Saturday, November 30, 2013

Station Wagon Not Necessary

Post by Cristina Zimmerman: Cristina is in her 13th year of teaching Spanish, the last three years at Bettendorf High School. You can follow her on twitter at @CristinaZimmer4

My mom was born in Mexico and immigrated to the U.S. after she and my father married when she was 32 years old. My dad's parents were also Mexican immigrants. My earliest memories are of eating huevos rancheros, frijoles and drinking atole for breakfast while Julio Iglesias (yes, Enrique's dad) or Lucia Mendez played on the record player in the background. Some of those breakfasts included homemade salsa made by drying out chiles on the comal and then grinding them up on the molcajete. Trips to the Mexican grocery store for pan dulce and carnitas were frequent and on Saturday nights, Sábado Gigante was the only show that we watched (If you don't know what any of these things are, no worries. Neither did my students. And thus the reason for this blog post). It was important to my parents that their children be exposed to their culture, even from the small white, rural town of Eldridge, Iowa.

Nearly every summer we drove 2,000 plus miles to visit my grandparents in Villagrán, Guanajuato, México (You should look up Guanajuato. It's beautiful. And if you want something not so beautiful, also look up Las Momias de Guanajuato. Then let me know what you think). Crammed into a Dodge Aspen station wagon, my brother, sister and I made memories that none of my friends could on their family trips to Six Flags. There is no better way to learn appreciation for what you have (and what others don't) than to cross the Mexican/American border by car or foot. Truly, one is stepping into a different world. Instantly, the language changes, the signage, cars, and buildings shift backwards about 20 years, and roads that were once wide open and clean, are now narrow, dirty and full of bicycles and crazy drivers. Yet, I loved it. I loved the changes of odors, the landscape, the people, the appreciation for and importance of religion, the music, the food, and most importantly, the language! I'm sure that any language teacher reading this can identify with that love of another culture. That love is what drives many of us to teach the language that we do.
Somewhere, though, we language teachers forgot something. If you look at most textbooks, they are organized by superficial themes and then are broken down by grammar topic and a list of vocabulary relating to said superficial theme. At the very end of those chapters will be a page about something culturally relevant to the theme. Usually by the time you get to the end of the chapter and the culture page, you're so pressed for time that you might talk about it for 15 minutes then move on to review the grammar tense you really need them to memorize for the test (yeah, the one that they will forget about three days later, give or take a day). 

Rinse and repeat.


How many times have you heard someone say, "I took four years of (insert foreign language) and I remember how to conjugate a verb, but couldn't tell you what I was saying?" Then they might go on to say, "But I do remember when we (insert cultural activity/theme) and it was a lot of fun!"


Teachers are creatures of habit. We do what we think works (because if it ain't broke, why fix it?) and often teach how our teachers taught us (because if we learned it, it must work!). Our teachers, for years, drilled us with conjugation charts, fill-in-the-blank grammar exercises, and dull listening activities. It is all we know as language teachers. Well, I'm here to admit something: My teaching was broke. I was that teacher. I knew I was unhappy, but I didn't know why. It must be because these kids didn't study their vocabulary list! It must be because they didn't practice on the conjugation website long enough! It couldn't be because what I was teaching them lacked context, meaning, and cultural relevance!


Enter Twitter and the Global Exchange Initiative.

I can't rave enough about Twitter (and more specifically how it led me to the resources of @karacjacobs and collaboration with her via Twitter). I know many teachers are fearful of the T word and its hashtags; however, Twitter has truly changed how and what I teach. By making connections with others, collaboration through tweets and direct messages, participating in #langchat discussions, and sharing of resources, I can now say that I feel like my teaching is repaired.  Not perfect, but definitely healing. Why? Because in my Spanish IV classes I have taken the focus away from memorization of perfect conjugations and context-less vocabulary lists, to using the language to learn about current events and increase cultural knowedge and awareness (ideas I hadn't thought about until collaborating with others on Twitter). Rather than working to help kids memorize vocabulary through games (although we still play them on occasion), students are using this new vocabulary while discussing, reading, listening, and writing about current events and cultural themes that are interesting and relevant. I still teach grammar but do it in the context of what we're studying and try to find it in the authentic resources we are using in class. Students can carry these themes and events and apply them to other classes and in their lives in the future. It provides them a global perspective that they were denied by previous lessons that artificially taught them about por and para, for example. And if the themes/events/topics are no longer relevant, I get to look for new resources to use that are, because I'm no longer tied to a textbook. It's a perfect marriage!

