If I had a million dollars, I'd build you a school.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Summer Camp: Making the Rules

Many of the things that make my former summer camp so unique have been a part of the camp essentially from its beginning. The two things I have talked about so far, appreciations and comfort and caring, are both aspects of the camp that I remember vividly from my days as a camper. One significant aspect of the camp that arrived between my time as a camper and my return as a counselor many years later was the camp constitution.

Schools and other programs for kids have a wide variety of approaches to setting the rules and getting kids to follow them, and no one way is perfect or appropriate for every situation, but I really like the way we went about creating the constitution. It was a multi-day process, and limited time spent on other activities during that time, but I think the rewards more than justified the time spent.

The first step was to get the kids thinking about the idea of community in general, and their place in various communities in particular. Each camper was given a badge, a circular piece of paper divided into three wedges, with space for their name in the middle. They were asked to think of three communities they were a part of. The counselors coached them through some possibilities: their school, their family, their sports teams, etc.. Then they were asked to think of a positive attribute that they brought to each of those communities, maybe something they did to be helpful at home or to be friendly at school. Once they had thought of their three attributes, they drew a picture in each section of the circle. Once completed, this badge represented them as a member of the new camp community that was re-created each summer.

Step two was to start coming up with the rules. They did this in small groups, so there was an opportunity to discuss and refine their ideas. One of the keys was that each rule needed to be phrased as a positive action. They had to say, "Respect other people's belongings," instead of, "Don't steal," or something similar.

Once the various groups had their suggested rules, the whole camp would come together to decide what should be included in the final draft. The rules were read out, and the campers were asked to raise any objections. The counselors leading the discussion were careful to steer the conversation toward objections to the ideas, not the wording. The idea was to build general consensus. At the end, everyone would make some symbolic sign of agreement (usually a hand motion with some silly sound effect) chosen by the kids. The final step was to put all the agreed upon rules onto a giant sheet of paper, and to attach the kid's badges to the paper as symbols of their role in the camp community.

Those of you who have been following along with these camp related posts will begin to see what I meant about certain cult-like, or at least ritualistic, aspects of the camp. But, having seen it in action, I have to say that this approach to creating the camp constitution was an incredibly powerful tool. When there was an problem with one of the kids, it was very effective to be able to remind him about the constitution discussion and why it was that the camp had chosen to include certain rules. It was like putting a judo move on a kid who was all prepared to get yelled at, and suddenly found himself explaining to you why what he did was wrong.

As with many of the things I talk about in this blog, I'm not a big believer in the idea that there is one and only one way to do things. When something seems to work, I look for the essential element that is making it work, and think about how that piece could be adapted to many different situations. In this case, I think the essential element comes from giving the kids a chance to help make the rules, and in doing so really think about their purpose. If the rules are something they have agreed to, and even helped create, they are much more likely to see the point in following them. It becomes not just about staying out of trouble, but about behaving as a responsible member of a community.

What effective ways of creating/enforcing the rules have you come across?

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Summer Camp: Appreciations

Last week I mentioned that a lot of my inspiration for this blog comes from my time as a camper and counselor at a summer camp back home in Massachusetts. I described the somewhat cult-like devotion that the camp has from many of the campers and staff who have spent time there. This devotion is cultivated in the many community building activities built into the structure of the camp. The one I wanted to talk about today is appreciations.

The camp runs two four week sessions over the course of the summer. At the end of each session are a variety of activities designed to bring closure to the session, including an open house for parents to come and see what their children have been working on all summer, and a sleepover where the kids get to go for a night swim and stay up late watching movies. In addition, over the course of the last week, the kids do appreciations.

During the morning and afternoon circle times, the kids go to sit one by one in a chair that has been magically transformed into the Appreciation Chair. While there, they call on volunteers from the group to appreciate them, which is to say something positive about them. The kids are coached to make their appreciations meaningful. "I appreciate you because you're nice," is a bad appreciation, while, "I appreciate you because on the first day of camp, when I didn't know anyone, you came up and asked if I wanted to join your game," is a good appreciation. This is a situation where having older, experienced campers mixed in with the younger ones helps to set the tone, and to give good examples of how it's all supposed to work.

Again, as with many of the community building aspects of the camp, it can appear a little cheesy, but as an established routine, it is incredibly powerful. It is very unusual in life for someone of any age to be openly and publicly complimented by their peers. We don't often hear about the positive ways we have affected other people. Appreciations give kids a chance to see themselves in a whole new, and entirely positive, light.

