December 29, 2008

Time Management Tips

If you are anything like me, you started the winter break with a long list of things you wanted to get done, and now you find yourself half way through the break with none of them done, and you've sort of lost the motivation for doing them. You'd rather just read a book.

I was going through some of the journal entries I wrote last year and found this gem. Maybe it will help! Where did I set that book again?

This week, I took a refresher course on time management by reading Steve Pavlina's excellent Do It Now article. It explains several specific time management techniques that you can use to stay productive. The biggest lesson from the article is this: when you're working, work, and when you're not, don't. Don't waste time in a half-brained, distracted, "I'm 'working' but not really" state.

It takes fifteen minutes to enter a state of flow. Once you're there, your work becomes entirely effortless. It still takes discipline to stay there. There are always distractions and you need to ignore them. But once your brain is in a certain state of mind, time seems to disappear and you become completely absorbed in your work. It's easy to stay in this state for 90 minutes at a time. When you need a break, take a break. Take a real break – not an email checking break or a web surfing break – but an actual restful break.

Pavlina suggests that you set aside long blocks of time for your work – up to six or eight hours at a time – and work as long as you can, taking breaks as needed. The only way you'll be able to do this is if you enjoy your work and it has personal meaning for you. Personally, mine does. But finding the motivation is still difficult sometimes.

Another big lesson from the article is to do one and only one thing at a time. I used to be very good at this but I've been slacking a bit. Work really is easier this way. It is extremely inefficient for our brains to keep switching between different tasks. Instead, focus on one task, dedicate all of your energies to it, and then move to the next task. Thinking about all of the other things that you should be doing is a waste of time.

I'm not a self-help junkie, and I don't think that constantly giving yourself affirmations is the best way to happiness and productivity, but I do think that reading some motivational material every now and then is beneficial. Most of us learned these time management techniques in college and are already familiar with them. But in the long winter months, sometimes a refresher course doesn't hurt. Since reading the article, I've been much more productive in my work and felt better about doing it.

December 28, 2008

Cute, Technically

One of the highlights of my Christmas was getting to see my little cousins (they're actually young enough to be my nieces and nephews and are technically my step-cousins, but that's beyond the point). It's impossible to look at them and not love them. They just light up the room.

This got me thinking: what is it about kids that make them so cute? I remembered from my M.Ed. courses that this has been studied scientifically. Indeed, "cuteness" can actually be predicted and measured based on the following traits (pdf):

  • Small body size with a disproportionately large head

  • Large eyes

  • A pleasantly fair, though not necessarily small nose

  • Dimples

  • Round and softer body features

  • Playfulness

  • Fragility

  • Helplessness

  • Curiosity

  • Innocense

  • Affectionate behavior

That makes sense. The kids in my family whom everyone thinks are so cute have all of these traits. Paul Graham has argued that cuteness in children has many advantages:

It's not surprising we'd have an inborn desire to love and protect helpless creatures, considering human offspring are so helpless for so long. Without the helplessness that makes kids cute, they'd be very annoying. They'd merely seem like incompetent adults.

From Wikipedia:

Konrad Lorenz argued in 1949 that infantile features triggered nurturing responses in adults and that this was an evolutionary adaptation which helped ensure that adults cared for their children, ultimately securing the survival of the species. As evidence, Lorenz noted that humans react more positively to animals that resemble infants – with big eyes, big heads, shorted noses, etc – than to animals that do not.

Does this seem like circular logic to you? Lorenz is saying this: the reason kids are cute is that they possess traits which we find cute. Although that thing about the animals is interesting.
OK, so this post is only tangentially related to teaching. It's more of an excuse for me to be that annoying guy who just talks about his own family and brag about how cute they are. It doesn't have anything to do with my job at all, since the students have grown from cute and innocent kids to ungainly and awkward teenagers by the time I see them at the high school (although one could argue that they do have disproportionately large heads. Ha ha). But we're all in the business of working with kids and this might change the way you see "cuteness".

Cute kids usually trigger an affectionate emotional response in adults. Looking at cuteness scientifically gives you a totally different perspective. It's a simple cause-effect relationship. If an organism possesses "cute" traits, the adult will respond positively because we're biologically hard-wired to do so. There's really nothing magical about it. "Cute" is a survival mechanism. (Except MY little cousins really ARE cute! Sorry.)

December 20, 2008

SurveyMonkey in the Classroom

In The New Face of Computer Applications, I discussed how computing is making a gradual shift from the desktop to the web. One great way to engage students using these new Web 2.0 tools is with online surveys. A number of solutions are available, but I tried using SurveyMonkey in my Marketing class last week.

SurveyMonkey lets you easily create free accounts; the only prerequisite is that you have an email address. The free account lets you create surveys with up to ten questions. The question formats and layouts are highly customizable. After you enter your survey questions, SurveyMonkey will give you a link to your survey. You can put this link on a webpage or in an email. Anyone who clicks on it will be directed to your survey. You can log back in to SurveyMonkey later to see the answers that people gave. The software presents your data in a very nice graphical layout.

My Marketing students are in the middle of a market research project, where they need to collect primary and secondary data about a particular organization and then make recommendations on how to improve that organization based on the data that they found. Surveys are obviously a great way to collect primary data about a group of people.

The students made their own online surveys with SurveyMonkey. I put the links to those surveys on my class website, and students spent a day taking each other's surveys online. Students then used Excel to create charts of the data, which will be included in their final research papers.

My middle school Computer Applications class is using SurveyMonkey too, although the requirements for their research project have been scaled down a bit.

The students love this! They like being able to do things with the web, and everyone was very engaged. In class, the students are learning how to conduct social research. We're covering topics such as: reliability & validity, quantitative & qualitative data, samples & populations, basic statistics, inductive logic, and research methods. Online surveys give students a real-world connection to these abstract concepts. I haven't evaluated other online survey systems, but SurveyMonkey has worked great for me, and I highly recommend it.

December 14, 2008

Hockey and the Purpose of Education

Have you ever watched a sporting event with someone who knows nothing about the game? Hockey is a big sport where I live. I've watched plenty of hockey games with people who know next to nothing about the sport, and the scene is a familiar one to many sports fans.

The person I'm watching the game with notices that the play has stopped for no apparent reason. I explain to her that an off sides violation has occurred, and then I explain what an off sides violation is. She says that's a stupid rule. Then I explain why it's not a stupid rule.

One of our players scores a goal and the crowd goes wild, more so than usual. To her, it's just another goal, and she doesn't understand why people are so excited for this one. I calmly explain that the opposing team has been on a 5-on-3 power play for the last minute and a half, and our goal was short handed. "Oh, I guess that's quite an accomplishment," she notes, still not fully realizing how rare a feat this really is.

The teams come out for the second period and she exclaims, "hey, they're skating toward the other end of the ice now!" Later, she asks why there's no goalie in our goal any more, sparking a discussion about delayed penalties.

This game would be so much more enjoyable to her if she understood more about it. She's missing most of the things that happen in the game because she doesn't know about them. Watching the game would be much more fun and exciting to her if she knew why a 5-on-3 shorthanded goal is such a big deal. She'd be able to differentiate between a passing strategy and an icing strategy, and she'd know when each of those strategies should be used. She'd see patterns such as wraparound attempts and zone defense. If she knew the history of the teams involved, she'd understand the significance of a particular game. The game would take on a whole new richness for her if she only could see these things. But now, she doesn't even know what she's not seeing. She doesn't know what she doesn't know.

Still, she can get a pretty good general sense of what's happening in the game without knowing these things. She can see who the good players are, who is trying hardest, who is better at scoring, and who is better at blocking shots. She knows an exciting close shot when she sees one. She knows who's winning and losing. She can differentiate between an exciting game and a boring game. She can generally follow what's going on. She just doesn't appreciate the full richness of the game because there is a lot that she's missing.

