Friday, December 30, 2011

What makes an excellent teacher?

In an article in The Guardian Teacher Network called What makes a brilliant teacher, British teacher Adam Lopez gives his take on what makes a teacher excellent by first asking what is a true teacher:
Do we, as an educational community actually realize what makes a true teacher? Is it purely down to perfect pedagogy, rigorous planning and assessing, diligent resource making and clever behavior management; or is there something more?
He says there is something different to add to the mix which he calls the T Factor.
In my experience, teachers with the T Factor, run a happy, high achieving environment in which the pupils feel content, valued and achieve high respective standards academically and behaviorally. These teachers create a sense of awe and wonder to develop inquiring minds with an insatiable thirst for learning that endures.
The T Factor has to do with building a rapport with students.
 Emotional intelligence and empathy are two huge features of a T factor teacher's practice. Knowing how, when, and what to say in order to bring about conditions in which educational attachment flourishes, is an incredibly subtle yet powerful tool.
  The T Factor approach to education via empathetic and emotionally intelligent interactions helps us recognize and appeal to the humanity in people; educating them from the inside out, and not the outside in.
 Here are the author's tips for building the T Factor into your teaching.

Simply stated: build rapport, be empathetic, be positive, watch your body language, have a sense of humor, never be mean, chill out, and be reflective.

One comment in the notes sums up a similar attitude towards effective teaching:

I want children that I've taught to feel positive, to go home and tell their parents what they've done that day - not feel down, grumble. I want them to look forward to tomorrow.

It all sound highly effective to me and certainly sounds like the teachers that I admire. I hope and aspire to be such a teacher. Adam's tips are a good resource that might be worth printing out and posting near your desk where you can see it throughout the day.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Helping our kids thrive

This is a great TED talk by Peter Benson that will capture your attention from the first sentence. It is about a one question that the says  we rarely talk about, "What is our vision for America's kids?"
Peter L. Benson, president and CEO of Minneapolis-based Search Institute, is one of the world's leading authorities on positive human development. Dr. Benson is the author or editor of more than a dozen books on child and adolescent development and social change, including, most recently, Sparks: How Parents Can Help Ignite the Hidden Strengths of Teenagers Dr. Benson's international reputation in human development emerged in the 1990s through his innovative, research-based framework of Developmental Assets, the most widely recognized approach to positive youth development in the United States and, increasingly, around the world. Before joining Search Institute in 1978, Dr. Benson was chair of the psychology department and chair of the program in human development and social relations at Earlham College, Richmond, Indiana.

Here is Jon Foreman of Switchfoot singing "Thrive" a song on their new album "Vice Verses" and fits perfectly with this talk.

"I want to thrive, not just survive."

I saw this cartoon posted today and it is also appropriate.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Teaching in Kenya

I spent the first two weeks of July in Kenya. The major part of my trip was to work in the Mathare Valley Slum in Nairobi with schools and teachers. It was an amazing and wonderful experience, where I probably learned more than I actually helped. I have started writing about the trip in a more detailed fashion on my Kenya in 2011 blog. There are lots of memories, photos, and videos that I am still updating.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Playing in the dirt

At the end of school today, I took my fifth graders out to the playground for a few minutes of play. When done, we lined up to go inside as parents were congregating near the playground to pick up their children. A group of parents were hovering nearby and I looked down to see a preschool aged boy squatting down with both hands digging into a muddy puddle. He kept pulling out his hands to inspect the attatched mud before diving in for more. My fifth graders were trying to get him to high-five them, but he was too engrossed in his play. What I thought was cool was that the mom was not bothererd by his playing in the mud. It is good for a little kid to get his hands dirty and not be scolded to keep his hands clean.

How often in school do you get to play in the dirt? Here is an article about a fourth grade class that sifted through a box of dirt and found an eight inch long 11,500 year old piece of hair from a Mastadon. What a memorable experience for the children in that class. They were participating in something called The Mastadon Matrix Project. It costs only $10 to get involved and get your own box of dirt. I think I will apply and have my class do this next year. As Ms. Frizzle of the Magic School Bus always says, "Take chances! Make Mistakes! Get Messy!"

