It Takes a Village

I had a teacher in high school named Tim Greenwell. He was an jack-of-all-trades. History teacher; Assistant Band Director; Student Government Association - the man seemed to do everything and be everywhere. Among the uncountable lessons I learned from Tim was the importance of saying 'Thank You'. As we approach Thanksgiving, I've been thinking about Tim.

I remember that Tim would say thank-you in what seemed at the time like ridiculous situations. I would return a borrowed pen - thank you! A student would throw their trash away walking out of class - thank you! A parent would bring a drink to their own kid after a marching band performance - thank you! It was relentless! And he seemed to say it in situations that weren't his doing. Like the parent bringing a drink - it wasn't for him, but he still thanked the parent anyways.

Several times since becoming a teacher myself I've had a moment of realization that I now say thank-you to others in a lot of similar situations. Tim's thank-you habit certainly rubbed off on me and, well, I'm very thankful for that.


As we approach Thanksgiving Break, I'm thankful for... wife, Angela (@autismteacher13) who is about the most incredible person I know and my best friend. I'm thankful that we found each other in a sea of billions of people. future child, due in May. And for the nights of uninterrupted sleep I'm currently getting. parents, Rick and Denise, who are so incredible supporting of my teaching and who have set such a great example for me over the years. I hear so many stories of people frustrated by their parents - I'm thankful that you have both worked so hard to create and foster opportunities for me to be my best self. 

...Saturday morning runs to Panera (Bread Co. for you St. Louis folks) . Angela and I have spent countless hours there filled with good coffee, good conversation, good books, awesome bagels and more grading than I'd like to admit!

...TSA, who help keep travelers like my brother safe as he flies his way around the country and the world. From Sporting KC to the Center Boys and Girls Soccer Teams to the US National Team this summer at the World Cup to my Monday night men's league, I'm thankful for the joy soccer brings. And I'm thankful I haven't hurt myself in a while. Knock on wood. pot of coffee in my classroom which brings me warm, caffeinated happiness every morning. students, who come from so many diverse places in life and so many different backgrounds. You all prove to me every day that our world is actually in good hands. We have a lot of fun together and I think we all learn quite a bit. That's really what it's all about at the end of the day. 

...Beth Heide and Dave Leone, who gave me a chance to be a teacher five years ago when they probably shouldn't have based on my experience. I try every day to repay your faith in me by changing the life of a student in someway. 


...DVR recording shows like The Blacklist and Madame Secretary.

...books, particularly Teach Like a Pirate, which is changing the way I look at engaging students.

...a particular student in my advisory class who I won't name. If you ever read this, you'll know who you are. This kid is going to do something great with his life. He's going to make a fantastic husband and dad to a lucky future wife and child. From the things you've done as a student in my class to our hours of talking during advisory class and in the hallway, you've taught me countless lessons about hard work and perseverance. I probably would have quit school 3 or 4 times by now after what you've gone through, but here you are a few months away from graduation. It's been amazing to watch you grow up.

...Yaya. Look it up. It's Greek.

I could go on for a while. One of these days I'm going to take my Yaya's words of encouragement and write a book. I'm trying to convince my dad to do this in his ever-shrinking free time. Whenever I do, I might go with an acknowledgement chapter rather than an acknowledgement page. I have never believed in the "it takes a village" mantra more than I do right now. I have certainly been lucky in my life to have a great village around me. I'm very thankful for that village.

I Love Movies


Movies can be really powerful tools to help us teach students about a myriad of topics. A great TED talk from Andrew Stanton gets at what can make a story so powerful. He tells us that all great stories get at a deeper truth. Stanton is the creative genius behind, director and producer of movies such as Wall-E, Finding Nemo, Toy Story and several other Pixar greats. If you're going to watch the video, do it before you keep reading. There's a spoiler coming up.

I'll also warn you there's some language in the first joke. I'll lastly let you know that if you're going to watch only part of this video, watch the last five minutes.

Now for the spoiler - you remember the beginning of Finding Nemo? The dad fish (I forget if he even gets a name) is flirting with mom fish when a predator comes a long. Mom goes to protect the eggs. Dad rushes to protect mom. The predator swipes dad unconscious and the screen goes black. When dad comes to, he groggily and slowly becomes aware that mom fish and all the eggs are nowhere to be found. We are led to believe the predator won this particular battle.

Well it turns out that Andrew Stanton was born prematurely to the point where he wasn't expected to live. He eventually did live and talks about wanting to live a life worthy of the second chance that he was given. A clip of dad fish vowing to protect Nemo comes on the screen, and we all realize that we were touched by that clip not because we were rooting for Nemo (yet) but because we are all given second chances in varying ways. That is a truth that we may not think about every day, but that a great story can connect to. That connection can touch us and move us. Dave Burgess, author of the book Teach Like a Pirate, would call this a LCL, or life-changing lesson.

A story of my own - my wife loves movies more than I do. She worked in high school at the Wehrenberg Theaters in St. Louis.* Think of going to a local little market rather than to the Wal-Mart down the road. This place prides itself on an authentic movie-going experience. I gotta say that the first time I experienced it all, I was a little skeptical that there could be much difference between this and AMC.