The difference between a serious hockey fan and a casual one at a game is analogous to the difference between an educated person and an uneducated one in the world.

Education adds so much richness to life. Uneducated people can still see what's going on in the world. I don't need to know what syncopation and diminished chords are to listen to jazz, but I appreciate the music much more if I do. Uneducated people know that gas prices are high. But they simply complain about it, and educated people have to explain to them why they're so high. Uneducated people blame the TV anchors for inaccurate weather forecasts; educated people turn to chaos theory and understand why they're inaccurate in the first place. I'm sure you can think of many examples from your own content area.

Uneducated people think that learning is boring. What they don't realize is that just like watching hockey is much more fun when you know something about it, living in the world is much more fun when you know something about it. Just like the casual hockey fan misses half of the interesting stuff that happens in a game simply because they don’t know about it, uneducated people miss half of the interesting stuff that happens in the world for the same reason.

This isn't an attempt to put uneducated people down. For many, pursing higher education doesn't make practical sense. What I'm trying to argue here is that education is valuable for its own sake. I'm speaking to students who don't understand when they're ever going to use calculus; or who don't want to learn about government because they don't plan on becoming a politician; or who dislike organized athletics because they'll never become a professional athlete. It doesn't matter whether or not a particular course of study leads directly to a practical outcome. What matters is that your education allows you to see things in the world that you wouldn't otherwise see. A good general education makes life richer. Things make more sense to you.

December 12, 2008

Old Calculators and Old Teachers

Colton: Did you have calculators like this when you were growing up?
Me: Yes, I did.
Colton (to another student): See, these calculators ARE old!!

Stories like this are only supposed to happen to other teachers! Old teachers! Not young ones like me!

December 7, 2008

Fun Things About Teaching

This was a really fun week. Yesterday, the Law class took a field trip to the local university's law school, where they were jurors in a mock trial conducted by the law students. It was cool because they got to experience firsthand some of the things we’ve been talking about in class.

When the judge told them that they were to decide “questions of fact” and not “questions of law”, I was proud to see that the students knew exactly what he meant. They were told in class why the prosecutor always talks first, and on Friday they got to see it. The judge basically explained everything that they had just learned the week before. I could see the expression on the student’s faces that said “we already know that”, and that was really cool to see.

Possibly the most fun part of the day was the bus trip back. They had to wave at each vehicle that passed us, and they thought it was just hilarious when the other drivers honked back. Everyone in the class gets along so well, which makes it more fun too. The students had a great time and it was smiles all around.

On that bus trip, I couldn’t help but compare my job now to what I was doing a year ago – sitting in a desk – maybe smiling once a day, and feeling sorry for the people who are still stuck there. I just think it’s so sad that so many people resign themselves to a joyless career when there are so many other opportunities out there. A year ago, I would have been working behind a computer in solitude playing the daily office political games. Now, I’m spending a day at a law school with 14 energetic and funny people.

I will never go back to a cube farm. If you're in one, you should escape! The other side is even better than you can imagine.

Dilbert's Mom: "What's it like working in a cube?"
Dilbert: "Imagine the most beautiful place on earth."
DM: "OK."
D: "Now imagine you can never go there because you live in a box."

This article was written during my student teaching experience.

November 29, 2008

Death March

Recent research suggests that a trend toward working more hours continues, with men working almost 50 hours a week and women working nearly 44 hours. This causes productivity problems for employees. In a Families and Work Institute survey, 2/3 of the respondents indicated they didn't have enough time with their children, and almost that many felt that they were not able to spend enough time with their spouses. More than half of the respondents felt they needed more time for themselves and were overworked in the last three months. The same employees got less sleep and experienced higher levels of stress. One third of the survey's respondents report they often lack enough energy to do things with their families after work.

The study concludes thusly:

Of particular concern are the negative spillover effects that demanding and hectic jobs can have on the quality of workers' personal lives and well being. This spillover is reflected in high stress, poor coping, bad moods, and insufficient time and energy for people who are personally important, creating problems that, in turn, spill over into work and impair job performance.

It's very common for business professionals to work more than 40 hours per week. Software business experts Joel Spolsky and Jeff Atwood talk about the implications of this in their Stack Overflow podcast:

The Death March book by Ed Yourdon talks about this idea that yeah, you can make programmers work 80 hour weeks, and they will get twice as much done as they did in their 40 hour weeks, but you're incurring debt. And you're going to pay back that debt in triple in terms of just sort of burnout and that kind of stuff. So, you can definitely, if you want to, spend a week, if there's really a deadline, you want to make everybody work 80 hours and get the thing done, that's fine, but the week after that, you're going to get nothing done.

Teachers, though, have deadlines every day. Every day, we have classrooms full of kids who are expecting us to have a top-notch education prepared for them. Most of us write our lessons and grade assignments on our own time after school. Unlike in business, where deadlines are periodic, we face new deadlines every day.

We end up working overtime to meet this week's deadlines, but we don't get a break the next week like Atwood and Spolsky suggest business professionals should. Next week, we have more papers to grade and more lessons to plan. We do get a ten week break during the summer, but the nine months of constant deadlines can be very stressful.

One thing that leads to burnout among business professionals is the situation where employees are given tasks but not the tools they need (including time) to complete those tasks. This situation seems to be quite common in education. It's not that we don't love our jobs. It's not that we don't like the kids. But we're only human, and we have limitations. Many of us spend our evenings and weekends working, especially first year teachers.

I see a tradeoff here. We need to work hard enough to produce a top quality education for our students, but not too hard to completely burn out. Lazy teachers with poorly prepared lesson plans don't help kids. But, teachers who have meticulous and stellar curricula but who are burnt out don't help kids either. It's a classic design tradeoff.

Source: Galinsky, Kim, & Bond. Feeling overworked: When work becomes too much. Families and Work Institute, 2001.

November 22, 2008

Yay For Mediocrity

It's no wonder that U.S. students are falling behind. It's no wonder that the public is demanding more accountability for public schools. What some teachers are passing off as education is laughable. Career and Technical Education teachers, who many times are not accountable to any state or national standards, might be the guiltiest of them all.

Case 1

Earlier this year, I was using my prep hour to hang posters for one of our student organizations. I pass by the business classroom, where one of my colleagues is teaching a Sports and Entertainment Marketing class. I decide to hang out in the hall for a while and eavesdrop a bit. Here's what's going on inside the classroom.

She is teaching the class about BILLBOARDS. Yes, BILLBOARDS. Now, let me back up. Billboards might be a legitimate subject for a business class. If the teacher synthesizes this particular form of advertising with a larger conceptual framework, such as the four P's, or the product life cycle, or human psychology, or marketing budgets, or whatever, it would probably be an appropriate thing to talk about. If she's teaching in such a way that actually results in students constructing or learning new knowledge about business, it might be a good topic.

However, my colleague is teaching at the absolute most basic cognitive level. She's teaching students WHAT A BILLBOARD IS. She's teaching them that WORDS SHOULD BE BIG ON BILLBOARDS BECAUSE PEOPLE ARE DRIVING FAST. She is speaking very loudly and slowly, almost as if the students were too dumb to understand a normal conversational tone. These people are old enough to vote, old enough to drive, old enough to enlist in the military, and she's talking to them like they've never seen a billboard before.

I sneak a peak at a grading rubric that one of the students must have left behind. Students are graded on things like: colorful, big words, creative, catchy, and effort. Apparently, the students are given a couple of days in the computer lab to design their own billboards with who knows what software, probably Adobe InDesign. I'd like to ask this teacher what exactly she thinks the students are learning from this.

Case 2

I'm taking over a Marketing course from a teacher who left last year. I looked through her old course materials, and this is what I discovered:

  • Half – yes half – of the term is spent playing a video game disguised as a business simulation.

