Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Breakfast Club

Post by Tammy Chelf: Tammy has been in the BCSD for 18 years, the last 5 years as the Lead Administrator at Thomas Edison (Alternative) Academy  

I must admit that I was thrilled to be asked to share my experiences from the world of alternative education.  It has been a passion of mine for many years.  I have had the opportunity to see it from the eyes of both a teacher, as well as an administrator.  In many ways the lenses are not much different.  The thing about alternative education is…’s ALL about relationships.  Building relationships has been, and continues to be, the one guiding principle that transforms  students from being  “lost souls”, “delinquent kids”, “attendance problems”, “single parents” ,“drug users” or any of the other labels that sometimes have been given to them – to being real people, with real goals, real dreams, and the ability to be successful.   Kids are smart.  They know how people perceive them, and in most cases, that dictates the way that they will respond.  It is our job as educators to let a student walk through our door with a clean slate, leave those pre-conceived notions behind, build relationships and educate our students.

Recently, I watched one of my all-time favorite movies from the 1980’s called “The Breakfast Club”.  It is a timeless classic that I think every educator should watch at some point in their career.  The movie is about five students who appear to have nothing in common and are faced with spending a Saturday detention together.  Throughout the movie, the students learn so much from one another and end up becoming friends.  My favorite quote from the movie comes from an essay that was written by one of the teenagers to fulfill the group’s detention obligation.  It states: 

“Dear Mr. Vernon, we accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong.  What we did “was” wrong.  But we think you’re crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us….in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions.  But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain….and an athlete….and a basket case…a princess….and a criminal.  Does that answer your question?”
                      The Breakfast Club

 If ever there was an essay that so depicted my beliefs about alternative education, this is it.  Our students enter our doors for a vast majority of reasons.  Some of these are things that we can control, many are not.  Our students also come from a vast array of experiences, both educationally and personally.  Our challenge as educators becomes figuring out how we are going to deal with these differences in a classroom setting to provide a sound education.   In one particular class period, a teacher may have to plan for a student who is brilliant, but credit deficient; a student who is low achieving and has been diagnosed with ADHD; a student who has lacked any connection to school for so long that they have absolutely no motivation what-so-ever;  and ten to fifteen other such characteristics.  Like teachers in a traditional high school setting, this can be an extremely difficult task.  Therefore, I go back to the realization that the most powerful tool that we have in our toolkit – is relationship building.

Thank goodness for alternative educational settings.  The majority of our students have indicated that they do not think that they would have graduated if they stayed in their traditional high school setting.  Not because of substandard practices or uncaring adults – but many times, because of size.  The ability for us to offer unique educational experiences in a smaller environment allows us to focus our attention on not only the curriculum, but gives us more time to really get to know our students.  It allows us the privilege of being able to see strengths in our students that may have been overlooked.  We are able to provide emotional support at times when a student may be extremely troubled and to provide stability in a sometimes very unstable life.

I would not trade the experiences that I have had in alternative education for anything.  The life lessons that I have learned from my fellow colleagues, and even more importantly, from the students who I have been fortunate enough to know – have been invaluable.   Each year at graduation or every time a past student walks through our door to visit, it is more rewarding to me than any other badge of honor I could be given.  

I am the lucky one. 

“Our greatest weakness lies in giving up.  The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.”

-          Thomas Edison

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Teaching is an Art, Not a Science

Post by Dan Eizyk: Dan has been teaching Social Studies for 5 years; the last two years at Bettendorf High School.

Let me start off by saying something I have always thought was true- teaching is more of an art than it is a science. Last week I was approached by the Principal of my school to contribute to a blog in which I would share a teaching idea that would foster some discussion on how we connect with our young people- which brought me back to my prior statement. Swapping one living being with another, a plant for a student, might help clarify my point (or add some confusion). You see, in the real world, one cannot “make” a plant grow. You only put a seed into fertile soil, cultivate a nurturing environment, hope, and wait. Sometimes it works well, and you get yummy fruit. Other times you fail miserably and you are left with nothing, or worse, gross fruit.

In the same way, one cannot “teach” a student to have curiosity, to be passionate about learning, or to have empathy for their fellow human beings. You can, however, create an enriching classroom experience which is capable of cultivating these attributes, hope, and wait. Sometimes it works well, and you get awesome results. Other times, you get gross fruit.

Needless to say, I love my job, and am happy to share an idea which I believe has had positive results in one of my courses for the past couple of years, and which you too could try in order to get good results in a class...

