An Incredible Time?

Adolescence is an incredible time for a child.  It is the last step before adulthood, starting at about age 12 and lasting for 5 to 10 or more years.  As childhood ends these preteens see physical changes start to happen, then social changes happen, then emotional changes happen.

Often elementary friends change in middle school and then again in high school.  So many things about a child changes in middle school and high school.  They change fast and they change often.  Their brains and bodies are trying to figure out who and what they are.  It’s amazing to watch them go through this process, but it often feels impossible to help them or even understand them while they go through this stage.  As a teacher I’ve been watching and trying to help students get through this stage of development for over 20 years.

I think I began to understand these children when I looked at where they were and understood what was going on in their heads.  They are right next to adulthood. They can see it and it excites and scares them.  This is the time for teenagers to look at and set goals for their future lines of work and to think about relationships in a more physical and emotional way.

Whether we like it or not, one of the first things they need to do is to start making their own decisions.  They start to pick out their own clothes in middle school and by high school they want to go shopping with friends.  Soon they’ll have a job and decide how to spend their money and what to do with their free time.  Will they experiment with drugs?  Will they experiment with sex?  Will they be good students who do homework and study?  Will they join afterschool clubs, activities, and sports?  Whatever they choose to do, they’ll have to put a little bit of distance between themselves and the adults around them to do it.  I don’t think this means we should abandon them; in fact, we should continue to support them and try to let them learn from their mistakes.

Teenagers will reach out to adults, both male and female, to help them work through this stage of their lives.  The hard part is trying to help them when they don’t want help, and having to see them fail.  As a teacher I always tell the students that I’m here for them; before school, and after school, I will make myself available.

Positive and negative role-models are around students all the time and they will hopefully make the right decisions more often than not.  Adults are very important in the lives of teenagers and as a teacher I try to give them as much positive support and feedback as I can.

Middle and high school students want to spend a lot of time alone, which makes it hard to share our pearls of wisdom with them.  They will spend hours thinking about what they would have, could have, or should have done that day or the day before.  Or they will spend hours contemplating their future life, whether it’s the weekend , next month, or when they grow up.

As they contemplate the past and plan for the future, it’s our job to give them the tools they need to be successful.  Hopefully they will use these tools to build a life for themselves that is productive and happy.


Salute to Democracy or a Big Con Job

Every twenty years New York State voters are asked a peculiar question.  They are asked to vote on whether or not they want to hold a Constitutional Convention, or Con-Con.  Almost everyone I asked did not know what it was or how they should vote on it.  Those that had heard of it still didn’t know if it’s a salute to democracy or a big con job.  Although I don’t have an answer to that question, I can break down the pros and cons of the Constitutional Convention.

Teacher’s unions, and for that matter all unions, as well as many environmentalists fear that a convention could repeal many of the protections that were fought so hard to get.  At the same time there are groups who feel that the only way campaign finance reform, redistricting, and term limits will happen is in a convention.  The more I researched, the more I found information for and against the con-con.

What should I do?  Who should I believe?  How should I make up my mind?  I became determined to read as much information as I could before I made up my mind.

What I found was that everything that is in, or not in, the state constitution, regardless of whether I think it is good or bad, can be discussed, changed, or even repealed during the con-con.  This confused me because I also found that everything that is in, or not in, the state constitution can be discussed, changed or even repealed during a congressional session by use of an amendment to the state constitution.  So then, what’s the purpose or advantage of a Constitutional Convention?

What I found is that the legislative process can be sidestepped to make changes to our state constitution.  Issues and topics that could never get passed through state congress “could” get passed through a con-con. Different articles talked about different proposals, some I agreed with and some I didn’t.  The biggest point that was made in every article, however; was that they were right and the opposition was wrong.  At this point I stopped my research.

As an educator I always search for knowledge, but when all I find is opinion I have to step back,  It doesn’t matter if I agree with what the convention is trying to accomplish, it’s how they are trying to accomplish it.  Bypassing the Legislative process is not only unethical, it can be very dangerous because of the risk of who is making the changes and why. It could be lobbyists and corporations, or small business owners and environmentalists; either way, we are giving up on, or bypassing, the legislative process.

