Category Archives: Teacher’s Desk

Thoughts on teaching, education, classroom experiences, etc. and how we as teachers reflect and learn from them.

Sunday Morning Scan

Browsing Twitter on Sunday mornings is a pleasure. Although the week’s Tweets are always useful, I enjoy taking the time to scan, check out websites, collect primary sources, catalogue different classroom strategies, read teacher’s blogs, and comment back to a great pool of educators, on Sunday morning. Here are a few ‘finds’ from recent tweets as well as old resources. Let me know if you find them useful!
  • EdCafes: I saw this demonstrated at last year’s EdcampBoston and thought it had potential for a history class. The creator is Katrina Kennett (Plymouth South) and the basic idea is that students become facilitaor/presenters on topics of their choice related to a theme covered in class. In their words, “An EdCafe is a way to structure class that promotes student choice and ownership over learning. The model was inspired by EdCamp conferences, where participants build the schedule and choose what sessions to attend. This bottom-up approach shifts energy, engagement, and opportunity for exploration to the students, and transforms the teacher into expert facilitator instead of gatekeeper/manager.” Usually, there are four presentations going on in one class, and presentations are scheduled up to a month ahead. There’s a heavy amount of preparation for each student presenter and responsibilities for the participants as well. Katrina teaches this model with an ELA class, but it can be applied to history easily enough. Her site offers an explanation of what an Edcafe is, ideas for scaffolding skills, standards and assessments, advice for students, and examples of Edcafes in action.
  • American History Madness: I’ve actually done this project on paper for a couple of years and many of you have probably heard of it. I originally got the idea from this article on applying the NCAA Final Four brackets to a history class. Other teachers have built many variations on this idea. Mine was usually a poster-board with groups of students defending different outcomes. The teacher sponsoring this American History Madness blog has incorporated Google Forms and student presentations and blogs into his version. Its much more interactive, and allows/encourages the public to vote as well. With the iPads in many classes, its easy for us to facilitate and publish student presentations online. Students are also expected to be able to debate their positions. 
  • PPT Palooza: If you’re like me, and have created 100’s of PPTs over the years, this site makes me sigh, but in a good way. Susan Pojer has created hundreds of PPTs for US and World History that are absolutely amazing. She’s also linked some from other teachers and students. Check them out. I use them all the time now, and they also make for great backgrounds to screencasts, which are teacher-made YouTube video lectures. Using sites like Screencastomatic and others, its really easy to record yourself on audio while walking your students through a PPT or website on your computer. If you have any questions about how to make these, I can show you. It’s really easy and allows you to give lectures for students to do at home, so you can focus more time in class on inquiry, debates, projects, and basically homework (applied learning). The new buzzword is ‘flipped class’, but it has its merits, especially when students have their own iPads and mobile devices. 
  • Zinn Education Project: Even though Howard Zinn’s speeches and politics were controversial, his application of critical thinking in studying history was not. I’ve used the People’s History of the US (annotated teachers edition) as well as Voices of a People’s History in my APUSH classes for years, asking students to support or oppose his non-neutral stance on US History with evidence. I didn’t really care which position students took, as long as they learned the tools of historiography in the process. This website has a huge amount of teaching material that is free. All of the lessons involve different levels of critical thinking and student engagement (many have role plays), which I have always found useful. The Facebook page for the Zinn Education Project has a new primary source document highlighted almost every day as well. There’s also a free downloadable full teacher guide to Voices of a People’s History available on their site as well. so is a useful feature. There are also videos of actors reading primary sources from Voices of a People’s History that you can play in class. 

The 2012 Election in Your Classroom

The election is coming! The election is coming! 2012 is ‘one of those years’ in the classroom and it is a great opportunity for History and Social Studies teachers to focus on the choices that Americans make to determine their next president. For us, as teachers, there are a lot of bases to cover as we hope to inform our students about the process by which a person becomes a candidate, the social issues that divide and unite the country, the nature of political parties and campaign financing, the current state of the economy amid high unemployment, and the war in Afghanistan and our foreign policy in very important regions of the world like China, the Middle East, Africa and more. It’s a big plate.

I’d like to offer some suggestions and resources that might help facilitate discussion, depth and debate before November 6th rolls around. Many of these suggestions come from the great work done by other educators and found on Twitter. We all stand on the backs of giants.

