Monday, April 28, 2014

That Feeling...

You know the one.

Nothing seems to be working. The kids are disinterested. The classroom environment feels negative. And worst of all, you can't tell if anybody is really learning anything.

The feeling of failing as a teacher.

In all my wisdom, I thought I had crafted a great class idea.  Once a week, students would investigate a career (the class is an 8th grade class about preparing for the future). The rest of the week, they would be involved in so called "challenges" which they would be in groups crafting creative presentations on various topics, from introspective personality assessments to career movie trailers, to acting out employability skills. With this group of students, I thought I had the perfect idea.

I was wrong.

I am "grading" two things - the individual career posts and the individual portions of the challenges. The first problem has been confusion - many students couldn't keep straight the Thursday career posts from the individual challenge portion from the rest of the week. As a result, I believe this caused students to "give up" and not use their class time, leading to a lot of missing work.

I've had 6 assignments with 19 students, meaning I should have roughly 120 things turned in. That number is less than 60.

Clearly I've made two mistakes. First - I've created assignments without student input, so they aren't invested. They don't care about them and therefore don't have a reason to go through it.  Secondly - I've created a strange pacing that makes little sense and takes students out of flow.

So we spoke today as a class about what is going on. Students were, for the most part, candid, with a few snarky comments in there from the more sarcastic "look at me" students.  They spoke of feeling very rushed, being confused, and having a tough time in the classroom environment with certain students. I also spoke of some of my frustrations and expectations. All in all, I think it was beneficial. I'm hoping the changes we implement will help the students see I care about them and their learning and their opinions.

It is such a fine line to walk. The shocking part of this all is that I stress, at the beginning, that students shouldn't have any homework if they use their classtime wisely. So why all the missing work? As I mentioned above, many students weren't working well, but why did I not do more to keep them on task? I can't "make" them do anything, but I feel like I let too much slide. Now with the amount most are behind, I consider a "catch-up" day. On one hand, I feel the humanity of me should let that happen. But the analytically (possibly cynical) side of me says I'd be sending the wrong message by doing that, indicating that wasting time equates to earning more time, which might in turn be wasted.

Ultimately, I have to find my inner pirate, super charge my class, and get students excited about learning. Maybe I need to find different ways to assess that aren't formal, typed up, turned in documents. I'm facing once again one of the greatest challenges I've faced this year. I'm hopeful I can rise up to it, despite the end of the year, despite the hole I've dug myself in. It is all about the learning and all about the students. This is for them. I need to do better by them.

(POSTNOTE:  Yes, I realize they need to take some responsibility too. But I need to do my due diligence for them and help them get out of their own way to value the learning. That is my job as a teacher. I already put a lot of them, making them responsible for finding most of the information and reporting to me.)

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Who I am as An Educator - Guest Post for the Who I Am, What I Do Edublog

It still is a strange feeling to be sought out by another educator for comments about myself and my thoughts on education. It is happening more frequently, but I am definitely still too humble to really appreciate how cool that all is.  In any case, this post will be a guest post on the Who I Am, What I Do edublog started by Rory Gallagher (@EddieKayshun - love the pun!!).

So, who am I? This is probably one of the most asked questions in the world. However, it probably isn't always spoken. As humans, it is simply natural to be curious about our place in the world. As I approach a real foothold in my career and a solid spot in life, this answer is becoming clearer to me.

Simply - I am Josh, and have been for 26 years.  The story goes my dad wanted a J.R. (80's Dallas influence - love ya dad!) but my mom, always the smartest one in the family, wouldn't have that. So I ended up as Joshua Reuben. Yup, my dad still go the J.R. in there that sneaky guy. Kind of crazy that after hearing him called "Mr. Gauthier" for so many years, I now carry the title proudly (albeit, it is often Mr. G, Mr. Person, Mr. Galuffy, and a hundred other assortments I can't even remember. The imaginations on these kids is incredible). Oh, and I've lived my entire life in Wisconsin. I don't mind that.

I am smart. I don't mean for that to sound pretentious, but I've always been a good learner. School was pretty easy for me.  I did my homework, studied if I needed to, and earned mostly A's, with a few B's scattered in. The worst class in high school? Ceramics. I loved art, but I earned a C+. Couldn't handle having to do all my work in class. I would rather take it home. Definitely, I learned a lot from that experience. My love of art is coming back as I begin to appreciate the role of it in education. Being graded on art was tough for me as a Freshman in High school. College was a piece of cake as well. Sure, there were times I was challenged, but I was never seriously concerned of failing or doing poorly. I graduated with a GPA over 3.90, and finished in the Top 25 of my college graduating class of over 1000 students. An incredible honor - and to anybody who says GPA doesn't matter, it really mattered to me and it really improved my confidence heading out of college to receive that award.
I'm now so confident, I think I can pull off wearing a bow tie with a sweater vest! Bold man!

