Thursday, October 24, 2013

Making the Team

When I was a Freshman in high school, I had a couple of experiences that had a lot to do with shaping who I am today. I was born into a football family. My Grandfather was a coach at the local community college, my father had been the quarterback of the year in Orange County when he was in high school, and my brothers were both starting on varsity as sophomores. Needless to say, there were high expectations for me as I showed up on day one. So naturally I was moved up to JV as a Freshman. I thought that the road was paved for me and it was only a matter of time before I became the starting running back on Varsity. However, what I didn't anticipate was that I was not ready. After a few weeks, I was moved down to the freshman team. This was a humbling experience.

On the Freshman team I expected to start immediately but instead I had to earn my position. The coaches were hard on me, knowing that I had the raw talent, but needed to develop the fundamentals. They would challenge me, and I would say to myself, "I am going to do everything that it takes to exceed all expectations." It was a slow start but I bought into what the coaches were saying. I started to realize that if I was willing to work hard and be a leader on my team, success would follow. I learned that I could do nothing without the respect of my teammates and our combined effort. This learning experience paid off. I dedicated myself to being a team player and working hard year around. In my time I broke records at the school but that didn't matter as much as our team's accomplishments. We won our league multiple times and won a section championship. It was more rewarding to accomplish our goals together than to receive any personal accolades.

The other experience was in band. I loved music and I was committed to being in the band while also playing football. I would play on Friday and then march with my tuba on Saturday. But what I didn't realize at first was that band was just as much of a team activity as football. I thought I was playing music for myself because I loved it, but my teacher showed me that it meant way more than that. I was goofing off one day in band and my teacher stopped the whole class in the middle of the song. He sternly told me, "This is not all about you. If you think it is, then this is not the place for you."At first I was angry because he embarrassed me, but it didn't take me long to realize he was right. He ended up being one of the most influential people in my young life and I have memories with the music program that I will never forget.

These two events had a profound impact on my time in high school and consequently the rest of my life. Sports and Clubs helped me to realize that hard work, commitment, team work, and sacrifice are important ingredients to success. These experiences also taught me that you can accomplish more as a team and it is much more fulfilling to do things for others rather than doing them for yourself.
This is why I think it is so important that we challenge students to be involved outside of the classroom. Students need to be connected and active in something that is not self serving. If they put time into something other than what is required, they will be the ones going above and beyond in their career rather than clocking in and clocking out.

Students need to learn how to triumph through adversity, practice to improve, and try again when they make mistakes. If our students learn the values of team work and commitment, they are more likely to be successful. If they learn to serve others and work for a common goal, they will be prepared for whatever comes their way. I am privileged enough to see this happening everyday at my school. And I am reminded that there was a time when I was learning those same lessons. Leading is Teaching.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

A Little Rebellion Now and Then is a Good Thing

Thomas Jefferson once said, "A little rebellion now and then is a good thing." To completely understand what Jefferson meant you have to examine him as a person. For a number of reasons, he was a complicated and controversial leader. Jefferson said many things one way, but acted in a much different way in regards to slavery, politics, religion, and education. However, Jefferson understood one thing very well and that is that there are times when it is important to challenge the status quo when the climate is changing. He also understood that "rebellion" is not meant to persist when it has run its course.  The balance that Jefferson found in this knowledge helped him to be one the most impacting leaders in American History.
Being the history teacher that I am, let me continue with some examples. The Commanche tribe were a small, dwindling tribe before the introduction of the horse. The Pueblo revolt dispersed wild horses throughout the Southwest and the Commanche soon adopted their lifestyle to the horse. Many of the other tribes decided not to make use of the horse and some decided to only use it sparingly. Because of the Commanche's willingness to embrace this new creature, they became one of the most powerful tribes in all of North America. So much so that the Texas Rangers had to be establish to combat them, because the old tactics of the US Calvary proved to be worthless against the Commanche.
Abraham Lincoln understood that his most important job in 1861 was to preserve the union. He also understood that our nation could not continue on the path of slavery. Before the 13th Amendment was passed, many argued against it because they felt that it would extend the war with the Confederates. Lincoln understood that ending the war and ending slavery were both necessary. The war and the end of slavery completely changed the landscape of the south. He also understood that against all odds, he had to push for its passing because the Emancipation Proclamation would not be enough. Many tried to convince him that he must end the war first before tackling the slavery issue.  However, Lincoln, understood that the two were inseparable and although he died in the process, the end of slavery is his greatest legacy.
Steve Jobs was not a very popular person in his younger days. He was known as someone who was difficult to work with and someone who was not committed to fitting in with the hi-tech community. When Steve Jobs And Steve Wozniak began their work together, they were starting a quiet rebellion that would resonate for generations to come. The Steves were primed to make technology accessible to all rather than just a few. They were willing to put in hours and hours in their quest to make a change. The rest is history.
What does all of this have to do with education? Well, we are currently in the midst of a huge transition and and reawakening in education. Technology is being introduced into classrooms as we speak. Some educators will choose to use technology to join the small  "rebellion" against the old status quo. Some will choose to not utilize the technology to its full capacity. We must transform education.
I am not saying that there are not great fundamental teaching practices that must carry over. Good sound teaching must always persist. Students must focus, they need structure to their environment, they need the teacher to be active as a guide to learning. As I always say, a good teacher could teach with a stick and a rock. However, we also must embrace the fact that our kids are stepping into a different world that requires them to work with technology. This takes a transition from the status quo. We may not like the inundation with technology. We may see teachers struggle to effectively use the technology for higher level thinking. However, we must work to overcome and adapt to make our students successful. We as educators owe it to our students to work tirelessly to effectively make the transition to meaningful, challenging, and relevant learning through technology. Technology is not the "rebellion" or revolution that I am talking about. The revolution is our ability to use that technology in a meaningful way to make our students successful in the classroom and beyond! Leading is Teaching.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Project Based Learning is Not All Fun and Games

