Archive for the ‘Professional Development’ Category

Back in the Classroom: How’d I Do?

As I mentioned back in February, I had the opportunity to get back into the classroom this past semester and teach an undergraduate course called Literacy in the Content Area Classroom at Delaware Valley University in Doylestown, PA. I taught a pretty small class of mostly sophomores and junior secondary ed majors in a variety of disciplines, and while I don’t think any of us were enthused about the idea of a 3-hour long class on a Monday night, you’d never know it by the level of energy and commitment these future teachers brought to class each week.

I still haven’t received my official course evaluations as conducted by the university, but toward the end of the course I asked my students to reflect in writing on some elements of the course; specifically, what I did this semester that they found particularly valuable as well as what I could improve upon for next time.

I appreciated the feedback I received from my students. I have no specific reason to believe they pulled their punches (although it would be disingenuous to not acknowledge their potential for discomfort with critiquing their teacher), and much of what they said to me aligned with my own observations & reflection. Below are some of the common themes that emerged from their feedback (not every single suggestion) as well as my own reflections.

Improvements for Next Time

More emphasis on Bloom’s Taxonomy. At some point toward the end of our first class period, I noticed I kept getting quizzical looks whenever I referenced Bloom’s Taxonomy. I naively assumed that all students had at least a passing familiarity with Bloom’s, which they informed me they did not. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), I got slammed with the flu later that week and had to cancel the second class. In between shivering spats and vomiting spells, I managed to put together an assignment for them to complete over the week that would provide a “101” intro to Bloom and get it uploaded to Blackboard. Upon my return, we dug in a little deeper, looking at Bloom through the lens of questioning. I got a lot of positive feedback on that along with the suggestion that I spend even more time on Bloom next time I teach the course. Roger that.

More time on discussing fiction. This one surprised me. For a class with very few students majoring in the humanities, I tried to tailor the course to what I thought would be most beneficial to agriculture and science majors (the majority of the students) and emphasize approaches to non-fiction texts (we did cover fiction, but in about 2-3 classes, instead of the 6 or 7 devoted to non-fiction). My English teacher soul loved this response, so I’ll do a better job balancing fiction and non-fiction next time.

More in-depth looks at technology tools (e.g., Newsela). This I added toward the end of the class almost as an afterthought. The students seemed to like it but I think we were all a bit frayed at this point in the semester (or maybe just me?) so it was hard for me to get a good read on how valuable it was for them in the moment. This suggestion came up a few times so I’ll definitely have to reconsider not only how I approach this (I considered having them explore NoRedInk as well but scrapped it because of time constraints) but what larger structural changes I’ll have to make to the course in order to accommodate it all.

What They Liked About This Time

Midterm conferences. Taking a page from Dean Shareski (can’t think of a specific blog post to link to but I’ve followed his writing about teaching undergraduates closely over the years) I took my assigned midterm “period” and divided it up into 15 minute segments for individual conferences with each student. This was facilitated greatly by the fact that I only had 13 students in my class; I’m not sure how (or if) I would do it with a much larger class, but I’ll cross that bridge if/when I come to it.

Optional second mini-lesson. To make a long story short, I had originally required and planned for each student to conduct two mini-lessons. A few factors led me to decide to scrap the second, but keeping in mind that some students may already have started work on their second lesson, I didn’t want that work to be for naught. I presented my students with a choice: you can either skip the second lesson (in which case the score from your first lesson would count twice in the overall accounting of the final grade) or you can present your second lesson. Nobody chose to present their second lesson after all, but many students told me they appreciated having the option to choose which way to go rather than being told.

New (to them) types of assignments. For one assignment, students were given a choice of working solo or in pairs on either a) giving a book talk with a corresponding close reading activity or b) choosing a reading selection, developing a discussion prompt, and actively moderating an online discussion over the course of a week. Many students had never seen or heard of book talks before but said they liked getting exposure to books they wouldn’t have read otherwise (my only stipulation was the book had to be about teaching). Most students had participated in online discussions before, but developing and moderating them gave them a whole new appreciation for the potential of the medium (as well as how they feel that potential is not often reached and how much work is involved in getting there).

My Reflections

Aside from generally really enjoying getting back into the teaching groove after so many years away, one big takeaway from this semester has been the single-point rubric. After hearing about it on the Cult of Pedagogy podcast and then finding it referenced elsewhere, I used them pretty much exclusively this semester. The students told me they much preferred them to the typical 4-point rubric, as did I. I even shared the rubrics I developed with some teachers and administrators I work with for their own implementation. Initial feedback from them has been positive as well, so looks like we may be onto something here.