  • Students get to make a collage about themselves by cutting pictures out of magazines! They're graded on creativity.

  • The most difficult part of this class is designing a new label for a fictitious sports drink.

Really, what are they learning here? This class is an absolute insult to their intelligence, and after going through all of the previous teacher's materials, I have no idea what the students actually learn about business by taking her class.


I could go on and on giving examples like this. I could start another whole blog called "ineffective teaching" and I could fill it chock full of stories like this. Teachers who don't know their own subject area or treat students like little kids. Lazy teachers who give out worksheets and show videos and call that an education. Don't get me wrong, there are some stellar teachers in public education, but there are so many duds. In fact, research has shown that on average, college students entering the teaching profession are relatively weak academically (Walker, Kozma, & Green. American education: Foundations and policy).

You won't find students playing video games and making collages and creating sports drink labels in my classes. This is from my syllabus of the Marketing class I'm about to teach, which I've completely re-designed, as I have with almost every other class I've inherited from someone:

These topics are current, rigorous, and relevant. Contrary to what many people believe, I've found that students don't want easy classes. They want classes that challenge them and in which they actually learn something. I've had very positive feedback from students in my classes using this approach.

Honestly, I'd really like to write about some other examples of just terrible teaching that I've seen but this post is already long enough.

The Administrators

My first formal evaluation was a couple of weeks ago. It was during a class I taught in the computer lab. This class has 34 students, and if you've ever taught in a computer lab, you know that invariably, at least a couple of students will be distracted by the computers, either playing games or doing homework or whatever. This was the case during my evaluation, and the administrator docked me for it.

So, now I have this thing in my file saying that I'm below standards in the area of managing behavior, because a couple of students were distracted by the computers for a few minutes. There were some really good things in the evaluation too, but still, there's this black mark.

Rather than seeing how much better these classes really are than what they used to be, and how much work I've done to improve them, and how much the students are actually learning – instead of seeing that – they come in, see a kid playing a game, and conclude that I don't know how to manage behavior.

Wow! I think I'll sit down with this administrator to discuss the situation.

In Conclusion

Students deserve smarter teachers. Administrators should realize that.

November 20, 2008

Are There Any Doctors On Board?

Who influences your teaching style? Today the answer surprised me.

We were talking about tax-sheltered retirement accounts in my Investments class today, and I was demonstrating the benefits of pre-tax accounts on the board.

Me: So, let's say your paycheck is $1000, and the government takes 20% of it in taxes (humor me here). What's 20% of 1000?
(wait a couple of seconds).
Me: Somebody say 200.
Student: 200

My face turned into a smile as I remembered one of my old deadpan math teachers who would do this all the time. Ask the class a question, give us the answer, and then politely ask that someone say the answer. This teacher's humor was even dryer and more deadpan than Leslie Nielson in Airplane!, the best movie ever made:

Stewardess, I think the man next to me is a doctor.

I noticed a dorky smirk on one of the kids in the front row whose sense of humor is apparently as dry as mine.

What's interesting is that I only remembered where I got this idea from AFTER I had already done it! What other habits, good or bad, am I getting from my old teachers? Who influences your teaching style? A lot of what goes into it, I think, isn't even necessarily on a conscious level.

November 18, 2008

I Know, Right?

Each new generation of youth brings with it a collection of annoying catch phrases. "I know, right?" is the most annoying yet. I was quite taken aback the first time I heard it.

Me: I think poly-sci majors should have a better understanding of economics.
Jim: I know, right?
Me: What do you mean "right"? Of course, that's what I just told you. You don't need to ask me "right" about something that I just said, idiot. If you know, why are you asking me if you're right?

Honestly, how is someone supposed to respond to this? Let's try another example.

Me: It's pretty cold outside today.
Ann: I know, right?
Me: __________________________________

What's the correct response?

  1. (laugh) Yeah!! Right!!!

  2. (don't say anything)

  3. No shit.

  4. Yes, that's right. But you didn't need to ask me that because I just said it.

Honestly, this phrase serves no constructive purpose whatsoever. But people think they'll sound cool if they go around saying it. Probably because Joe Freshman remembers how strange the phrase seemed the first time someone used it on him, and he realized that he could make other people just as confused by saying the phrase himself, and everyone else is doing it so it sounds cool. So Joe Freshman goes around saying "I know" and then asking if he's right and pretty soon everyone's doing it.

It doesn't sound cool.

Please stop.



Just stop.

November 15, 2008

The New Face of Computer Applications

Computer Applications classes at middle and high schools are usually focused on teaching office productivity tools. They usually use the Microsoft Office suite of Word, Excel, Access, and PowerPoint. But desktop applications are quickly becoming a thing of the past.

The World Wide Web has basically turned the software industry upside down. In the olden days, people would go to a physical retail store, buy a box which contained a floppy disc or CD, bring it home, install the software on their computer, and then use it. Technologically savvy users would download the software from the web instead of going to a store.

But the days of buying software and installing it on your computer are almost over. These days, most software is run in a web browser. You go to a website and can access the software from anywhere with a browser and an internet connection. Instead of buying software, the new model is to deliver software as a service. Think of your own computer use. I'll bet that the vast majority of it is spent looking at a web browser.

Things that in the past required you to buy software for can now be done on the web:

The future is clearly not in traditional desktop applications, but in cloud computing. Almost any software that a business needs can now be found on the web. There are several advantages to this:

  1. Web applications are platform independent. They can be used on any operating system and hardware.

  2. Updates are automatic. You don't need to re-install any software when updates are released. Instead, the software company simply updates the code on the server. Anyone who uses that website is always using the latest version of the software.

  3. No more software to install. You don't need to install the software on every computer that needs to use it. A browser and internet connection is all you need.

  4. SAAS is cheaper. Many companies set up their fees on a per-user basis. Software is leased, not sold. You only pay for the time you actually use the software.

  5. Web applications eliminate IT overhead. Since the software is hosted elsewhere, your business does not need to worry about supporting and administering the software.

  6. Web applications are easier to learn. Users do not need to learn a new UI, since they are already familiar with the web.

Businesses are realizing the power of web-delivered software. Schools are too. The districts I've worked at use Infinite Campus and SchoolCenter for student management. Both of these are great examples of web applications.

So, here's the question: with more and more software moving to the web, what are we doing still teaching desktop applications to high school students? Should we really keep teaching them Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, when the future of software is clearly in the web browser?

I say no. I'm gradually changing my Computer Applications class from the desktop world to the web world. There are plenty of Web 2.0 tools that are great resources for students:

Blogs. Blogging is a great way to get students interested in computers. They love creating their own web pages. Some free blogging services are and

Wikipedia. Wikipedia lets students contribute knowledge to the world. They can edit articles and even write their own articles. Businesses use wikis internally for communication about more specific topics.

Google Docs. Students can create documents and spreadsheets online and access them from anywhere.

Google Maps. There are endless possibilities for research here.

Social Networking. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr allow students to connect with others who have similar interests.

Let's not underestimate the power of these web-based tools. After all, they were a central part of Barack Obama's presidential campaign. Look what they did for him! I've found that student get really excited about using these tools. In ten years, they'll say, "I remember when we used crusty-old desktop apps in school!"

I'm not saying we should stop teaching office productivity software. Certainly, there is still a place for this. But let's not forget about all of the other computer applications that students will be using in the future.

November 8, 2008

Don't Worry. Be Happy.

I assert that high school seniors have too much stress in their lives. One of my classes this term is composed of some very high achieving and intelligent business students. Their ACT scores are all in the 30s, and their GPAs are equally high. They're very involved with extra-curricular activities. On weekdays, they attend school during the day and go to their part-time jobs at night, leaving very little free time.

