January 29, 2009

Favorite Teacher Movies (With Clips!)

Most teacher/school/student movies are totally formulaic and bland, but there are some good ones. Here are my current favorites:

Charlie Bartlett
This is a hilarious movie about a high school student who appoints himself the head psychiatrist and doles out advice to all of his classmates, using a bathroom stall as his office. Very entertaining and a good laugh. This movie would be nothing without Anton Yelchin, whose superb acting has impressed me in other movies as well. I'm really looking forward to his role as the young Chekov in the upcoming Star Trek movie.

Charlie Bartlett at the Internet Movie Database

Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray star in this story about a high school overachiever on academic probation. Also there's a love triangle. Another Wes Anderson movie. Quite similar to his others.

Rushmore at the Internet Movie Database

This movie does for teachers what The Breakfast Club did for students. Students have their own groups: the jocks, the nerds, the preps, and the Goths; it turns out that teachers do too. The movie brings out the inner demons of teachers. The evolution of the characters is to watch.

Chalk at the Internet Movie Database

Dead Poets Society
This one really is a classic. It's inspirational and uplifting without being trite. Robin Williams carries the role of the teacher superbly, as expected. Carpe Diem!

Dead Poets Society at the Internet Movie Database

The Man Without A Face
Another classic. Stereotypes are easier to see than reality. This movie goes past the stereotypes and knee-jerk reactions and shows the truth. The book is also wonderful, although it has a slightly different focus. The movie was changed to be less controversial and more digestible for mass audiences.

The Man Without A Face at the Internet Movie Database

A Beautiful Mind
My fascination with economics and John Nash's theories is a reason I enjoy this movie. Honestly, game theory is a compelling field to study. This movie offers a glimpse into the world of academia from the perspective of both professors and students.

A Beautiful Mind at the Internet Movie Database

The Emperor's Club
We used to play this trick on our math teacher: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ws5is2gjuW4. Kevin Kline gives an outstanding performance.
The Emperor's Club at the Internet Movie Database

Not a teacher movie. But it's the best movie ever made, so I have to include it.

Airplane! at the Internet Movie Database

What are your favorite teacher movies?

P.S. I'd like to specifically point out that Dangerous Minds is not on this list. I didn't like that one. It's a great example of how to make another formulaic inspirational teacher movie.

January 25, 2009

Writing: Left Brained or Right Brained?

Trick question.

Whether writing is a left brain or a right brain activity depends a lot on what you're writing. Most of my blog posts are very analytical (left brain!). I used to get paid to design software, and that writing was way left brained. Writing curricula and lesson plans and making assignments and tests is totally left brained.

Actually we don't have two brains, we just have two hemispheres in our brain, so technically the title should be Writing: Left Hemisphere or Right Hemisphere, or how about Hemispheric Dominance to be more succinct. But even those would be quite simplistic and misleading. Yeah, I'm definitely a left-brained writer.

For some reason I thought it would be a good idea to start writing fiction. I do lots of writing already, getting into fiction should be a piece of cake, right? No. It's a totally different animal. I'm a total novice at this but my attempts so far have been quite terrible. My last story was two pages long and it took me about six hours to write. I can do a two page blog post in an hour. Writing fiction is imaginative. You start writing with no clue where your story will eventually end up. Writing fiction is about making up a world and then describing it. The focus isn't even really on the writing – that part is easy – it's the imagining and creating that's hard. This is a very right brain activity. And to me, it's a lot of work.

I can easily get into a state of flow if I'm designing a new accounting system for our school store or writing software to make our DECA attendance easier or designing lessons and putting them into a neat and logical scope and sequence. I can sit down and lose all track of time and totally get into the work. Athletes get into this state of flow during a game, and musicians enter flow performing a challenging piece of music. I guess fiction authors enter this same mental state when they're writing stories, but it doesn't happen for me. Writing fiction feels much different than doing analytical writing. It's work; there's real friction stopping me from just writing. Doing analytical work is easy and effortless; being imaginative and making stuff up is really difficult and not as pleasant. Still rewarding but a lot more work. Maybe it's just because I'm so new at it.

