Learning is Beautiful [STUDENT GUEST POST]

First, a story I read a while back. I forget who wrote it originally.

There was a man who was stranded during Hurricane Katrina on the top of his house. It was just him and his dog, alone on the rooftop waiting to be saved.This man's story seemed to have a happy ending when a rescue boat showed up and offered him and his dog a ride to safety. The old man smiled and shouted back "Thanks, but I'm waiting on God to send me a miracle!" A few hours later, a neighbor in a small paddle boat was making her way towards safety and offered a spot in her boat. The old man waved gleefully at his neighbor and responded "It's OK! God will save me with a miracle!" Days go by and the old man begins to get desperate, wondering when God will send this miracle. Finally, a helicopter arrives to save the man. When the rescuer lowers himself to the roof, the old man thanks him, but tiredly informs him that he is waiting for God to send a miracle and save him.

Days pass and the old man passes away on his rooftop. When he arrives in heaven, he is totally distraught, asking God why he didn't save him with a miracle despite the old man's great faith. God, throwing his hands into the heavenly air, exasperated, replies, "I sent two boats and a helicopter! What more did you want??"


Sometimes we have to work hard for the great things, the wonderful moments that make teaching worth all the nonsense. Often we have to work hard. Really hard. Other times, those great moments come up and smack you right in the face, and we simply have to be paying enough attention to take advantage of them.  The young woman whose writing you are about the read is the latter. Unlike the old man in the story, I'm listening!

Aleyda  Dominguez is a sophomore student of mine this year. She is of Honduran descent, moving to America with her family when she was 6 years old. Aleyda joined my class at the beginning of this semester, but immediately fit in with the class and became a great example for other students to follow. She has shown herself to be driven and curious, outgoing but mature. I wish dearly that I could claim to have known her for more than 6 weeks so I could take credit for some of her wonderfulness, but I cannot. 

Aleyda Dominguez
Aleyda came up to me the other day and complimented me on my blog. I thanked her and told her that if she was ever interested in writing a student post, I'd be open to the idea. Within the week, she had submitted a draft to me that was beautifully composed. A couple tweaks and several emails later, here we are.

I am excited beyond words to get to know and teach Aleyda more and to get to see her grow from this point forward. I told her that I think we may have a teacher in the making - I hope so. The world needs more good people teaching. 

Below is Aleyda's post, published with her permission. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Learning is Beautiful

Being from Honduras, I have come to appreciate not just the teachers here in the U.S, but the overall school environment. Compared to the schools in my country, schools in the U.S are mini Harvards. The school I attended was a long building with open doors and windows that housed grades K-6. The lessons taught were much different than that of the usual school lessons in the U.S. In 2nd grade writing, we were taught strictly cursive writing. We would be given lined paper and red pen, and were made to draw a series of loops, each had to be the same size and same distance away from the previous loop. When I got to 2nd grade in the U.S, the lessons in writing never involved me writing anything in cursive, and I studied more than one subject at a time. I enjoyed learning from a young age, seeing how it allowed me to overcome many burdens.

In my opinion, the simple action of learning is a beautiful thing. It has allowed me to break communication barriers in a country different from my own, and allowed me to find so many different catalysts for expressing myself, my ideas, and beliefs. The idea of gaining information that is new and foreign to my own, is a fascinating subject to me. From learning about what it means to “sauté onions” to the meaning of “laissez-faire”, I am an information junkie. I would like to say this a great skill to have for a high school sophomore. Without this skill, I would be mute in a country filled with loud mouthed politicians, and highly opinionated public figures.

Another aspect of learning that fascinates me is the fact that it is not limited to a classroom, or any school building. Learning can occur anywhere at any time, in regards to any subject. Learning has no boundaries. It is a never ending road, leading to advances in a broad spectrum of concerns.

 I admire those who teach and never stop learning. Teaching is a skill that takes mastery in all its aspects. From finding different ways to deliver information to various individuals, to having such a great understanding of what is being taught that any question asked has an answer. Teachers are incredible individuals, each with a purpose that is much underrated. Teachers are the support behind future leaders and are the overall articulation of encouragement. 