“WHY does it even matter to me? That event was soooooo long ago, those people sooooo far away”

That’s right. It’s that kid. You feel your muscles tense up and your teeth grit ever so slightly as you prepare to give your special spiel to a (mostly deaf) audience who have heard the same spiel from their previous teachers. What if you could avert this ever-present doomsday scenario?

In Current Issues, I use a website called E-Pals ( to connect my classroom to other classrooms around the world, and it works wonders. Like a tech-infused, penpals on steroids program, Epals allows my students to correspond directly to a classroom in a region we are learning about in class. My students create videos to send to their assigned country, highlighting who we are, cultural facts and nuances, social norms, and other fun things we can think of. They in turn do the same, and we watch in amazement as our classroom takes a virtual “field trip” to Russia, China, Israel, Brazil, and Turkey. Students who have never even left the great state of Iowa get an eye-opening cultural awakening via their pen-pals.

Furthermore, on a daily basis, each student corresponds with their particular Epal, using a device such as their IPAD,smartphone, transformer laptop, and even my computer. Every day during fourth block, I have students asking me in the first five minutes of class if they can quickly send a message to their Epal in Tatarstan, Russia. That’s right. Students begging me for the opportunity to write. How can I refuse that?!

Through the sending of messages, videos, and pictures, each of my students builds a personal connection to a teenager miles away and worlds apart.They learn about different customs, practices, and ways of life. They learn to respect other cultures, religions, races, and ethnicities. They become ambassadors to their nation, and take on responsibilities they might not have been ever given in a traditional classroom- I do not monitor their correspondence, as I have never yet had an issue with inappropriate communication. I trust my students (this blog was proofread by a student, thanks Kylie), and I think this helps them reciprocate this trust back. Finally, students learn the answer to the question posed earlier- why it matters to them.

November, 2012

As upwards of 700 deadly rockets and mortars bombarded cities in Israel, and countless people were seeking shelter, often donning gas-masks, class was canceled for a week in Kiryat Bialik High School, located in Haifa, Israel. How did I know class was canceled? One of my students approached me and told me, worried about her Epal’s safety. You see, last year we were doing this project with a class in Israel when pandemonium broke out over there. In the ensuing internet blackout, I fed news reports from their teacher to my kids about their Epal’s well being. These weren’t strangers who were being attacked, they were literally their classmates, and in some cases, their friends. Needless to say, my lecture on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict was closely followed. Students wanted to know. They wanted to learn. I tried to teach. To hope. To wait.

Here is a link to a brief article (in Hebrew, but easy to read with google’s translation tool) from our Epals last year. None of them got hurt, and they are all doing well now.

Friday, September 13, 2013

What Inspires Me? (and what doesn't)

Post by Rodger Wilming:  Rodger is in his 14th year as a Language Arts teacher at Bettendorf High School and currently teaches Literature and Creative Writing.

I’m not sure anyone will care what inspires a Literature and Creative Writing instructor in an out of the way place like Bettendorf, Iowa, but I've never worried too much about what others think of me. I've also never contributed to a blog before today. I've had some experience though. I've restored antique toys, furniture, musical instruments and even automobiles. I've driven the big brown truck that brings packages to your home and place of business. I've even been to college… a Big Ten school at that.

Despite all of that experience I was still surprised when I read that the Los Angeles Unified School District had just spent one billion dollars on iPads for its students. One Billion… with a “B”. That’s a lot of dollars. A billion dollars could be downright awe inspiring if I were inspired by such things… but I’m not. I’m inspired by people as a rule. Take Mark Schuster, one of my former instructors from the University of Iowa, for example. Mark was inspiring. He even held a black belt in Karate. He knew a lot about feelings and how to treat his fellow man, mostly because he said he’d been relentlessly bullied early on as a boy in school. He told me something I’ll never forget. Mark said, “Your students won’t always remember what you've taught them, but they’ll always remember how you've treated them.” No truer words were ever spoken.

One other man greatly inspired me as a new teacher as well.  The Reverend James Campbell, or “Slick” as most of us called him, gave me a bit of advice I will never forget. I was early in my teaching career when I told Slick about a handful of students who were making my life fairly miserable. One lad even lit the fringe of his blue jeans on fire in my class in a desperate, albeit creative, attention-seeking stunt. Slick listened patiently as I described several of these troubled and troubling kids, never once interrupting me. Then he told me, “You know, Rod, when you look into the faces of those kids you’re looking into the face of God.” Now, I’m not what you’d call a religious man by most measures, but I've never looked at a student in any other way from that day to this. Some days that’s more difficult to do than others.  

