Monthly Archives: March 2014

Namaste in the Classroom

A friend and former colleague shared a recent incident in her classroom that spoke volumes of the intended consequences teacher elicit through purposeful nurturance and guidance. Such actions don’t show up on a state measure, but rather subtly in a student’s behavior many days, months, and years beyond school. As my friend tells it,

My Business Law class enjoys lively conversations about contemporary issues. This past year I’ve noticed “reality show” behavior occurring in our discussions with incidents of insensitivity and inadvertent personal attacks.  In response, I requested that we apply the yoga philosophy of Namaste, by showing respect and gratitude toward each other. One brilliant young man, whose aspiration is to become President,  publicly corrected a factual error by a quiet young woman whose goal is just to graduate. Her error was calling Africa a country instead of a continent.

I asked to speak to him privately. We spoke about his aspirations of becoming President. I said he had been correct in his remark about Africa, but that the only result was that the quiet girl had shut down, rather than share her valuable insights. Her error may have been inadvertent and it had not impacted the conversation, but it did disengage her from any further discussion.

I suggested to my young future leader that reaching his goal will depend on maximizing the motivation and skills of others; he needed to use his talents to get the best out of the people. By applying the concept of Namaste, by honoring each other and recognizing that our lives are interrelated, people would feel valued and optimize their abilities. He would likewise be valued, instead of resented, and benefit from their successes and insights to become a more intuitive and wiser President. I have since noticed more respectful, mindful interactions from the young man.

And so it goes. Teaching students goes far beyond content and skills outlined in curriculum guides and standards. Good teaching develops the whole person for the betterment of society. This wonderful educator took a “teachable moment” and transformed students’ interactions. By focusing on respect and gratitude toward each other, her students were acquiring a deeper sense of social capital and harmony. That’s a good thing in today’s digital, fast-paced world.



It’s Not Nice to Fool Mother Nature

“In like a lion, out like a lamb.”  So goes the idiom for March weather. This year is different, however. My family lives in the exceptionally beautiful Adirondack Mountains of Upstate New York, and our winter is not ready to quit. Two feet of snow coating our yard and a winter weather advisory for tonight forecasting six inches of snow, sleet and freezing rain are reminders that Mother Nature sure has a good sense of humor.  Well, sometimes she does. If you recall the early Chiffon commercials, Mother Nature also has an angry side when you mess with her.IMG_2436

Such is the case with our wild 2013 weather which is yet another indicator of climate change. Severe drought in California, blistering heat in Australia, unparalleled Typhoon Hainan that ravaged the Philippines, extreme flooding in England, and so on. We’re not fooling Mother Nature. Rather, we are fooling ourselves. Extracting fossil fuels (old carbon) from the earth and releasing them into the atmosphere to power our cars and factories, and heat our homes and businesses has disrupted the natural carbon cycle. The end result is an atmosphere with over 50% more CO2 than “normal”–And a pissed off Mother Nature.

There are messages everywhere revealing the precarious condition of the climate. We know them. We read about them. We watch them on the news. And then we disregard many of them unless they literally hit us over the head. I’m quite sure the residents of California, particularly the farmers, are very concerned about the climate. The same can be said for the Philippine victims who survived the Typhoon. A recent Bloomberg article on climate change had the line, “I wish it weren’t so, but forewarned is forearmed.” Mother Nature is warning us, “It’s not nice to fool with Mother Nature.” Let’s do the right thing for all species of life that inhabit this lovely planet by leaving a legacy we can be proud of, not one that has future generations wondering “What were they thinking??”

Next blog entry we will explore what the “right things” are.


My First Massive Open Online Class (MOOC)

MOOC. The word rolls off the tongue so easily, belying its complex and controversial nature. For some, MOOCs are a long-awaited digital opportunity to make college accessible and affordable for the masses. To others, it is a threat to all that is the college experience. Regardless of one’s position, MOOCs have arrived and are changing the education conversation and experience. To speak more knowledgeably about the topic, I decided to venture into the world of MOOCs and experience the pros and cons by taking a four-week long Coursera class titled, Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C Warmer World Must be Avoided.”  From Coursera, This MOOC brings together renowned scientists to provide a synthesis of the most recent scientific evidence and presents an analysis of likely impacts and risks, with a focus on developing countries. Perfect topic, perfect length of time. What follows are my impressions.

