Monday, December 23, 2013

Failure and Faith: My Exit From Teach For America

This song, a spoof created by a comedy group at my alma mater, has been thundering in my brain for the last few weeks. It isn't an appropriate theme for my exit from Teach For America and my short elementary teaching career, but the sentiment does accurately convey how I feel at times when reflecting on this experience. 

Ouch! Both physically and emotionally. 

Defining Failure

The online Oxford dictionary gives three different perspectives to the definition of the word fail:
  1. Be unsuccessful in achieving one’s goal
  2. Neglect to do something
  3. Break down; cease to work well
All three of these forms of failure of been present in my experience as a teacher. I have been unsuccessful in achieving my goals for academic ability of my students, I have neglected to take the required action to be prepared to be the teacher my students need in order to succeed, and I literally broke down -"cease to work well" does not even begin to approach the necessary description of my personal state of mind at the end of the semester. 

I am not having a pity party here, rather I am being very truthful. I failed. 

Yes, there are many contributing reasons to why this happened which are important and valid. However, regardless of what I cite or go back to, the fact that I've failed remains. I have failed myself, my students, the families of my students, my fellow teachers and administration, and in many degrees my own family. 

However, failure isn't synonymous with hopelessness, death, or a permanent road block. While harmful effects of my failure are and will be present, there are positive consequences. The video below illustrates an important concept I've learned about failure. 

I spent two years preparing for and dreaming about Teach For America, endured a grueling summer of training away from my pregnant wife, and then battled four months of work in the classroom and then . . . I quit. For what? While all that time, energy, excitement, money, and work that it took to go through this experience, I am grateful that I was able to learn with such finality that TFA and elementary teaching in general is not where I need to be right now. There is no question left in my mind. I took the wrong turn, and now I am going backwards a little and will soon find a more suitable path for my family and I.

Failure and Faith

Spiritually speaking, I am aware that often we are called to endure through challenging times and trials in order to be refined into worthy disciples of Christ. In listening to President Monson's most recent conference address I felt that perhaps I should just keep hashing out sub par lesson plans and hatch new management schemes that didn't work. Perhaps if I just kept enduring things would work out and I would find success.

However, it became clear that this was not the right mindset. For the sake of both my own students, and my own family I needed to leave.

A poorly stitched panorama of my students on my last day.
My wife Kassie and son Hinckley
I love my students very much, and wish with my whole being that I could be the teacher they need in order to advance to the next grade and get onto a path that will lead them towards self sufficiency in adulthood. I sobbed like a infant when I spoke to them about leaving. However, I can't be that teacher AND the father and husband I want to be to these two lovely folks at this present time. I don't have the experience, mental strength, or physical energy to do both. 

So the natural question resulting from the decision was something like, "well if I quit then what am I going to do?" and that is where the leap of faith came in. I did't have an answer, and neither did Kassie. The scripture from the Book of Mormon story of Nephi returning to Jerusalem came frequently to my mind, "And I was led by the Spirit, not knowing beforehand the things which I should do." Paul wrote to the Hebrews, "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." We definitely felt a new understanding to Elder Packer's constant analogy of taking a step into the dark and hoping for the light to come on. And then it did. 

Almost a week after reaching the decision to leave teaching, I landed a job that offered everything and more that I could have hoped for at this time. I will be using skills from my undergraduate experience at BYU, and will have time to spend with my family. Even better, my very supportive principal found a replacement teacher who is very experienced and ready to enter my classroom in January. I can say that every friend and co-worker has been extraordinarily kind and thoughtful during this process. I am indeed grateful that the pain of failing here had not been made worse through comments and actions of others. While it has been very hard to leave my classroom, I know it is the right thing for my family. 

Failure Is Normal

There were and still are many feelings that accompanied me home as I drove away from school for the last time; Shame, joy, guilt, hope, anger, and even peace. There are many unresolved questions such as: What will happen to my students? What could I have done differently to avoid this? Would I do this again? Is Teach For America deserving of blame or is it my fault 100%? Does it matter? 

Regardless of the answer to these questions above and the many others that continue to swirl around me, it is clear that failing is a regular part of mortality. As I watched my son experience his regular and somewhat painful "tummy time" this morning I thought about how we never laugh or mock babies for failing to walk by a certain date, or for being able to speak correctly. He is doing his best to push against gravity and develop into a full-functioning human being. If you can get past the obnoxious and pathetic sounds of his crying, the scene is actually both very inspiring and instructional. I too am doing my best, and though these past months I have resembled my whining son in more ways than one, I recognize that I am a better person and more prepared to serve God and my fellow man in a capacity that is more aligned to my skill set and personality. 

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Balance, Ed Tech, and Raw Failure

Ok, it is time for me to finish up my reflection of the original 6 points I pondered on after only 3 weeks of teaching.

Because I am tired, it is basically the last day of Thanksgiving break, and I just want to get this off my chest - I am condensing the last three points into one post. Yes.

4. Teaching is about finding the sweet and tender balance amidst insane chaos

Don't ask me how to obtain the balance, but feel free to ask me about the insane chaos.

As I walk the halls of my school, and engage with teachers with and without their classes, I notice something about them. A small flame of wildness tempered by wisdom and/or optimism, lighting from their eyes and faces. It is this tempered, or honed attention that I have not yet obtained. The teachers who have braved Education's valley of shadow and death (AKA the first three years) and emerged victorious appear to have this serene sense of calm -like a patient and wise mother waiting to listen to the sobbing child tell the story of a hurt knee or a distressed teenager moan about a rude boyfriend. In regards to reacting to the politically insane and economically humiliating circumstances around them they display a balance between brute animal instinct and sophisticated self-restraint (though I did witness some brute instinct earlier this year).

