Category Archives: Opinionations

Just my opinions.

Illinois Computing Educators Conference-Top Fives

Illinois Computing Educators Conference ( was held in St. Charles Illinois last week. Here are my top five learning opportunities.

5. Google Docs Rocks

It was sitting room only at the Google Docs sessions. Many teachers are finding easy and practical use of the Google Docs suite.

4. iPad Integration

Everywhere you ended up (and I was at the bar, of course),  the talk of the conference, were IPad Apps. “What is your favorite? What are you using and how?” “What new on ITunes U?” (My recent favorite? Aurasma, augmented reality as seen on TED.)

3. Moving from USING content from the internet to MAKING content for the internet. Nothing new actually, but Wesley Fryer, our excellent keynote speaker, showed us  Kid Blog ( and how adult comments are motivating kids as they produce content for the internet. His address hit my heart strings.

2. Flipping the Classroom

There were workshops and break outs with suggestions about how to “flip” a classroom. I found the application to STEM a perfect fit. I have begun the flipping process!

1. Mash Plant (

“Your Stage. Your Screen. Your Studio.” New on the scene, these are artists by trade looking to give educators a safe place to post work by students. They piloted in the Chicago Public Schools and look FANTASTIC!. I always look for a safe place to put the kids STEM work and I think I found it. All curricular areas are welcomed to sign up and I like how I can see what others are doing. I signed up on the spot and was given the opportunity to SKYPE with Bill Murray or other famous personalities. (They are all buddies in the acting circuits.) Yes, I get pulled in when I can Skype anyone, but I really like to have an authentic audience for the kids projects and I hope this turns out to be my place.


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Teacher Tenure

The title of this article is “Why teacher tenure is still needed.” It struck a chord with me as a veteran teacher, having been on strike early in my career. Although times change, human nature does not. In the early part of my career I fought for contractural rights with little thought of salary.

I grew up in the throes of the feminism movement with five brothers and two sisters. As my mom lay ill with chemotherapy treatment, my father demanded the girls take over the household. We had to quit all activities to cook, do laundry, and clean for the family of ten. I don’t blame my dad. He was stressed, it was how he was raised. The experience shaped my sense of fairness and gender equality.

When I entered college I was uniquely aware of the number of male teachers verses female teachers. During my three student teaching experiences (special education was a duel elementary degree) the teachers were all female, the principals, administrators, and other “bosses” were men. Teacher favoritism was not unspoken. We all knew who would smile coyly and flirt coquettishly to get the easy job or the extra paid duty. If the principal liked you, you caused no trouble, and the parents did not complain about you, you were tenured.

Sound reasonable or familiar?

What happened when the neighbor of the principal complained about you? What happened to the many women who hid babies for fear of not getting hired? A common interview question was, “Are you married? When do you plan on having babies?” Teachers would lie and say they were single because they desperately need the job. When I applied for an extra duty job, I was told I would not get it because “You have enough money.” The under-qualified male with the new wife got the job. This was common practice. My economics were tied to my husband. I’m still mad about it.

Tenure ensures the rights of all teachers. As pointed out in this article, principals do make mistakes. There has to be a legal way for teachers to report abuses. It is so odd to me that I am legally required to report parent abuse but can be fired when I witness education abuse.

Tenure has become a dirty word, defined as a way bad educators hold on to their jobs. The media definition is so far from the truth. Teachers CAN be fired, but because of tenure, the principal MUST legally release a bad teacher. Most principals feel the legal procedures are too much of a hassle. It takes a ton of work. It should! (I’m not the type to flirt with my boss. I need the money despite my husband’s income.)

There are bad teachers. In most buildings the principals and the teachers all know who they are. Yet the principals do nothing, year after year. We know it is hard work but when principals do not methodically release the poor teachers, it makes everyone look bad. Don’t blame the unions, blame the hassle.

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I’ve Got the “Following Directions” Blues

How many times has this happened to you? You write a great lesson with what you know are succinct directions and after you hand out the directions and say, “Begin!” a line of kids, fifteen deep forms in front of you? Aghhhhhh! I have three solutions and a theory.

Solution #1
Ask the kids to read the directions carefully and when they are done, raise their hands. Quietly wait until all kids have finished. This allows time for everyone to read and digest. Then ask all the kids to explain the directions to their partner, table, best friend, ANYONE! This gives time for the all important social learning and takes a very short amount of time.

