Friday, October 28, 2011

It's Been a Long Week

I started writing this Friday Focus about a dozen times between Thursday night and Friday morning. Words are not flowing freely.

What is there to say?

My heart goes out to the family of Garrett Phillips. My hope is that they can somehow move one foot in front of the other. Their strength has been inspiring as they work to rationalize an irrational tragedy. My heart breaks every time my thoughts drift to various family members.

I’m worried about our students. How can their little minds work through a tragedy which took their friend? It’s our responsibility to recognize their anguish – it will present itself in many differing ways. We will need to help them with this for many years to come.

How can you AAKer’s focus? I’m concerned that you will need more than I can give you. A child is a precious being and you know this best of all. I am sorry that you have had to go through this.

I learned many lessons this week. I would encourage you to think of some positive acts of courage, compassion, caring, and love which you’ve witnessed. This will help you – it has helped me. I’d like to share with you a Facebook entry that a former student (now a teacher) shared with me.

Today I am so grateful that I live in Potsdam, NY. I saw 11 and 12 year olds be much more than should ever be asked of them at this age. I am so proud that my children have chosen such amazing people to call friends. To the faculty and staff at AAK...I think I can speak on behalf of the entire community when I say that you set the bar for educators. Your kindness, compassion and guidance has provided so many families the strength that they needed this week. I am in awe of what you do. Thank you.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Habit or Rut

I recently found the following writings, written for teachers by teachers. I believe that it will be thought-provoking and challenging – which is what makes a great Friday Focus. It forced me take a reflective lens towards my own practices, processes, and patterns. I’m sure it will for you, too.

“Habit is necessary; it is the habit of having habits, of turning a trail into a rut that must be incessantly fought against if one is to remain alive.”
~ Edith Wharton (American Novelist and short-story writer, 1862-1937)

We are creatures of habit. Look around at what you do. Has your desk been in the same spot for the last seven years? How about the posters on your walls? Is that worksheet you just sent to be copied the same one you created years ago on Microsoft Office ‘98? Is the way you teach spelling the same as it was when Bobby’s father sat in your class twenty years ago? Whether or not you believe he is credible, Dr. Phil would ask, “How’s that working for you?” In today’s world of education, this is a valid question.

As our professional obligations change, we have all been required to more closely and extensively examine the content we teach. But now is also the time to think about how we teach that content. If we have to change, we might as well go for it all. It is admittedly unsettling to suddenly have to move out of a comfort zone. But if you have found yourself or a colleague complaining over and over again about something that is (or isn’t) happening in the classroom, maybe it isn’t the kids. Maybe it isn’t the change in schedule or the people you work with. Maybe it isn’t parents. Maybe it’s you.

“The path of least resistance and least trouble is a mental rut already made. It requires troublesome work to undertake the alternation of old beliefs.”
~ John Dewey (American Philosopher, Psychologist and Educator, 1859-1952)

So many times we as educators think that all students “get it” the same way, or at the same pace. Anyone around for any length of time knows that’s never the case. (Even though NCLB and the “testing czars” seem to have that mindset!) As frustrating and time consuming as it is, changing things up a bit might be necessary. We’ve all heard the faculty room conversations about how students seem to be less skilled than in previous years. Whether that’s true or not, that’s just a statement of the problem. More importantly, what can you as the instructor do about it? What’s your solution? Maybe it’s time for the positive approach, especially at a time in education when it’s so easy to become negative.

The “How’s that working for you?” question might also be directed at classroom management. Is barking your expectations of students more loudly really making them understand better? Is asking the same student to sit in the hallway for consecutive classes altering his/her behavior any more the third time than it did the first two times? After slamming the door to get the class’s attention for the third time this week, maybe it’s time to rethink that strategy. Again, how’s that working for you? No matter how much experience you have, asking colleagues for help or what their strategies are for making students/classes successful might be a good place to start. Don’t be afraid to keep growing as a professional.

The only avenue to make change rests within yourself. Being willing to change even when it isn’t easy or might require more work might provide you with the answer to “How’s that working for you?”