I may not agree with everything politicians do, but I agree that it’s their job to do it.  Therefore, I will be voting “no” on the Constitutional Convention, however; I will hold the politicians accountable for what they say, what they stand for, and how they vote.


Spring is in The Air

The rain is falling, the grass is growing, flowers are on the fruit trees, and teachers are starting their final units of the year.  Spring is in the air!  Schools are preparing for spring sports, spring concerts, spring dances, and everything else that needs to be done before the school year ends.


In the classroom, teachers are trying to prepare students for final exams, state exams and a plethora of other things that need to be accomplished before the end of the school year.  Students, however; have their own priorities.  In addition to afterschool activities and classroom responsibilities, students are dealing with the social developments of spring.  When you put the teacher’s agenda together with the students priorities, you end up with a very challenging end of the school year.

I was talking to some friends of mine who are teachers and they said that in May and June they are working with their students on state testing and end of the year projects.  They said that they are also attending and helping at concerts, art shows, spring plays, and school sporting events.  This makes for a very busy and exciting time of the year.

Then I started talking to friends of mine who are education professionals that work out of the classroom and they told me that this time of year is busy for them too.  Guidance counselors are trying to figure out where the best place for every student is going to be next year and they are working with the social workers to help students get what they need to be successful.  The school nurses are busy dealing with student allergies, dehydration, STDs and physicals for summer employment.

The more people I spoke with, the more I realized I hadn’t even scratched the surface.  Attendance officers find a spike in absenteeism  because of the nice weather and behavior specialists have to spend more time and energy on drug abuse and gang initiations. Some of the students are asking for extra help so they can pass a class or be better prepared for an exam, and other students stop trying or even stop coming to school altogether because they have given up.

Every school has its own challenges and agenda, so does every teacher and so does every student. The dance we have to perform every spring is trying to address the challenges, complete the agenda, and enjoy the successes of the school year.


The Challenge of Who and How to Teach

Most students will do what they are told to do and will perform well if they are well prepared. There are some students; however, who will fall through the cracks of education because they do not see the purpose of what is being taught. For one reason or another these students are the challenge, they are the ones that will excel beyond belief or will become a troubled child in the classroom.

“What’s the purpose of learning algebra?”

“Why should I learn about a bunch of slaveholders and dead white men?”

“Shakespeare means nothing to me.”

“I’m never going to use anything I learn in Science class.”

“What’s the point of gym?”

“I’m not an artist.”

“I’m never going to speak a foreign language so why should I have to learn one?”

And on, and on, and on…

So what do you do with these students? How do you reach them? How do you stop them from failing?  What can I do to help students see their potential and to allow them to excel in their own way? I wonder if it is possible to teach to the individual and to the masses at the same time. More importantly I wonder if I should focus on the individual or if I should focus my energy on the larger group of students and help the others as best I can.

These are the questions every teacher asks and the answers will change on a daily basis depending on assignment, class and student. For me the key has always been, “What inspires the student? What can I do to motivate them?”

Now this is where it gets tricky because what inspires and motivates one student might repulse and close the door for another. This is why being a teacher is more than just instructing a lesson, it is knowing how to connect with a variety of different learning styles in a variety of different situations.

As a teacher I have always focused of alternative forms of education. I try to find a way to allow expression and then tie educational lessons into it. For some students this works very well for others it doesn’t. When students have spent so much time taking notes and memorizing facts it is hard for them to answer the question, “What do you think?” On the other hand, once students learn to think for themselves and create their own opinions it becomes hard for them to go back to memorization and recall.

Besides being a divergent thinker, what else can a teacher or school do to inspire and encourage students to let their genius out? One key I found is that all children, all people for that matter, like to be treated nicely. I always say please, thank you, good morning, and I’ll see you tomorrow. Asking a student, “How was your weekend?” is one of the most powerful tools an educator has. Not just the nice, happy students, ask everyone. The quiet one, the noisy one, the popular one, the unpopular one, the one that always gets in trouble, and the one that does whatever they are told; all of these students can be touched with a smile and a hello.

