Monday, August 24, 2015

Let the kids Sleep!

To start off the school year in AP Psychology, I share with students four lessons from Psychology that can make them a better student. Number one, we talk about metacognition. Two, deep vs. shallow processing. Three, spaced/distributed vs. massed practice. And, point number four is simple: Get enough sleep! Students laugh at this point as if it is too simple to be of value and also because for many of them the idea of sleeping for eight hours or more is just a joke.

If you were hungry, it would be inhuman to keep you from food. If you're thirsty, your body is telling you it's time for water. When you need to go to the bathroom, well, you get where I'm going. These are all physical needs that must be met, and we've recognized for a long time that in school, you better make sure these needs are attended to if there is any hope of getting to the job of educating.

Last night, a fellow high school Psych teacher tweeted out a link to a CDC study headlined "Most US Middle and High Schools Start the Day Too Early." Occasionally, I'll have a student suggest that since teenagers tend to sleep later, they should go to school later, but in my district, they're in for a shock when they learn that we've known that for a while and adjusted the schedule accordingly.

When I went to high school, our day started at 8:20am. Not too bad, but still ten minutes earlier than the time recommended by the CDC. For as long as I can remember teaching in Albemarle County, Virginia, we've started school no earlier than 8:50am. Another Psych teacher twitter friend thought I was joking and shared that his school day begins at 7:15 in the morning.

Adequate sleep is not an option. Sleep deprivation has negative short and long term effects. I don't think that I've been capable of going to bed earlier than 10pm since I was about fourteen years old. If that is a reasonable bed time, then a teen would need to sleep until at least 6:30am to get eight and a half hours of sleep, and 7:30am to get nine and a half. I can't imagine the average teenager able to go to sleep before then even with close parental supervision. If it takes an hour to get showered, dressed, eat a quick breakfast, and travel to school, that gets us to the recommended time from the CDC.

I asked in our twitter exchange what could possibly be the rationale for such early start times for high school students. The only real argument seems to be participation in sports and other extra-curriculars. If that's it, then why can't middle schools get it right on start times? But, these obstacles clearly aren't impossible to overcome. From time to time, early dismissals for athletes competing away can be a problem, but an average of once a week in season doesn't compare to the cumulative effect of sleep loss over an entire year.

This is still assuming that most teenagers are going to bed before 11pm.

So why do so many districts insist on such early start times for middle and high school? The phrase "what's best for the kids" seems to only apply when it's directed to a classroom policy of a teacher. For all of the district administrators and decision-makers having kids start class before 8:00 in the morning, is that really what's best for the kids?

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

What? Me Worry.


Why do we worry?

Because we care.

I remember after the birth of my first child. I felt guilty at the amount of anxiety and fear I felt rush over me the day he was born. A close friend put it in perspective by saying "what should really upset you would've been not feeling worried and afraid." What he meant was that those feelings showed that I understood it was a big deal and I knew that life was about to change.

I'm still worried and anxious about tomorrow, even though I've done this more times than I care to mention. It's the first day of school, and it's a big deal for my students, for my parents, and because of that...'s a big deal for me.

I'm sure it's going to go well. But I'm still worried. And I wouldn't want to be any other way right now.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

What I Learned From Julian Bond

I can’t begin to communicate the level of ignorance in my life when I entered college out of small town southern Virginia in 1990. I was shocked to learn that support for presidents Reagan and Bush was anything less than 100% and struggled to come to grips with the reality that professional wrestling might not actually be a legitimate sport. It didn’t take long on a college campus for me to learn that I wasn’t even smart enough to know the things that I didn’t know.
I took Julian Bond’s “History of the Civil Rights Movement” out of genuine interest in learning about those things that I didn’t know. I had no idea who Julian Bond was. He told a joke on the first day of class about walking with Dr. Martin Luther King along the D.C. mall. Dr. King shared a dream from the night before during which he said “I had a nightmare,” to which Julian Bond replied “No, Dr. King, You have a dream.” He then went on to take credit for the title of MLK’s famous speech.

I laughed along with everyone else, assuming the entire scenario was just a fiction to break the ice in class. Only several weeks later did I notice in our assigned readings, the name of my teacher kept coming up—Then I realized, it was this man who played such an instrumental role in the journey towards civil rights in America that I have been given the privilege to learn from.