Guanajuato, Mexico

Furthermore, by puttting culture first, I now have more time and opportunities to bring in guests and seek other learning opportunities for my students. We are currently studying the topic of illegal immigration. To give students faces to connect with visitors of our country, we welcomed college students from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Mexico who are studying at Scott Community College on a scholarship program. My students maintained a 40-minute question and answer session with them about various themes, with little help from me. Was the grammar perfect? No. Was their message communicated clearly and were students engaged? Yes. Is this a memory that they will take with them in the future? Absolutely.

Another benefit of putting cultural and global awareness first is being able to participate in the Global Exchange Inititiative. In addition to our scholarship student guests this week, Robert Dillon, (@ideaguy42) Director of Technology in Affton, Missouri, and the man in charge of this initiative, came to visit. Our students at Bettendorf High School, along with four other high schools around the nation (coast to coast), are assisting in publishing e-books that will be used in an afterschool literacy program for students in Guatemala. Our students have been tasked with reading authentic children's stories, editing and processing  them, then selecting illustrations for their books. How much more meaningful is it for students to know that the work that they are producing will now end up--literally--in the hands of Guatemalan children? Global collaboration and service learning. Not possible in a grammar only curriculum.

So how do I tie this back to my childhood trips to Mexico? Well, I can't. I cannot take my students on those same trips, summer after summer, to give them the appreciation of a culture so misunderstood by many Americans. However, by putting culture as the driving force in what I teach, students can explain to you, in Spanish, what is a comal and why corn is important in Mexican cuisine. They might also be able to explain to you how corn production plays a part in illegal immigration to the United States. Their conjugation of the subjunctive is not flawless. But it wouldn't have been if that was the only thing that I had worked on this past week. Even in the city of Bettendorf, Iowa students can be exposed to culture and collaborate globally, without traveling 2,000 miles in a station wagon...which wouldn't be safe now due to narcoviolencia.

Ask a Spanish IV student about that......

Las Momias de Guanajuato

Friday, November 22, 2013

From Dirt to Pixels – One Art Teacher’s Journey with the iPad

Post by Hillary Puglisi: Hillary is in her 15th year of teaching art, all of them at Bettendorf High School. You can follow her on twitter @HPuglisi.

With education comes change.  Anyone who’s been in our field for any length of time knows change is a part of the process.  Change in ideologies, change in philosophies, change in schedules, change in acronyms.  You name it and it will probably change at some point…and then change back again.  Just give it enough time.  It’s kind of like fashion in that sense, although I sure hope we don’t return to the 80's.  I just can’t build time into my morning routine to spray my bangs into a triangle again. (there are just some things that, once gone, should stay gone).

 But I digress.  As I see it, change really isn't bad. For me, it implies a need for new direction, a search for continuous improvement.  I make many changes over the course of a year, tweaks here and there to curriculum, units, lessons, projects, lecture delivery, new demonstrations, etc.  I’m never stagnant, but I can say over my 15 years in education, various changes have come and gone, some my own, some through building or state initiatives but fundamentally most haven’t impacted what I do directly in my class room.  I can say however, one thing suddenly has.  One thing has been vastly different in terms of impacting my entire way of thinking, my quest for knowledge and personal growth and actually, just my passion for teaching in general.