At this point I am not balanced, and I am trying to figure out how to get away from my basal instincts when faced with the extraordinary everyday challenges of teaching.

5. Educational technology is cool, but is it possible the field is turning a blind eye to the biggest issues?

Contrary to what I have thought in the past, I feel there are much larger and important issues in education than the next technology or learning theory. Poverty is the underlying issue for at least a quarter of American children. Is it possible that while we are learning how to teach students in virtual worlds, or use blogs and flipped classrooms to increase engagement and interactivity, we are just contributing to the opportunity gap that already stands between poor and rich kids?

At my school we do lots of computerized tests. Cool, it saves time! Not so cool, many of my kids don't know how to use a mouse properly.

I was delighted to find a host of amazing online resources when I started at my job, but then discovered that many of my students don't have access to the Internet at home.

It seemed like if we just had a growth mindset and went to work, then that well-researched concept would create some good results, and then I realized just my own mindset isn't enough to change 23+ in just a few months.

Do we have the responsibility to enable students in poverty to learn in the same ways and at the same rates as those who aren't?

6. Continued raw failure is the essential attribute of true learning

I have never failed so hard, so frequently, and so publicly in my life. I was not prepared for it, which made the descent down to mental, spiritual, and emotional turmoil much more difficult. Currently I am trying to allow my failures to teach me, rather than define me.

Perhaps the hardest and most bitter element of my daily inability to reach the level I yearn for is the impact of my short comings on my students.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Psychic Entropy and Educational Pornography

In his seminal book, Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explains the state of mind called psychic entropy by relating a story of a assembly line worker who ends up in a very frustrating and extreme position. This particular worker had a tire on his car that was low on air and he didn't have the money to replace it. He continued to fill it up in the morning before work and in the evening when he drove home as he anticipated his next income check. He finally lost control of things at work and snapped at the other employees. "All through the day he worried: 'Will I make it home tonight? How will I get to work tomorrow morning?' These questions kept intruding in his mind, disrupting concentration on his work and throwing a pall on his moods."

This man, Csikszentmihalyi continues, "is a good example of what happens when the internal order of the self is disrupted. The basic pattern is always the same: some information that conflicts with an individual's goals appears in consciousness. Depending on how central that goal is to the self and on how severe the threat to it is, some amount of attention will have to be mobilized to eliminate the danger, leaving less attention free to deal with other matters . . . prolonged experience of this kind can weaken the self to the point that it is no longer able to invest attention and pursue its goals"(p.37).

After reading this a few days ago, I experienced a short-lived moment of euphoria that someone had actually put into writing the exact feeling I have been experiencing for the last four months. I have always struggled to make decisions, especially when it comes to whether my choices directly could effect the feelings and opinions of others. As a new father (and fairly recently married man), a new professional, a recent graduate, and a new citizen of Oklahoma I am only now realizing the full impact of balancing all these roles and expectations. The result is near complete paralysis.

Perhaps one of the biggest contributors to my feelings of psychic entropy is my own unrealistic perception of what successful teaching looks like. Until recently I think that deep down I thought I could be that teacher who jumps on the desk and yells Carpe Diem! and captures the imagination of my young and eager students on a daily - no hourly - basis. In short, until this point it is likely I have been under the influence of educational pornography.

In a short and illuminating post by +Bryce Bunting the idea of educational pornography is explained more fully. Films like Stand and Deliver, or Freedom Writers often captivate and inspire audiences, but don't necessarily paint a realistic idea of what teachers can and should be doing in the classroom.
The reality is that very few teachers have the time, energy, or disposition to approach teaching in the super-human way that is subtly advocated for in these kinds of films. And, when teachers are made to feel that they should all be like Ron Clark (one of the new breed of "inspiring," "innovative," and superstar educators), frustration, hopelessness, and feelings of failure won't be far behind.
Don't get me wrong, the Ron Clarks of the world aren't imaginary. They are real and they are wonderful. However, it is clear that living a balanced and healthy life while maintaining this super teacher lifestyle is simply not sustainable for me or most people in general. 

So I will continue on my way, doing my best. What more can I do, then give my all within the boundaries my mental, physical, and spiritual health will allow? I hope to overcome my sense of psychic entropy and begin making some steps forward. 

"So much in life depends on our attitude. The way we choose to see things and respond to others makes all the difference. To do the best we can and then to choose to be happy about our circumstances, whatever they may be, can bring peace and contentment." 

Sunday, November 3, 2013

3. Self Control is the Gateway to Service

Looking back on my 6 "lessons" learned in the first 3 weeks of teaching, I am surprised to find that they still ring true to me. I wonder if this will be the case by the end of the year? I have now been in the classroom for over two months (it feels like much longer) and point number 3 feels more true than ever.

Found this on Reddit. 

Self control is an attribute our society at large struggles with. Instant gratification, 24/7 access to whatever whimsical or serious need we think up, and the false sense of value placed on "being busy" are just a few things I see as contributing to the degrading of this important characteristic.

Beyond our drive-thru and on-demand culture, self control manifests itself in education in a way I had not anticipated. When I started at my school, many teachers and the Principal told me, "Never let them see you sweat." In other words, don't let the students know that they are getting to you.

