Archive for the ‘Reflection’ Category

Do Break the Chain

The summer I wrote my dissertation, I posted here about a productivity strategy called Don’t Break the Chain.  Click the link for the backstory, but the gist of it is that it’s easier to maintain a habit if you keep at it – even for a little bit – every day, and monitor your progress visually (e.g., Xing off days on a calendar).

The good news is that it worked for me to help me get the last two chapters of that dissertation drafted and finalized over the months of July and August.  The bad news is that is also works in reverse – I’ve now maintained a chain of 143 days uninterrupted by blogging.  This is not a trend I’m proud of; in fact, it’s the longest break between blog posts I’ve had since I started blogging in the summer of 2007.

It’s been bothering me that I haven’t found the capacity to sit with my thoughts and write, especially since I’ve spoken time and time again about how therapeutic and valuable I find writing, I guess just not enough to actually force me to sit down and do it.

Enter Christina Torresblog post in my RSS reader earlier today.  Who knows how and why circumstances come together the way they do, but she wrote just what I needed to read at the time I needed to read it.  Rather than try to sit down, gather my thoughts, and put together a coherent, “like-and-fave-worthy” statement of profound educational import, I’m taking the advice I gave students for however many years (and the message I took from Christina’s post) – just write.  And I’m not doing it sat in my office, or in my living room, or some other “writer-friendly” space – I’m banging this out standing in my kitchen, dripping wet after a run, just to get the words on the page.

It’s my hope that by breaking the chain of bloglessness (?), I can kickstart whatever reflective and creative juices have powered my writing for as many years as they have.  It’s something I’ve done here before – a quickie post, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, just to get myself back on the horse.  It’s worked in the past; let’s see if it takes this time.

Thanks, Christina.  Just goes to show you never know the impact your thoughts and ideas – whether they’re blogged, tweeted, podcasted, or simply shared face-to-face between colleagues and friends – can have on another person, and it’s yet another reason why I’m not ready to give up on Twitter for one aspect – albeit an important one – of my professional learning, despite the increasingly unmanageable signal to noise ratio.

Back in the Classroom: How’d I Do?

As I mentioned back in February, I had the opportunity to get back into the classroom this past semester and teach an undergraduate course called Literacy in the Content Area Classroom at Delaware Valley University in Doylestown, PA. I taught a pretty small class of mostly sophomores and junior secondary ed majors in a variety of disciplines, and while I don’t think any of us were enthused about the idea of a 3-hour long class on a Monday night, you’d never know it by the level of energy and commitment these future teachers brought to class each week.

I still haven’t received my official course evaluations as conducted by the university, but toward the end of the course I asked my students to reflect in writing on some elements of the course; specifically, what I did this semester that they found particularly valuable as well as what I could improve upon for next time.

I appreciated the feedback I received from my students. I have no specific reason to believe they pulled their punches (although it would be disingenuous to not acknowledge their potential for discomfort with critiquing their teacher), and much of what they said to me aligned with my own observations & reflection. Below are some of the common themes that emerged from their feedback (not every single suggestion) as well as my own reflections.

Improvements for Next Time

More emphasis on Bloom’s Taxonomy. At some point toward the end of our first class period, I noticed I kept getting quizzical looks whenever I referenced Bloom’s Taxonomy. I naively assumed that all students had at least a passing familiarity with Bloom’s, which they informed me they did not. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), I got slammed with the flu later that week and had to cancel the second class. In between shivering spats and vomiting spells, I managed to put together an assignment for them to complete over the week that would provide a “101” intro to Bloom and get it uploaded to Blackboard. Upon my return, we dug in a little deeper, looking at Bloom through the lens of questioning. I got a lot of positive feedback on that along with the suggestion that I spend even more time on Bloom next time I teach the course. Roger that.

More time on discussing fiction. This one surprised me. For a class with very few students majoring in the humanities, I tried to tailor the course to what I thought would be most beneficial to agriculture and science majors (the majority of the students) and emphasize approaches to non-fiction texts (we did cover fiction, but in about 2-3 classes, instead of the 6 or 7 devoted to non-fiction). My English teacher soul loved this response, so I’ll do a better job balancing fiction and non-fiction next time.

More in-depth looks at technology tools (e.g., Newsela). This I added toward the end of the class almost as an afterthought. The students seemed to like it but I think we were all a bit frayed at this point in the semester (or maybe just me?) so it was hard for me to get a good read on how valuable it was for them in the moment. This suggestion came up a few times so I’ll definitely have to reconsider not only how I approach this (I considered having them explore NoRedInk as well but scrapped it because of time constraints) but what larger structural changes I’ll have to make to the course in order to accommodate it all.