  • From the National Constitution Center, gives students the power to create their own candidacy for the presidency by creating their own campaign ad. It’s an easy step-by-step process. Thanks to the great post by Gillian Nyla.
  • Facilitate a discussion with your students on the nature of the political parties and the issues that divide them into ‘left and right’ positions using this infographic. Infographics allow students to visualize complex issues. You can even have students create their own using sites like,, and For a great resource on 2012 election infographics, check out this intense Pinterest board on the subject. Have students fact-check and analyze as propaganda.
  • Watch with students, ‘The Choice’ by PBS Frontline with your students. It will air on October 9th and will provide a documentary on the biographies of the two candidates as well as an in-depth look at the issues that divide them and their leadership styles and personalities. Also check out their documentaries on the 2008,2004 and 2000 elections.
  • Explore the complex issues of campaign financing with your students using the transparency of Following the 1996 elections, the Center for Responsive Politics created the website to ‘follow the money’ in national and local elections. Role play with students campaign fundraising activities, re-enact the Citizens United Supreme Court case, or run an in-class election as if it was a presidential one to see how the money influences (or not) the vote.
  • Any US History teacher knows how complicated it is to explain the dreaded Electoral College. This under 5 minute video helps explain it all, including all of the oddities and complexities of the process. It’s great. You could show this to your students all the way through and ask them “Who got this?”, then go back and pause it along the way for deeper explanation.  Open a discussion about why this process exists. If its around Constitution Day, even better! If students still have questions, send them to the US Government FAQ page for the process.
  • FIguring out where the candidates stand on the issues is sometimes a lot harder than it looks. Sometimes there are subtle policy differences and other times its really hard to determine where the candidates are just based on general statements made in speeches. has a great webpage that takes the issues and parses them by the candidates own statements, along with analysis, by topic. It’s a great place for students to go to find out sometimes how similar and different the choices between candidates is. Have students create their own stump speeches, role play and debate each other, have a newsmaker interview with campaign staff, etc. and watch the subtleties fly! This website is also a good place to learn and discuss foreign policy, which hasn’t really been a front-page issue in 2012.
  • Here’s some great resources for students to see and build their own electoral maps from the New York Times, PBS Newshour, CNN and FOX. Have your students figure out how polls determine these stats. Help them conduct their own school and town/city polls. Finally, here’s another good one that students can use to build a map to 270 electoral votes, called 270 to Win.
  • The New York Times also has some great infographics from the conventions. This one explains visually how many times certain words were used in the convention speeches. Students can look at these and begin a discussion on who the audience is for each speech and what the candidate’s intent is. You could also use the website Wordle to cut and paste famous speeches in history into a text box. What happens next is that you get a visual ‘word cloud’ on the most commonly used words in bigger and bolder print. Here’s a link to convention speeches I put into Wordle.
  • Campaign commercials also say a lot about a candidate and their campaign’s message. We all remember the little girl counting while picking a flower, and then getting blown up by a nuclear weapon. This site, the Living Room Candidate, has hundreds of campaign commercials going back to Eisenhower. They make for excellent primary source analysis as well as a focus on propaganda in election politics. Here’s also a great site which provides a sample of 200 years of election posters.
  • There are many surveys and questionnaires you can give your students to gauge their positions on different issues. Here’s a brief list: Campaign Match Up,
  • Finally, here’s a list of some great sites with other teaching lessons and ideas for Election 2012:

I hope these resources help. Please feel free to leave feedback, and have a great time exploring these issues with your students on the road to November!

How Twitter Helps Me Grow

Yes, I love Twitter. In 2006, I thought it would be cool to sign up for an account and share with the world my actions and thoughts…

One post.

Yes, that’s all I entered. I don’t really think I understood it at all. Why wasn’t anything showing up in my Twitter stream? Who do I ‘follow’? I had no idea. Then I decided to return to it in April 2011. I remembered a local teacher who I had heard talk about cell phone use in his class, found his webpage/blog, loved it, and then saw that he was on Twitter.

He was my first ‘follow’.

One thing led to another. More teachers began showing up. I followed them as well. Then I saw principals, superintendents, consultants, professors and (gasp) even students on Twitter. I learned really quickly how valuable it could be. I was invited to a local #edcamp (unconference) in Boston and then met hundreds of educators, all sharing resources, providing feedback, and collaborating together on different projects. It was like some kind of PD heaven!

So, on to tonight. I saw that there was an AP US History chat being moderated at 7PM EST and, yes, its summer. I had the time and really wanted to connect with APUSH teachers. We introduced ourselves and the discussion began: “How do we help our students in the beginning of the year without overwhelming them?”

