes about students through observation and conversation.  I tried to identify students who seemed disengaged.  In some cases, I have students who are repeating the course for a second of third time.  As I identified those students, I watched closely for that small spark of excitement, engagement, or some input to any conversation.  That was when I jumped on the opportunity to praise!  As soon as I could I wrote a handwritten note, checked out their schedule, and began delivering the notes during my planning period.  In four days of school I have delivered four quality notes with a sincere and personal message to that student.  I ordered my Vistaprint cards late so I had to use notecards for a few days. IMAG1045

Often the only feedback you get from a handwritten note is the evidence of excitement, motivation, and engagement that student displays the next day in class.  Occasionally you’ll get a “thank you” in return.

A couple years ago I had a student that many educators would have considered a handful, to say the least.  During our team plan, this student’s name would come up often when discussing behavior issues.  This student was among the top five offenders in detention-hall that year.  I wrote him a handwritten note praising him for his perseverance during an exercise in class one day.  A few days later I noticed his binder laying on the floor next to his desk.  In the clear plastic sleeve on the front of his binder was my handwritten note.  He was displaying it proudly for all to see.  I didn’t want him to notice, but I tried to quickly snap a picture of that binder that day.  The image isn’t real clear but that’s my handwritten note in the sleeve.  IMAG4724 He never thanked me for my note.  I got all the thanks I needed when this student worked his butt off in my class the rest of the year.


Mouse Traps & Blindfolds

IMAG1033IMAG1034 I saw this life changing lesson performed during a church service about three years ago and I have used it in the classroom ever since.  I call it a life changing lesson, titled after Dave Burgess’ LCL’s he uses in his classroom (Teach Like A Pirate).  The experience begins by blindfolding a volunteer at the front of the classroom.  It’s necessary that the volunteer take his/her shoes off as it helps increase the suspense or thrill.  Obviously you need enough clear space to establish a point A and point B for the volunteer to travel.  Once blindfolded, the teacher will grab his/her bag and begin to pull out mouse traps, knives, forks, scissors (anything that will elicit some gasps from audience).  Strategically place the mouse traps and other obstacles out front of the volunteer, creating a maze-like pattern of dangerous obstacles.  I do this slowly, while instructing the volunteer to stand very still.  I even let a mouse trap or two snap loudly to help build the intensity.  Often the volunteer will nervously ask “what was that Mr. Oldfield?”  I typically respond “Oh that was nothing.  You trust me right?”  Anything you can do to help increase the intensity here will help hook the audience and the volunteer.  Once the path is set, I explain that the audience will have opportunity to direct the volunteer down the path, but they’ll have to be careful and very specific in their directions.  What usually plays out next is a combination of the audience calling out directions, some good and some bad, while I stand next to the volunteer confirming some orders and monitoring his/her safety.  Once the volunteer has surpassed one or two obstacles, I will step on one of the mouse traps, setting it off loudly.  This normally ignites some anxiety in the volunteer.  I kick the trap out of the way and the volunteer continues.  Once the volunteer has completed the journey, he/she is allowed to remove the blindfold and look back at the obstacles.

The next portion of the lesson is where the teacher facilitates the valuable learning experience.  My discussion begins by acknowledging that this experience that took place actually represented something larger.  I like to give my students some time to discuss at their tables some ideas they may have about what they think the entire experience represented.  Next I usually reveal the three key players in the experience: the mouse traps, me, and the crowd.  I allow my students some time to discuss the three roles and who each of them represented.  During the discussion at the tables, I make my rounds listening and guiding the discussions in the right directions.  The easiest connection to make seems to be that the mouse traps represented danger or obstacles that lie in our paths.  So that’s a good place to start with your students.  You can carry the rest of the discussion out however you best see fit.  But I think it’s important to emphasize the distinction between the teacher and the crowd, and who those two parties represent.  In my opinion, the teacher represented the following groups of people that you may want your students to recognize: parents, teachers, coaches, pastors.  The crowd represented the following groups of people: classmates, friends, teammates.  While developing this distinction, I always try to remind my students which person kicked one or two of the obstacles out of the way for the volunteer.  I (teacher) kicked an obstacle out of the way because I was close to the volunteer.  It’s all about distance, literal and figurative.  Typically classmates, friends, teammates have an impact on us, but they can’t really remove obstacles from our path.  Their impact is never that direct.  But parents, teachers, and coaches sometimes have an impact that can be that direct.  Moral of the story is that during my students’ years (14-17 years of age), they often tend to distance themselves from those who have the most impact on their journey.  The class always agrees that the volunteer never would have made it through the path without any guidance.  It’s often the case that they never would have made it exclusively on the guidance of the crowd, because it was sometimes hard to distinguish between good advice and bad advice when listening only to the crowd.  The noise level also made it hard to hear the right voices.  Bottom line, it’s nice to be reminded at 14-17 years of age, that as much as we sometimes think we don’t them, we really do need those people who offer to walk life’s journey right by our side.