Monday, October 29, 2012

Emails to the Future!

This is such a neat idea: Send your future self email!

You can do it for free using Give them an email address (spam-free!) and type your future-self an email. Specify the delivery date, and hit send. They'll send you a confirmation email to be sure you typed your address correctly, and then it's hidden until the future.

I'm thinking this could be pretty cool if you would have your students (assuming they have their own school email account) send their future selves an email during the first week of the school year, to have it delivered in the last week of school. Or at the beginning of middle school to be delivered at the end of middle school. Or to yourself, so you'd get an encouraging email from your past self delivered right in the middle of parent-teacher conference week...

Caveat: you'd obviously want to use an email account that will be there in a year or two or that you'll actually get the mail you send...

A Quick and Easy Way to Create a Webpage

Great resource here for a quick and easy way to create a great looking website. Check out No understanding of programming languages required; just add your text and images and customize colors, fonts, backgrounds, etc.

Here's a quickie I threw together in about 10 minutes as an example. The photos and text on the page are from a lab I used to do with my 7th grade science students. (What a great way to write a lab report!)

I'm envisioning all kinds of possibilities for school use here--you can make a tackk for free without any login or sign up required. Of course, if you want to keep your tackk for more than a week, you'll want to create the free account. Even in that case, I'm thinking a teacher could create a class account for younger students, or older students could probably create their own.

One thing I wish was part of it was a better means of commenting. As it stands, I think the only way you can comment is with a Facebook account, which isn't ideal in most schools today. But this short-coming aside, this might be a really, really useful tool for your classroom!

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Dry Bones

There are days when I feel completely spent. Dried up. Dead.

I think Ezekiel could identify.

Ezekiel is one of my favorite Old Testament prophets. This guy has a lot going on--he's an exile from Judah, taken forcibly to live in Bablyon. Far from home. Far from the center of his religion's worship in Jerusalem. And that's a big deal, because he was from a priestly family: he was big time in the religious culture around him. And now that's all gone for him; he's miles from home, probably feeling far from God.

And then God gets a hold of him. In chapter 1 of his book he tells the story--the first of many crazy visions--of how God calls him to be a prophet. It's wild: wings, and wheels, and a windstorm, and a sovereign God watching and ruling over it all. What a comfort that must have been for him, given his surroundings!


That didn't mean life was easy for him. He's still living in exile. And being called to be a prophet wasn't exactly a picnic. God called Ezekiel to preach bizarre "sermons"--acting out the siege of Jerusalem with toy war machines and an iron frying pan, shaving all the hair off his body with a sword and scattering then it to the wind, camping out in his front yard for weeks on end. And then, in the midst of all of this going on in his life, his wife dies, and God tells him he can't even grieve her loss.

I can only imagine that he was feeling spent. Dried up. Dead.

The Vision of the Valley of Dry Bones by Gustave DorĂ©
Public Domain, accessed via Wikipedia
And then, in chapter 37, God shows him another vision--one perfect for the way the world celebrates October 31st today...

God takes Ezekiel to a valley full of bones. In my mind, I'm picturing miles and miles of dried up, dead bodies. A mountain of human remains. The Book says these bones were dry--they've been lifeless for a long time.

And God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones, telling them that they will come to life again.

So he does.

And as he's speaking, there's a rattling as the bones come clattering out of the chaotic jumble and join up to form skeletons. Standing on their feet.

And in a scene right out of a horror movie, tendons begin to appear, muscles develop, skin grows in. In my mind I see hollow sockets filling in with glassy eyes, hair sprouting.

But no movement; no life. An army of the dead standing at the ready.

And God tells Ezekiel to call on the Breath of
Life to enter these corpses. And he does, and in comes the Spirit, and the dead are alive again.

What an amazing picture of hope! God has not left His people alone in exile. He is with them. Ezekiel is not alone. God is filling him with the Spirit, even now as he speaks.

Now, I'm no Ezekiel, but this givs me tremendous hope. On the days that I'm feeling dead and dried up, I need to read Ezekiel 37 again. And again. Or at least listen to this song by Gungor. I hope you'll give it a listen--especially if you're feeling spiritually dead today. May you feel brought back to life in the Spirit!

Friday, October 26, 2012

Caffeine Addiction, or "Who Needs Sleep?"

My name is Dave, and I'm addicted to caffeine.

