Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Ok. I have to confess this. I’m sure that it will change many people’s opinions of me, but it must be said. I have a fidget spinner. There I said it. Even worse, I gave my child a fidget spinner. I know. I deserve your looks of anger and resentment.

I have to say something else as well. I like my fidget spinner. My son’s fidget spinner helps him be less of a distraction. I keep my fidget spinner close by. It helps me focus. That’s right. My entire family is one of “them.” We are the people that keep these ridiculous types of objects on the market. We are to blame.

The thing about the fidget spinner that amazes me is not how quickly that it took off, or even the backlash against it by parents, educators (my coworkers have given me no end to grief), and the public at large. What amazes me about it is how well it works without doing anything amazing. It just spins. There is nothing profound about it. Still, that simple spinning can do wonders that the most unique or profound objects, thoughts, or writing can never do.

I worry that as a society in general (and writers in particular) we expect everything to be profound. I am extremely guilty of this. Rather than using a blog to just put some thoughts out there and to speak my mind, I feel that every time I put something on my blog that it should teach something important. Everything that I say should make somebody reading it on their computer stop what they are doing and just look off into space for a moment and say, “Whoah!” in their best Bill and Ted voice. Why? What makes me think that everything must be profound? Is it because I think that only the profound ever stand out? I suppose that is why I like my fidget spinner so much. A life lesson learned from something so simplistic that many people hate it, just because it is so simplistic.

So, if you haven’t tried a fidget spinner, go out and get a good one, hold it with two fingers, and give it a spin. Rock it back and forth as it’s spinning. See if you don’t feel the urge to spin it again as it slows down. Most importantly, learn the lesson of the fidget spinner: everything you do or write doesn’t have to be profound. Simplicity has its own appeal. Even if people are talking about how simplistic it is, they are still talking about it!

 

 

feature image credit: thegadgetflow.com

I got together with a couple of other writers the other day as an impromptu “writer’s group” and the first thing that the organizer had us do was five minutes of free writing. She said just to write whatever you want for those five minutes. I thought that I might share what I wrote. I guess that it shows my anxiety over the end of the summer.

 

I didn’t know what to expect. I never know what to expect. Of course, that’s what makes life interesting, isn’t it? And terrifying. You never know if the next event is going to change your life or just be another in the countless moments that disappear into the vagueness of memories. I know a lot of people that live for that uncertainty. It excites them. It gives them an adrenaline rush. I’d had enough of uncertainty. It doesn’t give me adrenaline. It gives me heartburn. Of course, life doesn’t give you the option to just stop where you are, so I opened the door, walked though, and announced, “Welcome to class. I’m your history teacher.”

 

Looking at it, it seems small for five minutes of work, but I can guarantee that I couldn’t have written any faster. How about you? If you had to write for five minutes, what would it say?

Writers and artists of various sorts always talk about their inspirations. It might be another artist or an event or the sun set just perfectly while they were walking their pet wombat through the swamp on the winter solstice…I’ve heard some interesting ones. Inspiration is something that we all need. Maybe it is inspiration to convince us to do something. Maybe it is inspiration that brings about a new idea. Maybe it is inspiration to push ourselves to be our best. No matter how much intrinsic motivation someone has, extrinsic inspiration is always a factor in ones actions and choices (I really just wanted an excuse to show that I could use the terms “intrinsic” and “extrinsic” intelligently!)

Anyone that knows me or that has read enough of my blogs knows that my grandfather has been a huge inspiration for me. So has my wife, son, parents, and many of my students. However, every once in a while I will stumble upon a new inspiration. These inspirations might not be life-changing, but they give you something new to look up to for a while. This happened to me just a couple of years ago. I was in a Master’s degree course talking about grading using a rubric, and we were given a rubric on how to grade someone’s public speaking presentation. We were then given a link to a video showing a young lady, about 12-13 years old, who was not only giving a public presentation, she was giving a presentation at a TED Conference. All of the students were amazed. The content of the presentation was excellent as was the style in which she presented it. I have taught students her age for fifteen years and I don’t think that I have ever taught one that could have presented with such poise and confidence in front of such an audience, and I have taught some talented folks. To make matters more interesting, she was already a published writer. I have to admit that this was inspirational to me…mostly because I was annoyed that it took me until I was in my thirties to become a published writer! The nerve of some overachievers…

Just a couple of days ago, I stumbled upon another TED talk by this same young lady, although she was older (maybe 17-18), and she spoke very intelligently about the inaccuracy of using test scores to judge a student’s merit (if you are a teacher, you are probably nodding your head vigorously right now.) Once again, she provided a great speech and made excellent points. I was impressed.

