My teacher time capsule

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Two years ago, when I left Robinson for good (and teaching, or so I thought), I remember looking at the many boxes full of books, classroom supplies, records, and decorations that I had packed up.  Is it worth taking all this stuff with me? I remember thinking. I don’t plan on teaching again.  Maybe I should just leave this stuff here and let the masses fight over it.

Well, I’m glad I didn’t.

Last night, coming to the realization that we had probably put it off long enough, Jess and I set about the herculean task of going through the walk-in closet in our spare bedroom that doubled as our storage unit while we were here.  It started off organized enough when we moved in, but over time it’s become the area everyone has somewhere in their house, where stuff gets thrown in and then the door is shut as quickly as possible to fend off the avalanche of crap that has accumulated over the years.

As we extracted the boxes, we went through each one and decided if the contents of the box should be entirely or partially chucked.  After a couple of hours, we finally got to the very back of the closet, where we put the things we deemed the least likely to be needed.  And there, untouched for nearly two years, were the boxes containing the contents of my classroom.

While the process of packing and moving makes me incredibly cranky – moving is a pain in the ass and I don’t recommend it for anyone ever – the prospect of looking at some old teacher artifacts had me a little giddy.  As I’ve begun going through boxes, here are a few of my favorite things that I’ve found.

– A classroom observation write-up from 2005 (my first year of teaching), wherein I got mostly good reviews but was taken to task for using a whole minute of class time to take attendance.  With all due respect to the assistant principal who wrote that up, I didn’t lose sleep over that little critique.

The trophy I won at Cave Spring, right after I won it.

– A Concord/Kannapolis Independent Tribune clipping from 2006 detailing my quiz bowl team’s recent trip to compete in a tournament at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.  A team picture accompanied the writeup; they looked so young.

– Speaking of quiz bowl… a trophy I won at the 2009 Cave Spring (Va.) Invitational for placing 3rd in their coaches’ tournament.  I was beaten by Raleigh Charter’s then-coach Eric Grunden.  No matter who was competing, Robinson struggled with that school.

– Six or seven AP U.S. History test preparation books.  I’ll keep them for the content, but by the time I’m teaching APUSH again, the test prep part will be obsolete.

– A bunch of museum maps, brochures, and tickets from the trip Jess and I took to Washington, D.C. in 2010, during which I proposed.  Jess wanted all of that stuff for a scrapbook.  I worried that I had thrown all of it away by accident, but it looks like it was just packed in the wrong box.

While those things were all fun and neat to find, one last artifact served to reinforce my decision to return to teaching.  First, the back-story: In 2009 I had a student in U.S. History (non-honors) who was struggling mightily.  He generally did his work but it didn’t always appear to be well thought out, and he struggled mightily on tests.  During his senior year, he signed up for APUSH.  I’ve always said that I’ll happily teach up any student who decides to take my class, but I have always felt obligated to make them fully aware of the rigor and fast pace of the course, and gently suggest that it may not be for them.  After that little talk, most of the students I had doubts about would run for the hills, but this student didn’t.

So he stayed in the course, and I had never been more impressed with a student’s work ethic.  Compared to most of his classmates on paper, he had no business being there.  But he worked his tail off all semester, participated in discussions, did all of his homework, and thoroughly enjoyed himself (always a goal I had for my students).  He got a very hard-earned, well-deserved B-minus in the course, and even though he didn’t get college credit from the exam (he got a ‘2’), he outperformed my initial expectations.  I still keep up with him from time to time; he’s gone on to college and is doing well.

Anyway, as I was going through one of my boxes marked “CLASSROOM,” I found a thank-you card that was given to me by this kid and his mother at the end of the school year.  They were thanking me for pushing him to be a better student and helping him succeed in a difficult course.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I’m going back into teaching.  Working in athletics could be fun at times (and awful at others, to be fair), but I could never shake the feeling that I wasn’t effecting change and making a difference the way I was when I was teaching.  Teaching the super-smart, super-talented students is really fun, but helping more marginal students to reach the next level is just as rewarding.