Solution #2
After handing out the paper with the directions, write on the board “C3B4Me”. This stands for “See three before me.” Allow the kids to ask one another questions before they begin. They can come to me only after they have seen three others.
Most kids have the same questions and can get answers from one another. If four or more kids do not know the answer, I need to change something! Typically the question is a confusing word or direction. I alert the class of the common misconception. Sometimes it is because I taught it poorly. I’ll stop class, teach again, then go on. Their questions direct my teaching.
On an aside, I do a five minute lesson I call, “Who is the smartest person in the room?” before writing C3B4Me. I ask who is the smartest in the room. In 7th grade they point to me, in 8th they point to the gifted kid in the class. Go figure. I then tell them to point to the person across from them and I say that this person is the smartest. Then point to the person next to them and I sat this person is the smartest, etc. I explain how learning is diverse and one person may understand something better so classmates are great resources. The kids may complain how this is cheating so if I have the time, we get into a discussion about controlling your own learning.

Solution #3
Do both of the above.

My theory

Although my human nature tells me the kids don’t know how to read and I’ll complain about their refusal to follow directions, I am wrong. My theory is kids are fiercely afraid to fail. They go to fight or flight mode emotionally after I tell them to start. They don’t need extra reading time! They need validation, positive reinforcement, and the simple sentence, “Yep, you got it right!” The problem is I have 30 kids and I get sick of validating what seems to be a million times. “Did you READ the directions?”, I scream. Of course they did, they simply need someone to say they understood it correctly. By allowing kids the chance to learn socially, they have one another and are not dependent upon me. Perhaps predictably, the only kids still needing me to validate them are the gifted kids. Anyone surprised?

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Planning for 2012-2013: Parent Teacher Conferences

We’ve started planning for next year and the debate about parent teacher conferences at the middle school  rears its ugly head again. I work in a Middle School with advisories and teams. Having said that, I work in a junior high where advisory is five minutes and kids are cross teamed. There are 176 students in each team and I have 16 students in my advisory with whom I schedule parent conferences. Of the students I conference with, over half I do not teach until March. There are foreign language teachers with advisory students not enrolled in a foreign language.

What is the best way to hold a parent teacher conference? For years we have held student led conferences. This is great from my perspective. The students collect work they want to show their parents and my advisory students write letters to their parent explaining their acdemic as well as social achievements. At conferences the student reports to his/her parent. I report MAP scores and answer questions. I am also there with a list of things students can do to improve their grades as well as a note messanger for mostly math and language arts teachers. We develop goals and in twenty minutes the conference is over. Is this bad?

The biggest complaint is from parents wanting to see only the math and language arts teachers. We tried that one year. The math teachers almost quit. As the rest of us peered around corners, hoping for an interested visitor, math teachers had lines down the hall. There were loud complaints about having to wait.

Technology offers us a new way to conference. I suggested, in jest, to cancel conferences and SKYPE in parents and kids from their couches as home. The Bulls Game would be on, Dad would have a beer, and looking at me on a sideward glance, they’d say, “Well, he’s a good kid.”

I’m joking of course.

Because it is so much easier to contact parents via e-mail, I’d say I conference with parents regularly. Yet, it is so important to bring families into the school. Getting parents into the school makes our jobs easier because they get a feel of our culture. As the years roll on, I see parents a couple of times and make great connections. We laugh and chat, it is social.

I’ve heard of schools doing conferencing “dates”. Everyone sits in the gym and parents play musical chairs, going from one teacher to the next. Doesn’t the kid need to be there??

What is the best way to get people into a building to discuss kids in a way so they feel their time is not wasted?

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National Science Foundation Workshop ROCKS!

In my last post I lamented about assessment questions. I know there are probably scientists out there feeling that rock cleavage is the most important thing for a child to remember. For that I apologize.

Luckily I met Brian Reiser a professor at Northwestern University and the man made my teaching dreams come true. How many years have I said, “Why are we teaching 7th graders endoplasmic reticulum?” According to Brian, those silly days are over. Common Core Standards will help us teach science practices and incorporate the facts students can use as evidence for arguments.  FINALLY, someone with authority saying what we have been thinking for years. When will the textbook companies get it?

Max MeGee, the president of IMSA and a former State Superintendent introduced interesting data and the successes of STEM education.

Kevin McLeod and Henry Kepner from University of Wisconsin gave us fantastic information about Common Core Math Standards. This was especially interesting because my STEM class will be fully integrated into Math next year.

In addition, I heard all about the new PARCC assessment, the challenges and the successes, from Susan Van Gundy, of Achieve, Inc.

The plenary session was amazing! Where else can you hear James Pelligrino, author of a favorite book, How People Learn? , discuss how to design assessments that worth teaching to?

Finally the very best part was running into old friends and meeting new contacts. I met up with the STEM gals of DuPage County Regional Office of Education and met the elementary STEM teacher from the STEM Academy in Chicago. We said our goodbyes with thousands of questions for one another.