So what does any of this have to do with inspiration? Well, I have to say that this young lady has inspired me in a couple of ways. First, as a writer she has shown me that talent knows no age and that words do still impact the young. For a time, I think that we were all frightened that the internet would kill reading. As a teacher, she has inspired me by showing that there are those out there that understand what some of the true problems are in education, and that they aren’t all the fault of teachers. As both a teacher and a writer, she has also inspired me with hope that writing and teaching to a higher level than reality television even thinks exists will still reach my students and readers. Watch the speeches of Adora Svitak yourself and tell me what you think.

What about you? What inspirations have you found?

 

Featured image credit: tnooz.com

I’m sure that anyone reading this is aware of the importance of characters in a story. A writer can come up with the most imaginative and mind-blowing storyline that the world has ever seen, but if you don’t have characters that the reader feels a connection to and shares an interest in, then your story will fall flat and not find an audience. So how do you do this? How can you make your characters someone that your readers will want to follow? How do you make them someone that your readers will remain curious about?

One thing that has never ceased to amaze me is the obsession people have with celebrities. Sure, most of us laugh at the tabloid headlines with their absurd claims of relationships, scandals, and other baseless claims, but we still follow the information about celebrities from more “legitimate” news sources. There is something about people that have achieved some level of fame that entrances us and makes us want to know what they are doing. Sometimes what they are doing is nothing more unusual than what we ourselves or our own acquaintances do, but we just want to know anyways. Maybe it is so that we can feel some kind of connection to these larger than life individuals.

So what does this have to do with characters in your stories? Am I suggesting that every character that you or I write about be some kind of celebrity? Should they all be larger than life? That isn’t necessary. My students have shown me that some of the most average individuals can achieve a certain level of celebrity status just by being who they are. It is an odd thing to see, but it does happen often.

Think back to the days when you were in school. Don’t worry. I won’t tell anyone how far back you might have to imagine. Did you ever run into one of your teachers out in public? It was an odd situation, wasn’t it? How were you supposed to act around them? What were you supposed to say? Did you discuss class? Did you try to talk about whatever was going on in the place where you saw them? Did you do what you could to avoid them completely? No matter what you did, you undoubtedly treated that teacher a little bit differently than you would have most other people that you saw in the same place. Why is that? I think it is because teachers have achieved a certain type of celebrity. I don’t mean that they are famous or that people get tongue-tied when they meet them. I mean that students have a certain image of who a teacher is, and it is never an image that conforms to how the students see themselves. They are someone “different.” I have had students admit to me that they wouldn’t be surprised if teachers slept at the school, and these are 8th graders! Students will even text one another if they see a teacher out in public because it surprises them so much to see a teacher doing the same type of thing that they are doing.

Obviously, I don’t think it would be a good idea to make every character that you create a teacher. That would be just a little awkward and restrictive. What I do think you should consider is making your characters just a little bit different from the average reader. You don’t have to imbue your character with superhuman abilities or unusual talents unmatched by anyone else in order to make them a celebrity. All your character really has to be is someone that your reader might not expect to do any of the normal, everyday things that people do. As a result, when they do those everyday things it will amaze the reader and grab there attention in a way that never happens when that reader is doing the same activity. Doubt me? Run into one of your old teachers at the grocery store and see if you don’t behave just a little bit differently around them!

I write the following as the personal opinion of a citizen.

I’m very conscientious about not criticizing things in my profession. However, my wife asked me about something today that suddenly made me realize that I needed to say something. I realized that I needed to speak as a citizen, parent, and educator about something that everyone knows, but that so many with the ability to change things have ignored. Testing is killing teaching. Testing is killing creativity. Testing is killing a love of learning. Yet, sadly, testing isn’t going anywhere.

My wife asked me if I knew about some sort of international recognition day that had to do with creativity. To be honest, it wasn’t something that would have been likely to come up in my middle school class. It sounded like something that would have been used in younger grades. However, after she asked me, I realized how little creativity I have been making use of in my class over the past several years. It isn’t that my class is intentionally unimaginative. What has become the problem is that the results of the high-stakes testing towards the end of the year has come to be so important that creating lessons that don’t conform to what is likely to be on the tests hurts my students, my school, and myself. When your student’s ability to take part in certain classes, or your school’s reputation, or your own income or job security are based largely on the results of a single test, you don’t dare to try and do anything outside of the realm of specifications for that test. This results in almost robotic adherence to exactly what you see on practice test questions or the precise words of the standards. The wiggle room is gone.