 At a point when, honestly, I was feeling stifled and rather alone, my administration handed me an iPad.  Weird, I know.  Weird that, of all things that could be life-altering, it’s this gadget that has changed my thinking; but give me a chance to explain.  I don’t want to imply that it instantly changed my life. Actually, as I was learning how to function with it, I had way more games on it than I had productive educational apps.  In my defense though, I just didn't know the availability of educational resources back then but my kids knew all the cool games.  I was certainly okay with getting a new iPad, one for which I didn't have to pay for.  I just was not sure how it applied to me, in art…in ceramics. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn't devoid of technology, quite the opposite actually.  I also teach Multimedia Art. I have always had a great computer graphics lab, fully equipped, graphics tablets, color printers, both laser and deskjet, up to date software.  In essence, I had the best of both worlds and still do.  I use technology and then I play in the dirt (did I mention how much I love my job?).  What I was lacking was ongoing education.  It was so frustrating to me that I had all of this enthusiasm, equipment, and essentially a curriculum open to whatever I wanted students to learn but yet I felt alone. I felt alone in trying to improve my technology skills, alone in my search for current software & trends, alone in my pursuit to be the best art teacher in the planet. I constantly searched to create projects that not only taught technique but inspired students to think creatively, problem solve and express themselves in ways that surprised even them.  It was tough.  I always felt like I could do better and the kids deserved better.  I certainly collaborated with my fellow art teachers but all of us taught different courses so we were all rather alone in our individual pursuits.  Let’s face it.  On any given day it is difficult to get your own issues solved much less take on anyone else’s.  I didn't bother them with my inner turmoil. 

The iPad though has changed all of that.  As I received training, I once again encountered a few, “but what about art” moments; but they were brief as I discovered a whole new world of artistic possibilities.  This was the epiphany I was looking for.  The art apps were and are amazing and I began to feel like the iPad was made for me, for art, for my students. In teaching technology, I know students are coming to us with more and more experience with computers, iPhones, and other gadgets.  Their worlds are vastly different and not only from students of a few years ago, but from ours, as teachers, as well.  With the iPad, I am very much back in the game. I feel confident again that I am up to date on technological advances, including Twitter and Facebook and have at least a fighting chance to keep up with it all. Twitter alone has given me a chance to connect with art teachers, and people in all levels of education.

On that note, I recently attended a tech conference and the session of an art teacher I follow, Tricia Fuglestad @fuglefun.  Let me just say, this woman isn't just an art teacher, she is the art teacher when it comes to using technology in the art room.  I was so excited I was going to get to hear her speak I could hardly stand it, almost giddy! A few years ago, it would have taken a good rock concert to evoke the same response, my how times have changed.  When did I become so old and nerdy?  Clearly a side effect of the iPad.        

This week alone I had a Skype session with my digital photography class and a digital photo class in California.  The students got to talk to one another and we are setting up a partnership so that they can see each other’s work and give each other feedback regularly, kind of virtual pen pals if you will. Thanks to Jen Wagner @jenwagner and April Estoch @cmcsart! The next day my multimedia art class had a Google hang-out session with Christopher Baker, an art graduate student from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, in which he explained some of the requirements of college, portfolio creation and pursuing an art degree.  I have had my students creating stop motion animations using iPads and my digital photo students are experimenting this week with a new app that allows them to take longer exposures to capture night-time photography.  They can use glow sticks, flashlights and essentially paint with light. Again, I can’t wait to see their results! We revamped our photo department and made the switch from film to digital because, with students walking around with iPads and therefore a camera, it no longer made sense to teach kids the art of film photography (especially since Kodak stopped making film cameras in 2007).  Now we go to art shows with large format prints of student photography and it’s fabulous. (this week, two of our students won awards at the Festival of Trees High School Exhibition.) We have also held an interactive art show in which QR codes could be scanned and linked to audio of the student describing his work and the message behind his art.

All of this has been in the time since I was handed the iPad. I must say though, my journey into technological bliss wouldn't have been nearly as blissful without the help of our tech specialist and our teacher librarian Leanne Wagner, @BHS_TL.  They are awesome and put up with all of my technological whims.  Now, when I approach with “hey, I have this brilliant idea,” I first get the “look” and then it’s all-out help until we get it done.  I couldn't do it without them, wouldn't even try.  Our next art show will involve Aurasma and linking images to video and I can’t wait! With all of this change comes a price though.  Is it time-consuming? Absolutely!  Do I feel overwhelmed at times? Yes.  Have I ever been this busy with barely a free moment? Never! Do I spend a little less time at home with my own kids because I am preparing for the next day or answering Twitter or finding the next new project or downloading the next new app? Occasionally, but do I feel exhilarated at work and excited by the new possibilities? Certainly! Are my students benefiting and creating and better prepared for life beyond BHS?  Yes!  And now, am I going to try to sneak the use of iPads and technology into the ceramics room? Probably. There’s even an app for throwing pottery on the wheel!  Sometimes you really do need to get back to basics and play in the dirt.  I’ll do that too. I’m sure I’ll settle down at some point.  I just had this great idea though for creating a virtual 3-D museum using Minecraft.  I’ll dust first though…I promise.