One of the pieces we have to coach the kids through, is to recognize that being complimented is an inherently uncomfortable activity. We aren't used to it, and we often don't know how to respond. The kids are reminded to say thank you after each appreciation as a sign that they have heard and accepted the compliment.

The exact format of these appreciations might not work in every environment, but the idea is a powerful one that can and should be adapted to many situations. Kids spend a lot of time telling each other how they are different (read worse) than everyone else. Wouldn't it be nice if they had a regular opportunity to tell each other the ways in which they are great?

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

What I'm Reading Next: Three Cups of Tea

I just finished reading True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey. I came upon it through my habit of scanning through the lists of award winners on Amazon and picking a couple that seem interesting. In this case, Carey won the Booker Prize for his novel about the famous Australian outlaw Ned Kelly.

The premise of the book is that Kelly has written the story of his life to his young daughter in order to explain himself to her, so that she will not believe the lies that established society has spread about him, but will know that her father was a good man doomed by circumstances. In order to create the voice of the uneducated bushman, Carey forgoes the use of much of the punctuation, which takes some adjusting to at first, and would be a great project to teach kids how proper punctuation makes communication clearer; but once the reader gets into the flow of the text, the book is absolutely mesmerizing.

As a protagonist, Ned Kelly is always appealing, always believable, and easy to empathize with. The story of how his life is directed by the poverty into which he is born, and by the corruption that surrounds him, makes for great tragedy. Before we ever start reading Kelly's manuscript, we are shown his eventual capture by the police, and the rest of the novel is like a runaway train, accelerating towards that moment. I finished the book wishing I could reach in and redirect the path somewhere along the line, so that Kelly could find the redemption he is seeking. It's a great book and I recommend it highly.

Next up: Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time
When I first sent out emails telling all my friends about this blog, my friend Georgia responded that the project was very "Three Cups of Tea" of me. At the time, I was vaguely aware that it was a reference to one of those books that educated teachers all knew about, but I didn't know much more than that. A few weeks ago, my school had its spring book fair, and there it was with the other books for parents and teachers. I bought it, trusting Georgia's taste in books. I'm sure I'll find some blog related inspiration in its pages.

Posts about previous titles:
Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War

Monday, June 23, 2008

Denver Catches the Build a School Spirit

NPR is in the middle of an extended series on innovative schools from around the country. Friday's story about a school in Denver that shut its doors for a year in order to create an entirely new culture at the school contained the following line:

For teachers, there is nothing more exciting than being able to start over and build a school on your own without having somebody just hand it to you.

Besides being flattered by the subtle nod to this blog, I think the quote makes a hugely important point. At a time when there is so much talk in the education world about attracting and keeping great teachers, a lot of it comes down to this idea. If you want smart creative people to go into teaching and stay there, you need to give them the opportunity to be smart and creative in their work. They need to have an important role in designing curriculum and building the culture of the school. If they do not, they won't feel nearly the same attachment to the place, and no matter how strong their altruistic belief in the importance of their profession, they will eventually burn out and move on to something more engaging to their intellect.

For me, the great attraction of private schools over public schools has always been the freedom to create curriculum. Many of the classes I have taught have been entirely or partially of my own design, an opportunity I will have again this summer as I prepare for my new school in the fall. While I would certainly keep teaching if someone took that creativity out of my hands, my enthusiasm for it would fade just that little bit.

In addition to fueling my own enthusiasm, that creative freedom makes me much more able to respond to the needs of my students. I can see what is working and what is not, and make adjustments as the year goes along. It is much more personalized for them, as well as for me. Each lesson is something that has been created by me just for my students. It makes the classroom a much more personal place, something that can only benefit the education that takes place there.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Summer Camp: Comfort and Caring

By a quick count, I think I have either attended or worked at six or seven different summer camps over the course of my life. Of all of them, one in particular has played a central role in my development as a person, as a teacher, and as a thinker about education. I first attended the camp (as always, I will avoid accurate names) in the summer between fourth and fifth grades. From that summer on, I and/or one of my siblings was a camper, counselor, or administrator there continuously until last summer, when for the first time in our adult lives, neither my sister nor I were working there, overall a streak of 22 years.

Among other significant life events that occurred at this camp, I met my wife while we were both working there in the summer of 2000, eight years ago this weekend. Since my wife's younger sister has been on staff at the camp for the past two summers, I count the family streak as still active at 24 years and counting.

