Friday, February 28, 2014

Students are the Locomotive, We Are the Tracks

    The greatest people in history have been those who have asked questions, tested theories, and dared to try again despite numerous failures. The best teachers in history have been those who have guided their pupils to greatness rather than simply trying to tell them how to get there. The tracks were laid first, but the the cargo does not reach the final destination without the power of the locomotive. Our students have talent, skills, and interests that are waiting to be fostered and directed. Some are harder to discover but they are all there.

This is where the problem lies in many of our schools today. We have made our schools so dependent on “one size fits all” instructional strategies, that we have robbed our teachers and students of the most fundamental element of learning…interest. Do you really think Isaac Newton, Leonardo Da Vinci, the Wright Brothers, Michael Jordan or Mozart would have accomplished revolutionary things if they were doing it through multiple test choice.

At the school where I work we have made it a goal to provide students with the opportunities to find their uncovered talents, skills, and interests. We have by no means mastered that goal but we are making progress. I have seen so many examples of students taking an interest of theirs (art, photography, writing, the outdoors) and leveraged that into well rounded success. I have seen students become professionals with my own eyes before they even leave high school. The good news is we are not the only school doing this and there is a big movement toward providing students with the kind of powerful education they will need to live in today’s world.

In our country, we have taken schools who are “failing” with high drop out rates and low test scores and tried to fix them by given them more of the same thing. You think a student who is on the verge of dropping out and is struggling with math is going to have a great turn around because you gave him/her another dry math class…..No! How about appealing to that student’s interest in mechanics or robotics? Because the only way someone becomes successful, is by that person having a vested interest in the process.

Teachers, we cannot stand in front of our classes and deliver content as if we are the only person on the planet who knows the information. We need to allow our students to get their hands dirty. I did not learn to change the oil by hearing a lecture from my father. I learned by actually doing it and then I taught my sister. We are preparing students for jobs that don’t even exist yet, so our best bet is to teach them to organize, think critically, collaborate, write, present, market themselves, and preserver throughout struggles.

We can teach them skills through interesting, scaffolded, challenging projects that force them to ask questions and provide them with choices. We must remember that we are the tracks and they are the locomotive. Both rely on each other to get the job done but the train itself is where the power comes from. Leading is Teaching.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Learning From a Pirate

This past weekend I had the privilege of attending a workshop with Dave Burgess, the author of "Teach Like a Pirate." Myself and ten of my colleagues joined with a neighboring district in this fantastic experience, giving us a second wind of inspiration for the rest of the year and beyond. If you have never had the chance to read this book or see Dave in person and you are attached to the education field, you must act quick. The framework that he lays out is inspiring, practical, and at the core of why I endeavored into  education in the first place.

There is always some skepticism when trusting a pirate but Dave quickly disproved any gimmick theories. He laid out some important elements of great teaching. First he talked about passion. In his book Dave states that a teacher must bring passion each and every day to the classroom. This has to come from one of three areas on any given day: 1) passion for the content you are teaching that day 2) passion for your role as an educator 3) passion related to your personality of life interests. He told us that without one of those three, your students will know that you are not fully engaged in the class that day and they will follow suit.

After about one minute of being in the audience, I thought, "I wish I was in his class." He gave us several of his "hooks" for how to start lessons. Hooks are how we start the class and get our student's attention by mixing an activity, a joke, or a creative exercise with the content you are teaching that day. This takes energy and creativity but if done right you can "trick" your students into learning. He explained that every class should be a performance and as a teacher you should always ask yourself two questions: 1) If they didn't have to come, would they? 2) Could you sell tickets to your class? These may be ambitious questions to ask yourself 180 days a year but he offers an important point. How can we expect great things from our students if we don't model that behavior ourselves? In other words, if more than a few students are not engaged, it is our responsibility to hold their attention. Rather than focusing on classroom management, why don't we spend that time creating lessons that keep their attention. And as Dave says, we will inevitably fail as teachers but the key is taking risks to provide students with a fantastic educational experience.