I am more persistent than I know.  Searching for jobs was fun. In looking back, my experience was probably less stressful and more successful than many in the tough post recession economy.  10 interviews and 35 applications until I finally hit the big time. Each interview was a new learning experience as I figured out what exactly it would take it help a school see that taking a chance on a kid straight out of college would be a great idea. Somehow, I was able to convey that message to the School District of Denmark (not the country, not the country!). Interestingly, that vote of confidence and the promise and potential they saw in me still sticks in my head. The chance they took on me was a gamble on their part, and I strive every day to provide way more value to our educational community than they ever thought possible. Maybe I'm an overachiever, but I don't believe education is something you can overachieve with. Anything less than perfection isn't good enough for our kids. I fail A LOT. But, I'm persistent, because one time somebody took a chance on me. Our kids deserve that too.

I struggle with my philosophy.  Twitter has opened doors, and has really opened my mind to an entire world of educational ideas and thoughts. Probably the most influential thoughts I've dealt with lately have to do with democratic schooling, gamification, flipped classrooms, and no homework. As a teacher of Business Education and Information Technology, most of my classes are so called "computer classes". In such, homework was never something I stressed because I knew there wasn't equal access.  Probably my biggest struggle right now, however, is this idea of the democratic school - where students choose their own learning path every day.  Trying to justify all the things I do or have done gets more difficult and trying every day. I believe typing skills are important; I believe knowing how to do certain things on a computer are important; however, the question I really need to ask is how can I help students get there on their own?
Here's me, clearly struggling with my philosophy of HOW THE HECK CAN I EAT THIS???

I love teaching.  I'm very fortunate in my school to have a lot of freedom in what I do. Helping other teachers is a big passion of mine, because I know I can help that many more kids if I can help teachers be a little better. I'm not sure how I think I can do that having only taught for three years, but I suppose I'm pretty good with technology, and I work at staying at the cutting edge, so teachers seem to like that about me.  I honestly never thought I'd love working with kids as much as I do. They are silly, crazy, frustrating, fun, enlightening, intelligent, irritating, and most of all, they are KIDS. If I can help they see what unconditional love looks like, help them see that learning can be fun, and help them see that school can be a great place to be, I think that is success. Who cares if they never quite get that using Ctrl + C after highlighting text is a really fast way to copy. Is that as important as creating students who love creating and learning new things that THEY are interested in?

I don't know the answer to that above question. However, I do truly believe that somewhere between a student's passion and my passion is a place where amazing connections can happen. Getting there is another story, but I'm Josh, and I'm a teacher, and if anybody can do it, I believe I can.

Oh, and I wear snowman hats.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Beyond the Boundaries

I am so blessed.

It is really difficult to express how lucky I have been in my first three years of teaching to have the opportunities to do many of the things I've done. Whether it be site visits, conferences, or license to try some crazy ideas, I've been well-supported by my district, administrators, and fellow teachers.

Students involved in a crazy idea....I think

In addition to the incredible support, I've also been pushed and pulled to become a better teacher. Opportunities have abounded for me to change up my style, pitch in on committees and projects, and teach at three different levels.  I know many other teachers also have had these opportunities, but I honestly look back at my first three years and see these as a blessing.

Today, I was lucky enough to share an experience with two colleagues (who, unfortunately, due to time constraints, I rarely, if ever, see).  This involved us heading down to Milwaukee to check out the happenings at the University School. Thanks to Twitter, I had connected with Michael Matera (@mrmatera) and Adam Moreno (@USMDrama), among others from that school. Eventually those relationships grew, and we discussed site visits. I decided I was done discussing - I wanted to see, in person, the innovation happening at this great school.

Pictured:  Innovation (Noisy, Active and Fun Learning!)

This was a huge step for me. I really don't consider myself that social, and struggle with initiating contact. But I felt strongly convicted to make this happen. Twitter broke down that barrier, and honestly, I believe it has changed me to be more assertive and put myself out there more (not to say I still have a long way to go, because I do!).

The day was awesome. We got a private presentation from gamification guru Michael Matera right off the bat. What a great privilege to be able to chat about his techniques, and why they work, and what the reasoning was, and where his thought process was to introduce it. In a large group presentation, like something we'd see at one of the many conferences Michael has/will be presenting at, we would never have that opportunity.  I am definitely looking forward to:  including more status in my gamification, including more story-line based challenges that weave into my curriculum, and MORE SIDEQUESTS!.

Then, Adam Moreno spoke with us about a few really exciting things that I'm ready to incorporate yesterday. The first were Keys to Purpose-Driven Learning. Essentially, these were employability skills that we've been talking about in my 8th grade class each time I've taught it. Well, they ASSESS students on these as one of their main assessment pieces. They take the focus so off of grades and content, and focus on the character traits that truly matter. I know I'm going to be trying very hard to implement more of that type of assessment coming up. I'm certainly convinced at the merits by what Adam and Michael had to say about it.