I learned first in that class, that I had grown up largely unaware of the privilege my race had afforded me. Walking into the room, the make up of the class was still majority white, but much less than any other classroom I’d entered. It made me uncomfortable, even more, the fact that I was uncomfortable without any good reason made me more uncomfortable and brought some of my hidden biases to the surface where they had to be dealt with.

I learned that the best way to approach new people is with humility and not arrogance. I entered the classroom expecting a “teacher” who would tell me about “history.” What I got was a “history maker” telling and showing me how he “shaped history.” I still regret that it took me a few weeks to realize that fact. I’m thankful that he was the regular instructor of the class for the entire semester. We often miss great opportunities to learn because we don’t take other people seriously enough.

I learned that I had to own my history and live my present. As a white male, I don’t need to defend my history, deny my privilege, or bristle when racism is named. Julian Bond recreated “sit-in” training sessions similar to sessions run by the Student Non-violence Coordinating Committee in the sixties. These simulations were difficult and hard to handle, but in light of the fact that they were just that—simulations of training—made the brutal reality of events that actually happened impossible to deny. The past shouldn’t make me feel guilty, but it should definitely inform how I move into the future.

Most importantly, I continued to learn long after leaving Julian Bond’s classroom. From the perspective gained from him I found a new lens with which to view the world. A lens that recognizes the varied experiences of the people in our world and a mind that values the way these varied experiences have weaved the tapestry of humanity that we are a part of today.

I don’t even know how many years he taught this class at the University of Virginia, but I know that several thousand students at least had the opportunity to learn from him. This is just one small way out of many that Julian Bond has shaped the world in which we live.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Balancing the Teacher's Paradox

As this school year starts for most people around the U.S., I thought this might be a helpful idea to keep in mind. I've said it before, but I think it is the key to being an effective educator.

"Education is the most important and the least important thing in a child's life."

I know, it doesn't make sense, but I couldn't do the job I do without understanding it. It started for me eleven years ago. I stood out in the hallway with a senior. He needed my class to graduate in just a few months and he couldn't have cared less. I actually gave him the "what do you want to do with your life?" speech.

He made it, barely.

Fast forward six months. That child died as a result of a car accident. Six months earlier I had actually said "what do you want to do with your life" to this child, and now there is no life to do with.

I could share several other stories like this, but in the grand scheme of LIFE, what did my 90 minutes every other day for nine months mean to that child.

A few years later, in a group discussion about budget and salaries, an administrator remarked that our work was just as important as the work that goes on down the road at the University of Virginia hospital. Most of the time when I visit that place, I look at it in awe as I recognize how many lives hang in the balance in those walls, how many families have had lives changed, for better or for worse, in an instant. I'm not sure that my job deals in life or death that closely.

But, I've seen the difference that my job makes. I know there are students on career paths that have been influenced by me. I know that my institution has enabled success for numerous students that perhaps they could not have found elsewhere. I even inspired a tattoo this year (that's a post for another day). I know how important education is, perhaps maybe even a matter of life or death for a few in the long run.

That's the balance that drives my work. When I prepare and engage with students, I do it because it is the most important thing in the world. I give it my all. I hold them to a high standard. I expect hard work and effort from them. I'm driven to learn and to constantly refresh what I do to meet the changing needs in a changing world. I'm driven by this because it is the most important work in the world.

But, when I see that a student is struggling. When I'm unable to finish a task because I my family is a priority in my life. When the fire drill or countless unexpected interruptions foul my plan. When I try something different and fail. When I get frustrated by mandates, or initiatives that I don't like. When a child falls short of expectations and we have to try again. I am not beat down because this is the least important work in the world.

As our school years begin. I hope that you are able to see the life of a child and develop the desire to change it for the better. I also hope that you have the wisdom to know that often, the most important thing in the life of a child will happen outside of your four walls of influence, and that's o.k.

Good luck with teaching this year, the hardest and the easiest job you could ever have.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Underground Under Construction

The Underground has survived floods, lockdowns, tornadoes and earthquakes.  But will it survive renovation?    As importantly, will things be finished in time for school?  Stay Tuned.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Student Feedback on 1 to 1

My previous post touched on some of my thoughts on going 1 to 1.  But far more useful is how my students felt about it. I included the following question on my end of the year survey:

How has having a computer available to you changed things in and outside of school?

The full responses were pretty telling but here's a snapshot of what they said.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

My Adventure in 1 to 1- lessons and obervations

Random picture of technology...nice huh?