Deeds, not words

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Between working in education and having tons of friends with tons of degrees, I’ve had the opportunity to see and hear more than my fair share of commencement speeches.  In 2005 at Wake Forest’s graduation, for example, I saw Arnold Palmer speak.  I don’t remember much from that speech because I spent the whole time gawking at the stage and saying to myself “Holy hell, that’s Arnold freakin’ Palmer!!!”  Also, I can’t find it on YouTube.

One particularly good one that is documented on the interwebs was John Grisham’s speech at UNC-Chapel Hill’s 2010 commencement – my fiancee graduated that day – in which he urged the graduates to “find their voices.”  The worst one I ever heard in person was Sen. John McCain’s speech at Northwestern University’s commencement in 2005.  It had its funny moments, but it had way too much politics and foreign policy for my liking (and this was before McCain went off the political deep end).

Earlier this month, my friend and boss Eric Grunden gave the commencement speech at Raleigh Charter High School, where he is on the way out after a decade as their chemistry teacher to serve as Research Triangle’s principal.  I had been told by people who were in the audience that it was very good, and after seeing it, I agree.  Watch it, if only for the hilarious pop culture references and the fact that its title is derived from a campy 1982 action film called Megaforce, a movie I’d never heard of and apparently for good reason.


Unless I badly missed the point, Eric’s thesis was that people should start doing something with their lives instead of sitting around learning from a book and trying to decide what they want to do.  Deeds, not words.  Great advice.  And I know he was talking to those brand new high school graduates, but the speech struck a chord with me as well.  He described these high school graduates as “cheap,” in that they can work for someone starting on the ground floor and do some good and help people and find their callings that way, instead of just thinking about it.  “The world needs cheap, energetic people who will shut up and pick up a shovel,” he said.  And then he said something that I can wholeheartedly vouch for:

The worst thing that’s gonna happen to you if you just go out and try something is that you’ll accidentally pick something that you turned out not to like later, or you’ll work at a job for a couple of years and find out you hate it.  And you will.  You’ll think that you wasted a couple of years doing something that you hated, but that’s not right; what you did was you spent a couple of years helping somebody else.

Freakin’ A.  The cruel irony is that as a teacher I already had the job that I wanted to do for the rest of my life, and I just didn’t know it.  So I became a cheap, energetic pawn in a college athletic department.  And just like what Eric suggested might happen to those graduates, I worked in that job for two years and figured out that I was absolutely miserable and dreaded going to work every day.  So I’m re-entering the classroom this fall with a renewed sense of purpose, and the knowledge that I’ve found my calling has caused a palpable sense of peace to wash over me.

In light of my very circuitous route to reach this realization, I’ve been asked by a lot of people if I regret my time in Auburn spent doing menial labor for an NCAA compliance office.  I suppose it’d be easy to say yes because I missed out on the opportunity to influence two years’ worth of students, but that’s water under the bridge.  Because I took a leap of faith and tried something new that turned out not to be for me, I’m now going to influence a much larger number of students in the years to come.  And for that, I’m unimaginably thankful.

I hope those students lucky enough to hear Eric’s speech will take his remarks to heart and get out there in the world and do something.  I think the advice is so good, in fact, that I’m considering getting a Megaforce poster like the one pictured above to put in my classroom.  If anyone could help me score one of those, I’d be most appreciative.

They are Americans

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I didn’t create this blog with the intention of waxing political on a regular basis, but not only does this topic pertain to education, I find it to be much more of a humanitarian issue than a political one. I came across a video on my Facebook news feed this afternoon labeled, “Why honor students across the country are being thrown in jail.”

This video isn’t necessarily groundbreaking – similar stories can be found here, there, and everywhere – but in the wake of the Obama administration’s plan to ease the deportation regulations for undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. when they were children, the plight of undocumented teens has become a hot-button issue.

