Friday, February 9, 2018

Never Stop Growing

    I do not know everything.  In fact, the things I do not know far outweigh the things I do know.  As  result, I know that there is always room for growth.

    There are teachers who take things that they have being doing for the past several years and continue to do them again and again without acknowledgement that students today learn differently than the students of ten years ago did.

     Aside from not being best for students, I imagine this must also be incredibly dull!  In my three years of teaching none of my years have been identical.  This year for example, I have worked and developed and implemented more authentic PBAs.  I have done this because this seems to be where the future of education is going as well as the futures of my students will be driven and I want them to be best prepared for it.  

    There is always something new to learn.  Think of water.  If water is still for too long it becomes stagnant and algae grows on top of it.  Running water is typically purer and certainly looks clearer as a result of its constant movement.  Education is the same way.  If we stay still for too long, if we keep doing the same thing over and over again we become stagnant.  We become irrelevant.  We become complacent.  We are unable to best meet the needs of our students.  

    It may even be fair to say it is arrogant of us to assume our teaching strategy will be best for every student regardless of what year it is.  Could you imagine our current students (you know the students who are going to go on to travel the stars, create peace across the world, and other incredible things) having to sit through the classes we did?  Sure for many of us those strategies may have been great, but it was a different time.  Look at businesses of the world, the ones who are successful now are the ones who have learned to adapt to the modern consumer, the ones who are not successful are still living in their old business practices (need proof?  Compare Amazon to Sears).  

    If we want to do what is best for students it means we must always be growing.  We must continually look for new ways to grow, because if we don't we become like still water.  If we want to say we care about our students then we need to back up those words by caring about how we will instruct them.  There are definitely times where I just want to do what I feel comfortable with, but if I want my students to succeed I need to humble myself and do what I am uncomfortable with.  We ask our students to step outside of their comfort zones when they come to our classes, so what would make us thing we are "too good" to do the same?  

    Find new ways to grow.  For me, developing my personal learning network through Twitter had been incredibly helpful.  I feel like I am constantly learning new things from other educators on Twitter.  I am encouraged in some of the things I do and I am challenged to grow in other areas without the threats of judgment or punishment.  

    Your students deserve your absolute best.  You want to be the absolute best you can for your students, and that means a constant and thirsting desire to grow.  Do not be content with where you are at, keep looking for new ways to reach your students to make them the best possible versions of themselves!

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

How #waledchat Was Made

I never thought this would be me.


If you heard my latest podcast, you heard me say that I never thought that I would be a teacher who would even have a podcast, let alone a blog or anything else.

I thought that I would simply be a teacher who came into school, would try to be as engaging as possible in my school and then come home and reflect with my wife or by myself.  Never did I think I would share my ideas across social media, let alone did I think anyone would actually want to listen to them.  What kind of insights could I possibly share in the world of education?  I'm only in my third year teaching, there are plenty of more qualified voices in education out there.

But when my principal challenged me to start a podcast on the life of a middle school history teacher, something about that excited me.  I finally found something that I could share about.  So I started my "Wins and Losses with Teacher Phil" podcast that I quickly shortened to "Wins And Losses" and have been able to interact with many incredible educators (some have even written some pretty good books too!).

As podcasting continued to grow, I wanted to continue to share my thoughts through another mode of media.  I noticed that a lot of educators had been using blogging to share their ideas so I thought I would give that a try.  When I was in college I made a blog called Reckless Historians and had a blast, but by the end of undergraduate lost my fire for it because my primary interest in teaching started to be my students and then my content.  I have really been enjoying blogging and writing down my thoughts on education.  Blogging and podcasting have both been very cathartic for me.

So here I am.... Doing what I never thought I would do.  And why am I doing it?  Because I have been encouraged by other educators.  Not only my principal but also my PLN, because I started to use Twitter for a personal learning network.  Participating in various ed chats (special shout out to the crew at #122edchat), has inspired me to continue to learn and grow from educators all around me, not just the ones in my building.

Educators have always given me so much, as a student and now as a teacher.  I wanted to find a way to give back.  I have been thinking about this for multiple weeks and thought that creating a twitter chat could be an exciting way to give back to educators by creating a safe and open space for reflection.  Keeping the ideas of my blog and podcast, I am starting a "Wins And Losses" Ed Chat! #waledchat will be a weekly chat on Thursdays at 9pm and will be an opportunity for educators to reflect on their victories over the past week as well as their losses.  My hope is that by the end of our half hour together educators will have an idea on how to turn their losses into victories for the next week.  I am very excited about this opportunity and hope that you will join me for the first #waledchat this Thursday at 9pm.  Thanks for reading, see you Thursday at 9! 

