Monday, April 14, 2014


Recently, I was interviewed by a former student who is now studying to be a teacher. I have been interviewed by college students who are preparing to be teachers numerous times before. One of the questions I always get asked is what is my one piece of advice for a future teacher. In all of the times I've been asked that question my answer always comes back to the same thing.


As a teacher you're only going to be as good as your ability to adapt and evolve. This is largely done through the new, different and more innovative ideas and strategies you expose yourself to. I often share a short story from my own teaching experience. One day a few years ago during my study hall a student came up to my desk. This particular student was complaining about another teacher. In my years of teaching this has happened before and I typically will tell this student to sit down and instruct them that I will not have a conversation about any other teachers in the building. Personally, I think that's unprofessional and despite my feelings on a teacher I will not share those with a student.

However, this particular student was one I knew extremely well and I could tell he was frustrated. So, I simply asked the question of why he was frustrated with this teacher. He went on to tell me about why this particular teacher was a bad teacher and gave me some examples from the classroom of how they were not doing things to where he thought in his mind they should have been. I thought this over and I asked the young man a simple question. I asked, “Do you think [this teacher] is teaching the way they are because they don't know how to do it any other way.” Now this confused him and he wasn't sure what I was asking. I further elaborated to say, “Is it possible that [this teacher] is just teaching the way they have always taught. Or maybe they are teaching the way that they were taught and don't know any other way?”

This caused this young 11 year old boy to think for a second. His simple answer was, “Well [they] should come in and watch you teach.” Now I knew that was a loaded comment and I wasn't going to set my colleague up for failure like that or put myself in an uncomfortable position. However, the student and I had a great conversation about what makes a good teacher and a bad one. I even shared some of my early teaching experiences where I definitely was not a good teacher. I went on to explain to him the reason I got any better at teaching was because I found people that shared their ideas and what they were doing with me. It all came back to exposing myself to new ideas and new ways to do what I do in my classroom.

Going back to this advice for new teachers, the simple answer is exposure to as many ideas and different ways to teach. This includes not only the instruction but all of the nuances and dynamics that comprise the art, craft, and science of teaching. This can take the form of observing your fellow teachers in your building. It can be attending conferences and workshops to learn about new ideas and ways of thinking about teaching. It can be connecting with other teachers via social media or using technology to connect with other classrooms. There are so many resources available that connecting with other teachers can be done with a simple click of the mouse. There is no longer an excuse to be teaching in a silo and not exposing yourself to new ideas. New and old teachers alike, who are concerned with how to be a better teacher, simply need to be exposing themselves to better teaching.

On the other side of that coin, exposure to some bad teaching can be beneficial. It will help you discover what you believe is good and bad about teaching and the larger sample you have the more grounded your perception will be. The only way to truly get better is to be around and experience “better” and also to be constantly evolving what it means to be “good”.  My definition of what good teaching looks like is always changing as I learn more about teaching, learning, myself, my students and the people and experiences I have been exposed to.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Stop Preparing Students

Are my students being adequately prepared?

This seems to be one of those questions and conversations that always come up in school. How are you preparing your students? When they are in elementary school we are trying to prepare them for junior high. When they are in junior high we are preparing them for high school. Then in high school we are preparing them for college. All along the way, we are trying to prepare our students for the real world. The funny thing is are we preparing them for something that actually matters or even exists?

We tell our elementary children as they slave away over worksheets they better get use to it because it is preparing them for junior high. When we sit in junior high and tell kids they need to do their homework because it will prepare them for the rigor of high school homework. Are we actually preparing kids for things that matter? Too often this “preparing them for the next level” logic is used to justify poor teaching practice and even worse systematic decision-making.

I have to admit that I am doing a poor job or preparing my students for the rigors of high school. I do not assign homework because I value their family time and the little time they get to actually be children. I do not prepare my students for standardized test through test preparation because I don't value the test beyond a simple measure rather than an end game of learning. I also don’t prepare my students for an existence based completely on fact consumption and recitation.