So many teachers are, aren't they? I like coffee. I like coffee a lot. When I was a newbie teacher, I often drank five or six cups a day. You can imagine that by the end of the day, my hands would be twitching. That much caffeine just isn't healthy.

After the first few years I cut back to two cups a day: a cup first thing when I get up (love my coffee-pot timer...) and one more when I get to school. That's usually still my plan these days...usually. There are days where I'll have a third cup in the middle of the afternoon. Some days I just need the pick-me-up.

You too?

I wonder about the phenomenon of teachers and their coffee. Did you have that teacher who was always puffing coffee breath when you asked for help? The one who had a mug that never really got washed out, and so the inside was stained? The one who passed back papers adorned with coffee-cup rings?

A few years ago, there was some discussion of whether we should make our school a caffeine-free zone. Many teachers were opposed, and I was one of the loudest--and probably most obnoxious--voices against this idea. I love my coffee. Don't try to take it away from will regret it.

About a decade ago, I actually tried giving up coffee for Lent one Spring. About two weeks in, a couple of very sweet 7th grade girls came to me with a serious request:

"Mr. Mulder? We know you gave up coffee for Lent. But...would you think about starting to drink it again? You're kind of scary in the morning without your coffee..."


Okay, so I'm an addict. I'll confess it. And I'm not exactly making great strides at avoiding caffeine either. I like having a warm drink in the morning, and one that wakes me up a bit is an added benefit.

I would even say there are days I need the caffeine to get me going. The thing is, I sometimes stay up late marking papers, and I need the go-juice to get me moving in the morning. Other times, I'm troubled by insomnia. This seems to be seasonal, but I do have a hard time falling asleep when I have a lot on my mind. Because I often do have a lot on my mind.

Okay, so the band has an unfortunate name, but there's a great song by my favorite Canadian group, Barenaked Ladies. The song is called "Who Needs Sleep?" and it sums this idea up with their typical, quirky, witty lyrics. The second verse goes:

       My hands are locked up tight in fists
       My mind is racing, filled with lists
       Of things to do and things I've done
       Another sleepless night's begun

Here's one of my favorite recordings of the song, from part of their "Bathroom Sessions" series on YouTube:

I wonder how many teachers might agree with me? Those of us who throw ourselves into our work with such vigor and passion that you think we'd be bone tired by the end of the day (and we usually are...), but we care so much about our teaching practice--or maybe worry so much about our teaching practice?--that sleep eludes us? Maybe we aren't trusting enough that the weight of the world isn't really on our shoulders...that we don't really have to do it all and be perfect in every way. Maybe we're trying to hard to meet other people's expectations.


Maybe I need another cup of coffee...

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Great Resource for Professional Development

I know, I're a teacher, and you've experienced "professional development by video"...and you were less than impressed. Hold your horses--you need to check this one out! Yesterday, my friend Ed mentioned a great resource for teachers' professional development...and I'm hooked!

You should go and check out But I should warn you, you might want to block off a chunk of time before you get started--you might wind up spending a lot of time here...

The site has hundreds of videos of great teaching happening. You can search by subject (math, reading, etc.) or by topic (differentiated instruction, Common Core, etc.) or by grade band (K-2, 3-5, 6-8, 9-12). There are a great variety of professionally produced videos from classrooms all over the country, with teachers demonstrating best practices and doing "think alouds" in talking-heads segments to explain why they are doing what they are doing. Really valuable stuff! (Where was this resource when I was a beginning teacher?)

Here's one I just watched about classroom climate that might give you the idea. Great, because it's just a 2-minute video, with a couple questions for you to think about as you watch. Whether you agree with her approach or not, this teacher is going to challenge you to reflect on your own teaching practice--and that's what professional development is all about.

Here's another example I loved--a middle school physics lesson to drive home the idea that wearing a bike helmet is a good idea. Again, some thought questions are given--which would be great for a department meeting or professional learning community--but also the lesson plan and some other tips for incorporating vocabulary instruction, assuming you might want to use this lesson in your own classroom.

Teaching Channel is a non-profit organization, and according to their About Us page, "Our videos are produced by a unique team of professionals—a collaborative effort between video production experts, education advisors, and the classroom teachers themselves. We should point out that Teaching Channel does not determine or influence the content taught in our videos."

I hope you'll take some time to check this site out!

Friday, October 19, 2012

Faith, Politics, and Social Media

It's creeping ever closer to Election Day here. With the debates being televised lately and all the ensuing chatter in the Twitterverse and on Facebook (which is almost more entertaining for me than the debates themselves!) this is very much on my mind.