Well that did't work out so well.

Never in my life have I struggled more to control my words, the level of my voice, and the negative flood of emotions that inundate room 27 each day. Not to mention managing the frustration with things outside the classroom such as impossible insurance rates for teachers, apartment problems, and a seemingly never-ending workload that appears to have assassinated personal and family time.

Many days I keep my own tally of happy and sad points on the whiteboard, just to help me better manage my own person, and maybe help the students (who are 7-8 years old) begin to understand that everyone, young and old, must learn to manage their feelings.

:( = moments I lost control and went crazy
:) = moments I managed the chaos of my own feelings
The result of my two month wrestle with such feelings of anger and inadequacy have not rendered me as a new hero or refined instructor. At least not yet. 

But I do know that in order to actually help my students and my family, I first need to be able to control and help myself. Thus self control is the gateway to service. It is so easy to say, but very difficult to do. 

How can we help the hungry if we spend excess on food ourselves? How do we thoughtfully serve others if we are too busy being worried and depressed about our own shortcomings? 

The US Air Force mantra of "Service Before Self" is a companion of the concept I am addressing here. In order to serve others before ourselves, we must have mastery over our own passions, desires, and emotions. We must manage our own person, and then actively choose to lift others before putting our own ambitions forward. 

Friday, October 18, 2013

Quick Thought: Are Teachers in General "Expendables"?

So I went to one of those seeming time-wasting sites where you can take a quiz. This quiz determines what Star Trek character you would be if you lived in that amazing universe of creatures and pioneers. 

As it turns out, I am an "Expendable Character" AKA "Redshirt". 

Here is my full report. 

My favorite part is the note about my job being important 
and the correlation to death. 

Something about this is interesting to me as I reflect on the perspective of teachers in general. When you break down a first year teacher's salary, they make about 5-6 dollars an hour. I actually made more than that working at Subway 6 years ago.

Everyone knows that the job of teachers is very important. Unlike Star Trek,  in real life there aren't enough main characters to change the plot of the continuing debacle of American education for those in poverty. We need many more redshirts to be main characters in making a change. But in order for that to happen, maybe a change of clothes would be a good start?

The question to which I have no answer is: What is the equivalent of changing out of a red shirt in Star Trek to the change in the real world? Not just for teachers, but for everyone involved with education (parents, teachers, administrators, policy makers, etc).

Sunday, October 13, 2013

2. Teachers Really Are Superhuman

The second point I am pondering in my list of things I've been learning is that with all jokes and cutsy frivolousness aside: teachers really are superhuman.

I want to make it clear, I am not calling myself superhuman or ALL teachers for that matter. But I have seen teachers who do all the stuff required of them and more. 

For example, some of these teachers: prepare unit plans, create lesson plans, work like crazy to get new classroom supplies for free through contacts, connect personally with all their students and families, quickly respond to all administration and district requirements, actually pay attention in professional development meetings, are constantly positive, are fine with little sleep, jump through all the hoops both the state and federal government push them through, and most importantly actually help kids learn both academic and social skills that set them up for a successful future. The list could go on for a very long time. I just don't have enough experience or ability to keep it going. 

I am working my best to get there. It would be nice to just have one of those slick montages you see in the movies (think Stand and Deliver, or Freedom Writers) happen in real life. You know, where the teacher is angry and depressed and the students hate each other. THEN the music starts and about 2 minutes later the classroom is united by some glorious and common goal and the teacher's face is glistening with tears of joy. Sort of like how Mulan was an awkward week stranger, and then she became a gladiator-like Kung Fu master. Wouldn't that be cool? 


Why does our society as a whole seem to just not care that these superhuman teachers are basically serfs amongst us? This is a complex and weighted questions and I realize there are many answers or deflections to it. Either way, things are simply messed up in the US of A when it comes to education. I don't know what the solution is. 

Sunday, October 6, 2013

1. There is so much more to public school than academics

As referred to in my last post, I am beginning to learn a lot in my classroom. The first point is that there is much more involved in public education than most people seem to realize.

Something I saw on Facebook and felt an affinity with. 

First, just plain academics without social context, vision, or sense of community among students is hallow. Teaching with only a focus on pure numbers and reading is like a military leader or football coach teaching the necessary tactics of their respective professions but leaving out any mention of things like "band of brothers", team, community, trust, and respect.

Admittedly, I realized this need for student trust and safety before I started teaching. What I did't include in my perspective was the fact that some students may resist any move towards working with others or controlling their words and actions. It is very difficult to figure out what these students need and what challenges they are facing both in and out of the classroom.

Now when I am focusing on academics and actually teaching material, it isn't just presenting information. No, even this must be done in a way that builds the social and moral identity of the student. The spider man cheer, the watermelon cheer, silent cheers, love fingers, 2 claps on 2, and other things are used at an insane pace and frequency to keep students engaged and feeling positive. Students also deal with a large quantity of frustration when doing their work, and coping with these feelings of inadequacy usually isn't something all students have learned about. They may choose to throw their desk, cuss out their neighbor, jump out of their seat and steal someone's pencil, or just cry and scream. Teaching them a better way, while also actually teaching them content is a challenge I really don't understand quite yet.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

3 Weeks in the Trenches

Woah. I'm here.