Friday, January 26, 2018

Relationships Matter

    As humans we crave relationships.  We are relational beings.  Need proof?  Next time you go on a plane pay attention to how many people who are seemingly strangers will talk to each other for the duration of your trip.
    Relationships matter not only to us in society, they matter to us as educators.

    When I was in college, my education professors always put an emphasis on student relationships.  Making sure we interact well with students.

    I wish that I could provide a silver bullet to developing relationships with students or a simple ten point checklist to follow to create better relationships with students, but the fact of the matter is that I would then be lying to you.

     It's funny.  At points I have heard stories of some students who misbehave for some teachers.  Those same students are like angels in my class; I love working with them.  Sometimes I have students who challenge me but don't challenge their other teachers.

    Relationships depend entirely on the person.  They are different for anyone.  What I can provide are some things that I do to try to build these relationships with my students.  Truthfully, I have not always been successful with this.  Last year, I had a student who I continued to try to build a relationship with.  Every time I felt like I was getting close, something would happen that would put a rift between us.  However, this loss is far exceeded by the many wins that I have had.

    At the start of every school year, I give my students an index card.  On this card I have students put down different things they are interested in on different lines.  I ask about their favorite books, movies, tv shows, ice cream flavors (mine is vanilla, which I already know is boring), and I also ask them if there is anything they would like to share that would help me know them better.  If I am struggling to connect with a particular student, I look back at that notecard and try to find something to connect with them on.  I start a conversation with that student about one of those items.  The point though is that it is an authentic conversation.  I genuinely want to speak to and relate with this student.

    However, I also do not always have trouble developing relationships with students.  I think students sense my desire to create authentic relationships with them.  I think they know that I want to help them grow.  Grace is a major part of my life, so I apply it in my classroom.  I have told students that I will never hold a bad day against them.  If a student tries and fails I will give them another chance.  If they mess up 1000 times then 1001 times I will work with them.  Humor is another thing I try to apply in my classroom.  I can definitely be silly in the classroom, I make jokes, when the students praise something I do sometimes I will "dab," and the reason I do these things is because laughter is a wonderful medicine.  When my students and I can laugh together we can build relationships together.  Relevancy is another method I use to build relationships with students.  When I am out in the hallways greeting students (another great way to build relationships) I like to strike up conversations about the game this past weekend with students.  In my classroom on my desk you will see bobbleheads of characters from shows and movies that I enjoy, you'll also see behind my desk some Steelers, Star Wars, and Doctor Who posters.  These help give students some natural conversation starters with me, because sometimes they are a bit nervous to start a more serious conversation with me.

    But it is not only what I like, I also try to be relevant by doing things that students enjoy!  I love seeing them at the games or events in the community.  My wife and I like to go on dates at restaurants in the community that they recommend sometimes (students always have great suggestions for food options!).  When students see you as an active member of the community they know you are invested in them.

    But these are not checklist items.  These are what work for me to build relationships with students, but it does not work for everyone.  I certainly have had teachers that I have enjoyed that did make jokes.  I certainly have had teachers who I never saw attend a sports event or play or concert that I attended.  But I still loved these teachers, because of something they did to try to build relationships with me.
     That's the point though, and I am sorry that I cannot provide you a list to build the greatest relationships with students.  Let me just offer this counsel. . . Relationships with students are worth your weight in gold.  Students will do grand things for teachers they love, but they will do nothing for teachers that they do not.  Relationships are vital and they are uniquely crafted between the individuals engaged in them.  Their purpose should not be to get something from the other, but rather to give something to the other.  Use your relationships to give your students the best possible opportunity to enter the next phase of their life triumphantly.

Relationships matter.


Friday, January 19, 2018

I Did Not Always Believe In Projects

I am going to be very honest with you all.

     In school, I learned best through lecture.  I know it sound silly, but I preferred lessons where the teachers/professors spoke the entire class because I always left class with what I believed was the information I needed to be successful.  I definitely felt like I learned more than I did when we were given projects.  In school, I also loved taking tests over projects.  All I had to do was study the right answers and spit that information back out on paper.  They were also way better than many of the projects I did as a student.  Many of the projects I did as a student were things like "make a five slide powerpoint" or "make a poster about [insert topic here]."  I wince at even calling them projects, but that is what I knew projects to be.

    When I was in my first year of college, I wanted to imitate my favorite teachers.  The way they lectured was more like storytelling, they told captivating tales and I enjoyed absorbing it through that method because I knew that they were like a sage on the stage.

     But that is not the sole way my students learn.

   My students are not like me, and that is okay.  I honestly think that if my students would have to sit through a whole eighty-four minutes just listening to me talk I think both them and myself would be bored and it would be like a baaaad trip to the dentist.