In fact, I have found that some of the most troubled students react better to caring than they do to strict discipline. Don’t get me wrong, I have rules in my class and I am in charge, but every student knows that I care about them and I talk to them about problems that they might be having.

Some of the “worst students” are just full of frustration and are on the brink of exploding. Sometimes letting them vent and talk will do more for the environment of the class than constantly fighting with them. Let them know you care and when they are done tell them its time to get back to work. A student will do more for you if they know you’ll do more for them. How often have you heard a student say, “The teacher doesn’t like me” when you know the teacher does, or when you know the teacher doesn’t? Is it the student’s fault, is it the teacher’s fault, or is it just the dynamics of education?

Ok, so the students know we care about them and that we will go outside the box, now what? Now comes the hard part. The teacher must become a magician, a juggler, a tightrope walker, a social worker and an educator all at the same time and without faltering in any of the responsibilities given or taken. Doing this is a slow process and care must be given to the environment to ensure success of the classroom.

Joining the Conversation


About two years ago I started writing about different topics in education.  A few people, mostly friends and family, supported me by joining the blog and encouraging me to continue writing.  Then colleagues, other educators and teachers started reading my posts, joining the conversations and giving me support and feedback to continue posting.  Now, two years later, I have reached a milestone and have over 1,000 subscribers who want to keep updated on the education topics that I discuss.

I have been researching, talking and writing about charter schools for over ten years and they are often a topic of discussion when I write.  I have never been anti-charter, but I do believe that the laws and regulations around charter schools need to change to support the best interests of the students and not the corporations who own and run the schools.  Because of the positive feedback I received from these posts I will be writing and talking more about the charter school dilemma.  Please let me know if there is anything specific you want me to research and write about.

Another topic that I discuss is the relationship between teachers and administrators.  When they work together everyone benefits.  Students, parents, community, and the school itself are more successful when there is synergy.  Sometimes however, there is a breakdown between what administrators think is best for the students and what they want for the district.  When this happens teachers are often caught in the middle.  Please let me know about your experiences so I can add them to the discussion.

Colleagues have also been talking to me about why they became educators and who influenced them;  sometimes it’s a teacher, sometimes it’s a student, and sometimes it all started because of a conversation with friends.  Being an educator is not an easy job and if you don’t have a passion for it you probably won’t last more than five years.  Those that have the passion will continue teaching and inspiring students in spite of bad administration and dysfunctional schools.

I’m going to continue writing about these topics, and more, and I hope you continue reading, sharing , and commenting on them.


Trying Something New

I’ve been having a few conversations with teachers, parents and community members lately about equity in job expectations for teaching staff and administrators.  It appears that I’m not the only one who has noticed that teachers are held to a very high standard while administration is given a lot of leeway and acceptance for problems and mistakes they make.

Administrators will roll out new programs and give teachers new directives without fully understanding the programs themselves.  Teachers are evaluated on these broken or inaccurate assessment tools and students suffer from the trickle down effect of bad planning and implementation.

“We’re going to try something new this year.” administrators will say, and then they will hand teachers a packet or program of a new theory on how children learn or can be evaluated.  These new programs are usually purchased by districts for political or financial reasons; rarely are they purchased because of research that shows educational successes.  Districts will instruct teachers to start the new programs without any knowledge of how to use the program, what it needs to run, and whether or not it is useful.  Conflicts with current evaluation tools are often a problem and incompatibility with technology is another obstacle teachers have to overcome.

As I spoke with colleagues about this, I wondered how administrators would react if they were held to the same standards as teachers.  Imagine if they not only researched new educational strategies but they also made sure the programs would be effective for the students  they serve.  What if they also made sure the new programs were compatible with their current technology so the lessons and units could be used as data driven tools for student successes without teachers having to overcome technology issues?  Every teacher’s dream is that their administrators are as prepared when they come to them as the teachers are when they create lessons and units for students.

