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The primary mission at Research Triangle High School is not much different than any other high school in America – teach the students we have under our roof on a daily basis, get them excited about learning, and help them grow into well-rounded, educated young adults.

But that’s not all we do.  According to our charter, another incredibly important facet of our mission is to “increase access to globally competitive STEM education for students and teachers across North Carolina.”  Furthermore, our aim is to “[d]evelop the outreach component of the school in online and virtual tools and methods and ensure the establishment and growth of open source availability of those tools.”

Since we’re on the cutting edge with regards to the Flipped Classroom model, we’re a laboratory school of sorts.  Furthermore, since our videos are all on YouTube, anyone can use them – if they happen across them, students struggling in their classes can use our videos for additional explanation of a topic, or teachers can use them to supplement something they did in class.  I didn’t know if that was actually happening until last night.

One of the things I do on a semi-regular basis is check the number of views on the videos we make – partly out of pure curiosity, but mainly so I can jump down the kids’ throats for not doing enough studying and review of the content.  When I clicked on our nine-minute video covering the era of absolute monarchy in France, one comment under the video caught my attention:

This helped for my history test.  Thanks alot [sic].

I re-read the comment, probably with one eyebrow raised.  That’s weird, I thought to myself.  I’m not giving a test on this stuff until tomorrow.  I clicked on the account holder’s name to figure out who this was, and the first thing I saw was the person’s location.


I had a good friend from college who taught high school students in Africa.  But he had to join the Peace Corps and live in Tanzania for two years to do it.  I taught someone in Africa and I didn’t leave Durham!  I emailed the administration to share with them this funny little tidbit; our managing director sent it along to the entire board, several of whom responded with excitement at us having some proof of reaching outside our school community.  My boss Eric had the best response, though – “L’mpeg c’est moi.

While this is just anecdotal evidence of having accomplished our mission, it actually makes me excited about making these materials that anyone can use.  It comes with a little bit of pressure, though – if these videos can be seen the world over, I better not screw any content up!

Of course, I can also leverage this with the classes.  If I can get someone in AFRICA to watch my videos, what’s the matter with you?!

And in the event you were curious, here’s the video in question.  Like all our videos the production quality is quite low, but it does the job.


How to suck at cheating


It appears that the University of North Carolina football program has taken another hit in terms of the team’s academic integrity.  Reports are now surfacing that standout wide receiver Erik Highsmith was caught plagiarizing an eleven-year-old’s writing in a communications class last semester.  Now, you might think that he would get caught, called on it, and change his ways, but he apparently also copied and pasted something from a GRE preparation site in the same class, and got caught again.

A lot of plagiarism is unintentional and not malicious.  I’ve had talks with students over the years – many of them extremely bright – explaining that they can’t simply use another historian’s ideas without citing them, or paraphrase too closely.  On the first offense I try to talk to them about why what they did is academically dishonest, and those students are usually horrified and go back and fix their work.  In isolated incidents, I don’t really have much of a problem with that, especially when they’re still learning about historiography.

I have zero sympathy, however, for students who have been taught since they were in elementary school that copying something word-for-word is wrong and still try to do it.  I can attest to the fact that students will copy and paste just about anything, try to pass it off as their own, and then believe they’ll get away with it.  In my teaching career I’ve seen more than my share of it.  Regardless of the students’ age or academic aptitude, many of them try to pull it off on a regular basis.  And they almost always get caught.  I don’t know why, but students always think they’re the first person to ever copy and paste an entire assignment, and the teacher just won’t care enough to check the material, or will simply think that on this particular task, they pulled off a feat of brilliance.

Kids, let me just knock that assumption out of the park now:  Don’t even bother trying.  We’ve seen it all.

The rote copy-and-paste plagiarism I’ve seen come across my desk over the years would put some of the best “world’s dumbest criminals” stories to shame.  Everyone makes the exact same mistakes, and nearly always gets caught.  So, if you’re an amateur academic thief and are considering going pro, here are some tips for how to make your poorly-thought-out cheating schemes truly amazing.

