Tuesday, March 8, 2016

SOL - A Tune For Tuesday

It's time for another installment of
Each Tuesday, I will try to post a song from my playlist. These are songs that would be on a soundtrack of my life. I hope you enjoy them.

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Both Sides Now - Joni Mitchell

"Rows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere
I've looked at clouds that way

But now they only block the sun
They rain and snow on everyone
So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way

I've looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It's cloud's illusions I recall
I really don't know clouds at all"

This is one of Joni Mitchell's best known songs.  Once you listen to it and listen to the lyrics, I think you'll understand why.  It's hard to ignore this beautiful melody.  But the lyrics and their message are equally as powerful.  For me, this song represents how our point of view about simple every day events like clouds, love and friendship change as we have life experiences.  When I look up into the sky, I am always in awe of the sometimes puffy, sometimes wispy clouds.  However, when I am in a plane looking at clouds from high above, clouds become a nuisance that block my view of the beautiful landscape below.

As I enter the phase of life called "middle aged," I often try to consider things from different points of view.  I always thought that as I grow up I would learn more.  We think that we will know everything.  When, in fact, all that we know for sure is that "I really don't know life at all."

Monday, March 7, 2016

SOL 4 -- Learners Must A.S.K.

I believe the purpose of education is to provide learners with a set of attitudes, skills and knowledge they need to be life-long learners and educated citizens. Learners are the most successful only when they are provided with a mixture of all three ingredients: Attitude, Skills and Knowledge (ASK). But, lately, I’ve noticed that one of these three ingredients is missing from much of our curriculum.

But, what happens when teachers are no longer needed to be the givers of knowledge. Knowledge has become easily available by a simple Google search.  Comedian Pete Holmes has a brilliantly worded comedy routine about this very topic.  This is perhaps one of my favorite comedy routines. I am constantly reminded of this almost every day:

In my classroom, I always strive to have a classroom where students are not told new knowledge; rather, they discover it. Most of my learning targets in the classroom are skills-based. When I make my learning targets, most start with “I can…” or “Readers always…” only to be followed by a verb, or skill. But, where does teaching attitudes fall into our curriculum? Attitudes are those internal drivers of behavior. Attitudes such as:
  • Integrity 
  • Hard work 
  • High expectations 
  • Commitment 
  • Empathy 
  • Self-confidence 
  • Enthusiasm for learning 
  • Love of reading and writing
I, like all of you, use the current set of learning standards (e.g. Common Core and Ohio Learning Standards for Science/Social Studies) to create the learning targets, which provide a focus for my students’ learning and help them establish their own learning goals. When closely inspecting our standards, one can see that they focus heavily on the SKILLS and KNOWLEDGE parts of learning. This is not enough. If I focus solely on teaching the standards (i.e. skills and knowledge only), then I am robbing my students of a major ingredient in the recipe for learning.  The ATTITUDE and mindset that the learning process is more valuable than just knowing something.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

SOL 3 – Pa

My Grandpa Scott lived to be 101 years old. With his passing about four months ago, I began to learn more about this incredible man and his impressive life story. Maybe my interest comes from the fact that I am his namesake, or maybe it’s because I was his first grandchild. Whatever the case may be, I have become more intrigued with the life of the man I called “Pa.”

I grew up knowing him mostly as my father’s father. I would see him 2-3 times a year when he traveled from his Chicago-area home down to my high school choir concerts, as well as for most Thanksgivings and Christmases. I would also see him each year as my family spent those Glen Lake summers in Northern Michigan. I can still remember those warm summer days as a young boy watching him play tennis with a group of his life long friends—a ritual repeated year after year. He showed grace and class on the tennis court. “The trick to winning a tennis match, Scotty, is just play your best game without being too flashy. Let your opponent make all the mistakes.” A simple lesson meant for the tennis court, but applicable to life.

My grandpa was always one to tell a great story. And, boy, did he have plenty of them. From his experience in World War II to his days working in downtown Chicago, he always would share some amazing tales. Here is my favorite story about my Grandpa Scott…

One night, while an undergrad at Princeton University, a young Scott Jones was rushing to the library when he saw under the light of a streetlamp, a man on his hands and knees crawling on the grass. Perplexed by this strange sight, Scott stopped and asked the man if he could be of assistance. The man looked up at Scott and in a thick German accent said, “I seem to have lost my pipe.” In the soft light from the street lamp above, Scott instantly recognized the face of this man. The man on his hands and knees, crawling like a dog, frantically searching for his pipe was Albert Einstein. Scott joined Einstein on the grass and searched for Einstein’s pipe. After a few moments of searching, it was Scott Jones, my grandfather, who found Albert Einstein’s pipe in the grass on the quad of Princeton University.

When I reflect on my time with him, Pa always seemed more of a legend than a man. I remember him for being more dignified than I do for him being loving. He was a wonderful grandfather who played cards with me and always inquired about my life. Yet, looking back, I think I always viewed him as someone with such reverence and fondness. Early on, I understood that Pa was the glue that held our family together. He was a kind-hearted and benevolent man with a passion for poetry, the French language and nature. He was a man that was always the center of attention when he was in the room. This was not because he demanded the attention or was talking overzealously. He was admired and beloved by everyone he had ever met.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

SOL 2 - Which path?

