White House Decision Center at The Truman Library (Photos)

I'll be back with more on this later, but for now I wanted to share some pictures. I took my US Government class on a field trip today to the White House Decision Center at the Truman Library. We are incredibly lucky to have one of 12 presidential libraries just 25 minutes away from our school. I was lucky enough to be able to take 19 students through financial help from the Center Foundation for Education as well as a grant directly from the Truman Library.

The trip was fantastic in every way possible. I am tired and exhausted right now, but it's been a long time since I've felt this way about teaching. I saw students do things today (which I'll write about when I have more energy) that inspired me and have challenged the way that I teach once again. I haven't been this proud of my students - well, probably ever in my career.

More on this trip later. For now, enjoy some pictures of a wonderful day. To see the full album from the wonderful Mary McMurray, click here.

Students took on the roles of President Truman and his advisors. Their task was to analyze the situation in 1945 related to concluding the war with Japan. Historically, this resulted in the dropping of two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

These students decided that the atomic bombs should be a worst-case scenario solution. Before they were ready to take this route, they wanted to first pursue a naval blockade and a land invasion, followed by a round of heavy negotiation with Japanese leaders. Only after these attempts failed did the group think the atomic bombs would be worth it.

Part of the wonder of this trip was seeing kids give quick presentations (in the form of a meeting with the Senate Intelligence Committee) and be held accountable. While some students presented their advice, other students took on the role of the Senators and were tasked with grilling the advisors over their recommendations. That is what you see in most of the pictures below and above.

The White House Decision Center at The Truman Library is a fantastic place to learn about history and critical leadership skills. They do a great job of making the students feel the stress of the White House.

Among the highlights of the Truman Library Museum is a life-size statue of President Truman himself! There are several selfies floating around the web now of these students with President Truman!

The Truman Library features a realistic replica of the Oval Office - the office of the President of the United States. Among many awesome facts students learned was the story behind the Presidential seal. After World War II, President Truman turned the eagle's head away from the arrows (representing war) and towards the olive branch (representing peace).
Peacetime Presidential Seal
Wartime Presidential Seal 

All in all, this was a fantastic trip and the start of a great partnership between Center High School and the White House Decision Center at The Truman Library. I'll write more later about how great this was from an educational perspective. For now, I'm going to go get some rest!

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E-mail: alectchambers@gmail.com            Facebook                        Twitter: @chambersalec

Questions Galore

In my line of work, I get to ask lots of questions of lots of different people. There are days where I feel more like a psychiatrist than I do a teacher - asking students how they are; asking parents what strategies they've tried for their son or daughter that have worked on not worked; asking students why they're upset today and what I can help with so maybe they can still learn something in my class, or at least the next class.

When it comes to questions, sometimes it's best to keep it simple. One word - why - can so often lead to deeper thinking and eventually deeper understanding. An underused strategy of questions, teaching students how to ask questions themselves, is also really important. If a student has enough background knowledge and is thinking deeply enough to ask a probing question on a topic, haven't I already won this particular battle? If my underlying goal is to get students to love to learn new things, then isn't getting students to question the tangible result?

I think it probably is, but for the same reason movies make montages to glorify the large amounts of time and hard work that go into achieving the climactic moment, it is the practice of good questioning that can really grind on a teacher.* When you learn how to teach, you are told that practice and repetition are vital. When you actually teach, you learn that one of the great challenges is finding interesting and motivating ways to get kids to practice what are ultimately kind of dry concepts is the challenge.

*And on a student as well, I assume.

Think about math for a moment. Once you learn in class that a triangle has three sides, how do you reinforce this concept? You could have students research artwork that uses triangles. You could analyze movements on a soccer field that show how three players working together can form a constantly evolving triangle. You could go on a field trip and walk around your building and take pictures of architectural uses of triangles.

Think now about the Kansas City Royals and baseball. You've taught your daughter to throw a baseball - now what? You can hit her ground balls and make her throw back to home plate. You can hit her fly-balls and make her throw out an imaginary runner at second base. You can have her pitch to an imaginary hitter. You could also have her crouch and catch while you pitch to practice her arm motion when she doesn't have use of her torso.

In both of these scenarios, the practice is varied and useful. The student in each case can hopefully see applications of the skill that is being learned and practiced to something later in life.

Now think about history or government. What I teach is less about concept or fact and more about skill and a way of thinking. If the goal is not to teach a fact (such as the characteristics of a triangle) but rather to teach a student to question a preconceived notion (such as that police are always good or bad depending on one's past experiences), then how do I create scenarios where this skill is practiced?

I'm coming to believe more and more that it comes down to asking the right questions. Also I have to intentionally create situations where there is enough time and organization provided to allow students to think and ask questions themselves.

Do we get off topic at times? Yes.

Do we move more slowly through the material I need to cover? Yes.

