How Taking Action Heals

Full disclosure from the start… I didn’t vote for Donald Trump. To be completely honest, I lean to the liberal side of the spectrum and probably wouldn’t have voted for any Republican candidate in the Presidential election.

What has horrified me in the days after the election is the behavior of Americans on both sides of the political spectrum. While I find Donald Trump to be a detestable human being (or a “Turd Tornado” as he has been labeled in my house) I respect the process of American democracy. It’s not perfect (40% of the Presidential elections since 2000 have resulted in the person with the second most votes winning the White House) but it is the system we’ve had for 228 years.

But watching the news, I’ve been upset by anti-Trump Americans protesting in a not-so-peaceful way in American cities, and disgusted by the number of hate crimes that have been reported in the past 72 hours. It pains me to know that my Muslim, Mexican, and LGBTQ students feel like they have a target on them. It disgusts me to hear about students at other schools marching the halls with Trump signs screaming “Sieg Heil!” and “White Power!”

While I haven’t witnessed anything of the sort in my junior high, I am not naive enough to think that it doesn’t happen. Children mimic what they see, and if they see hate and disrespect at home, on TV, or from their favorite political candidate, it’s not a leap to suggest that they might copy that action.

Today is Veterans Day (or Veterans’ Day or Veteran’s Day). My school district has held classes on Veterans Day for the past ten or so years, and my school has celebrated the holiday with an all school assembly honoring veterans. In the past, it was one teacher putting it together – and she did a great job. This year, our 8th grade social science classes took the lead, and well, they did not disappoint.

The chorus, band, and orchestra all played patriotic songs. Two veterans, one a teacher at our school, spoke about their experiences (one served in the Korean War and the teacher in the Navy during Desert Storm). But students ran the show. They introduced the speakers, transitioned the assembly, and explained what we, as a school community, can do to honor veterans.

Each student was given a sticker this morning with a handwritten name on it. The name was a soldier from Illinois who didn’t return from the Vietnam War. Eighth grade students wrote out these stickers and asked us to think about that person today – nearly 1000 men and women being honored for their service and sacrifice.

The eighth graders sold “Buddy Poppies” to raise money for our local VFW and allowed students to wear hats for a $1 donation to another charity for veterans. They introduced students to the “22 Kill”pushup challenge that raises awareness of the average of 22 veterans who commit suicide each day. They created their own memorial outside. They collected supplies for active duty troops.

It was an amazing example of students TAKING ACTION. And in a week that saw so much divisiveness, anger, and fear, the half hour we spent together in the gym reminded us of what is RIGHT about our country and gives me optimism that we CAN come together again.

There are days where I don’t know what to do

I always assumed that by my twentieth year of teaching, I would have figured everything out. How to deal with boring content. How to silence the student who can’t stop themselves. How to deal with the bobos*.

I feel that I have met my match this year. We have gone 1 to 1, which is great, but opens up a whole different set of challenges. Instead of notes being passed like they used to be, it’s Google Hangouts that I’m looking for. Students appearing to take diligent notes are actually playing Funky Karts or some other nonsensical game that I don’t understand.

The increase in technology should allow me to do things that I’ve never been able to do before. I’ve found EdPuzzle, which allows me to assign videos, insert questions, offer audio annotation, and see which students watched the whole thing, and answered questions correctly. It should be a great tool to personalize learning.

But, for reasons that no one gets, it doesn’t work on some students’ devices, which both changes my plans and frustrates students.

Lessons that should be exciting, engaging, and show some thought have had mixed results. Today, we discussed innovation – a topic that should excite students. And it did, for some. But others, not so much.

I had students who had amazing ideas for how they could change an existing product they use daily. A touch screen insulin pump. A virtual reality TV. A hair brush that dries your hair while you brush it. These all seemed like great ideas!

Then, there were others. I don’t think I have any students who would read my blog, but I won’t risk it either. Just think of the some of the goofiest innovations you can, and then imagine something goofier.

But the real frustration? So many students focused on the ridiculous, non-sensical ideas rather than being impressed by the truly visionary ones!

I know that life is full of roller coasters, but I’m not enjoying this one!

So… what do you do on the days like this? The days where all you want to do is crawl under a desk and hide? How do you recenter so that tomorrow IS a better day?

 *bobos – this is the name I’ve given to students who drive me nuts. It can be adapted to whatever need I have at the moment.

The Wisdom of Children

Ever since Common Core was rolled out earlier this decade, I have heard students, parents, and teachers complain about it. Most of the time, these people don’t really know what they are complaining about. My favorite question to ask is, “have you actually read the standards,” which is met with faces that look both confused and slightly annoyed that I would ask such a question.

Common Core is not perfect, but there are so many pieces of it that have pushed critical thinking, problem solving, and writing about things other than unicorns and rainbows. In social science, we teach students to both read critically, and write academically. We have talked about how you aren’t an expert by reading one source, but rather by reading many sources from different points of view. With regards to writing, you can write informational pieces or argument pieces, both of which take out words like “I, me, my, we, us” to give the author more authority than, “I think” or “we believe” statements.

