Five Reasons Why You Should Not Write Referrals

@MrBrettClark 10 Comments

Recently, as a member of my school's behavior team, I have been collecting data on referrals from written over the last month.  I've looked at the students, the teacher who wrote it, the time, location, and the reason for the referral.

It has really made me think about how I handled my classroom when I was still a classroom teacher and what is the purpose of writing a referral.  I can say that my position has changed as I have gotten older. I remember being the number one referral writer in my school my first year teaching.  I also know I was near the bottom my last year in the classroom.  Now, I'm no expert on classroom management but I feel like I was pretty successful.  I have just grown to believe that, except for violence or drugs, there is probably no need to ever write a referral or remove a student from your classroom.

Here's why:

  1. It tells the student that you've given up. As soon as you send students out of the classroom, you have told them that you can't handle them, don't want to handle them, and you're not going to handle them.  Nobody wants to feel like they've been given up on.  
  2. Kids can't learn if they are not in your room.  I remember asking many students where their schedule says they are suppose to be during my class.  They inevitably said, with a puzzled look on their face, "Your class Mr Clark."  I always told them that they were right.  There schedule didn't say the office, in-school suspension, or anywhere else.  They were meant to be in my class and we were going to work it out together.
  3. It makes it easier to send them out the next time.  Once you start sending a kids out of your room, it gets easier each time.  It's what happened to me my first year teaching.  Every day it got easier to send kids out for whatever reason.  Once you've crossed that path, where do you go from there?
  4. It doesn't help the student.  I don't know how else to say it other than that.  It just doesn't.  If writing a referral helped, then I would have been teacher of the year my first year teaching.  It is a temporary fix for a larger problem.  When students are having problems, they don't need less teacher interaction, they need more.
  5. It doesn't help the class.  We tend to tell ourselves that we are doing it for the good of the class but if we are honest with ourselves, then we would admit that it's really for us.  We just get tired of dealing with the situation and we are seeking relief for ourselves.  If anything, it weakens our role as the leader of the classroom. 
Now this does not mean that you have to be a pushover and let kids get away with murder.  You must deal with the issue and get it resolved by any means necessary.  If you don't, then both you and the students in the classroom will be destined to struggle.  Failing cannot be an option.  It can't be an option when it comes to learning and it can't be an option when it comes to behavior.


What Makes a Successful School?

@MrBrettClark 0 Comments

Today I had the opportunity to visit Walnut Hills High School in Cincinnati, OH.  I was excited about my trip because they are one of the top high schools in the nation.  They are an urban public school that constantly graduates their students, gets them into 4-year colleges, and has a thriving alumni association that produces millions of dollars in donations.  They are a very successful school. ..or are they?

Just to give you some background on the school.  As I stated above, they are a public school and they don’t turn any student away…who qualifies by scoring the 70 percentile on an entry exam.  They have grades 7 through 12.  Feel free to look more at their statistics about their demographics on their website.  The last 3 years they have had at least 550 students take at least 1270 AP exams, and have had at least 80% of them get a 3 or higher, which is a passing score. 

On the surface you would love to send your child to this school if you solely based it on the number of graduates, and success on AP exams.  However, you might have a different opinion if you actually visited.  Now, before I go any further, I am no out to bash the school, the staff, or the students. I’m just wondering aloud if they are truly successful. 

In my opinion, the school is a product of our flawed education system.   Before the principal took us on our tour he warned us that we would not see innovation in his building.  He said we should expect to see kids sitting in rows and teachers in the front, lecturing.  I am very glad he warned me, or else my jaw might have just hung open my entire visit.

The best way I can think to describe what I saw when I walked through the halls is that it was like being teleported to a school that taught like it was in the 1940s, had technology from the 1980’s, with students from 2011.  It was quiet honestly one of the strangest experiences I have ever had.  I felt like I was in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village.  Where the entire movie takes place in a village that looks like its from early colonial America but it’s really (SPOILER ALERT) a walled in town in modern time.

In other words, I saw exactly what the principal told us we would see.  I saw students in desk as teachers spoke.  No more than 2 or 3 students spoke or were called on while I was in the classrooms.  We walked into one classroom and I started to get excited because he was in the back of the room working with students.  He saw us walk in and immediately apologized for not being in front teaching because he had lost his voice.  The librarian gave me false hope when she talked about working on class projects with the teachers and then asked a student to bring us the project he had been working on.  The student then produced a piece of paper with an outline.  The librarian and principal were very excited about this “project”.

There were also some things I saw that I really liked.  The elective steel drum class I saw put on a great show.  They also allowed teacher leaders to help decide on the school’s budget.  They have a plan in place to begin to add technology and they currently students to use cell phones before/after school and also during lunch.

Basically, the things I saw outside of the classroom I liked.  What I saw in the classroom was boring, traditional, and disengaging.  However, I cannot blame them for being proud of their school and what they have accomplished.  I know I would be if I worked there.  We have built an educational system that defines success as being able to do well on test and go to college.  Everything they look at tells them they are being successful but are they?  Can a school that allows all their students to dress differently but be taught and assessed the same way be successful?  Can a school that requires all of their students to do at least 2 to 3 hours of homework at night be considered successful?  By today’s standards, the students are producing exactly what society says they want from them, but are they producing what society needs from them?  Are they a successful school?


Don't Teach Twitter...

@MrBrettClark 4 Comments

The title of this blog may come as a shock to those of you who know me, but I promise you I have not gone crazy.

My colleagues and I had a very interesting discussion today in our weekly eLearning team meeting.  The discussion was centered around Twitter and if we should open it up for students.  Just for some background information, I work in a 1:1 environment, there are certain websites that are blocked no matter where the students are at with their Netbooks, and websites like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are only open on staff computers and in computer labs.