But the biggest cause of their stress is the enormous decisions that they need to make about their futures. The students in this class are applying to several colleges and trying to decide where to go and what to do once they get there. This is a constant topic of conversation for these students. They know that this one decision can have a major effect on the rest of their lives. This decision is consuming them.

Most of the blame for this stress can be placed on parents and teachers. For their entire lives, we have been harping on them about how important college is and how big this decision is. We're always telling them to achieve more, to do better. We're telling them that they need to be in organizations and take leadership roles in order to have a leg up on the competition. We're telling them that they need the highest grades, the best test scores, the most friends, and the longest resumes, and that if they don't, their futures are ruined. They've been over-scheduled since the time they could walk. We have been watching and criticizing their every move. No wonder they're stressed.

Please, let's take some pressure off of these kids. Let's stop telling them from the time they're in diapers that they have to be the best at everything. Let's tell them the truth about college. The truth is that controlling for other variables, life satisfaction has absolutely no correlation to where you go to college (pdf). It does not matter how prestigious your school is. The truth is that many people end up getting jobs outside of their major areas of study. The truth is that these students will not just have one career in their lifetimes (pdf), but that they're free to change careers when their interests change.

The truth is that human beings are generally not very good at predicting what will make us happy. We greatly overestimate how happy we'll be about good decisions and how disappointed we'll be about bad decisions. In reality, people are very resilient and will be about as happy regardless of which choice they make.

Seniors: Relax. Smile. Take a deep breath. You'll be fine!

October 31, 2008

Unsolicited Advice

Normally, giving people unsolicited advice is a social no-no. But isn't this what teachers get paid to do? We give students helpful information because they're too young and inexperienced to know this information themselves. I give students unsolicited advice all the time in my classes: advice on investing, ethics, web site design strategies, increasing productivity, study skills, and even career exploration. This is what I get paid to do. I'm supposed to give students unsolicited advice. I'm supposed to be teaching them things.

How much is too much? Where does one cross the line between advice about academic topics and advice about personal topics? What type of advice is OK to give, and what is better left unsaid? Where's the line between professional opinion and personal opinion?

Last year, one particular student was really interested in a career as a computer programmer, and we chatted quite a bit. We talked a lot about programming, where the jobs are, Monty Python(!), and all kinds of other stuff. He was a senior, and his plan was to go to a two year technical college and get an associate's degree in Computer Science. He said that he didn’t want to spend a bunch of time and money studying liberal arts classes at a four year school, and he wanted to get into the workforce and start building stuff as soon as he could.

I can certainly sympathize with that sentiment. In fact, I very nearly made the same decision when I graduated high school. But I'm so glad I went to a four year school instead. It was a fantastic experience. It also opened up so many more possibilities for me, and I probably wouldn't be teaching today if I made the other choice.

Also, I spent three years in the software industry before becoming a teacher, so I have a good sense of what employers are looking for. In my experience, NO ONE hires programmers straight out of school with only an A.S. degree. A four year degree is a minimum qualification for the job. People with A.S. degrees get stuck doing helpdesk work, not programming.

So what advice should I have given this student? Should I be encouraging and congratulate him on his choice to get an A.S. degree? Should I be positive and supportive? Or should I question his decision and tell him what I know about the value of a four year degree? Is this a personal decision or a professional one? At the least, it's an academic decision, so I do have some jurisdiction to give advice in that area.

But giving unsolicited advice is such a social taboo. Plus, maybe a two year degree is what the student really wanted. Maybe it's better to encourage him instead of second-guessing him. I still wish he would have gone to a four-year school, though.

I did talk a little bit about four year schools as a requirement for programming jobs with this student, but I didn't push the issue too hard, and overall, I was very encouraging to him about his decision. But still, when he gets his helpdesk job with his A.S. degree instead of the programming job he really wanted, will I be kicking myself for not being more candid with him?

What do you think? As a teacher, what type of unsolicited advice should we give students? How much is too much?

October 25, 2008

Overcoming Homophobia - Follow Up

Thanks for all of the great comments on the last post. Just to clarify - I'm in no way proud of the way I laughed at what the students did in class that day. GLBT students put up with this type of abuse every day, and they deserve better. My main point was that we should recognize how courageous these students are. I really like some of your suggestions, including using an office environment as an example. Many commenters said that teachers actually can make a difference. I'm beginning to see that, and I think a good place to start is in our own classrooms.

October 23, 2008

That's So Gay: Overcoming Homophobia

Warning: Language in this post may be offensive to some.
Sometimes I like to throw random pictures up on the SmartBoard just for fun. For example, I'll put random pictures of ponies in my PowerPoint slides or a picture of Snuffleupagus on the screen when class starts. It seems to lighten the mood, and it's a good conversation piece, and I don't know, for some reason, I think it's kind of funny. One funny picture is this one of what I think looks like a frolicking llama.

I had this on the SmartBoard when the students came in to class, with the words "Frolicking Llama" underneath it. While I wasn't looking, someone crossed out "frolicking llama" and wrote "frolicking faggot" instead. When I saw this, I burst out laughing. I couldn't help it; it was actually really funny. Trust me, you had to be there. Then I remembered that one of the students in that class is a lesbian and thought, "gee, maybe I shouldn't laugh at this." I stopped laughing eventually, totally backpedaled, scorned the students who did it, and bit my tongue to keep myself from laughing for the rest of the hour.

The sad truth is that anti-gay behavior is rampant in public high schools, at least the ones I've been in. My favorite is when people call objects gay, as in, "this computer is gay." It's gay this, gay that, students accusing each other of being gay – and it happens all the time.

What do you do when you see this in your classroom? I usually ignore it. I figure that students hear this type of stuff all the time, and one teacher isn't going to make a difference, and after all, it's really not all that offensive, is it? But I'm starting to change my mind.

In my two years of teaching, I've worked with a number of openly gay students. More than I expected actually. It usually comes up very casually in conversations between students, like this: "when I told my manager about my girlfriend…", or "I'm not going to college there – I'd be the only gay kid." I suspected that some of these students were gay, but with others, I had no idea.

I never considered myself homophobic, but I've started to view these students in a different light recently. Every one of them is a well-adjusted, normal kid with lots of friends. They are all highly respected by their peers. Their peers all know about their homosexuality, and they honestly just don't care about it. The gay students are really not treated any differently by the kids than anyone else. Students are not afraid to talk about it; they can even joke about it; but it's just not a big deal to anyone. To their friends, their homosexuality is NOT a salient characteristic. They are students, not gay students.

Their courage impresses me. The traditional wisdom is that society doesn't like gay people and homosexuals are wierd. These students prove those notions false. They're fully functional and highly respected among their peers. They have the maturity to rise above some of the anti-gay behavior that happens in schools and not let it bother them.

All staff at our school have the option of adding rainbow stickers to their ID badges in order to show their support for GLBT students and faculty. I've decided not to, but I can start creating a better atmosphere by calling out students who make offensive or ill-informed remarks.

How does this issue play out in your classroom? What is your response to it?

October 18, 2008

I Am Serious. And Don't Call Me Shirley.

Teachers get to have fun. We're working on a multimedia unit in my Web Site Design class, where students are adding pictures, sounds, and video to their websites. The sound clip I provided was from the movie Airplane!, the best movie ever made:

"Surely you can't be serious. I am serious. And don't call me Shirley."

I showed them how to add this sound clip to their websites. After all of the students did this, I thought it would be interesting to see how it would sound if 35 computers all played this clip at the same time. So we decided that everyone would press PLAY on three. I said, "One, two, three," and 35 computers all said, "Surely you can't be serious. I am serious. And don't call me Shirley," at the same time, except that they were all about a half second off. It was pretty hilarious. Then we did it a second time just in case someone missed it the first time around.

