Professionally developed

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Not counting the end-of-year AP U.S. History readings, I’ve been to more off-campus professional development workshops and conferences in the last five weeks than I was able to attend in my last three years at Robinson.

And how many workshops have I attended in the past few weeks?  Two.

Robinson – and Cabarrus County Schools at large, I imagine – was infested by what my friend and former colleague Laura Huffman once called a “culture of no.”  Requests for workshop registration fees, maps and books to supplement instruction, and substitutes that would allow for workshop attendance or collaborative planning were almost always rejected.  And while I was allowed to attend the AP Reading, I would be made to take personal or unpaid leave for the days I missed.  But hey, that annual “Teacher Appreciation Day” luncheon of catered Carrabba’s sure was good!

Deb and me at NCCAT in January.  It was pretty cold.

Deb and me at NCCAT in January. It was pretty cold.

So when RTHS English teacher and fellow Rebel Rebel Alliance member Deb Brown came to me in the fall with a plan to apply for a week-long residency at the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching for us to work on humanities-related flipped videos, I was skeptical.  Surely they wouldn’t let both of us leave for an entire week, right?

Not only did he approve our trip to Cullowhee for the week once we were accepted, but we didn’t have to pay for our substitutes either.  Since there’s very little supplemental video material already in existence for the humanities, Deb and I spent the entire week working on flipped videos for our classes as well as sketching out 10th grade curricula for English and social studies.

And then, this past week, I was able to get away for two days with Mamie Hall, the other half of the history department, for the annual North Carolina Council for the Social Studies conference in Greensboro.  We spent a couple of days going to seminars mostly about implementing technology in the classroom, although I did spend some time in one very unproductive session on the new Measures of Student Learning exams, which just devolved into teachers bitching almost immediately.

Sometimes, teachers just need to get out of the classroom for a few days – not only to recharge and rest up, but also to chew the fat with colleagues and learn new and/or better ways of teaching.  I’m glad I teach at a place that recognizes the importance of that.

And they’re letting me go to the AP Reading in June too.

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Worldwide

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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.

Nigeria.

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.

The year ahead

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My initial intent when I sat down to write this was to reflect on the craziness that was my 2012.  But you can read my blog and take all that in.  For those of you who haven’t been reading it and are too time-strapped or lazy to go catch up, though, here’s a Readers Digest version of it: I started the year working for a college athletic department in Alabama, decided I hated it, got hired by my longtime friend for a second go-round as a history teacher, moved back to North Carolina, and built a World History curriculum and high school athletic department from scratch at a brand-new charter school.  And somewhere in there, I turned 30.

Got all that?  Good.  Let’s move forward.

As interesting and exciting as 2012 was, 2013 holds so much to be excited about, so I’ve decided to use this space to look forward to all the awesome things that will happen in the next year.

January 22-25: Teacher Scholars.  It’s my first business trip as an RTHS faculty member!  Lead English teacher Deb Brown and I will be heading to Cullowhee for four days for the Teacher Scholars in Residence program at the N.C. Center for the Advancement of Teaching.  We’ll be given the space and resources to work on our flipped videos and get a head start on the 2013-14 English and social studies curricula.  We’ll also be given top-flight food and accommodations.  Maybe I’ll even try skiing out while I’m up there – I’ll just make sure I get a Raptor green cast on whatever limb I shatter.

Spring 2013, date TBD: Bachelor party.  What do tigers dream of…

June 1-7: AP Reading.  I haven’t been officially invited back to Louisville yet, so this may be putting the cart before the horse, but the College Board sent me a sort of “save-the-date” notification in the fall, so I guess I’ll be going back to the AP U.S. History reading.  Chemistry and U.S. History are both in Louisville at the same time, so I’m hoping that my boss Eric gets invited back for Chemistry.  That’d be a pretty fun way to end our first school year.

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Aren’t we cute?!

June 22: Wedding bells.  As of June 22, my fiancee Jess and I will have been engaged for three years and three days.  We went to grad school and became way too poor to have the wedding we both wanted, so we stuck it out and finished our degrees – I think going through the difficult graduate-level work and grinding poverty together made us a stronger team.  Now we both have jobs in the Triangle and can afford to have a lovely wedding and a heck of a party.

June? July?  Honeymoon.  If anyone has any suggestions, we’d love to hear them.

July, date TBD: RTHS Camp 2.0.  Last year’s inaugural freshman orientation went a long way toward bringing such a diverse student body together, and gave the teachers an opportunity to meet our future charges.  This year, we’ll get to meet in the actual school building and have the full technological resources of the school, so it should be a lot more fun and a lot less stressful.

Soccer Shield Rays 1

Every soccer program needs a shield.

July 29: Fall sports practice opens.  The Research Triangle Raptors will be in the N.C. High School Athletic Association as an independent 1A member next year, and our first-ever boys’ soccer and girls’ volleyball teams will begin tryouts.  Our cross country team will also start its second season with high hopes after such a successful inaugural year.

August 12: Year two!  RTHS will welcome back 140 sophomores, enroll 105 new freshmen, break in a brand new wing of the building (including the new athletic directors’ office), and see numerous new teachers and staff members joining us in providing a top-notch education to our students.

August 31: Kickoff!  Being at Auburn for two years only heightened my excitement over the Charlotte 49ers FINALLY adding a football program.  I don’t know if I’ll get tickets to the Niners’ inaugural game against Campbell, but at the very least I plan to be on campus, tailgating and taking it all in, just so that years later I can tell my kids that I was there.

December 31: The second annual look ahead.  Hopefully I’ll get to spend 2013 writing about all the amazing experiences mentioned above – well, maybe not the bachelor party – and look ahead to all that 2014 will bring.