Saturday, November 16, 2013

What I Don't Know...and Some of What I Do

Post by Chris Like: Chris has been teaching science for 15 years, the last 13 years at Bettendorf High School. For more of his insights, ramblings, and digressions, you can visit his blog at

Confession time…..

I don’t know where I stand on climate change. There I said it, what a relief! I have read a lot of scientific articles, looked at a lot of graphs, know quite a bit about scientific principles that govern such things, but even with all of this background I am still unable to make any kind of firm stand. What is even more interesting though, is that it doesn't bother me. Let me clarify that.  If the glaciers are going to melt and drown all of Florida, I do care. (#Disneytripplanned) What I am content with is my ability to say that I haven’t developed an opinion. As it turns out, I am completely undecided about a great many things. I don’t have firm stands on ethanol production, string theory, or if Snookie should have been kicked off of Dancing with the Stars (#neededtogo). On these examples, I am comfortable saying that I don’t know the full story on the environmental impacts surrounding ethanol plants, the mathematics for a universe with 13 dimensions, or why it is important to keep your toes pointed when performing an Argentine tango. It is not that I don’t care about these topics, in fact I do a great deal. Its just that right now I do not feel that I have the background on these subjects to make an informed decision… and THAT’S OKAY. I refuse to feign a belief in an idea if I am not educated about it (#notapolitician).

Ignorance is bliss.

It truly is. I am not talking about stupidity, or a blatant disrespect of basic facts. I am a firm believer than in order to develop an opinion, one has to do the research. Content is an integral part of schooling and learning. I am talking about the unknown. I am referring to being ignorant of the unexplored, the unimagined, or the mystifying. This is what interests me; this is why I learn… and given enough interest, there is nothing I can’t learn. I believe our students also crave mystery more than rote learning. The unknown is a crucial part of schooling that I think doesn't get enough attention. So often, we as teachers fall into the trap of treating our profession as a delivery system. The kids sit in plastic seats and we feed them information. At this, we are experts. We add garnish to our lessons with flashy technology, code it with pedagogical jargon, and celebrate any tiny upward variance in standardized test scores.

Where does the unknown fit in? There is still a lot of the world that we are truly in the dark about (Yeah, I am looking at you gravity.) When a bunch of physics teachers get together to chat, we don’t discuss Newton’s Laws, we talk about what we DON’T know. Give me quantum gravity, neutrino fluctuations, or the rules regarding an Oxford Comma and watch the cognitive party start! Last night my son and I spent 30 minutes discussing why mayonnaise sales have grossly outnumbered salsa in the US. Who knew? (#ketchup3rd #getinthegameheinz) Discussions about what you already know doesn't yield anything. I am constantly focused on what I don’t know. Now think about topics kids are truly ignorant about.

Lucky for us, most students are truly ignorant about a great many things. (#quoteme)

Finding ignorance is not a problem for teachers. The problem we face as teachers of all levels is at some point in time, their natural curiosity about the world was diminished. They don’t even care that they are ignorant. That’s the problem. I want to learn, I want to grow, I want to hear your point of view. When or why are our students losing this drive? Why are they so complacent in their development?

How this has happened, or why it happens can be argued. As I have the keyboard here, I will give you some of my take on the matter (#feelfreetodisagree). I think that this push for standards, state and federal control of curriculum, and the external pressures placed on teachers are strangling our system. Teaching is, by its nature, creative. To be effective, curriculum needs to be adaptive, based on teachers’ strengths, and as individualize to students’ needs as it can be. While trying to corral curriculum into state or national standards may look good to a politician or administrator, it looks completely different from someone on my side of the desk. I teach to a student, not a standard. It is a human endeavor, not mechanical. Jane isn't just taking Physics, she is taking Like’s Physics. There is no best way to teach, there is no silver bullet for learning, no utopia that we can achieve that will reach all students. At no point in our future will we “figure education out” so that it works like a well oiled machine and never has  to be looked at again. What we have are good people running against the wind in an uphill job.