This post was originally written during my first year teaching experience.

October 12, 2008

Speaking Of Oil

Since it's impossible to be a good investor without understanding the law of supply and demand, I decided to dedicate the previous week of my Investments class to that topic. After learning the fundamentals of how supply and demand work in the marketplace, I illustrated some real-world examples of this law in action.

First, we talked out the housing market. We also discussed the future of health care with an aging population. We talked about sales of SUVs and Toyota Priuses. Then, we talked about oil

The trend of rising oil prices in the last couple of years and the recent decrease in oil prices can both be explained by the law of supply and demand. First, the class participated in an auction to demonstrate this concept. Some of the students represented oil companies and others represented oil buyers. The buyers and sellers in the classroom negotiated a price, just like what really happens in the oil market. Students came away with the understanding that oil prices are set by market forces, not oil companies alone.

I asked the class if they thought oil would ever hit $6.00 a gallon. They all said yes. I broke the students up into small groups and had them discuss the following question: "What effect would $6.00 a gallon gasoline have on: farmers, grocery stores, families, public schools, transportation companies, and your own investment portfolio." They predicted that the economy would generally slow down if gasoline ever reached that point.

After that, I launched into an explanation of what's been happening with the supply and demand for oil lately. Every student in the class was hooked. I've never seen a class so attentive during a lecture before. They were genuinely interested in this.

I showed charts of US oil production and of global oil production. Oil production in the US peaked in the 1970s and has been in steady decline ever since. Global oil production has generally risen at a rate of 2% per year, but it has remained generally flat in the last two years. We discussed the fact that oil is not an infinite resource, and that eventually, global oil production will start a steady and irreversible decline just as it has in the US. I mentioned that no one knows for sure when that will happen, but I did show the class a chart from the US Energy Information Administration that predicts this peak at around 2037.

The next thing we did was talked about ways we could either increase the supply or reduce the demand for oil. They mentioned drilling in Alaska, carpooling, drilling offshore, and using alternative energy sources. We briefly mentioned the pros and cons of some of the possible solutions. Again, the students were very engaged.

I presented this lesson as objectively as I possibly could. I avoided making any claims or predictions about the future. I ended the class on a positive note, talking about some of the good things that are being done in alternative energy, and talking about solutions instead of focusing on the problem. Still, the mood in the classroom was pretty somber that day. I knew that I had to be careful about presenting this topic for a variety of reasons. Peak oil is still a controversial and political topic.

When I got home, I started questioning whether I should have even brought up the subject. This information really seemed to have an effect on the students, and I was a little concerned about some of the parents' reactions. I've had a few days to contemplate this, and I think my decision to have an honest discussion about oil was a good one. Students need to know about this issue, because it will have a direct impact on them. The topic absolutely belongs in an investments class, because it has a direct impact on investment portfolios. The news about the supply and demand of oil may have been a bit depressing to some of the students, but I'd rather have them know about it than just pretend that the problem doesn't exist. Most Americans don’t have any understanding whatsoever of energy markets, and people should be educated about them.

Don't Write Tests When You're Tired
I put a really bad question on the test for this unit:

"The US continues to demand more oil from the middle east, but these countries are unable to pump oil out of the ground any faster. What will happen to oil prices?"

I wrote this question the day before the test. I was tired and in a hurry. The question is flawed on several levels. Both of the assertions are incorrect. US demand for oil has decreased in recent months, not increased. Also, it's not true that middle east countries are unable to increase their production levels. Oil production actually went up slightly in 2008. The biggest flaw is that the question assumes that the only factors influencing global oil prices are US demand and middle east supply. That's just plain wrong. There are more producers and consumers of oil than just the US and middle east. The global price of oil reflects market players all over the world, not just in these two regions.

So, this test is giving students misinformation. Most students will come away with the idea that US demand will always rise, middle east supplies will never rise, and that oil prices will always rise (this is technically the "correct" answer to the question). None of those things are necessarily true. So I guess the moral of the story is: never write tests when you're tired.

October 6, 2008

You Know What Happens When You Assume

One of the many important steps in planning a lesson is to identify the assumptions in your plan. What are you assuming that your students already know? Trying to guess what your students do and don't already know can be tricky work, and if your assumptions are wrong, it can wreak havoc with your lesson in the classroom.

In Career Exploration, we're spending a few days putting together a college budget. We're calculating monthly expenses and determining how much financial aid the students will need for their first year of school. Coming up with the final numbers involves a bit of math, including some very simple algebra, which I assumed the students already knew.

Some calculations in the assignment required two or three steps to complete. Similar to the way accomplished chefs leave out "obvious" (to them) steps from their recipes, I left out some of the "obvious" steps in the calculations. I'd tell the students to "average" the numbers instead of explicitly telling them how to average the numbers.

Well – you know where this is going – assuming that the students had these math skills was a mistake. When I backtracked and explicitly explained how to perform the calculations, some of the students got frustrated and gave up early. This was a big problem because the later calculations depended on the earlier calculations, which some of the students didn't complete.

The obvious solution would be to teach the students the sequence of steps necessary to perform the calculations. However, that would be a huge mistake. The students wouldn't be learning anything at all; they'd just be following a series of detailed instructions. They'd be following all the steps to average numbers without really understanding what they were doing. Anyone could do that. The whole point of teaching is transfer. If students can't complete their own budgets outside of school without depending on a teacher to show them how, what have they really learned?

I think a more effective teaching strategy here would have been whole-part-whole. Next time, I'll start by introducing the (whole) concept of a budget. Then, I'll give them the specific problem (part; like averaging tuition costs), break them into cooperative groups, and ask them to come up with a solution on how to solve it. Then, I'll come back to the budget (whole) and show them how their calculations fit into the bigger idea.
This article was originally written during my first year teaching experience.

September 28, 2008

Theory Y: Student Empowerment

Which one of these statements do you believe to be most true?

  1. Students will naturally find the path of least resistance. Students need to be closely supervised, and the teacher's job is to constantly make sure they are on task and doing things the way the teacher wants them done. When behaviorist approaches such as operant conditioning are used, the student's behavior will most closely align with the teacher's goals.

  2. When students are given relevant goals and the opportunity to make decisions on their own without overdue teacher meddling, students tend to be ambitious and self-directed. They gladly accept greater responsibility and get a greater sense of accomplishment and ownership from their work. A teacher's job is to hold students accountable for goals, but not to constantly micromanage the student's work.

If you agree with the first one, you follow Douglas McGregor's Theory X. If you agree with the second one, you follow Theory Y. McGregor's theory posits that both management techniques can be used in different situations. I've had much better results following Theory Y.

Theory Y in Action
I'm the DECA advisor at my school, and I had a huge recruiting challenge. Last year, there were 22 students in the organizations. This fall, the only ones who remained were 13 seniors. When these seniors graduate this year, that would leave no one. Advising DECA is part of my contract, so this was a big deal to me. I have a big stake in making sure this organization continues to be successful; if it doesn't, I don't get paid.

So I had to do a whole bunch of recruiting. With the stakes this high, is this something I could trust the students to do on their own? Should I let them organize a recruiting drive, risking that they'll screw up, or if I want it done right, should I do it myself? Remember, the consequence of failure was losing my job, or at least part of it.

The decision was easy for me. Based my experience in several organizations I've been involved with, most notably Civil Air Patrol, leaders get better results when they use Theory Y to empower their subordinates. I knew that the 13 students would do a better job at organizing a recruiting drive than I could myself. After meeting these students the first week of school and seeing how smart, motivated, and self-directed they were, my decision was solidified.

We started by setting goals for the recruiting drive, delegating each goal to a different person, and setting deadlines for the goals. I provided some guidance in the goal setting, but after that, I essentially checked out and left the students to their own devices.