I wish we could have more civil conversations about politics. I'm a moderate. I don't respond well to people bellowing the party line--of either party--without also expressing a willingness to listen to viewpoints other than their own, and reason a bit about how faith impacts their view of politics.

I have a conviction that dealing with the intersection of faith and politics requires conversation. A willingness to share your thoughts, sure, but also a willingness to listen to what other people have to say. You would think that social media would be a great venue for this then wouldn't you? I think it's safe to say that social media is shifting the way political discourse happens. If you spend much time at all on social media sites you'll know what I mean. In fact, I'll probably share this post with friends and followers via Facebook, Twitter, and Google+, hoping to encourage more discussion. That said, I'm not entirely sure social media is the best way to have this kind of "conversation." Which, I recognize, makes this post a little ironic...

The trouble is, it's hard to be reasonable in the realm of social media. Most of the time, it's soundbites--you only get 140 characters on Twitter, right?--or links or images. It's pretty easy to spread things quickly and with low demand on your thinking. Which, I think, means we tend to shoot things out there that simply affirm our thinking, rather than open us up to conversation. (And I recognize that I have been guilty of this in the past too, lest you think I feel I'm above the fray--I'm not.)

Most of the political stuff I see on social media sites isn't really about having a conversation. Most of it is more aimed at either:
a) affirming what you already believe, or
b) trying to pick a fight with someone who thinks differently.

I think this is pretty insidious behavior for Christians. Most of my friends on social media sites are fellow believers, and I'm increasingly disappointed by the behavior of some--not all--who seem to be seeking division, rather than unity. I worry that disagreement about politics might drive a wedge between believers. I worry that we're judgmental of each other and harsh with each other. Too much of what I'm seeing online is divisive rather than unifying.

But there are exceptions.

Last week, my friend Jane posted this image on Facebook. I shared it:

I shared it, because on the day I saw this, I felt it was necessary. Many of my social media friends were lamenting one politician's views or another's, or filibustering about healthcare or taxes or a dozen other issues of the day--and usually in ways that alienated others, rather than bringing people together. It must have struck a chord with other people too, because 47 more people downstream from me have shared this image since then.

On the same day I shared the above image, my friend Ron posted this thought:

There is a false notion that speaking up for the unborn is a Republican issue. Or speaking up for the poor is a Democrat issue. Or marriage is a Republican issue and caring for the sick is a Democrat issue. First and foremost, they are gospel issues. And no political party has a corner on the gospel.


This too rings true for me, and put into words the feeling in my heart. I think people are quick to paint their personal political beliefs with a patina of religiosity--and this isn't just a Republican issue, lest my Republican friends get huffy too quickly. I think Christians on both the right and the left need to examine their political beliefs in the light of the Gospel.

Republican ≠ Christian.
Democrat ≠ Christian.
Faithfully following Jesus = Christian.

This is why 
I was greatly encouraged when my friend Nick shared the following quote from John Wesley on Facebook yesterday:

This is the heart of the issue for me. 

In the past few weeks of politicking, with so many of my social-media-using friends posting images or links or rhetoric in favor of one candidate or against another, these three stood out as examples of:

1. Recognizing who is really in control,
2. Seeking middle ground and striving to be peacemakers, and 
3. Working out our faith with fear and trembling--even in the realm of politics. 

I'm a moderate, after all. I'm looking for common ground.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Required Reading for Christian Schools

Last school year I was privileged to be part of a small group of teachers at my school who met together monthly to read and discuss things that would challenge or affirm our thinking about schooling, and Christian education in particular. We read a variety of things on different topics related to education: assessment, instructional practices, faith development...but there is one slim volume we read and discussed that I think should be required reading for all Christian teachers. (And administrators, board members, and parents, for that matter.)

My friend Dan Beerens, who writes and curates Christian Schools International's Nurturing Faith blog first turned me on to this one. The book is entitled 12 Affirmations 2.0: Christian Schooling for a Changing World, by Steven Vryhof. It's a short, digestible read designed for discussion with a group. In the book, Vryhof (with the support of other Christian educators) provides a dozen "affirmations" for Christian education in contemporary society. At the same time, he challenges his readers to evaluate how well their schools are in fact meeting the mission of Christian education.

If you are a Christian teacher, or a part of a Christian school, you really owe it to yourself and your school community to take the time to read and discuss the book. I hope and pray that it will be a challenge and encouragement to you as it was to me and my colleagues!