Funny thing is we often hear in schools from the level above us that our students are not prepared enough. They don’t sit nicely in their desks and do the busy work assigned to them. Rather than do what they’re told, they question and advocate for more autonomy and choice. They become difficult to manage and control because they want to have their voice heard and their individual learning needs addressed.

I am not preparing my students for the real world or some future system they may or may not be a part of. Instead I am helping them navigate the real world they already live in. Maybe we need to do a little less preparing in schools and more learning and living in the precious moments we have together.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Innovation Day 4

It is that time of year again. The time where we set aside a day and allow students complete control over their learning at our annual Innovation Day. Year one, two and three were great but this year might have been one of our most successful ones yet. As with Rocky, the 4th installment is the best. For those that are not familiar with Innovation Day, feel free to click the links above to see how it has evolved in our school and with our students.

This year we took a different focus and shifted from learning for the sake of learning and put more emphasis on creation. Our goal for the students was to make or create something. To get them fired up we showed them two videos. The first was Caine’s Arcade, which by now is a legitimate viral video that has been seen by millions. The other video was created by a friend of mine and focused on a school in his district where they held an Invention Convention. Both served as a great jumping off point for our students to get them thinking creatively about creating something.

As in previous years the learning throughout the day was great with students all over the learning map. I am always amazed at how certain students will surprise me with what they come up with. One of my favorites was the young man who created a working telegram. Throughout the day he was beyond frustrated with the progress and how he could not seem to get the contraption to work. Finally, late in the afternoon he “got it” and you could see the pride on his face over his accomplishment.

Another new element to this year’s day was we tied it with our grade level Open House. In year’s past that night was a dog and pony show where elaborate projects were created in an effort to convince parents we actually do stuff at school. Apparently the lack of a trifold board and glitter is an indication of the downfall of public education. The parents loved the projects and seeing what kids had worked on during the day. It was also great for the students to have that audience of the community and family members during the night. Many students showed up early and stayed late to show off their work.

Like I do every year after Innovation Day, I reflect on the process and how I can infuse more autonomy and choice into my every day work with students. It clearly motivates and empowers students and is a powerful approach to learning.

Here are some other projects that caught my eye during the day:
Student painting

Engineered vehicle

Garbage truck with functioning "crusher"

Functional pinball machine

Model of the ice at the United Center

Stop-Motion film

Minecraft model of our school

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Thinking Wall

This post originally appeared on Angela Maier's Blog but I wanted to repost here to share with my readers as well.

Those of you that know me know that I run. I run a lot. On December 11th, I hit my 700th consecutive day of running without missing a single day. For those of you that run on a regular basis, you know the reflected and meditative power a good peaceful run can bring. I often find myself reflecting on life, on teaching, on my family and just about anything and everything in between. On one of those 4am runs, I found myself thinking about my students and specifically about what I was asking them to do in class.

We were in the middle of the Ancient Greece chapter in social science and coming up on the section covering the work of Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato. As I was looking through the content I began thinking of my good friend Chad Miller, a fellow teacher of the year from Hawaii. Chad is a pretty amazing guy who teaches philosophy and English in a high school as well as some graduate level coursework at a college. I have learned a great deal from Chad over the past two years specifically about philosophy and thinking and how to get kids to be philosophers and thinkers.

Around the same time these ideas were rumbling in my head, I stumbled across a tweet from John Robinson about a board they had up in his school. This white board was located in a common space in the school. It was used to write thoughts, questions, and ideas in a public space to spark thinking in an interactive way. This got me thinking about how I could do something in my class to encourage real thinking.

Now some of you are thinking to yourself, “well, wait a minute, aren't you thinking in class everyday?” I would like to believe that is true. I understand the vast majority of the content in the curriculum that I teach requires very low-level thinking. That's not to say I don't use activities that require a great deal of critical thinking but it just didn't feel like I was doing enough “real thinking”. As I looked through the standards and content I was teaching, there seemed to be a lot of “identifying” and “defining” but not a great deal of actual thinking required. If I am being completely honest, even those areas where thinking was needed, I am not sure it was truly valuable thinking.