But my right brain isn't dead. I play music and I've acted on stage – both are pretty easy (right brain). Teaching requires real empathy, which I'm good at (right brain).

So is teaching a left-hemisphere activity or a right-hemisphere activity? I love those questions – the kind whose only purpose is to encourage needless and endless debate.

This was a trick question. There's no such thing as left brained or right brained. I have no idea what the point of this post was. I thought I'd have some moral judgment or something at the end, like some mumbo jumbo about how some students are left brained and others are right brained. But since it was a trick question to begin with, I guess I don't have any moral judgments or shocking conclusions today.

January 20, 2009

Inauguration Day Celebration

President Obama's inauguration is a reason to be proud of this country. Others have commented on the historic significance of this day and the reasons we have for optimism. I'm not a political blogger, so I won't offer any commentary other than to say that I'm ecstatic and also realistic about what our country can do.

Other than this historic election itself, what gives me hope is our youngest generation. When we watched the inauguration ceremony and President Obama's speech in class, the students' eyes were glued to the screen. They were into it, totally excited about this new era we're entering.

I can tell you from first hand experience that our teenagers are a great generation, but don't take my word for it. Our youngest generation is both idealistic and civic minded. They care about the world. When making career choices, they are more interested in making a difference in the world than making a difference in their wallets. They volunteer. They're ambitious. They're reversing the trends in teen pregnancies, crime, and drug use of their parents' generation.

The new generation, the millenials, are taking over. We are under new management. Just maybe there is actually some substance to all of this hype about hope and change.

January 17, 2009

Personalities of Student Organizations

To what extent does the personality of a student organization reflect that of its advisor? The makeup of personalities in the two organizations I run has evolved since I took the organizations over last September.

The personality of the teacher who ran these organizations last year is much different than mine. She was a very down-to-business, type A, extraverted, get-things-done, rapid-fire kind of person. The student leaders I've been working with this year (who were chosen by last year's advisor) have very similar personalities. They are exceptionally driven and have done a fantastic job leading the organization.

In contrast, my own personality is relatively introverted and more laid back. I've noticed that the personality of the entire organization has been shifting this year. There are some very dedicated juniors who are interested in becoming officers next year. Far from the type A extraverts of last year's cohort, their personalities are closer to my own. Is this just a coincidence? Somehow I doubt it.

So What?

To be honest, I'm looking forward to working with these students next year. It's just easier to get along with people whose personalities are closer to our own. I can't say that this year has been totally frictionless, and some of the friction has been because of personality conflicts. I think next year will go more smoothly.

On the other hand, homogeneity can be a dangerous thing. I'd really like a variety of personalities on the student leadership team. It's always good to have a team of diverse strengths and backgrounds. This year's leaders have openly challenged my own thinking on several occasions, and I welcome those challenges. They've come up with some really great ideas. Plus, working with students of different personalities is very rewarding. It keeps things fun and interesting.

Expect more articles on the effects of personality in educational settings!

January 12, 2009

Two Meanings of Accountability

About a month ago, I was discussing accountability with a group of fellow teachers. Tonight, I was discussing accountability with a group of business leaders. I discovered that the word "accountability" has two completely opposite meanings.

Accountability according to educators

Our job as professional educators is to make sure every child is succeeding in our classes. We are supposed to give them every chance in the world to be successful. Leave no child behind.

Obviously, this is difficult for several reasons. Some students are smarter than others; some don't speak English; and some just don't care. If we give a student an assignment, and he just doesn't care, and he doesn't do the assignment, what should we as teachers do? Since our job is to make sure every student succeeds, the argument goes, we need to work with him until he does finish the assignment. We need to find out why he's not doing the assignment, and try to convince him to do it, with sticks and carrots if necessary. We should stand over his shoulder and make sure he's on task. If he fails to turn in an assignment by the required deadline, we should give him another chance.

This is accountability. Teachers are responsible for making sure their students learn. It would be easy for us to ignore this responsibility and put the responsibility for learning on the student, but according to my teacher-mentor (and I quote), "we are held to a higher standard. It is our job to make sure EVERYONE is learning."