So as my students have watched the turd tornado we call, “Election 2016,” they have been forced to think about things differently. We have talked about the need to read stories from a variety of points of view, watch different news channels, and evaluate online sources. We’ve talked about how MSNBC and Fox News are both biased, but if you know that going in, we can discover the other side’s point of view.

But, the greatest endorsement of Common Core came yesterday as we were talking about the third debate. By now, everyone knows that Trump has claimed, repeatedly, that if he loses, it’s because the system is rigged. We talked in class about media bias, and how that works both ways. We talked about how each state has its own “system,” so it would be 51 (including DC) systems that are rigged.

And then a student said,”we learned last year that when you make a claim, you have to back it up with evidence. Someone should mention this to Trump.”


When a 7th grader understands that claims need evidence and a presidential candidate doesn’t, that is a win for Common Core.

I’m not saying voter fraud doesn’t exist, I’m just impressed that 7th graders realize that words without anything to back them up should be questioned and fact-checked. If Mr. Trump has evidence that suggests that this is a real problem, he should share it, and then we could evaluate his argument. But throwing words out there with the only evidence being, “believe me,” it forces us to question the validity of this, and pretty much all, of his arguments.

A complaint on complaining

My first flirtations with leadership came when I was 26. I was named Team Leader and had visions of a community of learners that would be unlike anything seen before. I was lucky to work with teammates who had vision, drive, and the desire to try new things. My years with that team were amazing.

But being a team leader meant going to Building Leadership Team meetings. At one of the first ones I attended, I disagreed with a policy. Today, I have no idea what that policy was, but I was against it. I talked about how stupid it was, and pointless, and how it didn’t help teachers or students. When an assistant principal asked, “what do you suggest?” my answer was, “I don’t know, but not this.”

I walked out of that meeting proud. I had taken a stand against something that I didn’t agree with. I’m sure I told everyone I could find about the soapbox I had stood on to protest this awful policy. I was completely immature.

A week later, my principal left me a dreaded, “See me” note in my mailbox. I went in to his office nervous about what would happen next. He had a tendency to lose his cool at times and scream until you could see the veins pulsing in his head. He asked me to close the door, and I braced myself for what would happen when it latched. To my absolute surprise, he was sitting in his chair perfectly calm. He motioned for me to sit across from him, and I did. There was a long silence before he spoke. “Chris, what do you want to be known for in this building?”

I wasn’t prepared for that question, and stumbled through something about being a great teacher. Silence again. What he said next changed the way I would behave in future meetings. “Last week, you made it very clear that you didn’t agree with a school policy. But when asked to make a suggestion, you said, ‘I don’t know, but not this.’ If you want the respect of others, which all of us do, you need to give it. If you don’t have an idea of how to make the situation better, don’t complain about it.”

I was reminded of this today when I listened to a podcast. A teacher was on talking about amazing things that he can do in his classroom, but he complained about the curriculum he had to teach, the way professional development was handled in his building, and the policies of the district. In fact, he seemed to take great pride in pointing out all the problems education has from building to district to state to nationwide.

I kept waiting for him to talk about what he did to fix them, but that statement never came. He complained about the curriculum, but didn’t seem to volunteer to fix it. He complained about professional development, but didn’t say that he volunteered to lead better sessions. He complained about everything, but never said what his role was in making the situation better.

I cringed as I listened because I’ve been there. I’ve been that teacher who lacked the maturity to push towards a better direction. I was the one who complained without a solution in mind. I was the one who complained about the people standing up on Institute Day sharing something, while not volunteering to do it myself. But as my leadership roles have changed, I have a new appreciation for how to act and respond. I’ve spent the past three years working with a partner from another building on new assessments for our district without being compensated for weekly lunch meetings, summer work sessions, and countless hours of brainstorming phone calls, vox messages, and texts. I know that our assessments aren’t perfect, but they are better than what we’ve had in years past and I take pride in them.

I know there are people who don’t like them. Some have told me directly, others have quipped about it to others. For the people who tell me directly, I go back to the question I was asked in 2003, what do you suggest? When the person has a suggestion, I thank them profusely, even if I don’t agree with it, because at least they’ve thought it through. But to the ones who don’t have a suggestion, I think about what my principal said to me years ago, what do you want people to know you for?

Who/What Inspires Me #worldgeochat

This week’s #worldgeochat is all about inspiration. After writing the first question, “Who and/or what inspires you?” I realized that there is no way to answer this in 140 characters, so, I blog for the first time in a long time.

I’ll tackle the “what” first. What inspires me most is the idea that I can do something for students that no one has done before. I can show them the world. My 7th graders have never had any version of geography before coming into my classroom, so I get to be their global tour guide. Just like a bad tour guide can ruin a vacation, I can ruin their idea of the world if I don’t give them the best tour possible. That tour includes some topics that they love, and others that they don’t, but I have to be inspired to give them the best tour possible. So in short, what inspires me is the fear of what happens to those students if I don’t give 100%.

Who inspires me? So many different ways to answer this question. Family and friends inspire me. Colleagues & my PLN inspire me. My students inspire me. The stories of anonymous heroes all over the world standing up for what they believe in inspire me. But I want to talk about one man who inspired me when it comes to World Geography. That man is Michael Palin.