Robinson had a fairly large Latino population when I taught there; I don’t know with certainty which ones and how many, but I’m positive that a significant chunk of the ones I taught were undocumented immigrants. And do you know why I don’t know which ones were undocumented and which ones weren’t? Because they were no different from any other cross-section of the student body that I taught – there were great students and not-so-great students, kids that were proverbial Boy Scouts and kids who couldn’t behave, kids with wonderful parents and kids with difficult parents, and everything in between. In many ways, education can be the great equalizer – having a Social Security number doesn’t make a kid a better student than one of his peers who doesn’t.

My issue with the desire of some people to deport these kids is primarily twofold.

1) Why would we want to get rid of students who can contribute to society? The story I linked above of the girl in Miami who was the valedictorian of her high school class but was still facing deportation (her picture heads this post) is a prime example of what I mean. That girl could end up curing cancer and we’re going to put her on a plane because her parents brought her to the United States when she was a child? That dog won’t hunt, and that brings me to the second point…

2) For no other crime in our society is a child punished because their parents broke the law. A Texas congressman said today that these kids aren’t blameless because they probably “had a say” in coming to the U.S. With all due respect to all the stupid things I’ve heard, this one is up there. If I, as a 16-year-old, had sat down to the dinner table and told my parents, “You know, life here sucks; let’s move to Sweden!,” I have a hard time believing that would’ve clinched the decision. And when I have kids, I know I won’t be taking the opinion of my toddler into much account when making decisions for my family.

I’ve heard the arguments that such students are not American, and therefore don’t deserve the benefits of American citizenship. Well, in the strictest legal sense, that may be true. But a person who was brought to the United States when he or she was 2 years old and knows no other way of life is an American. And if they are willing to be law-abiding people, attend school, and contribute to society, I have no problem whatsoever with my tax dollars supporting their educational endeavors. As a teacher, a student’s immigration status has no bearing at all on my expectations for them, and I hope that all teachers take a similar approach.

I have no idea whether my views are mainstream or represent what some would consider a “radical minority,” but I make no apologies for my opinion on this matter. I’m prepared for some blowback, but would be curious to know how others feel.

Back in my day…

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My 30th birthday, four months hence, is looming over me lately as everything seems to remind me of how I’m getting older.  For example, most of Research Triangle’s incoming freshmen were born in 1997 and 1998.  Let that marinate in your brain for a minute.  These high school freshmen were born while was a high school freshman.

I suppose a lot of teachers experience a moment that serves as a sort of revelation that the kids you’re teaching are simply from a different generation.  I had such a moment in my second or third year at Robinson, when our school’s computer server suffered a complete meltdown near the end of the school year.  My AP U.S. History kids had already taken their exam, which meant that we had moved on to the final project – research and a presentation on a American history-related topic of the students’ choosing.  “Okay guys,” I told the kids on one of the days I had reserved the media center for them to do research, “the computers are down, so no online research.  You’re gonna have to use the books and the card catalog.”

My students’ reaction upon finding out they couldn’t use computers.

You would’ve thought I had whipped out a machete and lopped off both their arms.  I literally had to walk my students through how to use the card catalog and the Dewey Decimal System and the like, all while having to hold myself back from screaming, “Are you people serious?  My high school had TWO computers that had DIAL-UP internet, and that was less than ten years ago!”

Obviously, I’m a huge proponent of using technology in the classroom; I am going to be teaching at a STEM-focused charter school, after all.  But I’ve become increasingly concerned over the past few years that the reliance on gadgets and gizmos has led to a complete breakdown in skills that many people, myself included, would consider to be very basic ones.  Here are three particular things that I think are in grave danger of becoming lost arts if current trends continue:

1) Historiography.  This one is clearly very near and dear to me.  Technology can be a wonderful thing for historical research, as digitized resources from all over the world can be accessed anywhere by virtually anyone.  I do have concerns, though, over what types of sources will be available for future historians.  Newspapers are cutting back on publication or going under, and more and more “written” communication is done via text or email.  One of the best biographies I’ve ever read is David McCullough’s John Adams.  McCullough relied heavily on correspondence between John and Abigail Adams to reconstruct large portions of his life.  Well, people don’t write letters anymore, so where are historians years down the road going to be when trying to delve into their subjects’ lives?  It’s gotten so bad that the U.S. Postal Service has actually launched a marketing campaign encouraging people to write letters.