So what could this look like? We hear a lot about how we are failing our students nationally and how things need to change. Rarely does anyone tell us how to do this. Today is the day, friends. As I have a captive audience (#youreadthisfar), I will give you some of my ideas. Again, these are my thoughts on a Wednesday afternoon, and may change by Monday.

1) Don’t be afraid of a good argument with students. Often times we shy away from these kinds of things as they can get heated or tiresome. I find that these situations can lead to my most memorable lessons. Remember though, that there are different ways to argue. The classic argument involves a war model: you yell out your side to the high hills until you either win or concede. But there are other ways to argue. Why does there have to be a winner to an argument? In math and science we argue differently; we argue for proof.  For example, I have been altering many of my labs in physics towards what we call a “modelling” approach. Last Monday, my students took data on variables that affect the period of a pendulum (#classiclab #stilladisaster). Before we drew conclusions, I made them whiteboard their results and share their theories with the class. At this time, I basically argued with them over their data. How reliable was it? Are you sure you can back that claim up with evidence? I don’t care what you feel about what should happen, what does your data say? I am not being belligerent, I am being a scientist. At this point in the semester, it brings me the greatest joy when they start to hold each other accountable and argue amongst themselves.

2) Don’t be afraid of alternative points of view. When talking about evolution, how can you leave out intelligent design or catastrophism? Why broom these under a rug? Why don’t we look at data and let the students draw their own conclusion. If 99% of scientists have reached the same decision, shouldn't your students reach it as well judging the data? It baffles me how you language arts teachers deal with poetry, or art teachers with interpreting Picasso? Sometimes there is no right answer.  I think there is a lesson to learn for us teachers as well. A very bright young teacher I know brought up over lunch one day (#bestplaceforPD) that things like blogs, twitter chats, and FOX News are really creating a dichotomy in our society. If all I watch are the same news shows, or read the same blogs (present blog excepted), I am only reinforcing my beliefs, not challenging them. Try posting a diverging comment to a blog or chat. They will crucify you! The people who read these blog are usually of a like mind and don’t want to hear views that are not supported by their peers. They have been preaching to the choir for so long, that their beliefs are cemented in their minds as a dogma, instead of a conceived fluid idea. This gets compounded when you realize that search engines and news feeds run algorithms that only show you articles that are similar to what you have already read. Google perpetuates this! Teachers take heed and diversify your PLN. Invite differing opinions and don’t be afraid to share yours. (#I’mnot #soapbox)

3) Ignorant people ask questions. This is good. Push them to ask why things happen, why are you teaching them this, or why is it important. As I said before, I am ignorant about a great many things, but my ignorance breeds a drive to question. It seems that the more you know, the more you don’t know (#Yoda?). PhD’s do research; we pay them a lot of money to find questions that have never been asked before. If you think that doctoral diploma means they have it all figured out, you probably have not worked with too many of them. If our goal as teachers is to impart the knowledge students are going to need to be successful, we are fighting a losing battle. When I went through high school we didn't have the Internet! How could my teachers prepare me for today’s world? We need to train kids on how to question effectively and back up their claims with evidence, even if we disagree with their conclusions.

I am a teacher. Of all the professions that I could have chosen, both then and now, I still believe my place is in front of kids. It may be close to the hardest job in the world; one of the most scrutinized, underpaid, and underappreciated, but it is what I have devoted almost two decades of my life too.  I know a lot of teachers and I can tell you that I have never met a single one that did not give it his/her all, in school and out, for his/her students. I have the utmost appreciation and respect for everything that you do, from the papers you publish in journals, to the small comments you leave on the margins of your students’ term paper. Please, if there is anything I can help you with, let me know. Also, if there is anything above that sparks your interest, please leave a comment below. Feel free to agree with me, but especially feel free to challenge me. 


Saturday, November 9, 2013

How an 18 Year Old Entrepreneur Changed the Way I Teach

Post by Mark Pisel: This is Mark's 4th year in teaching HS Business courses, the last three years at Bettendorf. Before going into teaching, Mark worked as an account executive.

A while back I read a story about Stacey Ferreira and her brother.  They had started their own business, My Social Cloud, and had successfully landed nearly $1 million in seed money to further develop their product and expand their company.   But that by itself is not what caught my attention.  It was how they were able to secure the start-up money that changed the way I look at teaching.  

