Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Blessing of Conferring

This week I had the pleasure of presenting at a conference held at Redeemer University College. It was the biennial conference of the International Christian Community for Teacher Education. This is a pretty amazing group of educators from across North America, and beyond, and I'm proud to now be counted among their membership: dedicated Christian educators seeking to shape the next generation of Christian teachers.

I had quite a time getting to the conference. My flight left 14 hours later than it should have. I was stranded overnight in Chicago on my way to Toronto. I finally arrived at Redeemer about 30 minutes before I was scheduled to begin presenting. I found my room, got settled in, and was immediately at peace. The warm welcome of these colleagues in Christian education set my mind and heart at ease.

I presented a paper on developing technology integration skills in our preservice teachers, which is a topic near and dear to my heart. After my presentation, those gathered had the chance to raise questions and offer their ideas in response. I had some gentle push-back from a few of my new friends, as well as affirmation of some of my ideas. I'm hoping to get the paper published, and the feedback--both positive and negative--are going to make the paper stronger.

Throughout the conference I connected with fellow educators. They shared their stories and asked me to share mine. It was a blessing to find that we have so much in common, so many of the same issues, challenges, and joys. I gleaned some fantastic ideas that are going to shape my own teaching practice in higher education, and I have a few things I want to discuss with my colleagues when I'm back on campus.

I recognize that I am becoming an academic. This is a strange realization for me...but not unwelcome. I love to research and write and share what I'm learning. I love to learn, to think, to encounter new ideas, to have conversations.

This meeting affirmed it for me: conferring with colleagues from across the globe is a blessing.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Is Your School a Wal-Mart?

I think a lot about school culture. I'm fascinated by the way different schools have vastly different structures and practices that impact their unique climate. What determines the climate of a school? Well...we could start making a list:
  • What do you see when you are walking down the halls of the school? Bare walls? Covered with students' work? Artwork? Natural lighting? Flickering fluorescent bulbs? 
  • What does it sound like when you are in the building? Is it pin-drop silent? Is there a hum of busy activity? Is there a barely-contained roar of chaos?
  • How do teachers interact with students? Are the students treated like soldiers? Prisoners? Princes and princesses? Fellow learners?
  • How are decisions made, and who is involved in decision-making? Is it all top-down? Is it all bottom-up? A balance? Are teachers involved? Parents? Students?
  • How are parents involved? Held at arms-length? Expected to participate? Allowed access? Welcomed as partners?
  • What kind of work do students do? Open-ended? Teacher-directed? Experiential? Learning by rote? One-size-fits-all? A balance, based upon their needs and interests?
This is just a beginning! There are lots more questions we could raise, right? And I'm not even sure if there are "right" answers to these kinds of questions--it will depend on the needs and expectations of the school community.

Fundamentally, I think the key question in determining a school's climate is, "What is valued here?" or perhaps I could better phrase it, "What is it obvious that we care about?"

My Twitterfriend, Erik Ellefsen, shared an interesting take on this question of school climate that I'd like to pose to you now as well:

Maybe you've never thought about it in those terms before...but how would you describe your school's climate? Is your school a Sears? A Wal-Mart? A Target? A Nordstroms? An Amazon? What makes it that way? What descriptors would you offer for the culture of your school?

Image by alphageek [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]

Thursday, May 22, 2014

An Epiphany: I Am a Teacher!

I was a middle school teacher for 14 years before beginning my new adventure teaching in higher education. I worry I'll sound like I'm bragging, so please don't take it that way, but I was pretty good at it. I connected well with my students. Students learned in my class. They enjoyed the subjects I taught. We laughed together. I believe I made a difference in their lives.

I am a good teacher.

It took me years to come to the point where I felt I could admit this. First, it comes off sounding arrogant. But more than that, I have a tremendous and ongoing struggle with self-doubt. I know there's always more I can learn, ways I can improve, ways I can better make what I say I believe line up with what I actually do.

In some ways, my sense of self-doubt has increased since moving into higher education to teach future teachers. It's not the students--they're great, and I'm honored and blessed to work with them.