*In the into to every Wehrenberg Theater movie, there is the Wehrengerg theme song straight out of the 1920's. It's corny and weird. I think regulars to the theater probably love it. I know I do.

But there was a difference. The people were the same every time you visited. The service was always friendly. It was the kind of place you get nostalgic about.

Naturally, this ruined my wife. Think about it - for years, she saw every single movie that came into theaters in part, if not the whole thing. She could go into a movie free any time she wanted, and she could for years after she stopped working there too. She was just telling me the other day about the mystical "Manager's Cup" she could fill with free popcorn and drink for her and her family. We can still get a free flick today if the right manager is on duty.

Last year, I got the idea to host a monthly movie night in my classroom after another conversation about how much my wife loves movies. It's been an awesome success. We teachers always talk about the importance of making connections with students. And it's true! Think of any tough advice you've ever received. Whoever gave you the advice was someone that you trusted deeply.
Without that level of trust much of what we say with fall on deaf ears and rolling eyes. Deciding to spend one more evening a month at school showing a movie was recognition that the only way to build a genuine relationship with someone is to spend time with them. 

It has been so great to see kids come back time and again to eat some popcorn and watch a good movie. I teach mostly 9th graders, so it has been especially fun to see them come back this year as sophomores and ask when this year's movie nights are and what we are watching. This has been a great connection between me and several students who I might not have connected with otherwise.

More than anything, though, I love getting to see what touches my students. I will never forget one day watching The Butler and sitting next to one of my male students. Towards the end of the movie when the dad and the son reconcile, this young man started sobbing. I've known this kid for over 3 years now and I know exactly what strings of his were being tugged, what truth was being spoken to in this scene. I sat next to him just kind of holding him while he sobbed for about 10 minutes. The chance to share that moment with him is something for which I'll be forever grateful. I have no idea what the moment meant to him, if anything. There was never the right moment to talk about it. Nonetheless, he graduates in May this year, and I can't wait to give him a hug and tell him how proud of him I am.

When used well, movies help us to create these moments. I showed the clip below from The Lion King to talk about Monarchs and how lessons of ruling - both positive and negative - can be shared from generation to generation in a unique way. But I also talked about mistakes and learning from them - another one of those LCL's. I asked the students about bravery and fear. It was a really touching conversation and we happened to be talking about monarchs while it went on. I had several students tell me throughout the day that they had never looked at The Lion King in such a serious way.

The kids also knew exactly how power was passed from one monarch to another and why this could be positive or negative. The Lion King brought this lesson more meaning.
Truth is all around us in this world. We have to be willing to look for it in sometimes odd places and have the bravery and patience to tune out the chaos and listen.

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Would I Want To Be In My Class?

I went to a workshop last week to help me better prepare my government class for the upcoming Missouri End of Course Exams - commonly referred to as an EOC test. These tests exist in several subjects. You can read all about them in the (get this...) College and Career Readiness section of Missouri's education website, or by clicking here.

First, let me say that the workshop was worthwhile. I got some very useful information on test preparation, on finding released questions that are great for practice, on some strategies that other teachers use to motivate and teach their kids. I think it's important to say that I would attend this workshop again. I would suggest it to other Government teachers in the area if I were asked.

But while I was sitting there in the middle of 6 hours of relatively useful stuff, I had the desire several times to be just about anywhere else in the world than in that seat.* That hit a nerve for me.
*Not Syria. Or China. Or the deep south of the United States. Or the town in rural Missouri that has a "Bring back the Confederacy" billboard, which I'm sure is just about state's rights and not about the oppression of a particular race of people.

I often tell me students that one of the things I think about when planning lessons and activities is how I would have liked it as a kid. For example, I don't read instructions word for word at the start. Rather, I let the kids read silently for a few minutes, ask questions, and hit any big points I think might have been missed.

Too often, I forget to ask this question - Do the kids want to be here right now? If the answer is 'no', then what do I need to be doing differently. Even the hard and difficult stuff I make kids do should serve some larger purpose. The White House Decision Center is a great example. The kids worked really hard, read very difficult primary source documents, and have tough debates with each other. There was an event at the end that made it worthwhile.
So often we teachers struggle to leave our comfort zone. And yet equally often that is when the class becomes a place where kids want to be and where they are able to learn. That's not a mind-blowing idea, just something that we need to remind ourselves of every so often.


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The Project Project

Projects can be awesome or terrible depending on how they're done. If done right, a project can change the way one looks at the surrounding world. A project can speak to a greater truth that we may know, or sometimes more powerfully, a truth that we have not yet realized.

I lay claim to being a project-based teacher and I do have my students complete projects with regularity. It is rare, however, that those projects achieve a level of thought and understanding that would classify as world-changing. I think that my class completed one of those projects the past week at The White House Decision Center. You can read about that more in-depth here.

That got me thinking about projects and how they go in classrooms around the world. What makes your projects tick? What makes your students invest themselves so deeply in the project that it keeps you up late and night planning and grading and contacting and planning some more?