Starting with the pros, I found the content outstanding. The course was laid out in a comfortably sequential manner starting week one with scientific background on the history and present state of climate change. Week two looked at possible 21st Century climates based on different projections. Week three explored the impacts on life and societies in a 4 Celsius warmer world, and week four was about solutions. Throughout the course, there were outstanding videos, excellent reading passages, and a fairly active discussion board (With nearly 20,000 registrants, it wasn’t hard to find discussion strands to participate in). Since most of the materials came from the World Bank, the readings and videos were well prepared and researched.

Activities were appropriate for the medium. Our first exercise was to evaluate and write a 400 word essay on one of three recent climate change news articles from either The Guardian, New York Times, or a Press Release from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). We were asked to evaluate the author’s knowledge through his or her prior works, credibility of resources used by the author, publication readership and implications for the author, and how thorough the article addressed climate change. For the second activity, we were directed to interview an individual either in our community or fellow Coursera student regarding how we prerceive present and future climate change impacts on us and our community, and what are solutions to the climate change problem. We were to summarize the results into a 400 word essay. Our last task was to create a web-based digital artifact or resource that would summarize the most important things we’ve learned in the course.

My two favorite activities were the interview task and final project. The highlight of the interview project was being interviewed by a gentleman from the Philippines who was a government employee. It was really neat to Skype with this man who lived halfway across the globe. Given the recent horrific events of Typhoon Haiyan that ravaged his country, the issues of climate change were real and palpable. That said, we had a really pleasant interview session and talked about other things besides climate change during our meeting including the cold, snow winter we’re having in Upstate New York. I also appreciated the Final Project because it offered students a variety of options to choose from (We know from Cognitive Psychology the value of choice). I considered making a YouTube video, creating a podcast, developing a Wiggio group, or building a Prezi and sharing it publicly (I’m sure there are more digital options out there, but for this baby boomer, I was tapped out on ideas). I ended up using this blog as my medium for a project on people’s concerns/fears regarding climate change.

There were a number of cons to my MOOC experience. First and foremost, online learning with 20,000 others is an overall lonely experience. It’s mostly just you and the computer. Since the content was familiar to me, I didn’t need to ask questions or ask for elaboration on any particular concepts. However, were this unfamiliar material, I would have struggled and spent many more hours than the 12-20 hours projected to complete the course resolving questions without direct contact with instructors. I also dislike discussion boards. Sorry, but my 55 year old brain prefers to talk face to face with people. A few posts are fine, but I find the time it takes to type something and wait for responses wasteful. I’d much prefer to sit with a group of individuals and hash it out, whatever the topic. So, online course work can be a lonely experience for some.

A second serious concern was the course’s method of evaluation. In this class, our content knowledge was assessed following completion of readings and video viewings. As mentioned earlier, the content was excellent. However, the quizzes were approximately 20 questions long with rigor primarily at the knowledge and comprehension levels. The best part for those struggling with the content was that you got to get a second chance at the quiz! Now, I’m a firm believer in make up tests, but with the use of digital technology, one could easily earn a 100 on every test by simply saving feedback from the first round. That may not matter for a free MOOC, but when you are paying for a class or taking them from an accredited institution, this evaluation format would not be sufficient.

The final problem I experienced was with peer assessments. Besides quiz grades, all projects are peer assessed using rubrics provided by the instructors. I enjoyed doing the assessments and giving feedback to my classmates. Unfortunately, I don’t believe some of my classmates felt as I did regarding peer feedback. In fact, for my article review project, I got a 50% (score of 2 in a 3-point rubric) with no feedback at all. I spent a lot of time on the project, and in my humble opinion, felt it warranted more than a “50” score, and so I complained to my teachers:). Surprisingly, they responded and gave me a higher grade with nice feedback. Grades aside, one needs useful, valid and reliable feedback on their assessments, and to suggest that one or two of 20,000 students could provide such feedback is a stretch. But hey, this was a free class, so I’m okay with it.