There are good administrators who work with their teachers to make sure every classroom is well prepared, however; their are still too many administrators who only enter a classroom when they are observing a teacher and only talk to teachers during an evaluation.

The problem is that teachers are being observed and evaluated on programs and directives that administrators have not fully understood or fully researched.  Maybe someday they will not only be held to the same standard as teachers, but they will work with teachers to help data driven instruction to be successful for all stakeholders.


Surviving the Night

In early October my classes started reading Night, by Elie Wiesel. It is the story of a teenage boy who lives through, and survives, the Holocaust. The vocabulary was very difficult for the students but they were so invested in the story that they persevered. They had so many questions and were engrossed in discussions trying to find the answers that the unit was extended to last over 10 weeks.

We started with an overview of the Holocaust which most students had never heard of and they could not believe that people would let it happen. Their questions were about not only the Jews, but the soldiers and civilians who were also a part of it. How could a soldier follow those orders and how could a person watch it happen?

I don’t know, was the only answer I could give.
The first character they met was Moishe the Beadle and the students wondered why no one believed him when he said he escaped the Nazis and they were killing Jews. We talked about information and a lack of technology in the 1940s. There was no internet, no cell phones, no television, and it’s hard to believe such an outrageous story. The classes discussed what they would do if they had to warn friends and family of an upcoming disaster, but no one would believe them. Most of the students got very frustrated with the fact that they couldn’t save their community. I told them that one of the reasons the Nazis were so successful was because what they did was so unbelievable.

Finally we shared the journey of Elie and his father; working, running, freezing, and starving. Some people would just give up and let themselves die while others would refuse to let themselves fall into the darkness. Talking about how much a person can endure is a tough conversation for inner city students and things often got very personal. They could relate to the characters in the novel and were amazed when I reminded them that it was a true story.


Several students researched Elie Wiesel and did papers on his life and why they felt writing the book was important. Many felt that because he lived through it, he should tell about the experience so others will know what happened to him and other Jews.

I feel that giving students the opportunity to learn about the Holocaust beyond Anne Frank is very important. She wrote about the human condition before the concentration camps, while Elie wrote about what happened once they got on the train. Students who have behavior problems and struggle academically were on task and excited while they read and studied Elie Wiesel and his struggle to survive. I think that they were so invested in the story because it is about hope, family, struggle and survival; and these are all concepts that my students can identify with.

The Victims of Charter School Scandals

We got a few new students this year from the charter schools.  We get new students every year, but some of these children stand out.  We have a transfer student who was 15 years old in the sixth grade, half a dozen students who transferred with academic abilities at least 3 years below grade level, and several students who had their special education status revoked by the charter school and now we have to start the process all over again to get the children the services they need and deserve.

There are many articles and commentaries about the failures of charter schools, but there are very few that focus on what happens to the students after the disillusionment of the charter experience.  When children come back to the regular public schools they struggle as they try to catch up on the missed work and instruction.  Parents who think they are giving their children the best opportunity, discover that their loved ones are now 2 or 3 grade levels behind and will need remedial work to catch up.  The schools that these students re-enter are judged not on the progress that they make with the returning students, but with the results of them still being below grade level, and even more ironic is that the charter school now has a higher academic average because the failing students have left.

At team meetings teachers discuss what they can do to help the students and the families affected by the charter schools and they are constantly redesigning their classroom management to accommodate the challenges of the new students.  Teachers have always had these discussions; however, the amount of time and intensity spent on correcting the charter school failures is increasing every year.  Extra time is being spent on the fundamentals and classes are being reworked so students who are behind have a chance to catch up.  Teachers are also working with declassified special education students who have emotional or behavioral disorders and are no longer receiving the services they need.  Public school teachers have to go through the process all over again to get the children these services.  While the district works on this process the students and the classroom struggle.