Some ideas shared on Twitter #APUSHchat:

  • Get PSAT data from students and compare with a diagnostic US History test, then make groups 3-4 strong with middle and developing students in each group.
  • Ask students what they want to get out of the class and then pretest them to see what they know and where they are at.
  • Give students an organized day by day agenda so that they know what to expect and set deadlines.
  • Create a pacing/reading guide for students for the whole year so they can plan their schedules.
  • Identify class and personal goals, as well as reading and learning goals.
  • Sharing the ‘top 10’ pieces of advice given by last year’s APUSH class.
  • Using formative assessments on a regular basis to inform instruction. Here are some notes shared by one teacher:
  • Letting students know about (and practice) different note taking strategies, such as Cornell notes, The One Pager, Havard Outline, Dialectical Journals, Levels of Questions.
  • A learner profile and a technology survey for students.

We also discussed field trips and their logistics, syllabus design, Socratic seminars, edcafes, parent meetings, parent resources, edcamps, and fact vs. opinion vs. inferences. It was one hour of pure ‘teacher-helping-teachers’.

In my 16 years of teaching, I have definitely found this to be my strongest form of collaborative professional growth.

How to connect?

So, if anyone is interested in finding out how to use Twitter as a teacher, go to, create an account, click ‘compose new Tweet’ and send a message to @thalesdream (me). If you’d like to find other Social Studies and History teachers relatively quick, type ‘Hello, I’m new to Twitter and looking to connect with other history teachers.’ and then add #sschat, which is the chat channel for Social Studies on Twitter.

Here are some other really useful #sschat links:


Teacher Blog Recommends

Blogs are really interesting windows into how others create, share and reflect on their lives. I highly recommend using Google Reader, or some other RSS feed to follow the posts of some great educators: Vicki Davis (Cool Cat Teacher), Stephen Lazar (Outside the Cave), Terie Engelbrecht (Crazy Teaching) and Michael K. Milton (@42thinkdeep). Their posts give me the chance to learn more about pedagogy, sharpen my lesson design and implementation, share resources and overall, help me grow as a professional. Check them out!

Notes from EdcampNH

Session 2 (Assessment Standards)

How do we authentically assess students?

  • How do we know what students know? How is it measured?

Blended environments

  • How do we know who did what? How do you give feedback and manage?

Determining Averages

  • Formative assessments don’t count. How do we account for standards based performance when grades are weighted the same before and after the grades are in?
  • Eventually we are grading on competencies, but we are not there yet.

Analogy: Driving test. Everyone knows what’s on it. There’s value. Drivers Ed works on the formative assessment and help students gain the competencies so they are ready for the big test.

Q: How do we change this as a school community? How do we make sure change happens?

Session 3 (Critical Skills) @dancallahan 

We’ve been given a challenge of presenting in a group on critical skills and fundamental dispositions in a 21st century classroom.

So, we’re in 3 groups

Group 1: Official  website
Group 2: Unofficial website and
Group 3: Article – From experience to meaning: The critical skills program by Laura Thomas.

We’ve been given 30 minutes to prepare to give a 10 minute presentation.
Now, we’re doing the presentation and breaking it down.

Session 4 (Ipads in School) @dancallahan

Songza (app) streaming music that gives you playlists according to different moods/styles.
50 Shades of Grey (ebook readers)
If you buy 20+ apps from Apple, you get them ½ price in bulk

Suggested apps:

  • Drawing pad
  • Toontastic
  • Doodlecast
  • Evernote
  • Dropbox
  • Paper
  • Skitch
  • Socrative
  • Nearpod
  • Subtext

Discussion Questions:

  1. How do we make effective use of the iPad?
  2. What is a good app? Bad app?
  3. What do we like about it?
  4. What do we not like about it?
  5. How do you provide apps and devices?

Session 5 (Paperless Classroom)

  • iannotate
  • dropittome


  1. Explain Everything (ipad screencast)
  2. mybrainshark (PPT to screencast)
  3. iannotate (app like skitch but better)
  4. book2cloud (open source books with questions)
  5. (books in 200 word bits/email)
  6. mendeley (PDF organizer)
  7. (tool organizer)
  8. whitenoise (app to tune things out)
  9. (embedding books in a webpage)
  10. (dialogue creator)
  11. (express yourself with maps)
  12. (infographics)
  13. (infographics)
  14. (infographics)
  15. songzu (music streaming)
  16. (music synthesizer)
  17. (stream your device)
  18. reflectionapp (device to projector)

Notes from EdcampCT

Session 1: Social leaders RT

Essential question: How do we move from a culture of isolation to a culture of collaboration?