It was a good discussion about the pros, cons, how many teachers would actually use it (Is there a magic #?), and what type of education/PD would we, as eLearning Coaches, need to provide.  Anyway, it really got me thinking about what do we really need to teach students.

First of all, I am all for opening up twitter to all students.  It is a fantastic tool that I use on a daily basis.  When I have a question, I am just as likely to tweet the question to my PLN as I am to look it up on Google.  I can think of all kinds of ways to use it in the classroom, for professional learning, and for personal enjoyment.

Beyond that, part of me dies every time we hinder learning.  Make no mistake about it, when we block websites unnecessarily, and restrict our students access to information, we are hindering learning.  I am not sure what we are afraid they will learn out there in "the wild".  I grow weary of students being told what to learn, when to learn, how to learn, and how to show teachers that they have learned.  

That being said, as I pondered opening it up for students and the question of how do we accomplish that, I am not sure if I think we should teach Twitter to our students.  Here is why, Twitter is just a tool. While I think that Twitter will be around for a long time, I am also certain there will be a day when Twitter will be dethroned.  The real question is, what is your expected outcome?  Do we want our students to learn the latest tool that, in the end, will only be around for a fraction of their lives?  Or do we want to teach them how to interact in society?  A skill that will stay with them their entire lives.

What if we just taught communication and collaboration skills?  Then students and teachers can just use the tool that best fits their needs.  Here is my recommendation and I'd love to hear your thoughts/comments about this on Twitter, Facebook, email, the comment section, or hit me up on my pager.  Lets make sure everyone knows the proper way to communicate and collaborate.  It doesn't matter if it's in person, online, Twitter, Facebook, Skype, Google+, email, smoke signals, or some way that hasn't been imagined yet.  Communication is communication, no matter the forum.  Then, grant our students access and expose them to the tools that are available and support their use of those tools.  


How does a library decide what books to carry?

@MrBrettClark 4 Comments

How does a library decide what books to carry?  What criteria does a grocery store go through before it decides if it will place an item on the shelf?

When you work in a 1:1 environment where every student in grades 6-12 has a Netbook, you constantly deal with the issue of what they are viewing on the Netbook.  Like every issue, there are all kinds of directions you can go.  You can go with the view point that you place everything on the shelf that is available and you teach students how to make correct choices.  You can go with the view point that you only allow students to go to the areas that are necessary for education.  You can fall somewhere between the two viewpoints.

It leads me to a talk I heard Yancy Unger give the other day about being a curator of education.  The definition of curator is a keeper or custodian of a museum of other collection.  If you take that into consideration and you consider yourself a curator of knowledge, then it leads me to my final question.  How do we decide what knowledge to share with the students and what knowledge to withhold?

I have no answers to these questions, just my own opinions.  I would love to hear your thoughts.


The Flipped Classroom Conversation

@MrBrettClark 0 Comments

There are lots of great conversations taking place around education on "Flipping" the classroom.  If you are unfamiliar with this term, the most basic definition is it is a classroom where the teachers provide a video of the lessons the used to teach and the students watch them as homework.  Then, the next day the students do what used to be homework in the classroom with the teacher present.  The lectures are now homework and homework is now done in class.  That's why it's been called the flipped classroom.  However, here is where I think people are having problems with the flipped classroom.  They stop at the basic definition and never move forward.  The flipping of lessons and homework is only the beginning and not the end.  For far better definitions about the flipped classroom I recommend you read this blog by Dan Spencer and this website from Ramsey Musallam.  I would also recommend you check out The Flipped Class Network from Jon Bergmann and Aaron Sams.

Recently there was an article in the USA today about the flipped classroom.  From that article, The Innovative Educator gave five reasons she's not flipping out over the flipped classroom.  Let me highly recommend that you read this article. First of all, it is well written and raises some very good questions that need to be addressed.  Also, the rest of this blog won't make much sense because I would like to respond to her five valid concerns.

As I stated above, I think a lot of people think that flipping the classroom is all about the videos. The videos are a starting point but they are not the end game. The end game is to design a curriculum that gives students the curation of information they need for a unit. It could include websites, textbook, PBL, games, and videos to teach the content. The student would chose the way that works best for them. Students in Aaron Sams flipped class students are not even required to view the videos. They are there as a resource.

Here are my responses to her concerns:

1) The problem of students not having access is one we live with every week in my district.  I work in a 1:1 environment and many students don't have internet access at home. So you make adaptations for those students. Whether that's providing DVDs or a more traditional method way to deliver the content. The flipped classroom provides opportunity for small-group instruction for these students. The point is that it is unlikely we will ever see a day where every student has the same level of access.  You differentiate your instruction and assessments in the flipped classroom just like you should in any classroom.

2) I agree with this point, flipped homework is still homework. I have major issues with homework because the students who don't need usually are the ones that do it and the students who need it can't do it because they don't understand it.  However, flipped class homework is more meaningful because it is utilized the next day and it also engages students in a more classical way of learning.

3) This is too much of a "what if" concern. That's the same argument that people with many innovative ideas. You can "what if" yourself out if anything if you want to.  The issue of people teaching to the test, or just bad pedagogy exist with or without the flipped classroom.

4) I also agree with this point. That's why the videos are a starting point but not the end game.  Classes should be a place that driven by formative and summative assessments. Where what the students learn is based around standards, interest, data, and learning style. Flipping allows for this. As Brian Bennett will tell you, "It's a ideology not a methodology." It's about engaging students in classical learning and providing students with support at the times when they need it most.

5) Again, this is based on the notion that videos are the ending point and not the starting point. As Jon Bergman and Aaron Sams say, "Flipping won't turn a bad teacher into a good teacher." It's not a fix. Bad teaching on video is still bad teaching.

Ok, those are my thoughts. Do you agree? Disagree? I'd love to hear your thoughts!