1) Leave hyperlinks in.  In my AP U.S. History classes  I assign a list of several dozen vocabulary terms at the beginning of each unit, and the students have to write a paragraph about each term that are due on the day of the unit test.  During my first year at Robinson I was checking my students’ terms when I came across something that, on paper, looked like this:

Charles Cornwallis, 1st Marquess Cornwallis KG (31 December 1738 – 5 October 1805), styled Viscount Brome between 1753 and 1762 and known as The Earl Cornwallis between 1762 and 1792, was a British Army officer and colonial administrator. In the United States and the United Kingdom he is best remembered as one of the leading British generals in the American War of Independence. His surrender in 1781 to a combined American and French force at the Siege of Yorktown ended significant hostilities in North America.[4]

This was, obviously, so blatant that it was just sad.  Here’s how the conversation with the girl went:

Me: Kate, why are there random underlined words in your IDs?
Kate: I thought they were important terms to remember, so I underlined them so I’d study them.
Me: “Colonial administrator” is an important term?
Kate: I mean, it has to do with the Colonies, so yeah.
Me: Interesting.  Do you also underline numbers that link to footnotes that aren’t actually on your paper?
Kate: Um… yeah?
Me: Kate, I know you copied and pasted this from Wikipedia, so just let it go.
Kate: I don’t even know what Wikipedia is, Mr. Drake!  I didn’t copy this!

You’re a high school student and you don’t know what Wikipedia is?  Wow, and I thought you were full of shit before.  Idiot.

2) Outkick your coverage.  I caught a lot of APUSH students plagiarizing their take-home essays because they ran afoul of one important concept to remember when cheating: the teacher knows that your writing didn’t go from being a cluster to being textbook-ready overnight.  This can be easy or hard to catch based on the ability and smarts of the student who may or may not have perpetrated it; since most essays available to be copied from the internet are good or at least serviceable, there may have been some upper-level students of mine who got away with it over the years.  My last year at Robinson I graded a take-home document-based essay from our student body president that was literally the best APUSH essay I’ve ever seen.  I was disappointed, though, because I was afraid he’d plagiarized it.  It’s not that I thought this guy would copy an essay, but I also thought it was too good to be true.  I spent probably an hour scouring the internet trying to find that essay somewhere, but never did.  It was just that amazing.

Another student on that same assignment, though, completely outkicked her coverage.  Her introductory paragraph was something that would’ve made renowned historian and alleged fellow plagiarist Doris Kearns Goodwin bow down in praise.  Then, something happened that was just weird.  After the copied introduction, she did her own work on the rest of the essay.  Maybe she thought it was less of a sin to copy only a portion of it, but the stark difference in writing style and quality between the introduction and the rest of it was so night-and-day that it would’ve been obvious cheating even to someone who didn’t know a damn thing about AP history writing.

To this girl’s credit, she didn’t try some ham-handed denial like the aforementioned case.  She readily admitted to it, and I called her mother, who is a teacher.  I think she was grounded for a long time.   That’s something else to keep in mind, kids.  This ain’t Vegas; what happens at school will make its way home.

I really hope this isn’t the method that the UNC communications professor used to catch Erik Highsmith.  Who knows, maybe those 5th graders he copied are future Pulitzer winners, but more than likely, it’s just unimaginably sad.

3) Completely ignore the assignment’s parameters.  This one happened the other day in our World Civ class.  We had our students create “trading cards” of famous figures from Roman history.  They were supposed to put a picture on the front along with the person’s name and “position” (senator, general, emperor, whatever), and then put “statistics” (birth/death dates, accomplishments, interesting facts) on the back.  The stuff on the back was supposed to be little blurbs of a few words – not complete sentences, and not incredibly detailed.  We even gave them samples to use as a template of sorts.

One student who has not turned in much work on time gave me his card, and initially I was excited because he did something.  Upon further review, however, he had turned in a card on which the front was done more or less correctly, and then the back was full of paragraphs detailing Emperor Diocletian’s life in exhaustive detail, and they even had the hyperlinks included!  The paragraphs had a lot of information, but in addition to being obviously copied, they did nothing towards fulfilling the clearly-laid-out requirements of the project.  This damn-the-torpedoes approach has gotten countless students caught over the years, and is by far among the easiest methods to catch.

4) Copy your fellow mediocrity-dwellers.  This isn’t from-the-internet plagiarism, but it’s still half-baked and it’s still hilarious every time I catch some kid who thinks they’re being clever do this.  Three of my students left the classroom during the last test to take it in our special programs classroom.  Upon grading them, I discovered that these three students missed the exact same questions, and had the exact same wrong answers.  With the assistance of our math teacher, I was able to calculate that there was a 0.000000095 percent chance of this happening by chance.  When I confronted one of the students, holding up 0.000000095% printed on a piece of paper in 100-point font, he admitted to it.

Emporer Trojan

The identical test alone wasn’t why this was so easy to catch, though.  It was sad because they worked together and still only managed a 79.  Since I was feeling snarky that day, I split a 79 three ways and gave all three of them a 27 instead of a 0 to kind of prove a point.