Do we occasionally lose some kids interest because "...here goes Mr. Chambers again asking these questions..." on some particular topic? Most definitely.
Students play the role of the Senate and President Truman.
The Senators were responsible for asking questions that the
Presidents then answered.

Do we teach that curiosity is a good thing and that you cannot give me a strong answer without also supporting that answer? Well, that's the hope anyways. I think that questions are probably more difficult but more important for many if not all subject areas, especially history and government. They are the stuff of montages, where kids practice their thinking and practice their arguments and practice their question-asking skills and practice their ability to support a statement or a question - they practice a lot through questions.

Unfortunately, that can be awfully dry. But just as the Karate Kid had to paint that damn fence, we have to ask, answer and ask again until our brains hurt to learn such an abstract skill. As a teacher, I have to have the patience and the planning to create a space where there is time and reason for students to ardently go through this practice, and providing a climactic event (such as We The People) to make the montage all worth it.

I recently took my US Government class the White House Decision Center at the Truman Library. A post all about that trip is coming up soon, but getting to ask and answer questions was a huge part of that experience. If I wasn't convinced before, I am now - being able to ask a good question is just as powerful as being able to answer a question.

Until next time, Go Royals! 

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E-mail: alectchambers@gmail.com            Facebook                        Twitter: @chambersalec

Why I Blog

I was recently asked to conduct my first Professional Development session at school. A couple hours later, I was asked to conduct my second Professional Development session. When it rains, it pours. Like most in this profession and probably in many others, when I'm sharp I have 1,000 different ideas running through my head all of which I would love to share. If I only had the time...

But the reality is that I don't have the time. And that's an important reality to confront. My wife always tells me that I need to learn how to say 'no' to people, and that is a constant battle for me. I like to help and I like to participate. When I'm asked to take something on, I tend to have a hard time not thinking about the poor person organizing whatever event this is and how desperate they are for some help. This isn't a bad character trait necessarily - it just gets me in over my head sometimes.

But back to the Professional Development sessions. The first one I was asked to put on was over Twitter and how teachers can use it as individual PD. The session went really well, although only 7 teachers showed up. Hopefully I won 7 converts who will spread the gospel of Twitter far and wide. It's not as useful without me or someone talking you through what you see here, but here is the presentation I made:

When the possibility of putting on a session came up, I got excited. I am not shy about my frustrations with PD the way that it often runs. I know that I am short on time and I know that if I am given contractual hours to work and plan, I will work and plan. I also know that this same statement is not true for all teachers. Administrators have a hell of a job.

In my mind, if I am going to be required to take part in PD, it better be well-planned, thoroughly thought-out and relevant at a minimum to quality pedagogy, if not my specific classroom. That's why I love PD where teachers can choose between several sessions - what we were able to do last week at Center. To be able to help with providing solid PD was exciting for me.

I jumped all in to both presentations and I think that they were both received really well. Several teachers stayed after each session and talked about application possibilities for what we had just discussed. There was good back-and-forth between me and the teachers who attended the sessions. I've exchanged several e-mails on each topic. We even had a great turnout at the Twitter chat for our district that occurred the week after the Twitter session.

However, while I was working on the materials for these sessions in the run-up, my wife's voice kept popping up in my head. It really bothered me.* Why was I spending time out of my busy day, knowing that I had planning and grading and reading to complete, to prepare a session on two topics I already knew really well?

 *What my wife's voice was saying, not the voice itself.

Without this voice, I would literally work myself to physical sickness. This is one of the great gifts that my wife has given to me - the strength and wisdom to realize that what I give to others is better when I first make sure that I am strong myself. That gift, counter-intuitive as it may seem, led me eventually to keeping a blog.

Blogging is the best personal growth activity in which I have participated in my life. It is free. It takes about 90 minutes each week. It connects me with others at my school and around the world. 

I keep this blog because it keeps me honest with myself, my friends and my family. When I plan a lesson or an activity, I often think about what that activity will look like when I blog about it later. When I sit down to write on Sunday night, will I look back on the week before and realize I was a boring teacher that week? Or will I be able to think back and find a few light-bulb moments that I can reflect on and celebrate?

It is important as a teacher to remember that not every single moment of class will be brilliant with wonderful background music as the kids smile and learn. There's a reason movies have a montage in the middle - no one wants to see the grind that exists before the moment. Nonetheless, the grind is there and without it, the moment is not possible. 

Before I blogged, I would often put my head down and just work. And work. And work some more. Before I knew it, we had been grinding for a month with no moments to celebrate because I never stopped to look big picture.* Blogging is my dedicated time every single week to stop and think big picture.