Originally the title of this blog was "1 week in the trenches" . . . but obviously I didn't get around to publishing till now. Teaching at an elementary school in an area riddled with poverty is not easy. Of course it is not easy. The reason I signed up through Teach For America was to get into a classroom and see first hand what was happening in struggling public schools. I have done a little writing and thinking about education and "reform" and all that, but I've always known I could never understand or make a meaningful difference in the field of education if I didn't get into the trenches at least for a while. I wanted a first hand experience.

And now I am getting it.

So far, six lessons have been injected into me through my short experience as a 2nd grade teacher thus far:
1. There is so much more to public school than academics
2. Teachers actually are superhuman
3. Self control is the gateway to service
4. Teaching is about finding the sweet and tender balance amidst insane chaos
5. Educational technology is cool, but is it possible the field is turning a blind eye to the biggest issues?
6. Continued raw failure is the essential attribute of true learning
If you are a current teacher, or have taught before, you may be holding back a knowing smile. I'm sure I sound like a really silly kid who thinks he has figured it all out. While it is true I am a rather silly idealistic kid, it has never been more clear to me how little I actually know.

In my next posts I will expound on the six points above. As I reflect on what I am learning and thinking I invite you to share your questions, comments, or your own reflections on education so we can learn more together.

Monday, August 19, 2013

How Will You Measure Your Life?

How Will You Measure Your Life?How Will You Measure Your Life? by Clayton M. Christensen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed Christensen's personal and thought-provoking book. What I love most about it is that it addresses the things that matter most in life, that we often take for granted or don't give enough attention to. The book is broken up into three sections, picking and enjoying a career, maintaining strong relationships, and how to avoid losing your integrity. For each life principle he shares, he gives one or two business theory connections. At first this idea seemed strange and a little repulsive to me, I mean - my life is not a business! However, as I kept reading I realized that his connections and analogies made a lot of sense. I especially enjoyed his thoughts about relationships, and how we should take a step back and analyze where our time really is spent on a daily basis. The time doesn't lie, and regardless of what we say about our priorities, where we put our effort and resources most is what we actually consider the most important. "Where you treasure is, there will be your heart also." His chapter on integrity and choosing to do the right thing 100% of the time rather than anything less was also great. I think it is true that if you choose once to do something 100% of the time, it is easier than making an exception here or there, and you will always be safe.

I recommend this book regardless of your faith, job, or interests. It is pretty short - it only took me a couple of hours.

View all my reviews

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Exhaustion and Teaching Salaries - Two Angry and Valid Arguments Worth Listening To

The time for my actual teaching experience is almost here. Students come to class on the 22nd, and I am terrified. 

That being said, I am also very excited and tired. I haven't been able attend to my blog like I have wanted to, and that is ok, because there are more important things. This week I decided to cop out and just share two articles I think are worth reading. That being said, I don't think they are perfect articles, and I don't agree with everything said in them. But I do believe in their core messages. 

1. Below is an excerpt from The Exhaustion of the American Teacher. I haven't even started teaching yet, and I am exhausted. I have already put in huge amounts of time, but I won't get paid with dollars or satisfaction for a few more weeks. The article seeks to push readers away from the problems of kids these days, and points to adults as the real issue of today's education. 

While this article makes some good points, the author is clearly very angry and is guilty of a few logical fallacies. Though the argument is passionate and wide-swinging, I still think it is valid. I wish there were an easy answer.

Bottom line: The problem with American Education may merely be a bigger problem of American Adult vision and values. 

2. The next article also comes from a frustrated educator, but with a more specific problem: The High Cost of Low Teacher Salaries. As I read this I couldn't help feeling a little indignation of my own, especially after seeing what kinds of insurance packages for my family the school district can (or rather can't) offer this year.
At the moment, the average teacher’s pay is on par with that of a toll taker or bartender. Teachers make 14 percent less than professionals in other occupations that require similar levels of education. In real terms, teachers’ salaries have declined for 30 years. The average starting salary is $39,000; the average ending salary — after 25 years in the profession — is $67,000. This prices teachers out of home ownership in 32 metropolitan areas, and makes raising a family on one salary near impossible. 
So how do teachers cope? Sixty-two percent work outside the classroom to make ends meet. For Erik Benner, an award-winning history teacher in Keller, Tex., money has been a constant struggle. He has two children, and for 15 years has been unable to support them on his salary. Every weekday, he goes directly from Trinity Springs Middle School to drive a forklift at Floor and D├ęcor. He works until 11 every night, then gets up and starts all over again. Does this look like “A Plan,” either on the state or federal level?
We’ve been working with public school teachers for 10 years; every spring, we see many of the best teachers leave the profession. They’re mowed down by the long hours, low pay, the lack of support and respect.

These facts make me feel very sad. I want to be able to support my family, and I also want to make a difference in the lives of young people through education. But at the current rate of things, it doesn't seem like that is very possible without extreme sacrifice on the part of my whole family. I must say, I can totally see and understand why many young teachers with Teach For America or not who do amazing things in their classroom decide to leave teaching. Can you blame them for wanting to support a family and eventually buy a house?

Bottom line: "A poll of 900 top-tier American college students found that 68 percent would consider teaching if salaries started at $65,000 and rose to a minimum of $150,000. Could we do this? If we’re committed to “winning the future,” we should."

Saturday, August 3, 2013

My Existential Moment and Why Teachers "Making It Relevant" in the Classroom Bothers a Cognitive Scientist

Recently I made the discovery that lead me to believe I was completely off track when it comes to how I view education.