Discussion introducing the work of Larry Cuban and his judgment on tech in schools. Does it actually improve learning? Is there evidence on this? No. Reference of Robert Evans, organizational psychologist and former English teacher. His point is that there needs to be institutional change but ones that focus on moving out of isolation. Also a reference of Mica Pollock and her work at She also used texting and eportfolios to improve instruction in a high risk community.

Examples: school websites, iPads, computers in the classroom


  • There is a technology fear factor.
  • Teachers need time.
  • Schools have to create trust.
  • Does tech improve the practice?
  • Is social media creating a participation divide?
  • We need to invest more in human capacity than tech capacity.
  • Never use the term technology in the title.

Session 2: Building better questions

Introduction: Laura is a school librarian at Burlington HS and is frustrated that students don’t know how to design good projects. Too often the teachers focus their attention on descriptive information and kids just go to Google.

We then shared essential questions from different disciplines and Laura wrote them on the board.



  • Projects can’t just be written in a different form and called ‘creative’. Come up with different ways for students to create.
  • Building essential questions
  • Make learning relevant by helping students take positions on different issues.
  • Mary Johnson has a great format for helping students build their own essential questions.
  • How do we move students from trying to give descriptive answers to analytical positions?

Session 3: iPad PD

Recommended reading: Bill Strickland (Pittsburg) regarding classroom environments

Tom Maccord leads and he introduces 5 common mistakes that districts make in their pd concerning iPad integration.

  1. Failure to give a clear message and communicate to your stakeholders on why iPads are necessary. Failure to distinguish the benefits of an iPad vs a computer.
  2. “There’s an app for that.” is not true. This is s huge misunderstanding here. Subject specific apps are mostly drill and kill. (notability, explain everything, Evernote, GarageBand, iMovie – 4 apps that cross learning disciplines is a better pd approach for students and teachers)
  3. Shared iPads create challenges.
  4. iPads are bought, given to teachers, and there’s no pd.

Session 4: Game theory in the classroom

I led this ‘curiosity’ discussion on the nature of game theory in the classroom. I had learned a bit about this from articles and websites but not from my peers. As it turns, there were others at edcampCT that also were curious. Some had learned much more than me from the speeches and workshops of others. Others had been working on models of game theory in their own class. We talked about the advantages and disadvantages of competition as well as the authenticity of learning that is needed for intrinsic value. In the end, we did not arrive at conclusions but we did create more of an understanding.

What is it?

Is it a differentiation tool or a motivation tool?q

Is it just a new grading system or learning experience?

How do you apply it in the classroom?

Extrinsic vs intrinsic

Is all extrinsic a bad thing?

If everything is for points, is that a bad thing?

Game theory structure. What’s the best structure?

Identify 21st century Skills. The more skills used you get rewards. Accumulated xp equals privilege. Earning privileges vs skills.


  • Book, Enders Game is a fiction book that focuses students to play war games to fend off an alien attack.
  • Gamification of our society
  • No a reflection of critical thinking
  • Most game theories involve large scale projects
  • Game theory involves a new language and not everyone is familiar with it
  • Read 180 is a game system too
  • We learn through play, yes.
  • Martha Nisbaum and netricity. Nothing is real unless you assign numbers.
  • Is there a false belief in measurability?
  • Is there a way to build something that carcosonne into a class learning experience?
  • Can we make points a part of process instead of product?
  • The tasks have to be intrinsically meaningful.
  • The games have to be authentically experienced by students themselves.

Session 5: Schoology

Last year, I used Schoology as a classroom platform for online learning in all of my classes, but the most direct engagement I got was with AP US History and Multicultural Studies. This was in part because NBHS had been given 7 iPads as a donation, and I ended up with 5 of them for use in my classes. By sharing them, I was able to have classroom access to the internet for student discussions and online research.
Here in this discussion, my goal was to introduce the idea of a classroom management system…

Q1: What is it? What are its advantages?

  • LMS  content, assignments, discussion, assessments, resources
  • Grades, attendance, analytics
  • Collaboration. Colleagues, parents, students, administrators
  • Planning. Units, lessons, resources, all in one place and portable

Q2: How does it improve instruction?

  • Focused writing
  • Peer review, debate, discussion
  • All materials are in one place making studying easier
  • Classroom is portable on mobile devices, flipping is easier

Q3: What skills does this help students develop?