Management Style
A few deadlines slipped and I helped the students come up with plans for corrective action. I held students accountable for their goals, but I didn't constantly look over their shoulders. They had complete creative license to do this recruiting drive the way they wanted to.

The Results

We held our informational meeting for new members this week. The students kept coming, and coming, and coming, and coming! In all, we increased our membership by 400% from last year! The group's morale is in great shape, and the excitement level of the students is stratospheric. I'm really looking forward to working with this group.

DECA is a student-run organization. The students are the leaders. It's their organization, and they deserve a sense of ownership in it. I have some specific goals for the group and some new ideas; I'll be providing some guidance and oversight, but it's basically their ship to run. With the student president and other officers we have this year, the group is under some very capable leadership.

Is It Really That Easy?
Theory Y is clearly the superior approach to leading an organization, but you can't just let go of the reins completely. You need to keep in mind some basic leadership principles which are completely beyond the scope of what I can write today.

P.S. Don't Stop Now
I'm slightly afraid of the "resting on our laurels" syndrome. Recruiting is not enough; retention is equally important. We need to make this an organization that the members want to stay in and keep coming back to. We'll be putting a lot of work into that in the upcoming weeks and months. Theory Y and student empowerment will be our methods. Stay tuned.

September 21, 2008

Letting Students Experience Failure

One of the things that impressed me the most about my flight instructor was his ability to let his students make mistakes. Flying an airplane requires very precise motor control and close coordination. Your feet are on the rudder pedals, your left hand controls the ailerons and elevator, and your right hand controls the throttle, trim, and mixture. In addition to these coordinated motor controls, flight students need to learn how to make good judgments. You need to be able to estimate how high you should be at any moment during an approach to a landing. You need to predict and judge how much the wind will blow you off course. These are just some examples.

It doesn’t work for the instructor to do all of this for the student. The only way the student is able to learn these motor skills and judgments is by making mistakes for him or herself. The thing is, mistakes can be very unforgiving in an airplane. Instructors have the difficult task of letting students make enough mistakes to learn, but not letting students make catastrophic mistakes. Sometimes this can be a very fine line, especially when the student is learning how to land.

Good classroom teachers need to let students make mistakes as well. Just as in an airplane, teachers need to provide guidance. Teachers are sort of like bowling lane bumpers. They should give students plenty of leeway, but steer them back on course when it’s obvious that the student has veered too far off track. Knowing how much leeway to give is a big decision. For flight instructors, this could be a life-or-death decision. The decision isn’t quite as critical for classroom teachers, but it’s still important.

We started our formal debate in Law this week. The resolution is, “marijuana should be legalized in the US”. Tuesday and Wednesday were research days, and the debate started on Thursday. The first speaker for the pro side gave her presentation, during which everyone was very attentive. The cross examination followed, and that’s when all order in the room disappeared.

Instead of asking questions one at a time and actively listening to responses, as they were instructed to do, it was complete chaos. One half of the class was shouting at the other half of the class, and the poor student whose turn it was to present was desperately trying to make sense of it all and respond to at least some of the questions. Of course, no one heard or cared about her responses, because they were all deeply engaged in their shouting matches.

I was deliberately quiet and observant during this whole ordeal. After about two minutes of this, one of the students looked over at me and asked, “aren’t you going to stop this?” My nonchalant reply was, “nope!” After three minutes, the previously agreed-upon time limit for cross exams, I finally broke it up. I debriefed the cross-exam session. The class talked about why it was important to follow the agreed upon rules. We talked about “attack the idea; respect the person” and what that phrase meant. The debriefing was very effective and the subsequent cross-exams went very smoothly.

The students failed miserably at the first cross exam. This failure gave them first-hand knowledge of what happens when we don’t follow the procedures. The students knew what the failure looked like and why it didn’t work. They knew what they had to do to improve next time.

Had I intervened early, as the student suggested, they would not have experienced this failure. Their attitude would have been, “the teacher will intervene if we don’t follow the rules”. This is not what I wanted them to learn. By allowing the students to fail, their attitude became “that certainly didn’t work – now I know what to do next time”.

“Let the students experience failure” is a very powerful heuristic that teachers can use. Just like flight instructors, teachers need to use it carefully and strategically. Many times, though, it’s the most effective way to teach.

September 17, 2008

Yearbook Yearbook One Two

Each morning at the middle school, I spend an hour preparing lessons and grading papers before the students arrive. Right after homeroom (brilliantly called "Star" in this school – pun intended), two seventh grade girls come on the intercom and read the announcements. They are read in a predictably juvenile manner (overacting, too much energy, etc). The announcements are going right along, and all of the sudden, I hear two squirrelly preadolescent girls sing in unison as loud and enthusiastically as they can, "YEARBOOK, YEARBOOK, ONE TWO!! YEARBOOK, YEARBOOK, ONE TWO!!" to the tune of Queen's We Will, We Will Rock You. This has been going on for an entire week. They're trying to get students to join yearbook.

When the first hour students come into my classroom, I joke about this a little. The next day, I tell them that I came up with a new assignment called the "Yearbook Yearbook One Two" paper. The requirements are to write "yearbook yearbook one two" over and over again until it fills up a whole page. They laugh. It's funny.

September 14, 2008


Teaching requires a tremendous amount of energy. You are always on. You must be completely in the moment every minute of every day, except for the one hour break you get for prep time. You're constantly multi-tasking. These were all of the things going through my head during just the first couple minutes of my Investments class today:

  • Greet students as they come into the classroom

  • Decide whether or not to give students hallway passes (these were requested by 2 students at the top of the hour, and I quickly decided not to because of the imminent lockdown drill. Of course, I couldn't tell the students my reason for denying the pass to them).

  • Get the lesson plans out from my briefcase. Also get out the test, which I wrote and ordered copies of the day before, and yesterday's assignment, which I graded earlier in the day.

  • The bell rings. I'm still waiting for the computer to boot and organizing my papers. Welcome students to class, tell them the plan for the day (sans lockdown drill), and tell them to quietly spend five minutes studying for the test, please.

  • Computer boots. Bring up my class website that I'll need later in the period, which I already prepared.

  • Dan asks what he missed when he was gone yesterday. Politely tell him that I will prepare the materials and give them to him later in the hour.

  • Lockdown alarm sounds. Lock the doors, cover the windows, inform students of the procedure, turn on the closed circuit TV to await further instructions (everything up to this point has occurred within the first three minutes of class).

  • Take attendance. Log on to my email system and email the office which students are absent from my class, as per the lockdown procedures.

  • Lockdown drill ends. Unlock the doors and uncover the windows. Inform students that we will be beginning the quiz.

  • Announce that students who needed passes earlier may come to my desk so I can sign them out.

  • Hand out the tests to students. As I do this, make sure that notes are put away and computer monitors are off.

  • Ask one student to remove his hat. Wearing headgear is against school policy.

  • One the quizzes are out, look up the schedule of a student from my last class, who still has one of my keys for the school store. Call that teacher. Teacher does not answer the phone. Call the main office to track the student down.

  • Get the missing assignments ready for Dan and hand them to him after he completes his test.

  • The two students with hallway passes take longer than normal to return. Judgment call: should I ask them about this? They volunteer that the closest bathroom was still locked from the drill. They return to their seats.

  • What are we doing after the test again? Oh yeah. We'll be reading an online article and answering some discussion questions, which I already prepared.

  • Mentally prepare for the pre-reading mini-lecture I'll use to introduce the article to the class.

  • Hand back the graded assignments from yesterday.

  • The student with the missing key walks in and I eventually get the key.

  • Walk up and down the classroom to monitor students as they take the test. A few students are taking a long time. Make a judgment call: give them a cutoff time of two more minutes.