Monday, October 15, 2012

3 R's...or 21st Century Skills?

Since my last post on 21st Century Skills, I've really been thinking about the current state of American school culture. Pardon the history lesson that's coming, but I recently had an epiphany I want to share, and I hope that thinking through the history will help me make my point.

Back in the 1800's, school was pretty much dominated by the 3 R's: readin', 'ritin', and 'rithmetic. If you could read, write, and compute, you were considered educated.

By the early 1900's, John Dewey at the University of Chicago was advocating for a more holistic view of education. Dewey (among others) argued for experiential education--that students should experience a great many things first hand, and this would provide a more well-rounded and comprehensive education. (Side note: Dewey is also usually cited as one of the forebears of Progressivism...maybe another history and philosophy lesson there sometime.) This was the beginnings of more student-centered educational practices as well as arts education, experiential science education, inclusion of social sciences, etc. Probably not very similar to our view of these subjects today, but it helps to illustrate.

Enter Sputnik in 1957. The beginning of the Space Race also sparked a shift back toward an emphasis on basic skills--math and science, especially--lest the American Dream fall prey to the communists.

Along came the hippy-dippy 1970's. Here we see another swing towards the experiential, culminating in the far-out idea of Open Schooling. Imagine a school without interior walls and you get the basic idea: a whole passel of kids with a group of teachers, all in one large room. "Who wants to learn some math? Come this way? Want to work on writing stories today? Right over there..." (I'm picturing some of my former students with a diagnosis of ADHD in this setting...whoa...)

In 1983, an extremely influential report was issued by the National Commission on Educational Excellence. The report was entitled, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Education Reform. It outlined  the likely failure of the American educational system--unless dramatic reforms were enacted. This prompted a turn back towards the basics. By the early 1990's, the Standards-based Education movement was underway, with national education standards being set forth by different educational groups: the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics produced Principles and Standards for School Mathematics, the American Association for the Advancement of the Sciences generated Benchmarks for Science Literacy, the National Council of Teachers of English created the Standards for the English Language Arts, etc.

In 2002, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 was signed into law (this was actually a reauthorization of the earlier Elementary and Secondary Education Act, but with new requirements for schools.) This solidified the Standards-Based Education movement and tied it to high-stakes testing as the primary means for assessment of students' mastery of the standards.

And now, my epiphany: with the Common Core State Standards (not a national standards document, by the way) adopted in principal at least by 45 states as I write this, it seems we have come back to whence we began. The Common Core State Standards really only emphasize two subject areas: language arts and mathematics. So...our focus once again is on...the 3 R's.

Sort of like it was in the 1800's.


The pendulum-swing of American education between these two poles (3-R's-back-to-basics and wide-open-experiential-education) has continued its back and forth for at least the past 100 years. I'm not advocating that we need to swing the pendulum all the way back to the experiential side of things, but I do think we're pretty far to the 3 R's side currently. Certainly we need students to know how to read, write, and compute. The trouble is that there seems to be a growing over-emphasis on these elements of education in contemporary school culture. I predict that we'll swing even further toward the "just the basics" side before a cultural shift back towards a more balanced, central position might take hold.

Not that there aren't already advocates for such a shift in our school culture. The 21st Century Skills movement represents one of these. I'm not a member of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, but the more I read their stuff, the more I think I agree with it. (My biggest hang-up is the corporate sponsorship of this group--not a huge fan of having the major textbook publishers behind this... You can see the list of "strategic council members" here.)

The more I think about what have been dubbed "21st Century Skills"--things like teamwork, critical thinking, creativity, global perspective, initiative, integrity, risk-taking, and personal accountability--the more I think this is what I want my own kids to learn and practice. Of course I want them to be able to read and write and compute...but I don't want their education to be reduced to these things. And I fear, in our assessment-crazy culture, that this might be just what will happen. Because if this is what is deemed important, this is what will be tested; and if this is what is going to be tested, this is what will be taught.

What do you think? Is this an either-or proposition? Or is there some room in the middle for both "the basics" as well as the higher-order thinking present in 21st Century Skills?

Thursday, October 11, 2012

21st Century Skills...Now!

Back in 2008 or so, I was asked to serve on my schools' Iowa Core Curriculum implementation team. It was a really interesting team to be a part of, and as I worked to become more familiar with the Iowa Core, I found nothing objectionable in it, and much to celebrate.