Not that I didn’t know this already, but this semester reinforced for me just how hard teaching is. My inner perfectionist knows I would have done a better job had I not been teaching at 6pm on Monday nights after having already worked a full day and commuted 45 minutes to the university, but regardless – teaching is intellectually taxing (one of the reasons I like it so much, tbh) and proportionately rewarding. Aside from the course content, I also did my best to imbue my students with relevant pearls of wisdom here and there gleaned from my years of experience and my current position, especially as someone who hires teachers and has some insight as to what might set them apart from other candidates. Perhaps the job hunt is too far away for most of them, but hopefully in a year or two when they’re prepping for their first round of interviews, their memories will jog with something I said and maybe it’ll do some good for them.

All in all, it was a simultaneously tiring and energizing experience, and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to teach the course again, tweaked ever so slightly for the better, with a new crop of future teachers.

Progress Monitoring: Checking In On My 2018 Reading Challenge

At the risk of turning this blog into a reading log…

As I have for the past few years, in January I took the annual Goodreads Reading Challenge and set myself a goal of reading 30 books in 2018 (I also set a goal of running 300 miles in 2018, but the less said about that right now, the better).

At just past 1/3 of the way through the year, I’ve finished 15 books.  As in past years, I have my 10+ hour weekly commute and access to multiple audiobook sources to thank for much of my productivity here.  In reverse chronological, these are the books I’ve enjoyed so far this year:

  • A Higher Loyalty, by James Comey
  • Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, & Consent on Campus, by Vanessa Grigoriadis
  • The Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie
  • Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, by Adam Alter
  • Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading, by Kylene Beers & Bob Probst
  • All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire, by Jonathan Abrams
  • The History of White People, by Nell Irvin Painter
  • Dear Martin, by Nic Stone
  • 50 Instructional Routines to Develop Content Literacy (3rd ed.), by Douglas Fisher, William G. Brozo, Nancy Frey, & Gay Ivey
  • Civil War, by Mark Millar
  • Brain Myths Exploded: Lessons from Neuroscience, by Indre Viskontas
  • Reading Nonfiction: Notice & Note Stances, Signposts, & Strategies, by Kylene Beers & Bob Probst
  • On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, by Timothy Snyder
  • A Life in Parts, by Bryan Cranston
  • Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, by bell hooks

I’ve got two books in progress right now: the audiobook of Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here is my commute buddy for the next week or so, and I’m just about done with Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele’s When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir.

Next up in the hopper: Morrissey’s Autobiography, and I’m really excited about next month’s American release of the latest book by one of my favorite authors, Irvine Welsh’s Dead Men’s Trousers, a continuation of the events of the Trainspotting universe.

I suppose I like to share the books I’m reading in an effort to provide my fellow educators some suggestions for something valuable to read.  I know I rely heavily on suggestions from friends, colleagues, and social media connections, especially when it comes to books about education.

On a related note, I just wrapped up teaching my first undergraduate course in teaching literacy in the content area classroom, and one of the choice assignments my students could choose was to do a book talk and close reading activity on an education-related book of their choice.

I liked this assignment because it was a low-risk way for students to read something they might not otherwise have the opportunity (or inclination) to read and reflect a bit on why they liked it, and why we might like it too.  While I will definitely refine the parameters of the assignment if I teach the class again, it was interesting to hear my students share their takes on books like Teach Like a PirateReadicide, and Understanding by Design with their classmates.  These are books that I’ve only ever heard discussed through the lens of veteran teachers, so to hear pre-service teachers’ perspectives on them was a treat for me, and more importantly, will hopefully inspire their classmates to read them and consider their messages as well as they head into their own classrooms in the coming months and years.

Broadening Our Audience: Published Again!

After our short article “Teaching Social Media at Lawrence High School” was published in NJASA‘s newsletter On Target last spring (itself a follow-up to our January 2017 presentation at Techspo ’17 in Atlantic City, NJ), I spoke with my colleagues Dr. Andrew Zuckerman and Ms. Natalie Richey about fleshing it out further with more details and examples and maybe trying to get it published in a more widely circulated publication.

Just under a year later, our work paid off!  Andrew, Natalie, and I are proud that our updated, more fully fleshed-out article (with the same title) was published this week in Educational Viewpoints, the annual peer-reviewed publication by the NJ Principals & Supervisors’ Association (NJPSA).

Educational Viewpoints is also published in hard-copy format, but you can read the article online at their website (or mine).

I’ve been a member of NJPSA for four years now and have always been thoroughly impressed with the quality of professional support (including workshops) they provide.  I’m very proud to have been selected for inclusion in this year’s edition of EV.