While this family devotion is extreme, it is not actually exceptional. Many other people and families have similar stories and streaks, a fact that gives the camp a certain cult-like aura that many newcomers find off-putting at first. My wife often tells the story of her first day of staff orientation, at the end of which she went home wondering what the hell she had gotten herself into.

There are many aspects of the camp that lead to this bizarre devotion, and over the course of the summer I will spend some time on many of them, because I think if schools could cultivate similar feelings of attachment in their students, the job of education would be much easier. The most important of them, though, is that, more than any other environment for children that I have ever been a part of, this camp gives children a safe place to be their true selves. I have spoken with many young staff and campers who spend all year being miserable at school, feeling trapped in a place that doesn't understand them, waiting for summer to come so they can go out and find themselves again.

Again, there are many pieces in place to create this welcoming environment, but the first of them happens almost the moment that the campers arrive each day. Every morning, camp starts in a circle. The circle is a camp motif that is reinforced in many ways over the course of a day and the summer. Each circle is a mixed aged group, from fourth through eighth grades, plus counselors of a variety of ages and life stages.

Circle time begins with Comfort and Caring, a time for those who want to to share whatever is on their mind that morning. Usually it is light-hearted--stories of baseball games played, or new Pokemon cards acquired--but sometimes there is more vital information shared--a beloved pet passed away, a best friend gone to overnight camp for the summer. In addition to giving everyone the chance to share, and to feel like the events of their lives are important to other people, it is also a chance for the kids to get off their chests whatever thing has been occupying them. Once relieved of that burden, they are more ready to focus on the tasks of the day.

It can be a little hokey, and the oldest kids often roll their eyes at the prospect, but how much happier and more productive would we adults be if our days began with the chance to share with our colleagues the things that were exciting or depressing us that day, to ask for a little leeway when we missed our morning coffee, or to feel like our accomplishments were celebrated by the people with whom we spend our days. A little bit of hokey is not such a bad thing.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Celtics 131 Lakers 92

Apologies for a completely off topic post today, but it had to be done.

I am from Massachusetts, about half an hour outside of Boston, and I love watching sports. Above all else, I am a Red Sox fan, but I have a place in my heart for all Boston teams. I reached prime sports-watching age in the mid 1980s, which left its indelible mark on my feelings about sports in general, and about my Boston teams specifically.

I remember exactly where I was, eleven years old and full of hope, when the ball rolled through Buckner's legs. I watched the Bears destroy the Patriots at my friend Andy's house. I learned through hard lessons that being a Boston sports fan is to live a life of heartache and suffering.

The one exception to that during my childhood was the Celtics. My family and I had dinner in the restaurant that K.C. Jones and Bobby Orr used to own together on the night the Celtics won their sixteenth championship. I remember watching in awe as Robert Parish walked through the restaurant to some back-room celebration, ducking under the seven foot door frames. As we finished dinner and walked out to the parking lot, the rest of the team started to trickle in. They were literally larger than life. Who knew then that it would be another fifteen years of suffering before another Boston team won a championship?

The life of a Boston sports fan has changed a lot in the last eight years. From the moment Adam Vinatieri kicked that ball through the uprights to beat the Rams, Boston fans haven't known quite what to think of themselves. Three Superbowl wins (so close to a fourth), two World Series championships (without the world ending or hell freezing over), and now, twenty two years later, the Celtics are back with their seventeenth championship.

It's not the same Boston I grew up with, full of heartbreak and disappointment, but I gotta say, I could really get used to this.

Go Celtics!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

How Summer Camp Made Me Fall In Love With Teaching

Today was the first day of the summer program at my school. On the whole things went pretty smoothly, at least as far as I know at the moment. Unlike most summer camps, our students come in only for the classes that they are interested in. This leads to a rather complex pick up and drop off system with four distinct times for dropping the kids off, and then four more partially overlapping times for pick up. I call it a win that on the first day all the kids arrived and departed successfully and safely, especially with a thunder storm rolling in on us as the last students departed.

I mentioned in yesterday's post that working at a summer camp during college played a big part in my eventual decision to become a teacher. I thought today I would share the story because it is representative to me of what makes teaching so rewarding.

I was teaching Red Cross swimming as part of the sports camp at my former high school. My classes were small, usually about four or five kids of a similar level. My job in the four week session was to move them as far along towards their next swimming level as possible.

One of my classes was a group of girls going into third and fourth grades. They were relatively advanced for that age group, and were working towards their Level 5 card. In order to pass they had to demonstrate competence with the breaststroke (among other things).

