Educators. Students. Community members. Much more unites us than divides us, particularly knowing we all wear multiple hats. Building relationships. Thinking BIG.
Challenging and supporting one another. Developing engaged, empathetic citizens. Please join me in pondering how best to nurture these common ground connections.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Relevance and Authenticity

I had the privilege of attending the Hellenic Museum's Fall Gala Sunday night at the Ritz Carlton in Chicago. It was a formal affair, filled with an incredibly attentive wait staff, delicious food, beautiful tables and lots of VIPs. It was probably one of the fanciest evenings I'll ever experience, and yes, the majority of the people who attended were very financially secure. But I was even more impressed with how highly educated, passionate and sincere the attendees were.

We were invited to this dinner to celebrate a number of things, but the focus for us was the the announcement of the project that Spiro and his teaching partner, Dean, will be doing. They proposed a project which will focus on the Greek Civil War. At the dinner, it was announced that the museum is allocating funds to make their project a reality. So now the work begins!

As I listened to Dean and Spiro explain their ideas to the dinner attendees, I was fascinated by how interested the listeners were. They had stories to add, were willing to help facilitate the process, and were thrilled that this project will involve a curricular piece for high schools and universities. Dean and Spiro would like to include more than just the traditional Ancient Greek teachings in our history courses. Greece should still be considered a tremendous influence, not just a country with an influential past.

It was the conversation Spiro had with the Ambassador of the Republic of Cyprus, Andreas Kakouris, that really caught my attention. They were excitedly throwing ideas back and forth on how to make this particular piece of history come to life in the classroom. His Excellency said things like, "Cyprus is a test case. We are a country where Muslims and Christians live side by side, and it's in our constitution..." Of course, the content mostly escaped me as I am a chemistry teacher, but I followed the big picture. They were trying to make the stories relevant and authentic for our students. They were making history come to life in front of me. If I had had teachers like that in high school, I might very well be a history teacher today!

It is these types of impromptu, passionate conversations that have always enhanced my teaching and rekindled my curiosity. It is so fulfilling to brainstorm the "how and why" of our curriculum and the stories that make it come to life. It happens in those moments where a friend's experience is brought up at lunch and the idea sparks a lesson plan idea. So what should we do to promote more of these discussions? On the ride home from this dinner, I realized how important it is to keep involved with our content, to grow in our understanding of science, particularly the science of today, of our everyday lives. These stories invariably end up being the most intriguing for us and our students.

I know how difficult it is to keep up with reading current journal articles, as my days and evenings already have too much filling the hours. So I've had to figure out a way to stay involved in science without spreading myself too thin. Here are some examples of what some teachers are doing to keep the science alive. Perhaps this will spark ideas that might work for your individual schedule.

•It's exciting to hear about teachers going to opportunities to connect with the world of science, things like Science Cafe and the Field Museum Educators' Open House. When you see a conference or activity in your mailbox, consider attending as a group.
•Perhaps using an aggregator to subscribe to specific blogs or articles that interest you might save you time, while still keeping you informed with current science investigations. This is where I found a wonderful site, Science Debate 2008 that showed scientists being interviewed, discussing why the topic of science was important for our future elected officials. And this particular subscription, science blogs, has all branches of science being written up.
• I enjoy downloading podcasts and listening to them as I jog/workout. I particularly like NPR Science Friday. The podcasts are short, interesting and span the spectrum of science fields.
• I also feel lucky to have a friend who is a scientist. Talking through the planning and development of new class projects has aided in my own understanding of what professional scientists do and helps me create lessons that are meaningful for my students. Perhaps one of your students has a parent who is a professional scientist. This might be a place to start.
• And then there are teachers who regularly participate in the process of science by doing research at local universities or in industry. Listening to them, reading about their stories perhaps may inspire you.
• I, too, have enjoyed being enlightened by participating in the world of science education research. Investigating how students learn, what they learn and why has given me a knew perspective on curricular development.

Relevance. Authenticity. Making science come to life. This is what makes science interesting. This is how we get students to engage in science conversations. This is how we bring science to life.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A Beacon for Understanding—Blog Action Day 2008

Poverty can be defined in many different ways. The stories being shared across the blog community certainly attest to that. What do we need to do to prevent and correct the global crisis of poverty? I don't know. But if we each do something, it will certainly help.

For me, in my fairy-tale life, I have never personally experienced anything close to any conceivable definition of poverty. My story, instead, begins in a small town in the northern gateway of the Hudson Highlands in the 1940s, a city called Beacon, New York. The US census states that the population during that time was 12,572. My father was part of that count. He lived in a one-bedroom apartment with his parents, siblings and maternal Grandmother. He was/is the oldest of four children. The stories he shares about his first fifteen years in Beacon would warm the hearts of any who are privileged to be on the receiving end of his colorful narratives. They are especially fun to hear when he breaks out in his Irish brogue, mimicking his Grandfather Neil's accent. But one thing that threads through these stories is that his family was monetarily poor. Very, very poor.

The Gallaghers lived simply. Not by choice, but by circumstance. A week's worth of garbage would fill one brown paper bag. They would then bring it outside to burn it; that was their method of disposal. Dad and siblings received only a few Christmas gifts each year. It would drive my Grandma crazy when my dad would only open one gift on Christmas day, saving the others for a future date. "If I have to wait until next year, I think I'll spread these out over time." Dad's family has those made-for-movie, universal stories: each family member having only two pairs of shoes—one for Sunday, one for school; the occasional rodent or two taking up residence in the family apartment; the make-shift dinners, putting together the scraps saved from the beginning of the week; family members serving in the war; the protective nature of small groups of family and friends checking up on one another, helping out whenever needed. I've always pictured Beacon as the poor, blue-collar Mayberry.