I’ve loved spending the last seven months creating this record of the experiences of me and my school, and I hope you’ve enjoyed it.  I hope all of you have a healthy, productive, and rewarding 2013.

These count

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For my five years teaching at my previous job, the grading and exam breakdown was pretty simple since we were on block scheduling:  First nine weeks, second nine weeks, exams.  Some teachers gave midterms, but I never did – I figured that was time I could spend teaching history on our very tight schedule instead of just putting the brakes on everything for three days to review and then test.

So, along with our students, I’m going through midterm exams for the first time.  We’re on a year-long traditional schedule, and each semester exam – the midterm in the fall and the final in the spring – counts for 20 percent of a student’s semester grade, with the two quarter grades making up the other 80.  Since it’s such a big chunk of their grades, we’ve spent the last three days stressing how important it is and reviewing in our classes.

The problem is that we can’t get the students to understand how important they are.

Every December and April, I get a huge charge out of the exams-related Facebook posts from my former students; “OMG OMG OMG EXAMS ARE KILLING MEEEEEEEEE!” is one of the more recent meltdowns I saw come across my timeline.  Then again, they’ve been through tons of finals in high school and college.  It’s a little hard to forget that our students have never really taken a big test that counts before.  As far as I know, the end-of-grade tests in middle school don’t impact students’ grades.  Middle school grades don’t really count at all, if you think about it – colleges aren’t going to see those grades.  But starting in ninth grade, the meter is running – these grades impact athletic eligibility, the ability to keep a driver’s license, college applications, you name it.

So it was a little unsettling when I heard students discussing the midterms with a pretty cavalier attitude as recently as two days ago.  I guess they thought that we’d do three days of intensive review and alter the schedule for two-hour-long periods for four days to give a 25-question test or something.  Yesterday, I stood up in front of all of my classes and did the best I could to scare the crap out of them.

“It’s a little troubling,” I began, “that there doesn’t seem to a healthy amount of panic, or at least a sense of urgency, about these midterms.”  The kids idly sat there for the most part; a few were goofing off on their computers.  Time to turn up the heat, Drake.

“These exams cover everything you’ve done so far this year.  I know the English Department’s midterm is 100 questions.”

Some eyes got bigger as I got ready to throw down the gauntlet.

“…and the World Civ midterm is 125.”

At this point, the room sounded like the angry crowds in a South Park episode.  You could see it in their eyes now.  A HUNDRED AND TWENTY-FIVE QUESTIONS?!  HOLY SHIT!!!  Not that I took pleasure in their newfound horror – okay, so I took a little pleasure in it – but it was a relief to see the gravity of what they were about to embark on finally fall on them.

So today, every kid – even the ones who are usually the hardest to get to focus – was locked in.  Doing our sample multiple choice questions online, helping each other with their study guides, asking me questions, and trying.  I’m hoping it continues tomorrow as we wrap up review, and carries over into Thursday when our freshmen take the first tests in their lives that actually count.

And hopefully, we as teachers will be able to grade them and realize that they learned something this year – that all the hard work has paid off.

I’m not teaching anything

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“Congratulations,” I told my freshmen on Wednesday, “you’ve made it through 1/16th of your high school career.”

It’s awfully nice to finally have a fall break.  Between moving into a new facility, building a new curriculum, and everything else that goes with working in a high school, the teachers probably worked harder than a lot of the students did over the last nine weeks.  So we earned this four-day weekend.

It was also nice to see that some of that work paid off.  Grades aren’t the sole measure of student achievement, of course, but they’re definitely a starting point.  For our inaugural grading period, a plurality of my students got an ‘A’, and over half of the students got an ‘A’ or ‘B’.  Only about ten percent failed the first quarter, but even among those students, many of them made tremendous strides between Day 1 and Day 45, so I’m optimistic that they’ll continue to make progress and be successful.

And yet, despite all this anecdotal success, I’m apparently not teaching anything.

What I looked like when asked by a student if I was going to teach them anything.

This was brought to my attention during my 4th period class this past Tuesday.  While going over what we’d be doing throughout the rest of our unit on Rome, one of my students – who is also the president of our fledgling student government – raised her hand and asked, with an utterly serious tone and facial expression, “Mr. Drake, are you ever going to actually teach us anything?”

At first I didn’t know how to react.  If she was serious, it’s a slappable offense.  If she’s joking, I’m still not sure how to take it.  And her classmates’ reactions betrayed their horror at what she had just said.

She immediately walked it back.  “THAT’S NOT WHAT I MEANT! THAT’S NOT WHAT I MEANT!!!!” she screamed.  “What I meant was, are you ever going to stand in front of the class and lecture us, instead of just teaching us through your highly entertaining, informative videos that I treasure and give my highest priority?”

Strong recovery.

We had a long laugh about her foot-in-mouth moment and we went on about our day.  But later, I started thinking about what she had said, and what it reveals about students’ thoughts on education.  They have been conditioned throughout their school-going lives that “teaching” is standing in front of a classroom and giving notes while the students dutifully listen.  And with a few exceptions, that’s not what we do at RTHS.  We want the kids to learn by doing, by using technology, by questioning things – not  by being told information.  Now, sometimes lecturing has its place – as my AP U.S. History students from Robinson would attest, I can get real wordy in that class – but it’s certainly not the only effective teaching tool that can be utilized.  I guess one of our goals as the year goes on is to continue to show the students that there are multiple pathways to knowledge and learning, and a lot of them aren’t teacher-centered.

But before I start on that quest, I’m going to enjoy the rest of my fall break.