One of the better overall swimmers in the group was a very outgoing and friendly girl, we'll call her Colleen. Colleen had crawl stroke down pat. She could do the elementary backstroke. She could tread water, and did a very confident forward dive into the deep end of the pool. But breaststroke was beyond her. We practiced the movements on land. We practiced the kick with a kick board. She could do all the pieces, but when it came time to put it all together in the water, Colleen just couldn't get it right. She just flopped around awkwardly, unable to move herself through the water. It was clear that she was going to finish the summer without getting her Level 5 card.

Then, on the second to last day of camp, Colleen hopped into the pool, and swam the breaststroke from one side to the other, perfectly and without stopping. Somehow, magically and overnight, Colleen had figured it out.

What amazed me at the time, and started me on the road to the career I love so much, is how happy it made me to watch her swim. She had worked so hard at it all summer, and all that work had paid off just in time. That joy in another person's accomplishment was a feeling I wanted to have again, and fortunately it is one I have had many times since.

There have been many frustrating days in my teaching career so far. I have sat with a pile of partially graded tests in front of me, thinking that if one more high school kid tried to tell me that Puerto Rico was a country in Europe I would quit right then and there. But overall, it is the students like Colleen, and the moments like that one watching her swim the breaststroke, that stick with me the most. As long as they bring me joy, I will continue to enjoy calling myself a teacher.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Summer camp is as American as...well, summer camp.

As I have mentioned before on this blog, my wife and I have spent most of the last three years living abroad, first in England and then in The Gambia. While in the U.K., I worked as an English instructor, teaching conversational English to businesspeople from all over the world, more than two dozen countries in all. This has led to a lot of time spent explaining America--or things American--to people who have seen the U.S. in movies, on TV, in the news, and even through a tourist's eyes, but still don't know quite what to make of it. I have tried to explain the rules of baseball and American football, shared bewilderment over how we possibly re-elected George Bush, and reassured people that neither Baywatch nor Beverly Hills 90210 is a realistic representation of life in America. Of all the topics I have had to cover again and again, though, the one that is met with the most confusion and wonder is the peculiarly American institution of summer camp.

The idea that children would escape from school, only to go straight into another environment entirely structured for them by adults, is completely bizarre to people from most other countries. It takes a lot of explaining, especially to get across the variety of things that we refer to as camp: overnight camps, sports camps, day camps, etc.. Summer in other countries is for vacationing with your family and for doing whatever you please at home. The idea of summer camp is so foreign that the Spanish language doesn't have an appropriate translation. The closest is campamento, which literally means something more like encampment.

I should be in as good a position as anyone to explain this whole summer camp thing. Not only have I had many of the usual childhood experiences with camps--the good, the bad, and the ugly--I have spent most of my summers, from college through my teaching career, working at a variety of camps. In fact, my experiences during my college summers teaching swimming lessons at my former high school played a big role in my decision to become a teacher. And yet, I don't know if I ever really managed to explain to all those non-Americans what camp is all about.

Today begins yet another summer working at a camp, in this case the summer program at the school where I've been teaching since January. It seems appropriate, then, to spend some time this summer blogging about the educating that takes place while the school doors are closed. Many of my own ideas about what an ideal school would look like were formed during my various summer jobs, so I won't be wandering far from the original purpose of this blog. Maybe along the way, I'll find just the right words to explain the peculiarly American phenomenon that is summer camp.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Computers Are Very Helpful If You Know How To Use Them

This week I have at least some responsibilities to three different jobs. First, there is my teaching job at my current school, where we are working through final faculty meetings. Then, there is my new school for the fall, who have asked me to come in tomorrow and get my bearings, pick up my books for next year, and start thinking about a curriculum development project for next year. The big one, though, is my role as Assistant Director for the summer program at my current school. Staff orientation is Friday afternoon, and the kids arrive on Monday morning, which gives me about 28 more hours to learn everything about a summer camp I've never worked at before. After that, I'm supposed to be one of the two most knowledgeable people about it. So, what did I spend my day doing yesterday: sorting t-shirts.

Let me explain.

On the first day of camp, every student gets a t-shirt with the camp logo on it. In the past, the t-shirts have always been distributed during the kids' first class. This is straightforward enough, except that, unlike other summer programs where all of the kids show up in the morning and stay all day, we have rolling attendance, depending on what classes each child is taking. They may be enrolled in anywhere from one to four classes per week, and are only required to attend the part of the day when their class is in session. This creates many logistical issues, but at 1:00 this afternoon, the one I was worried about was t-shirts.