      So as a teacher I was left with two options.  I could hold on to my past and teach with what I felt comfortable with, or I could grow and work to meet the needs of my students to prepare them for their future.
    I chose the latter.  I want to make sure my students develop critical thinking skills, writing skills, communication abilities, and are comfortable using technology because that is their future.  I want my students to go on to do incredible things.

     But when I started out teaching, I was confused on how best do it.  Remember, my experiences were projects were "make a collage" or "build a powerpoint."  Because when I was a student technology was not what it is today.

     Discussing George Couros's Innovator's Mindset, engaging with fellow educators on twitter, and attending conferences where our central themes were to design PBAs have forever changed the way I will teach.

   You will not find projects from me that say "make a collage."  My goal with designing projects is to make them honestly authentic and relevant.  I can think of when I taught westward expansion this year, I wanted to have students create facebook pages for different groups of people living out west.  But that is not relevant to my students, because they do not use facebook, so instead I designed a Twitter Chat for my students to participate in as if they were different groups of westward settlers.  Wow did it have profound effects.  I have continued to use these types of projects to promote innovation in my students.

    I have seen the excitement in students as they do these sorts of projects.  I have seen the students debate back and forth.  I have seen students develop great videos, shark tank presentations, blog posts, and more.  For a recent unit, I decided to forego a traditional test in exchange for a menu of options for students to choose from.  Students begged me for a traditional test because it was "faster and easier" to which I always replied, "Yes it is that but aren't you learning more?"  Students always grumbled out a "yes" after.

   Now, I am still a supporter of note-taking.  I think that is a skill that may change but it won't go away.  You need the basic recipe before you bake the cake.  However, I want to change the way I give notes to my students.  My next step will be to take my typical presentations and convert them into Screencastify lessons for students to watch at their own paces and take notes off of them.  My hope is that doing this will open up more time in class to allow students to be innovative.

     I have noticed that an increase in projects in my class has helped me encourage student innovation in the classroom.  Students are more willing to take risks and are more engaged in class.  They love the opportunity to authentically express and apply their knowledge.  I may not have believed in projects when I was a student, but that was my past.  As a teacher, I believe in projects over tests because I believe it is best for my students' futures.


Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Don't Let Stubbornness Stifle

    I really enjoy Netflix.  A show that my wife and I sit down and watch together is about a small town community in Canada.  The show protagonist is a young teacher who is constantly using life lessons and reaching an entire town of diverse learners.  We just came across an episode where the teacher's reputation was slandered and she has been replaced (hopefully just temporarily!) by a newer, meaner teacher.
    A moment from this episode has been sticking with me recently.  This new teacher participated in actions that really make me question his dedication to education.  He continued to snap the pencils of one student who loved to write but wasn't holding the pencil correctly.  He kicked one boy out of his class because he was not learning at the rate of the other students and feared this boy's test scores would bring down his reputation.  He took away recess from a class of elementary school students and then had questions about his classroom management techniques (surprise, surprise).  Then when questioned on his technique he said that his technique was the only way and is fine for everyone who is able to learn.
    What crushed me as I was thinking about this is that this teacher stifled all the creativity and all the passion of learning because students were not doing things his way.  How many of us have had experiences in education where our passion for learning was suspended due to some arbitrary semantics?  Or something more convicting. . . how many of us stifled creativity due to semantics?  Whether intentionally or unintentionally there are moments where our stubbornness has the potential to hinder learning.
    I am encouraged that the educators that I work with and all of the educators I interact with on Twitter are actively fighting against doing what is comfortable in exchange for what is best for students.  If a student is actively and joyfully writing why does it matter that they are not holding the pencil the way we think they should?  If a student wants to learn and takes them a bit longer to learn concepts that does not mean they will never catch up.  There are many ways to teach a child, we need to open ourselves up to the fact that maybe we need to change.  Maybe we need to adapt to support that child to help our students go on to explore the stars, to innovate in infrastructure, to lead free people, to go on to inspire future generations.
    We are at a pivotal crossroads in education.  We are actively coming face-to-face with the future of the world.  My question is will we allow our stubbornness to keep the world trapped in the past or will we reject failed practices that prevent innovation in order to catapult us into a beautiful and brighter tomorrow?

I think you know where I stand, and I hope you will stand with me.


Sunday, January 7, 2018

Stop Averaging!