The same thing happens on regular assignments that students turn in; they’ll get the same answers wrong, misspell the same words – no, the Roman Empire did not reach its peak under “Emporer Trojan” – and turn in identical papers at the same time so they’re back-to-back in the grading so that I see them literally 30 seconds apart, and expect to get away with it.  You really thought that one through, Danny Ocean.

◊ ◊ ◊

I’m aware that many of my students over the years may not have been properly educated on what constitutes plagiarism, as I mentioned above when talking about the more unintentional forms of it.  In addition to just being sad, though, copying and pasting work does nothing to help you learn.  You’re in school for a reason, kids!  Don’t waste it by copying stuff off the internet, not even bothering to read it or tailor it to fit the assignment, then turn it in.  What do you get out of that?  Even if you’re cheating because you’re afraid to get a ‘0’ for not turning anything in, don’t you think the 50 or whatever that you’d get for mediocre work will still carry with it more rewards than copying something that’s going to get a ‘0’ anyway because we’re going to catch you???

Just do your own work, people.  I’ll miss being able to tell the hilarious stories of how I caught you red-handed, but at least you’ll be learning something.

Making the most of student teaching

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Whenever I’ve gone to professional development sessions or workshops, I’ve often wondered what it would be like to present something of my own, but I never really knew what I’d present on.  I think I’m a good teacher, but I don’t think I’m the be-all-end-all either; and until I get the Flipped model down, I don’t think I’m anywhere near ready to start teaching people about that.

But a few weeks ago, I got an email from the UNC Charlotte Teaching Fellows alumni board – they were looking for proposals for presentations at the annual Senior Symposium, a half-day seminar designed to help senior Fellows transition from teacher education to actually going into the classroom.  It’s experiences like those that make me immensely sad that the Teaching Fellows program is dying a slow death at the hands of the North Carolina General Assembly.  Plenty of amazing teachers emerge from college without the Teaching Fellows experience, of course, but Fellows get a comprehensive, singularly unique teacher training experience that virtually guarantees that its graduates will have the cutting-edge skills needed in today’s evolving classrooms.

But I digress.  Anyway, as I perused the email, I noticed that among the suggested presentation topics was “student teaching experiences.”


Laura and me back in 2004. Some cooperating teachers may not want to hang out after hours. Some, however, will go with you to Oktoberfest.

If I do say so myself, I had one hell of a student teaching experience.  I worked with Laura Huffman, a stellar cooperating teacher, branched out and taught other classes too, took on some public address announcing duties, and coached quiz bowl.  And then I got hired at the same school right after graduating – I’d like to think it was because I was such a stellar classroom teacher, but I know that all I did for the school played a significant role.  So while I might not feel comfortable teaching content-related pedagogy and strategies to other teachers, student teaching is my wheelhouse.

My presentation had a simple thesis; student teaching is, in no particular order, an audition and a laboratory.  As another presenter said today, student teaching is also one of the longest job interviews on the planet.  I won’t bore you with every detail of what I said, although you’re more than welcome to download the PowerPoint, but here are a few of my top pointers for anyone getting ready to begin their student teaching experience.

1. Meet everyone.  Depending on how big the school is, this may not be practical to do in the first few weeks, but at the very least, meet three groups of people.  First, meet the administrators and learn what their duties are so you’ll know who to go see for certain scenarios; secondly, make friends with the office staff, because they run the joint; and finally, the custodians and facilities staff, whom you may desperately need if some calamity befalls your classroom.

2. Push to be innovative.  Some cooperating teachers are set in their ways, but most of them would love to see bright young teachers try some new things.  I never had a student teacher at Robinson, but over the years I stole several ideas for lessons and activities that student teachers had tried in other history classes.  And sort of along those lines…

3. Don’t be afraid to fail.  I did a few things in the classroom during student teaching that, looking back, make me cringe.  Some of it pertains to lessons that fell spectacularly flat, but a lot of it was related to classroom management.  Managing a classroom is one of those things that comes naturally to only a select few teachers; the rest of us have to work our asses off at it.  I still struggle mightily with it, and so will nearly every student teacher, but the best path to improving is observing and getting pointers from more experienced educators who have gotten the finer points of it down.  There’s no better learning experience than something that didn’t work, and every student teacher will do something that doesn’t.