Overall, I’d give my MOOC experience a solid B. What does that mean? I guess that depends on your situation. For me, I enjoyed the MOOC–particularly the fact that it was free. Many hours clearly went into organizing the content, projects, and structure. The curriculum was A+, and some of the classmates were stellar. I learned some new things about climate change, and I also got to interact with people I otherwise never would have met. Were I living in a more remote region with MOOCs as my only connection to course content, then I’d reckon this course would earn an overall “A”. MOOCs fill a need, and though they can’t compete with a true college experience, they can be tremendously useful to the self-directed learner.

Well, gotta go now and check whether or not Coursera has set a date for reoffering my next MOOC class, Climate Literacy: Navigating Climate Change Conversations!

Teaching Literacy Through Climate Change Science

There was a time when science, social studies, and other non-English Language Arts teachers were exempt from teaching literacy in their classes. Aside from performance based subjects (arts, tech…), rote memorization of content was mattered greatly and the notion of close reading, writing from sources, text-based evidence, and disparate viewpoints and positions was unfathomed. For many, chugging through the core curricula via a favorite textbook or select set of readings got one from September to June. Fast forward to the Common Core State Standards era and today EVERYONE has responsibility to teach literacy within their subject areas. Not surprisingly, teachers are embracing the changes when given adequate time to develop the necessary understandings and skills literacy instruction require.

To help educators make the shift to literacy instruction, last week a friend and colleague of mine at Capital Region BOCES presented a session on Climate Change and the Common Core to a group of 25 science, social studies, and ELA teachers (Six participants were MST students from SUNY Plattsburgh at Queensbury).  Laura Lehtonen is the BOCES Science Director, and like me, strives to help educators incorporate rigor and relevance into classroom instruction while also meeting state-mandated curricula. For our workshop, we decided to look at the Common Core Literacy Instructional Shifts through the lens of Climate Change. Climate change was our chosen topic given the misinformation, confusion, and at times, ignorance about climate change swirling among this great nation’s populace.

Our day began with a 90 minute Climate Reality presentation which describes the process of global warming and the impacts of climate change on extreme weather and drought events, rising sea levels, melting of glaciers and ice caps, dwindling food production and potable water supplies, and spread of tropical diseases. We followed the melancholic Climate Reality session with the Common Core Instructional Shifts, and then had participants practice a number of fun and engaging literacy-based strategies.

Participants investigated and interpreted the message of climate change cartoons, practiced and responded to text-based questions, jigsawed a Royal Society publication on Climate Change and Causes, and reviewed evidence based claims. My favorite activity was the 4 A’s protocol (see below) from EngageNY which includes close reading, text-dependent questioning, use of evidence, and discussion strategies required by the Common Core.  For that activity, participants evaluated first the Climate Reality presentation given in the morning, and in the afternoon an opinion piece by Charles Krauthammer Op-Ed piece, Observing ‘settled science’.  Though one may not agree with another’s opinions, it matters little without critical inspection of the piece (think close reading, evidence based facts… ala 4A’s Protocol).

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Armed with a good understanding of climate change, our participants scrutinized Krauthammer’s op-ed piece and found a number of assumptions made by the author including confusing “unsettled science” correlations of climate change science and mammogram studies, changing climate change predictions as a flaw of climate prediction models, suggesting climate change scientists spend all their time in white lab coats in front of computer screens, and citing one physicist’s interpretations of climate change as a non-urgent matter while disregarding 98% of the world’s scientists including those on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change who state climate change is a problem and anthropogenic in origin. There was agreement that climate change science is complicated, and some participants were interested in checking Krauthammer’s data more deeply, including claims that global temperature hasn’t risen in 15 years or that there are fewer intense tornadoes than in previous years.

The beauty of close reading, text-based evidence, and other shifts of the Common Core State Standards is the promotion of critical thinking. Charles Krauthammer is an excellent writer, and it was an interesting and satisfying experience for participants to use what they learned to verify facts from fiction. Whatever the topic one teaches, the beauty of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for non-ELA teachers is the opportunity to engage students in greater rigor and relevant activities. Activities that demand students read text closely and use evidence to support their positions, whatever their positions may be. By implementing CCSS, we are in effect empowering students to use evidence to speak, read, and write with conviction. And that’s a very good thing for the future of our global society.