Daniel Willingham, a cognitive scientist at the University of Virginia, came to BYU campus when I was finishing up my final semester there this spring. He shared some really interesting and refreshing concepts related to the brain and how people learn.

To give you an example of some of the kinds of things he shared check out this interesting and important concept from his book Why Students Don't Like School: 

It is a good book.
Researchers have examined student opinion surveys of their college professors to find out which professors get good ratings and why. A two-item survey would be almost as useful as the thirty-item survey, because all of the questions really boil down to two: Does the professor seem like a nice person, and is the class well organized?" (p. 50)
Although K-12 students don't complete questionnaires about their teachers, we know that more or less the same thing is true for them. The emotional bond between students and teachers --for better or for worse -- accounts for whether students learn. The brilliantly well-organized teacher whom fourth graders see as mean will not be very effective. But the funny teacher, or the gentle storytelling teacher, whose lessons are poorly organized won't be much good either." (p. 50-51) 

So what do I mean when I say I may be on the wrong track? Well, what is the name of this blog? The Relevant Classroom. Yup. And I talk all about how relevance is so important and we need to turn to popular culture media more often because that is what kids are consuming so we must help them connect their entertainment to the real world. My somewhat idealistic agenda sounds nice, but the problem is it may not only be ineffective--my goal to make everything being taught in the classroom relevant to students could very well be destructive to student learning.


Professor Willingham writes (and I sort of trust him since he does the research and cites it all very clearly): "Trying to make the material relevant to students' interests doesn't work." He goes on to say:
Content is seldom the decisive factor in whether or not our interests is maintained . . . so if content won't do it, how about style? Students often refer to good teachers as those who "make stuff interesting." It's not that the teacher relates the material to students' interests - rather, the teacher has a way of interacting with students that they find engaging. (p. 49-50)
As I read this I experienced a mini rocket ride through the stages of grief. What?! Making material relevant to students' interests doesn't work? How can that be? This guy is nuts. Oh, and yes it turns out he doesn't believe there is such thing really as learning styles, or at least they aren't worth bothering about. I went to my wife and explained that I might have to trash my blog, or at least the title of it, and that basically my whole passion is ruined.

Professor Willingham is a Cognitive
Scientist at the University of Virigina -
and he is a pretty great thinker
But, I decided to keep reading. And came across this more thorough description of Willingham's insights on relevance in education.
"I've always been bothered by the advice 'make it relevant to the students,' for two reasons. First, it often feels to me that it doesn't apply. Is the Epic of Gilgamesh relevant to students in a way that they can understand right now? Is trigonometry? Making these topics relevant to students' lives will be a strain, and students will probably think it's phony. Second, if I can't convince students that some material is relevant, does that mean I shouldn't teach it? If I'm continually trying to build bridges between student's daily lives and their school subjects, the students may get the message that school is always about them, whereas I think  there is value, interest, and beauty in learning about things that don't have much to do with me. I'm not saying it never makes sense to talk about things students are interested in. What I'm suggesting is that student interests shouldn't not be the main driving force of lesson planning. Rather, they might be used as initial points of contact that help students understand the main ideas you want them to consider, rather than as the reason or motivation for them to consider these ideas." (p. 65)
As I read this I thought, "Yes! Exactly." Relevance does have a place, but it is a strategic and limited one. I still think Daniel Pink is right when he says relevance is the 4th R after "reading, writing, and arithmetic," but Willingham's point is valid. If I spend the majority of my time trying to help students see the connection of the Pythagorean theorem or the genus and species of a particular animal in the Mongol desert to their own life rather than on growing their brains and becoming world citizens then what will they remember?
Memory is the residue of thought. To teach well, you should pay careful attention to what an assignment will actually make students think about (not what you hope they will think about), because that is what they will remember. (p. 41)
It turns out that what students spend time thinking about is what they remember. Thus when wielding the tools of relevance, one must consider carefully whether doing so will help students focus more on the skill and objective of the lesson, or simply act as a memory distractor in the future progress of the student. Lesson learned.

So an example of how this concept might play out could be something like the following. Say we are talking about the Civil War in 5th grade. I think to myself, "Oh I want to use popular culture to help the students see the relevance of the war's impact on their lives. I think I will show a clip of Glory with a follow up clip of Gone With The Wind and later a clip of The Help to illustrate the details of the war and the continued impact of segregation and racism in America." Potentially this could be pretty interesting (in my opinion), but there is a huge danger of the students walking away from that only remember that they watched some movie clips and that it was cool to not have to do any work.

Yes, pop culture and media can and should be used. No, it should not cause students to spend time thinking about something outside of the objective set forth in the lesson.

See Professor Willingham's blog or check out his book for more interesting and helpful research that is easy to read and apply.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Technology as the Differentiation Silver Bullet?

I believe in the U.S. the goal is to give every child an excellent education so they can have the knowledge, skills, and ability to choose what direction they want to take their life. This doesn't always happen (especially in high poverty areas) but I believe that is still the goal. What is the role of differentiated teaching then here in the "land of the free"? How can we help the students who are excelling continue to progress and not get bored, and the students struggling to also move forward and not get overwhelmed or depressed? Is technology the answer? Mmmm. 

