". . .the word of God is not bound." II Tim. 2:9b

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

What Is True Innovation in Education?

Are the teaching approaches we think of as innovative really innovative? Are students learning anything in our classes? What even is the purpose of school?

If questions like these energize or disturb you, you'll want to read what venture capitalist Ted Dintersmith has to say about his quest for answers to education's biggest problems. Every public school teacher and administrator ought to ponder, as Dintersmith did, whether students in America are learning anything that will truly prepare them for life in the real world.

In this article from The Washington Post, Dintersmith challenges several cherished notions about our schools that haven't been dusted off and reexamined in over a century. He also points out flaws in some "innovations" schools flock to now that are not truly innovative and are not truly growing kids' minds. One example? The flipped classroom.

Dintersmith writes, 'There’s lots of eduspeak chatter about “flipping the classroom” — kids watch boring lectures at home at night, and do low-level multiple-choice questions at school. Hardly a breakthrough. . . ." It's true that the ideal of the flipped classroom has students working in class on problems that require the teacher's assistance, not 'low-level multiple-choice questions,' but the point that none of this is truly innovation is valid. The flipped classroom does the same old thing in a not very different way.

So what is truly innovative education that really does prepare kids for the real world? The article explores approaches by several successful schools across the country.

According to Dintersmith, some 500 "Deeper Learning" schools are doing certain things right:

self-directed learning
a sense of purpose and authenticity in student experiences
trust in teachers to teach to their passions and expertise
a focus on essential skills (collaboration, communication, creativity, critical analysis)
teachers as coaches, mentors, and advisers, not as lecturers
lots of project-based challenges and learning
public display of meaningful student work

Do these objectives reflect your classroom teaching this week? Or is it all about that standardized test in April?

Read more about Dintersmith here and view a preview for his award-winning documentary, Most Likely To Succeed, which has been called the antithesis of Waiting For Superman. 'The film raises important questions,' Dintersmith says, 'but respects each school’s desire and ability to forge a creative path forward. I’m hoping to find change agents in schools, districts, and states across the country, and provide them with a powerful resource to help them have a positive impact on the futures of our children.'

Friday, March 25, 2016

Thinking Differently

Being the wife of a bookseller has its advantages. Books for my kids, books for my classroom, and of course, books for me all find their way into my house at little to no cost to me. When I help sort through giant bins of potential inventory, I often find books on theology, psychology, literature, travel, biography, and other subjects I'm currently interested in. My most recent treasure is a Ryrie Study Bible published by Moody.

Now that I've had my new/used Bible a few days, exploring its notes and cross-references a bit as I reread and meditated on I Timothy, I realized that even though this Bible is the same translation as my previous one, I am thinking in different ways about the words. Even though I've read them before, they seem fresh and new. They fairly jump off the page.

Is it the fresh typeface? Having fewer words per page and more white space? Perhaps the newer binding? (My old Bible was also a salvage treasure). It could be the Ryrie study notes, naturally. Or maybe I'm just falling in love with the Scriptures all over again. But I think it's the combination of all of those things. Having a new Bible is exciting! It's an example of how shuffling can rearrange thinking.

Teachers naturally capitalize on this phenomenon in the classroom. One day in my senior English class, I decided to change the seating chart. The students were suspicious, even defensive. "Are you moving us because we're so naughty?" one asked. Although a few members of the small class did tend to get chatty when seated near their friends, I opted for a more palatable and more accurate reason: "When you sit in a different place, you think in different ways."

The seniors were still skeptical.

"Look at you and [Laura]," I said to one girl. "You two are best friends. Sometimes you read each other's minds. More than once, you've turned in paragraphs that were practically identical. You didn't copy each other. You just think alike because you're so close. If we separate you, it'll allow you to expand your thinking."

The class agreed to the new seating arrangement, and sure enough, it created new discussion leaders and new perspectives immediately.

Sometimes all of us need to shuffle the deck and start fresh. What a refreshing thought for spring!