Technology is certainly a force for change.  If you found your way to this post then you are also aware of the fact that technology has been much debated within education. There's plenty of voices in support of the continued rapid infusion of technology into learning.  It is game changer.  Students in my class are now accessing, cooperating and producing in ways I didn't anticipate 5 years ago.   After my classroom went 1 to 1 this past year I thought I'd share my ground level perspective on how such an approach changes things.    I'll start by sharing some articles we E-mailed back and forth at school awhile back that take the approach that technology is not all good.     As usual these folks say things much better than I ever could. 

Technology Won't Fix Americas Neediest Schools

While it may appear otherwise, this is not an anti-ed tech post.   Quite the is a response and expression of some of the things occurring in my classroom over the past few years and in particular this year as we went 1 to 1.  I've got no real agenda with technology except use it to help me do a better job.   Well,  maybe I would add I want to ask that movers and shakers give a little more thought to some of what they say...or post about technology.  Instead maybe ask questions and post some nice things about teachers now and then...just for balance.. 

   I've turned my attention elsewhere over the past year and have spent far less time blogging.   That doesn't mean I had less to say.  I was just busy and had to prioritize.   I still do.  As a result, a draft of this post was sitting, unfinished, for just about the whole school year in part because trying to keep up/get ahead in my now 1 to 1 classroom was a constant challenge.  Even posted it feels poorly organized and random.  Something I strive to avoid in my classroom.  But I apologize if it falls short.  Honestly that was something I had to endure more than a few times this year in my use of technology.  Falling short.  I found cutting students loose and giving them more freedom has had some tremendous positives.  I'm now able to do a great deal more with my students.  No more hauling a bulky cart filled with laptops to my room.  Now each student has
This screen is huge...wait...these are MACs not Lenovos? 
their own Lenovo and comes ready to access a wealth of resources and collaborate in new ways(assuming it is charged).   But has also led me to rethink the way I do some things.  In some ways I found technology has not fulfilled my expectations.  Sometimes I had failed. Other times it was student use has fallen short. In both instances it was a chance to do better.

I could not teach without technology and as that shifts more to having my students direct and control the use themselves I am still adjusting.  I have considered my classroom somewhat "blended" for years but have now ventured neck deep into the pool of integration.  I realize I cannot swim in the world of the modern classroom pool unless I let go of the wall. In doing so I got in over my head  a couple of times.   As I take stock of how 1 to 1 has impacted my classroom and my approach to teaching, I see some successes and also my failures.  Sure, I still have a flip phone(a conscious choice mind you), a 1994 pickup and admit I can be a bit wary spending on the latest technology when what I use works just fine. But what I am really wary of is how things I am now doing this year have changed the dynamic of my classroom and what it might mean for my students.  Much of that has been positive but I've also observed some things that are worrisome.  

A little background
"OK...close your computers" ...  I wait patiently another 30 seconds for those words to sink in and then repeat it with far less patience as evidenced by my tone. Finally there is some compliance...a word I hate to use but that applies fully here.  An observer might fault the obvious flaws in my expectations but before you malign my antiquated and inflexible teaching methods, I'd point out I'm just trying to redirect my student since it is time to move on.  I'm intending to benefit everyone and force the dynamic of the class back to a place where it is functional again.  Where their thoughts are with each other in the here and now and the content collectively. Where they benefit from each others diverse range of insights.  Not isolated in the far reaches of all the 0s and 1s that control their minds as they stare at the screens.  I tried to make use of the computers often, maybe more than I should have.

"I did comment before I started playing this game"
I did plenty of backchannel discussions and found them useful in many ways.  But I also found it changed the way many students engaged and left the depth of the dialogue shallower than I was used to.   It made me realize many of the meaningful here and now moments are organic and almost impossible to plan.  They are special.  But only about half of the kids are "with me" when their devices are open.  No matter how well virtual discussions went and how good the contributions, they lacked in many ways.  Likely due to the reality that computers are powerful devices...and teenagers, like adults,  find that power very distracting.  What's more is student feedback I collected at the end of the year reflected this.  They themselves commented in many cases that what we call "roundtable" discussions were something they wanted to see more of instead of spending time on the computer.