About 80% of the campers have a class during the first period. I just had to find who the other 20% were and figure out when to get them their shirts. I decided that there must be an easy way to get our database to give me all of the relevant information, so that all I would have to do was make a quick count and start sorting shirts. Two problems: first, we are running the database on aged laptops with a weak wireless connection, a bad combination for the high powered online database we use; and second, I had never even logged into the database before this morning.

It took me about three hours to get a printout of all the class rosters for the first week with the kids' t-shirt sizes and class meeting times. Most of that time was spent learning to navigate the database and get it to produce whatever reports I wanted (and restarting it when it froze, and restarting it again when it froze again). It was good practice at a skill I needed to develop, and not quite as much of a waste of time as it sounds, but it was still three hours.

I know this has been said many times, but computers really are great time savers, once you know how to use them. That learning curve, though, can be rough. I know that the time I spent today will pay off later when I have other, more critical things to do with the database, but I spent most of the afternoon feeling like I was running on a treadmill. I wonder how long it would have taken me, without the help of the database, to do all the work I tried to get the computer to do. I bet today I could have done it faster. Hopefully, next time the computer will win.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Why Are We Here?

I have some more thoughts today from our week of end-of-year faculty meetings. Monday morning's meeting was a very big picture kind of affair. That was just fine with me. Since I will be at a different school in the fall, philosophical discussions about teaching are much more interesting to me than nuts and bolts about next school year. After fifteen minutes to journal about the year (my thoughts here), our division head went up to the board and wrote the question, "Why are we here?" in big purple letters. The brainstorming session that followed was wide ranging, and often deteriorated into discussion of people's pet concerns, but generally provided an interesting take on what it is that a school is supposed to do. Here is a selection of the answers that we came up with. I present them without comment for now. Many of them are worthy of a post, or a couple of posts, of their own.

Why Are We Here?

  • for the children
  • to set an example/model behavior
  • to learn
  • to share a passion
  • to nurture
  • to make a difference
  • to teach problem solving
  • to make the children responsible and polite
  • to be aware of students' lives outside of school
  • friendship/to support each other
  • to teach the parents
  • to build a sense of community
  • to set consistent expectations
  • to take time for teachable moments
  • to give consequences and to follow through
  • to supervise/ensure safety of children
  • to share
  • to better serve the invisible students

I'll come back to many of these in future posts, but for now I'll just leave them out there for you to think about.

Anything you would add/remove from the list?

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

End of Year Reflections

Now that graduation is over and all the kids are gone, it is time for one last week of faculty meetings and cleanup before summer officially begins. It is time to tie up loose ends, reflect on the past year, and start getting ready to do it even better next year. I would be really looking forward to vacation, but my summer job starts this week, too, so I have a few more weeks to go before the Fourth of July break.

Monday morning's meeting started with an opportunity to reflect journal style on the past year and then to discuss our thoughts as a group. While I am still in that mindset, I thought I would continue with some of those ideas here.

School didn't begin for me until the end of January this year. My wife and I had been living abroad for two and a half years, first in the U.K., then in the Gambia. In England I worked teaching English to adults, and in the Gambia I played a lot of volleyball and ultimate Frisbee in between frustrating efforts at writing the novel that has been bouncing around in my head for years now. We returned to the U.S. in mid-December, and on January 1 moved here to the D.C. area. By the end of the month, I had found a job as a long-term Spanish substitute at the K-8 school in northern Virginia where I an now just finishing the year.

When I had my first class back on the Tuesday following Martin Luther King Day, it had been almost 32 months since I had last been in a classroom. To add to the challenge, my class load included at least one section each of first through sixth grades. I had one year of previous experience with fifth and sixth grades, but my other seven years of teaching experience were all at the high school level. It's hard to even begin to explain the difference between teaching AP Spanish Literature and first grade. There are almost no transferable skills between them.

Needless to say, the first few weeks felt like being a rookie teacher again, and that is essentially what I was. I particularly remember my first class with the first graders. I had a lesson plan that I thought was age appropriate, sufficiently varied to keep their interest, and active enough to get them involved. Every activity fell flat, and I found myself in that horrible position of having half an eye on the clock, just praying that I would live through the next twenty minutes to fight another day.

Eventually, with a lot of help from my very supportive and welcoming colleagues in the language department, I got my teaching legs again, and started to get the hang of seven and eight year olds. One of our housemates from England, who is also back in D.C. now, mentioned to my wife a few weeks ago that I seemed much happier now than I ever had in England. It's true, and the main cause is that I am a teacher again. Being a teacher is a huge part of my identity, and I feel much more myself now that when people ask me what I do, I can once again say, "I'm a Spanish teacher."

