Thursday, December 29, 2011

We Need Good Teachers Now More Than Ever

Technology is everywhere. Answers are everywhere. Curriculum is everywhere. Yet, we need good teachers now more than ever. Why?

The role of the teacher is shifting. Teaching is not simply providing students with information so that they can cram it in their brains, memorize it, and then regurgitate it on a multiple choice test. Teaching is not simply asking questions that have right and wrong answers. Teaching is not simply dictating what, how and when a student learns. Teaching is about learning, guiding, creating, collaborating, respecting, navigating, inspiring, challenging, understanding, questioning, empowering, and listening. This shift will not make teachers disappear; this shift creates the need for good teachers to appear front and center, to step up, and to lead with passion.

As the role of the teacher evolves, so does the role of the student. Students are being asked to think and create, some, for the first time. Sometimes students are stumped and frustrated, and say, "Just tell me what to do, write, say, etc." Students have to rethink learning just as teachers have to rethink teaching. We must do this together. Technology allows students to publish, become experts, collaborate, share, revise, connect with, and teach others. As these roles become fluid, intertwined, reversed, both are inspired, both are important, and both learn from each other.

Recently, I have been thinking a great deal about curriculum. Curriculum is everywhere. I can find a free course through MIT or Stanford, lesson plans on any number of topics, project ideas, how to videos, etc. Why do we need good teachers if  our students have access to all of this? Well, because our students have access to all of this! It is overwhelming. What is credible? What is valid? We must teach our students to be detectives, to dig, to explore, and to not only find their way, but to create their own path. Good teachers can help do this.

What else can good teachers do? They can inspire students to learn about the things they themselves are passionate about. I ask students all the time to look at bias, perspective, persuasion, rhetorical devices, connotation, and more, when it comes to the world around them, even my own teaching. What I include and leave out says a lot about me. They explore the question, "No matter what we write about, are we writing about ourselves?" Well, when it comes to curriculum, we all have our own opinions. This is the beauty of collaboration, of discussion, of respect, of critical thinking, of learning.

What should we teach our students? Who should determine this? Should there be some curriculum that is set, standards that all students are exposed to and expected to learn? Good teachers are needed now more than ever as we grapple with these ideas of curriculum and learning, choice, passion, credibility, standards, digital footprints, and helping students find their way in this big, connected world. Just as parents parent differently, teachers teach differently. It is good for students to learn from different styles and perspectives. We need good teachers to determine curriculum for their students, with their students- discovering their own individual learning paths, and empowering them to decide if this is something they would like to learn more about.

A colleague of mine recently posted a link to "The 45 Most Powerful Images of 2011" on his facebook page. Another colleague commented that he wished there were time in our current English classes for creative writing, because he used to use powerful images as those in the link as writing prompts. My response was, "Make time." Teachers must allow their passions and strengths to guide their work with kids. Our students deserve to learn from inspired teachers. We do not need good teachers to ask questions that can easily be answered by searching online, looking in the back of a textbook, or by copying an older brother's paper from a few years before. We need good teachers to stay current with technology, encourage students to step out of their comfort zones, and guide students towards learning and understanding that is unique for them. Kids are smart! They know when school is not about them, when teachers are not teaching from the heart, and when what they are learning is not really as important as the teacher says it is, especially if the main reason for learning is, "because it is going to be on the test."

As we continue to provide our students with foundations, and allow them to explore what they want to know more about, good teachers become irreplaceable, significant, purposeful, noble, and even more necessary than ever before.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

My Teaching Timeline, So Far

With the introduction of the new Facebook Timeline, the year 2011 coming to a close, and the fact that we moved (again) and I found a box, no "the" box, of my prized college papers... essays, journals, articles, notes, and the all-too-familiar-to-an-English-major...examination blue books... educational psychology, non-violence crises intervention, Othello, "Sonny's Blues," a celebrated frog, and much, much more... I felt the need to reflect a bit. There are years of stories, faces, smells (yes, there are smells), nuances, fears, and embarrassments of teaching, but this is a single blog post, and my teaching timeline, so far... in a nutshell.


1994... Still in high school, I decide literature is the subject I will study, and eventually teach...Science is in my blood, business is in my family, but literature is in my heart.

I imagine that I am a pretty typical English teacher in that I chose to teach this subject because I love to read, analyze, discuss, write about, and create my own literature. Literature has always been something I am willing to wake up early for... oh but I have a thought, what about this?, add this, delete this, why this?, move this, write this, compare this... My ideas, thoughts, creations have been jotted down any and everywhere from gum wrappers and grocery store receipts, to the palm of my hand.. I love to write. I love to share. I love to learn. Literature allows me to do all of these things: ideas, cultures, perspectives, glimpses into author's mind, surroundings, hearts, souls, and worlds. Literature reflects time periods, is up for interpretation, allows us to be taken on a journey of words, teaches us new languages, gives us adventures, and provides challenges.

