Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Learning to Teach Again: Questions

I often tell the students in my Education courses, "Questions are good! We love questions!" This usually comes up in conversations about pedagogy (the how of teaching and learning) and especially related to the content knowledge (the what of teaching and learning) we need to have to be effective teachers. I try to emphasize to my teachers-in-training that questions are evidence of thinking, wondering, planning, wrestling, and--often--growth and development.

But I think the idea of students asking them questions scares them a little too. "Will I have enough knowledge to answer all of their questions?" is a common concern.

I always try to reassure them that as the teacher, you don't have to have all the answers. While you can't say, "I don't know..." every day and maintain credibility as a teacher...you can say, "Let's find out!" at any time, and invite the students in to the learning as they answer their own questions.

But all of this talk in theory came together for me in practice a few weeks ago in class. In my World Regional Geography class, we spent a few class meetings investigating Latin America (Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and South America) and the often-complicated relationship between the United States and these regions. As an introduction to one lesson, I pulled out an old technique I used often in my middle school teaching practice.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Learning to Teach Again: Testing Trials

I am a big believer in closely matching my assessment vehicles to what I want students to know, understand, and do. I think that they way we assess students matter, and I try to use a variety of different kinds of assessments to help me understand what my students understand. This means I use some very informal in-class assessments like quick-writes, Padlet boards to capture their questions, and even monitoring the conversations in small group discussions. But this also means I use a variety of formal, summative assessments that require students to synthesize their learning.

In other words, yes, I give tests.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Semper Reformanda

I've had people ask me sometimes where the inspiration for blogging comes from. Most of the time, it's something that recently happened, or that I recently read, or a recent conversation that sparks a post. Most of what I'm writing here on the ol' blog is just my way of thinking things through, honestly. But once in a while, I have a post that I've been ruminating on for a long, long time. This is one of those posts.

About a year and a half ago, I was in Iowa City at a conference, and my friends and I stopped in to a coffee shop to grab a cup. It was one of those wonderfully hipster places--definitely catering to the university crowd, you know? But I was surprised and struck by the artwork on the walls. In particular, there was a fantastic update to the classic portrait of Martin Luther that I'm sure you've seen before. But in this piece, Luther is decked out in fashion not that different from the barista who served my pour-over that evening. I pulled out my phone to snap a pic:

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Learning to Teach Again: Teaching Controversy

I don't generally think of myself as a rabble-rouser, but I wonder sometimes if my students perceive me this way. I know that I do sometimes speak passionately about topics I care a lot about, but I also try to listen at least as much as I speak. The challenge: sometimes the curriculum involves content that is (or could be) controversial, particularly if there are a variety of viewpoints present among the learners.

I had a bit of that feeling in my geography class today. We are examining Latin America right now, and today we were focusing on Mexico. In particular, we were thinking about contemporary issues in Mexico--and, since we are here in the U.S., about Mexico's relationship with the United States. On the docket were things like NAFTA, drugs, and migration. Migration, in particular, has the potential to be politicized very rapidly, so I wanted to handle with care.


Thursday, October 19, 2017

Learning to Teach Again: Quizzing Basic Knowledge

Over the past 20 years I've served as a professional educator, my thoughts on basic knowledge and skills have fluctuated.

Early in my career, I know I focused a lot on "just the facts." Students in my math classes learned algorithms for solving particular kinds of problems. Students in my science classes memorized a lot of definitions for vocabulary. The idea for me: they have to know the facts! And...perhaps cynically...it's easier to assess their factual knowledge than the deeper understanding that I hope they will also develop.

Looking back, I now realize that about five years in to my teaching career, a shift began to happen. As I matured as a teacher, I began to de-emphasize basic factual knowledge and instead began to focus more attention on ensuring that students could actually do something with that knowledge. Eventually this meant I embraced standards-based assessment practices for my science classroom, focusing on giving students multiple opportunities to both learn concepts as well as demonstrate their understanding of the concepts. I remember having a (somewhat heated) conversation with a colleague during this time in which I said something like, "If they can find the answer on Wikipedia in under 30 seconds, they don't need to memorize it!"

Friday, October 13, 2017

Learning to Teach Again: Daring Acts of Pedagogy

Last week I enjoyed attending the Heartland Christian Teachers' Convention held here at Dordt College. They keynote speaker was someone I deeply respect (and...let's be honest...I'm kind of a fanboy) and have followed on Twitter for years: Rick Wormeli. Rick is a gifted presenter, a passionate educator, and an intellectual pot-stirrer. He is unafraid to challenge teachers to rethink their classroom practices, and to not do things just because "we've always done it that way." (Not to say we need to crave novelty...but that we need to be reflective, introspective, and willing to adapt.)

It was great to have Rick here on campus, and I confess, I attended every session he presented. (And live tweeted them...) It wasn't necessarily "new" material for me--I've been reading things he wrote since the mid 2000s when I was doing my Masters degree. But it was good reminders of the things I believe to be true about assessment, about differentiated instruction, about meeting the needs of students, and about teaching for understanding.

As an added bonus, I got to help out with a tech issue, and then took this awesome selfie with Rick:

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Readiness to Learn: A Reflection on the Silage Pile

Last night I had a new experience: I helped cover a silage pile.

You should know that I'm a city kid through-and-through, and even though I've lived in the midwest for quite a few years now, I know next to nothing about farming. But when I had the opportunity to help out with a church fundraiser that involved heading out into the country, I was up for it.

My view from the bottom of the pile, where I was holding down the tarp.