Thursday, January 13, 2011

Teaching New Year's Resolution?

A fellow teacher and I have been working out a method to make ourselves better at what we do...sort of a New Year's Resolution toward better teaching. It basically started when one of us was called out by a student on an assignment that was essentially meaningless time-killing busy-work for students which was used by the teacher as a back-up after the teacher had forgotten the materials for the original lesson. (Yes, that was a very vague and a run-on sentence.) Let's put it more succinctly: The assignment was crap. It was a waste of the students' time, it was a waste of the teacher's time, and it was a waste of ink and printer paper.

One of the dirty little secrets about education is; this stuff happens all the time. In any given school around the country, at any given time during the school day, somewhere a teacher is assigning something meaningless. Teachers (usually) do not practice this all the time themselves, but every teacher does it now and then. It's a coping mechanism for us. It's a way of easing the pain just a little bit. Teaching is a hard job, coming up with new material is a tough task, and sometimes we just have to take it easy. At least, that is the garbage we tell ourselves when it gets a little overwhelming.

Teaching is indeed a tough job (I submit our high rate of quitting as evidence - half of teachers quit within their first 5 years of teaching, according to the Washington Post) but any teacher worth their salt knows this going into it. And furthermore, there is no excuse for giving our students meaningless busy work to do in any given class period. Every assignment, every lecture, every visual shown to students should add meaningful content to the body of knowledge. We owe it to our students and we owe it to ourselves.

My colleague and I have decided that we are personally giving up busy work. We are putting an end to giving students menial tasks that serve to do nothing but waste time. How we are holding ourselves accountable is really quite simple: We have shared this goal with our students. We tell our kids that everything we do in class we should be able to answer for. We should be able to tell them directly why they are 1) getting an assignment, 2) hearing a lecture, 3) watching a video, and/or 4) doing anything else we are doing. We have given the kids the opportunity to tell us when they believe something we are doing in class is worthless, but we are also forcing ourselves to honestly consider why we are engaging in any activity.

I expect the more deviant kids to question everything I do, especially in the first few weeks of this. However, I also expect my content to be meaningful enough to be worth their time.

I wonder if the average high school teacher would be willing to do this...

Monday, January 10, 2011

Political Stances as a History Teacher

A question I often receive from people is whether or not parents ever get angry with me for espousing my political opinions to my students in class. The answer, for me, is really quite simple: That's nearly impossible since my kids are completely in the dark as to what I really think most of the time. Mind you, this does not mean I do not answer my students questions. To the contrary, I am 100% willing and able to discuss politics with the kids, usually from a Socratic point of view.

Simply put: I question, and question, and then question some more. I never let them make a point without backing it up, and I barely even let that rest. In class, the students have seen me as a border-fence-loving-George-Will-quoting-right-winger and they have witnessed my transformation to a universal-health-care-espousing-Fox-news-bashing-bleeding-heart in only a matter of seconds. In short, what I am trying to get my kids to understand (as any Social Studies teacher should) is the power of words and the value of public debate. But not only that, I am attempting to instill in them that this is how America works and will continue to work, if it is to remain America. Our ideals of Democracy and the Republic can only be carried on by teaching our students how to engage in them.

Lately, I fear schools and parents are either forgetting or simply failing to do this. There is still some great public debate and discussion going on in America, but more an more do we see sound-byte, comment-board, text-message-style argument between ourselves. If you do not believe me, cruise around CNN, FOX News, or youtube for a little while. Find a political story or video and surf the comments. You might read a real thoughtful post once in a while, but my guess is you will learn more about how Obama wants to destroy America or how Palin will bring a Fascist regime with her to the Presidency (either way, either side has a penchant for blaming the destruction of this nation on the other - part of me wonders if Americans are simply so bored that they are wishing for this to happen just to break the monotony).

If destruction of the Republic is to occur, it will not come from either political party (and it is lazy argument to say so). Rather, it will more likely spring from both political parties as these increasingly simplistic versions of real and complex debates combined with an unwillingness of those on either side of the arguments to compromise spiral Americans into more fear and hatred. This nation was built on dialogue and compromise (it's what democracy is). The Founders did not simply all agree on everything all the time, but they worked together to build the best Republic they could given their resources. It takes work to maintain that, and we are failing at that work.

Anyway, the point is that while we all have our own political opinions on a variety of issues, there is real danger in attempting to indoctrinate our children into our own opinions rather than giving them the tools to make their own informed decisions. If we are so confident in our opinions, wouldn't they hold up to the scrutiny of the next generation? Or is it insecurity that drives us to scream our own defense and brow beat those who lack the intellectual capacities we have?

As a person, my own political opinions have wandered since I was in high school. I have have been so far right that I had Gore-hating bumper stickers on my car. I have been so far left that I went door-to-door for Jennifer Granholm for MI governor. These winding paths, along with my experience as a teacher, have brought me much more toward the center (the dreaded center - where Conservatives call you a fence-sitting wimp and Liberals call you a non-participatory slug). And, frankly, if it means getting kids to think and discuss, then I am happy here.

Monday, January 3, 2011

new blog.

Started a new blog for the geek in me.

Check it out if you want to read the randomness that pops into my geek mind. I'm going to try to keep this one fun. If you want to contribute, please let me know.

First post is something I found interesting today and wrote a bit about - Companies with dubious beginnings.


Sunday, January 2, 2011


Teaching is a tough job...and to those that chide me for the short hours and for all the time off I get, I can usually simply ask if they would like to do my job. This usually settles the point. That, or, I mention my paycheck.

That said, I love my job and am not convinced that I am capable of doing much else besides running barcodes over a scanner. But, man, do I love these breaks. And I am firmly convinced that teachers, students, politicians, doctors, and others with high-stress jobs need these breaks badly.

Otherwise, we would just burn out and fade away.