The problem is my colleagues.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Switching Off and Slowing Down

A couple weeks ago my wife--whom I love deeply, and so often understands me better than I understand myself--caught me checking my email on my phone at 11:30 at night. I tried to defend myself--lamely--by pointing out the little red icon next to the mail app indicating all the new messages I had waiting for me. Her lovingly-stated solution was elegant and simple:

"Why don't you turn off the notifications?"

Yep. That's right. I can turn them off.

(Thank you, dear.)


Interesting to find myself a slave to the device. I like to think of myself as a thoughtful user of technology...and in general, I'd say I am...even though I'm an admitted technophile.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Shaping Digital Citizens

I came across this graphic today--might be a good one for the elementary teachers especially? (If you can get beyond the cutesiness, I think it's actually great advice for all of us...not just kids.)

Image from Global Education Database. Check out the full-size image here.
This is a great reminder for us all that our students--while perhaps having a higher level of comfort working with technology than some of their teachers--are not "digital natives" as they have been painted. Research bears out that students don't think about technology more natively than their teachers. The supposed digital natives and digital immigrants actually adopt technologies in very similar ways.

That said, all of us--students and teachers alike--can continue to develop as digital citizens.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Feedback and Grading

I came across this great graphic from Educational Leadership while browsing on Zite the other day.

It was a good, if challenging, find in light of where I am in the semester. Here at the end of the semester I find I am so focused on exams and marking and assigning grades that I don't always think about feedback as much as I might at other times in the semester.

So I'm thinking again about my students' learning. What am I most interested in? That they can check everything off as "completed" on a list of tasks? That they have submitted all of their assignments? That they score at least 80% on their final exams? Or that they really learn the material?

If I want them to really learn, I think it has to be more about feedback than about "grading." The takeaways below challenged me to think again about the role of feedback. 

It's not all about the grade. It's all about the learning.

As shared by

Friday, May 2, 2014

Who Learns in Your Classroom?

Teacher, I'm going to ask a horrible, nasty question that you might not want to answer. But I think it has to be asked, and I hope you will reflect on it:

Who learns in your classroom?

I know when I first started thinking about this question, my immediate reaction was, "Why...everyone, of course!"

But I think that's the answer I want to be true.

If I'm really honest about it, not every student in my class learns. In fact, there may be days when few of them are actually learning.

Some students are distracted, unmotivated, or uninterested, and will not connect with the material because I do not make it relevant to them.

Other students will struggle, and maybe they will be unable to learn the content. Perhaps somewhere between my planning and the execution of the lesson, I missed something, or maybe they aren't developmentally ready for the material.

Still others already know the content I am planning to teach--they don't learn it, because they already know it.

This last group is the ones I'm really thinking about today. I think our school culture today is strongly focused on the low achieving, low ability students. Even the name of the legislation for funding much of public education--"No Child Left Behind"--emphasizes this fact.

And it's hard, right? They are smart kids. They are the ones who read ahead, who are bored by the stuff they already know. If they aren't causing trouble, it's easy to leave them to their own devices, because we're all so busy ensuring that no one is being left behind. We figure that things will work out for them, because they're sharp kids.

Is this okay?

Can I slack off and say, "Hey, there's only one of me and 20 (30?) of them. I can't be all things to all people. They're the smart kids; they'll be fine."

It would be nice to be able to say that some days.

But I think we need to get real about the fact that school is supposed to be about learning. Yes, that means we want low-ability, low-achieving students to learn. But that also means we should be providing opportunities for high-ability, high-achieving students to learn as well!

I think we need to reconsider what we are doing for gifted learners just as much as we think about what we are doing for struggling learners, and the kids in the middle too. How can we shift our thinking? We need to be deliberate about making school a place of learning for all of our students. Just this morning I read this article from Education Week entitled Gifted Ed. is Crucial, but the Label Isn't. Teacher, I encourage you to read it. Reflect on it. Discuss it with colleagues.

How are you going to make your classroom a place where all students learn something new every day?