Michael Palin is probably best known for his work with Monty Python, and that is where I discovered him as a teenager, but that didn’t really inspire me. When I was hired as a World Geography teacher and realized that my knowledge of the world was pretty limited, I rediscovered him. Over the last 25+ years, Michael Palin has been traveling the world and making documentary series. My first year of teaching, I found copies of Around the World in 80 Days, Pole to Pole, Full Circle. I watched hours of these documentaries as he traveled the route that Phileas Fogg did, journeyed from the North Pole to the South Pole along the 30 E longitude line, and circumnavigated the Pacific Ocean. I was amazed by his genuine interest in the lives of the people he met and his desire to learn about places he knew little of.

On a whim, I wrote him a letter. Just a thank you for being an inspirational figure and looking at the world and seeing the good, not the bad. I was shocked a few weeks later when he sent a letter back to me telling that “Geography is key” and that if we don’t stop and learn about our neighbors, we are in real trouble.

I met Michael Palin a few years later at an author signing in Chicago. He was kind to me, but more interested in knowing how his work had been passed on to students in my room.

His most recent series was on Brazil in 2012, and while I didn’t see all of it, the parts I did see captured the same passion and excitement that inspired me when I began teaching geography 14 years ago!

So thank you Michael Palin. You are an inspiration to me that I have tried to pass on to the 1500+ students I’ve taught geography to over the years!

No, I’m not insane, middle schoolers are the best!

At some point, anyone who teaches middle school has been asked the question, “You teach middle school??? Are you insane???” Typically the response is shluff it off with a chuckle and some comment acknowledging that middle schoolers are a bizarre group.

What gets lost though is the reality. Despite raging hormones, moments of absolute stupidity, and the struggle to figure out who they are, middle schoolers are perhaps the best people in the world. Literally. The best people in the world.

I say this not for dramatic effect, but because I truly believe it. These kids want to make a difference. They have the ideals that many of their parents lost. They know that given the chance, they can do something amazing for the world.

I saw it with my students last year and thought that it was just a special group. That group was special, but no more than any other one. The difference for them, was my willingness to take a risk on them. We talked water issues, they acted. They raised over $4000 to help a school in Kenya build sanitary latrines, a hand-washing station, and a clean drinking water source for their students.

My group this year has vowed not to be outdone. They are attempting to raise $10,000 to help schools in India, South Sudan, and the Dominican Republic.

I believe in them. I know they will make it because I’ve watched them this week do so amazing things. Students going door to door to talk to neighbors about the issue and collect money. Students designing posters and t-shirts to promote the cause. They have come up with amazing ideas to raise money – some traditional ones like bake sales, and others that are not so traditional (have you ever seen teachers duct taped to walls?).

What is the most amazing is how they are working together. The video gamers, who rarely socialize with anyone, are planning a tournament together. The students who give an apathetic look most days get unbelievably excited when planning Human Hungry Hippos games (again, it is a real thing and quite hilarious). It’s great to see all of their collaboration, but the best one, the one that nearly brought me to tears, was watching a girl who has been truly anti-social this year, writing a jingle for our campaign, singing it acappella, and then recruiting girls who I don’t think she’s ever talked to sing it with her. It was amazing.

That’s why I teach middle schoolers.

Little kids aren’t independent enough to do this.

High schoolers are often to wrapped up in their own lives to do this.

Middle schoolers do this because they are awesome. They aren’t the punks that people are horrified by at the mall. They aren’t the zombies glued to their phones like so many people think they are. They are THE BEST.

Can you really be a “Master Teacher?”

I’ve read a few blog posts recently about being a “Master Teacher.” I listen to podcasts where “Master Teachers” are interviewed. I’ve been in meetings where the phrase “Master Teacher” was tossed around. But for as many times as I’ve read or heard those two words, the question I keep coming back to is this, can you really ever be a Master Teacher?

You can be a really good teacher, heck, you can be an AMAZING teacher.

You can be an expert in the content you teach.

You can know your students’ likes, dislikes, hobbies, siblings, home life, and everything else.

You can reflect on your practice and make changes tomorrow.

You can spot a problem, and make changes immediately.

You can be looked to as a teacher leader by your colleagues.

You can be “Excellent” on your evaluations.

But can you ever really master teaching?

Teaching is fluid – it changes constantly. New ideas are introduced, new initiatives are pushed out. Your students change every nine months, and what worked well with one group might not work with the next one.

Maybe its semantics. Maybe its ego. Maybe its because saying someone is a “really good teacher” just isn’t enough. I don’t know where the “master teacher” phrase came from, but I wish it to go away. The best teachers I know are the ones that will be the first to admit that they have in no way “mastered” the craft of teaching. They are the ones who until the day they retire continue to work hard, try new things, and put the needs of students first.

You might be able to master a part of teaching – a master questioner, a master of developing lessons, a master assessor – but the idea that we can master the entire craft of teaching is somewhat ridiculous. And honestly, I think the desire to go back and improve each day, or admit that a lesson failed, or ask for help when you need it is what makes a teacher a really good teacher.