Monday, May 16, 2011

Reading books helps you get a better job in later life

Reading books is the only out-of-school activity for 16-year-olds that is linked to getting a managerial or professional job in later life, says an Oxford study.

Researcher Mark Taylor, from the Department of Sociology, analysed 17,200 questionnaire responses from people born in 1970, which gave details of extra-curricular activities at the age of 16 and their careers at the age of 33. The findings, presented at the British Sociological Association on May 4, show that girls who had read books at 16 had a 39 per cent probability of a professional or managerial post at 33, but only a 25 per cent chance if they had not. For boys who read regularly, the figure went up from 48 per cent to 58 per cent.

None of the other activities, such as taking part in sports or activities, socialising, going to museums or galleries or to the cinema or concerts, or practical activities like cooking or sewing, were found to have a significant effect on their careers. Mr Taylor also found that playing computer games frequently did not make it less likely that 16-year-olds would be in a professional or managerial career at 33, but this was linked to a lower chance of going to university.

So get your kids reading!

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The World Peace Game

 Here is an inspiring Ted Talk by John Hunter on the World Peace Game. It all came about because his first superintendent asked him upon handing him his first job, "What do you want to do?"

John Hunter puts all the problems of the world on a 4'x5' plywood board -- and lets his 4th-graders solve them. At TED2011, he explains how his World Peace Game engages schoolkids, and why the complex lessons it teaches -- spontaneous, and always surprising -- go further than classroom lectures can.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Hunger Games

I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Hunger Gamestrilogy of books. Thank goodness for recent snow days as I was able to complete the entire edge-of-your-seat series in about a weeks time. Author Suzanne Collins takes her readers on a thrill-ride adventure full of twists, emotions, and thought-provoking themes: war, politics, reality television, fashion, celebrity-ism, family, sacrifice, love, violence, and survival. Although, it is a dystopian story that takes place in the future, after the United States had destroyed itself, it is also a story that is relevant to the present and continues the ideas of the Fall and the breaking world in which we live. It lets you see how much control  a corrupt government can wield over a complacent citizenry. The country that replaces the United States in this series is called Panem, referring to "Panem et Circenses" which translates into "bread and games"...

...the writer was saying that in return for full bellies and entertainment, his people have given up their political responsibilities, and therefore their power."  from Mockingjay

The author plays around with the notion of what it takes to survive in such a place that is both distant and futuristic, as well as familiar and historical, think of ancient Rome and the United States today. It is a trilogy that makes you think and reflect as well as a series that keeps you turning the pages (or clicking the Kindle buttons like I did) in anticipation of what happens next.

The first book The Hunger Games introduces the chief protagonist Katniss Everdeen who volunteers to replace her younger sister Prim in the Hunger Games of the title. The Hunger Games are an annual televised "Survivor" type  game run by the government where 24 children are selected through a lottery to fight to the death. There can only be one winner. We also meet two boys who become romantically linked throughout the series to Katniss: Gale, Katniss's best friend and hunting companion, and kind Peeta, who is also "chosen" to compete in the hunger games. An unusual ending concludes the book.

The second book Catching Fire returns Katniss to the Hunger Games (but a special anniversary games-where former game champions must meet and kill each other). Again it is a fight to the death with another unusual ending (no secrets given out here).

The third book, Mockingjay places the characters in a new type of "game" this time not set up by the government, but rather against the government. The violence is upped and beloved characters are lost (due to death or other circumstances). In the end, it is hard to imagine if Katniss will actually achieve her one wish: to kill the governmental leader, President Snow. Again, the ending is a surprise and we also find out with whom a "damaged" Katniss falls in love.