There are lots of political footballs and buzzwords that have dealt with this topic. Sometimes the number of tests are attacked. Other times, people try to blame new sets of standards like Common Core. Still others say that teachers are spoiled or lazy and just don’t want to be held accountable in their job. The truth is that none of these are the true problem. Cutting down on how many tests or practice tests is certainly useful, but it doesn’t get rid of the end-all be-all importance placed on the test results. Common Core isn’t to blame. Teachers have always had to teach from a set of standards, and those standards have never been able to please everyone. After fifteen years in the profession, I can say that any true teacher that I have worked with has never complained about true, reliable accountability for their work. That brings us back to the weight placed on testing and the changes that it has brought to the classroom.

At this point, some of you may be asking what you can do about it. Well, there have been a few things that I have seen that are counterproductive. If you are a parent, trying to “opt out” of testing won’t change things. In many places it isn’t an option and it doesn’t send the right message to the people that can actually change things. If you are a teacher, trying to publicly point out the problems with testing won’t work either. It just looks like employees complaining about their job. The difference can be made by showing that we care long before the tests are put on the desks of the student.

We must get involved early. It starts with elections. Teachers and administrators do not make the tests or give them the weight that they do. Elected and appointed officials are the ones that make the difference. Some of this is done at the national level, but most of the decisions come from the local and state level. Study, get involved, and vote intelligently. After election day, stay involved. Standards, bills involving education, and even the textbooks used in the schools are all open to public discussion. Get involved in those discussions. Something that has happened with educators, parents, and even officials is that they don’t point out the problems with a situation until after it has already been discussed, voted on, and approved. The old horse is already out of the barn when we try to close the gate.

I want to start being creative in my assignments again. I want my students to start being able to use their inherent creativity to enjoy learning more. I want the students to stop feeling the crushing stress that becomes a normal part of their day in the spring. I know that I’m not alone in this. We must act intelligently to bring a love of learning back into the schools and into our students’ lives.

The school year is just about to begin for my students. Like seems to be the case far too often, there are new requirements for what to teach and how this year. The new requirements call for more reading and a whole lot more writing in all subjects. As a writer you would think that I am happy with this. Well, as a social studies teacher, I certainly am. I think that students can benefit greatly from learning how to write informatively. As a writer, I’m not quite as thrilled.

The thing that I’m concerned about, as a writer, is that we aren’t quite teaching the love. I’m going to borrow some lines from Joss Whedon here to make my point. You can know all of the grammar and tools for proving a thesis in the ‘verse, but if you don’t have love then writing may shake you right off as surely as the worlds turn. I worry that as the students get older, we are requiring less and less creativity from them. Non-fiction writing is a crucial skill in today’s world, and I don’t think that it should be less emphasized. However, fictional, creative writing seems to be falling away. I fear that we may be taking the love from the writing, and if that’s the case, then writing may become a matter of nothing more than work for future students. Writing will shake us right off from a lack of love.

I am not recommending any kind of change in standards or anything like that, nor is this any kind of complaint against current standards. This is a plea to the teachers, parents, and writers out there. Even if it isn’t in the standards or expectations, we need to make certain and instill some of that love for writing into our children. Many students love to read, but I wonder if any of them realize that it is up to them in the future to provide the stories that the next generation will read. If we don’t try to instill some of that love into the students, then the next generation may not have the gripping stories to mesmerize them that previous generations have enjoyed. I teach some creative writing as an enrichment course. Do I think that everyone in there leaves with a love of writing? Absolutely not! But if I can get three or four students a year to gain an appreciation for writing and maybe help foster a talent they have for it, then I feel that I have accomplished what I set out to do.

We certainly need to teach our students how to write and explain things with informative texts. It is a skill that they need to learn. But to my fellow teachers, parents, and writers out there, try to find the opportunity to instill a love for writing whenever you can. That is something that many of the children want to learn. That’s important for their futures, too.

I apologize for not having a new blog entry yesterday. Been a busy time in my household. I have a question for you all. I’m considering trying to do a video blog once a week. Do any of you follow a vlog or do one yourself? What do you think about them? 

I wanted to share a positive outlook that only a teacher can have. One of my coworkers recently said “I had one student that had so much difficulty on a test that I stopped marking things wrong and started circling the things that they got right. That way when I gave it back to them I could say, ‘Here’s what all you got correct.'”