  • Networking and collaboration
  • Critical thinking, argumentation,
  • Effective writing
  • Presentations
  • Inquiry
  • Developing good questions


  1. Tour wrist
  2. Zite
  3. dark sky
  4. Paper
  5. Caffeine

Urban Science Blogging

[important]This is a guest post from my wife, Dr. Jessica Meade. For a few years, we had a teaching blog together, but since we are going to be working in different districts this year, we decided to split the blog. Her new blog is called Peaceful Teacher. Check it out! [/important]

This year I taught AP Biology and 2 Integrated Science classes.  In our urban, underperforming school, Integrated Science is for students who are either 1) not ready for chemistry 2) haven’t passed biology but there is no room in revisited biology 3) have an intense IEP and need a third science that is not too difficult or 4) it fit in their schedule and meets a requirement for a non-honors student.  I requested this course to teach while I learned AP Biology because I had taught it before and really enjoyed it.  This year had more challenges, but I learned more about differentiation and opening student interest than ever before.

Integrated Science in our school includes four basic sciences:  chemistry, earth science, environmental science, and physics.  My joy in teaching this course is that there is a lot of freedom in content and delivery.  We don’t have enough books, so it can’t ever be a text book centered course.  I start with chemistry to give them the foundation they need to take chemistry in the future if they choose to.  Many of them do not feel confident about taking chemistry and I can quickly teach them the first several units of chemistry in four weeks.  Then we move on to Earth Science.  This year something magical happened.  I was showing them the BBC video Power of the Planet (which is fantastic by the way), and they had an animation of how Iceland was formed.  I pause movies all the time because it helps to keep kids awake.  So I paused and said, “Hey, my mom is in Iceland right now.”  This concept was completely beyond my students’ understanding of the world.  People take vacations in places like Iceland?  Why?  What is she doing there?  Are there hotels?  The questions were endless.

I have always know that my students see their world as very small.  Many have never been out of state.  Some have never been out of our city.  Some students are from other countries but left them for a better life here – they would never go back for a vacation.  I had a light bulb moment:  My students should plan a vacation to an earth science hot spot.

When I introduced it to them, they were excited.  During our brainstorming session, the students struggled to hold onto the idea that it was a trip to see something in nature.  “Can’t I see the Eifel Tower?”  “Can I go see the pyramids?  Where are the pyramids?”  I quickly realized that my students have had very little experience with geography and that that would be a hurtle to undertake.  After brainstorming, I told them we would be making blogs.  Not one student of my two classes had ever made a blog.  Most had no idea what it was.  With this lack of information came resistance.  They tried to argue with me to make posters or brochures.  I tried to reassure them that it would be cool, that they would like it.  At the very least, they would gain a powerful skill on the computer.  I saw that students were truly very interested in gaining more skills even if they really did not want to.

Our computer labs have few working computers.  Many of the computers run very slowly or have obvious viruses.  We all accept these issues but it is frustrating.  Students could work faster on their phones than waiting for google to load.  None of the labs had a projector screen but my original plan was to walk the students through the blog set-up all together.  I ended up walking them through the beginning process orally, but I had to go around to each student to help them.  Then I quickly had a few student experts who could help others.  I chose to use Blogspot because it is a format with which I am very comfortable.

In terms of setting up accounts, I anticipated that some students did not have reliable email accounts for which they knew both username and password.  Most students have little use for email.  I was prepared to help them set up new email accounts and names for their blogs.  I did not realize how much they would struggle for a username, password, and name for their blog.  In retrospect, I would have done more brainstorming about the names of blogs in our classroom and help them to understand what the name should be about.  Some of the names were about their travel blogs and some of the their names were less applicable and more about personal expression.

Surprisingly, setting up the blogs took one entire block.  It was much more difficult than I expected.  Mostly because they did not understand what we were creating despite the examples I showed them.  Some of course had their blog set up in five minutes and were ready to go.  I had a handout which I will attach that guided students along the assignment.  The faster students began researching different locations.  I provided links to several travel websites and to obvious Earth Science hot spots – Hawaii, Iceland, Grand Canyon.  The first page of the blog was to be an introduction to their trip.  Once students had a spot selected, I helped them make their first post and publish it.  When students saw their blog with a post as an actual website, it was a magical moment.  Students said things like “I just made a website?” “Other people will see this and read it.  Cool.”  “Can I make a blog now about my own stuff too?”  It was very exciting.  Students were very motivated to make their blogs look good with pictures and design.