“No, Mr. Jones. None of them.”  This was the response given to me by three former students when I asked them which class they liked the best.

“Not since fifth grade.”  That was the response given to me by the same three students when asked if they had read a great book lately.

A few weeks ago, I was finishing up a few things in my classroom when, through the intercom, the school secretary’s voice announced, “Mr. Jones, you have some visitors here to see you.” I made my way to the office to see Nathan, Tyler and Grant standing there staring at their phones as they waited. After shaking their hands, and a few “Boy, you’ve gotten tall” pleasantries, they said that they just stopped by to see the classroom.

Walking down the hallway, I noticed that I was looking at them eye to eye. This was a bit unsettling for a teacher who is not used to looking at students at eye level. While their faces are more chiseled and voices are deeper, their demeanors and speech patterns had not changed. They were the same Nathan, Tyler and Grant from four years ago. I felt honored that they wanted to come visit me. Seeing former students is one of my favorite parts of this job. I love knowing that they are okay and seeing the direction in which they’ve gone. Now freshman in high school, I was interested to talk about where their personal and academic journeys had taken them. I stifled the urge to ask the kinds of typical teacher questions, and just let them lead our talk.
As our conversation progressed, I started to feel uneasy about what I was hearing. Amongst the laughs about sharing of memories, our discussion was starting to take a pessimistic digression. Gradually, I started to get the sense that I needed to ask those “teacher questions” about grades, homework and work ethic. I was about to open my mouth to ask about their grades, when I didn’t have to.

“High school kinda sucks, Mr. Jones,” Tyler offered.

“Yeah, teacher just talk at you and make you do worksheets,” added Grant. I sat and let them share their high school stories with a stoic face. On the inside, I was starting to feel a little defensive, as I got ready to defend my fellow teachers from the verbal attacks of these 14 year olds.

Again, just as I was about to interject, Nathan spoke up and added, “Now, all we talk about is grades and GPA. School doesn’t seem to be about learning. It’s more like a game now.”

As a fifth grade teacher, I have grown accustomed to seeing students leave and move on to another school. I do see students occasionally at high school football games, the grocery store and other spots around our city. Yet, I have not seen many of my former students since the last day of fifth grade. I guess I always assumed that when students leave my classroom community they would continue on in the same manner. My vivacious readers would remain readers. My expert problem solvers will excel in advanced math classes.
As I sat there listening to these three former fifth grade boys talk about their current school experience, I started to feel sad. I feel sad about how they don’t feel valued as learners. I feel sad when these guys say homework points make up a large percentage of their grade. I feel sad that they think school has become more about points used in a punitive manner, instead of being about the learning process. Sure, there was a tinge of the usual teenage angst to consider. Yet, there was also a sincere feeling of skepticism and distrust that came from these 14 year old learners.
Tyler, Grant and Nathan may only be 14-year-old knuckleheads who spend more time on their cell phone than reading or talking face to face. But, they get it. They know that school is not working for them.

Even though this reunion was a few weeks ago, it has stuck with me. It has made me reflect on my own teaching and the decisions I make with my students. When I look out and see those 26 faces sitting on the carpet staring at me during a reading minilesson, I sit and wonder. What will happen in four years? Will they feel like school is a game that’s been set up to see them fail? Can I inspire a love of learning for learning sake? Can I instill the Habits of Mind to make them active global citizens? Am I preparing these students to be engaged thinkers and problem solvers or passive consumers of Google-able knowledge?

I will continue to use these questions to inform how I build my classroom culture.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Slice Of Life - Day 1

I have decided to join the March Slice of Life Challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers. As with the many others, I intend to write every day in the month of March.

I attempted this last year, but only could sustain for one week. This year, I hope to carry on through the entire month. Why don’t we do this in February, which is three whole days shorter?

Also, this year, I have decided to invite my students to join me in this blogging challenge. Unfortunately, I was not in the classroom today because I attended a district curriculum committee meeting. However, tomorrow I am going to explain this project. I am not sure how many of them will accept this challenge, but I hope it will be a good number. I anticipate that a majority will start this challenge along with me.

My hopes for this project are that my students will:
  • Be more motivated to write
  • Be more engaged in the writing process
  • Discover their own writing process
  • Establish connections beyond our classroom walls
  • Understand more deeply the power of effective feedback
  • Feel empowered by feedback and comments from each other, family members and strangers who visit our blogs
  • See that writing is something that can be fun
  • Encourage others to write
  • Feel like part of a community of writer
Most importantly, I want my students to have fun. This time of year can be chaotic and tedious. There are many disruptions, such as preparations for state testing and scheduling for middle school. It’s time to put some fun into our daily time together.

I cannot wait to see where this Slice Of Life challenge takes us. But, I look forward to seeing what kind of impact it will surely have on my classroom culture.