Stacey Ferreira, who was only 18 years old and was living in a 715 square foot apartment with her brother, followed Richard Branson, founder and CEO of Virgin Enterprises (Virgin Mobile, Virgin Records, and Virgin Airlines are a few of his subsidiaries), on Twitter and saw the following tweet:

Enjoy intimate cocktails with me in Miami on June 15th - $2,000 to charity.For details email:
— richardbranson (@richardbranson) June 10, 2011
Ms. Ferreira saw an opportunity.  She and her brother each borrowed $2,000, contacted Branson’s community investment group, and were accepted as guests.  When Ms. Ferreira arrived at the party, she was able to meet Branson and get his contact information.  After several rounds of communication about her company, Branson sent the Ferreiras to meet with Jerry Murcck of Insight Venture Partners, offering to match whatever investment Mr. Murcck was willing to make in their company.  Soon, Ferreira and her brother would be running a million dollar business, backed by one of the most famous CEOs in American business history!

The more I digested that story, the more I asked myself,  How can I create an environment where students can make connections, take chances, and are so motivated that they want to learn even when they are not in class?  

Make Connections

My Social Cloud would not be what it is today without social media.  Not that Stacey Ferreira wouldn’t have eventually made it, but without the instant access to others, it would have taken years.  I believe that every student in my class should have the opportunity to connect with someone they can consider a mentor.  Students are urged to contact an expert in industry that can help them better understand their projects.  Students have had conversations with a VP of Manufacturing in Boston, a Marketing Coordinator from the Chicago Cubs, local business owners, among others.  In our Tech Support Internship class, a student reached out to an app development company.  After a video conference and several email exchanges, the app strategist referred the student to individuals at Fordham University and they are now exchanging x-code to develop an app for our high school.  Connecting with students, experts, and others outside of the classroom builds a sense of accomplishment and accountability inside the classroom. It pushes students outside of their comfort zones to a level where learning takes on a life of it’s own.  Students begin to understand that the project is bigger than a grade. It is an opportunity to collaborate and share with people around the world.   

Take Chances

Had Stacey Ferreira not taken a chance, My Social Cloud may not exist.  The classroom should be a place where students can take chances.  In order to do so, they must embrace failure.  Last year, when Facebook went public, many stories were circulating about individuals who had become millionaires overnight.  Joe Green was not one of them.  He was Mark Zuckerberg's Harvard roommate and was asked by Zuckerberg to drop out to work on Facebook full time.  Zuckerberg and Green had gotten into some trouble with Harvard for their previous project they had worked on together.  So, Green, taking the advice of his father, a Harvard professor, declined Zuckerberg's offer.  Green estimates his share of the company would have been four to six percent.  That would be worth nearly $3 Billion today.   By most people’s standards, this was an epic failure on his part.  But that didn't deter Green from pursuing his passion.  He later founded, which has now raised over $50 million for charities and made Green a millionaire himself.    

When working outside your comfort zone, failure is going to happen at some point.  I began telling the students there was no way they would go through my class without failing at something, so it’s okay to take risks.  This allows them to think big without worry.  In fact, the very first exercise we do in class is designed so that the whole class fails.  We then analyze the situation, discuss all the reasons we failed, and reference that activity throughout the quarter.  Modeling failure and recovery is essential.  I am not afraid to stop a lesson in the middle and explain in a different way.  There are times that I will toss an assignment altogether.  I even do it on purpose so that students can see me failing and know that I am not deterred by it.  I simply analyze the situation, am open and honest about the results I am seeing, and make a decision to do things differently.  All of this happens while the students are watching and listening to me go through this process.   

The reality is, in our education system today, grades do matter.  So you have to structure the points system so that students can fail, yet have time to recover from that failure.  Selling a student on the idea of “going for it”, and then having them fail the class because they took your advice can leave a life-long scar on that student.  So the message, as well as the time to recover, are equally important.