4. Branch out.  My most valuable experience during student teaching happened completely by chance.  During my planning period one day, the history department chair/AP U.S. History teacher came into my room in a panic; she had a family emergency and had to leave immediately.  No subs were available, so she asked me if I could cover her APUSH class for the day.  I had been teaching general freshman World History, so I was naturally pretty intimidated at the thought of teaching some of the school’s brightest kids, but at the same time I was always more interested in U.S. history so I accepted the challenge.  In the days after I covered the class, quite a few of the students in the AP class tracked me down to tell me what a great job I did, with a few saying that they wished I taught the class all the time.  After that, I was invited back to teach AP U.S. History several times, and I also assisted with the exam review.  The APUSH teacher then left to join the Principal Fellows program, and I was chosen to replace her.  Without that experience, I don’t think I ever would’ve been hired to teach APUSH.  And the rest, they say, is history.  See what I did there?

5. Make yourself indispensable.  At the end of student teaching, I told the dozen or so attendees to my little session, your end goal should be to make everyone in the school say to themselves, “Man, we’re really gonna miss that person.”  There’s plenty of ways to make sure that happens: volunteering for extra duties like athletic event supervision, helping coach a team or advise a club, chaperone a dance (even though they’re gross), and make your presence known whenever you can.  Student teaching supervisors would probably advise against taking on so much stuff; while the classroom experience and all that goes with it is obviously the most important aspect of student teaching, developing additional school-related skills makes you a much more attractive candidate.  The principal might not be able to hire you, but they’ll give you a damn good reference for another school, and might even try to hire you back later.

Student teaching was one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life, but it was immensely rewarding.  I learned so much, met some great students and colleagues, and found the place where I continued to cultivate my craft for the next five years.  I wouldn’t have traded my experience for anything, and I hope that the Fellows I addressed today will have an experience as rewarding as mine was.

Today’s symposium also gave me a great opportunity to spread the Raptor gospel.  I was pretty popular because I was able to virtually guarantee that we’ll have openings at RTHS next year since we’ll be adding over a hundred new students.  So, I told a couple of them over lunch, they need to go have a great student teaching experience, get molded into awesome young teachers, and then come see us up in the Triangle.

HOMEWORK… Does anyone else have any pointers for student teachers that I may have missed?  Feel free to share ’em in the contents below!



For one week every May across the nation, the National PTA celebrates Teacher Appreciation Week.  The basic idea is to show teachers how much they mean to schools, students, and communities.

At Robinson, my old school, this usually took the form of a teacher luncheon catered from a local restaurant, door prizes at said luncheon, trinkets in our mailboxes, and things like that.  (Teacher Appreciation Week usually lined up with the days leading up to the AP exam, so it seems like the very least they could’ve done was throw in an open bar at the luncheon, but beggars can’t be choosers.)  Those things were enjoyable, but it was a bummer when that one week in May came to an end and our fringe benefits dried up.

Now, I should issue a disclaimer: I don’t teach so that I can get free stuff, even though I’m apparently working for free.  I hope it goes without saying that I would enjoy teaching regardless of what snacks or stuff I get from the school community.  I am also not indicting every parent I interacted with at Robinson; I had plenty of parents – especially in quiz bowl – who would’ve given me the proverbial shirt off their backs.  But the parental involvement at RTHS in its first days has been nothing short of extraordinary.

The first time I saw such unbelievable selflessness was when we moved into the building in early August.  We had all of our tables, desks, chairs, etc. on site, but they had to be moved from the still-unfinished wing of the building into the newly-completed classrooms.  At 7:30 on a Saturday morning, dozens of students and parents (and even a few grandparents) were on site, with dollies and other equipment in tow.  Some of the volunteers were responsible for moving the furniture in, and then other students and parents would come in behind them and clean it all with supplies they had brought from home and donated to the cause.  I was terrified at the thought of having to enlist people with helping me set up my room, but it was 95 percent done by the time our teacher workdays began.  And considering how much work we were having to do to set up this new curriculum and teaching style, that was absolutely huge.

What remains of Deb’s wish list outside the English classroom. Mine wasn’t half this creative; sometimes I wonder if she’s a closet elementary school teacher.

When we were preparing our classrooms for the first days of school, Eric told us to put up our wish lists on the wall near our classrooms.  Having no idea what that was, I inquired further.  At Raleigh Charter, he said, the teachers would make stick-it notes listing what they needed for their classrooms and put them up for the parents to see at the open house.  Parents would take stick-it notes they could fulfill, and send the requested stuff with their kids sometime during the first week.  Having worked at a school where parents didn’t attend the open houses, let alone buy me crap, I was more than a little skeptical.