I want to create a Padlet called the Project Project and collect stories and tales of wonderful projects around the world. The launch date is November 3rd, 2014. We'll see where it goes! You can add to it below or share the link around the world!

Created with Padlet


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The White House Decision Center

It's been a busy couple of weeks here in Kansas City. I'm not particularly ashamed to say that my writing on this blog has taken somewhat of a backseat to these recent events.

Ever since that win on September 30th, my life has been a wonderful whirlwind of teaching and playoff baseball. Through a lot of luck and wonderful wife, we were able to get our hands on tickets to the clinching Game 4 of the ALCS. Then through more luck, a still-awesome wife and dedicated dad, we were able to buy tickets to all 4 World Series games. We sold Game 1 and Game 6 and my dad and I got to go to Game 2 and Game 7. While Game 7 did not go the way that we would have liked, it was an incredible run.

The emotions I felt and the excitement in this city were so cool as a person my age. Way too many words have been spent on the internet about how a whole generation has never seen the Royals be any good, but it really is true! The Royals have been terrible. Like worse than Phoebe's singing on Friends terrible. Like more of a joke than the Cleveland Browns terrible. Like, "Does a team still play in Kansas City?" terrible.

Anyways, I'm a teacher and that's what I do well. As sad as I am for the run to have ended without a championship, I am excited to get to bed before 10 PM every night this coming week! I'll save the baseball articles for writers much more gifted than I and leave you with this:

Go Royals.

I am a big believer in authentic assessment. If you are unfamiliar with authentic assessment, it is more of a mind-set than any particular test or exam. As a teacher, my job is to teach both content knowledge (historical and social facts and theories) and skills (reading, writing, speaking, researching, etc...) To look at my job in a segmented way is to do injustice to one of these two schools of learning. I cannot, for example, teach a student to critically think about how to end the war with Japan unless the student understands the role of the President, his cabinet and the military.

Assessment is authentic in my mind when it is important to the student. If the student believes that they are on stage, if they are proving their learning or their skills, then they are being authentically assessed. That is why any tool can be authentic if it is used in the correct way. 

I recently had the opportunity thanks to a grant from the Center Education Foundation and from The Truman Library Institute to take my US Government students to the White House Decision Center. The set up in simple - students take on the role of President Truman and his advisers. They use primary source documents, collaboration, and short speeches followed by questions from classmates to come to a solution to one of several problems faced by the real President Truman.

My class got to take part in the scenario on ending the War with Japan in 1945. For 5 class days, the students worked through practice scenarios ranging from a school bullying scenario to another scenario from the World War II era. Students were given their roles and practiced meeting in their advisory teams to find solutions to these scenarios. The two students playing the role of President Truman were able to learn how to lead a meeting and consider advice from different sources. Possibly most important of all, the students learned what it is like to work under pressure.

A Environment of Pressure
Throughout the entire process of preparation and the actual White House Decision Center experience, students were not given adequate time to finish their work. This is part of what made the assessment so authentic. As you read this, you're probably having a Well that's how it is in the real world... kind of reaction. And it's true! The lessons and activities I could plan if I could work for three hours each day and teach for four! But that isn't the case - I get 50 minutes to plan and teach six 50-minute classes. 

The hardest part of assessing the skills and knowledge of students in an authentic way is to get the students to buy in even though they may not have all the time in the world. If they think that the activity is important, needs to be taken seriously and given serious thought, then you'll get the kind of effort that every teacher dreams about. If their only and greatest motivation is for their own grade, as important as that may be, it probably you and the students will always feel like something is missing.

The last 40 minutes of the experience were most incredible. At the end of the day, the two students playing the role of President Truman had to meet, take into account all of the advice they had been given throughout the day, and make a decision of how to end the War with Japan. Once they had made their speech explaining their choice, the rest of the class took on the role of the Senate Intelligence Committee and peppered the two with questions. For a full 40 minutes, the questions came and were answered with poise, composure and intelligence. The questions were all high-quality and well-thought-out. I was able to assess the kids on these skills throughout the 5 days of prep work and the decision center itself. That information has been invaluable as I've held follow up conversations with students in the past week. I'm now able to point to something specific when I tell them that they have a particular strength or weakness. 

If you teach within driving distance of Kansas City, you need to schedule a trip to the White House Decision Center. The organization of the museum; the expertise of the staff led by Mary McMurray; the authentic feel of the materials the students get to work with in the decision center - all of it combined creates an atmosphere that is serious, professional, quick, rigorous and most importantly, contagious.

Many thanks to the Truman Library for creating such a wonderful experience for our students. President Truman said that he wanted his Presidential Library to be more than a library and an archive - he wanted it to be a school of democracy. 

Mr. Truman, your vision has come to fruition. I'm confident that you would have been proud of my students and proud of your staff. This feeling I get as I type this - that is the giveaway that our class has done something authentic and worthwhile. This is why authentic assessment is so hard to define and even more difficult to create, but why it is worth the effort every single time. 


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