In the fall I will be changing schools, returning to my comfort zone as a high school teacher and a volleyball coach. I am very much looking forward to it, but I am also extremely grateful to my current school for giving me the chance to get back in the classroom. I believe in the philosophy that we are what we do, and I am very happy to call myself a teacher again.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Graduation Day Do's and Don'ts

Friday was eighth grade graduation here at school. One of the side effects of being a teacher is that I have been to a lot of graduation ceremonies in my life--at least one a year almost every year since I was in kindergarten--so I consider myself a bit of a graduation connoisseur.

This was a pretty good one as graduations go. It was short: almost exactly an hour. The focus was on the kids: in groups of 2-4, all of the students got a short time on stage to read from an original or borrowed text. The adults' speeches were short and enjoyable, and tasty food was served at the reception.

Being at graduation got me thinking about all the ceremonies I have sat through, and especially about what kind of ceremony I would design for my ideal school. So here are some graduation day do's and don'ts learned from my experiences.

DO make it all about the students. Put the focus on them, and leave it there as much as possible.

DON'T overdo it with awards and honors. If you're sitting at a faculty meeting trying to figure out which kid to give a fourth award to, you probably have too many prizes.

DO let the students choose their speaker based on speaking ability, not GPA. The student who gets the best grades in the class is not always the best speaker. We all have to sit through the speech; let someone do it who is going to make it enjoyable.

DON'T drag it out. At my high school, the diplomas were awarded in random order, and the last student called won a sock filled with loose change. It took well over an hour to read the names of the 185 students, all so one kid could win $20 in quarters. Not fun.

DO have the ceremony in the morning. Last year at my current school, temperatures got up over 100º for the afternoon ceremony. That's just torture.

DON'T have a special speaker from outside the school. I have been lucky enough to see some wonderful speakers over the years. The most inspiring was Kofi Annan at my wife's college graduation. The most amusing was Henry Winkler giving us a taste of the Fonz at mine. But the line I most remember from my whole college graduation weekend was the Master of my residential college saying that no one every remembers anything that gets said in graduation speeches. So true. Spend the time focusing on the students.

Finally, DO embrace the clichés. Every graduation has the same themes: transformation, new beginnings, leadership, the great possibilities of the the future. For those of us who are there over and over, the repetition can get a bit boring, but it is a new group of students every year, and it is our job to send them off into the world feeling proud of their accomplishments and empowered by their education. In the end, that's what all the work (theirs and ours) has been about.

I'd love to hear from you about your best and worst graduation experiences.

Friday, June 6, 2008

My Favorite Blogs Right Now

I'm still relatively new to both reading and writing blogs, but the last couple months have given me an education in the world of blogging. Now that I've had time to explore some of what's out there (it would be more than a full time job to follow it all), I thought I would put together a list of the blogs that I've been enjoying the most. In addition to this post, I will have a permanent and regularly updated list of links on the sidebar.

Currently I have about 25 education related blogs in my Google Reader account. Here are my favorites:

I have mentioned Stacy's blog in a number of my posts already. She is a former colleague of mine from New Jersey days. In her blog she writes with humor and affection about being a teacher and a single parent. It's the first blog I read every morning.

Eduwonkette is my favorite of the handful of blogs out of Education Week. The summary from the site says, "Through the lens of social science, eduwonkette takes a serious, if sometimes irreverent, look at some of the most contentious education policy debates." It's a thoughtful, left-leaning look at the issues of the day.

Joanne Jacobs comes at education from a background in journalism. Her blog pulls together a lot of current events in education from all over the country.

The Education Wonks organizes the Carnival of Education. For those of you (like me a couple months ago) who have no idea what a Carnival is in blog-speak, it is a collection of posts on a given theme from lots of different sites. It's a good way to read the best on a topic without having to follow every blog out there. The Carnival comes out every Tuesday and rotates from blog to blog, but The Education Wonks always has a link to it. They also announce the deadline and process for submissions.

A husband and wife team from Madison, Wisconsin, the authors are both involved in education in various roles. In addition to interesting thoughts on education at all levels, they also run a regular series of music recommendations, and they have good taste.