  • Introduce the reading assignment to the class, using proper questioning techniques to ensure students stay engaged.

  • After the introduction, stop by Dan's desk and tell them he can work on his makeup assignments instead of reading today's article.

And this was just the first third of the class. Multiply this by seven hours of student contact time per day, and you can see how the job takes energy. Admittedly, the lockdown drill was unusual, but teachers face all kinds of unexpected things throughout the day, all of which must be handled gracefully. A cool head is definitely a requirement for this job.

September 12, 2008

187 Things I Love About Teaching

The title pretty much says it all. Gratitude is one of the best tools we have. When you think about it, this job is pretty great. This list is completely stream of consciousness, so there might be some repetition and/or nonsense in it. Enjoy!

1. Building rapport with students
2. Relating to students
3. Providing a safe, comfortable, and encouraging place for "outcast" students to go
4. Public speaking
5. Being "in the moment"
6. Being constantly alert
7. Having situational awareness
8. Extremely high level of autonomy
9. Making important decisions
10. Being supported 100% by peers and administrators
11. Extremely high level of responsibility
12. Getting off at 3:45 in the afternoon
13. Making a difference in a kid's life
14. Putting a smile on a kid's face
15. Making a kid's day a little bit brighter
16. Being someone a student can turn to
17. Challenging people
18. Forcing people outside of their comfort zones
19. Shedding a light on new topics for people
20. Helping people reason logically
21. Continual learning about my content area and pedagogy
22. Being highly respected in the community
23. Working with friendly coworkers
24. Other people put a great deal of trust in me
25. Organizing activities like Business Professionals of America
26. Controlling the direction of my own career
27. Having a voice in school policies
28. Volunteering at student events like athletics and theatre
29. Watching kids succeed at things they love doing
30. Helping kids with their futures
31. Primarily focusing on others instead of myself
32. Being, not doing
33. Shedding all self-consciousness
34. Being a role model
35. Planning lessons
36. Treating students like adults
37. Treating students with respect and courtesy
38. Summers off
39. Lots of vacation time
40. Having a job that I truly enjoy
41. Being a highly educated professional
42. Being an intellectual
43. Being a scholar
44. Keeping abreast of the latest in the world of education
45. Encouraging diversity
46. Encouraging students to challenge social norms
47. Keeping current in technological knowledge
48. Being the resident computer expert
49. Experiencing flow
50. Making many, many quick decisions
51. Being someone people can look up to
52. Preparing students for college
53. Building a positive rapport in the classroom
54. Meeting students in the hall
55. Seeing students do well in athletics
56. Seeing students do well in theatre
57. Exchanging pleasantries
58. Seeing lots of smiles every day (kids smile a lot)
59. Joking around
60. Watching people throw French Silk pies in each others faces
61. Telling jokes
62. Listening to jokes
63. Writing a curriculum
64. Having control over your own program
65. Deciding what you'd like students to learn
66. Seeing that students have actually learned it
67. Journaling and reflecting on teaching
68. Keeping in touch with old friends and colleagues from college
69. Living in and learning about a new community
70. Anticipating the start of a new day
71. Anticipating the start of a new class
72. Being welcoming
73. Perfect mixture of extraversion and introversion required
74. Working with smart coworkers who value lifetime learning
75. Coworkers who see the value of education
76. Students who take the class because they're interested in it and want to learn, not just for a grade
77. Meeting with parents
78. Talking with parents about how their students are doing in class
79. Writing letters to parents
80. Students who want you to show them more advanced things than what we are learning in class
81. Students who stay after class to discuss the days' topic with you
82. Learning about students' lives outside of school
83. Teaching subjects that I'm highly interested in
84. Researching subjects that I'm highly interested in to prepare for lessons
85. Modifying a lesson after trying it once
86. Learning from my mistakes
87. Thinking about how to improve next time
88. Teaching students real, tangible skills
89. Leaving a mark on the universe that extends beyond my own lifetime
90. Being a change agent in the universe
91. Being more than just a consuming rational maximizer of self interest
92. Improving my public speaking skills
93. Laughing with people
94. Meeting new people
95. Being self-confident because the job requires it
96. Working in solitude
97. Maintaining computer hardware and software
98. Creating a large body of work which can be reused
99. Maintaining a comprehensive class website
100. Being part of a learning community with many varied opportunities, including sports, music, business, leadership, scholarship, civic engagement, etc.
101. Making financial contributions to the community
102. Meeting professional educators from other school systems
103. Teaching college level courses in a high school
104. Being part of professional organizations
105. Being a member of Delta Pi Epsilon
106. Being part of and continuing a strong Business Education tradition in this state
107. Planning professional conferences
108. Drawing on the whiteboard
109. Student participation in lessons
110. Guiding a thoughtful student discussion about an interesting topic
111. Sympathizing with students
112. Developing new lessons and assignments
113. Using all levels of Bloom's Taxonomy
114. My talents are being fully utilized (this job is not boring!)
115. Brainstorming ideas for class
116. Doing things that the students are interested in
117. Remembering what it was like to be a teenager
118. Being glad that I'm no longer a teenager
119. Working closely with the IT support people
120. Taking Continuing Education Credits
121. Being supported by other teachers
122. Constantly growing my knowledge and skills
123. Having non-school related conversations with students
124. Being with energetic people
125. Being with funny people
126. Being with happy people
127. Standing in the front of the room
128. Drawing gremlins on the chalkboard
129. Counting the days of school
130. Fully expressing my geekiness
131. Speaking clearly and intelligently
132. Being in a place where intelligence is rewarded
133. Wishing people a happy Wright Brothers Day
134. Telling people about the Wright Brothers
135. Learning for its own sake
136. Sharing knowledge
137. Fully utilizing my skills and abilities
138. Doing something that I have prepared for my whole life
139. Using prior, not directly related experiences, as a strength (anecdotes from other experiences and areas)
140. Having hope for the future
141. Seeing people as PEOPLE, not just strangers, numbers, or faces in a crowd
142. Getting to know people individually
143. Seeing past the stereotypes
144. Working with people of different races, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, and abilities
145. Working with people with disabilities
146. Accepting all people exactly how they are
147. Respecting all people
148. Being in a place where a tolerant, accepting, respecting, courteous attitude is the norm
149. Providing a structured learning environment
150. Having high expectations and holding students to them
151. Inspecting what you expect
152. Working at home on my laptop
153. Working in public on my laptop
154. Having personal and professional goals for myself and my students
155. Being a permanent and important part of a person's memory
156. Working in a positive and optimistic environment
157. Being the source of optimism
158. Always staying positive
159. Making fun of myself
160. Following up on things I say I will do
161. Working with integrity
162. Expecting integrity of others
163. Being tactful
164. Being diplomatic
165. Socializing with students
166. Seeing student work
167. Seeing how creative some of the students are
168. Working with students who are smarter than I am
169. Working with ambitious students
170. Working with a wide variety of personality styles
171. I enjoy working with students who are similar to me – and -
172. I highly enjoy working with students who are much different than me
173. Being able to have a positive, productive rapport with students whose personality is very different than mine is extremely rewarding.
174. People can get along even though they're very different.
175. Breaking the ice
176. Getting to know the PERSON
177. Connecting with people
178. Being intellectually challenged
179. Creating environments in which diverse people who might normally be uncomfortable with each other can get along
180. Staying proficient with technology
181. Being part of a community
182. There are lots of smiles
183. Not taking things so seriously
184. Providing a rigorous curriculum
185. Setting boundaries
186. Enforcing boundaries
187. Maintaining and communicating high expectations for each student

September 4, 2008


This year, I'll have a new challenge which I didn't face last year: I'll be floating around to different classrooms throughout the day. In fact, there are SIX separate locations from which I will need to work: the computer lab at the middle school; at the high school: a computer lab, a classroom, the school store, and the staff office; and I'll need to work from home. This has caused some pain already. "Where did I leave that DECA book again? Is it at home or in the school store? And I remember that the Sales syllabus is up in the classroom."