Irony at its best...

@MrBrettClark 2 Comments

Just had to blog some quick thoughts this morning about the irony of my masters program. I'm just a couple of months away from earning my degree in Professional Development. I've taken classes over differentiated instruction, formative/summative assessment, backward design, and designing, evaluating, and implementing professional development. Those are just a few topics I've learned about. In each one of those classes, we've talked about student choice in regards to how the information is taught and how it is assessed. Everything I know to be true and everything my masters classes as reinforced tells me that students need to be taught in a variety of ways and should be assessed a variety of ways. Yet, here I am this weekend, writing, approximately, my 65th paper since I began my journey. I just found it very ironic to write about all these topics and write about how students need choice and write about how adults need options and write about and write about and write about...

Had a discussion with a colleague yesterday about this and the concluding statement was, when are colleges going to realize they need to begin looking at their instructional and assessment strategies?

I could text more, I'm posting this from my iPhone, but I have a meeting to go to where I am going to learn about some of the great things people in my district have been doing action research on over the last two years. The best part is, I can enjoy my learning and express my learning in my own way. I don't even have to write a paper about it...I hope.


Bringing Great Change to Your Classroom: Part 3a

@MrBrettClark 0 Comments

I must start off by making a confession.  I am nearing the end of my masters program and I am lacking in motivation.  I know none of you reading this has ever experienced lack of motivation, but for me it's been bad.  Even now, I'm typing this blog when I could be working on a paper due in a few days.

So, if I am suffering from a lack of motivation in my masters class, then how many students are walking through our classroom doors, suffering from a lack of motivation.  That is next piece in this series about bringing great change to your classroom.  In case you are new to this series, here is part 1 and part 2.

Since you've read those, you know that I believe that great change in the classroom starts with the teacher changing.  Then the teacher must get specific with the change he or she wants to see in the classroom. Remember the example I mentioned in part 2 of this series? There is a big difference between "eating healthy" and "having a nutrition plan".

However, being specific is not enough.  If it were, then everyone would follow Dave Ramsey's advice and be debt free.  Unfortunately, if we are not truly motivated to accomplish this, then eventually our emotions will win and take us in a different direction.

I'd love to tell you that I'd solve this problem for my students.  I haven't and this blog isn't meant to give you final answers, but lets have a conversation about motivation. We'll continue to look at the different players that make up the classroom.

I'm going to start with the teacher and with what motivates us.  Why do we do this?  I can not tell you the number of people who have asked me that question.  Actually, when they ask the question, it sounds more like this, "I don't see why you teach.  You've got to put up with kids, parents, and you don't get paid anything. I couldn't do it."  So, why do you teach?

I can only answer for myself.  I love kids.  It's the same answer I gave in my interview for admittance into the student teaching program when I was in college.  It's just that simple.  I am in this for children.  I've never met a good teacher who was in it for any other reason.  If you are in it just because you love your subject, your parents were teachers, you want to coach sports, or want to have summers off, then you either won't last or you won't be happy.  I encourage you to find a different job because life is too short not to be happy!

I recently read that Sir Ken Robinson said that we are here to teach the student and not the subject.  I'm not here to make sure kids pass some test, get good grades, or even graduate.  I do this so the students I work with will fall in love with learning and become the person they want to be.

I have to remind myself of this from time to time when I'm stressed out by all the "other stuff" we have to deal with as educators.  Education is in a major transition point globally and sometimes we need to remind ourselves about why we signed up for this career.

Yes, it's time for the million dollar question!  How do I motivate my students? My students don't like school, my class, my subject, or me!

Dr. Marzano encourages us to ask four questions from the student's perspective.

  1. How do I feel?
  2. Am I interested?
  3. Is this important?
  4. Can I do this?
The first two questions deal with students' attention and the last two deal with engagement.  Believe it or not, students lack of motivation might have nothing to do with you.  They might not feel well, either physically or emotionally.  I've seen too many teachers take things too personally and react poorly because of it.  We need to learn to respond to students feelings and not react to them.  As Dr. Kevin Leman pointed out in his book, Have a New Kid by Friday, the difference between responding and reacting is the difference between a disease responding to treatment or reacting to treatment.  Responses lead to solutions and reactions lead to more problems.  Remember, your students spend much more time outside of your classroom and the outside world has profound effect on them.

Now, if they aren't interested, that is our fault as teachers.  We've got to find out what interest our students and link that with our subjects.  I know it's not always easy but it must be done or you will lose their attention to something that does interest them.  Case in point, I recently saw some pictures on twitter that a student I know took during a class they were in while the teacher was showing a movie.  They wanted to see how many of their classmates they could catch sleeping.  It was more interesting than what the teacher was doing.

Next, if a student does not see the importance of it, then they won't be motivated to complete the work. That leads me to ask a couple of questions of my own. Is your homework assignment important?  Are grades important?  Do students see the importance of what you are doing in your classroom. You want to change your students level of motivation, make everything you do important!  Don't give homework just because that is what teachers do.  I don't have time to discuss the merit of homework.  Here is my opinion in a nutshell.  Kids who already have mastered the standard don't need it and those who haven't can't do the homework anyway.  Teachers should never, under any circumstances, give homework as punishment!  Make the assignments you give in your class important, and not just to you, your grade book, or your principal.  

I've just decided that this part is too big to put into one blog.  I hope you will continue to join me as we continue this discussion at a later time.  In part two of this blog I will be finishing my thoughts on motivating students, the role parents play, and give some tips on how administrators can keep both staff and students motivated from August to May!

This is part 3a of a series of blogs on bringing great change to your classroom. You can find part 1 here and part 2 here.