Everyone appreciates talent. The problem with talent is that those with a talent cannot understand why others can’t do the same things that they can do. Why can’t I walk on my hands? (Probably because I can barely walk on my feet!) Why aren’t I a good basketball player? (Probably because I have a total lack of coordination) Why can’t you draw? (See previous excuse) So if a talent is something that not everyone is capable of, can we teach people how to write?

note to make writers

Many schools have courses or clubs that center around creative writing. I myself have run a club of that nature before and I am currently working with students daily on the same subject. Does that mean that writing is a talent different from other talents? Can the talent of writing be taught? If so, then is there hope for me at basketball, drawing, and maybe even walking on my hands? (I could also use lessons in social skills, but that is a subject for an entirely different post.) To answer that, we need to look at what is taught in creative writing.

I am not certified to teach creative writing. I don’t teach a credit course on the subject. What I do try to pass on to those in the club or in spare time at school are a few skills and ideas that can help improve writing. I try to get hopeful writers to spend more time working on their characters and less time working on plot lines and twists in their stories. I show them how to create deeper and more believable characters. I talk with them about how to critique someone’s work and how to work with a critique of their own work. All of this is intended to help the perspective writers grow. I do believe that a lot of people reading this can learn how to write. It is a matter of skills, and skills can come from instruction and practice. There are lots of resources. Speak to the people around you. I would bet good money that you know someone who considers themselves an amateur writer. Look around on the internet. There are all kinds of sites that are made to assist writers. It is out there.

So, if I believe that lots of people can be writers, why aren’t we inundated with amazing writers all day, every day. Please note my careful wording. I said that a lot of people can be writers. I didn’t say that everyone can be an amazing writer. Most people who consider themselves writers do so because they enjoy writing and find pleasure in it. They would love to write a best-selling novel, but whether they do or not, they will continue writing for the joy of it. They have learned some skills and they make use of them. These are the writers I’m talking about. I count myself among them. The amazing writers do have a talent that probably cannot be taught.

OK, even with that distinction, why don’t we have a lot more writers. For the same reason I’m not a good basketball player: drive and determination. A writer wants to write. They do it for joy. They do it as their outlet. They do it for their readers, however small the number. Without that drive, you never put pen to paper, just as I never put on tennis shoes and work on my lay-up (which is a moment of epic slapstick comedy). So, to answer the question of whether you can teach someone to write, I say: You can lead someone to the keyboard, but you can’t make them type.

package

There are lots of time in education when it almost feels like “us against them.” Of course, the “them” varies with the situation. Always remind yourself as an educator that for every one challenge that you face, there are always a dozen silent supporters thankful for what you are doing for them, their children, or the community. Additionally, always try to see their point of view. You see things that they don’t every day, but the opposite is true as well.

Unfortunately, social media and the media in general allow for a very vocal and public opposition to schools, policies, or even individual teachers. As a social studies teacher, I don’t even see this as any real problem because the freedom of speech is only useful if there is a way for people to hear you. The problem occurs when these vocal critics are ill-informed or misinformed. It is very hard to win back a good reputation for a school or teacher if it has been tarnished, and it doesn’t matter if that tarnish is caused by inaccurate information. So, is there a solution to this problem?

The honest answer is “Maybe.” While I haven’t had much opportunity yet to test this theory, I truly believe that many of these criticisms can be headed off with proper packaging of the school, its programs, and even individual teacher’s classes. It is very easy to cut off unwarranted criticism of a school if you simply provide a link to a local news article detailing how the school is already working on that problem. Consistent releases of information about school events, interesting classroom projects, etc. can also provide great packaging for a school that you only see from the inside, while most others only see it from the outside.

Naturally, this means more work for some members of the faculty. With the constant addition of more and more responsibilities, no one wants to volunteer for more burdens. However, if educators aren’t their own cheerleaders, who will be? News stories don’t happen on their own. Find a couple of teachers willing to learn how to write press releases. Better yet, have some teachers learn how to write press releases and pass that knowledge on to students in a journalism club. Write stories, take pictures, and flood the local papers with them. Put information on the schools website often. Inundate social media with everything that you school is doing and doing well. You don’t have to be able to do a backflip to be a cheerleader for teachers.

Criticism is how we learn, and any good teacher or administrator is willing to listen to criticism that will help them grow. However, criticism about things that have already been addressed or that suppose information is factual when it isn’t can harm the reputation of everyone involved. Some good packaging for your school and classroom can not only prevent unwarranted difficulties, but create more pride in your school and class as well.

Feature image via highspotinc.com