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

Friday, August 15, 2008

Summer Camp: Personal Learning Using Sports

My first summer camp job, back while I was still in college, was teaching swimming at a sports camp at my old high school. While the camp certainly focused on teaching athletic skills in the various sports that were offered, the main goal of the camp was to use sports as a means to teach important life skills: teamwork, sportsmanship, the value of practice and hard work, and so on.

Each class, regardless of the sport, began and ended with a warm up and cool down in which the kids were asked to set goals for the day and then evaluate their performance. In swimming these tended to be more individual goals. "I will swim a full length of the pool without stopping." "I will put my face in the water." But in the team sports there was also an emphasis on group skills. "I will congratulate an opponent on a good play." "I will pass the ball to a teammate."

Because of these warm up and cool down times, the experience of sports was much more about process than about result. I have tried to maintain that emphasis as a coach at the middle school and high school levels. I have coached an undefeated state championship volleyball team, as well as multiple teams who have not won a single game, and a little of everything in between. Hopefully what all those experiences have had in common for the players on those teams was an emphasis on having fun and on getting a little bit better every day. As in the classroom, it has been a good day at sports practice if you have improved, and maybe learned a bit about yourself in the process.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

My School Would Have A 'No Cut' Policy For Sports

Despite being a varsity swimmer in high school and a club volleyball player in college, despite the fact that I continue to play just about any sport that people are willing to let me play with them, I have never really seen myself as an athlete. There are many reasons for this, but I think it mostly traces back to my sports experiences in middle school and early high school. Like most experiences at that age, they were pretty miserable. Let's work through the list.

  • In 7th grade I tried out for the middle school soccer team and was cut. In the winter, I tried out for the middle school basketball team and was cut. In the spring, I tried out for the middle school baseball team and actually made the team. I continued playing baseball until my senior year when I was cut for the second time from the varsity team (seniors weren't allowed on JV).
  • In 8th grade I didn't bother trying out for soccer or basketball, spending most of my afternoons playing Dungeons & Dragons and computer games with my similarly un-athletic friends.
  • In 9th grade I was cut from the freshmen soccer team, but was allowed to play on the middle school team. I fared pretty well playing against 7th and 8th graders. I actually made the freshmen basketball team, but was cut from the JV team the following year, ending my basketball career.
  • In 11th grade I finally found swimming, made the varsity team, and swam both of my remaining two years of high school.
  • My freshman year of college, I tried out for the volleyball club and got cut. I played every intramural volleyball game I could find for the next year and was able to make the team my sophomore year.
If we count it up, from 7th grade to my freshman year in college, I was cut from seven teams, a perfect average of one per year. It's not hard to understand how with that feedback at a critical age, I have never considered myself much of an athlete, even when I was playing on an inter-collegiate sports team.

I don't put this list out there to complain (if I hadn't been cut from soccer, I never would have played intramural volleyball in high school, and therefore wouldn't have played in college; and if I hadn't been cut from basketball I would never have found swimming), or even to show off my stubborn, blind persistence. My point is really that most kids aren't likely to be quite as bull-headed about it as I was. I wonder how many people who could have had a lifetime of enjoying sports just gave up after being cut from a team early on.

Since I graduated, my former school has adopted a 'no cut' policy for its middle school sports teams, and many of the places I have worked have had similar policies. When I coach, I try to give every player an equal opportunity to develop, and to experiences all the joys and pains that go along with being on a sports team. You never know which of those gawky 7th graders might grow up seeing himself as an actual athlete someday.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

An Almost Olympic Theme at the Carnival of Education

This week's Carnival of Education is up at JoanneJacobs.com, probably my favorite education blog. The more or less Olympic theme of the week features my post from yesterday right up near the top of the page. Go check it out, then come back here tomorrow for more on sports in schools.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Michael Jordan Says It's OK To Fail

I am currently reading Mindset by Carol Dweck. I'll save my overall thoughts on the book for a later post, but a train of thought that started while reading her book fits into this week's theme of sports and school. The basic thesis of Dweck's book is that there are two kinds of people out there, those who believe that our abilities are malleable and therefore work to improve themselves, and those who believe that we're basically stuck with what God gave us and therefore whine and complain a whole lot. I am seriously oversimplifying here, but you get the basic idea.

In her chapter on sports, Dweck runs through a series of athletes who display the "growth mindset," the belief that ability comes as the result of a lot of hard work. She mentions the following Nike commercial featuring Michael Jordan (I love YouTube; you can find anything there).

Her point is that successful people take each failure as a chance to improve, something they know they have to work harder at. For me, this is one of the lessons of sports that is most valuable in the classroom. In sports, you practice. You play a game or a match. You either win or lose, but even when you win, you make mistakes; so you come back to practice, and you work on improving those skills so that next time you do better.

The classroom should function on a similar cycle. You learn new material. You take a test on that material. The vast majority of students will make some mistakes on that test, so you come back in and you work on learning from those mistakes and further expanding your skills.