As you might expect, the standards include information about teaching math, and language arts, and even science and social studies (which are notably absent from the Common Core State Standards), but the part that I found most interesting--and still find interesting--is the part about 21st Century Skills.

What skills are critical for students at the beginning of the 21st Century? The State of Iowa would say:
  • Civic Literacy
  • Employability Skills
  • Financial Literacy
  • Health Literacy
  • Technology Literacy
I'm in favor of these! And I think they should be woven into the rest of the curriculum.

As a former Technology Coordinator, I'm especially interested in technology literacy. I'd love to see more schools embrace technology literacy not as a subject unto itself, but as a tool to enhance learning in all the disciplines. I've blogged some about this before here and here.

At the teachers' convention I attended last week, I was part of several sessions that were about teaching technology skills--developing technology literacy--in ways that embed the learning within the "regular" disciplines.

Best quote of the convention:

"It's 2012, people. We need to stop talking about 'planning for teaching 21st Century Skills' and start teaching them! That's like saying, 'It's October 1...what am I going to teach this year?'"

(Thanks to my friend, Mr. Glenn Vos, Superintendent of Holland Christian Schools for this gem.)

So, teachers, how are you teaching 21st Century Skills, right now? Specifically, where are you incorporating technology literacy into your classroom practice?

Students, how could your teachers do a better job of this?

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A Distinctively Christian Approach to Teaching Science?

I'm thinking a lot lately about how we teach science in Christian schools.

I teach a Science Methods course ("how do we teach science?") for elementary education majors. Being a Christian institution, we talk about being "distinctively Christian" in our approach to teaching...everything! In our department, "distinctively Christian" means more than slapping on Scripture to Christianize a lesson, and more than teaching Bible classes or holding chapel services in school. We want students to think deeply about their faith and how it intersects with lesson planning, with assessment, with classroom management, with school culture, with how they interact with students and colleagues...basically with every part of their teaching practice. As I've said it to my students: "Where do you want your students to end up? That's the point you should start teaching from."

So it's fundamentally a question of religious orientation: Who owns your heart? And how does that influence your "moves" in the classroom?

The problem with this: my students hear about "distinctively Christian teaching"--in general, at least--in practically every education course they take.

I've done this too--speak about teaching Christianly in very general terms. My friend John Van Dyk has developed a pretty useful organizing methodology for thinking about teaching Christianly, which has informed my own teaching practice. I, in turn, share this with my students as a means of getting them to think about a distinctively Christian approach to teaching. In his way of thinking (I'm paraphrasing here) the teacher has three roles to play:
  • Guiding - The teacher is an experienced fellow-traveler on the road. Just as a guide on the hiking trail is able to draw attention to both points of interest and possible pitfalls, the teacher seeks to point way on the trail to understanding.
  • Unfolding - The teacher is charged with making choices about what parts of the curriculum to "uncover" along the way. Just as unfolding the whole map all at once might prove overwhelming--and not always useful--the teacher may decide to "uncover" just small sections of the terrain at a given time.
  • Enabling - The teacher provides opportunities for students to use what they have learned to love God and serve others on the journey. Students aren't just learning for learning's sake, but to make them more faithful disciples.
(Side note: if you like the sound of this and would like to find out more, I'd heartily recommend Dr. Van Dyk's book The Craft of Christian Teaching: A Classroom Journey. You can find out more information here.)

How does this apply to teaching science? As we think about teaching science Christianly, I've made the argument with my students that this might mean:
  • Guiding students into inquiry-infused learning situations. You aren't going to just tell them...but you also are going to ensure that the things they are trying are safe, and wise, and will result in understanding science content. As an experienced fellow traveler, you can both give suggestions, and prevent disasters before they happen.
  • Making curriculum decisions about what you choose to unfold at a given time. Maybe 3rd graders aren't ready to learn about particle physics just yet. Maybe middle schoolers really should spend some time examining Darwin's Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. Maybe Kindergartners need time to just play with magnets to get some working understanding of how magnetic force works. Maybe senior Anatomy and Physiology students should dissect fetal pigs to help them see the interrelatedness of mammalian body systems. 
  • Enabling students to think about how their faith affects the way they think about the world around them. This allows for conversations about ethics and stewardship and wisdom (not just knowledge.)
But here's the students see where I'm coming from...and they basically agree that this all sounds good, and they would like to do this sort of teaching. But...there's usually some level of dissatisfaction, a feeling of "This isn't enough, Mr. Mulder! I mean, you're describing good teaching in general! Of course we're going to do this stuff. What makes this a distinctively Christian approach to teaching science?"