Friday, October 14, 2011


This entry has been resurrected from one of my past writings. In 2009-10, it seemed to garner some attention. I hope it remains a thought-provoking and discussion-provoking entry. Enjoy!

I’d like to be honest about something. I am a deviant. When I was in upper elementary, I tested the patience of every teacher. When I sat in school between the ages of 10 and 14, I engaged in deviant behavior. During high school I conformed enough to graduate with honors and enter the college of my choice, but this wasn’t easy for me. I found that even in college, I excelled at deviating from the norm. As a young teacher, I wanted to deviate even though my students would need to pass “the” test. Seriously, what self-respecting content specialist would teach science through a fictional book, paint t-shirts to save the Earth, begin a compost pile in the classroom, make art depicting the human heart with only masking tape, or have the students develop a dichotomous key for make-believe monsters. Honestly, what was I thinking?

Yet, the idea of being a deviant intrigues me. I’m not a big fan of labels, but I see many student behaviors in this office that certainly would classify as deviating from the norm. In looking to see if there can be a positive side to deviant behavior, I came across the phrase, “Positive Deviants.” The writer-physician Atul Gawande has written about the phenomenon of "positive deviants" in the medical profession, that small set of players who are mired in the same environmental conditions as everyone else but stubbornly refuse to allow themselves to be constrained by conventional wisdoms, and as a consequence are able to identify fresh and often counter-traditional ways to address seemingly intractable problems. Retrospectively, many of our students presenting the deviant behaviors are also displaying characteristics which would be admired in leaders in many situations. Was my deviant behavior as a student positive? Well, I wouldn’t have to ask my teachers to know the answer to that. Was my deviant behavior always a negative? No.

In speculating the aversions to deviant behavior, I think it comes to the root of change. Deviants desire change – for both good and bad, but change nonetheless. Conformists seem to balance out the deviant behaviors. This occurs in all realms of life, but it comes front and center in education. Education is grounded in tradition and change is slow at best. Conformists have more of an upper hand in this field than in most; let’s say compared to business or industry, where change occurs in the blink of an eye.

Maybe I’m being unfair to this field, but in understanding the effect that relationships have on learning I feel that we all need to display some positive deviant behaviors. To help explain this statement and since we have this new accountability using our state testing, I’d like you to contemplate these two related questions concerning all students.

Will a student perform poorly on a test if you didn’t give them the information?
Will a student perform poorly on a test if you didn’t provide them with an opportunity to analyze, synthesize, and share information?

One fact that I enjoy about AAK is that ideas are not met with pragmatism, realism, and skepticism; which would be common in education. That may be a factor in our designation as a School to Watch. I frequently witness deviation in your lessons and classrooms, allowing the students to create their own concept map instead of traditional notes, debate and construct the rules for a society, race like the Olympians, care for others through their actions, role-play, and collaborate. I’ve also seen some specific deviant acts committed by some of our professionals, such as crashing into a cardboard box, blowing little plastic bottles up in the hall, cheering for the students (pompoms included), having fun, debating policy and philosophy, creating an experience, listening, and collaborating. You deviants make me proud.

Enjoy the weekend

Friday, October 7, 2011

A Science Teacher’s transition to the Middle-Level School (Creating an Exciting, Productive Classroom)

By Guest Writer, Lisa Dunkelberg

“Are you crazy? Why do you want to teach that age?”, or the raising of the eyebrows was a common reaction when I told adults about who and what I taught. “Aren’t you afraid of losing all of that?” another person said to me. “Did they force you?” “Do you really want to go?” “I’m sorry!” said another. Let me back up by stating that previous to teaching middle school, I taught high school science in the same district. I had taught Living Environment, Chemistry, and SUPA Forensic Science. Don’t get me wrong, I loved what I taught, but I was looking for something just a little bit more. I also wanted to teach an age in which students still loved coming to school and were willing to try new things. I found it at A. A. Kingston Middle School in Potsdam, NY.