With this in mind, I touched based with Chad and got a couple of resources from him about how to get my kids thinking. The following day I had a conversation with one of my classes, which happened to be my language arts class. We started talking about thinking and how we could do more of it in school in a real and authentic way. I told them about my idea of starting a board we would post questions and thoughts.

I wasn't sure how the kids would react to it but they were totally all for it. That very afternoon one of the young ladies in my class designed a little sign to put up on the wall that is now called the Thinking Wall. The following morning I posted the first question “What does it mean to grow up?” I didn't think this was too difficult or too abstract of a question because I know that plenty of kids in junior high think about growing up.

What I didn't expect was what really happened. I had only explained the idea of the wall to my language arts class. However, as I stood in the hallway waiting talking to a fellow teacher before social science class started I then turned and looked into my room. What I saw was nearly every single student standing at the wall either reading, talking or writing about the question. It was one of those organic moments that just happened. I had not even told them what to do, how to interact or what my expectations of the activity were going to be. They simply saw the question and ran with it. By the end of that first day, the chalkboards were full of comments and questions and ideas. Naturally there were some very superficial comments about being more mature or being taller. Yet, there was some pretty heavy ones I wrote down because I want to make sure that I use those are some follow-up discussions.

To take it a step further, I introduced the idea of the kids submitting their own questions or thoughts to be put on the wall. My ultimate goal is for them to generate the questions that will go on the board on a weekly basis. Some of the questions the kids have come up with for future use are already exceeding my expectations. One student wants to delve into the difference between knowledge and wisdom.

I asked some of the students after the first couple of days of this first question be on the wall what they thought this new thing. The first response was from Rachel, who said, “I think the wall really brings out a different side of people…what surprised me was that the quiet people had some of the best things to say.”  As with many projects in my class, I don't know where it's going to go. However, I have high hopes as my student Sarah wrote, “I hope this continues the whole year!”

In one short week with one simple question, I am beginning to see great value in intentionally bringing philosophy and thinking into my classroom. It feels as though we are too busy chasing numbers and tracking data to actually allow kids time to think. I can tell you personally, that as soon as I started letting kids think they surprised me with what they were able to do and just how much they had to say.

Since this post appeared on Angels's blog I have had several other questions posted with just as enthusiastic responses from the kids. One particularly hot topic was "Should we value popularity". It lead to some great discussion about the role popularity plays in school as well as how we define popularity. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

More Homework Meme

There have been numerous people doing the More Homework Meme and a few folks have tagged me. However, I am complying with the homework that my Twitter Best Friend For Life, Lyn Hilt, assigned me, as she was the first to tag me. I think it is a great way to get to know our fellow bloggers/tweeters, so here it goes.

For starters, here are 11 random facts about me many people may not know.

1.     I was a collegiate triple jumper at North Central College and won 3 indoor and 2 outdoor conference titles in that event as well as finished 9th in the country as a junior. 
2.     When in high school, I worked on a dairy farm where I milked cows twice daily as well as other odd jobs on the farm.
3.     When I was 10 years old, my younger brother and I ran away from home. We returned about an hour later.
4.     I am constantly terrified about parenting my two boys.
5.     For the past 708 days (and counting) I have not missed a single day of running.
6.     When in college it would not be uncommon for me to sit and play video games for 5-7 hours at a time.
7.     I was a sports reporter for my small local paper when I was in high school. I wrote under a pen name because I was playing in some of the events that I covered. The coaches always found it interesting that the reporter was aware of half time speeches and such because they didn’t know it was me.
8.     I hate berries…all of them.
9.     I am an Eagle Scout.
10. I have never watched a single episode of Lost but have seen every episode of Seinfeld more times than I can count.
11. When I was young (don’t quite recall the age) I flunked swim lessons and to this day am petrified of being in deep water.