What They Liked About This Time

Midterm conferences. Taking a page from Dean Shareski (can’t think of a specific blog post to link to but I’ve followed his writing about teaching undergraduates closely over the years) I took my assigned midterm “period” and divided it up into 15 minute segments for individual conferences with each student. This was facilitated greatly by the fact that I only had 13 students in my class; I’m not sure how (or if) I would do it with a much larger class, but I’ll cross that bridge if/when I come to it.

Optional second mini-lesson. To make a long story short, I had originally required and planned for each student to conduct two mini-lessons. A few factors led me to decide to scrap the second, but keeping in mind that some students may already have started work on their second lesson, I didn’t want that work to be for naught. I presented my students with a choice: you can either skip the second lesson (in which case the score from your first lesson would count twice in the overall accounting of the final grade) or you can present your second lesson. Nobody chose to present their second lesson after all, but many students told me they appreciated having the option to choose which way to go rather than being told.

New (to them) types of assignments. For one assignment, students were given a choice of working solo or in pairs on either a) giving a book talk with a corresponding close reading activity or b) choosing a reading selection, developing a discussion prompt, and actively moderating an online discussion over the course of a week. Many students had never seen or heard of book talks before but said they liked getting exposure to books they wouldn’t have read otherwise (my only stipulation was the book had to be about teaching). Most students had participated in online discussions before, but developing and moderating them gave them a whole new appreciation for the potential of the medium (as well as how they feel that potential is not often reached and how much work is involved in getting there).

My Reflections

Aside from generally really enjoying getting back into the teaching groove after so many years away, one big takeaway from this semester has been the single-point rubric. After hearing about it on the Cult of Pedagogy podcast and then finding it referenced elsewhere, I used them pretty much exclusively this semester. The students told me they much preferred them to the typical 4-point rubric, as did I. I even shared the rubrics I developed with some teachers and administrators I work with for their own implementation. Initial feedback from them has been positive as well, so looks like we may be onto something here.

Not that I didn’t know this already, but this semester reinforced for me just how hard teaching is. My inner perfectionist knows I would have done a better job had I not been teaching at 6pm on Monday nights after having already worked a full day and commuted 45 minutes to the university, but regardless – teaching is intellectually taxing (one of the reasons I like it so much, tbh) and proportionately rewarding. Aside from the course content, I also did my best to imbue my students with relevant pearls of wisdom here and there gleaned from my years of experience and my current position, especially as someone who hires teachers and has some insight as to what might set them apart from other candidates. Perhaps the job hunt is too far away for most of them, but hopefully in a year or two when they’re prepping for their first round of interviews, their memories will jog with something I said and maybe it’ll do some good for them.

All in all, it was a simultaneously tiring and energizing experience, and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to teach the course again, tweaked ever so slightly for the better, with a new crop of future teachers.

Broadening Our Audience: Published Again!

After our short article “Teaching Social Media at Lawrence High School” was published in NJASA‘s newsletter On Target last spring (itself a follow-up to our January 2017 presentation at Techspo ’17 in Atlantic City, NJ), I spoke with my colleagues Dr. Andrew Zuckerman and Ms. Natalie Richey about fleshing it out further with more details and examples and maybe trying to get it published in a more widely circulated publication.

Just under a year later, our work paid off!  Andrew, Natalie, and I are proud that our updated, more fully fleshed-out article (with the same title) was published this week in Educational Viewpoints, the annual peer-reviewed publication by the NJ Principals & Supervisors’ Association (NJPSA).

Educational Viewpoints is also published in hard-copy format, but you can read the article online at their website (or mine).

I’ve been a member of NJPSA for four years now and have always been thoroughly impressed with the quality of professional support (including workshops) they provide.  I’m very proud to have been selected for inclusion in this year’s edition of EV.

Walking the Walk

I’m very happy to be back in the classroom once again this semester. After I stopped teaching high school English to become a school psychologist, I was only out of the classroom for three years before I had the opportunity to teach a graduate level class in developmental disabilities to mid-career teacher certification students. I did that for two summers before demand for the course dwindled and my services were no longer required. Now, six years on, I am teaching an undergraduate course this semester (for the same university) on teaching literacy in content area classrooms.

This is good for me for a number of reasons. First and foremost, I have always missed teaching since leaving the classroom ten years ago. I may not have missed some elements of the job, but I have always missed the act and art of developing engaging lessons and teaching students, regardless of age. I also think it’s good for me, as somebody who evaluates teachers as part of my job, to keep my hand in the craft as best as I can. In no way am I equating teaching undergraduates to teaching high school (or middle or elementary school); each context has unique opportunities and challenges, and certainly I deal with far less oversight, bureaucracy, and red tape in my adjunct teaching position than does a full-time K-12 teacher. This position, however, does afford me the opportunity to put into practice the suggestions I give my staff, as well as try for myself the great things I see them doing with their students.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t feeling a bit rusty and anxious about going back after such a long layoff. Planning a course from scratch is tough, especially since I haven’t ever taught a full semester of three-hour classes before (those grad classes were accelerated summer sessions; just 7 or 8 weeks). From the “that’s just my luck” files, I also came down with the flu early in the semester, which necessitated canceling the second class and risking losing whatever momentum we gained in the first class. I’m happy to say, however, that despite the anxiety and the uncertainty and the hours of planning I’ve put into the course (and will continue to, as I refine my vision for what it needs to be), it energizes me to no end to work with a group of enthusiastic future educators who have been kind enough to humor my dumb jokes late on Monday nights.