Accountability according to business leaders

Today, I attended a consortium of Career and Technical Educators and business leaders. The business representatives had a chance to look at our curricula and give us feedback. We learned what skills employers are most looking for from new graduates. Accountability was a skill that kept coming up.

Employees need to have a sense of accountability, they said. They need to show up on time, work productively, take responsibility for their own actions, stay current in their industry knowledge, and manage their own careers. If they fail to do these things, they get fired. It's the employee's own responsibility to make sure she is successful. It's not the employer's responsibility to make sure that the employee is successful. If the employee isn't meeting her responsibilities, she won't have a job for very long.

The business leaders said that the new graduates they hire do not have a very strong sense of accountability. They are quick to make excuses and expect their employer to look out for them.

What about your own teaching?

My sense of accountability aligns more closely with the second definition than with the first. I am not the type of teacher who is always harping on students to stay on task, but I am the type of teacher who will easily fail a student on an assignment if she decides not to do it. I follow the logical consequences school of classroom management.

This approach works great for me. You may prefer a different style. But we should all be deliberate about what we mean by "accountability". Of course the teacher is responsible for making sure students learn. But that should not absolve students from their own responsibilities. As with so many things, there is no clear black-and-white solution to this, just one big grey area.

January 5, 2009

New Year Resolutions

When learning a new skill, a good technique is to focus on just one aspect of the task at a time. I used to play piano and trumpet. When learning new songs, I would use this technique a lot, focusing only on the dynamics for a while, then just on the rhythm, then just on my fingering. I'd get really good at that one thing I was focusing on. This helped me later when I played the entire piece as a whole.

This can be an effective teaching method, and I've used it a few times with my students. Well, now I'm learning a new skill: teaching. Teaching is a highly complex task with lots of components. This year, I've talked about many of those components – how I've struggled with them and how I plan to improve.

For the rest of the year, I've decided to use this technique for my own teaching. I'm going to focus on just one area and make a concerted effort to improve in it. My goal for the rest of the school year is to focus heavily on increasing student engagement.

Student engagement is defined as the amount of time students are actively participating in a learning activity. This definition is independent of teaching method – it could include time students spend actively listening to a lecture, participating in cooperative groups, working on projects, making presentations, writing papers, conducting research, or any other method, as long as what the students are doing actually contributes to learning.

Research has shown that the number one predictor of student achievement, above anything else, is student engagement. This trumps socioeconomic status, the classroom environment, and even teacher effectiveness. Regardless of all other factors, the more time students spend actively engaged in a learning activity, the higher their achievement is. We have empirical data to support this, but it makes a lot of intuitive sense as well. That's why I've chosen to focus on this particular area.

The second reason I've decided to focus on student engagement is that I know it's an area where I can definitely improve. With respect to student engagement, I think I actually did better during my student teaching than I'm doing this year. Here's why I'm having trouble with it. Some of the classes I teach are lab classes, where students have individual work time on the computers. This is great student engagement. What happens, though, is that some students finish faster than others and sit idle while the slower students try to catch up. The slower students require the entire class period, so they're engaged 100% of the time. That's good. But the advanced students only need half of the time, so they're only engaged 50% of the time. Some of my teacher preparation courses at the University dealt with this issue: how to create differentiated instruction for students with individual differences. We spent some time talking specifically about gifted and talented students. That would be the subject for another article entirely, so I won't go into it here. Creating good individualized instruction requires more work and more time for the teacher, but keeping that student engagement number up is well worth it.

The third reason I'm focusing on student engagement is because of what's happening in my non-lab courses. Computer projects are not part of these classes. These classes use more traditional methods such as lecture, cooperative learning, debates, reading, writing, and written tests. The problem is that these classes are taught in the computer lab, and the computers provide a big distraction for the students. Some days, the students are more engaged with the computers than they are with my class. I keep an informal atmosphere in these classes but I'm afraid some students have misconstrued that as a ticket to be lazy. My plan of attack in these classes is twofold: first, create relevant and rigorous lessons that are more engaging than their computers; and second, create a more work-oriented atmosphere in the classroom.