Bringing Great Change to Your Classroom: Part 2

@MrBrettClark 0 Comments

I've often said and heard it said on teacher work days, "You know, I can get a lot more work done without students around."  Why is this? Could it be because we are able to just focus on one aspect of our job?  When we are allowed to focus on one task of our job, then we can make real progress.

However, we do not work in isolation.  As teachers, our jobs require us to be pulled in a lot of different directions.  Everything from the day to day classroom requirements, to extra-curricular activities, committees, and our lives outside of school (Yes, we have lives outside of school...right?).

In part 1 of this series of blogs, I suggested that way you start to bring great change to your classroom is by starting with yourself.  Just know that if that's where the change ends, then the change won't last.  So, how do you bring along everyone else along with you on this journey of change?  Here is a good place to start:

Be specific with the change you want.

In the book Switch by Dan and Chip Heath, they point out there are two different approaches to the way we diet.  There are those people who say that they are going to "eat healthy" and then there are those that have a specific plan to lose weight.  Those who just resolve to "eat healthy" rarely have the same level of success as those who plan out what they need to do in order to lose weight.  How can we apply this concept to the different people that make up our classroom?

Remember, change starts with you!  What is it that you need to work on in order to be a better educator?  This summer at my school corporation's elearning conference, famous education blogger, Cool Cat Teacher suggested we pick 3 big things to work on.  I couldn't agree more with what she said.  You can not tackle everything there is in education.  Just pick 3 things to focus on and do them well.  Don't resolve to just be a "better teacher."  What does that even mean?  Do you want to improve your assessment literacy? Or classroom management? Or perhaps you want to start using centers to differentiate instruction.  Whatever your specific plan is, just stick with it, and find people to support you.  Take advantage of the world around you.  There are such vast resources at our finger tips.  I learn so much from my PLN every day.  I'm not sure where I would be without Twitter.  Every now and then I even learn the old fashion way, by reading a book.  Don't burn yourself out by trying to "fix" everything.  Come up with a specific plan, and stick to it.

The exact same logic applies to your students.  They don't need to hear us say things like "lets do better tomorrow", "you can do better than this", or "I expect better things from you".  We are famous for demanding our students "do better", but what does that look that?  How can they do better? Does one student's better look the same as another student's better?  By giving students vague goals to reach for we actually give them no goals at all.  Use descriptive feedback and set specific goals for your class as a whole and for individual students.

By the way, telling a student they need to increase from a D to a B is not what I'm not talking about.  What will they need to do to the raise that grade?  On second thought, why do they need to raise their grade?  Can we please take the focus off of grades and put it back on learning?  As assessment expert Karen Bailey said to me last year, "It's your job to help the student identify what they know, and what they need to know next."  That's specific, descriptive feedback and when you do that, students will join you on your journey for great change!

"Mrs. Whoever, this is Mr. Clark from your child's school.  I am calling because he is failing my class and I would appreciate it if you talked to him about his grade."  What kind of specific change can we talk to our parents about?  Now I know this is a hard line to walk sometimes because you don't want parents to think that you are trying to tell them how to parent their children.  However, give your parents specific things they can do with their students, or ways they can help with their homework.  Give your parents resources to use, invite them into your classroom, or help them find a tutor for their student.  Don't just tell them that your having issues with their student, because they probably already know that, and are having the same issues at home.  Form a partnership and find specific ways you can work together to help their student.

I am willing to guess that almost every administrator wants their teachers to be successful.  Usually, we only share our stuggles and imperfections with our administrators during the years we are being evaluated.  However, why not sit down with your administrator, share your big 3, and figure out a way they can help support you?  Discuss how your big 3 fits into the school's school improvement plan.  This change will not happen by itself and you need to pull your administrator into the equation.

Remember, there is a big difference between "eating healthy" and having a nutrition plan.  The change you need in your classroom starts with you first.  Then be specific with the change you are desiring to see.

"If you aim at nothing, you will hit it every time." - Zig Ziglar

This is part 2 of a series of blogs on bringing great change to your classroom. You can find part 1 here.


Bringing Great Change to Your Classroom: Part 1

@MrBrettClark 1 Comments

Great change never happens by accident. I don't care if you are trying to change the government, your business, your weight, or your classroom.  If you are going achieve great change, then it is going to happen on purpose.  How are you going to create the kind of great change you are looking for in your classroom and how are you going to sustain that change?  This is the beginning of a series of blogs that will help you.

Part 1: Change starts with you!

Don't expect the cavalry to come in and change your classroom. In order to get great change that will last the entire year, it must start with you!  Let me tell you why I love to accept the majority of the blame when something goes wrong.  If I am the main reason things are not going according to the plan, then I am also the solution.  I can not be the solution if the majority of the problems come from sources that are out of my control.  Let's look at the different players that make up the classroom:

I start with students because this is where I used to place the majority of the blame for the problems I had as a young teacher.  "If these students actually cared about their grade. If they put as much effort into my class as they do into Facebook, they'd all have A's!"  I've said the very same thing over the years.  However, in my district, we did a stakeholder's survey.  Part of the survey focused on the students opinion on education.  Overwhelmingly, the students said that they understood that education was important to their future.  I contend, that the majority of students know that our classes are important, but they don't see the relevance.  Think about the number of professional development sessions that we have set through as teachers and have completely checked out.  We would be outraged if administration came down on us about it.  We would tell them that the professional development doesn't apply to our classroom. Could it be that we are losing the same relevance battle with our students.  Our students care about their future and if we can't connect our content to their future, then we are going to lose the battle for their attention.  Most of the time they will not make the connection on their own.

I know that we can not 'control' the student factor.  Guess what?  They don't have a lot of control either.  They didn't pick their family, social-economic status, where they live, how much support they have at home, if they come from a broken home, and most of time, if/when they have us as a teacher.