An Nguyen - Flickr
I recently had a short and enlightening exchange with two friends about this TED talk below. Check out the talk and add your voice to our little conversation if you would like. Differentiated education is incredibly important, and I think everyone understands that to a certain point. But in the United States we tend to have a harder time than some other countries such as Germany because we don't put our kids on official track to specific trades at an early age. 

Perhaps there is a role here for pop culture and media literacy in general. Using digital tools offers students many ways to approach an assignment, and also can fuel interest and relevant work for students far ahead or behind the main objectives of the specific grade level . . . I don't know, I need to push that idea around for a little. 

And now, the TED talk. 

If you made it through this whole post - don't forget to leave your thoughts in the comments box below!  Polite disagreement is welcome so please let me know what you think.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Teachers Learning, Learning Teachers

In the midst of trying to learn how to be a better teacher, I realized today that I have forgot one important thing: the best teachers are the best learners. In this little summary from BYU's Center for Teaching and Learning, the point is made; "We can become better learners, and by being better learners, we will be better teachers."

The days are incredibly full here in Tulsa, OK where I am teaching entering 1st graders a short summer school class with a focus on the basics of math, reading and writing. Not only do we teach but we have lots of sessions to listen to, work to complete, and reflections to reflect. Today was a little different for me. One of the sessions was all about helping students learn about the writing process and to do so our trainer had us quickly go through the process by writing a poem. 

It has been a long time since I have written a poem. It was a really fast, but wonderful experience! Here it is. 


I am from -- Provo. 
Where mountains reflect,
the open space is clear,
strong and familiar are the snowflakes.
Sleeping sunshine talks, and whispers. 
Music moves from the piano,
praying peace into the safe, studious halls.
Scents of curry, or warm bread
comfort and secure me.

My school and my church. 

This is a very rough poem, and I am the first to admit it doesn't really have form or conventions. It took maybe 6 minutes to go through the whole writing process on this because we were being pushed. But I was learning! I had an excellent experience of brainstorming, prepping ideas, revising, editing, and now "publishing" my work. I felt a renewed desire to be a better teacher and to help my students feel a similar joy of writing. 

How often do we as educators take the time to learn or try new things? To keep relevant and influential I think this is a critical thing I must keep doing. If we are better learners, we will be better teachers. 

Sunday, June 23, 2013

TFA - the villan, the savior, the man-made organization

As you may know, I am an incoming Teach For America (TFA) Corps member this year. For many people this means very little, other than I will be a teacher and that is cool.

Other folks, however think and speak differently about the organization.

The Villan

I have read enough anti-Teach For America arguments to know that there are embedded within the diatribes and finger-pointing some good points. However there are accusation about the short training time TFA teachers have over the summer, griping against fast turnover, complaining about how TFA is a capitalist plot to privatize education, and blatant rude generalizations that remind me of anti-mormon literature from the 1800s.

What I realized yet again?

The Savior

On the other hand, I have heard about some folks who talk as if TFA is the answer to many (if not all) problems. It is probably these kind of comments that fuel the "villan" response in people. I know I would get pretty angry if I had been teaching in a classroom for 20 years and then some kid who has never taught in his or her life walks in and says something like, "You should do your teaching my way, because I am TFA!" Thats just . . . dumb. Along this vein, I shudder to think that there could be some TFA corps members here because it is just a job and offers a nice launch pad into business etc.

Man-Made Organization That Just Wants to Do a Good Job and Actually Does Do a Pretty Good Job

Obviously the title of this little section will never be popular or cool because it is moderate and recognizes reality. The fact is that TFA is not a person, it isn't even a monster or a super hero. Teach For America is an organization full of all kinds of people. You might not believe it is true, but then again you might not believe there is such thing as a thoughtful male, a smart blonde, a Christ-loving Mormon, a kind Arab, a corrupt American, a school full of teachers cheating for their students, and all sorts of other facts that exist despite our stereo types and logical fallacies.

As educators we should and must be better than this.

I am proud to be a part of an organization where the corp member who drives this car . . . .

can proudly work and learn with the corp member who wrote this piece about private education.

Anyway, got to get ready for another week of learning, sweat, and tears.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

MOOCs + cooking = joyful times

MOOCs . . . Wha?

We live in the information age where it seems like almost every week there is an announcement about how some field or industry is being revolutionized by technology. Education has not escaped the craze. The idea of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) has been buzzing for quite some time now, but is definitely not settled down into a clear direction. The basic idea is this: a professor can start a class online, anyone in the world can join it, and everyone is happy. No, it doesn't count towards college credit (though there are many who are trying to find ways to build credibility around these open resources), but yes - you can learn something. No, it might not be what you think education is, but yes it doesn't cost a cent.

My Experience - Child Nutrition and Cooking

Kas and I decided to take a class on Coursera focused on cooking and helping children eat healthy. It wasn't super intense (about 1-2 hour commitment each week for 5 weeks) and it was really fun to do together.

Here is the intro to the class:

I really enjoyed how simple it was. We watched a few 2-5 minute videos, and then looked up our assignment. There were small and simple quizzes for each lecture, and then we had to cook something. Here are some things we made.

Artichoke Rice Salad

Chicken Fajitas 
Home Made Chicken Nuggets

Tasty Dish of Veggies

I learned some great things. For example, if you want to have good flavor and tasty food - your kitchen should have lemon, garlic, salt, sugar, onion, and olive oil. Those 6 things can do wonders to just about anything. We learned stuff, we ate good food, and generally had a great experience.