Aleyda Dominguez-Martinez
Click here if you would like to contact Ms. Dominguez via email
Class of 2017

Pacing Yourself

I've found a common theme in my first 4 years of teaching is mid-semester burnout. I get a point where I'm just ready for that semester to be done so I can start fresh. My first semester my first year, this moment occurred six weeks into the year.

I remember that I would do this as a student as well. I would start a semester with these lofty visions of actually reading everything the teacher assigned* and actually paying attention in all of my classes. Inevitably, I would reach a point in the semester where I would get tired or busy or overwhelmed or distracted or something. I would switch into a survival mode where I did the required work but no more. I figured out where I needed to be to earn my points and I would get right there on that line, but no further.

*A good reminder for myself that I did this, so I shouldn't think my students are terrible people when they don't read their homework. They're just teenagers.

There are several things to take away from this little bit of reflection:

1. Do my assignments really matter? If a student does not complete a particular assignment, will they or I feel like they've really missed something? I remember my first year teaching a student missed a day. She came to me when she got back and asked what she missed. I told her we did a worksheet, but it wasn't that important and to not worry about making it up. I thought about that story earlier this year while giving a student a detailed breakdown of the work they had missed and shook my head at myself.

I wish I could tell that small story wasn't true. Getting past this challenge is harder than you would think, but it's a good habit to come back to the question regularly when planning work for the students. I regularly remind myself to assign less work that more meaningful rather than more work that is less meaningful.

2. Does my class have a flow, or is it full steam ahead at all times? I think part of what led to my burnout each semester was that there were very few natural breaks. I'm not saying that there should be weeks where there should be no work, but I do think it is good habit to think about the stress that I am putting on students at any given time.If my goal in class is to foster thought and reflection, I need to create an environment where that can take place.

I have started giving vocabulary work each Monday. This looks like pretty quiet individual work as the students complete their weekly vocabulary. On Friday, they take a short quiz and then they write a journal over our essential question for the week. The simple fact that there is more of a routine to my week has helped both mine and my students stress level. I asked my students in a survey after 3 weeks "Does the weekly vocabulary help you learn better throughout the rest of the week?" A shocking 94% of my students answered this question with a 'yes'.

My fantastic wife Angela (@autismteacher13) teaches a classroom for kids with autism. Their entire schedule is based on building and maintaining routine. Routine is important for all kids. Routine helps kids feel comfortable. Routine can free a student's mind from worrying about what the hell is going on in class so that he can think about why inequality exists in our world.

3. Do students see the skills they learn in class revisited? I realized last year that most of my students cannot accurately make a timeline unless their given an unrealistic amount of guidance. So this semester, we used a timeline as the method for learning about the French Revolution. We made two full timelines. The second was more complex than the first. I was able to teach specific skills relating to timeline building in-between each formative assessment and see those skills grow. The plan is to do the same thing during my current unit with the Revolution except with maps. The skill of reading or creating a map isn't the content, but knowing that each Tuesday we're going to layer on* to map-reading this unit provides structure that eases the minds of the students. While this may seem like basic stuff, it's not really taught in teacher education classes - or at least the one's that I took.

*Three cheers for scaffolding! It actually works! 

This is also a great way to build assessments into your unit that are not multiple choice tests. In this unit on the Industrial Revolution, the students' summative assessment will be to design a small town from scratch. This will test their knowledge of what parts of a city are most important - do they include a trash dump before they include a hair salon? It will test their basic knowledge of the important aspects of a map. It will also provide a different kind of assessment to help those students who absolutely freak when they are given a test.

4. Am I building a model that I can sustain my entire career? Listen, I'm a 27 year-old teacher married to another teacher who understands the need for working in the evenings and on the weekends. She does the same. But we have our first kiddo coming in May, and that has me thinking about what my class will look like for the rest of my life. Can I do what I'm doing now with a baby? With a teenager? I've begun to think more about the time constraints that I will have once it is not just two work-a-holics living alone like my wife and I are now. I can reuse the lists of vocabulary words and their corresponding quizzes year after year. I am able to grade 3rd hour's vocabulary sheets as 4th hour is completing theirs. The weekly quiz is online and grades automatically. My Moodle online classroom will preserve the bulk of what I do year-in and year-out when I teach and reteach curriculum. There will surely be tweaking, new lessons and projects. But I have started to plan with my future a bit more in mind so that I can be a great teacher next year and in ten years.