2) Writing ability.  I’m perfectly guilty of using BRB, G2G, WTF, etc. in informal written communication with friends and family, but a lot of students nowadays don’t seem to grasp the difference between formal writing and texting.  My first year of teaching, I remember completely blowing a gasket when one of my students in my Honors U.S. History classes put “LOL” in one of her essays on a unit test, and the hell of it was that she was actually a decent student.  So if students are doing stuff like that, you can only imagine how bad the usage of grammar and punctuation has become with many students.

3) Penmanship.  Most states don’t teach cursive in elementary school anymore and are teaching typing instead.  Typing is important, but so is handwriting.  In just the five years I’ve been scoring essays at the AP U.S. History Reading, there has been a noticeable depreciation in students’ penmanship across the board.  Using those essays as a sample, I can surmise that only a handful of kids use cursive anymore, and the ones who use it aren’t very good at it.  I’m not one of those stodgy old teachers who’s going to require all my students to use cursive all the time – I care more about being able to read whatever was written – but some kind of handwriting instruction is badly needed.

I know that the definition of “basic life skills” is ever-evolving; there were probably people 100 years ago who were sitting on their porches doing the same thing I’m doing here… “I tell ya, Gertrude, these kids just don’t know how to churn butter anymore!”  But I refuse to believe that being able to write and effectively communicate ideas are things that will go by the wayside, and I’ll do all I can to implement engaging technology-based instruction while making sure that students know how to write by hand and use non-digital research methods.

I’m curious to hear other people’s thoughts on this.  If the mood strikes, you can even write me a letter about it.

Sort of experienced

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There’s a scene near the beginning of the film Men In Black in which Agent J (Will Smith), newly selected to join MiB, tells Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) to “recognize [his] skills.”  K replies to him, rather nonchalantly, “I need to tell you something about all your skills. As of right now, they mean precisely dick.”

Now, as it relates to my new job at Research Triangle, applying that quote would be a bit of an overstatement.  I’ll draw heavily upon my five years at Robinson in approaching my new job, especially in the areas of relating to my students and content knowledge and the like.  But in other areas such as utilizing the Flipped Classroom model of disseminating content via videos that students watch at home and enforcing that knowledge through in-class assignments, I and a lot of my colleagues are quite green. We have teachers with 20 years of experience and teachers who only have student teaching under their belts, but when it comes to a lot of what we’re doing, we’re all starting from zero.

Students working on their own is one of the primary tenets of the Layered Curriculum.

On one hand, this realization is a tad bit terrifying.  I was comfortable with my traditional method of instruction and felt that I was able to diversify instruction enough on the block scheduling model to be effective, so moving away from that will be tough at first.  At the same time, working at a school that provides teachers with the latitude and the resources to implement some cutting-edge teaching techniques is an incredible opportunity, and I’m eager to try it out.

Right now, my ideas for the setup of my classes is still a jumbled cloud in my mind that becomes a little clearer each day.  My classroom was always fairly student-centered, but I readily admit that the types of projects and assignments students worked on in my classes could at times become redundant.  The challenge is to differentiate instruction (our classes are going to be a mish-mash of honors and non-honors students), cater to various learning styles, and keep instruction fresh – all while utilizing the flipped model.

Well, challenge accepted.  Several years ago, I sat in on a workshop at Robinson with Brian Hamilton, who was then our assistant principal and is now the assistant principal of instruction at a middle school in Cabarrus County.  He was introducing the Layered Curriculum, a system in which students basically have choices in what assignments they complete, and the number and difficulty level of the assignments completed would determine the grade for the unit.