That's the short list for now. I'm sure I will find more favorites as I continue to explore. If you have any favorite blogs, on education or otherwise, please pass them along.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Teaching Math Using YouTube

I took my first video class at my former day camp in the summer between fourth and fifth grades. It was a two person class, and we made a documentary about the camp using a shoulder mounted camera that recorded directly to a VHS tape. By the time I was teaching video at the same camp fifteen years later, we were using handheld MiniDV cameras, and editing the movies using FinalCut and Adobe Premier.

I have taken the video skills I learned there, and brought them into my Spanish classes as well, filming everything from short skits to elaborate movies written and directed by the students themselves. I have found the video camera to be an excellent motivating force in the classroom. Knowing that they will be on film makes the students work harder and rehearse more, while at the same time having more fun with the project. Everybody wins.

I have been out of the classroom for most of the last three years, so I have yet to take the next step in the evolution of using video in the classroom, posting on YouTube for all the world to see. Based on a brief tour of YouTube yesterday, a lot of classrooms are taking advantage of the opportunity, and are posting some very creative and funny things. I thought I would include a couple of my favorites, all covering topics in math, since that is still the section of my curriculum table that I am supposed to be writing about these days.

The first video was brought to my attention by Joanne Jacobs, and started me on my YouTube exploration:

Not quite as professional, but more in keeping with what a high school class might put together is this Fergie spoof:

Then, there's nothing like two white kids having a rap battle about math. I feel like I know these two.

Finally, this may be my favorite. I think this kid has a future in educational song writing. It's not so much the song as that he has the audience in the palm of his hand.

The videos go on and on, and are of wide ranging quality. Mostly I just enjoy them because it is always nice to see students having fun in school while still doing something educational. It makes the teaching part more fun, too.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

More on the Research-to-Teaching Relationship

While we were up on Long Island this weekend, our friend Dan discovered this blog for the first time, and was reading through some previous posts. When he got to the post about language evolution, he asked me if the things I had learned from Steven Pinker's, The Language Instinct were helpful to me in my everyday teaching of Spanish. My short answer was that, while I found the book completely fascinating, there was very little in it to inform my day-to-day practice of teaching. Knowing more about how we acquire our first language, and what mental structures are in place to assist and guide that process, does not necessarily tell us anything about learning a second language as a teenager, or even in elementary school. The idea that our brains have innate language structures may reassure me that we can learn language, but it doesn't necessarily provide a guide for how to do it.

The conversation reminded me of a video I had seen on a couple of different education blogs. The video is by Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. In it he explains some of the difficulties in applying the discoveries of brain research to education. It is a good warning against thinking we know too much, and especially against the tendency to jump on the brain based research bandwagon.

Here it is:

Monday, June 2, 2008

What I'm Reading Next: True History of the Kelly Gang

We took the train up to New York this weekend to visit friends from our year on Long Island. It was a beautiful weekend, and great to catch up with people. Back in April we made a similar trip by car, and I have to say I really enjoyed going by train this time. Not having to sit in traffic trying to get out of DC on a Friday evening (or across Staten Island at any time) is totally worth it. Besides, sitting on the train instead of behind the wheel of a car finally gave me the chance to finish reading Lolita and get started on my next book.

It's a stange thing to suddenly find myself reading in public. I have always enjoyed talking about books, but the awareness that I would be announcing my book choices to a largely anonymous audience is definitely an adjustment. When I was choosing what book to read next in my self-imposed cycle (fiction-->non-fiction-->re-read), I went to my bookshelf and scanned through the titles. Lolita immediately popped out as something I wanted to read again, mostly because I had just been skimming through Reading Lolita in Tehran for this blog, and so I had Nabokov's novel on my mind.

At first, I hesitated to choose Lolitabecause I wondered how it would appear to be reading a famously scandalous novel about an older man's relationship with a school-age girl as part of a feature for a blog about schools. Judging from the wink-wink, nudge-nudge tone with which my friends asked me how I was enjoying the book, and the eyebrow-raised curiosity with which my wife watched me answer, I wasn't wrong to think twice. In the end, though, I decided to go ahead and read Lolita, in part because at the time nothing else seemed as appealing, but mostly because I felt that if I started changing my reading habits too much because of the blog, both reading and the blog would start to seem like more of a chore than a pleasure.