My father's father—Grandpa Bill to me—worked as a pressman for Nabisco and a volunteer fireman during the 40s. He had an eighth-grade education. My dad tells me he was the brightest man he ever met, and very well-respected by all. He put in a hard day's work, every single day, to put food on the table. Blood, sweat and will. This comes as no surprise considering he came from a family of twenty; yes, twenty. Working hard for the good of a household community, no matter the size, was nothing new to my Grandpa. When he grew up, any money earned by a family member went into the general fund for family survival. So the first money my Grandpa could call his own was his first week's paycheck after getting married. Saying that my Grandparents had meager beginnings is obviously an understatement.

From time to time, my Grandpa Bill would parade my father around town and say, "This is my son. One day, he'll be going to college." I'm certain that the recipients of this message were hesitant; if history was any indicator, the chances were slim that college would be in my dad's future. But my Grandpa was certain. At least he acted that way. It was the message he chose to send to his son. Knowing my father the way I do, he was lucky to have the father he did. My dad was an academic, a scholar. He would've been miserable without the intellectual challenges offered in college.

The person I've grown to be, all the good and bad, has certainly been borne out of my father's childhood poverty, as strange as that may sound. But it was also borne out of the riches of his family upbringing and what he passed on to us. The two are intertwined. One of the many things I have learned from stories about my grandfather is that you earn respect by being respectful. It is a core tenet of my teaching philosophy. I have also learned that family is everything. My family always has been and always will be extremely close. There's nothing more comforting.

I recall relatively recently my father and uncle were talking, being nostalgic. While watching their combined eight children reminisce and nineteen, healthy and happy grandchildren play, they reflected on how blessed they felt. My uncle said, "You know, Bill. We done good, wouldn't you say? But there's one gift we can never give them." My dad asked, "What's that?" "The gift of poverty," my uncle said. "That's for damn sure, Bob. That's for damn sure."

Knowing their stories, growing up under their guidance, I think I understand what my uncle meant. And I'm a richer, wiser person because of it.

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Sunday, October 12, 2008

Getting Through the First Five Years

Working with new teachers can be very exciting, particularly if you find yourself mentoring anLesson No. enthusiastic, intelligent new hire. It is an incredibly refreshing experience. If only I knew then what I know now! I've been teaching for close to two decades now, and I have grown to thoroughly appreciate observing the process of new teachers innovating, implementing and reflecting on their lessons. It refreshes my teaching, and I feel I'm able to offer them a foundation of strength to get through the draining first few years.

It is well-known in the education community that the teaching profession has an unusually high turnover rate. There are a host of reasons for this, including job dissatisfaction, organizational characteristics, and insufficient pay. These, along with many other causes, are not easy fixes. The political, economic and societal quandaries are severely entrenched. But we must continue to engage in conversation that might permeate these deep-seeded problems and finally resolve our turnover crisis.

In the mean time, what can be done to help keep talented teachers in the classroom while the foundation is rebuilt? The place to start is with authentic mentoring programs. (I'm actually not a fan of the word "mentoring" since it so often conjures up the image of "administrative training" more than true teacher guidance.) Effective, meaningful mentorship can be done within a given building and it begins with strong, inspirational, compassionate and passionate curricular and content specialists leading the way. In my opinion, it starts with the principal.

It is no mystery that the teaching strategies that are effective in the classroom also work well when nurturing teacher growth. I have worked with a large number of mentors, department chairs, cooperative teachers, and student-teacher supervisors over the past five years to help develop effective ways of welcoming new teachers to a given department. (Just as an aside, one common conversation we have deals with communicating the difference between lesson plans and curriculum. This, I'm afraid, is another blog!)

Authentic guidance requires a continual dialogue focused on teacher reflection and growth. Of course a new teacher is going to worry about mechanics and administrative tasks. Talk them through those. But we must keep the meat of the conversation on what teaching strategies will help to create a constructive learning community and build a positive rapport with students. "Why are you doing what you're doing? Is it working? What will you do differently? Why? etc." These are the same questions that veteran teachers use to explore new horizons. Starting this process early on will aid in a new teacher's growth from the very beginning.

Nurturing new teachers through the first few years of the profession, welcoming them into a new school community can be a fabulous adventure. It refreshes our teaching; it rekindles our desire to push the envelope; it forces us to reflect on our practice. As we model how complex and enlightening and rewarding and fun teaching can be, perhaps we might be able to keep a few more teachers in the profession as they grow to realize just how important this calling, their calling, is.
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Tuesday, October 7, 2008

A Singular Global Conversation

I've always dreamed of being a part of one serious conversation. To listen to different perspectives. To reflect on personal stories. To synthesize and analyze unique information. To be involved with dialogue that might actually lead to constructive change. How exciting this is! I can't wait!

I know that for many educators this might not be directly related to the particular content area being taught. But it seems that as global citizens, having connections to some of these important conversations can only enhance our teaching. We also teach the future. We teach the future. Isn't that an incredibly potent statement? It's also a great deal of responsibility. Our students will someday have the opportunity, means and/or desire to make sincere social change. The topic of poverty certainly falls into an area that needs our attention.

Thanks, Ryan Bretag, for sharing this!

Blog Action Day 2008 Poverty from Blog Action Day on Vimeo.