Joyful Times Growing Your Brain and Learning New Things

What is the point in taking a class if you don't get any credit? Well, that is the wrong question sometimes. For Kas and I this MOOC was an opportunity to bond closer together, to learn more about healthy eating, and to just become better educated individuals. Don't we look happy??!!

You too can grow your brain, and learn a vast amount of things for free by simply looking up courses on sites such as Coursera and Udacity or even BYU's Instructional Technology Department. Subjects range from a whole host of things such as College Algebra to The History of Rock and Roll to How to use YouTube in the classroom. If we teach our children to learn to love learning, not just get degrees and letter grades, than perhaps tools like MOOCs will enable them to learn anything or become anyone the want!

MOOCs may or may not be revolutionizing education, but they are certainly providing amazing learning opportunities for the small percent of people who not only sign up for them, but who stick through till the end.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Comics and Learning

This year's theme/focus at Denver's Comic Con was all about using comics in the classroom. I had the fortune of attending one day of the Con and started to realize how much I have been missing! Peter's Blog has been my sole source of connecting comics and the classroom, but attending the Con helped me realize that I can and should do so much more.

Not only did I have lots of fun meeting and watching people who are obsessed with comics and the heroes thereof, but I attended a really neat panel about engaging Native American youth in education through comics. The author of the SuperIndian comics was there in addition to some other exciting folks. Here is some of the contact information where you can learn more about what they talked about and what they are doing:

on Twitter @sheyahshe @royboney @arigonstarr @leefrancisIV and @inccomics

It makes sense to me. Kids love comics. Comics are an important form of storytelling that often use words. Reading cool stories requires a certain level of literacy. So, if this chain of thought is accurate, shouldn't comics be wonderful and excellent resources for teaching specific literacy skills?  Also, might not comics be a powerful resource in helping students create and understand their own identity and culture?

Thursday, May 30, 2013

You Too Can Look Like Effie Trinket

Do you want to look like the mindless, frivolous, oppressive upper class of the fictional franchise The Hunger Games? Good news for you, Covergirl has recently announced their plans to enable young girls to look the part! If you have read the books or even seen the movie you should understand to a certain degree the deep irony of this. Imagine a new makeup kit fashioned after Romulans or how about a Nazi package? Yikes - and I am not even talking about Halloween costumes.

It isn't just live action films directed towards teenagers like The Hunger Games or Twilight that use marketing strategies that make me uneasy, but Disney also knows the leverage that comes to their sales department by helping young children identify with glitzy glamour and begin a lifetime of brand loyalty.

There is something wrong with marketing to children. Even more than just marketing, it is unethical to shape the values and self image of young people and can cause serious harm. Unfortunately the classroom is not exempt from all this.

Canada's Centre for Digital and Media Literacy stated in one report: "School used to be a place where children were protected from the advertising and consumer messages that permeated their world—but not any more . . . A school setting delivers a captive youth audience and implies the endorsement of teachers and the educational system." I don't think this applies to all Canadian and American schools, but examples such as supplying schools with technology in exchange for high company visibility and companies sponsoring school events does happen, and I think it is wrong.

What can a teacher do then, if their school or local corporations condone such targeting of kids?

The answer applies regardless of school environment. Due to the enormous impact of the Internet and mind-blowing rates of time children are exposed to media on a daily basis, we can't hide all the garbage from our children. However, we can teach our children how to critically consume the information that inundates their world. Said middle school teacher Caitlin Barry:

"We encourage them (students) to use Google Images and search YouTube to find compelling videos, but we haven't given them any tools to analyze all this media. In many cases, students have no idea how to be critical about what they consume.

Barry goes on to reference the foundational questions of media literacy (listed below): key elements we can push and discuss both in our classrooms and at home.

Who created this message? What creative techniques are used to attract my attention? How might different people understand this message differently? What values, lifestyles, and points of view are represented in, or omitted from, this message? Why is this message being sent?

After pondering the new Hunger Games makeup kit from Covergirl, imagine what a great educational opportunity a teacher or parent could have by running through these questions! 

We should also expand this process to teaching kids to be more critical about food consumption. In her TED talk, Anne Lappe explains important and frightening research about the food industry marketing to you children. Apparently, food marketers spend about 2 billion dollars per year just on marketing to minors. The little video below shares some of the same sentiment as Lappe's talk, including some dramatic music.

There are many things good people are trying to do to stop bizarre marketing schemes like the ones I have mentioned, but something every responsible adult can begin today is to learn and teach the basic questions of media literacy. We need our children to become thoughtful, responsible, and conscious adults - and that possibility looks quite bleak if the waves of marketing and information are consumed without thought or challenge.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Movies this year

I've kept track of the films I have watched this year and will try and write a short follow up post about how some of these films would be excellent for the classroom. Which ones of these have you enjoyed? Disliked?


Father of the Bride (Spencer Tracy version)

Star Trek (2009)

Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan

The Thin Blue Line

Fantastic Mr. Fox

It Happened One Night

2001: A Space Odyssey 

Les Miserables (2012)

The Hobbit

The Man in the White Suit

The Inspector General

Midnight in Paris

The Dark Knight Rises

Key Largo

Wyatt Earp

The Pelican Brief

Cars 2


Star Trek 1,2,3,4,5,6 

To Catch a Thief

Life is Beautiful


Wreck it Ralph



The Evolution of Dad

A Separation

The Queen

The Naked Jungle

Thirteen Days


Dr. Suess' Horton Hears a Who!