Dave described the times where he woke up in the middle of the night and tried to sneak out of the house unsuccessfully without his wife noticing to run down to Wal-Mart to pick up materials for his next lesson. He explained that he carried around a notepad to jot down all of his ideas over the years. In his words, half of them sucked but some of them turned out to be great lessons that made a huge impact with his students. This is the point when he proclaimed his frustration with people who claim that they are not creative. He gets particularly frustrated when teachers tell him, "Its easy for you, you are creative." Dave explained that this statement discredits the eleven years he has worked tirelessly in designing lessons, taking risks, going out on a limb, bringing 100% energy, and learning from mistakes. This is what makes great teachers and if we all spent time infusing our passion into our teaching we would prove that all of us are creative.

We left this workshop feeling inspired for so many reasons. First, it helped us realize that great teaching and making truly significant gains with students take a great amount of effort. This is not always popular and can be met with a great deal of resistance from those that want to maintain the status quo. Second, teaching is not a perfect science, but taking risks and failing is part of improving in everything that you do. If we are not doing this, we are not doing enough. Third, we are all creative and the old rule that you must draw a hard line between your working life and your personal life puts us at a disadvantage. True learning takes trust and personalization. If our personality or interests are not mixed with our classrooms, we are not offering our full passionate self to our students. Last, our students deserve our best everyday. They will meet our enthusiasm and if your enthusiasm is a rare sight in your class, they will know that it is not real or sustainable.

We need passionate teachers like Dave Burgess everywhere. We need students to talk about our class when they are not in it. We need students to fight to get in our classroom because they are afraid of missing something great. Can you imagine if our schools were like this throughout the country. Dave reminded me that we have a noble purpose that should not be taken lightly. We hold the future in our hands and if we put our passion, creativity, and energy into our classrooms, we can make an impact that will resound for generations. If teaching like a Pirate is what it takes, then we all must buy an eye patch. Leading is Teaching.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Life Starts Now: Teaching Students How to Truly Build Their Resume

Many of us remember when we were taught how to write a resume. How to fit all of you skills, achievements, and qualifications on one piece of paper. As a high school student, that was not too difficult for me. I was involved of course, but there wasn't a great deal of appeal to my resume in terms of what separated me from the masses. However, as time has moved on and technology has completely shifted the way that we present ourselves to the public, I have learned a great deal more about how we can give our students a huge advantage in marketing themselves for whatever field they go in to. And it doesn't necessarily start with the one piece of paper.

Don't get me wrong. The traditional resume is still used in almost any interview process. However, there is a lot more front loading and marketing that should exist long before you hand someone your official resume. Today's world is different and more accessible to young people. It is our job as school leaders, teachers, and community members, to make sure our students know exactly how to build their resume.

With technology at our student's fingertips, there is nothing they cannot do. Our students can publish professionally from a very young age. This is something none of us had a chance to do when we were young. If they are blogging about their interests, organizing events on Facebook and Twitter, creating quality presentations and uploading them on, editing videos for a cause on YouTube or Vimeo, and creating a Google Site to put all of this together, they are one hundred steps in front of their competitors. Think about going to an interview and instead of simply handing in a resume before you show up, giving a list of links that prove your skills on a professional level. So your interview becomes the icing on the cake and proof that your ability is matched with great interpersonal skills. This is exactly the kind of stuff that should be going on in our schools.

Gone are the days when we tell students, "This is going to help you in the future." We can tell them how this benefits them now and in the future. After all, isn't that much more relevant to a teenager? The beauty is that this process can be done within the classroom and I am not just talking about electives. Students can blog about their passions in English class. They can organize a veterans event and film the interviews to post to YouTube afterwards ( They can give a science presentation to local farmers about their ideas to improve crop production and post it online at They could also Skype or Facetime the presentation someone abroad. They could organize an event to raise funds for impoverished families during the holidays and promote it online. These are just a few of the ways in which students could maximize technology within their classrooms and begin contributing on a large scale today.