I’d like to thank Mark Schuster and Slick Campbell for the pearls of wisdom they imparted upon me. If I were Bill Gates I’d give each of them one billion dollars to improve the lives of students in any way they see fit. I’m not sure how they’d spend all of those dead presidents, but I’m pretty sure I know how they wouldn't.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Breaking Down the Barriers of Connection

Post by Amy Harksen: Amy is in her 7th year as a school counselor at Bettendorf High School and currently serves in the role of Team Leader 

When my principal asked me to speak on student engagement at our staff in-service, it was like asking Michael Jordan to speak about basketball—that is how enthused I feel about this subject. I am fortunate to call myself a school counselor. This is not a job for me but a calling. Everything in my life, every belief I have, and every value is rooted in my passion for wanting to make a difference for others. I am fortunate to work in a high school that not only professes that as a philosophy, but encourages us to live it in the work we do with teenagers. The difficulty for me in addressing this topic was in my desire to convey the thread of engaging students not as a huge intervention but as a way of relating and reaching out. I have great respect for our teachers. They work hard, and in today’s educational world, there are only more demands outside of their time in the classroom that make the very important job they do feel unmanageable. There is more to do in so many areas—unit planners, data plans, benchmarks to reach, reports to write, and test scores to raise. I did not want to add to that burden with my Pollyanna attitude and entreaty to engage the disengaged student. Rather, I wanted to reinforce that much of what they are already doing matters--matters so much more than they know in ways they don’t realize. I also wanted to help them see that it is the small gesture, the consistent smile, and the warmth of a greeting that can make such a difference in the life of a teen.

We all know what the disengaged student looks like….little to no eye contact, head down on the desk, no response in class, no investment in schoolwork, etc. It is pretty easy to let that be a barrier to connection. My contention is that we need to go towards that student and not away. We also probably all know that there are reasons these teens act apathetic. It could be family problems, poverty and downright hunger, pressure to succeed, low self-esteem….the list goes on. They may have learned that life doesn’t embrace them and they are not the star athlete, honor student, or anything society has told them they should be. So they learn to back off and slump down.  The best teaching methods in the world probably won’t engage them. However, this is why it is so important to build relationships with our students. Supportive teachers affect students’ interest in class work, inspire effort, and build confidence. How do we reach these students to build that relationship? By noticing them, by not being put off by the scowl, by talking to them with warmth and a smile even when they give nothing in return, and by doing that day after day… noticing that they have new shoes, or a band on their tee shirt that we like too, or a haircut or color that is cool, or a slightly finished assignment when others were never started. In the consistent, day after day refusal to be put off by their disengagement, in conveying belief in them, and in noticing they are unique individuals, we build a relationship that can lead to them wanting to try even just a bit. In my time as a school counselor, I have heard almost all of our teachers named “favorite” by a student. The interesting thing about that is that it is not always the popular teacher who is named. With unfailing consistency, it is the teacher who took time and made a student feel like they cared. End of story, hands down—it matters.

Despite my master’s degree and clinical training, my best intervention with a student is to care. I had a student who was failing, whose Mom was at a loss as to how to get him motivated, and who appeared lost himself. He came to my office very timidly with his pass. His bangs fell over his eyes in that adolescent attempt to hide from the world. He slumped in his seat and initially had difficulty talking. I talked to him about him and not his school work. What did he do after school? What were his interests? What was his family like?  He warmed and became more comfortable. We made a plan for getting homework done and I asked him if he was willing to come in every week so we could watch the progress. I told him I believed he could do this. He smiled as he left. A funny thing happened. I sent a pass the next week and he had done his work. Going forward, I neglected to send a pass one week due to a crisis and at the end of a Friday I looked up and there he stood at the door to my office with a smile. I jumped up and greeted him, thanking him for being so responsible to come on his own. I never sent another pass and he appeared like clockwork. He wasn't an honor student, but he passed every class. More importantly, he believed a bit more in himself and that someone else believed in him. My primary intervention was a sincere smile, happiness to see him, and interest in who he was. We jotted notes and grades in a notebook, but that wasn't the difference.

 I hope we can all remember as educators and adults who interact with teens that we have an impact that we don’t realize and that the work we do matters. To me, that is why the work we do is so fulfilling. It is definitely why I feel fortunate to be a school counselor.