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Book-at-a-Time Bible Reading Plan

NavPress has made available Discipleship Journal's Book-at-a-Time Bible reading plan online, here. This is a user-friendly plan that I've used over the years in its print form. I love it because it is flexible. Read books of the Bible in the order of your choice. If you take the time to read every passage for each day, you'll read the whole Bible in a year. I am a little slower than that, let's just say. Want to get the app on your phone? Look for DJ Bible Reading Plan.

National Quilt Museum Named to List of South's Best Museums

One of my favorite museums is the National Quilt Museum in Paducah, Kentucky. There's something for everyone, including the guys. The museum houses a collection of some 500 quilts and features rotating displays on loan from quilters and collectors around the world. They also help teachers foster an appreciation of quilt heritage in their students with annual School Block Challenge and student-friendly exhibits.

This month, the museum has been featured on Southern Living's list of 25 Best Museums of the South, joining the Kennedy Space Center and other prestigious museums. Visit quiltmuseum.org for information.

Photo: Patriotic Elvis by Jacob Whitworth, Ally Curry, and Noah Newton of Columbia, IL, Grand Prize winners in the 2016 School Block Challenge

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

10 Ways To Be a Teacher-Leader

For some teachers, the idea of being a leader is frightening, so we delay it or even avoid it as much as possible. For others, we know we want to be leaders, but struggle to make wise decisions with the opportunities we're given or to be patient while waiting for leadership opportunities to come our way. To the new teacher, leadership can seem like a distant, hazy prospect always out of reach. "It takes ten years to become an expert at anything," or so they say.

Here are some practical ways to steer toward a leadership course, no matter how many years you've been in the classroom.

1. Read current education news.
You can do this by subscribing to email newsletters such as the excellent SmartBrief from ASCD. Choose an ed-focused magazine or journal in your area to keep up on the latest research, techniques, and classroom technology. If you're a writer, you might eventually try submitting an article to your favorite publication.

2. Hone your public speaking skills.
It's true that you speak publicly in the classroom every day, but let's face it. Those kids don't scare you anymore. Look for opportunities to speak in front of more varied audiences, such as your school staff or the school board. Talk to a parent group or a community group about what your school is doing in STEM or character education. Speaking skills are leadership skills.

3. Take on extra responsibilities (responsibly).
The freshman class needs an adviser. The PTO needs more teachers at their meetings. From selling tickets at the football game to organizing an after school program, there is an infinite number of extra activities you can take on to demonstrate leadership in your school. Learn to take on only what you can handle and to say "no" when an activity is sure to hinder your everyday productivity or sanity. Volunteerism gets noticed. It also gives you needed practice in small-scale leadership tasks.

4. Do the grub work.
A student throws up in the hall. Is your default reaction to comfort the child, to get the janitor, to start cleaning it up, or to cower by the wall until someone else deals with it? All but the last show leadership. Have you ever noticed that secretaries and principals often get stuck doing the grub work, not because that particular task is in their job description, but because they are leaders? Sometimes, serving is leading.

5. Continue your professional education.
Before you can renew your teaching certification, you have to take professional development classes and/or academic classes for your professional growth. Don't ever think the only benefit of these classes is certificate renewal or a pay raise. Continuing your education shows leadership. You prove that you are willing to learn and grow as a person and as a teacher. It also helps you find specific areas of focus for your leadership talents.

6. Try new things.
Just because you're an English teacher doesn't mean you can't organize a STEM field trip for the high school. Never served on the RTI team before? You'll learn fast. Adopt a growth mindset and show your leadership skills.

7. Mentor informally.
You don't have to be an official mentor to help other teachers find their way. You have areas of expertise you can share with others on your staff, even if it's in a brief chat around the water cooler or a pop-in after class. Watch for opportunities where a colleague is asking for help, but also where you have found a strategy that works and you can share it. When you read a helpful article, pass it on by email. When you've attended a conference, share your notes and handouts. Chances are, it'll open a discussion that benefits you, too.