Here are Lyn’s questions and my attempts to answer them the best I could.

1.     Do you have a middle name? If so, what is it? Anything special about it?
My middle name is Daniel and it is a family tradition as my father’s name is Daniel. My oldest son’s middle name is Joshua.

2.  What color are your eyes?
Funny you should ask that. J I actually have one blue and one green eye. It is always a fun conversation starter.

3. Where would you go in a time travel machine? Would you stay?
As a history teacher, I am not sure I can really just pick one time period to visit. If I had to pick one, I would say that being in Egypt as the Great Pyramids were being built would be pretty amazing. It would be so valuable to see how the aliens really came down and built those for the Egyptians. Yet, I would not want to stick around.

4. Who is the person you most trust in the world?
Without a doubt the person I trust the most in the world would be my wife Christie.

5. What high school activities did you participate in?
In high school I played basketball all four years and baseball for one. For clubs, I worked with student council and yearbook. Hard to believe but I also had some minor roles in our school productions of Guys and Dolls as well as Grease. No, there are no known videos of those floating around.

6. If Twitter ceased to exist tomorrow, what would you most miss about it?
I would miss the people and the conversations I have at any given time. I greatly value the people I have met and the relationships I have formed. That and I would miss knowing when Dean is taking a nap.

7. Seriously, what do you think of the Miley Cyrus song, Wrecking Ball?
Not a fan but as soon as Steve Anderson does it for karaoke I will probably like it.

8. Do you cook or bake? What is your specialty?
I will occasionally cook and make a mean Chicken Parmesan.

9. What is the first concert you ever went to? (Excluding school concerts)
In all seriousness, I am not sure if I should really admit out loud the answer to this question. When I was a young adolescent, I was a big fan of the New Kids on the Block. Yes, you read that correctly. One year for Christmas, Santa brought me and my older brother tickets to go see their concert and I am man enough to admit I had a blast, sang along while wearing my NKOTB concert shirt and may still have a button from those boy band years.

10. Have you ever been “starstruck?” Explain.
This was a tough question as I have been fortunate to meet some pretty amazing people in the past few years. I was surely starstruck when I was fortunate to meet some Chicago Cubs players as I threw out a first pitch at Wrigley Field. However, I would have to admit I was more starstruck when I met President Barrack Obama in the White House last year. It was a bit overwhelming and a moment I will never forget.

11.  How far away from your birthplace do you live now?
I currently live about ten minutes away from the hospital where I was born.

Next Up:
1.     Chris McGee
2.     Will Chamberlain
3.     Ben Grey
4.     John Spencer
5.     Tyler Amidon
6.     Paul Bogush
7.     Brianna Crowley
8.     Pernille Ripp
9.     Kathy Melton

Here are your questions:

1.     What was your favorite children’s book as a child or favorite to read as a parent?
2.     If you had won that insane lottery jackpot, what is the first thing you would buy?
3.     Can you touch your tongue to your nose?
4.     If I were to meet you up at a bar, what drink would I buy for you?
5.     When was the last time you laughed so hard it hurt, and what was it that made that happen?
6.     What is that one movie that shows up on TV that even though you have seen it a hundred times you still leave it on and watch?
7.     If you could sit down and interview one person, living or dead, who would it be?
8.     Paper or plastic?
9.     What is something you have always wanted to do but continue to procrastinate and make excuses as to why you have not done it yet?
10. Have you been able to unlock the code and figure out what a fox says?
11. If you could pack it all up today and move, where would you land?

Here’s how it works:
  • Acknowledge the nominating blogger.
  • Share 11 random facts about yourself.
  • Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger has created for you.
  • List 11 bloggers.
  • Post 11 questions for the bloggers you nominate to answer, and let all the bloggers know they have been nominated. Don’t nominate a blogger who has nominated you.