Back to my classroom...The room had been mostly quiet before as they read and pecked at heir own pace but now fills with talking as we negotiate this transition and they begin to close their screens.  That is exactly what I am about to offer them, a chance to talk, and my excitement over the upcoming discussion activity we were about to do slowly begins to fade.   The timeliness of this teachable moment is disrupted and their interest begins to fade as several students just can't bring themselves to shut the screen.  The feeling no one is listening to me grows.  This lesson usually goes well and students like it.  My enthusiasm for the small group work and the insightful responses this has brought out in past years is warranted. I know this is a cool activity.  Experience tells me so. I split them into small groups and prompt them with a series of open ended questions.  But the class goes quiet, unwilling to buy in, it feels forced. Instead of engaging each member of the group, the conversations are dominated by the usual vocal suspects.  I didn't expect this.   The small groups discussing the prompts seem merely an obstacle to getting back to looking at their computers.   It makes me want to sit down and leave the class alone.  I push through.  It wasn't always this way and while I feel there is always some disparity between what I plan and what actually happens in class, it seems that in going 1 to 1 I had achieved a tolerable level of failure that I could live with and build on for next year. 

Hey this is cool.
That snapshot isn't just a sign that using technology and having free and open access on hand at all times has created some challenges and  problems for me, but also a sign it is changing my students. They seem unable to engage as well with each other, face to face in the here and now.   One of the first signs I noticed was they don't talk when they come in the room early anymore...they open their computer."
"Are we using the computers today? instead of "good morning."

Each day as a few students share the room as an early morning workspace they now sit silently and tap away at the keys.  Rarely do they initiate conversation.   They're the same  type of kids as in previous years for the most part but something is a bit different. It is subtle and there is no data to show but I've been teaching high school age kids long enough to pick up on it.  This technology certainly provides for a different experience.  More chances and opportunities to potentially collaborate are great but as good as it sounds we can't just arrive at school and collaborate all day.  They still need to do their own work and turn work in by deadlines.  Two things that plagued me this year.

As we expect more from technology,  do we expect less from each other?
Sherry Turkle  seems to express some of those same concerns here.  Worth watching for sure.

Flash Forward-December: A snapshot in time
Here I am.  Past the half way point in my first year in the 1 to 1 education world.  I always counted myself among those out front when it came to using tech in working with my students.  I prided myself in the fact that the technology I was using passed muster with the 3 questions(see below) I ask as I take stock on what to do and and plan out what I am doing.  I consider if I can do it better and exactly how to make that happen.   I am spending more and more time on this nagging question: "How can I make better use of student laptops(and other technology)?"

I know I like having students that have access and can use computers but I am left feeling I had bought into the notion that things will automatically be better with computers around all the time.  But student motivation is pretty much the same. One thing I noticed is the excitement for their use has diminished greatly.  Last year, when we got the chance to use laptops, it was a novelty(which should never substitute for substance) and generated some degree of enthusiasm in the classroom.  That is long gone.   I have come to appreciate the little things I had always done that required them to get up and move.  As a result I am emphasizing this more to avoid the static nature of computer based work.  I even appreciate paper more.  While we are using it much less, at his point in the year many students have asked f they can have paper copies of materials we use in class or at home. 

My 3 Questions
How does this help me do my job?
Does this save me time?
How does this help my students learn?
I think I have arrived at some conclusions.

The Obvious Lessons
  • Only do one thing at a time- asynchronous learning opens many doors but laying out too many steps will ensure you will lose some kids. 
  • Routine is your friend. Where to turn in, how and in what format work needs to be clear...overly so. 
  • Time with the tools- there's no way to get that except using it in class.  Which is unsettling cause it doesn't always work. I hate wasting time but it is OK to experiment
  • Identifying how kids prefer to access your information- seek their feedback and provide options
  • Seek student input-technology allows them to have input in a easy and meaningful manner
  • Novelty of technology wears off-that means it can bore them just like everything else
  • It isn't about the device or time on it, its about the class-any teacher worth their salt already knows this
  • Know your outcomes- why are you using it
  • Sometime we get so busy using technology, we do  not have time to think.
  • Have a plan.  Carefully consider how you will organize and share things digitally  Then be prepared to throw that plan away and start again.
  • Technology make some things easier but other as can also make other important things harder.
  • It is a literal truth to the fact that students are dumber when staring at a screen. The comments "My computer's almost dead, what should I do?" and "My computer froze, what should I do?" reflect that.  
  • Anyone who doesn't spend a few hours in a room with students each day cannot comprehend how little students understand about what is OK to do on a computer! More on this later.
  • Technology won't change the fact we are humans.  We still learn best from working with and interacting with other people.  This can be done virtually, but why not use real people...?
  • Digital Resources are the entry point.  Integration requires time, thought and reflection on how best practices look.
  • There is a painfully irony in seeing students disconnected while online
  • Screen Time. If students are looking at 8 inch screens in every class quite a bit then staring a 3 inch ones as they walk the halls...that adds up. 
  • The simplicity of good learning never really changes.  
The Less Obvious