As we talk about charter schools and the ways they are failing throughout the country, we should always remember to think about the students who are the victims of the failing charter school laws and policies.  When we talk about charter school accountability, we should remember to hold them accountable to the students and families that they serve.  We should also remember to hold them accountable when the students return to the regular public school.

Become Part of the Solution

During the spring of 1990 I was arguing with some friends about the problems in education.  We talked about kids falling behind, teachers not doing their jobs and families struggling to get ahead.   It was a great conversation by a group of people who had no idea what they were talking about.  After a long pause someone said, “There’s nothing we can do about it.” and then someone else added, “Unless you become a teacher there’s no way to solve the problem.”

Everyone kept talking but I stopped listening.  I couldn’t stop thinking about the solution to the problem; Become a Teacher.

“Okay,” I finally asked, “who wants to come with me and become a teacher?

No one joined me but they all supported me in my goal to become an educator.  Thus began my quest to save the world, one child at a time and although it’s been over 25 years I still believe that the best way to make a difference is to become a teacher.

Helping students understand English, Math, Science and Social Studies is only part of what a teacher does.  Educators also work with student’s social and emotional well being to help them become better people, but this is the part of being a teacher that most adults don’t know or care about.

To truly understand education and the teaching profession you need to enter the field.  Saying you know education because you were once a student or because you have kids in school just isn’t enough.  At parties and get-togethers I find that almost everyone has a story to explain why education is such a failure.

“I had a teacher once who did this,” or “I had a teacher once who didn’t do this.” They can all tell me about the teacher who failed them.

“Teachers today are terrible! They don’t care about the kids at all.” Then they say, “Not you though. You’re one of the good ones.” They’ve never seen me teach, never seen me in a classroom, yet I’m, “one of the good ones.”

In fact most people have  never seen anyone teach and they are making huge assumptions about them. As I talk to them about their perceived view of the problem I offer my solution.

“Join me.” I say with enthusiasm, “Become a teacher and stop bitching about the problems with education.”

Then the conversation usually changes. “I don’t want to be a teacher.” they say, “Do you know all the stuff they have to put up with?” I smile and nod my head.

“Yeah,” I say, “but you also get to help solve the problem.”

We, the teachers of the world, are the reason people  excel as doctors, lawyers, accountants, athletes, artists, and every other profession.  Without us who would teach them their trade and skills and help them become better as professionals?  Students may naturally excel at one skill or another but they need someone (a teacher) to help them tap into the skills they need to develop.

So please join me and become and educator, so the next time people are complaining about education you can say that you are part of the solution.IMG_0201

21st Century Assessments

As the 2015 -16 school year is ending I look back at how education is evolving. Computers, technology, internet, Smartboards and cell-phones have become essential tools in modern education, however; they are not the only things that modern teachers are evolving with. We now have 21st Century Education with project based, or authentic learning, being used as its key strategies.

Authentic learning is focused on connecting what students are taught in school to real-world issues and problems that can be addressed by the students. Science can relate to the environment around them, math can relate to budgeting and personal space, English to personal experience, and social studies can relate to a student’s place in the world. Learning through experience is a great way for students to internalize, understand and be able to utilize information.

The problem many educators face is that although authentic learning is a great way to teach and learn in a 21st century environment, it is not how students are currently being evaluated.  Common Core and other forms of state testing are set up with multiple choice questions and short answer responses. Current research finds that this is the least effective way to assess what a student has learned or comprehended and yet it is still the standard form of evaluation used in most districts. A project based education focuses on understanding information instead of memorizing facts for a test.

Most adults have forgotten the majority of what they learned in school unless it pertains to their current job or interests. This is because they didn’t internalize the information and truly understand it. When students learn how to understand, synthesize, and utilize information, they have a better chance of retaining the information and understanding how it relates to their lives.

As teaching evolves in the 21st century we need to take a look at the evolution of the evaluation process we use. Students are not being tested on what they know and understand, they are only being tested on what they can identify or figure out based on a specific question. With all this technology and all this research on best teaching practices, we should be able to find a better way to evaluate what and how students are learning.