They've got me there. I can't argue with that--I would hope that all science teachers are going to use inquiry-infused approaches, and wisely ensure that the curriculum topics they teach are developmentally appropriate, and that they would engage their students in discussing ethical situations and stewardship of the world's resources. Does Van Dyk's methodology fall short then?

This has been bothering me for a while, because Van Dyk's methodology makes so much sense to me as an organizing framework for applying my worldview--my "ground rules"--for how I approach my classroom practice, my interactions with students, my thinking about assessment and curriculum and marking papers and the rest. So why doesn't it feel like enough for my students when we talk applying this methodology to teaching science in particular?

I've started thinking about how I can better articulate my perspective for what a distinctively Christian approach to teaching science might look like. I'm still working out all the details of what this might look like, but here I'll share my thinking so far. I'd love to hear your feedback about this.

A Distinctively Christian Approach to Teaching Science

1. Distinctively Christian teachers will begin with a biblical worldview comprised of Scripture-based convictions about the nature of creation. For example, I believe:
  • "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." (Genesis 1:1)
  • "The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it; the world, and all who live in it." (Psalm 24:1)
  • "For in him [that is, Christ,] all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible...all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together." (Colossians 1:16-17)
The way in which we teach our students about the creation should point them toward the Creator!

2. Distinctively Christian science teachers will allow for--and even plan for--opportunities for their students to simply stand in awe at the way the Lord has created the cosmos. I believe that God has revealed aspects of himself to all people through the creation. (This idea is clearly expressed in the Belgic Confession. Also, I love Psalm 19:1-4 as a poetic description of this reality.) While we won't come to saving faith in Christ simply through studying the creation, we can clearly stand in amazement when we consider the way God has designed things to work together, and we can see his providential hand sustaining the order of the world he has made.

3. Distinctively Christian teachers will embrace questions. While our knowledge is imperfect and our understanding incomplete, questions are good! We should wonder about the world we live in--I believe God has created us with a curiosity planted in us--and we should give students the freedom and latitude to pursue their own inquiries, and support them in looking for answers to their questions. We should help our students to understand that some questions are "scientific" questions, that can be answered by scientific methods--observation, measurement, experimentation, data collection, inference, and the like.

4. At the same time, distinctively Christian teachers will recognize that not all questions are "scientific" in nature--they can't all be answered via scientific inquiry. Some questions are fundamentally religious in nature, and while they should be asked and wrestled through (even in science class), we should recognize them as questions that are not fundamentally "scientific." An example might include: "How old is the Earth?" This question has a scientific flavor to it, and scientifically-derived data might help us answer this question, but the way we interpret the data will be influenced by our "ground-rules," our faith commitments. [I picked this question deliberately, as there are a range of perspectives on this topic, even within the realm of Christendom.] Challenging as controversial topics like these can be, distinctively Christian teachers should embrace controversy as a means of engaging with students in faith development.

5. Much of the current literature about science education seems to indicate that students best learn science when it is taught in "Hands-on and Minds-on." Hands-on implies that students should be actively manipulating materials and conducting investigations, and minds-on implies that they should be engaged in thinking their investigations, making connections, and developing understanding. This comes largely from a Constructivist educational philosophy. While I don't wholly embrace Constructivism--carried out to it's conclusion, Constructivism reduces the Truth to each student's own experiences and the knowledge they build for themselves--I do think there is some merit to this sort of approach to teaching science. So I would advocate that distinctively Christian science teachers should also teach science in a way that is "Hearts-on": that we should evaluate the ideas we encounter about the way the world works in light of the truth of Scripture. "Hearts-on" science would acknowledge that God has called us to understand the world around us, not simply for the sake of having that knowledge, but rather so we can better take care of the world. (See Genesis 1:26-28, which is sometimes called the Creation Mandate--God's command to humankind to "rule" over the creation by learning to take care of it.)


So that's where my thinking is at this point. What did I leave out? What needs firming up? Where am I way out in left field? Could a Christian teacher in a public school still use this framework?

Monday, October 8, 2012

Demand Great Teachers!