     I remember when I was in high school I did CrossFit.  I was not into it like many of the people who are on TV or other advocates of it are.  I just did it because it was a cheap gym and kept me in good shape.  I loved deadlifting.  Something about lifting all that weight off the ground made me feel super-macho.  At the height of my deadlifting my single rep max was somewhere near 500 pounds.  However, I did not get there the first time.  I had to start small, at first it was just the bar with a ten pound weight on each side.  As time went on I worked my weigh up.  But by the end I was not deadlifting 250, I was deadlifting 500.
     I put the emphasis on that because education seems to love averaging.  When it comes to grading, some teachers seem to think that when students take an assessment again they should not be allowed to get the score they earned the second time, it needs to be averaged.  But what did I say I deadlifted at the end?  This weightlifting metaphor is one that my principal, @ERobbPrincipal, uses and I love.

     Why do teachers use grades?  My hope is that we use it to help demonstrate the progress a student is making.  Once, I was in an interview and the principal gave me this scenario: "A student receives a 60% on an assessment and wants to retake it.  When they come in the following week to take the retake they receive an 89%.  What grade does this student get in your gradebook?"

     I replied, "An 89%"

     The principal pushed back and said, "Even if he did zero preparation at home?"

    I replied, "I have no idea what this student's home life is like in this scenario.  Maybe the first time he took the test he was up late taking care of his siblings and so he was exhausted.  Besides, when he took the test the first time he showed me he knew 60% of the content, now he is showing me he knows 89% of the content.  Why should he be punished for improving?"

     The principal thought my answer was the right one.  I was glad.  When we just average test grades we are essentially putting a cap on the amount of growth we will allow a student to show.  Furthermore, it is not an accurate indicator of what that student knows.  We want our students to reach for the stars and find new heights, and when we take the higher score and average it with the lower score that could potentially crush the kid's confidence.  It may make them less inclined to retake an assessment or give their best on an assignment if they believe that their grade will not reflect the work they do.

     So stop averaging!  It is not good for assessing student progress.  It is not good for student learning.  It is not good for student confidence.  Let students grow and flourish!

Friday, January 5, 2018

Welcome To Wins And Losses

Hello everyone!

     My name is Phil Strunk.  I am the writer here at "Wins And Losses," host a podcast also titled Wins And Losses, and try to stay up to date on Twitter @MrPStrunk.

    I am a US History II teacher in Northern Virginia.  My passion for history comes from years of enjoying the subject.  I remember in seventh grade, in Mr. Ford's science class, he asked us all what we wanted to be when we grew up.  I said that I wanted to be a world famous historian (something he later admitted to my parents that he had never heard of).  One of the moments that convinced me I wanted to teach was in my AP European History Class.  Mr. Miller to this day has been one of the most transformative figures of my life.  I remember a particular lesson on the modernization of Russia under Peter the Great.  I imagine in most cases this sort of lesson would put the average high schooler to sleep, but I was captivated by the stories he told.  I was absorbed in and dare I say. . . engaged in the classroom content.  It provided affirmation that I wanted to teach history.

    When I went to college at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, PA, I majored in history with a social studies teaching certification.  My professors continually stoked my passion for the past.  Professor Fea, my department chair, constantly challenged me and helped me grow profoundly as a historian.  He would regularly sit down with me (it was a small school, the main reason I went there was so that my professors would know me not just my name on a paper) and would challenge my thinking, similar to Mr. Miller in high school, Dr. Fea captivated me for the duration of his class and I always left his class incredibly curious about what was going to unfold next.  He is also the only history professor that I took multiple classes with that did not give me straight A's *gasp*.  I still talk to him regularly, he has had a profound impact on my life.  Professor Huffman was my medieval professor.  He started all courses with a contract.  In that contract we were able to choose what grades we wanted, and each grade had a series of tasks and we had the option to choose which ones we wanted to complete, and we also had to score a specific grade on the tests (which he also allowed students to redo).  I appreciated that in his class I did not stress about grades.  I knew that as long as I met the terms of my contract I would get the grade I desired.  This led to me taking risks in that class and trying things I would have not before.  He was also the professor that I asked to work with me independently so that I could receive three additional credits to obtain a concentration in Classical and Medieval European History.

     You'll notice that I put a lot of emphasis on teachers that I have had growing up.  My wife and I are both teachers because we have been inspired by teachers during our lifetime.  The transformative power of educators in the lives of students transcends time.  I have had great school teachers (Sunday School at church, Elementary School, Middle School, High School, College, etc.), but even with these great teachers not every day was a victory.  There were certainly times that I would leave a class frustrated or leave a class just feeling like I didn't "get it."  But I nevertheless believe that despite the wins and losses (oh he said it! he used the title!) that educators go through this job is one of the best jobs on the face of the earth.  My hope is to use this blog as a place for continued reflection and dialogue.  I was challenged and encouraged by my principal to start a podcast and that has opened previously unknown pathways in education, so I am excited to see what blogging will hold.  Thank you for reading, I am excited for what this blog has in store!