What happens when you go from being a student of literature to being a teacher of literature? Well, this is what happened to me...

Student teaching...

1998... Fresh out of college, tutoring, subbing, saving, travelling, moving, beginning

Enthusiastic, ideal, passionate. At first, I studied everything, for hours, the nights before the lessons, words from the dictionary, characters in the plays, themes, techniques, insights. Even though I had analyzed my share of literature, teaching it was a whole new game. I rolled out of bed early, drove in the dark... coffee, scones, textbook, notes. How will I explain this? How will I get the students excited about it? How will I guide them though this? So much of teaching was intuition, connection, patience, going with the flow. I learned to take the spotlight off of me, and that it didn't matter if I was having a bad hair day, was in a bad mood, or didn't feel like going to work. I was a teacher now. Everything I did was for my students. The hours I stayed up late were now for them. The sleep I missed in the morning was for them. The ideas scribbled on paper were for them. Learning how to teach was exhausting. Pedagogy, group projects, classroom management, journaling, juggling.

"Real" teaching...

1999-2001... My Alma Mater. Familiar faces, and some familiar places. The teacher's lounge, department office, faculty restrooms. I had never ventured here, had never been inside these walls, these worlds...wait call you by your first name? I had my own classroom, my posters were up, kids were acting out plays, writing, administrators wrote positive observations. So much of first year teaching is survival. The early years for me were spent as a solo artist, alone with my canvas, doing my thing. Where did my students go when they left my room? Math, PE, lunch, science, home. I focused on my curriculum, on my piece of the big picture. Wait. What was the big picture? There was a shift taking place... test scores are important. We need to be more aligned. We need a stricter pacing guide. We need a red line. Oh no, we do not have much time. We need to keep the students moving. Does this train stop in "Literatureville?" Not anymore. We used to go there, but that station is shut down- for now. No newspaper, no magazines, novels not recommended, at least not until after testing in April. Where is my focus? Where is my creativity? Lesson plans are done. Where is my inspiration? When was the last time I thought? In many ways, it became easier. Sometimes, I even felt relief. Routine. I worked less at home. I was jealous of the "older" teachers who had tenure, who ignored the new rules, who did their own thing, who still took the kids outside to read novels, who weren't afraid to dream.


2001-2007... Should I leave? Starbucks? Target? How can I contribute to the world? I am a teacher, right? Am I the only one wondering these things? I threw my energy into coaching volleyball, took on a new position that allowed me to work with students more than with set curriculum. I had two children. We moved away, we moved back. I had our third child. I got my Master's Degree.


2008 to the present... 13 years later, I still teach. I am dedicated, determined, challenged, and aware. I create change. I embrace change. I collaborate. I connect. I experiment. I evolve. I make mistakes. I integrate. I fail. I know my weaknesses. I know my strengths. I find new weaknesses. I find new strengths. I read. I write. I read more. I write more. I use technology. Teaching is learning. I am learning, guiding, breathing, exploring. Be purposeful. Ask why. Students are the focus. My children and husband are the focus. I am the focus, sometimes.
I still wake up too early, while my family is asleep, before the coffee has started to drip. Teaching is who I am. Creating me is creating for them. I am not done. Learn and grow, and do not be afraid to dream.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Foundations and Explorations

A teaching philosophy that guides my work is what I call Foundations and Explorations. I believe that students must gain a solid understanding of a variety of subjects, standards, ideas, concepts, strategies, devices, and techniques before they begin to explore. These purposeful foundations should be given to students with a great deal of support and guidance. Not all students need the same foundations, and not all students need them on the same day.

Once a student has shown that they have a solid understanding, and are ready to take the next steps, they begin the exploration side of learning. The exploration process is also not the same for each student, and not all students are ready to explore at the same time, or in the same way. Foundations allow students to gain skills and confidence. Explorations allow students the freedom to create, present, publish, and teach what they are learning, and show how they are improving, to others. Through technology, students are empowered to explore responsibly, becoming digital citizens, creating their electronic "E-Legacy" as they go.

Teaching in a blended learning environment allows me to interact with students throughout this process, both face to face and online, while also slowing down, speeding up, and making changes based on their individual needs and interests.

If you are interested in learning more about how I incorporate this philosophy into my teaching, and how my colleague David Dillon and I use it to create project-based interdisciplinary History and English (Humanities) curriculum at the Riverside Virtual School, stay tuned. We are very excited to have the opportunity to present our ideas at the ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) conference this summer in San Diego, and I will be blogging more about our philosophies and projects as well.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Allowing Students to Advance Based on Competency, Not Time

This afternoon, one of my students came to see me during my office hours. He has been working on blog post rough drafts about a novel he is reading. The focus of this unit is on point of view and perspective, but the students have been given a great deal of freedom to show mastery of many of the standards we have worked with so far this year. This student is an online student, but he frequently attends my face to face office hours, and has since the beginning of the school year. I have interacted with him online through the course, emails, and Twitter, and asked that he see me for additional support and direction with his blogs. I had a few questions that I thought would be best discussed face to face. Because I teach in a blended learning environment, I try very hard to make my meetings with students purposeful and meaningful.