My take aways? Common Core will be my friend. Assessment can be done well and give good results. STEM rocks.

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I Don’t Get It

The publishing company (unnamed for many reasons) of our brand-spanking new, million dollar (not really) Science 6-8th grade textbook asked the following three questions on the on-line assessment our students have to take in a few weeks. I paraphrase…

1. What is a dike/dyke?

2. What is cleavage?

3. Dalton thought that atoms are most like:

ANSWER: smooth, hard balls.

We all giggle. Can you imagine what the 7th and 8th graders think?

On a more serious level, ARE YOU KIDDING ME? Why do 7th and 8th graders need to be assessed on such mundane facts?

Which leads me to the next post…..

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Beyond the what to so what?

Sally sits at a table with Keesha, Juan, and Bobby. Bobby has a one-on-one aide because he is a gifted special education student. He has traveled all over the world and can do monetary conversions in his head. He has the propensity to question everything I say and will look up information to share with me. Juan lives with his parents, an aunt, and uncle. The adults all have different work shifts so he has to pick up his sister and cousins from school and is responsible for them until 5PM. He speaks Spanish at home and English at school. He is enrolled in an ELL class even though he was born in Chicago. He is smart, polite, and shy. Keesha lives with her grandmother and her big brother. She is hilarious, charming, and smart but does not get good grades. She is very social and can be counted on to help me out with anything. Sally, like Bobby, is a world traveler. She is enrolled in all gifted classes but she is not as smart as Keesha. Her mother e-mails me weekly because Sally comes home with an infraction from my class that must be addressed immediately. I was told by her father, who is an attorney for a important law firm (or so he told me), “I can tell why she is not doing well in your class because of your personality.”

The teachers reading this are smiling and thinking, “Yup.” Hyperbole? It really doesn’t matter.

What matters is what they take out of the class. All four of the kids have access to the Internet and can look up any information in which they are interested. While I am talking about a volcano in Hawaii they can find a web cam showing the smokers, and links to what famous scientists say about an impending blast.

What the heck am I doing there?

My job is to help them become curators of the information they feel is most vital for their lives. I look at 21st Century learning as a way to help kids wade through the muck of information. I have to help them find their own answers. How do I do this? I teach them vocabulary so they can learn the gift of clarity. When ideas are clearly expressed, ideas grow. I want them to intelligently defend their opinions and I teach them to write clearly and persuasively.

To reach a stronger understanding of content, I have to show them how to decode a myriad of facts and visual information, and to look at facts critically. The turn of the 20th century skills are moot. Everyone with web access has access to information. What will they do with the information? How can I empower my students to find a way to make the world a better place through their hard work? I want them to look at their experiences in the light of a “work in progress”, always improving and getting better. I need to allow them the time and space to find a way to take action in their world.

I have to integrate their learning so it is authentic and empowering. This is how my students can become curators of their learning and of their world. I have to teach beyond the what to…. so what?
Then they can start telling their own stories…

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Illinois State Achievement Tests

Here’s my story:

The Good: Back in the late ’90’s my colleague and I were looking over the “new” standards and saw the word “abiotic”. We were educated, well-trained Science teachers and we were stumped. (It shows up as a misspelled word on Word) We looked up abiotic and like many teachers taught about rocks and sand. It seemed too shallow. Why was it so important? Finally as we were teaching Oceanography, we got it. We taught the abiotic influences of the ocean including temperature, salinity, pressure, pollution,etc. The non-alive features influencing environments. Our Oceanography unit became richer and the high assessments scores felt good.

The Bad: As time went on, the ISAT tests became increasingly important and put us in a pressure cooker. The ISAT test creates a situation in the 7th grade in which the teachers need to cover material as opposed to experience science. Our book used to be a reference, it now covers the vocabulary necessary for passing the tests. Soon we will be evaluated on the test results. If an evaluation for economic advancements is based upon test scores, why wouldn’t a professional spend every minute covering material? The focus on quantitative results is easy to understand. It works really great in charts and graphs because the tests are based upon reading skills, especially vocabulary. This puts Science teachers in a moral bind. We were trained as experiencial educators but the tests hold us back and we have had to become science-reading educators. When can be go back and do both again?

I have high hopes that the Common Core Standards (CCS) will help solve this dilemma. Many of us have already started using the Reading and Writing Science CCS. They seem EXACTLY what we know what to do; use problems as a focus for investigation and defend our results using our data. Only time will tell how the assessments will help us to improve instruction as opposed to threaten us into complying with easy-to-test questions.

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