Accept the fact that, in the end, you can't force students to do much. You can have a great impact on them, but it starts by modeling that change starts with you.

Once I was done blaming the student, I quickly moved to the parents.  They don't help at home, they don't join/participate in PTA, they never take my side, and I often dread having to contact them.  However, parents often feel just as helpless as their students and can be as frustrated with their child as you are.  I have rarely met a parent who said, "You know Mr. Clark, I don't care if my kid succeeds and I am not here to help."  The opposite is true, they always want to help and want to be there for their child.  In a meeting this school year we were asked the question, "If parents showed up in your classroom tomorrow, what would you do with them?"  I loved the question, and I had no idea how to answer it.

How would you answer it?  That's a good place to start.  Put together a plan on how to engage and equip parents.  Once again, that change starts with you!

If only my administrator wouldn't cave to the parents/kids.  If only they would equip me with the things I need in my classroom.  Let's keep a couple things in mind with administration as well.  We are only one of many teachers in the building.  Not to mention the fact that they deal with budgets, buses, parents, nurses, media, secretaries, custodians, students, and much more.  If you teach 7, 40 minute classes a day, 180 times you will have been in your classroom for 50,400 minutes.  That's not including prep periods, before or after school, or time at home preparing.  If an administrator spends an average of 10 minutes a week in your room, which is probably a high number, they will have spent less than 1% of the amount of time in your room that you did.  I'm just saying, that they have a lot on their plate and sometimes they have to make decisions with only a fragment of the information we have as classroom teachers.  Also, I don't care how much administration pushes things into the classrooms.  If it's not something you want, it probably won't work.  I personally never wanted administration to change my classroom.

Nobody knows your classroom better than you.  You hold the key to bringing great change to your classroom.  What's the first rule on how to bring great change to your classroom?  The change you need, starts with you!

This is the first of a series of blogs on bringing great change to your classroom.


Educate don't Isolate!

@MrBrettClark 1 Comments

It's amazing to me what people will blame for the problems in this world.  America is fat, blame McDonalds.  People get lung cancer, blame tobacco companies.  The Cubs can't win the world series, blame a goat.

Whatever happened to people taking responsibility for their problems?

Let me tell you about the latest example: In the state of Missouri, Gov Jay Nixon signed a law into existence that prohibits teacher-student Facebook friendship.  Not just Facebook, but any social network that is exclusive and allows for private communication.

From the bill:
Teachers cannot establish, maintain, or use a work-related website unless it is available to school administrators and the child's legal custodian, physical custodian, or legal guardian. Teachers also cannot have a nonwork-related website that allows exclusive access with a current or former student.
I'm sure there are ways to "work around" the law, but is it worth the risk?  Now, I understand the intent of the law.  Yes, there have been some incidents where teachers and students have had inappropriate relationships.  Yes, there is always a danger of problems arising in the area of social media, but is social media to blame?

My good twitter friend @johntspencer and I joked back and forth about the new bill.  We applied the logic to different areas.  For example, when I was in college a coach had an affair with an athlete, and yet athletics weren't outlawed.  I had a teacher who later got fired for drinking at a restaurant during a field-trip, but field-trips weren't outlawed.  As John suggested, if a math teacher sleeps with a student, should we blame math.  After all, math teaches us to multiply.

I agree with John's assessment that we need to take the "digital" out of "digital citizenship" and "cyber" out of "cyber-bullying".  Bullying happens in the cafeteria, but we don't call it "cafe-bullying".  We don't just teach kids to be good citizens in the digital world, we teach them to be good citizens.  We don't stop bullying that just occurs online, we stop bullying.

It's not a matter of location, or if it's a physical or virtual reality. It's about integrity!

I can not imagine a world anymore where I can't communicate with my current and former students through social media.  I've had students this summer contact me about putting me down as a job reference, asking me questions about their schedule for the new school year, and some have just wanted to talk.  I've asked students their opinion on new ideas I want to try this school year, and many of them read my blog and give me feedback.  Some of them like my ideas, and some of them challenge me (Yes Thomas, I'm talking about you)!  I want and need both types of feedback.

We can not continue to ISOLATE students and hope they'll be safe! We must EDUCATE them and know they'll be safe.  Education is the answer to the problem.  A teacher in my school educated her students on the dangers of social media, and many of them began to make their Facebook pages more private, they cleaned up their friend lists of people they didn't know, and they stopped posting their location every five minutes.

That's how you solve this issue Gov. Jay Nixon!

America is fat because we eat to much, people have cancer because they choose to smoke, and the Cubs can't win a world series because their team isn't good enough.


The first question you should ask this year.

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My wife is having surgery next week in Indianapolis.  This past friday, we were at the hospital where her surgery is taking place, for a pre-op appointment.  They were going through the different information for the operation when the nurse asked a question that caught me by surprise.  She asked my wife, "How do you like to learn?"  After my wife answered the question, the nurse began to give her more information on the procedure based on my wife's answer.

It got me thinking about the beginning of school.  One of the best things we can do as teachers, is ask the right questions.  Usually the beginning of school starts with the same questions.  "How was your summer?" "Did you go any where exciting?" Of course, if you had a terrible summer, and you were stuck at home, you'd rather not answer.  I understand the reason behind the questions, we like to get to know our students better.

However, what better question could we ask than the one the nurse asked my wife?  What if you started off the year by asking your class, "How do you like to learn?"  First of all, think about what this question is telling your students:

1) The class is about them, and how they like to learn.
2) The class is not about you, and how you like to teach.
3) You are telling them that they all have the ability to learn.
4) You are telling them that it possible to enjoy learning.

It is a question we must both ask and then act upon.  If the nurse had never offered material based on my wife's answer, I just would have thought it was a weird question.