This is how we can truly give our students an advantage and here is the secret...It's not just about building their resume. These things give them purpose, teaches them to serve others, gives them critical thinking skills, and makes them well rounded individuals. These are the kind of things that benefit us the most. Our students will be confident and undeterred when they don't get their dream job right away or aren't accepted into their first school of choice. Because our students will be adaptable and will have experience in overcoming obstacles. And they will know that they are going to be successful regardless of who turns them away.

This is the kind of resume I want to help build with my students. This is the kind of resume that makes a young person (or an adult for that matter) stand out. We need to teach our students that they cannot be defined by an SAT score. They are much more than that. They are active, involved, ambitious, and already beginning a lifelong journey of success. Lets help our young people start writing their resume today. Leading is Teaching.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Importance of the Process

The Process. The path that leads to the end of the journey. I think back to my honeymoon with my wife that we spent in Peru. We visited one of the natural wonders of the world, Machu Picchu, and it was breathtaking. I will never forget the sun coming up over the Andes and revealing the beautiful ruins created in isolation by the Incas hundreds of years ago. But honestly, as fantastic as that was, that was not the best part. My favorite part of the experience was the five day hike through the mountains that led us to the incredible finish. We went through elevation changes that took us as high as 14,000 feet, we met with rural villagers who invited us into their homes to grab a snack, and we shared moments that will be with us for a lifetime. Now, when people ask me about it, its easiest to describe the end of the journey, but the aspect that influenced me at the core will always be the process. The truth is, the process is the most important part of any endeavor. So why do we so often rob our students of experiencing this?

So often there is too much focus on pace, content delivery, and grades. This happens even with the best of teachers. Teachers give students instruction, assign classwork or homework, and wait to receive their final product. So high school teachers, can simultaneously receive 150 assignments in one day based on what they assigned. So the teacher grades what is turned in and marks down what is not turned in with very minimal feedback. This is often the routine that each class follows, while overlooking a major flaw in the system....where is the focus on the process?

If you have ever coached anything or been coached in anything, you know this well. Imagine your coach teaching you the offense on a white board, telling you when the game is, and then showing up on game day to watch you play. Chances are you and your team would fail miserably. There is no focus on the process and the fundamentals. There is no chance to work on passing, dribbling, defense, being in shape, etc. Why then do we do this in classroom? I am afraid that the answer is time and pressure.

Teachers have quite a grind throughout the school year. They have high expectations from themselves and administrators. They have students in their class that range from low to high levels of achievement. They only have so much time to grade and deliver instruction, while also teaching them all of the content specific skills outlined in state standards. These are all very challenging obstacles to overcome. However, we must make the transition and there are some easily implementable strategies to do so.

As educators we should focus on grading and providing feedback throughout the process. Not every point value added into the grade book has to be given in the traditional sense. What if we stopped in the middle of working on an essay to see how well we are doing as a class? What if the teacher sat with each student and provided advice to them that is specific to their level and topic? And what if we gave them points for working with us on editing? What is we stopped in the middle of our math work to do some group problems? What if we gave points for this process? Why don't we have students write goals for projects and work to achieve these goals through their project work and guess what...give them points for that too!

These are very general ideas but they are all conducive to the approach that focuses on the process. We should be creating check points and safety nets for our students. There are so many students who line up for the start but never get their engine started because they don't know how to get to the finish line. Each day, teachers leave students like this behind because they skipped the most important aspect of learning...the process. We have to give feedback, support, and advice to our student throughout the process. As a result, the next time they go through the process, they will be better. Somewhere along the way we started thinking that assigning and grading was our most important function as a teacher when in reality it is the least important. Focusing on the process helps to improve gifted and struggling students because it provides the opportunity to see where they can improve no matter what level they may be. Because lets face it, giving a gifted student an A over and over does not really teach them how to become even more successful. It teaches them to do what they must to receive another A.

We have all gone through failures and successes in our lifetime. However, we have learned from both because of the process. Success can't be repeated without understanding the process to do so. We have to teach our students how to struggle and overcome on their way to success. If we do not go on the journey with them, many will be lost. However, if we hike with them through the mountains, they will see the Machu Picchu at the end. We are in the business of teaching students, not grading them. Leading is Teaching.