As a Spanish teacher, one of the biggest impediments to learning in my classroom is the fear of making mistakes, and therefore the fear of speaking at all. I try to get my students to see that it's just like practice, and that if they don't give themselves a chance to fail, they will never learn. If it worked for Michael Jordan, it will work for them.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Olympic Ideal: Do Sports And School Go Together?

My eyes are a little glazed over this morning from 48 hours of intense Olympics watching. At times like these, our DVR is both a blessing and a curse as I find myself wondering how I am ever going to have enough time to watch all the coverage we have recorded already. I guess that's what vacation is for. As a high school swimmer and college volleyball player, I love the Summer Olympics for the opportunity to see my sports featured so much. I feel like I've just walked into Willy Wonka's factory. (Also, I'm about 24 hours behind catching up with what we've recorded, so don't tell me anything that's happened since Saturday night.)

I thought I would take this opportunity, as sports and the Olympic ideal are so much on our minds, to do a series of posts on athletics in schools. Living abroad as much as we have in the last few years has given me a chance to see how much the close connection between athletics and schools, both at the high school and college levels, is, while not a uniquely American phenomenon, certainly much stronger here than almost anywhere else in the world. This close connection between athletics and academic education has its pluses and minuses. As someone for whom sports were a big part of my education, and for whom coaching has been a big part of my teaching career, I tend to think that the pluses outweigh the minuses, but I am not blind to the problems, either.

Over the next few days, I plan to explore the benefits and drawbacks of sports as an intrinsic part of a formal education. In the meantime, I'd love to hear your thoughts. What would the role of athletics be in your ideal school?

Friday, August 8, 2008

From the Archives: Students and Teachers in the Facebook Age

I've mentioned before that since I started this blog, I have been keeping an archive of articles and blog posts that I think might someday give me an idea for a post of my own. Generally I do this by emailing myself the links and archiving them in gmail under the label "blog ideas." My goal for these couple of weeks before faculty meetings was to work my way through some of those archived articles. I clicked on the "blog ideas" label this morning, and gmail brought up 120+ emails, so I guess I've got my work cut out for me.

Down near the bottom of the list was this Washington Post article about young teachers getting into trouble because their Facebook profiles contained information, language, or images that their schools (I think rightly so) found inappropriate for people working with children and teenagers. The article got a lot of attention in the edublogs when it came out, and most of the discussion centered around trying to define appropriate internet behavior in the Facebook/MySpace age.

The article strikes a chord for me now as I am gearing up for my job at a new school later this month. The school describes itself as "unconventional" in a number of ways, one of the most obvious being the basic relationship between teachers and students. Students call all their teachers by first names, and this is symbolic of a general atmosphere in which the students see their teachers more as friends in a cooperative activity than as authority figures. At this point in my career, this will probably be as big an adjustment as it was at 21 to walk into my first classroom, where students were expected to stand every time I entered the room, and become Mr. K------ for the first time.

Based on the day and a half that I have spent on campus at the school so far, this more informal relationship between teachers and students seems to work well for this particular school and for the environment that they have created there. I'm not sure it is something that would generalize to all school environments. For me, the main challenge is going to be rethinking and redefining my own relationship with the students, and finding that line where friendship ends, and authority begins. Fortunately, my Facebook profile doesn't say anything about me sleeping with a hooker, so I'm a step ahead of some people already.

What do you think the ideal relationship between teachers and students is?

Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Kalamazoo Promise: Motivated Students Are "Easier" Students

The Kalamazoo Promise has been getting more and more press lately, most recently in this WSJ article about how the program is helping to attract businesses and residents back into Kalamazoo. The basic idea of The Promise is that it provides partial college tuition to any student who spends their high school career in Kalamazoo's public schools, and full college tuition to anyone who is there K-12. It is an automatic college scholarship for all Kalamazoo residents.

I first heard about The Kalamazoo Promise when it had just started from Anonymous Friend, who actually grew up in Kalamazoo and was a housemate of ours during our time in England. Anonymous Friend is a regular reader of this blog, and she sent me an email the other day after my post about teaching in private schools. Her basic question was whether students in private schools were more motivated than their public school counterparts, and if so, whether it had anything to do with the much stronger likelihood that they would be attending college after high school. She was back in Kalamazoo visiting family and reported:

I ran into my AP English teacher yesterday and we were talking about the "Kalamazoo Promise," and she was telling me that, since the Promise, enrollment in AP classes at my old high school is off the charts, and she finds that the students are much more focused and "easier" to teach.
The statistics quoted by the WSJ seem to tell a similar story. According to the article, high school graduation rates are up 21% since 2005 when the program was introduced. I am not an expert in these things, but I can't imagine many other changes that would boost graduation rates 20% in two years.