Blended Learning
My learning was blended before. Blended is defined as- mix (a substance) with another substance so that they combine together as a mass.  One mistake I made was to use devices and technology because it was there and available without really thinking enough about the substance.  Realizing  now I feel compelled to use more and more technology but I try to ask is the use making things better?  Often yes, sometimes no.  Variety helps.  Combine the use and other things into a mass. 

The reality of computer use means students stray farther from desired outcomes.  But we can never escape the reality that we live in a world with certain desired outcomes for  public education.  For those that would respond  "who are you to direct what students learn."  My response..."I'm a teacher."

Powerful World of Distractions- a few other points
Kids are not simply younger versions of adults.  Trust is one thing, cutting them loose without supervision another.  There is this thing called the frontal lobe and unless you are around kids...a tend to forget how theirs doesn't seem to do much yet.  Giving kids unlimited freedom is not only foolish, its just idiotic.  Especially if you concentrate two thousand of them or so together in one place.  Preparing for the lowest common behavioral denominator is a good thing.The fact I am no longer shocked by what kids do with computers and frankly, shocking. 

If you make a living talking about how technology should be used in schools but don't teach. Teachers shouldn't trust or listen to you.

Paperless is stupid.  Paperlight is a buzzword.  I have found it hard to substitute the tactile and easily adapted technology of paper.  My kids have expressed as much.  But the ease of access to documents and information is one of the best and most powerful things about technology.  We are saving literally tons of paper.  But as what cost?  Electricity doesn't get piled up at the end of a day of school but no many people consider how many devices are now plugged in while at school.  There is an impact when you  are talking about investment consumption oriented nature of technology. I can keep a reading for years.  How long can we expect a return on investment when it comes to the use of a device?
We need to prepare our kids for a digital world but this must be tempered with an awareness that technology, like all things, can have negative aspects associated with it.  As schools we are placed on the front lines of this integration.  That is a scary place to be at times.

I just like things that work.  My division has done a great job with this and I know I am lucky.

We live in a Tinder world.  How can we embrace technological innovation without giving some thought to the consequences?

Distance learning, Whether or not that is a great thing in the lives of all students is subjective. Cheaper doesn't mean the quality is better and to do so means things will get worse in many ways.As states race to offer virtual courses, consider who might be driving that rain.  If a student benefits from being able to take a course they might not have otherwise, that's a good thing. Humans have interacted with machines for a long time.  In ways like healthcare, technology, Telemedicine and new tools are making things better.  Here's a great example.  It captivated my children for about an hour one day.   Such uses in medicine meets a need that exists.  That's good.  I just worry that in education we are often creating he need for more technology.  That's not as good.   

There is no perfect practice.
I have less time, more students and try desperately to grasp the best ways to teach and have my kids learn. Proper integration takes time. Things like freedom and individual choice are great.  But in life before you chase your dreams you often have some responsibilities to fulfill.  Students need to learn that they can't always choose what they want in the real world.  They have to do some things they might no choose first.    That lesson is an important one.

Tec-Tac Disjoint
At various points in the history of warfare, leaders and armies were not prepared for new technology and struggled to shift away from past strategies when faced with new military technology.  An example being the outdated Napoleonic maneuvers employed against the far more accurate rifled barrel just as they did against the smooth bore.  Perhaps today it is a tac-tech disjoint in education where reformers have been too quick to suggest and steer towards new approaches without fully acknowledging how the human mind really hasn't changed.  We need to adapt and change but I tire of being told how things are now different.  Students are still students and they still need to learn. 1 to 1 or 1 to 1000. 

Maybe this clip sums up where I am at at the conclusion of my adventure with 1 to1.    But I like adventures.  And I like the challenge of being a guide on those adventures. 