Adam also spoke about performance-based assessments - which means giving a great performance when presenting in class. This was a great reminder to me that presentations in class are really important, but also need to be treated with high expectations. There is nothing our students could possibly do in life that won't involve interacting with other humans.  Therefore, strong presentation skills, regardless of whether you consider yourself an introvert or extrovert is HUGELY important.

After this, we observed gamification in action.  Michael had a rumble going, which is basically a kind of mini review game. I loved watching the kids mix it up within the content area. So cool. They even got to play with blocks and legos to make their creations. Nothing cooler than serious play.

See - blocks and Legos. I wasn't joking!

After that, we recorded a podcast. You can listen to that here. In that, I learned more about one of the 6th grade science teachers and how she gamifies. She definitely is much stronger on the storyline, and would be where I'd like to put my energy. The challenge is figuring out how I make a great storyline that my partner teacher would also be willing to go along with. 

They fed us (how awesome is that?!?!?) and then we split up a bit. My colleague Brent got to enjoy some one on one with an 8th grade math teacher who has flipped his class, and noted it to be very beneficial. I was so excited for Brent to have this experience. I'm glad he and Melissa got a lot out of it.

I decided to go and check out the House of Tech in person. I had watched them present on WEMTA14, so I was really excited that I would already be in the building to witness what they are doing. They are SO impressive. Visit them sometime. It'll drive you crazy what their students are capable of. Now, we could probably hem and haw all day about demographic differences, private vs. public school, cash flow, etc, but in the end I know this to be true:  we have some really gifted students in a variety of areas, especially technology, who would LOVE to get experience, could offload a ton of tasks, and create new opportunities for us. We need to jump on this bandwagon. I'm glad to know Nikki Lucyk and the House of Tech team, and am comforted knowing they are in my corner as we pursue implementing something similar to that in our school.

Finally, we wrapped up talking maker spaces with Tom Mussoline (@tmussoline) and seeing his vision. The maker space/culture, as well as the student tech team, or definitely the next big fish on my list. Obviously I want to put a lot of passion and time and energy into my classes, but I also serve the higher purpose of creating a more positive school environment, and creating more relevant, engaging, and awesome experiences for students. House of Tech and Makerspace could make this happen for us!

All in all, this was an amazing day. Meeting members of my professional learning network is always excited, and it really makes me near emotional when they treat me like I'm an old friend. It is great to have such professional and personal connections beyond my boundaries, so that I am continually challenged and pushed to be better, to do better, and never lose focus on who matters most - the kids.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Value of Fellowship

I'll preface this post by saying that I talk too much. It is not uncommon for me to take a 10 or 15 minute block of time during the day, find another teacher who doesn't have students, and chat them up until I have to race back to my class. No work done, no items marked off the checklist, and nothing new created.

But was it a waste of time? Some would say yes, but I say no.

Yesterday I attended #edcampec (Edcamp Eau Claire, WI). I was lucky enough to have some people come with me, including my wife, and normally that is what would make an event like that a success. But, thanks to Twitter and other events I have attended, they weren't the only people I know. I can't describe how great it felt to hear Joe Sanfellipo ask me how I was doing as he vigorously shook my hand, or the tweet Curt Rees sent me to help him with a tech issue.  Others throughout the day (Beth Lisowski, Jess Henze, Tom Whitford, Kaye Henrickson, and John Gunnell) I had also met, and they made me feel like I was an old friend, even though I've barely spoken to them face to face.

That kind of connection with educators is so powerful. It drives me to be better because I rarely feel worthy enough to have people that I respect so much treat me like I'm as awesome as they are.  I want to live up to that.

Listening and engaging in other conversations throughout the day continued to stretch and make me want to take on the world all over again. I can't say that I learned as much at this edcamp as others, BUT the connections and reconnections that I made were awesome and made it a truly amazing Saturday. To share that with my wife and brother in law and father in law was great. I hope they also go to see how amazing those types of connections are.

Confidence is pretty intangible. But whether it is the conversation with great educators outside my sphere, or the ones next door, I feel so much more energized after each time. I obviously want something constructive to come out of conversations, but building relationships with our colleagues is as important, in my opinion, as with students.  We have to feel comfortable to share with those we work with if we want to foster an environment of collaboration.

I'm not hugely social, but I understand how crucial these connections are, and the way they make me feel help me take on the enormous challenges we face as educators day after day.

So thanks to you that let me take up your time by letting me chat your ear off. You'll probably never know how much those conversations mean to me. And for everyone else - get out and talk to some people and be open to all conversations - you never know where the connections will lead. At the very least, you can share your excitement and concerns with someone who understands! The value of that can't be understated.

Make time to talk.