I think of my three sons.  Two of them are in school.  They are completely different when it comes to learning.  My oldest is a reader.  He's about to go into the third and is an avid reader.  My middle chid is a hands on learner.  He is about to go into the first grade and loves to put together Lego sets.  This morning we went to Lowe's Build and Grow program.  They build binoculars and both took a very different approach, as the pictures below show.  The oldest placed everything out, and read the directions before doing anything.  My middle child just started putting things together.

Their teacher needs to know how they like to learn, and needs to act on it. Their education depends on it.



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We are about a month away from the first day of school. The summer has been a whirlwind of work and excitement.  It has really made me reflect on how we teachers spend our summers "off".  It is always the first thing people think about when they find out you're a teacher. They say things like, "Man, it must be nice having summers off.", "Hey part-timer! Why don't you work all year long like the rest of us?', or "I'd love to just sit around and do nothing for 10 weeks!"  

I guess nobody ever thinks to ask athletes the same question.  I've never heard an interviewer ask Peyton Manning, "So Peyton, what's it like to only work 16 to 20 Sundays a year?"  Why not? One, because he is famous and a "superstar". Also, because we know that he works on becoming a better quarterback every offseason.  In fact, I just read an article about it today.

In the article Peyton talks about how the NFL lockout has hindered his summer workouts and his recovery from neck surgery.  He hasn't had access to the same trainers, or facilities and he feels like it has hindered his rehab and preparation for the upcoming season, if there is one.

Anyway, I keep asking myself this question, have I taken advantage of my offseason to make myself a better teacher and educator?  Am I working on my weaknesses? Am I perfecting my strengths? I feel like I can honestly say, yes. Between my masters classes, conferences (both in person and online), books that I've read, and collaborating through social media, it has truly been a summer of learning.

The purpose of this post is to encourage all of us to be better.  We can always improve.  In fact, we must always improve.  As Vicki Davis said this week at my corporation's elearning revolution conference, kids are not numbers.  Also, as Professor Stephen Heppel pointed out, when you put in the word "education" into you get a globe full of faces.  Because education is about kids.  It's about helping our students unlock their potential.  May all of us educators work as hard at improving our abilities as much as Peyton Manning works at becoming a better quarterback.  


5 Things That Should Drive Instruction

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I apologize to all of my fans for not posting anything in a while. It has been a crazy month.  Now that I have apologized to both of you, I will move on to my first list as a blogger.

A week from today, I will no longer be a classroom teacher.  Next school year I will be an elearning coach, working with Lodge Community School as our district moves to a 1:1 in the middle school grades.  It was 9 years ago this August that I walked into my first classroom in Lafayette, IN.  Anyway, I guess I am just being reflective in how much I have changed as a teacher since that first year.  There are times I would like to go back to those kids I taught my first couple of years and say, "I'm sorry. I didn't know any better."  I guess this is advice to the past version of me.  I am also curious about the future me will think of this list as I grow as an educator.

Five Things That Should Drive Instruction

1) Standards - I know this might appear to be painfully obvious.  However, I spent too long for me to admit to all of you that will read this blog, just mindlessly going through the text book I was given to teach.  I was told it was standards based and the book had a nice chart in the front showing that it was standards based.  However, I have since learned that no book out there covers all the standards and there are always gaps.  This is why I want to be text-book free.  Thankfully, as a math remediation teacher, I haven't had a text book in three years.  I have a much better grasp of the standards I teach and my students have benefited. 

2) Students - Once again, this should be obvious.  However, beyond just the number of students and the age of students, but how those students learn and their interest should drive instruction.  Many teachers just teach and hope kids understand what was just 'taught'.  When teachers don't consider their audience and how they learn, it's like a golfer not considering the weather or the conditions of the course before he or she takes a swing.  There are just too many great resources out there that allow teachers to take a learner inventory.  I prefer this one: Get to know your students, and consider your audience as you plan instruction.

3/4) Formative and Summative Assessment - I put both of these together, because teachers have to use both in order to be as successful as possible.  Formative assessment is best described as a teacher's version of going to the doctor for a check-up.  This is done during the learning process.  You're not checking for understanding to assign a grade, but you are checking for understanding to find out what students know and what they need to know next.  However, the knowledge is not just for the teachers, but it is more for the students.  This way they know where they are, where they need to be, and how to get there.  Formative assessment is a huge topic and this little paragraph does not do it justice.  I highly recommend that you look up more information about from Rick Stiggins and Bob Marzano.  They are the experts and I have learned a great deal from their research. 

Summative assessment is best described as a teacher's version of an autopsy.  This is done at the end of learning.  This is the graded assignment, the quiz, the project, of the test.  This is done to put a final grade on a standard.  This is to let the teachers know if they did a good job teaching the standard and what they need to work on to improve his or her instruction the next time.  It works even better if there are common assessments involved and then a teacher can see how well other teachers do with the same standards.  Then they can learn from each others' strengths and hide each others' weaknesses.  Once again, this paragraph doesn't do summative assessment justice.

5.  Technology - If a teachers is only using one piece of technology on a daily basis in their classroom, then they are like a golfer who uses a driver for every shot.  Technology is not the answer to our prayers.  Technology is just a tool that we must integrate into our classrooms.  It goes beyond using a Promethean Board as a fancy electronic chalkboard, or a document camera as just a pretty overhead projector.  It is about maximizing the tools to their fullest extent.  It is about using different tools as often as possible.  We must also trust that there will be times when our students will have better suggestions than we do on how to use technology.

Somebody send this message to 2002 for me, and I'll be anxious to read this in 2020 and see how much I've changed since I wrote this, because I haven't figured it all out yet, and there is plenty more learning to do. I also know there are more things that could be added to this list.  Please leave comments about what drives your instruction.


Should students be allowed to argue for a higher grade?