As a fifth grade teacher, I wouldn't really recommend the  story to my students. There may be a few fifth graders up to the challenging ideas presented in the trilogy of books, but I do think these are books that they should definitely choose to read as they get older and are able to handle and understand the themes and challenges presented with more clarity. I would recommend the books to any adult who loves to read a good story. At no time did I think the story was silly, juvenile, or contrived, but instead they thoroughly captured my imagination. Due to the severe conditions placed on children throughout the books, there is little "hope" offered to readers beyond the "kill or be killed" nature of the series. However, the books are a reminder to not damage our children with our "Panem et Circenes" world of entertainment and governmental policies. There is a epilogue at the end of the book and all that I will say is that the author makes it clear that "children" are our hope. And I can't wait for the movie!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Simply Experts

A Canadian professor Kieran Egan has a new book coming out called Learning in Depth: A Simple Innovation That Can Transform Schooling. According to a Washington Post article Want smarter kids? Make them study something - one thing - for a long time written by Kate Julian, we should help students become experts on a simple subject: dust, beetles, apples. Egan believes that students should be assigned a topic in elementary school and study it through high school. He believes that by the end of high school students they will not only be world class experts on a subject, but that they will also be better citizens and more moral people (since they are engaged with something outside themselves). How might this look?

Egan, wisely, doesn't start with dust. He begins with apples. He imagines a young student first drawing apples, then cataloging apple varieties, and later collecting stories about apples (from the Garden of Eden and Johnny Appleseed to William Tell and Isaac Newton) and figuring out why apples float.

Dust, meanwhile, could take a student from house dust to the Dust Bowl, from the origins of the color khaki ("khaki" is Urdu for "dust"; how it came to refer to a color is a long story involving British camouflage uniforms and Afghanistan) to the origins of the planet.

This quote is from the new book:

People who know nothing in depth commonly assume that their opinions are the same kind of thing as knowledge.

It all reminds me of a story I heard many times in college about Agassiz and the fish.

It was more than fifteen years ago that I entered the laboratory of Professor Agassiz, and told him I had enrolled my name in the scientific school as a student of natural history. He asked me a few questions about my object in coming, my antecedents generally, the mode in which I afterwards proposed to use the knowledge I might acquire, and finally, whether I wished to study any special branch. To the latter I replied that while I wished to be well grounded in all departments of zoology, I purposed to devote myself specially to insects.

"When do you wish to begin?" he asked.

"Now," I replied.

This seemed to please him, and with an energetic "Very well," he reached from a shelf a huge jar of specimens in yellow alcohol.

"Take this fish," he said, "and look at it; we call it a Haemulon; by and by I will ask what you have seen."

With that he left me, but in a moment returned with explicit instructions as to the care of the object entrusted to me.

"No man is fit to be a naturalist," said he, "who does not know how to take care of specimens."

I was to keep the fish before me in a tin tray, and occasionally moisten the surface with alcohol from the jar, always taking care to replace the stopper tightly. Those were not the days of ground glass stoppers, and elegantly shaped exhibition jars; all the old students will recall the huge, neckless glass bottles with their leaky, wax-besmeared corks, half-eaten by insects and begrimed with cellar dust. Entomology was a cleaner science than ichthyology, but the example of the professor who had unhesitatingly plunged to the bottom of the jar to produce the fish was infectious; and though this alcohol had "a very ancient and fish-like smell," I really dared not show any aversion within these sacred precincts, and treated the alcohol as though it were pure water. Still I was conscious of a passing feeling of disappointment, for gazing at a fish did not commend itself to an ardent entomologist. My friends at home, too, were annoyed, when they discovered that no amount of eau de cologne would drown the perfume which haunted me like a shadow.

In ten minutes I had seen all that could be seen in that fish, and started in search of the professor, who had, however, left the museum; and when I returned, after lingering over some of the odd animals stored in the upper apartment, my specimen was dry all over. I dashed the fluid over the fish as if to resuscitate it from a fainting-fit, and looked with anxiety for a return of a normal, sloppy appearance. This little excitement over, nothing was to be done but return to a steadfast gaze at my mute companion. Half an hour passed, an hour, another hour; the fish began to look loathsome. I turned it over and around; looked it in the face -- ghastly; from behind, beneath, above, sideways, at a three-quarters view -- just as ghastly. I was in despair; at an early hour, I concluded that lunch was necessary; so with infinite relief, the fish was carefully replaced in the jar, and for an hour I was free.

On my return, I learned that Professor Agassiz had been at the museum, but had gone and would not return for several hours. My fellow students were too busy to be disturbed by continued conversation. Slowly I drew forth that hideous fish, and with a feeling of desperation again looked at it. I might not use a magnifying glass; instruments of all kinds were interdicted. My two hands, my two eyes, and the fish; it seemed a most limited field. I pushed my fingers down its throat to see how sharp its teeth were. I began to count the scales in the different rows until I was convinced that that was nonsense. At last a happy thought struck me -- I would draw the fish; and now with surprise I began to discover new features in the creature. Just then the professor returned.