*Here's a story. My first year - no, my first month - of teaching, I was so determined to will my way through my lack of knowledge and experience that I got in the zone. I worked before, during and after school every single day and for hours on the weekend. I had no idea what I was doing, but I was going to do whatever it was I was doing with a zeal that would make someone who is really zealous very jealous. (I love rhymes) Unfortunately, I forgot to stop and look up. Six weeks went by at the beginning of the year and I realized that I had not given a single assessment of learning. No quizzes. No tests. Nothing. If you're a reader of this blog, then you are aware of how terrible I was my first year. Those kids are freshmen in college now. Say a prayer to whatever god you pray to for them, especially if they are taking a science class.

So here's my suggestion if you're a teacher or even if you're not. Keep a blog (or a journal if you're old-school). Start out once a month or once every two weeks. But put it in your calendar and stick to it. Make yourself write during a certain time each week. Mine is either Sunday afternoon or Wednesday during my plan period. Find your time each week, or every two weeks, or every month, and dedicate that time to making yourself stronger and better. Whoever it is you give to, whether it is your own kids, a client, students or other adults - they will benefit when you stop briefly to make yourself stronger and better.

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E-mail: alectchambers@gmail.com            Facebook                        Twitter: @chambersalec

Discussing Discussions

I missed my post last week, mostly because school has been really busy but also because school has been really busy. Did I mention yet that school has been really busy?

For whatever reason, the last two weeks have been a complete whirlwind. I'm sure it has something to do with the wonderful Greek Fest weekend, which was completely worth every bit of pain and stress I'm currently feeling. My last post on my lightbulb moment(s) was actually written over the Atlantic Ocean on our flight back to America from Europe, that's how little time I've had!

I wanted to discuss discussions a little bit. 

I had a guest speaker come to my Government class a little over a week ago. Willie Epps is an attorney from St. Louis, MO who has strong ties to Kansas City as well. I was able to connect with Willie through another past guest speaker - Judge Lisa Hardwick.* Willie agreed to come to speak to my class about the recent issues in Ferguson, MO, where he has lots of connections. You can read his bio here.

*Judge Hardwick helped out with our We The People competition last year. I'm hopeful that she'll help out again this year. You can read her bio here.

Talking about Ferguson is really tough. It's kind of a switch from what often occurs. Usually the big issue during a discussion is either that none of the kids will want to speak up or you'll have 2 or 3 kids who dominate the conversation while you fight to keep everyone else from snoozing away.

Two things changed when I started a module on Ferguson. The first is that I had Willie come to speak at the very start of the module on day one. The kids mostly knew the basics of the situation, but they did not know many of the intricacies of the protests or the police/civilian interaction. Willie, who is an attorney, was able to bring a really interesting perspective.

The whole issue of Ferguson is fascinating and frustrating and all kinds of other adjectives that eventually lead me to a dark place. The first essay my government class writes is the prompt, "How will America fall?" On my worst days I wonder if the answer to that question is right around the corner. On my best days, I remember the incredible things that occur in our country and think this could go on for a while. If you're interested in the details of this module, get in touch with me and lets have that conversation. For now, I'll leave you with a few good links and leave the rest for a future post on a future day.


Click here for an article from Bloomberg BusinessWeek called "Race, Class and the Future of Ferguson" by Peter Coy

Click here for an article from Time Magazine (the scan is not greatest) called "The Tragedy of Ferguson" by David von Drehle and Alex Altman.

Click here for data on the controversial New York law called Stop and Frisk, which was only recently banned by a judge. Then watch this video on one man's story, which unfortunately seems to be more the norm than the exception. (Warning: Graphic Language)

Click here to read this CNN opinion piece about the larger message of Ferguson for America by Sally Kohn.


The second thing that changed was how discussions occurred. Instead of having to drag kids into a discussion, I had to instead control the pace and passion of the conversation. I expected this second issue some, so I had already laid down some ground rules about how to talk to each other. We had discussed already what made a screwdriver good according to the Socratic way of thought* and used that conversation to establish a few rules:

*Another post for another day...
  1. When others are talking, listen. Don't think about your response while they're talking. Just listen.
  2. After every comment, wait 5 seconds and let everyone think. That allows number 1 to actually happen. This is my job to enforce even when the conversation really gets going.
  3. Establish an environment where you can change your mind at any time without judgement. We do this physically by going to different parts of the room and establishing that you can physically move whenever you want. I think this gives permission to change your mind during later discussions. 
  4.  Jump on the small things to reenforce the other rules. When a kid scoffs quietly, call them on it and make sure everyone knows that's not how the conversation goes in this class.

At some point here, I'll write about a change in my mindset that I experienced in my first year of teaching. It's related to this whole discussion idea, but for now it's almost the end of another Wednesday and I have some other work to do to get ready for class tomorrow. Ah, the life of a teacher!

Onwards and upwards!

Love it? Hate it? Leave your thoughts below and let's talk about it!
Get in touch! 

E-mail: alectchambers@gmail.com            Facebook                        Twitter: @chambersalec