Some Like it Hot

North By Northwest


The New World

Modern Times

Pink Ribbons, Inc.



The Cove

Inherit the Wind 

To Kill A Mockingbird

Akeelah the Bee

Iron Man 3

The Iron Lady

A Man Called Peter

The Grapes of Wrath

Star Trek: Into Darkness

Black Narcissus

The Class (French)

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence

The Treasure of Sierra Madre

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Iron Man 3: Polarized Portrayals of Women, Escaping Fear and Abandoning Digital Distractors

Kas and I went and saw Iron Man 3 a few days after it came out and we had a great time. It was a fun movie and an exhilarating experience -- all that an action-packed Hollywood comic book hero film should be. Interesting themes and ideas both implicit and explicit grabbed my attention. For example, the oddly similar comparison between the zombie-like henchmen and the objectified ping pong playing women. Or what about when the President of the United States is hanging in the unmistakably same pose as Jesus on the cross? Also, the fascinating paradox of Tony Stark's morality (Refusing to partner up with "bad guys"and killing enemies means you're a hero and an American idol; living unchaste and sleeping around has zero consequence and harms nobody).

Though similar themes are explored in my post about the newest installment of the James Bond series, I feel that discussing the portrayal of women, escapism, and digital distractors in Iron Man 3 can yield some good insights within my own head, and with students of these United States.

Polarized Portrayals of Women

Pepper Potts is the secretary turned official partner (not in the sidekick sort of way) of Tony Stark, AKA Iron Man. In the previous film, Iron Man 2, Pepper takes the helm of Stark Industries which gives here apparent power and notoriety. However, in this film all such power and strength disappears. Pepper assumes two extreme roles that most supporting women characters play in Hollywood these days: the damsel in distress (Think M.J. from Spiderman), or the unhinged sexual feline (Think Black Widow from Avengers).

This is an issue way more complex and deeply rooted in a variety of other issues, but I wanted to bring it up. Why is it that Pepper is either clinging to Tony's chest or rampaging in uncontrolled bloodlust? Neither of these portrayals come close to portraying the caring, thoughtful, nourishing, strong, courageous, and humble ideals I have come to appreciate in the women in my life. Obviously this is Hollywood, but we should care because all media teaches and all media has a message. Lets at least think about it. If your students are watching this film, do they pick up on any of these themes? Maybe you might ask them something like: How is power distributed between genders in super hero movies like Iron Man 3? Is that accurate to your real world experience? Why or why doesn't that matter?

Escaping Fear

or ?

This article makes some excellent points about the change of American cinema (and especially of super hero movies) post 9/11. In this review, Mr. Dargis of the NY Times has some strong words for the filmmakers of Iron Man 3 when it comes to escapism and our current society's interest and willingness to face our fears.
“Iron Man 3” is conspicuously meant to be escapist entertainment (a pathetic conceit, given what it says movie people think about real life — or rather the real lives of their customers). But Mr. Black and his colleagues, like other filmmakers who use the iconography of Sept. 11 and its aftershocks, want to have it both ways. They want to tap into the powerful reactions those events induced, while dodging the complex issues and especially the political arguments that might turn off ticket buyers. The result is that in some movies Sept. 11 — along with Afghanistan, Iraq, terrorism, the war on terror and torture — registers as just a device, at once inherently political and empty, in a filmmaker’s tool kit.
To be honest, when I was watching the film and Ben Kingsley's character was revealed (SPOILER!) to be just a pawn actor with no bad intention, it was a large and happy surprise. I felt it was a clever way to play with my expectations of the narrative structure of the film and I also appreciated the lighter tone it brought to the seemingly dark movie. So, is my happiness with the surprise all because I was going to escape, and not to engage? I don't know, maybe. Either way, Dargis' thoughts have caused me to reflect quite a bit. Large budget hero films seem to be getting darker as time goes on (e.g. The Dark Knight, Star Trek: Into Darkness, and the upcoming Thor: The Dark World) and perhaps that has to do with our society's unhappy flirtation with the reality of our complex global community which isn't all happy.

Abandoning Digital Distractions 

Something I love about this film is it makes for a great analogy of recognizing the imperfections and distractions of digital/non-human technologies (obviously, this has been on my mind recently)

Tony Stark sits in contemplation next
to his technologyenhanced self. 

In an early scene in the film, Pepper comes home and is met by what appears to be Tony in his Iron suit. However it is just a robot and Tony is down in his man-cave working on things, leaving the technology to handle his relationship with Pepper. This small storyline (or maybe it is big?) is concluded when he destroys all of his suits and ultimately gives up being Iron Man. This was the strongest theme of the film for me: spend real time with real people and in doing so you will find your true identity.

It isn't just students who struggle to put away their phone or focus on their work for long periods of time without Facebook, this is something we all face. Iron Man blew up his distractions - how do you deal with yours?

Monday, May 13, 2013

Native American Cinema - An Interview With Colten Ashley

Colten Ashley: The Anonymous Director
Photo Credit Eric Pasternak
Recently, I sat down with my friend and fellow BYU film student Colten Ashley and asked him about some things concerning Native Americans and film. He has done quite a bit of thinking, writing, and producing on the subject. He is heading up a really neat project you must check out on Kickstarter. And you can also learn more about Colten at his YouTube channel.

With that said - enjoy the show!

Below are some supplemental clips that are related to the audio recording above.