I spent a couple days last week at a convention with several hundred Christian teachers. It was, as these things tend to be, a great time of renewal, worship, and interacting with colleagues in Kingdom work. I had the opportunity to reconnect with friends in Christian Education that I hadn't talked with in a year or more, and the chance to make some new friends. (There's another whole post in there--started some great conversations with colleagues from Michigan, and my wheels are really turning right now.)


One speaker in particular though has prompted a lot of reflection. I'm actually a little troubled by his presentation, because it hits really close to home. I'm paraphrasing a bit, but here is the gist of what he said that has been working on my heart and mind:
  • "How many of you are 'good' teachers? How many of you are 'godly' teachers? You can be 'good' without being 'godly,' but you can't be a 'godly' teacher without being 'good.'"
  • "Imagine a parent praying for his or her child just before the beginning of a new school year: 'God, please let my child have an average teacher this year!' No one says that. That would be crazy."
  • "The fact is, most teachers are awful."
  • "Over the course of your schooling, from Kindergarten through college, you have about 100 teachers. How many of you had 100 great teachers?" <crickets> "How many of you had 50?" <No response.> "25?" <Uncomfortable shifting in the room...> "10?" <Finally a smattering of hands go up in a room full of hundreds of teachers.> "5? 4? 3? 2? 1?" <Lots of hands.> "So...maybe 5% of teachers are GREAT teachers?"
This was very challenging to me! I think of myself as a good teacher. I hope I am a "godly" teacher too. And I hope I'm on my way to becoming a great teacher. But this was pretty sobering!

He went on with this challenging thought:

There are three categories of teachers:
  1. Some teachers are "on fire." (The ones who are genuinely sad when school is out for summer...)
  2. Some teachers are "losing the fire." (The ones who work hard through the heartache of the job...)
  3. Some teachers need to be fired. (Whoa...did he actually just say that?)
No pulling punches--he laid it right out there, that some of the teachers in the room need to go.


Truth is, I agree with him: some teachers, even in Christian schools, are simply bad teachers. But what would this look like in practice? 

My friend Brenda (a former Christian school teacher who is perhaps a little cynical) once quipped, "Fire a bad teacher in a Christian school? It's easier to hire a hitman."

She's joking, you know. But is there some truth there? I'm really wondering about what would happen if tuition-paying parents would start to hold school boards accountable for retaining poor teachers. 

What if Christian schools and school boards were bold enough to actually demand that their teachers are good...or even great! 

What would schools look like if teachers who just aren't doing their job fully were encouraged to find another line of work?

What if bad teachers--even in Christian schools--were fired?

What if school boards would only hire great teachers to replace the poor teachers?

Okay, I'm also realistic...where are all these "great" teachers hiding? Because I'm pretty sure there aren't a surplus of fantastic Christian teachers in hiding someplace, just waiting for someone to swoop in, liberate them, and put them to work in schools. So I think we need to think about this in terms of expecting teachers to become great teachers, and provide them with the professional development to become really great. 

And then expect them to be great.

And...after a reasonable amount of time (maybe two years or so?), if they aren't on their way to becoming great...maybe it really is time to fire them. 

So here is my threefold challenge: 
  • Parents, demand great teachers! Hold your children's teachers accountable.
  • Teachers, be great! Expect a culture of continuous improvement and professional development in schools.
  • Christian school boards, hire good, godly teachers! And then support them and encourage them and expect them to become great!

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Teaching Digital Citizenship

Just came across this gem, and I had to share...

This is very much on my heart, and I think we (all of us) need to do a better job of teaching kids to be good digital citizens. In my most recent school position, I served as Technology Coordinator for a PreK-8th grade Christian school. We used to teach a formal Online Safety program in 7th grade. Three years ago, we realized 7th grade is too late, and we moved it to 5th grade. Now I'm thinking that 2nd grade might be the right place to start. Or Kindergarten.

Is it ever too early to start teaching kids to be safe, play nice, keep their personal information private, etc? What grade level do you think it should begin?

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Best Assignment I've Ever Given

I might have just given the best assignment ever in my teaching career.

We've been talking about Education Reform in ED101 lately. We've been discussing things like merit pay for teachers, Standards-based education, No Child Left Behind, full-service schools, charter schools, open-enrollment, and vouchers. There's a lot in there, so today I wanted to get a sense of their thinking so far.