A New Culture to Motivate

One of the main factors that was holding my students back from the type of success that My Social Cloud had was me.  I don’t think I was doing a bad job or teaching in a wrong way.  Students were learning and were usually engaged.  But I realized that I was doing what was comfortable.  I was playing it safe.  If the students weren’t acting up and they scored well on their exams, then everything was good.  But after reading about My Social Cloud, I knew there was more out there for the students.  And every day that I went back to the same class structure, the same philosophy, and the same classroom environment, my students were missing out on opportunities.  

Marissa Meyer, CEO of Yahoo said,  "I always did something I was a little not ready to do. I think that's how you grow. When there's that moment of 'Wow, I'm not really sure I can do this,' and you push through those moments, that's when you have a breakthrough."   When I read this, I knew it was time to change.  I had to get out of my comfort zone and create more opportunities for my students.  

To create opportunities for students,  I knew I had to change their thought process.  I began stressing that the learning was bigger than the grade.  What mattered were the connections you can make, the effort you put in, the learning - actual learning - that takes place as a result of that effort, and the quality of the work you produce.  If the maximum effort is there, you will learn and the grade will take care of itself.  This mindset is tough for students to buy into at first.  They want to know exactly what to do and how to do it so they can meet the requirements for whatever grade they want. I wanted to develop a different type of culture in my classroom.  

In creating a new culture in my classroom I have noticed that my students are starting to engage now more than ever.  Last year, my Entertainment Marketing class partnered with a band out of Chicago and were “hired” to create a social media campaign for the band’s upcoming east coast tour.  The band had created three music videos that we promoted.  One night around 11,  just before going to sleep,  I checked my school email.  I found a message from one of my students--

“Mr. Pisel - we had almost 300 views of the video today!  I put together this spreadsheet to track it.  Is there any way we can continue this project over the summer?” - The Next Stacey Ferreira

"Google's Marissa Mayer: Passion is a gender-neutralizing force ..." 2012. 8 Nov. 2013 <>

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Connect by Asking, "Why?"

Post by Marty Beck: Marty is in her 13th year of teaching math, the last seven at Bettendorf High School. She currently serves as our district's lead facilitator/trainer of College Preparatory Math (CPM). 

Not so long ago, I was behind a young family checking out at Target.  A young preschool-aged boy peppered his mom with questions; the most common one being, “Why?”  Eavesdropping on their exchange both warmed my heart and made me sad.  I loved witnessing that unbridled curiosity and it brought back fond memories of my own children.  The sadness, though, comes from the realization that, at some point, many children lose that sense of wonder and the desire to know “why”, especially in my math classroom. 

So recently, I've been doing a great deal of reflecting and asking “why”.  You see, I've been on a journey.  The journey started some 10 years ago when my youngest child entered kindergarten and I decided to go back to teaching.  Soon I was standing in front of the class, talking to students and explaining how to do the examples that were just like the homework problems I would assign that night.  This was the way I was taught to teach math and the way I was taught math, from grade school through college.  It felt familiar, but yet, somehow wrong.  There were bored looks from disengaged students staring back at me.  Some dutifully took notes, others wrote notes to their friends instead (pre-portable technology).  When students came in for help, they wanted to practice procedures, but it became obvious that many did not understand why the procedures worked or when to use them if a problem didn't look exactly like an example I’d done on the board.   

This wasn't what I aspired to be…a talking head in front of a class.  I wanted my students to be engaged, to make connections, and to be able to use what they were learning outside the classroom. 
A conversation with an English teacher friend who professed to be terrible at math (though her mental math is faster and better than mine) provided me a spark to get me started on my journey.  In her junior year of high school, she had to take a low level math class.  During that class, she struggled with her multiplication facts.  One day, the teacher she was working with explained that if she couldn't remember the fact 6 x 7, she could add the number 6 seven times.  She was dumbfounded!  At no time before had anyone explained to her that multiplication is a short cut for repeatedly adding the same amount.  A light bulb moment for her then, and for me as she related the story! 

You see, I was a memorizer as a student.  With a really good memory, math was easy for me, as long as I had seen the same type of problem before, I could usually do another.  Despite all those credits of college math, I would have never thought of explaining that multiplication is repeated addition to a student who was struggling.   I memorized, but I hadn't really understood.  How many other students memorized, or tried to memorize, the math they needed to get through the next test?