For my class, I decided they needed to have at least 8 entries including details such as how they would travel, costs, hotels, hiking guides, or tour guides to get to remote places, equipment needs, and whatever else they could think of, with many pictures to make it interesting.  They were required to explain the Earth Science behind the place they were visiting – in other words, how was that volcano formed?, how did that canyon form? and so on.  We also learned new words such as itinerary, we grew a real understanding of geography such as the difficulty of traveling from Arizona to Alaska in one trip, and students saw the range of costs of travel.  This broad set up allowed me to tell students individually exactly what I expected from them.  My class was supposed to be co-taught, but due to budget issues, I was on my own.  After the first day, I asked some student experts to sit next to students who were struggling to give them some guidance, and I am very grateful that those students were willing to help.

After the first few days of getting things set up, locations chosen, and research in motion, things became more exciting in the classroom.  Students were calling me over constantly, not for help, but to show me beautiful pictures or amazing hotels they found.   They were showing each other the beauty of the Earth and figuring out how to explore it.  One student showed her blog to her mother and they are now planning a trip to Sedona, AZ.  The student felt very confident in helping her mother to find flights and hotels, and knew how to get there from the airport.

In total, we spent 8 full blocks in the computer lab.  They were not consecutive days due to the difficulty of scheduling lab time in a large school.  Having non-consecutive days gave us time to reflect on our projects and time for me to continue teaching the basics of plate tectonics, volcanoes, and earthquakes.  As we worked, students were able to make connections between the content and their projects, and I saw evidence of this understanding in the final projects of the blogs.  I took half a block one day and gave each student a copy of a map of the world.  I showed a simple map of countries on my projector.  We spent time finding the locations of everyone’s trip.  Students also asked me to show them Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran, feeling it was a safe environment to admit that knowledge deficit.  We filled in about 30 countries, and the students were completely interested.

What started as a rough lesson plan of a project developed into a life changing educational experience for many of my students.  They were proud of having a place on the internet, they were excited about travel and all desired to go to these places some day, and they were fully invested in learning.  Many of my students have at-risk qualifiers on many levels and our classroom is disrupted by their issues almost daily.  I can’t say that this project filled our classroom with rainbows and every student completed a perfect blog.  I can say that more students than usual completed a project and that the students who did complete it or even get a good start at it, were very proud of their products.  As a final project, students had to research an endangered species and teach us about it.  They could make a powerpoint, a poster, a research paper, or a blog.  All of the students chose to make a blog, because they felt it was such an easy way to present information.

Blogging is very powerful for our students, giving them a voice, creating a place to write and care about the message, and being a part of the technological world.  I have no doubt that in future classes, if given a choice, they will use blogging for a project.  Some teachers may feel hesitant to try a project like this in a class that is large, with many issues.  I encourage those teachers to try.  Blogging is not successful in the classroom because it is a nifty new tool.  Instead it is successful because it gives the student creative ownership and an online presence in a healthy, intellectual format.


Changing of the Guard

There is a wonderful episode of the Twilight Zone where an aging private school teacher faces his deepest fear: that of being forgotten, without everhaving made a difference in the lives of his students. He eventually convinces himself that it would be better to die by his own hand instead of living with his depression, and so he goes off into a snowy Christmas Eve night with a gun. He eventually wanders to a statue of Horace Mann. The inscription reads, “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.” But, before he is able to shoot himself, shades of his students visit him to share gratitude and appreciation for all of his work, care, and love of literature.

How many students have sat in each of these chairs? How many papers, homework assignments, essays, projects, ests and quizzes have I graded? When I am alone in the classroom, my classroom, whose voices do I hear? Whose smiles do I see? What angry glances are thrown my way with contempt? How many posters and pictures and projects have hung on the walls, or from the ceiling?

How many students have changed my life?

Around my classroom, right now, I see portrait posters of heroes and leaders, artists and scientists, writers and activists. I see student projects and conceptual art. I see dozens of places from around the world and read the poetry of Rumi. There are many complete sets of objects once called encyclopedias. I have a file cabinet filled with manilla folders, stuffed with lessons and printouts of really cool stuff I created well over ten years ago – long untouched. On the table in front of me is my Macbook Pro, my Dell M1330 laptop, my printer from home, my Dell XPS desktop, my Linksys router, folders, a stapler, a 3 hold punch, lots of unused power cords for laptops that could not be salvaged from obscurity. I have field trip forms for a trip to Boston tomorrow (Adams Historic Park and the Peabody Museum at Harvard University).

The homeroom bell rings… Another day begins.