Hence the in-class assignment today:

You are a band. You are working on a new album celebrating school reform movements of the last 15 years or so.
- Decide on what style of music your band plays (polka? hip hop? death metal?) and come up with a name for your band.
- Create a track list for your album of at least 10 songs. Give them creative, descriptive titles that get at what these ideas in school reform are all about.
- Create an album cover that conveys the style of music your band plays. It should include the album name, the name of your band, and appropriate artwork for the content of the album.

I'll admit, there was some trepidation as they came to pick up big sheets of paper and markers and crayons, but after an initial couple of minutes of head-scratching and making tentative suggestions to their group members, there was a busy hum of energy in the room, and even laughter. After giving them a good bit of time to work on their albums, we shared them. Pretty hilarious results:

Band names included:
- Innovation (power pop)
- Better than Ezracation (cheesy 90's pop-rock)
- Kenny Montana & the Iowa Boys (bluegrass twang)
- Teacherland (mainstream country)
- Skeweled (hard rock)

Some of the best album titles included:
- "Reform for the Broken"
- "Nothin's the Same Anymore"
- "Giving Back to America"
- "Snow Day"
- "Disney's School Reform Hits" [This was amazing--including songs like "I'll Make a Teacher Out of You" and "Can you Feel the Change Tonight?" and "Be Our Guest (In Full Service Schools)"]

My favorite song titles:
- "Strictly District"
- "What School Has Done to Me Lately" [Janet Jackson, anyone?]
- "Voucher Style"
- "A Nation at Risk"
- "CSRD (Yeah You Know Me!)"
- "Kiss My Ass(essment)"
- "Left Behind (It Ain't Gonna Be Me!)"

They hung their albums up on the walls and we took a walk around the room to see what everyone else had come up with. Lots of laughter and knowing nods. Best comment I overheard as they were leaving class: "I knew it was going to be good when I saw markers and crayons coming in, but this was really fun!"

Okay, so having a "fun" class doesn't automatically make it a good lesson, right? But what I noticed as the groups were working was a lot of pulling out their textbooks to make sure they were thinking straight, making arguments, looking things up online with smartphones and laptops to extend their learning, collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, and--yes--laughter. They were internalizing the ideas we had read and discussed, and making connections, both with each other and between the ideas.

I'm going to refine this lesson (of course it wasn't perfect...they never are), but this one is definitely going to be used again!

Monday, October 1, 2012

A Way to Annotate a Webpage

One of the most frustrating things for me about conducting research online is that there's so much copying and pasting--or jotting things down in a notebook long-hand. I'd love to have some way to annotate my thoughts right on the website I'm reading--highlight things that stand out, stick "post-its" with notes, etc.

And now I've found a way to do just that.

You must go and check out Note that it's just one "b" in there--not "scribble."

This is a free online tool (okay, you have to create an account, if you want to save your work...) that does just what I described earlier. I can highlight text on the web, create digital notes, and--most importantly--save my work in a cloud-based storage locker. You can tag pages you annotate so you can search for things that are related. (I'm picturing middle school students using this, and tagging things "science fair project" or "history paper" or "this is kewl!") I showed this to my college students last week and they sat there with their mouths hanging open for a few seconds...before half of them quickly pulled it up on their laptops themselves.

When you visit, there's a bookmarklet you can drag to your bookmarks bar. (Kinda like the "Pin it!" button you might have added if you are a pinter-addict.) Then, anytime you are browsing a page that you want to annotate, just click the Scrible button, and a toolbar loads up so you can start highlighting with wild abandon.

For those of you using iPads, it works just fine there too. The folks at Scrible have created a how-to document to help you get started.

A couple general caveats I should bring up:
  • This tool is currently in beta. (That means it's a stable release of the software, but probably not the final version.) When I used Scrible to jot some notes on a blog post I was reading, it all worked slick, and I was able to save it no problem. BUT...when I went back the next day to read it again, the formatting for the page wasn't saved exactly right. My notes and highlighting were all there, but the paragraph structure, the page colors, etc. weren't quite right. This was a one-time thing for me; all the other pages I've annotated have saved just fine. No biggie for me--I was more interested in the content--but I feel like I should warn you of this. 
  • Scrible is free...for now. A tool this great is going generate revenue for the company somehow...but at this point I don't see any mechanism for that. So, it might be ad-based (somehow?) in the future, or there may be a pricing structure released at a future date. Just want you to think about that before you get hooked...and find out you have to pay $10/month later or something.
Keeping these in mind, give it a try! Good solution to a 21st Century problem.

Kudos to my twitter-friend Terie Englebrecht (@mrsebiology) for sharing this one.