Teacher Leader Reflections on Covey’s 7 Habits

Last week our Teachers As Instructional Leaders Seminar Series met at the SUNY Plattsburgh at Queensbury Branch Campus to review Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. We’re a small group of eight creative, self-directed teachers seeking strategies and understandings to grow our skills as teacher leaders and better serve their students and schools. The Covey session was not originally listed in our six-session Series, but was added at the group’s request following a brief discussion about Covey in an earlier meeting. After a quick review of the habits, we brainstormed simple examples of what the 7 Habits look like for teachers and teacher leaders.  I then asked the group to look at the habits through the lens of school reform. See below for minutes of this thoughtful group. Enjoy.

Habit One: Be Proactive

  1.  A proactive teacher leader would act upon education rather than being acted upon by the educational process.  We would be a driving force as part of the change because we have already identified the need for changes in our classroom/curriculum  and understand those goals most clearly.
  2. We would be the voice rising above the educational chaos and jargon, the leaders saying follow me because I know what I’m doing, and you have nothing to fear, we will achieve this together.
  3. We would not wait for the educational standards to arrive, we would be the educational standard everyone is trying to achieve. Ahead of the changes, always on the cutting edge of the next educational opportunity for our students.  We would see and realize the change even before it arrived.  
  4. Ask ourselves how we can implement the common core by working together. We need to implement them, so let’s take the initiative and make it work for everyone.
  5. To be successful, you must be proactive. I don’t want to react to something, but rather study it, fix what needs fixing, and then go with it. Prepare for success. 
  6. The failures of my students to meet the standards are my failure. If it isn’t working, it’s due to something I did in the classroom.
  7. Common core standards are an improvement over past standards, and a work in progress. We must figure out how to get everyone to accept and use the standards.
  8. Using midterms and finding strengths and weaknesses for students to learn their strengths and weaknesses. Helping others see the value of such assessments. Matching up students’ predictions with the actual results.
  9. Using KWLs so I don’t spend time on boring stuff they (students) already know or are uninterested in. I can take what they want to know and work it into the curriculum.
  10. Ask colleagues for topics to discuss at department meetings. I am not their boss, but do organize and prioritize their interests into the agenda.
  11. I try to think of the APPR as an opportunity to make my teaching and my classroom better. To use it for my own advantage and not something imposed on me.
  12. Student excuses. If I take responsibility for not getting their homework graded on time, I can honestly tell them I made a mistake. I am going to model proactivity and responsibility.
  13. School Reform: Give it a chance. Keep an open mind.
  14. School Reform: Get the facts straight and don’t make assumptions.

Habit Two: Begin With The End In Mind

  1. Think of the footprint of your career. What do you want said about you at the retirement dinner.
  2. When planning, I want to anticipate where my students are going to struggle.   
  3. Thinking about what my students will need when they leave my class for middle school. Being mindful throughout the year about those needs.
  4. At the high school level, being mindful of what students will need for career or college success.
  5. Curriculum. What are your exit outcomes and ensuring students realize the goals. Planning a given unit. Working backwards from the major assessments.
  6. As a teacher, thinking what you could learn to make you a better teacher for the following year. Reflective thinking.
  7. Working with students with disabilities and determining reasonable goals during IEP prep followed by purposeful planning to close the gap in their deficits.
  8. I don’t worry about attendance, I worry about the students in my class. I don’t worry about SLOs or the proper paperwork. I run with the good ideas when they arise.
  9. School Reform: Look at how the reform could be a positive (the district goals).
  10. School Reform: How do you want your school to be perceived (reputation).

Habit Three: Put First Things First

  1. Comfortable environment for the students. No drama. No gossip. No negatives.
  2. Meeting students where they are at and guiding them to where they need to be. We’re not going to have a half hour fight over whether they have a pencil or not.
  3. Putting together my evidence binder. The not urgent paperwork that is important. The budget. The field trip paperwork….
  4. Parent letters. Not urgent, but very important to send home periodically. Lowers parents’ anxiety.  At elementary, letters go out regularly.
  5. Unit planning. Getting the plans organized.
  6. Next Generation Science Standards. Taking time to learn them in preparation for their pending arrival.
  7. Attending professional development when available. To improve your skills—curriculum development, common core,.….
  8. Using department meetings and common planning time to do important work.
  9. Faculty meetings have fallen into the urgent but unimportant category. They can be a horrible waste of time. Help principals make better use of such meetings.
  10. School Reform: Student-driven. Students must always come first. Even when an IEP says a class of two.
  11. School Reform: Prioritize. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Make the change that’s really needed. Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill. Let things roll off your back.

Building Up The Emotional Bank Account

  1. Going to outside school events to show support. Dance recitals, soccer games, science symposium, horse shows, plays, music events, concerts, art shows, fiber tour, Washington county fair, 4H events, FFA events, winter Olympics, charities
  2. Being on time and attending all meetings with undivided attention (cell phones off)
  3. Listening to your colleagues and your administrators and students. Listening to what’s not being said. Being aware of the nonverbal. Trying to see things on their side. Walking in their shoes. Thinking about them while driving through the neighborhood and passing their homes.
  4. Clarify expectations. Write objectives on the board. I tell them there will be surprises such as pop quizzes.
  5. Sticking to a routine. That stability piece gives students a sense of clarity. Model integrity.
  6. Giving out a golden broomstick award (Witches) for students who went beyond the expectations of the classroom. Giving out stickers that work towards a party day once a month. They can play a game that is math related and a treat they select (apple cider, Christmas cookies….)
  7. Bucket fillers. Elementary are so much better at praising students and recognizing their accomplishments.
  8. When I make a mistake, I promptly apologize.
  9. It’s important to say when we don’t know. It builds trust when we admit we don’t know the answer.

Habit Four: Think Win-Win

  1. Sharing ideas with your colleagues.
  2. When focused on decisions, make sure the decision is student-centered, not teacher-centered. It’s not personal. It’s about the students, even if it means sacrificing. It’s professional, not personal.
  3. You should like everyone else’s idea for at least 15 minutes.
  4. Realizing that your big ideas may negatively impact others and being aware of such impacts.
  5. Putting yourself in other people’s shoes when making decisions.
  6. Being with administrators or colleagues in a team (there’s no I in team).
  7. School Reform: Work together. Parent-Teacher-Student-Administration-Community relationships. Make the school the community and the community the school.
  8. School Reform: Offer the proper continued support for everyone involved with the reform. Professional development, time, resources, and recognition (private or public) are essential. Ensure there is follow through.

Habit Five: Seek First to Understand Then to be Understood

  1. With students or colleagues, ask questions first. What would you do, what do you think.  Then offer your ideas.
  2. When a student is seated at their desk and not doing something, try not to take it personal but instead think how to get them back on track. Don’t assume.
  3. Try not to be judgmental. Don’t judge a book by its cover. People have different moral compasses. Correct behaviors, not judge them.
  4. Use the ten-second rule. You can’t respond for ten seconds.
  5. Ask and listen.
  6. School Reform: Think about the school’s needs. Community forums. Fully understand the purpose of reform before offering your thoughts or input.
  7. School Reform: Fully understand what the implications would be for students, teachers, staff, community…

Habit Six: Synergy

  1. Find the strengths of all students and exploit those strengths. It empowers them to do great work. We all have special talents which together make us more powerful as a department, school, and community. Our school and community are almost like one. This begins with our administration.
  2. Let students know this isn’t the only way to do something. I teach math, and they need to recognize there are other solutions to a problem.
  3. Apply for a grant with a group of people or a fellowship with a colleague. It creates great synergy.
  4. Focus on your strengths and manage your weaknesses.
  5. You can’t force synergy. You have to want it.
  6. School Reform: Have every person involved. Use their strengths. Everyone has a role. Everyone owns it.

Some of Our Teacher Leader Contributors:

Nicole Dixson, Rebecca Harke, Gwynne Cosh, Nicole Fortier