My time at New Bedford High School has been eventful, to say the least. I have learned much about the nature of school politics as well as the ins and outs classroom  management. In one of the first weeks of teaching there, a student lit another student’s jacket hood on fire. I have seen more triumphs (big and small) than suffering, but both are present in an average day. To a certain extent, guns, gangs, drugs, violence, sexual abuse, police as the enemy, poverty, homelessness and broken families  have all sat in the seats before me as I try to teach the differences between Hamilton and Jefferson. On the other hand, dozens of students have entered the field of history, while hundreds have gone to college for the first time… all sitting in front of me from one class to the next. Many students have found love, purpose, identity, faith, and their potential in my time here at this school.

How does one measure a lifetime?

Is a teacher’s job a career? Is it a life? I keep thinking of how students who saw me in the summer were shocked and awed to see me in shorts. When I was a teenager, I found it hard to see a teacher beyond their job. My experience with them was limited to the give and take, the time from bell to bell. How could they be anything else?

So now, here I am. One lifetime ends. Another begins. I learned a lot about myself. I saw greatness in my colleagues, and more importantly, my students. I made mistake after mistake, sometimes too slowly learning how to improve lessons, pedagogy, and professionalism. In the end, within the pale blue walls with bright orange cabinets and closets that was my classroom, I changed… and nothing was lost.

Goodbye, New Bedford High School.

It was a good life.

Hello, Sandwich High School. A new life begins.

The Troubled Gatekeeper

The end of the school year is a rough time, especially for seniors. First, let’s be honest – there’s the prom to think about. Then there’s pressure about college. There’s uncertainty concerning summer work – whether you’ve got it, need it, or doing everything possible to avoid it. Finally, for many there’s a big black hole where the future should be.

Now put graduating on the top of the list. Lots of students don’t need to worry about it. It’s kind of like the end of a movie that you don’t like – but know is coming in about 15 minutes. You just sit it out. For others, graduating is like doing that last chore that you dread. It’s something that is just unpleasant, but you know all kind of people expect it from you, so you do it.

Then there’s the anxiety created for some kids who know they just might not make it. They see the gates that lead out to the ‘real world’. They see the light at the end of the tunnel, but… there’s one person standing in their way. It’s the last gatekeeper.

Sometimes that person is me.

I’m not sure how it works out this way, but it does. US History gets on the list of the classes you have to pass before graduation. Maybe they skipped it in sophomore year. Maybe they failed it 3 times. For whatever reason, I become the teacher that some students need to pass before they graduate. The problem is that ‘some kids’ don’t realize it until the last two weeks. Sometimes they don’t know it at all. Guidance counselors ask if there’s any way so and so can pass. “Can I have all my  late work now?” “Please” is sometimes optional, but that’s ok. It’s not about me at that point. I have to remember that.

What do you do? One student has a 48 average one quarter and a 73 for another. The school says that they have to get about 65 to get a D and pass. They’ve missed 27 days of school in the semester, including 16 in the last month or so. The numbers don’t add up. On the other hand, maybe that same situation needs some context. The step-father just died. The student has been making work up online by staying in touch with the teacher a couple of times a week. Maybe the IEP allows for alternative assessments and extra time to make up major assignments. What if a scribe is required? Or tutoring?

Do they pass through the gate, or not?

I hate that call.

Should there be exceptions for students that try? Should there be a different set of rules when the stakes are raised? Do I ‘hold the line’ against all that stand against me, whether its guidance, administration or parents? What if the school doesn’t want their grad numbers to dip? What if (gasp) I get overruled up the chain of command, after the fact? Yup, that’s happened.

I wonder what this says about me as a teacher. On one hand, I want to be fair and consistent. Numbers are numbers. On the other hand, I have bent the numbers from time to time because I’ve lost sleep over what is best for the student in the long run. Do I rationalize my decision by saying that they did actually learn things that weren’t reflected in their grades anyway? What does that say about grades?

Clearly, I am a troubled gatekeeper  – but at least I am reflecting on it. :)

Some do get the ‘None shall pass!” Others get a pat on the back and a tilt of the head as I move aside. Some get a well-respected handshake and well-wishes. I’ll still question my decisions each time, but not my intentions. At least I’m clear on those, and maybe that’s enough.


Hands Off the Wheel

What to leave the sub? That’s sometimes a dangerous question, but one every single teacher is used to. Since I’ve been out a large number of days this year, I’ve had a lot of sub notes to plan. I don’t have a lesson plan book on the desk in my classroom. In fact, I don’t have a desk in my classroom. I don’t even have one in the teacher’s room upstairs. I gave that one away to a new hire about 14 years ago, since I didn’t spend any time there. I don’t even remember where it was.

What I do know is that when I am out I still expect the class to go on. I write out what I think are detailed instructions and then… take my hands off of the wheel.

Because I am actually home today, and not at work teaching (oh, irony), I wanted to take this time to reflect on what I plan, how I plan it, and how I can improve. Here’s a list of my sub notes this year:

My observations focus on a couple of areas: 1) time, 2) effort, 3) content, 4) skills.


I’ve noticed that it is very difficult to assess how much time students will need to complete the assignments when I am not there. Maybe my internal clock only works in  proximity to the classroom. Maybe I make many unconsciousness adjustments in the classroom. Maybe I just need to get better at focusing my out-of-classroom instruction on task management. Do I just kow-tow to the idea that students will take about 10-20 minutes of jumping around over an imaginary effigy of their absent teacher?

What’s the best use of time when I am absent? Is it realistic to expect students to remain studious for the 83 minute block? Should I buffer the classwork with about 10 minutes of talking time? For me, as I’ve looked over the assignments I’ve given to the sub over this year, I have moved in the opposite direction. I actually give more work than can be done in an 83 minute period, especially with limited resources in my classroom. So, since the assignment can’t be finished in the time, I am leaving students with the option of continuing (or rather, starting) their work at home, or handing in something that is not yet done. Clearly, this is something I have to improve.


Well, this is where the rubber hits the road. How many times have I come back to hear, “The sub didn’t give us anything to do!”? After looking over the work, I think about half of the assignments were creative in some way, while about half involved reading/recall. This is a bit surprising for me, because I had thought that more of my tasks were creative in nature and not based on something at the end of a chapter or handout. I personally feel that those kind of assignments are a bit devaluing. RAFT writing prompts have given me an ‘out’ in that area. Each answer has to be different in its design.

But the larger question is ‘How do I create a culture of learning, especially when I am not there?’ Is  it simply a function of culture? What about the stuff I can’t control, like the individual work ethic of the student? Then there are distractions, distractions, distractions. Depending on the substitute and their personal style (or lack of) classroom management, some of these factors may not even matter.

I think overall, though, its pretty clear that the beginning of the semester has to be focused on creating communities in the classroom that last beyond (ideally) my presence. In an urban school, where subs are more and more common for students, this is not easy. If there is a devaluing of learning overall, it is hard (but not impossible) to sustain one when the teacher is absent.


After reviewing my sub plans, I’ve noticed that there’s almost no review, which makes some sense, and not much independent learning time, which doesn’t. A lot of the work focuses on supplementary tasks for the weekly unit we are on, depending on the class. Because I plan for about 18 weeks of instruction, and have lessons, notes, projects, essays, etc. for each week, it makes sense for me to try to ‘stay on the ball’ concerning the overall semester schedule. The hard part that I’ve always struggled with is selectivity, especially when I have been absent. What gets cut? Or rather, what has a lesser priority because I want to keep meeting my unit objectives and overall big understanding goals?

I’m not sure if there is an answer here. If I take each day I am out of the classroom and count it as a null-content day, I will never be able to get through all of the content I’d like to cover. Then again, how much understanding do I have to sacrifice to keep the content ‘covered’? It’s the age-old battle between content and understanding again. Inch wide, mile deep = understanding. Mile wide, inch deep = coverage. From a pedagogical point of view, I know which side of the fence I’d like to be on, but I still struggle with the idea that my students ‘need’ to know about this story or that issue.


Almost all of the work involves writing. I’m not sure at all if this is a good or bad practice. There’s so much that needs to be done with my students to help them develop skills as a writer that having students write ‘just to write’ may not help them in the long run. Still, is there any penalty to over-writing? My school’s 9th grade population has half coming into the high school reading below the 5th grade level. Their writing skills are also underdeveloped. So, if I am not there in the classroom, and I’m asking students to complete a RAFTS assignment, or defend a position, or analyze different perspectives, am I really helping my students?

Given that my classroom is relatively technology free (with the exception of donated iPads in the last 2 months of the school year), there is little I can do to monitor their work when I am out (assuming I am not sick and unconsciousness). So, is writing the best method? Should I focus on other 21st century skills for my students when I am absent? Reasoning? Negotiating? Collaboration? Creativity?

Mirrors are useful

So, how is this reflection going to help my students? First, I am going straight out to my online personal learning network of colleagues on Twitter and the net to get feedback and advice. Second, asking deeper  questions about my craft help point me in a direction – and I need to make sure that direction matches my vision for a culture of learning in the classroom. I guess the bottom line is that everything grows. Even sub plans.

Feedback is strongly welcomed! :)