8. Share gleanings from workshops with your staff.
It may be intimidating, but sharing what you've learned at a PD or academic class can benefit your staff and grow you as a leader. First, determine the specific topic you'd like to present and how long you'll take to present it. For beginners, twenty to thirty minutes is a good max. Second, ask your administrator for time at the next staff meeting or collaboration. Be prepared to tell what you'll be sharing and how it will benefit other teachers. If you're not given time, try again with another topic in future. If your proposal is accepted, prepare a clear and concise presentation that does not go over the time limit you and your administrator have agreed on. Give a minute or two for questions at the end and be sure to thank your administrator for allowing you to present.

9. Inspire your students.
When you capture a student's imagination through story, through vision, through the arts, through tech, through debate, through biography, you show leadership. Parents and administrators like nothing better than hearing that your students are engaged in and excited about learning. What will inspire students? Probably the same things that inspire you. Maybe you'll be the teacher that inspired a student to become a doctor or a software engineer or a writer.

10. Work hard.
A strong work ethic shows leadership more than just about any other quality a teacher can cultivate. Show up on time. Don't leave till the job is done. Take fewer personal days, and only use sick days when you are actually sick. No substitute can do your job as effectively as you can do it. Don't procrastinate about grading papers or writing lesson plans. Complete tasks promptly, especially when they are assigned specifically by your boss. Know your subject. Be faithful to your students and loyal to your school.

It's a long haul, but being a teacher-leader will reap dividends, both tangible and intangible.

An Example of the Believer

A lot of people don't understand the Christian teacher's choice to work in the public school environment. It's true that we often feel like a fish out of water. In the United States, where free speech is protected by the Constitution, we are government employees who have our speech restricted under certain circumstances. In fact, our students have more freedom of speech than their teachers. So how can the Christian teacher take any spiritual good from the work or believe she is doing any spiritual good in her workplace? I Timothy gives some perspective.

For one thing, we are examples of the believer wherever we go. My students know I am a Christian (in some cases because I have told them). I don't have to say anything more for them to watch my behaviors and attribute them to my belief system. This is also true if a teacher tells her students, "I am a liberal" or "I am a Mormon" or "I support Hillary Clinton for president." Immediately, students think, "She doesn't drink coffee because she's a Mormon," or "She wouldn't like my mom because my mom is going to vote Republican." Students make connections without our encouragement. That's why it's so important to have pure motives, to keep an open mind, to be humble, and to follow the law, no matter how you identify yourself. You're an authority figure in their little world, and you do not have the right to take advantage of that position.

So where does that leave me as a self-identified Christian in the public school? Very vulnerable. If students perceive me to be grouchy, disrespectful, lazy, unprepared, or any other negative descriptor while on the job, there is a high risk that it will all be chalked up to my being a typical Christian. Is that fair? Is that negative trait of mine a "typical Christian" behavior? Maybe not. But then, maybe I'm the only Christian they know.

When you think about it that way, you as a Christian teacher in the public school have a powerful platform, even if you never say a word. If you are up for the challenge, you have the opportunity to identify for students through your conduct what it means to be a believer.

The book of I Timothy and several other passages in Paul's letters indicate that Christians in contact with unbelievers should work harder, love more genuinely, give more generously, and abase our pride more readily than those around us. It's hard to do in the best of circumstances, when our lesson plans are finished and our desks are clear. We must learn to follow Christ's example for us even when the going gets tough. Parents will be angry over their children's grades, coworkers will be jealous or gossipy, and students will sometimes make huge withdrawals on your emotional strength. This is when the example of a believer must be especially clear. This is how I behave when life is brutal. This is a Christian on the job.

It's only through Christ's strength that we can live up to this high standard of behavior, and we will sometimes fail. Let's keep humble and keep connected to the Vine.

Read this article from the Washington Post on teachers who share their faith within the bounds of the law. Thanks for a close examination of this important topic, Emma Brown!

Sadie Robertson Scripture Shareables

Monday, March 7, 2016

Addition by Subtraction

Let's give teachers more freedom to collaborate and solve problems creatively. Here's a short video from John Baldoni on the concept of subtracting tasks to add productivity. Food for thought!