When my school adopted the Discovering Algebra curriculum, the next door on my journey opened.  I was given the opportunity to see and feel what it was like for students to develop an understanding of concepts instead of just memorizing.   The investigations in the text engaged students.  Through the investigations, I saw teamwork and camaraderie develop. I saw curiosity emerge.  Not to say there was never a lecture, but the atmosphere on investigation days was invigorating.  Students were genuinely engaged and I, well I enjoyed being the guide/facilitator in the classroom.  Sometimes we even learned together.  Graphing calculator technology was new to me, but the students helped me through.  It was so rewarding to see what students could do on their own when given the opportunity.

When I moved to my current school where a traditional math curriculum was used, I missed the energy and engagement of the investigation days.  I tried to recreate it by using some of the lessons I had brought with me, and by searching out other activities to supplement our traditional text.  To say this was hard would be an understatement.  Not only did it take time to find, tweak and implement these activities, it was hard for the students too!  I was asking them to understand “why” instead of just “how”.  They weren't used to that!  They had been conditioned by years of being “spoon-fed” their math.  They seemed to truly believe that when I asked them to do activities, look for patterns and use their reasoning skills, that I was NOT teaching them.  They thought that I should be standing at the board, writing notes for them to copy, demonstrating my knowledge by doing examples of problems that would later be in their homework and that somehow, by me doing all this work, they would amazingly learn the procedures.  I swear some students believed that osmosis would work!!  That they could learn by just watching me and never practicing themselves. 

Enter 2010 and the adoption of the Common Core State Standards by Iowa.  “The Core” contains standards for both math content and math practices like reasoning abstractly, looking for repeated reasoning, constructing viable arguments and critiquing the reasoning of others.  After professional discussions with colleagues, conferences and more reading, consensus began to build that we needed to change how we were teaching math.  We already knew that what we were doing in the classroom didn't work for many students.  The laments about students not being able to apply what they’d learned and not retaining the content from one class to another were common, both in our math office and in disciplines where students needed to use math that they had previously been taught.

As part of the journey, many of us tried to write units of instruction for Algebra 1.  It was really tough, and I’m not sure how effective.  We knew what we wanted students to discover and the connections we wanted them to make through our instruction, but putting that together in a curriculum that others could use without reading our minds was much tougher than we imagined!   We began looking for a curriculum that might meet our needs. 

Many said to wait.  Curriculum companies hadn't had time to catch up with the new standards.  Their books were not necessarily aligned to the Common Core, even if they said so.  We looked anyway.  What we found was the “many” who said to wait were right.  Many texts didn't change much except maybe to add some statistics and a couple of richer problems here and there to the “traditional” math text. 

As we kept looking, I remembered sessions from the NCTM conferences I had attended; sessions that had helped me to make connections between the bits and pieces of knowledge that I had previously learned.  If the activities and problems helped me to make connections, they would have to be good for students!  The brain research I read definitely made the point that we are better able to remember information that we can connect to previous knowledge.  I dug through the piles of handouts I had brought home from NCTM looking for an answer….where did that material that I liked so much come from?   Finally, I found it…College Preparatory Mathematics (CPM).  More research ensued.  The CPM curriculum was written for teachers by teachers.  It was based on research about learning and included collaborative inquiry, the math practice standards, (before they were officially known as that) and had been recently revised to meet the Common Core Math Content Standards.  It seemed too good to be true! 

Now two years into being a facilitator of learning using this curriculum, I can honestly say that my classroom feels “right” again.  Not perfect, not by any means.  I still have a lot to learn.  It is hard to transition from being the “giver of knowledge” to the guide who questions, trying to lead students to see the patterns, the structure and the beauty of mathematics.  Difficult, but rewarding!  The engagement and energy are back.  So is what can look like chaos, but it’s a controlled chaos.  Students are discovering why the “short-cuts” and rules of math work.  They are building an understanding and seeing how different ideas and concepts work for themselves.  They don’t have to believe me.  They get to prove it to themselves.

I’d love to say my journey is complete; but those that know me well would argue that point.  I’ll keep working on being a better guide for my students, and keep trying to motivate those who aren't willing learners.  I’ll keep studying what it means to “learn math” and how to better help my students.  I’ll relish the light bulb moments, and the students who ask “why” in their quest to understand.  Who knows where the next questions I ask myself and others will lead…