Walking the Walk

I’m very happy to be back in the classroom once again this semester. After I stopped teaching high school English to become a school psychologist, I was only out of the classroom for three years before I had the opportunity to teach a graduate level class in developmental disabilities to mid-career teacher certification students. I did that for two summers before demand for the course dwindled and my services were no longer required. Now, six years on, I am teaching an undergraduate course this semester (for the same university) on teaching literacy in content area classrooms.

This is good for me for a number of reasons. First and foremost, I have always missed teaching since leaving the classroom ten years ago. I may not have missed some elements of the job, but I have always missed the act and art of developing engaging lessons and teaching students, regardless of age. I also think it’s good for me, as somebody who evaluates teachers as part of my job, to keep my hand in the craft as best as I can. In no way am I equating teaching undergraduates to teaching high school (or middle or elementary school); each context has unique opportunities and challenges, and certainly I deal with far less oversight, bureaucracy, and red tape in my adjunct teaching position than does a full-time K-12 teacher. This position, however, does afford me the opportunity to put into practice the suggestions I give my staff, as well as try for myself the great things I see them doing with their students.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t feeling a bit rusty and anxious about going back after such a long layoff. Planning a course from scratch is tough, especially since I haven’t ever taught a full semester of three-hour classes before (those grad classes were accelerated summer sessions; just 7 or 8 weeks). From the “that’s just my luck” files, I also came down with the flu early in the semester, which necessitated canceling the second class and risking losing whatever momentum we gained in the first class. I’m happy to say, however, that despite the anxiety and the uncertainty and the hours of planning I’ve put into the course (and will continue to, as I refine my vision for what it needs to be), it energizes me to no end to work with a group of enthusiastic future educators who have been kind enough to humor my dumb jokes late on Monday nights.

It would be much easier for me to turn this course into a series of three-hour lectures, but while I am a man of many flaws, hypocrisy generally isn’t one of them. I’m seizing this opportunity to walk the walk and live up to the high standards I hold for my staff every day, hopefully achieving the dual purpose of teaching my students the information they need to learn while also modeling effective teaching practices they can take with them into their own classrooms.

Habits of Mind: Remaining Open to Continuous Learning

This post is part of a series on sixteen “Habits of Mind” put forth by Arthur L. Costa and Bena Kallick as being “necessary for success in school, work, and life” (Costa & Kallick, 2010, p. 212).

Remaining Open to Continuous Learning: Learn from experiences!  Having humility and pride when admitting we don’t know; resisting complacency.

…I guess it’s a loose interpretation of the word “series” since I haven’t written a Habits of Mind post in over three years, but better late than never, right?

Of all the Habits of Mind, I think this one is probably the most important, as well as the most difficult, for educators to exercise.  I say this because it requires us to remain humble, teachable, and open to new learning despite enormous pressure from multiple sources to appear as “experts”, either in a given content area or in the field of education in general.

That’s certainly not to say we do not achieve respectable levels of expertise throughout our careers.  As I begin my 18th year, I certainly know more than I did in my first, tenth, or even my seventeenth, and I hope to continue that trend well into the foreseeable future.

The rub comes when we start to believe our own hype.  It takes a special degree of self-awareness to balance the knowledge of what one knows with the understanding that there is much yet to learn.  I did not start to achieve that balance until at least several years into my career, having spent the first few keeping up appearances in order to maintain the trust of my students, their families, and my colleagues – at least, that’s what I thought I had to do.

Call it maturity, experience, or something else, but I’m much more comfortable saying “I don’t know” at this stage in the game than I was as a 23-year-old rookie.  I chalk some of that up to the fact that when I don’t know something, my background is deep enough that I usually know where I can go or who I can consult to find the information I need.  The rest of it, I suppose, is that I’m finally over the need to feel I need to prove my knowledge or value in a given moment because I prove my knowledge and value every day in my job.

I’ve had a few “do-overs” in my career so far, starting as a teacher, then moving to a school psychologist, and most recently to an instructional supervisor.  The first year in each position was the roughest, but I took those opportunities to ask a lot of questions, do a lot of listening, and keep my eyes wide open, observing everything I could.  Starting those positions in a place of humility, rather than aggressively trying to prove how much I knew or throw my authority around, was not necessarily easy, but it was worthwhile, as doing so helped me to continue my learning and move forward as more confident and, ultimately, more beneficial to my students and colleagues than if I had just tried to bulldoze my way forward from the word go.


Costa, A.L. & Kallick, B.  (2010).   It takes some getting used to: rethinking curriculum for the 21st century.  In H. H. Jacobs (Ed.), Curriculum 21: essential education for a changing world (pp. 210-226).  Alexandria, VA: ASCD.