At the time, I liked the idea of it in theory.  I wasn’t sure how well it would work given our limited resources, but I gave it a try anyway.  The other U.S. History teachers and I tried out a modified version of the idea on a short unit on 19th century westward expansion.  We created PowerPoints for each of the main ideas of the unit, presented those for the first 20 minutes or so of the 90-minute block, and then cut the students loose to complete assignments they had on a checklist.  There were basic assignments that every student had to complete to reinforce the content that was taught, but then students had choices of more involved, creative assignments, e.g. create a manual explaining how to farm out west, or a travel brochure encouraging new settlers to move westward, or staging a debate on Native American rights.  (If anyone teaches American history and wants to see my material for this unit, I’d be happy to share it.)

I loved the way the unit worked.  Students remained engaged throughout the class because they had no shortage of things to work on, they enjoyed the freedom they had to do assignments that were more suited to their skill sets, and our students’ performance on the end-of-course test’s questions on westward expansion skyrocketed.  A year or two later I implemented a similar unit on labor unions – one of the most miserable units for students and teachers of U.S. History alike – and I got pretty good results with that as well.  From a logistical standpoint, it also allows me to provide the honors-level students with more challenging work while providing me time to assist the struggling students one-on-one.

But Alex, you might be asking, if the Layered Curriculum was so effective, why didn’t you implement it for ALL of your units?  I’ll concede that it’s a lot of work up front to get the PowerPoints/videos prepared and the assignments put together, and that was sometimes prohibitive.  Furthermore, some of the assignments in each of the units were technology-based, and I was not able to procure space in our computer labs or media center on a regular enough basis to do this for every topic.  At RTHS, that limitation is greatly diminished, so I’m eagerly implementing it for the first several units to see how it works.  I’m confident that students will love it, and if anyone reading has feedback on their use of such methods, I’d love to hear it.

One of my primary goals in creating this blog was to share how our cutting-edge educational methods are working at RTHS in hopes that other teachers can take something from it.  I look forward to updating everyone on how things are going in my classroom as the school year gets underway.

Dropping like flies

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My friend Andy’s Facebook status yesterday afternoon was short, sweet, and to the point.

“I used to work at Jay M. Robinson High School.”

This wasn’t news to me; I had known for awhile that he was leaving Robinson to teach advanced 8th graders at one of Charlotte’s top middle schools.  What did strike me, though, was how many people chimed in on his status with comments like “Me too,” “Me three,” “Same here,” etc., etc.

When I was in high school, I feel like the faculty stayed basically the same.  A few teachers departed every year – some retired, some went to other schools, some left the profession – but a look at my freshman yearbook and my senior yearbook reveals that the vast majority of the faculty that were there when I entered 9th grade were still around when I left.

Maybe that’s the exception rather than the rule, as I suggested in my blog post about teacher burnout.  But I have been floored by how many teachers have left Robinson in the two short years since I departed.  Sure, some have retired and some have become full-time moms, and some are even running for school board, but a lot of them are simply deciding to take their classroom talents elsewhere.  And I don’t think Robinson is unique; a lot of large schools in medium- to large-sized school systems probably have the same issues.  Although it’s hard to spot a trend common to all teachers as to why they left, here are some of the things that I know drove off some, including me.

1) The administration.  In five years, I worked for two principals and eleven different assistant principals.   And I don’t think I’m alone in saying that I didn’t like the first principal until I had the second one.  Discipline was non-existent, no clear vision for the school was ever articulated, and morale was ever-decreasing.

2) The do-nothing faculty members.  Robinson has a lot of incredible teachers that are still there, but there’s also no shortage of teachers who are either past their prime or just don’t cut the mustard.  And – going back to the administration’s problems – no one ever got rid of those teachers, even though they weren’t the least bit effective.  I used to be 100% for teacher tenure.  My time at Robinson changed that view.

