Monday, January 31, 2011

Baseball and Teaching

To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.” Henry David Thoreau

Students with learning problems need constant motivation in order to learn. For the teacher, this task can seem nearly impossible and ex­hausting, especially when students enter your classroom with no ma­terials but lots of baggage—past failures, academic frustrations, and less-than-ideal attitudes.

At some point in my coaching career I remember coming across an article by Robert Harris (1991), a writer and educator, who wrote about how what we do in our classrooms can be compared to the game of baseball:

Think about a group of young people playing a baseball game. The very things that motivate them to work hard and do well playing baseball can be adapted to the classroom:

  • Teamwork: Young people like working as a team. Yet often the learning activities we assign call for individual effort. By designing more team assignments, we can reap the benefits of teamwork. The weaker students will learn by having others help them. And, since teaching someone something is the best way to learn, the students who teach each other will learn better than if they were learning alone.
  • Fun: Sports are fun, exciting, and highly emotional. Learning expe­riences should be, too. Strong and lasting memory is connected with the emotional state and experience of the learner. People remember more when the learning is accompanied by strong emo­tions.
  • Enjoyment of Success: Playing a game provides a constant flow of accomplishments. Even the players on the losing team enjoy a strikeout, a good hit, a great catch. Breaking learning into smaller parts that can more easily be conquered, producing feelings of ac­complishment and success, will help motivate students to go forward, even through very difficult material.
  • Activity: A baseball game is definitely not passive—it requires both mental and physical activity. Teachers should strive to make learn­ing always mentally active and often physically active as well.
  • Flexibility and Creativity: Baseball has rules, but within those rules the players have a range of choices and strategies for accomplish­ing a given goal. Students learn better when the directions have some flexibility and they can put some of “themselves” into the as­signment.

On a more personal level, I have tried countless strategies to moti­vate low-performing students with varying degrees of success and high levels of frustration (mostly mine). The one strategy that consis­tently works for me, though, is caring. I do know that we are all caring individuals, or else we wouldn’t be in this noble profession called teaching. What I’m talking about, though, is taking caring to the next level:

  • Allowing ourselves to be human in front of our students. Share sto­ries, lessons learned, mistakes made. Young people are quite insecure at this age—they need to see the person, not just the teacher or authority figure.
  • Developing a relationship with our students. Try to learn about your students’ lives outside of school. It can make a world of differ­ence, especially when their home situation is less than ideal.
  • Setting goals with individual students. For one student, it might be an attendance goal. For another, it might concern disruptive be­havior. And remember to check on their progress—your concern and approval might be the only reward needed.
  • Enlisting the help of your colleagues.

It truly “takes a village” for special needs children, because they require that constant push. There are so many examples right here at AAK. I have seen Todd Kaiser mentor some mighty challenging boys, with great success. I see Mary Clary smoothly lead a three-ring circus each day as she helps stu­dents. I know that most stu­dents can’t wait to take Mr. Fili’s technology class because they get to make things. I know that Trudy Knowlden can pull some quality work out of the toughest seventh grade boys, and that she loves every minute of it. I know that our coaches support aca­demics and make sure the players know their expectations. I know that Theresa FitzGerald works with struggling kids and is piloting a co-teaching venture with Michelle McMahon, who elicits volumes of written work from all her students. I count myself blessed to be among each of you and learn from you daily.

Just don’t give up, for long after the content has been forgotten, the teacher will be remembered.

Enjoy your weekend.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Front of the Class

It was late and I was tired. Just getting home from a long Board meeting I thought that a little time of mindless entertainment would be exactly what I needed. I turned on the television and began watching a “Hallmark” movie, Front of the Class. It was about half over, but looked interesting. What I got was anything but mindless. The movie was about Brad Cohen, a teacher with severe Tourette syndrome. It depicted the incredible courage he needed daily to face a room of students and all the prejudices from the homes.

I thought about the disabilities we bring with us everyday into the classroom. I have seen teachers work from a wheel chair, with an arm in a sling, with a cast on a foot, and with a patch on an eye. Many of these have been temporary disabilities, but not all. A former student teacher of mine had a degenerative muscular problem, and other teachers bring their own learning disabilities into the classroom. I brought ADHD.

Brad Cohen fought against prejudice all of his life. This was portrayed in YouTube videos about his life which I found after watching the end of this movie. As a child, he could not stop making noises in class or twitching any more than a person in a wheelchair could run faster. He was ridiculed and punished for a disability; something that he had no control over. This continued as he grew into adulthood. He went on over twenty-five interviews before finding a school that would give him a chance to teach. He did not disappoint them. That year he was named the Sallie Mae’s First Year Teacher of the Year in the state of Georgia. He continued to earn recognition and awards for his outstanding service in the classroom.