It would be much easier for me to turn this course into a series of three-hour lectures, but while I am a man of many flaws, hypocrisy generally isn’t one of them. I’m seizing this opportunity to walk the walk and live up to the high standards I hold for my staff every day, hopefully achieving the dual purpose of teaching my students the information they need to learn while also modeling effective teaching practices they can take with them into their own classrooms.


This past week, tech journalists across the web celebrated the tenth birthday of the hashtag.  While they are ubiquitous across social networks now, the hashtag as we have come to know it originated, as have so many other major events and movements of the last decade, on Twitter:

Despite the fact that at that time I was a teacher on summer break, I consider that time period to be one of the most significant times in my career.  Having started experimenting with blogs, wikis, and many other emerging “Web 2.0” tools in my teaching in the year leading up to summer ’07, that summer was when I took my deep dive headfirst into the world of the read/write Web and social networking.  I, along with a cohort of other early adopter types, created a Twitter account, and very quickly we teachers, professors, and administrators began to find each other.

My Twitter timeline, ca. summer 2008

2007 was also the summer I started this blog; after some fits and starts throughout July, I finally pulled the trigger on both my Twitter account and my first blog post in early August.

At the risk of sounding cliche, it is truly amazing to look back and consider how much has changed.  At that time, my wife and I had both just turned 30, I was about to start my eighth (and what would be my final) year of teaching high school English, I was less than a year away from completing my graduate degree in school psychology, and I was still a relatively new father of a two-year-old, with one on the way.

In the years since, a lot has changed, both professionally and personally.  My six-year career in school psychology came and went, I started and finished a doctoral program in educational leadership, and I left the district in which I started my career for three jobs in two subsequent districts.  We turned 40 this year, and our children started 7th and 4th grade this week.  We will be the parents of a teenager this coming February.

But time marches on and change happens to us all.  What is really mindblowing to me is how my activities that summer have so permanently impacted my approach to my profession, and how the effects continue to this day.  Education can be a very isolating profession, even under the best of circumstances.  Connecting with other people through social media was novel and cool, but honestly, I had been doing that since my Bulletin Board Service (BBS) days in the early ’90s.  The concept was not new to me; actually, I think the familiarity of it was what made me so comfortable jumping in with both feet.

Where the true value was was the discussions and sharing of ideas, both through chats (Twitter) and in longer form, on our blogs, back when people still used to comment on them.  I know it can sound trite to hear, “Twitter is the best PD you’ll ever have!”, and I don’t entirely agree with that sentiment on its face, but for me, gaining access to such a vast multiplicity of perspectives, experiences, stories, and professional backgrounds through the people I met/meet there… I mean, how could that not change a person?  When I look back over a career that started in 2000, I really do see the summer of 2007 as a major demarcation.  Pre- and post-summer ’07 is my BCE and CE.

Perhaps I’m looking back through rose-tinted glasses, but it seems there was something different about it all back then.  Blogging – at least from classroom teachers and school administrators working in the trenches – has largely died off (I clearly just don’t know when to quit).  Real-time Twitter discussions that used to bring me fresh ideas and perspectives seem to me to have mostly devolved into individual or corporate self-promotion and banal, self-congratulatory chats rehashing the same topics and fluff phrases (a notable and most appreciated exception is #educolor).

I still find value in the network, I just use it differently now than I did a decade ago.  That’s as it should be, I think.  As nostalgic as I get for the “good old days”, I think it would be worse if I was doing the exact same things with social media a decade down the road.  That might be comforting and familiar, but it’s also stale.

Much of my Twitter activity now focuses on promoting happenings in my district (more broadcasting than interacting), and eyeballing my mentions, it seems that most of the interpersonal interaction I have on Twitter is between and among people I work with – sharing resources I believe will have a direct impact on their instruction and amplifying, retweeting, and otherwise promoting the great work of our staff.

Of course, people in my extended network still tweet interesting articles and resources from the web, and I love it when people tweet passages from books they’re reading.  Even an interesting title or book cover is enough to send me looking for more information; after all, I want to read what smarter people and better educators than me are reading.  It’s how I learn and grow, and the potential and promise of being more than what I currently am is what sucked me through this particular looking glass all those years ago in the first place.  Despite my misgivings and grievances, the benefits ultimately outweigh the drawbacks for me, and ten years and a quarter of my life on, I still wouldn’t give up those learning opportunities for anything.