When I'm working, I need access to ALL of my materials. Worse, there are FOUR separate computer systems I need to use: my home computer (laptop; at least it's portable), the middle school Mac network, the high school Mac network, and the high school PC network. None of these systems are connected to each other. If I save a file onto the PC network, I can't open it on the Mac just down the hall. Last year, I had two computer systems that had to be synchronized. They were both PCs, and even that was quite challenging. Now, I have four separate systems, combining Macs and PC. This will be a huge challenge. It already is.

Luckily, the software on all of these systems is the same standard version of Microsoft Office. Files I create on PCs are readable on the Macs, and vice versa. I came up with two possible solutions to this problem. The first solution is to use a Flash drive as my primary storage device and carry it with me at all times. I'll make periodic backup copies of it at school and at home as needed. This is what I'm doing for now. The second solution is to find an online storage service that I can access from anywhere. Microsoft Mesh is one possible emerging technology, but it is not yet Mac friendly. A disadvantage of this solution is that online file systems can be quite slow. But I know that there is some good software which integrates nicely with both Windows and Mac operating systems. The software simply adds another drive letter to your computer, and that drive automatically goes to the online storage. The only drawback to that is that you need to install additional software onto your computer, but it might be worth looking into.

Do you have any organizational tricks for working from more than one location?

September 1, 2008

Triage in the Classroom

I've been feeling like a paramedic lately. With the large class sizes that I have, a big part of my job is triage:.
Triage is a process of prioritizing patients based on the severity of their condition so as to treat as many as possible when resources are insufficient for all to be treated immediately.
When arriving at the scene of a disaster, emergency responders need to quickly assess the condition of each victim and make quick decisions on who should be helped and who should be ignored. Ignoring someone in need is an emotionally difficult thing to do. Emergency responders must put emotions aside and rely on logic when making these decisions.

I'm doing the same thing in my classroom. My Computer Animation class has 35 students in it, and our class periods are only 50 minutes long. I simply do not have the time to answer everyone's questions. In this class, there are about four people in the back of the room with very poor reading comprehension and almost no computer experience. They require a great deal of help from me in order to finish the lessons. I'd say that I spend 50% of the class time helping these four students.

That means that the other 31 students only get 50% of the time for questions. This is problematic for two reasons. First, obviously, it's unfair that I'm spending so much time ignoring them. Many of these 31 students have legitimate questions or are struggling in the class and could really use some attention from the teacher.

The second problem is that even the 50% of the time I'm spending with the four students in the back is really not enough. Even with all of this attention, they're doing poorly in the class.

Triage is a regular part of a teacher's job. When there isn't enough time for us to help all of the students who need it, we must prioritize by evaluating who would benefit the most from the teacher's help. How do you make these decisions?
This article was originally written during my first year teaching experience.

August 27, 2008

The Students Return

Tonight was Freshman Orientation at the high school and Meet the Teacher night at the middle school. I really enjoy the energy that the students bring to the building, and I enjoy interacting with them.

At the high school today, I saw a few kids who I had in class from when I was student teaching here two years ago. They were all excited to see me, and it was great seeing them. There is a lot of positive energy at this school. Students are really excited about DECA and the school store.

Don't Chase Perfection
I'm getting to the point where I feel very comfortable as a teacher. "Teacher" is a word that I can internalize and completely identify with. Being a teacher feels totally natural. I have a lot of experience with this; I've really been teaching in some form or other from the time I was 13 years old.

Of course, there is always room to grow. In the past week and a half of workshops, we've been told everything that good teachers are supposed to do. I try my best at all of them. But I'm not, and I can't be, doing all of these best practices 100% all of the time. I'm much better at some areas than others. I'm definitely still learning.

And, what I've realized is that I'll always be learning. There will never, ever be a point in time when I'll know all there is to know and do everything perfectly. There's a great line from The Martian Child by David Gerrold:
"While I was spending my time trying to figure out how to raise an eight year old, the eight year old turned into a ten year old."
Things change; skills can always be improved; your inbox is never empty. Great teaching is a journey. Learning how to be a great teacher is not about trying to hit some target in the future; it's about continually doing the very best you can right now. The only time we really have is the present.

August 25, 2008

Essentials of Teaching

Having been out of school for about a month, I’ve had some time to finally digest the massive amount of information that I’ve learned. Teaching can be simplified into a few basic concepts. Here are the pieces of advice that I think are most important to give to a new teacher or someone considering entering the profession.

Respect and courtesy earn courtesy and respect.
If you follow this rule, you’re 90% there already. Students really appreciate this. It means treating them with dignity and not talking down to them. When you treat students with respect and courtesy, they will act the same way.

Be prepared!
You need to know your content, and you need to know it well. Your job is to teach, and you won’t be effective unless you have a strong grasp of the subject you’re teaching. This does not mean staying a week ahead of the class in the textbook; it means having a strong foundation before you even begin planning the curriculum.

You also need to know what you’re doing every day. A well-planned lesson is the best prevention for behavior and discipline problems. Being unprepared is extremely unprofessional. Proper prior planning prevents poor performance.

Maintain high expectations and unconditional positive regard for each student.
If you let thoughts like, “she’ll never get this” or “he just doesn’t care” enter your mind, your actions will follow your beliefs, and you will fail as a teacher. It’s true that not all students have the same ability, and it would be wrong to assume that they do. Maintaining high expectations is simply a belief that each student is capable of great accomplishments. Your job is to show them the way.

You will have students that are challenging. They will test you and, at times, annoy you. Teachers need to look through this behavior and see each student as a human being. Start each day with a clean slate. If a student made you angry yesterday, you should be delighted to see him today!

Teach kids first and content second.
Delivering content is only about 20% of a teacher’s job. When I look through my journal entries, I notice that I didn’t write about my lecturing style or teaching methods or assessments. I wrote about the other 80% of what happens in a classroom. Teenagers are really fun people to work with. But, if you don’t like kids, you won’t like teaching.
This article was originally written shortly after my student teaching experience.

August 18, 2008

What If We're Still Doing This When We're Fifty?

The movie Office Space changed my life!
Peter: What if we're still doing this when we're fifty?

Samir: It would be nice to have that kind of job security.

Actually, it wouldn't be fair to give the cult classic all the credit, but the film was a pretty good mirror of my own career at the time. I left college with a degree in Information Systems and got a cubicle job staring at a computer screen. Not a bad job; I just didn't want to still be doing it when I was fifty. :)

Now I'm teaching a career exploration class, and one thing I'll say about careers is that they have to fit the individual. Teaching certainly isn't for everyone. It requires a unique combination of talents. If you don't like kids, you won't like teaching. If you can't multitask, you won't like teaching. If you're indecisive, you'll have trouble teaching. My problem was that I was in a career that didn't really match my talents. Steve Pavlina has developed a simple system for choosing a career. He says that the luckiest people are those who can find a career that they enjoy, are good at, meets their financial needs, and makes a positive impact on society. It's easy to find a job that fills two or three of those criteria, but finding one that fills all four is difficult. For me, it's teaching. It might be the career for you too.

About Me
My home is in the upper Midwest. I did my student teaching at a suburban high school, and my first full time teaching job was at a rural high school. I taught there for one year. You'll read some journal entries that I wrote from both places. This year, I'm returning to the same suburban high school where I did my student teaching.

I've taught quite a variety of classes, including: computer programming, keyboarding, web site design, computer graphics & animation, computer applications, career exploration, workplace skills, investments, sales, marketing, and business law. I enjoy them all, but I'd have to say that the business law class was my favorite so far.