My student arrived to discuss his final drafts, and to take an end of the unit proctored essay. When my student walked in to my classroom, I asked that he sit at my desk and log in to the class so that we could go over his posts together. He did. We talked. His blog posts were summaries, which contained mostly facts about the reading. The information was information I could find on my own. It was not unique. There was not one iota of my student within his blog posts. I said, "We are not going to discuss these posts you have submitted." I grabbed a piece of paper and a pen (old school... I usually do this using technology, but at this moment, and with this student, this felt right), and started to ask my student questions about the focus of the unit, about the book, about his ideas and insights. I wrote down everything he said in my sloppiest handwriting. We discussed literature. He compared this novel to a poem he read last year. He compared this novel to a story he read for another course. He made connections, he spoke about the themes, he told me a story of a family member who shared stories with him that were similar to the stories in his chosen novel. I looked at him and asked, "Is any of this in any of your blog posts that you submitted to me?" "No," he said, a bit surprised.

He was going through the motions. I told him that my job as a teacher is to encourage him to think, to create his best work, to learn, and to improve. Tonight, during my office hours, he did not take an end of the unit assessment. He was not ready. Instead, he grabbed a laptop, and started to write. He did not have to stay. He chose to sit and to create, and from his heart came a very moving post. He called me over and asked me to read what he had written. It was beautiful. It was improved. It was genuine. It took longer than I thought. I extended his deadline.

My student came in because he thought he had completed the required assignments. He had not mastered the standards, and he had not shown me that he was ready to move on. I could have given him points, if that was the goal, but I didn't. His educational needs are different than his classmates. I could have given him partial credit, he could have passed based on work submitted, but then what? Then I never would have seen what he was capable of, and I would not be allowing him to show he is competent, not only in meeting a time sensitive deadline, but in meeting a performance-based goal. By allowing this student to advance based on competency, not time, he will hopefully learn more in the end, and gain more confidence in the process.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

National Student Exchange

Whether you are a high school or college student, an educator, or a parent, I recommend you check out NSE...

The National Student Exchange is a not-for-profit education consortium, tuition-reciprocal exchange program that provides affordable and practical opportunities for students enrolled at member campuses to study and live in a new location. With participating campuses in the United States, Canada, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, NSE students have found their exchanges culturally enriching, academically rewarding, and one of the most significant experiences of their undergraduate education (

During my junior and senior years of high school, I spent a lot of time researching potential colleges and universities.  This was WAY before Facebook and Twitter.  I had to do my research the old fashion way. I sent away for information, made phone calls, and read all that I could about these schools. I had a few set criteria, but didn't want to go too big. I wanted to keep it simple. I did not want to attend a party school, and I did not want to be just a number. I wanted to play volleyball , and I already knew I wanted to be an English teacher. Going away sounded awesome, but when my mom and I checked out schools out of state, I got a little nervous. After all the research, I decided to stay close to home.

I was accepted to California State University, San Bernardino, and tried out for the volleyball team. I made it as a walk on, moved into the dorms, and started school. As a college athlete, I learned how to juggle school commitments and athletic obligations. School was rewarding. Learning was happening. But, I was restless.

By the end of my first year in college, I was getting the urge to travel, and to explore a bit. Then, one day, two girls moved into our dorm from the University of Alabama. Alabama?! How did they end up at CSUSB? They were there through a program called National Student Exchange. The idea of transferring, or summer abroad, or somehow being able to travel while not stopping school was what I was looking for. Then, these two students walked into the picture, and I was intrigued.

I loved CSUSB, and I was getting a great education. I figured the only options for restless students like me were to a.) suck it up or b.) transfer. I really did not want to risk having my classes not transfer, did not want to pay out of state tuition fees, and still did not want to move too far away from my family and friends, for too long, so I started to do a little research.

National Student Exchange is a program that allows you to attend another campus without switching schools permanently.  I decided it was time for an adventure. I walked into the weight room one day and said, I am going on an exchange...does anyone want to go with me? My friend Kim said she would go. We needed a school that was on the quarter system like us, so that we could stay eligible for volleyball, and be back in time for spring practices.  There are nearly 200 member universities. 

We chose the University of Georgia for Winter quarter.  This meant we spent three months in Athens, Georgia living in on campus housing while paying CSUSB tuition.  It was such an amazing experience, and something that I highly recommend for students and parents. That quarter, I got a taste of a big out of state school in the South, and made the Dean's List. I came back less restless, and ready to finish college at CSUSB.

If and where to attend college are personal decisions. Having a program like NSE allows students to explore, step out of their comfort zones, and experience new things while still staying focused on progressing through school, and without having to jump through extra hoops.

Check out NSE on Youtube: