Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Resolutions, Goal-Setting, and Making a Difference

It's 2020.

I just can't get over the fact that it is 2020.

Wasn't it just 2008 like 6 months ago? The 90s feels like just a few years ago. 2020 is supposed to be "the future" or something, isn't it?

And yet, here we are.

We had a quiet New Year's Eve celebration last night: just my immediate family. We had fondue for supper, played table games, and listened to 80s hits. We didn't even watch New Year's Rockin' Eve or anything; we just spent time together. It was pretty great, honestly.

During supper, we talked about New Year's Resolutions--I asked everyone if they had any resolutions for 2020. My daughter responded with wisdom she had seen on Instagram: "There are two kinds of people in the world: people who don't make resolutions, and people who break resolutions." I was a little surprised by this cynicism, but I get where she's coming from...people do often break their resolutions, and often soon after they are made. I've been there too, honestly. I shared a few examples of resolutions I made that actually stuck, like the year I resolved to lose 30 pounds (which actually took me about 18 months, but I did it) and the year I resolved to read the whole Bible in a year (which I actually did, using a chronological Bible.) But I get where she is coming from. And, when I'm really honest, these are exceptions for me rather than the rule. I'm likely to not follow through on my so-called resolutions either.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Gratitude at the End of the Semester

I have written less this semester than any time since I started this blog.

In 2012, when I began teaching in higher education full-time, I started this blog. At that time--foolishly--I thought that people would suddenly care what I had to say. I was a professor, after all!

Very quickly I realized that very few people much cared about what I had to say. My early pontifications are pretty funny to read from this vantage point, seven and a half years later. This blog quickly pivoted to my personal reflection space, a place to think out loud about what I am reading, what I am exploring, what I am trying in my classroom, what I am researching.

And it's funny...when I made that switch, a few more people started reading along, and sharing their stories with me as well.

So I'm actually feeling a little sad that I haven't had much time to write this semester. I've just been playing keep-up all the time. And I've had to carve off some of the non-essentials to keep on keeping-on, and the blogging was often a casualty.

But here I am, at the end of my 15th semester of full-time teaching in higher education. I recently shared with a colleague just how much I enjoy everything I get to do serving here. It's the truth too: I am reaching a point where I'm spread too thin, and I'm going to have to give some things up, and that's really hard for me to do...because I just love it all so much.

So I'm left with a sense of deep gratitude--gratitude born out of real joy in the work I get to do.

Gratitude toward my undergrad students, the amazing future teachers I get to serve as they prepare to join this demanding profession.

Gratitude toward my grad students, the incredible practicing educators I get to walk beside as they continue to grow and learn and develop their own teaching practices.

Gratitude toward the high-functioning team I am a part of in the Education department, for colleagues who challenge me to keep getting better, and who are also encouraging me to right-size my work and not bite off more than I can chew.

Gratitude toward the administration, staff, faculty from across the institution, and the broader community of support that makes Dordt University such an incredible place to serve.

Gratitude that I feel like I have truly found my calling.

Here's hoping that I will have a little more margin and a little more time to keep writing here in the new semester!

Image via Pixabay

Friday, November 15, 2019

The Evolution of an Undergraduate Research Project

Many of you regular readers will know that I am constantly playing with my teaching practice--experimenting, exploring, trying to improve things. Maybe this says something about my inner state; maybe this means I'm never quite satisfied that it's "good enough." Honestly, that's probably true. I'm a work in progress, and I hope that I'm continuing to get better all the time.

I've taught Introduction to Education 15 times over the past 8 years, and it's one of my favorite courses to teach. It's also the course I teach that literally anyone in my department could teach...but I love it, and I like to think I'm a good fit for it. For the most part, I feel like I've got this course dialed in to where I want it to be: it's a pretty tightly aligned course, with clear learning targets, reasonable assessments, and instructional activities designed to ensure students will come away from the course with a strong foundation for the rest of their learning in our Teacher Preparation Program.'s not perfect. (Obviously, since I am not perfect!) And so, I continue tinkering with the course, tweaking it, trying to find ways to make it a more engaging learning experience for students, one that will help them discern whether becoming a teacher is their calling, and helping them develop a beginning level of the knowledge and skills they will need as professional educators, should they decide to continue in the program.

As long as I've taught the course, I've had a research project as a key assignment. I assign students to research an education reform initiative, and share what they learn with their classmates. The goals for the project are threefold:

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Economics and Grading

So I saw a tweet yesterday that included the following graphic from my long-time Twitterfriend, Paul Munshower.

My first reaction was to laugh, and I did chuckle.

But, almost immediately, I stopped and checked that reaction. Oh, not because this is probably is a really accurate way of framing that feeling. (And, a professional educator, I have had that feeling checking my balance with my bank...which is a comment on the state of compensation for teachers...but not the real point of this post.)

The main reason I checked myself is the idea that this comment conveys: that grades are like money in the bank, deposits from your earnings.

Now I know there are plenty of people who would equate grades as "earnings," as in, "Students earn their grades."

But I do wonder a bit about this metaphor. Are we really comfortable with thinking about grades as compensation? I'm not loving this idea, honestly. I know, I know...we use this language all the time. But what is a grade, really? Is it payment for the work students do? it meant to be communication about their learning?

I suppose if you're viewing grades as pay for the work students do, there isn't any problem here. Students put in their time, do what they are asked to do, and get their paycheck. Worked hard? You get an A! Not working quite as hard? B+ for you, kiddo. Just coasting and not really doing the work? D- for you. And I guess the idea here is that compensation matches the effort; kids who are really working hard are going to get better "pay," while the kids who are coasting are going to get worse "pay." That's how the "real world" works, after all, right? People who work hard get raises, and lazy people never get ahead...and might even lose their jobs, yeah? Grades viewed this way are really an economic proposition.

But here's what makes me uncomfortable with this: I don't think grades are actually pay. Grades should be communication about what kids have learned, ideally. I don't think they are actually all that great for this purpose, because you lose all the nuance by trying to collapse a whole term's learning into one letter or number. Regardless...if we start trying to turn this communication into payment...are we really communicating learning anymore?

And I don't think that kids who just "work hard" are going to get high marks while lazy students are going to get low scores. I'm not arguing against developing a work ethic; I think everyone agrees that we want kids to learn how to work. But I'm standing here in opposition to the idea that kids who work hard deserve good grades just because they have worked hard. I mean, you can "work really hard" at doing the wrong thing and not end up making any progress. If we're basing kids' grades on whether or not they worked hard, what are we actually assessing? Their work habits? Or their learning?

Grading is not--or at least should not--be an economic transaction. The teacher is not the boss on the jobsite doling out dollars for the day's work to the laborers. If we're serious about grades actually reporting learning, we have to work to purge our vocabulary of this language about "earning."

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Geographic Literacy

I don't usually post a lot of political stuff on the blog. But today I'm going to get a little political, in the interest of promoting geographic literacy.

Today our President tweeted the following map:

Screenshot from

Boy oh boy, there is a lot of conversation on Twitter about this. And it's spilled over to other platforms as well--I saw at least two of my Facebook friends share a post that included an image of this tweet, and one of my favorite Instagram accounts, TerribleMaps shared it with a caption that I found pretty funny.

There has been a lot of commentary on Twitter about just what this map illustrates, both by supporters and detractors of the President. I find it interesting because this map is potentially misleading, particularly with the "Try to impeach this" text overlaid. This map is assumed to be an election results map from the 2016 Presidential election. (Though even that seems to be in dispute, if you do the slightest digging on Twitter.) The idea here being that the red on the map represents counties that voted for Trump, and the blue the counties that voted for Clinton.

The implication is that far more of the country voted for Trump than for Clinton. The further implication being that impeachment flies in the face of the voters' wishes. And, if one doesn't pause to think about what is actually being communicated in this map, that might be the quick take away. Cynically, I wonder if that is what Trump expects from his supporters: to not pause and think about what is actually being communicated in this map.

The problem with this map as a proxy for voters' wishes is, as someone said on Twitter (and I wish I could find the tweet now, but it's lost to me, unfortunately)...

dirt can't vote.

The point being, in an election results map, the number of counties in a particular color does not matter...the population of those counties matters. An awful lot of those counties in red have relatively small populations. And an awful lot of those counties in blue have relatively humongous populations. (Seriously...basically every large city in the U.S. is in one of the blue areas on the map.) "Dirt can't vote" means just because there is a large geographic area that happens to be "for" a particular candidate doesn't mean that there is a larger number of people there (or even an equivalent number of people there) who would support a particular candidate.

So what I'm really thinking about is how people don't often slow down enough and think about maps. As a geography teacher, of course I'm concerned about this. I would love it if people were more geographically literate in general.

Friday, September 27, 2019

How Are You Feeling?

I gave the first test of the semester in my World Regional Geography course this week. I've started marking them, but I'm not done yet. So far, so good, overall.

For many of the students taking the course, this is the first time they are taking a test with me. And there is a little bit of a learning curve there, I think. This is something we talk about quite a bit in the Education courses I teach: every teacher has his/her own preferences, quirks, and foibles that come out in a myriad of ways in our teaching practices. But one place this happens specifically is in the assessment vehicles we develop.

Students have agreed with me when I have asked them about this. Different instructors have different ways of putting tests together, for good or ill. And until you've taken a test with a particular instructor? You just can't be 100% of their assessment style.

I've said before that I take my work very seriously, though I try not to take myself too seriously as a teacher. Perhaps this is one way this shows up in my teaching practice in the assessments I write: I often ask my students how they are feeling at the beginning of a test. Here's what the top of the test paper looked like for this first exam of the semester in World Regional Geography:

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Mythical Multiple Intelligences?

I've been wrestling with the idea of multiple intelligences for some time now.

In a nutshell, the idea behind multiple intelligence theory (first proposed by Howard Gardner in the early 1990s) is that intelligence is not a unitary trait that you either have or do not have. Rather, there are multiple ways of being "smart"--multiple intelligences. Gardner originally suggested seven types of intelligence, and later expanded the list by adding an eighth:

  • Linguistic intelligence - "word smart"
  • Logical-mathematical intelligence - "math smart"
  • Visual-spatial intelligence - "design smart"
  • Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence - "body smart"
  • Musical intelligence - "music smart"
  • Interpersonal intelligence - "people smart"
  • Intrapersonal intelligence - "self smart"
  • Naturalist intelligence - "nature smart"

These descriptors above are my own, not Gardner's. This theory is appealing to me for several reasons. It does seem that there are different ways to make sense of the world, and people do seem to have various strengths and relative weaknesses in these different ways of being "smart." Used car salesman? Definitely "people smart." Nuclear physicist? Probably has "math smart" in spades. Concert violinist? I'm thinking "music smart" is an apt description. Add to this fact, my students have always had preferences for the kinds of assignments I asked them to do. And further, I like to think of myself as a unique individual with my own areas of strength to celebrate, so it's probably no wonder that parents see their kids that way, and teachers too, and likely even the kids themselves!

Early in my teaching career, I put a lot of stock into giving my middle school students self-assessments related to these multiple intelligences, with the intent of helping them understand their own gifts and talents, and helping me as their teacher to understand more about how they see the world. But more recently, I've wondered about whether this was worthwhile. Did I really use enough different teaching methods to help my "body smart" students learn science? Was I tapping into the strengths of "self smart" students in the learning opportunities they had?

And now, thinking about those quick self-checking surveys I had my students well did they actually indicate students' actual intelligence? Were they "good enough?" Or did they misdiagnose students' intelligences? Or worse, does this just give one more label to use--or an opportunity for excuses, because "I'm just not that 'word smart,' but I am 'people smart,' so if you would just teach me that way..."???

And then, I come across things like this tweet from Dr. Daniel Willingham...