So let me adress all those raised eyebrows out there, both real and imagined. I did, in fact, enjoy the book very much. Nabokov is a very seductive writer--a master stylest, even in his adopted language. He plays with language like some combination of magician and matador, drawing you in only to dance away again and begin a new trick. The great accomplishment of the book is that he takes a monstrous character--a pervert and confessed murderer obsessed with pubescent girls--and, without diminishing the horror of his crimes, persuades the reader to empathize with him. We are not asked to forgive him, only to understand him, despite his horrible acts. Lolitais a tragedy in the classic sense, in which a fatal flaw (both in the sense of deadly and predestined) leaves an inevitable trail of destroyed lives in its wake, the protagonist the most destroyed because he must also suffer the guilt for the destruction he has wrought.

Lolitais certainly a sensual book, especially in the first half when Humbert Humbert is in the early stages of his 'romance' with young Dolores Haze, but it is no more an apology for his proclivities than Macbethis an apology for ambition or Oedipus for incest. What it is, is an exquisitely written book that plays on the full range of human emotions, and leaves the reader feeling that he has truly come to understand another human being.

Next up: True History of the Kelly Gang: A Novel
Peter Carey's Booker Prize winning novel about Australia's most famous outlaw, narrated by Ned Kelly himself. Another prize winner, for my list. The Booker rarely lets me down.

Previous titles:

Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War

Guest Post: Five Books Every Student Should Read in High School

Of all the previous posts on this blog, Five Books Every Student Should Read has generated the most conversation--if not actual comments--from my friends and acquaintances who make up the majority of the readership at this point. It has now inspired the first guest post on this blog. Besides being one of my wife's oldest and best friends, and a bridesmaid in our wedding, Georgia is an instructor for Academic Approach in Boston. Next fall, she will begin her first year of graduate school in Human Rights Law. She and I have had many conversations about our favorite books, so I am honored to have her include her thoughts on this subject.

Given I only get five book choices (and lament leaving out 1984and Night), but as I go through the endless list of literary options, I wonder if there is a difference between books I think every kid should read and books I think every kid should be taught. In thinking about "filling holes" in a student's education and thus enabling him/her to participate in the world of academia, these are my five:

1. The Odyssey– I could not agree with you more. As a quintessential part of the Western cannon, a student who misses out on Homer is also missing out on the deeper meanings of and references to some of their favorite stories (The Matrix, O Brother, Where Art Thou? to name a couple). But reading Homer is not only a tool to understanding our favorites, but also a means of arming us against thinking that cinematic atrocities like Warner Brothers' Troyis actually a good action flick...or worse, the actual story of Troy!

2. Harry Potter - I would never have imagined that my belief that we should absolutely be teaching Harry Potter in high school would be controversial, but as several towns in America have banned the series and some communities have even burned it, apparently I am indeed being controversial. Beyond being a great way to get students to admit they enjoy reading (although the movies have not helped my cause - "Why should I read it? I'll just watch the movie."), and besides the multiple lessons that come from exploring the plethora of mythology and folklore J.K. Rowling borrowed from, Harry Potter is about genocide. Voldemort, our half-blood villain, has declared that the wizarding world will be better off once they rid themselves of the "mud-bloods" and establish themselves, the "pure-bloods", as the master race. I would love to see this explored in more classrooms. Lastly, Harry Potter wonderfully lends itself as an introduction to Joseph Campbell's Hero Journey that students almost always find fascinating and want to discuss and apply to their favorite adventure stories. Together Rowling and Campbell offer teachers an attractive and easy platform to do what should be done at least once a year: open the classroom for creative writing.

3. To Kill a Mockingbird- I suppose this one is obvious and can be left to speak for itself.

4. Song of Solomon- In the 21st Century no student should leave high school without a sound dose of Toni Morrison, and Beloved is one of my all-time favorites. However, as a bi-racial student in the New York City public school system during the Giuliani Administration with countless and repetitive African-American curricula and lesson plans behind me, Song of Solomon was the first African-American book to move me and resonate with me. Thus, I mention it here as more of a personal plea. (I would teach this book in conjunction with Jacqueline Woodson's Behind You- the greatest piece of fiction I have read in a long time. I cried for hours and now pray the book, and its author, will become a household name.)

5. Much Ado About Nothing- Shakespeare was funny. Let's prove it and bring Kenneth Brannagh in to help.

Last point: as I was thinking about this question I discovered I was categorizing, or blatantly choosing from pre-established genres, and thus thinking "inside the box." Although the challenge of "filling gaps" in preparation for understanding our Western world demands we focus on our classics, there is something to be said for the old adage: moving beyond the cannon, moving beyond the genre, moving beyond ethno-centricity.

Thanks again to Georgia for putting together this post. If anyone else out there wants to put in their choices, or their ideas on any subject, just send me an email, and I will happily include your post on this blog.