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I had a student one time who failed my Pre-Algebra class with a 59.3% for the semester.  He stood at my desk, with his first clinched, asking me to round his grade up to a D for the semester so he wouldn't have to re-take Pre-Algebra.  I didn't budge, and I had that same student again the next year.  This time he finished with a C.

I am glad I didn't round his grade up, because he needed another round of Pre-Algebra.  However, I wonder now if he needed another year of Pre-Algebra.  What if I had given him the chance to learn from his mistakes the very moment he made them, instead of a year later?  What if I had given him the chance to try again on every failed summative assessment?  Instead, the moment he failed, we were moving on and accepting his failure.

Honestly, how many of us understand something the first time we try it?  Right now I am trying to teach my son how to tie his shoes, and doing a terrible job at it.  He makes his loops too big, or he makes them too small.  He gets his fingers all tangled up and leaves his laces in a knot.  Eventually he'll get it, and if he was in my "shoe-tying" class, he'd get an F because his previous failures would, more than likely, outweigh his current success.

Does that feel wrong to anyone else but me?  So, I ask again, should students be allowed to argue for a higher grade?

I say, no, but they should be allowed the opportunity to provide evidence that they have learned from their mistakes and mastered a standard they once struggled with. Just like people are allowed to take the drivers test as many times as they need to, or a CPA is given years to pass all the test it takes to earn that title.  I had classmates who took the PRAXIS II exam multiple times before passing and then given their teaching license.  I have already had over 20 typos in this blog, but many of them you'll never see because I was allowed to replace my mistakes. 

What am I proposing? (Of course, this isn't an original idea of mine.  You can find research from Stiggins, Reaves, and other assessment experts on the issue.)  A student at any time should be allowed to have the opportunity to replace any graded assignment with another assignment that covers the same material.  I know this sounds like a lot of work for the teacher, but only because we teachers have the tendency to assign more homework and grades than what are necessary.  However,I'll have to discuss that sentence at another time.

In the meantime, lets give every student that walks in our classrooms the opportunity to learn from their mistakes.  This way, instead of trying to argue for a higher grade, or earn some irrational extra credit, they will work on their areas of need. 

Does this sound like something you could use in your class or would want to see in your child's class?

Here are a few quotes from some experts. The last one might be my favorite.

“While high grades provide a small amount of motivation for some students, low grades do not motive students to do better. In fact they usually lead to withdrawal.” (Rick Wormeli)

“In order for a grade to be a valid mechanism for feedback and instructional planning, we cannot let the number of attempts to learn concepts and skills significantly influence the grade as an accurate indicator of mastery.” (Rick Wormeli)

“Healthy attitude for a teacher: Any grade below a C is always temporary.” (Doug Reeves)

“Are we interested more in holding students accountable or making sure they learn? Some accountability measures become ‘learn or I will hurt you’ measures.” (Nancy Doda/Rick Wormeli)


A Khan Academy Moment

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I wanted to share a quick experience I had today with Khan Academy.  My 8th grade students were in the lab today working on their Khan Academy lessons.  I walked over to a student, who has had some major struggles in school, both academically and behaviorally, and I was shocked by what I saw on his screen.  No, he wasn't on facebook, twitter, or gmail.  He was working on logarithms. 

I asked him why he was working on that, just out of curiosity.  He said, "I just wanted to know what they were."  I asked him if he understood what was on his screen.  He said, "no."  I asked him what could he do to find out more.  He started clicking the hint key.  A few seconds later he said to me, "Is that really all you have to do?"  I told him yes, and he started working through the problems.  I checked on him a few times, and he started his streak over several times and looked at the hints again.  A few minutes after that, he said he had correctly answered 9 questions in a row.  A student has to get 10 right in a row to be considered proficient on that lesson.  I stood there and watched as this student got his 10th problem in a row correct on adding, subtracting, and multiplying with logarithms! This is something that is introduced later in high school.

The most compelling thing to me, was that he learned this, not because it was the next section in his book, but because he saw something he didn't understand and wanted to know what it was. 

To find out more about Khan Academy, check out my previous post, or visit their website.


My first day with Khan Academy

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There is a lot of talk in the education world about a "flipped classroom," where a student goes home and watches video lessons for his or her homework, then the next day they work on the assignment they traditionally would have done as homework with the teacher acting more as coach.  Now, that is a very simple explanation of a very complex process.

At the center of this discussion is a man named, Salman Khan, who is the founder of Khan Academy.  You can find out more about him by watching his speech at TED Talks and by checking out his website.


I'm not saying he has all the answers, but I decided I wanted to try this in my remediation classes the last few weeks of school.  So, I introduced The Khan Academy to my students today.  I showed them how to sign up, add me as their coach, start lessons, watch videos, get hints, and earn badges for their progress.  My first two remediation classes have access to the computer lab.  We went down, signed up and I let them explore a little bit.  It took them a while to get going, but they appeared to be genuinely excited about it.

This brings me to my last period of the day.  This class does not have access to the computer lab.  I only have 5 computers in my classrooms.  I told them how I would break them up into groups and they would probably only get one day a week on Khan Academy during class, but they could always get on at home if they wanted.  I let one student demonstrate on the Promethean Board how to use Khan Academy. I gave them all the information I had given my other classes, but we didn't get to the lab.

After I put my sons to bed I signed into my account on Khan Academy and was just playing around.  Then, I noticed something.  One of my 9th period students had gone home, created an account, added me as his coach, and worked on 15 different lessons!  He did this, not because I gave it to him as homework, but completely on his own!

I can not wait to talk to this young man tomorrow, who also happens to be ELL, and find out what he thought about doing these lessons at home.  Like I said, I do not think that the flipped classroom holds all the answers to everything that needs fixed in education, but I am anxious to see how these last 33 days of school are going to go with my students using Khan Academy!