3) It was a completely thankless job.  I didn’t go into teaching to have praise and riches heaped upon me (especially the riches part), but the occasional simple acknowledgement that I was doing so much for the school might have been nice.  We had a “Bulldog of the Month” that would be recognized at the faculty meeting each month, and I never once got that award, even though I spent more time in the building than 90% of the rest of the faculty.  I don’t say this to whine and bemoan my lot; plenty of other excellent teachers were passed up in favor of people who were far less deserving of praise.

4) No sense of community.  When I started student teaching in 2004, Robinson had only been open for four years.  When I commented to someone on the glaring lack of school spirit and camaraderie among students, it was theorized that this was due to the fact that students had older siblings and parents that had gone to other high schools, and as the school became more established that issue would be rectified.  Eleven years after the school opened, it may have actually gotten worse.  Honestly, I already feel closer to some of my colleagues at Research Triangle than I ever did at Robinson, and the building is still under construction.

Not all of my memories of working at Robinson are bad; I met some great people, worked with some awesome students, and grew as a professional, so I don’t want to make it sound like I’m biting the hand or that I’m particularly bitter about my tenure there.  But when a strong math teacher like Andy is trading in a five-minute commute to work for a 45-minute commute to work and is thrilled to do it, that speaks volumes.

It makes me sad that so many teachers – myself included – felt so beaten down by their inability to effect change that they went elsewhere.  But I know that I can take what I learned at Robinson – not just about teaching, but about everything else that goes into making a school a great place to learn, work, and grow – and help make my new school amazing.

I am sure that many of my other dear departed colleagues will take the same approach wherever they land.  And I sincerely hope that my friends that are still at Robinson will one day be able to do the same thing.

All In

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I have a blog post in the hopper about how much I love – and am going to miss – Auburn, Alabama.  I planned to publish it in a few weeks on the eve of our move to Durham, but events of the past two days have caused me to move up a portion of it.

By now, nearly everyone knows about the horrific shooting at the University Heights apartment complex in Auburn on Saturday night that took the lives of three people, including former AU football players Ed Christian and Ladarious Phillips.  Current offensive lineman Eric Mack was wounded, but is expected to fully recover.  Police have a capital murder warrant out for the suspect, who is believed to be somewhere in the Montgomery area.

I was shocked to hear this news for two reasons.  First of all, I knew Ed and Ladarious a little bit from when they would come through the compliance office while I was a graduate assistant there.  Despite my very limited interaction with them, it was apparent that they were great guys who were polite, funny, and level-headed.  Basically, they were the last people you’d expect to be gunned down in an argument gone bad, although it appears they weren’t the instigators.

Secondly, this is the first murder I can remember occurring in Auburn in the two years I’ve lived there.  There’s a reason Auburn has been lauded as one of America’s best places to live; in addition to being pedestrian-friendly, having good schools, being home to some kickass barbecue joints, etc., it’s a place where something like this simply doesn’t happen.  When I was living in Charlotte it was easy to become numb to news of violent crime; in Auburn, it’s truly jarring.

I have never lived in a community that could rally and come to the aid of people in need like Auburn does.  Everyone pitches in and does everything in their power to help tornado victims, poisoned trees, and anyone else who may be down on their luck.  I may not be in Auburn at the moment – I’m writing this while on vacation in Carolina Beach, N.C. – but I already know what will happen in the wake of this tragedy: people will put aside their differences and shower the university, the athletic department, and the devastated young men on the football team with the love and support they will need to move past this.

Auburn is very fond of using the phrase “all in.”  I suppose it originated with football, asking the Auburn Family to be “all in” in its support.  But it really goes beyond that.  Before moving to Auburn I’d never lived in a true college town before, and I can say that the sense of camaraderie in the town is inspiring.  The community supports the university unequivocally and wholeheartedly, and the university reciprocates with unimaginable amounts of public service to help those in need.

Today, it’s the football team and the victims’ families that are in need of someone to lean on, and the Auburn Family will certainly be “all in” and gladly oblige.

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