This goal is specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time bound.

Specific: Student engagement will increase in my classes. This is the amount of time students spend actively engaged in a learning activity.

Measurable: I will measure this by observing how much time students spend on learning tasks. Throughout the remaining weeks of the school year, time on learning tasks will go up and time on non-learning tasks will go down for all students.

Achievable: This goal can be achieved by implementing specific, time-tested policies such as those I've mentioned above.

Realistic: In my own classes, I've observed student behavior vary widely from day to day in response to specific techniques I've employed. Therefore, I know it's possible for me as a teacher to create conditions and lessons which promote student engagement.

Time Bound: There will be good weeks and bad weeks, but generally, student engagement will be higher during the second half of the school year than it was before today.

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

January 2, 2009

Winging It, Or Not

I struck up a conversation with another young teacher today. He's been teaching math for five years, and he's just starting at this school district. We were talking about the difficulties of first year teaching: how every class is new and you're doing everything for the first time. I told him that I'd hoped that I would be able to reuse some of the materials I planned for my classes last year. I won't actually be able to, since I'm teaching completely new classes now.

He said that in his five years of teaching, he's had new classes almost every year, so he knew how I felt. He was never able to reuse any of his old lesson plans. Yearly staff changes at his former school district ensured that he'd get a totally new schedule each year. We were both in the same situation. We had prepared other classes, but we wouldn't be able to use those lessons for our classes this year.

Then he surprised me. He said, "I can pretty much just wing it now and teach a lesson on anything. What are we learning about today? The Pythagorean Theorem? OK! Let's go!"

Wow. I'd never be able to do that in business classes. No way. I can see how it would be possible to do this with mathematical concepts, which are basically procedural knowledge rather than factual knowledge. But to just "wing it" for a lesson on globalization, labor unions, or contract law? That's not even possible. Yeah, I could explain the concepts well enough, just winging it, but that wouldn't be much of a lesson.

A good lesson in topics like these must include other resources: newspaper clippings, online articles, worksheets, or videos, for example. Finding and preparing these resources is very time-consuming. This is a task that math teachers can skip (although I'm sure there are some superb math teachers who do this type of research as well).

In math, students don't learn these skills by passively listening. You can't learn to multiply just by watching someone else; you need to practice on your own. Math textbooks provide drill after drill for students to practice these skills. Teachers of math simply need to set aside some work time, assign some textbook drills, and provide individual help as needed. Very little preparation is required.

Business students learn by engagement too. They don't learn how to perform a SWOT analysis just by reading about it; they need practice too, just like the math students do. Only, business teachers can't just have students do repetitive textbook drills like the math teachers do. Teachers must seek out or create their own engaging assignments. I like using debates, essays, research papers, role plays, and even skits as reinforcing activities. Business teachers have to spend much more time preparing these types of activities than math teachers spend preparing drills.

There are a few caveats, of course. In my programming classes, I can "wing it" and teach loops and switch statements just as easily as math teachers can "wing it" and teach the Pythagorean Theorem. If I have a good textbook, I can assign exercises instead of writing my own. Teaching a class like this is pretty nice; the prep work is much less.

Also, I know that there are stellar math teachers who do all of the same research and prepare all of the same activities that I do for my business classes. Math is about much more than just learning rote procedures. I've observed some math teachers in class, and I can tell that the good ones put a lot of work into their lessons. A teacher's choice of textbook makes a big difference, too. If you're lucky, you'll find a textbook that aligns nicely with your course objectives and includes supplementary materials for teachers.

But, I do believe that some subjects simply require more time to prep than others. Some teachers get this condescending tone of voice when they tell you that "teaching is easy" or "I can just wing it". They say this as though they are such expert teachers. If you're just winging it, you're letting your students down. If you think teaching is easy, you're not doing your job (I don't think teaching is hard; I'm just saying that preparing good lessons is a lot of work). Even if you've been teaching your whole life, there are always things you can improve.