Despite my doubts, I made 25 stick-it notes – a few of them were for consumable sanitary stuff like Clorox wipes, Kleenex, and hand sanitizer, and then I put up a few asking for other classroom supplies like power strips (needed at a tech-heavy school like this one), rulers and yardsticks, markers, etc.

And sure enough, 21 of the 25 notes got taken.  I have so much Purel I don’t know where to put it all.  Stuff is still rolling in, too – just this afternoon I received a box of plastic silverware I asked for.  But now, it’s not supplies that we’re getting on a regular basis – it’s food.

Yesterday morning, a parent came in asking where our break room was located.  After I pointed it out to her, she walked out of the building and came back a minute later with a spread of foodstuffs that are torpedoing my attempts at weight loss – brownies, coffee cake, cookies, and some Dunkin Donuts coffee.  (Coffee, by the way, is the only thing Dunkin Donuts makes that doesn’t suck out loud.  There.  I said it.)  Yesterday wasn’t the first time this had happened – during our move-in days and workdays we were showered with pizza, doughnuts, and plenty of other stuff.

After gorging myself on the coffee cake – and before the sugar crash came on – I looked at Mila, our office manager, and jokingly said, “Well, all we need now is a Keurig machine and we’ll be set.”

I came in this morning, went in the break room to put my lunch in the fridge, and guess what was sitting on the counter.  Looks like I don’t have to make and bring my own coffee every morning anymore.  That means five more minutes of sleep.  Win.

Not a day has gone by in the last few weeks when I haven’t felt honored and fortunate to work at a school where the community is so deeply invested.  Every teacher has those moments when they feel less than appreciated, but I don’t think anyone at RTHS will be feeling that way any time soon.

I bet Teacher Appreciation Week here is gonna be out of control.

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.

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.

The investment and the payoff

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Four years ago almost to the day, I watched the Jay M. Robinson Class of 2008 graduate.  And with all due respect to all of the great groups I taught at Robinson over the five years I was there, the 2008 class was particularly special to me.  First of all, they were freshmen the year I student taught, so we came in together.  But mainly, they were just an awesome group of young people.

I cried like a ten-year-old girl at that graduation; I was immensely proud of all of the graduates, sure, but I was also watching the key pieces of the best quiz bowl team in the history of Cabarrus County leave me.  Robinson’s quiz bowl program was nascent when we arrived in the fall of 2004; by the time Daniel Hains, John Mace, Gray Cannon, Allison Stewart, and Dorothy Schrader walked across the stage, we had a state semifinals berth, three all-state players, and dozens of semifinal and championship game appearances at tournaments (my only regret is that we didn’t get over the hump and actually win  a tournament until the November after they had left).  I also taught all five of them in AP U.S. History, and they all got 5’s.

Selfishly, I wished they could stay around, but I knew they were off to accomplish big things.  And as college graduates four years later, accomplish big things they have.  When I headed up to North Carolina for a couple of weeks last month, I caught up with the guys from that group at the Flying Saucer in Charlotte (having beers with former students is really a surreal experience).  Gray graduated from business school at UNC and is off to Atlanta to work for IBM.  Daniel graduated from South Carolina (56-17, son!) and will be working with underprivileged kids at a school in the Washington, D.C. area next year.  After graduating from Carolina, John is off to law school at Campbell.  I can only hope that John’s practice of regularly arguing answers to reading quizzes with me will serve him well as an attorney one day.

Without taking anything away from what the guys are going to be doing, I have to particularly brag on the girls, because they’re going into teaching next year.  After graduating from NYU last year, Dorothy is going to be teaching middle school social studies (yes!) in St. Louis as part of Teach For America.  And Allison, who will be living about three miles from me this fall after graduating from UNC’s school of education, will be teaching third grade at Parkwood Elementary School in Durham.  From her endless supply of energy to her creative nature to her diminutive stature, if anyone was born to be an elementary school teacher, it’s Allison.  Both of them are bright, enthusiastic, and dedicated, and I know they’ll be incredible in the classroom and make a huge difference in the lives of their young charges.

Everyone always talks about education as an investment, but they’re usually talking about the person receiving the education.  But I’ve discovered that it’s really no different for teaching.  You impart your students with knowledge, try to teach them how to make wise decisions, watch them mature and grow as people, and ultimately hope that you made a small difference in their lives.  The first payoff comes when they graduate high school and go off to conquer other endeavors, but the bigger payoff comes when they find their callings and begin to make a difference themselves.

And when people ask me why I’m going back into teaching, I tell them about kids like these.