Thanks for reading this blog. I hope you'll consider taking a moment to comment below and turn this into a conversation. Whether you are an educator or not, we have all had common experiences with education both good and bad. I want to hear what you think! 

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Teaching is an Art

Teaching is as much an art as it is a science. Let me give you an example:

I have recently come to the realization that I had been a very poor teacher of vocabulary for the first 4 years of my career. I made that a goal at the start of this school year to become better at this. For the first semester - nothing big. Over winter break, I started writing a list of the vocabulary words kids would need to know for the next unit on the French Revolution.

The first light bulb moment was realizing just how many words made it on my list that were not in bold in the book. I call this a light bulb moment because I knew the problem existed before. Hart and Risley came out with a study in 1995 that showed that children in affluent homes hear 382 words per hour while children from low socio-economic homes hear 167 words per hour. (You can read about the issue more here. Hart and Risley were one of many studies on the issue.) If I knew the issue existed, then why could I not figure out a better solution?

What I decided to do this current semester was to make vocabulary the central pillar of my teaching. Each Monday, I would give a new set of vocabulary terms. The students were given quiet work time to define those terms and it was done. Through the week, I would make a point to reference a vocabulary word any chance I got. And each Friday, I would give a quick, silent, but difficult vocabulary quiz. The catch was that the kids could use their vocabulary pages - this gave them encouragement to prepare for the quiz and took the emphasis off of pure memorization.

After the third week of the semester, I decided it was time to collect some data. I asked three simple questions (view the whole survey here), the third being "Does the vocabulary list each Monday help you understand things better in class?" Of the 86 kids who took the survey, 80 of them responded yes. There is no doubt in my mind that a large part of being a teacher is taking the time and effort to study pedagogical theory and practice and collect data on what does and does not work. Teaching is certainly a science.

But it is not all science.

Last week I had a student come up to me and tell me a heart-breaking story of her life at home the past week. Without sharing any of her details, her life had turned into a mini-hell for reasons that had nothing to do with her or her life choices. She was caught up in a whirlwind and was just riding out the storm. We talked for a while about what was going on and I asked her what I could do to help - unfortunately, not much. I gave her a hug and told her that she shouldn't worry about any due dates for a bit. We would work together to keep her caught up from the days she had missed. I told her that she had built up great trust with me over the year and that sometimes school isn't the most important thing. I told her that sometimes we're asked to be adults earlier than we want.

All the vocabulary acquisition and strategy building in the world doesn't help me to handle that situation. In my several years of teacher education, no one ever talked about dealing with this aspect of teaching, yet it is without a doubt in my mind the most important aspect of my job. I think the problem with high-standards testing, at its core, is that it only measures the science of teaching and not the art of it. I don't know what test does measure the art of teaching or if that test could possibly even exist.

 This past weekend, I attended something called an #edcamp conference in St. Louis. In my fourth session of the day, a group of us were talking about academic and personal interventions for students who are starting to fall behind. One of the other teachers pointed out that the flaw in our conversation was that no system or program would ever fix every problem. There are a thousand and one different students without a thousand and one different issues. We can only get to know our kids, love them and do our best to predict what will help them with the next steps in their lives.

There are many quality conferences out there, but I'm not sure any of them get at the art of teaching quite like an #edcamp.

If you teach and have never been to an #edcamp, you need to find one and go. If you're in Kansas City, #edcampLiberty is coming up on March 7th and a big group from Center will be there. If you don't teach and want to understand teaching better, go to #edcampLiberty and just talk to some teachers. That, by the way, is the coolest part of #edcamp - there's a schedule, but if you get caught up in a conversation and it's great, you're encouraged to skip sessions, grab a cup of coffee, and keep up the conversation.