The message seems clear to me. If we want schools full of motivated and successful students, students who are "easier" to teach, we need to be able to give those students a vision of what comes next for them, and how the things they are doing in school are preparing them for that future. From a policy standpoint, that may mean looking at more and more ways to make college affordable for everyone (assuming that not every city or town in America has an anonymous cabal of philanthropists with the money to send all its students to college). From the school's point of view, that means finding ways in everything we do to show the students the future paths that are open to them, and to be very explicit about the connections between what they are doing in school and what they are going to be doing in the future. If those connections aren't there, then we need to seriously rethink what we're teaching in school.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

What I'm Reading Next--Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

I just finished reading El capitán Alatriste. I wrote yesterday about how I may have discovered in it a whole new unit for my Spanish 5 class, so today I'll limit myself to a brief recommendation of the book itself. First of all, for those of you who don't feel up to reading a 200+ page book in Spanish, there is an English translation (Captain Alatriste). It's a very fun read. At the heart it is an entertaining adventure story. Captain Alatriste is a veteran of the Spanish wars against the Netherlands in the early 17th century, now back in a decadent and declining Madrid trying to get by as a sword for hire. He takes a job to ambush and kill two unidentified Englishmen, and soon finds himself way over his head in the middle of major historical and political events, just trying to get out with his skin in tact. Layered over the story is the historical and cultural context of one of Spain's (and Europe's) most interesting periods, as it comes out of the Siglo de Oro and finds its power and influence in the world declining. Lope de Vega, Quevedo and Velázquez all appear as characters, as do various kings and princes. It's just fun all around, especially for fans of historical fiction. Enjoy!

Next up: Mindset: The New Psychology of Success
Sometimes all it takes to get me to read a book is to hit me over the head with it enough times. I first encountered Carol Dweck's name during our faculty development day back in February. The presenter was Harvard neuropsychology professor Jane Bernstein, and she made extensive reference to Dweck's research at Stanford on achievement and success. Largely because of that presentation, Mindset is one of the two summer reading books for faculty. Then there was this NYT piece about the book, which my wife forwarded to me a couple weeks ago. In the end, I got the message, and I'm reading the book. I'll let you know how it is.

Posts about previous titles:
Watership Down
Three Cups of Tea
True History of the Kelly Gang

Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Spanish Culture Through Film or Why I'm a Big Nerd

As I mentioned yesterday, I am in the middle of putting together the curriculum outline for my Spanish 5 class for this coming year. While the thing I most enjoy about teaching is being in the classroom with the students, opportunities like this are high up on my list of why I love being a teacher. The freedom to reach out into the world around me and bring things into the classroom, even if that means a major overhaul of my curriculum, always keeps my job fresh and new, and keeps me learning, which is half the fun.

In this specific case I am reworking a class I taught back in NJ: Spanish Culture Through Film. The basic idea of the course was to watch a Spanish language movie, discuss it in the cultural and historical contexts, throw in some grammar review, and finish it up by having the students write and film their own movie based on the themes of our discussions. I always got great feedback from the students on the class, even if the movies were not all to their tastes, and they generally made good progress with their Spanish along the way.

The real joy, though, is that as I revisit this course that I haven't taught in five years, the experiences I have had since then give me a chance to refine and improve it. Some of those things are planned, but others are happy accidents.

As I mentioned in my latest What I'm Reading Now post, I recently picked up El capitan Alatriste on the recommendation of a former student. My intention was just to brush the rust off my Spanish at the end of a summer, and to enjoy a fun adventure story. As I began reading, though, I realized how much fantastic historical and cultural material is built into the book. I've already ordered the movie version of the book, a highly popular and award winning movie when it came out in Spain, and I may have the makings of a whole new segment for my class on the Siglo de Oro and Spain's decline in the 17th century. My job is really fun sometimes (although it helps that I'm a big nerd).

Monday, August 4, 2008

The Best Teachers Want To Be Creative Teachers

We're just back from an extra long weekend of visiting family up in New Jersey and Massachusetts. The trip was somewhat unexpected and prompted by a sad event, but in the process I got to spend some extra time with my family, including some people I hadn't seen in many many years, so there was, as always, a silver lining.

While in NJ, we spent the night at my uncle's house. My uncle is on the school board in his district, and he and his wife are very focused and involved in their children's education. We got to talking about my new jobs, both the one I just finished and the one I'm about to start. In the process, my aunt gave me a minor guilt trip about teaching in private schools. It's not an unusual conversation for me to have. Between those who think private schools are elitist havens for the liberal and out of touch and those who think that schools and teachers should be serving the most under-served, there is not a lot of middle ground for a teacher to claim.

My answer to my aunt, and to everyone else I have this conversation with, comes down to one basically selfish issue: curriculum control. Now that my summer job is over, my main responsibility over the next few weeks is to outline the curriculum for the Spanish 5 class I will be teaching this year. There is a certain amount of material that I am required to include, but basically I am free to design the entire class. This isn't an aberration in the world of private schools. In my eight plus years of teaching so far, I have had this kind of curricular control over four or five of the courses I have taught, and in most of the others have still had a great deal of autonomy. Compare my experience to the complaints of Not So Master Teacher over at his blog and you can begin to see the attraction of teaching in private schools.

One of the perennial topics in education is how to recruit and keep bright, dedicated people in the teaching ranks. I know there are many pieces to that puzzle, but for me a big piece is always this. Smart, interesting people need to feel like they are getting to use their creativity and intelligence in their work. If we make teaching an assembly line profession, the most qualified teachers aren't going to be interested in doing it for very long.