"That is right," said he, "a pencil is one of the best eyes. I am glad to notice, too, that you keep your specimen wet and your bottle corked."

With these encouraging words he added --

"Well, what is it like?"

He listened attentively to my brief rehearsal of the structure of parts whose names were still unknown to me; the fringed gill-arches and movable operculum; the pores of the head, fleshly lips, and lidless eyes; the lateral line, the spinous fin, and forked tail; the compressed and arched body. When I had finished, he waited as if expecting more, and then, with an air of disappointment:

"You have not looked very carefully; why," he continued, more earnestly, "you haven't seen one of the most conspicuous features of the animal, which is as plainly before your eyes as the fish itself. Look again; look again!" And he left me to my misery.

I was piqued; I was mortified. Still more of that wretched fish? But now I set myself to the task with a will, and discovered one new thing after another, until I saw how just the professor's criticism had been. The afternoon passed quickly, and when, towards its close, the professor inquired,

"Do you see it yet?"

"No," I replied. "I am certain I do not, but I see how little I saw before."

"That is next best," said he earnestly, "but I won't hear you now; put away your fish and go home; perhaps you will be ready with a better answer in the morning. I will examine you before you look at the fish."

This was disconcerting; not only must I think of my fish all night, studying, without the object before me, what this unknown but most visible feature might be, but also, without reviewing my new discoveries, I must give an exact account of them the next day. I had a bad memory; so I walked home by Charles River in a distracted state, with my two perplexities.

The cordial greeting from the professor the next morning was reassuring; here was a man who seemed to be quite as anxious as I that I should see for myself what he saw.

"Do you perhaps mean," I asked, "that the fish has symmetrical sides with paired organs?"

His thoroughly pleased, "Of course, of course!" repaid the wakeful hours of the previous night. After he had discoursed most happily and enthusiastically -- as he always did -- upon the importance of this point, I ventured to ask what I should do next.

"Oh, look at your fish!" he said, and left me again to my own devices. In a little more than an hour he returned and heard my new catalogue.

"That is good, that is good!" he repeated, "but that is not all; go on." And so for three long days, he placed that fish before my eyes, forbidding me to look at anything else, or to use any artificial aid. "Look, look, look," was his repeated injunction.

This was the best entomological lesson I ever had -- a lesson whose influence was extended to the details of every subsequent study; a legacy the professor has left to me, as he left it to many others, of inestimable value, which we could not buy, with which we cannot part.

A year afterwards, some of us were amusing ourselves with chalking outlandish beasts upon the blackboard. We drew prancing star-fishes; frogs in mortal combat; hydro-headed worms; stately craw-fishes, standing on their tails, bearing aloft umbrellas; and grotesque fishes, with gaping mouths and staring eyes. The professor came in shortly after, and was as much amused as any at our experiments. He looked at the fishes.

"Haemulons, every one of them," he said; "Mr. ____________ drew them."

True; and to this day, if I attempt a fish, I can draw nothing but Haemulons.

The fourth day a second fish of the same group was placed beside the first, and I was bidden to point out the resemblances and differences between the two; another and another followed, until the entire family lay before me, and a whole legion of jars covered the table and surrounding shelves; the odor had become a pleasant perfume; and even now, the sight of an old six-inch worm-eaten cork brings fragrant memories!

The whole group of Haemulons was thus brought into review; and whether engaged upon the dissection of the internal organs, preparation and examination of the bony framework, or the description of the various parts, Agassiz's training in the method of observing facts in their orderly arrangement, was ever accompanied by the urgent exhortation not to be content with them.

"Facts are stupid things," he would say, "until brought into connection with some general law."

At the end of eight months, it was almost with reluctance that I left these friends and turned to insects; but what I gained by this outside experience has been of greater value than years of later investigation in my favorite groups.

-- from American Poems (3rd ed.; Boston: Houghton, Osgood & Co., 1879): pp. 450-54.