Most of the material and information that I had built up over a number of years while teaching had to go. Some went to colleagues, some to the trash; I kept very little. I knew what students needed to know as far as science curriculum by the time they got to high school. I needed to find out what they knew before they arrived in my middle school classroom. My principal was great by helping me get materials that I needed for the middle school science classroom. We discussed what I would need and use throughout the year. Having an encouraging administration was key to a smooth transition (E.E. 5.12).

My classes consisted of 7th grade science groups, and a 7th grade accelerated group. For the accelerated group, I would teach 7th grade science during semester one and 8th grade science during semester two. Seventh grade science is mostly life science and 8th grade is physical science including physics, chemistry and earth science. I chose a variety of materials that would maintain student interest (E.E. 4.8). I also applied for technology equipment through local grants offered by the Potsdam Teacher’s Learning Center. I received a SmartBoard and Interwrite tablet, as well as an ELMO. These have been well received by students and greatly enhanced learning (E.E. 4.9). What I saw in the middle school far exceeded my expectations.

The climate of our middle school building is one in which students thrive in. It takes the cooperation of many staff members to have a building run efficiently and effectively. As a teacher, working with a great bunch of professionals is key to feeling comfortable, and supported (E.E. 1.4). I love coming to work every day. My classroom consists of single desks and lab stations along the walls. Students usually see me every other day for double periods. Occasionally, I may see all my students for a single period one day a week. This flexible scheduling allows for interdisciplinary team tasks to be accomplished. Assemblies, study skills, guest speakers, state tests, extra work on projects, etc., are to be completed during this “FLEX” period, every other day (E.E 3.3). My students and I enjoy the double periods as we accomplish more than we do with two single periods. We can complete activities, write up labs, and complete experiments, such as dissections, during a double period.

Adolescents are completely different human beings than teenage high school students. They love inquiry-based learning, experimentation, and asking questions. They want to know if what they see on TV is correct. They want to know about themselves and the environment around them. They want to share what they know with you. Students come to my classroom during study halls and ask to help out by watering plants, cleaning glassware, feeding animals, or helping to prep for the next activity. This year, I’m planning a lab assistant program to utilize their excitement. These students will come to my classroom during their free period and help to set up, maintain, or break down labs. If you teach classes that involve labs, you know the work involved in preparing and keeping laboratory experiments. Middle school students love to assist you and want to learn with a hands-on approach. They appreciate the time that you put into your classroom and your work with them (E.E. 1.5). I have high expectations of them and they have high expectations of me.

Materials that I have found effective for demonstrations, labs, activities, and experiments, include those found at garage sales, dollar stores, Wal Mart , and on-line. Asking friends and family members for recycled items is also helpful to stock my shelves. These items are useful such as using empty water bottles, straws, balloons, and elastics to create lungs, and then having students to go home and give it a disease for homework. This is part of the respiratory system unit. The diseased lungs that they bring back are very creative, have a story behind them and they understand how it affects breathing. Students have also created an arthropod of their choice using recycled materials. They loved to share what they made and how they made their animal. During a unit on the skin, students fingerprint themselves and then identify their own characteristics. Plain paper, ink pads, a reference chart, and small magnifying glasses are all that is needed. Students are focused and fascinated at how unique they are. I’m always looking at the core curriculum and my materials to see if I can use them in a way that will reach all learners (E.E. 4.5).

So, do I like teaching at the middle school level? No, I love it! Where else can I teach students that are just as excited as I am about science? I get to teach my favorite subject every day. It’s a lot of work and a lot of time to get to know each and every student, but it is worth it because they respond in a positive way (E.E. 1.5). I am thrilled to implement the new lab assistant program this year (E.E. 5.11). It goes along with so many middle-level essential elements, that I predict it will be successful. I would encourage any high school science teacher to take the challenge of teaching middle-level students. Teaching at A. A. Kingston Middle School has been a very rewarding experience.

New York State Education Department. (2003). Essential Elements of Standards-Focused Middle-Level School and Programs. Retrieved July 22 2010