Monday, June 15, 2015

The End of the End of School

School's Out!  Wait... it's still May?
Nope.  That's not a typo.  Instead its a reference to the slow and chronic undoing of the meaningful and culminating end of the school.  Students in our building and I suspect in many places elsewhere around the nation finish school for the year at different times.  This begins about the 5th of May, the beginning of AP tests and continues for about another month in a  window of time I recently described in an E-mail to parents not as an end, but instead as "the great fizzle."  As soon as they finish their tests kids mentally check out.  Gone is the concept of the last day of class and with it much of the opportunity to offer a finite conclusion to a course,   I am unapologetic in my assertion that this is a step backwards.  Once testing season begins schools become dysfunctional.  The end of school, a time of many of us remember fondly, appears at least for now, to be at and end.

Its not true everywhere.  No doubt many places still blend the euphoric arrival of summer and the sadness of the end of the year very well.  I was speaking with some Underground colleagues this morning and one said "what we need is to either change our expectations about the end of school, or, accept the change in culture and mindset about what the end of school has become".  That might indeed be a fact but I will admit that his statement drew an immediate rebuke from me.  My response mainly caused by the belief that this shift is a direct byproduct of the test driven culture to which we all belong.  Like most byproducts, it is an unwanted one.  Students still must attend for 180 days.  So why not try and use the tail end of the days for something meaningful?

The current trend is to develop a variety of culminating assessments in lieu of exams. Going that route after AP and SOL exams is swimming against the current when it comes to student  engagement.  While I neither want nor think it is a great idea to have a whole bunch more testing in the form of a final exam, I also do not warm to the alternative of no final.  Should I just abandon the model of the past?  Hard to say.  But I did like my final.  Something I felt reflected what we did in the class more than a measure coming from the state or national level.  I always thought my end of the year testing is something entirely different from the aforementioned varieties.  It doesn't really matter much now as the vast majority of students in our building wind up earning an exemption from final exams.  The only ones left are those who for one reason or another aren't performing well.   So instinct says we should "end" sooner, then bring the combined energies and focus of our entire staff on our students who aren't where they need to be.  Now that doesn't take into account that it is REALLY hard to overcome the lack of student motivation once tests wrap up.  (sigh)

The progress through the school year isn't simply a product of seat time and advancement through a curriculum.  The social, cognitive, developmental and other imperceptible changes that take place during that window of time are not insignificant.  I know they'll forget more than half of the content I teach them, maybe even by the start of next school year.  I'm OK with that.  But they won't as soon forget the people and things that happened.  Those bonds and deeper lessons tend to stick far better than facts.    I guess what I really miss about the way the school year used to end is that it was a meaningful part of of my teaching and their learning.  It was a chance to acknowledge their growth and tie everything together.  The last few days marked a transition.  It was a cultural event signaling the last time these people will ever be together as a group.  That is a significant event and should be recognized in some manner.  You'd recount some of what took place, exchange some meaningful words and gestures and send them on their way.

It is not that hard to find isolated examples of classrooms that manage to find something beneficial but those are likely exception. On the whole, that is not what is taking place. We are just marking time.   It seemed a bigger deal to me than my colleague but that is likely the result of him teaching primarily 12th graders and me teaching mostly 9th graders.  His students were actually "done" where mine won;t be for three more years.

Few would argue that the school year does not have a definitive beginning and it is an important time.  Most know the familiar grind that constitutes the middle of the year when a lot of the real work happens.  So we should all be able say it has a definite and meaningful end as well.  Just a thought.

Looking for a fitting way to end this post.  I stumbled upon this classic Alice Cooper video.  Just when you thought things couldn't get better...(with the end of the school year I mean) find the perfect blend of good music and the Muppetts.  The internet is a good thing.

As if that wasn't good enough you could always turn to the Holderness Family.

The cartoon below captures the evolution of student attitudes over the past week perfectly.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

To The Class of 2015

For the last five years, I've written a "graduation speech that wasn't" on the blog. We don't even really have a speech at our high school's graduation anymore, but if I had a chance, here's what I'd say to the class of 2015:

I’m struggling to keep up with you. This is the first year I’ve noticed. Once during my first year of teaching, one student asked a classmate listening to a “walkman”—“What are you listening to?”  The student replied, “nothing anybody in here would recognize except Mr. Turner.” Not any more. I still think of Pearl Jam as new music.

I’ve finally reached the age of jumping the chasm across the generation gap, and when I look back to the other side it often leaves me confused. Here’s what I see that is different—not worse, just different.

You expect things to start faster. I used to wait for my favorite show every week, sit through a 1-3 minute elaborate theme song, tolerate a short commercial break, and then enjoy the slow build up to the main plot of the show. Today we binge watch shows online, that mostly start with a cold open, right in the middle of the action.