What makes a great teacher?

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Think about the teachers you have had over the years.  Everyone of us have had teachers who we would categorize at many levels from "Jedi Master" to "Train Wreck".  Although, it might be humorous and maybe even therapeutic to share stories and characteristics of those "Train Wreck" teachers, lets focus on what makes a great teacher.

When I first started my masters program I read a book by Jeff Kottler, Stanley Zehm, and Ellen Kottler called, "On Being a Teacher: The Human Dimension."  In the opening chapter, they layout what they believe makes a great teacher.  In no certain order, here is their list, with some of my toughts:

1.  Charisma - This is the ability to inspire others.  I don't care how well a teacher knows his or her content area.  If that teacher can not inspire the students in the class, then how much good can they accomplish.

2.  Compassion - Teachers have to care more about their students than they do their subject area.  That sometimes mean putting the books aside to deal with issues the students are facing.

3.  Egalitarianism - We as teachers have to rise above discrimination and prejudice and treat all students equally.  Students will not reach their highest level of success in a class where the teacher is perceived as biased or inequitable in the way he or she enforces rules.

4.   Working with Diverse Students - No two students are alike and the teacher who can adapt to meet the needs of all students is truly a great teacher. 

5.  Sense of Humor - There are very few times when laughter is not a good thing.  We enjoy laughing when we feel on the mountain top and we need laughter when we are in the valley. 

6.   Additional Traits - Smarts, creativity, honesty, emotional stability, patience, the ability to challenge or motivate, novelty, and interest in students. In these additional traits, a teacher must allow themselves to be human and to take risk, even if it means failing in front of our students.  We must show our students that we can be trusted.  That we can provide stability, even in the most difficult and unstable times.  That we will be patient, because our students are worth waiting on.  That we will challenge them and push them to their highest level of success.  That we will be ourselves, and they should do the same.  That we care about them as people and we are invested in them, and not just our subject.

I would love to hear what you would add to this list.  Maybe share a tribute to a great teacher you had and what made him or her great.


Should Students Make Good Grades Just For Showing Up?

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The answer to the question above is obviously no.

I'd like to tell you that every grade, on every report card, from every class, is a true reflection of what the student knows.  I'd like to tell you that every grade is earned with hard work and dedication from both the student and the educator.

The reality is that students are coming home with report cards that are not a clear reflection of their abilities.  Take for example, the teacher who gives students daily points for coming to class prepared.  Without multiplying a single number, writing a complete sentence, or identifying a planet, the student has already earned daily points for being responsible.  Now, do I want students to come to class prepared and to be responsible? Of course I do.  I also want my students grades to be a reflection of what they know.

Lets talk about extra credit while we are at it.  I have seen teachers give extra credit for bringing in Kleenex, participating in spirit week, or attending a sporting event.  I remember my favorite high school teacher of all time giving me extra credit every week for wearing the school colors on Fridays.

The moment we teachers allow these things to creep into our grade books, our grades become invalid.  I must confess, that I too have fallen into the trap of giving students credit for things that were not aligned to my math standards.  It's easy to do when you feel the pressure to pass students, or because it's the student who really worked hard for you, and you tried to find an excuse to bump him or her up a letter grade...or two.

What's the solution?  I never want this blog just to become a rant about things in education that annoy me or frustrate me.  I always want to do my best to offer a solution.  That being said, I know I do not have all the answers, and there may be times when I ask you for the answers. So, what's the solution?  Lets look at a couple of options.

1)  Since we all want students to come to class prepared and ready to learn, we need to add a section to our report card called "life skills".  In this section we can mark a students grade based on preparedness, organization, behavior, participation, and other similar skills.  By separating life skills from subject skills, it would actually place greater emphasis on both sets of skills without letting one directly effect the grade of the other. I recommend you check out Dr. Marzano's book on formative assessment and standards-based grading.

2)  Find another way to reward students for coming to class prepared or participating in school events.  There are all sorts of books out there that will help teachers think of ways to reward students for meeting and exceeding expectations.  Fred Jones offers many ideas on the topic.

3)  Instead of extra credit, how about replacement assignments.  A replacement assignment is an assignment that matches the skills of an assignment the student did not master earlier in the grading period.  Then, instead of the students just trying to get points to make a certain grade, they are providing the teacher with evidence they have mastered a standard they struggled with earlier.

It has been said that grades are the biggest lies in education, and it is time we started telling the truth.


My First Blog - I know...real original.

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This is my first attempt at blogging.  I'm not sure what took me so long, but here I go.  I figured I would start by sharing a little bit about myself and what I envision this blog becoming.  Once again, not very original, but it's a start.

I am a school teacher in Evansville, IN.  Well, at least for a few more months I will be.  Next year, I will be an elearning coach.  In my new role, I will be working with teachers on integrating technology into their classroom in a way that maximizes student achievement.  

Here are a list of topics that I am very passionate about and will be sharing on my blog:
1)  Assessment - In my opinion, assessment is the most misused tool teachers use on a daily basis.  Done correctly, assessment can paint a clear picture of what a student knows and what they need next.  Too many assessments are done for the purpose of assigning a grade and nothing more.  However, assessments hold the key to unlocking the potential students possess.  Which takes me to my next topic.

2) Grades - Nobody says it better than Ken O'Conner, "Grading as it has been done traditionally promotes a culture of point accumulation, not learning.  It encourages competition rather than collaboration. It often focuses on activities instead of results."  We have to fix the way we assign grades in our nation!

3) Technology - Everyone knows and understands that technology is changing at an alarming rate.  I am blessed to work in a corporation that is dedicated to putting technology tools into the hands of teachers.  

There are many more topics that I will tackle on this blog, but those are the three that I am most passionate about.  

You can follow me on twitter @Mr_Brett_Clark.