During his acceptance speech for that initial award, he thanked those who had supported him, but he gave the greatest thanks to his most influential teacher and constant companion, Tourette’s. This took me by complete surprise.

During our next faculty meeting I will be showing some excerpts of Brad Cohen.

Have a great weekend and look for a chance to watch the Hallmark Hall of Fame Movie, Front of the Class.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Half Full or Half Empty

Two days ago I received information from the NYS Education Department stating that the Board of Regents has adopted the new National Core Standards. You can get more information from your team leaders, as they have been provided the actual statement. This curriculum is certainly not unexpected, however it does place a certain challenge on all of us to be prepared for the 2011-2012 school year.

This curricular change comes at a time when our state and federal education departments are working on new initiatives on many fronts. They’ve altered our cut-scores, created unpredictable tests, and eliminated tests. They are investigating changes to teacher and principal evaluations, working with NYSUT, looking for test-data in non-tested areas, winning RTTT and then trying to figure out what that means, and still attempting to leave no child behind. There is also an issue with the budget. It’s enough to make our heads spin. The challenge is obviously daunting as we figure out what this means to us, our students, and our classrooms. In a profession which has historically witnessed change occurring over generations, the pace of these initiatives resembles characteristics of the hare instead of the turtle. My hope is that our leaders haven’t forgotten the moral to that story.

I sit in contemplation reviewing these curricular changes and my eyes are drawn to a sheet of paper on my desk from This paper is titled, 20 Tips For a Positive New Year. As soon as I saw this I smiled and thought of the irony. Being a touch ADHD, my focus was instantly away from the task of reviewing the NYS document. I began to read the 20 tips and realized that they all relate to me and my current situation. I will post these tips at the mailboxes – feel free to make a copy for yourself.

Jon Gordon has helped me realize that these changes and challenges are opportunities. I will be focusing on his tips as we enter a seemingly new-age of education.

I hope you enjoy your weekend.

Bullying: Now and Then

The movie My Bodyguard was a pretty big hit when I was a teenager in the 1980’s, and I remember seeing it and cheering for Clifford in his battle with the incessant bullying dished out by Moody. I remember it being a pretty good movie. Sure, the kids get their revenge on the bullies, something I doubt many bullying victims actually seek, but it does a great job of capturing the eeriness of bullying. I remember wondering whether the bullies I grew up with rooted for Matt Dillon, who plays the bully with an absolutely perfect creepy heartlessness, and who, of course, gets his in the end.

I might be all grown-up but bullying continues, in both direct and virtual form; yes, today’s kids bully online too. Recently, the New York Times launched a series of articles called Poisoned Web, with an expose’ covering “cyber-bullying – a newly coined term that covers all sorts of creative abuse that takes place through texting and on social networking platforms like Facebook.

Bullying has also gained national notice because of the case of Phoebe Prince and People Magazine’s cover story: Bullied to Death? Phoebe Prince: Her Final Days. She committed suicide on January 14, 2010 after months of being bullied by her classmates in the western Massachusetts town of South Hadley. Phoebe faced both direct confrontation and cyber-bullying, through negative Facebook messages and texts. Phoebe Prince’s suicide spawned a wave of anti-bullying legislation through the US, including New York. The New York Times article does a good job of exposing some of the legal boundaries, many of them free speech related, to combating forms of bullying that stop short of physical violence.

Over the years we have come to learn that there are long-lasting social effects to incidences of bullying. Its existence severely subverts the social atmosphere in schools and the emotional development of kids, regardless of whether they’re the ones doing the bullying, getting bullied, or just passively watching. Today we know that nearly 9 out of 10 kids say they have seen someone bullied and at least 10% of all kids are bullied on a regular basis. The National Crime Prevention Council reports cyber-bullying is a problem that affects more than 40% of all American teens and that, of those affected, almost 60% do not tell their parents or another adult (teacher) about the incident. We also know that bullies are 4 times more likely to evolve into criminals and that being bullied can cause children to experience fear, depression, loneliness, anxiety, low self-esteem, physical illness, and in some cases, even, as noted in the Phoebe Prince case and others, suicidal thoughts or even suicide.

We also know that bullying can be reduced by up to 50% when there’s a school-wide commitment to end it. Meanwhile, in case you’ve forgotten what it feels like to face the wrath of the bully, check out My Bodyguard.

I’m currently involved in a book read with the other PCS administrators. We’re reading, The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander. After reading chapter one I noticed that there are many scenarios which I’m too familiar with being the principal of a middle school. My hope is that this book will give me insight into stopping the cycle of intentional violence. It shouldn’t take long for me to complete this book and I would be happy to share it with any who wish to read it.