As I see many schools start to revamp their school wide strategies to be more "Common Core Friendly," I feel compelled to make a case for project based learning on a number of levels. Common Core Standards call for more rigor, critical thinking, reading comprehension, writing, and the ability to analyze text to present findings. In my opinion, this fits perfectly with Project Based Learning. However, the first and biggest step to moving towards Project Based Learning is to dispel all of the rumors associated with it. When many educators think of Project Based Learning, they think of fun and games. They think of month long projects that involve making castles out of marshmallows and performing skits to explain the functions of microorganisms. Although, these two projects do sound like fun, they are far from what Project Based Learning actually sets out to accomplish.

According to the Buck Institute For Education, the following is the definition of Project Based Learning: "In Project Based Learning (PBL), students go through an extended process of inquiry in response to a complex question, problem, or challenge. While allowing for some degree of student "voice and choice," rigorous projects are carefully planned, managed, and assessed to help students learn key academic content, practice 21st Century Skills (such as collaboration, communication & critical thinking), and create high-quality, authentic products & presentations."
Clearly this definition does not sound like students are playing around without any direction. In fact, it reveals the true complexity and focused intent of Project Based Learning. It requires students to ask important questions and find the answers through research with the teacher's help.

As I observe classes at our Project Based School and research similar models throughout the country, this point has been reaffirmed time after time: Project Based Learning, contrary to public perception, actually requires more structure than a traditionally based classroom. Many people in education would find that assertion to be ridiculous but if you examine the definition carefully, then it cannot be denied. In a PBL classroom, the teacher is responsible for creating the project, providing the framework in which the students will work, establishing check points in which students will be evaluated on progress, working as a guide to help the students in their process, and grading the student's final product. In a non-PBL environment the teacher will create the assignment, lecture to give information, assign reading, and grade. This is not to say that non-PBL teachers do not work hard, because we all know that they do. I had some incredible teachers who worked outside of this model and have many friends who do as well. However, it does reveal that Project Based Learning, if done properly, takes a lot of work and structure to be effective.

Many people have arguments against standardized testing. However, nobody I know would argue against school accountability. To have accountability, you need data to measure the "success" of schools. On a National scale, it is very difficult to measure students in a non-multiple choice format. The same goes for the classroom. It is easy to manage multiple choice tests, lecture, and worksheets. It is very difficult to manage project creation, detailed rubrics, projects that are scaffolded, and student monitoring through the process. However, the latter is the more genuine way of learning in my opinion. The teacher is the guide and the students lead the learning. How did you learn to change the oil? How did you learn the sweep on your football team in high school? How did you learn to drive? It would have been much easier for these things to be taught through lecture (maybe not driving) but you learned by doing. That is the basis for Project Based Learning. It shifts the teacher's role, it requires students to get outside of the comfort zone, and it challenges them to think for themselves.

If a teacher rolls out a project that does not fit this criteria, then it is not Project Based Learning. This is very difficult to implement and make successful. However, just like the students in a PBL model who have to figure it out through trial and error, so must we. It will take structure, time, patience, and tenacity, but it is a great model for kids to get a real world and relevant education. Leading is Teaching.