You don’t have to plan ahead.. When I was a teenager, if you showed up late, or even worse, if someone else was on the phone, our plan for the weekend could end before it even started. Today, we just send a text when we’re ready to meet.

You can legitimately outsource some responsibility. As a teenager and young adult, I had to keep up with class handouts, and later on, my bills. Today, we don’t need to remember as much because it is accessible on demand. I’ll admit, I even get a weekly text reminder from my google calendar to take out the trash.

Notice I didn’t make a stark contrast with me and you. I binge watch, text when I’m ready, and remember only what I deem necessary. We live in the same world, but the world that made me is different than the world that has made you.

What can we learn from this different world?

Early in your life, you experienced September 11,  Hurricane’s Katrina and Sandy, numerous shootings and civil unrest, even an earthquake in Central Virginia. We learned that safety, security, and stability shouldn’t be taken for granted. Policies and plans are necessary, but human wisdom, flexibility, and cooperation get us through the chaos.

Throughout your life, access to nearly everything has expanded. You can find out the GDP of New Zealand, learn about the origins of Punk Rock, or watch a monkey drink it’s own urine, with a click of your mouse. You learn from an early age that some things seen can’t be unseen. As you grow older, you will learn that just because something is available doesn’t mean it’s ok to consume.

Today, you live in a world with unprecedented recording. Whether in written word, images, or moving pictures, much of our life is documented. You’ve grown up learning how to manage a profile. But integrity is still vital for your mental health. It’s hard to manage our image, so the quicker you learn to be who you are, the better off you will be.

My hope for you as my future is this: May you enter a new world of technology and innovation with a strong sense of yourself, your world, and your part in it. May you continue to recognize the importance of civic responsibility and your greater connection to humanity. May you continue to seek out wisdom, and struggle to find a strong moral code. This will prepare you to wield the power that our world is about to place in your hands.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Time and Priority

We've been apologizing a lot lately about the absence of activity on the Underground. I was a little surprised to notice today that we haven't added a post since December. Over Five months ago! Where has the time gone? The easy answer would be we just don't have enough time to devote to the blog anymore. That easy answer is actually a lie. Not having enough time is a mind set that limits our perception of control over our life and ultimately adds to the stress and pressure of life. We could have written more in the last five months, but the truth is we've chosen to do other things with our time.

This week, our school planned a few activities to help students "destress" since our testing season opens next week. In the midst of passing out candy and watching students blow bubbles and make chalk art on our breezeway an administrator jokingly made this comment: "If these teachers would just stop stressing these kids out with so much work and pressuring them about these AP and SOL tests we wouldn't need to do this."

His comment really hit a nerve. I was probably a little rude in my response, but I pointed out that many of these kids were returning from an 18-hour road trip, missing two days of school and returning home at 1am on Sunday morning. (band trip). Many of these same students will joined a number of other students who were at school from 4pm to nearly midnight every day this week preparing for our Spring Musical. Multiple sports had competitions this week and in addition to daily practice from about 4-6:30 students were out until as late as 11:00 some nights. Yet the burden of student stress rests on what I'm doing in my class?

"I just didn't have time to do it?" I often hear from students. And, this is what I tell them.

There's no such thing as not having enough time. We prioritize and choose what we do. If sleep is more important that our work we make a rational choice to sleep and take the consequences of not doing our work  If connecting with friends and family is a more valuable use of my time than studying for a test, we make a rational choice to spend time with people close to us and take what we get on the test. If you really think the paper is more important that afternoon practice, you make a rational choice to miss the practice and accept the fact that you may have to sit the bench for a period or two as a result.

There is no such thing as having enough time to do everything and to do it well. This attitude allows you to take control of your time instead of letting your time control you. I encourage my students to remove the phrase "I didn't have time" from their vocabulary. It lets you move beyond making excuses and toward finding solutions.

It doesn't just apply to students. If I don't eat lunch with my colleagues it's not because I don't have time, it is because grading assignments is more important to me than conversation. If I don't grade an assignment within a given time frame it's not because I didn't have time to do it, it is because I chose other activities instead. It means that we will choose to do some things well, some things good enough, and other things not at all.

I was a little snarky with the administrator, but I'm glad those kids got to take such a great trip. I appreciate the excellence that our school achieves in the arts and athletics. But I'd like for everyone to stop pretending that getting stressed is not the normal response to an attitude that we can do everything we want to do and we can do it well.