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Summer break seems to come out of nowhere. Logically you know it is coming, but with the breakneck pace of June it almost feels like an illusion. Then it happens; you realize, if you are a teacher, you will not be reporting to work for the next two months. And, if you are an administrator, you will have shorter work days, less crisis to deal with, and more time to think, plan, and learn. There is more family time for everyone, more time to spent as you see fit, and a much needed recharging of the batteries.

If you are not in the education field, you may begrudge teachers for what you see as a two month glimpse into retired life, but, for us in the field, we know when you do it right, you often leave it all on the field so to speak and need time to reinvent yourself for the challenge that the next school year and next group of students will bring.

No matter how much you love teaching or being an administrator, no matter how much you love kids, the challenge of changing lives, and/or of inspiring the next generation of leaders, you would be hard pressed to find an educator who doesn’t wish they could slow down the clock to make summer last just a little bit longer.  

I do not claim to have a magic time machine or otherworldly power that can control time, but I do have some strategies that can help you get the most out of your summer recharge. These tips will prevent it from feeling like you put your head on your pillow late in June and wake up in late August with a few precious days left of your reprieve.

If you are like me, you hate those “Debbie Downers” who must perseverate on how quickly the time is going this summer. You see them the first week in July and they say, “wow, summer is flying already.” See them later in the month, “I can’t believe it is almost August already.” By the time August hits they have already stuck a fork in the summer and comment on the shorter and shorter nights.

I want to say enough already! Let’s enjoy each summer day as its own day! There is no reason a late August day can’t be just as much summer as a late June one.  Don’t start the countdown; just enjoy each day for what it is. Try these tips to enjoy each and every summer day.

Tip 1- Create a Summer Bucket List

I used to panic come June, afraid that summer would come and go and I would not get everything in that I wanted to get in. So now, I create a summer bucket list of things that optimized summer for me and that I didn’t want to miss out on.  Baseball games, a concert at Bethel Woods, a water park with the kids, a day at the beach, a book I wanted to read, a book I want to start writing, you get the idea.

Once I had my bucket list, I was able to calendar some of the events and my anxiety subsided. Experiences and breaks from the norm change our perception of time.  By creating a bucket list you will help to ensure you do not fall into a pattern of the mundane where each day blends into the next, a surefire way to make “time fly.”

Tip 2- Create A New Habit

Take the time this summer to create a new habit. I suggest something that will help you get through the dog days of winter. Those times when the nights are long, sunshine is at a premium, your students are at their neediest, and you are questioning if you are making a difference. Creating a positive habit this summer that you can bring with you during those tough times will be invaluable. It can help you to gain a sense of accomplishment. Achieving a goal is another way to give summer a more dense feel.  Some suggestions:

Meditate each morning for 10 minutes- Check out Headspace a simple guided meditation App.

Go for a walk for 20 minutes a day, bonus points for listening to a podcast on your walk. My favorite is Revisionist History by Malcolm Gladwell.

Start a gratitude journal that you keep on your nightstand and list three things you are grateful for before going to bed or upon waking up.

Listen to three songs, uninterrupted each day. Find a place you can be alone and undisturbed and just be with the songs. Listen to the words, the notes, the vibe. You will discover some amazing stories, notes, and escapes that you can revisit when you are feeling stressed during the year.  

Tip 3- Read

Nothing says summer more than reading. It may be a trashy beach novel, a self improvement book, or a professional book that helps you get excited about your craft. Summer is a time to take a vacation into a great book. My problem has often been that there are so many good books that I can get overwhelmed and end up wasting away in Facebookville. A strategy that has helped me has been to decide what my next reads will be in the following areas:  

  • Professional
  • Pleasure
  • Personal growth

I read only those three books until finished or I decided the book is not for me and move on. This has helped me to stay focused and still gives me choice in what I read, depending on my mood. I also commit to reading a professional book for at least 15 minutes a day. I set the timer on my computer or phone and immerse myself in the book for those 15 minutes. I often find that I do more than one 15 minute session a day or that I keep reading beyond the 15 minutes, but the 15 minute commitment helps me to waste less time procrastinating in a fog of idleness and preventing time from slipping away without even realizing it is going.  Some of my reads so far this summer:

Daring Greatly- Brene Brown

Let them Speak- Rebecca Coda and Rick Jetter

Culturize- Jimmy Casas

Fair is not Always Equal- second edition- Rick Wormeli

Sparks in the Dark- Travis Crowder and Todd Nesloney

I have so many more on my list, but hey it’s a long summer! If you haven’t read Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros that is great choice.  I plan to revisit this masterpiece again this summer.  

Tip 4-Reconnect

There are so many people who we value, who we respect, or who we just like being around that we lose touch with or can’t seem to find the time to spend time with during the hectic pace of day to day life. Summer is the perfect opportunity to reconnect with those people. Pick two to three people who you have not spent as much time with as you would like or that you have lost touch with. Take the time to call them, email them, send them a letter. Nothing slows down time more than human interaction with people we care about.

As an administrator, lunch during the year is often woofed down without even tasting the food, when I even have time to eat. This summer I am trying to go out for lunch at least one day a week with a friend, a colleague, or someone I haven’t seen in a long time. These encounters are often the highlight of my week. Being present with people without worrying about the next task just feels right.

Tip 5 – Day Trip

One of the things that gives my a pang of ache in my stomach is the realization that my three boys, who will all be in High School this year, no longer are as excited to go on family adventures as they were just a few short years ago. Some of my favorite days were day trips to Howes Caverns, Yankee Stadium, and The Bronx Zoo.

A day trip in the summer can seem like a hassle at times, too many hoops to jump through for a sweaty day waiting in long lines, but I have never regretted a day trip after we got there. Even the bad ones left great memories, great stories, and plenty of laughs. Go on adventures this summer, go with the kids, go with your spouse, go with your buddies, or just go with yourself. Check out all the strange and wonderful things that are within a two hour radius of where you live. The more adventures you experience the longer your summer will be!

Tip 6- Play the Notice Game

I started this exercise a few years ago during the holiday season. I always loved Christmas decorations, but as I got older the season seemed to go quicker and quicker. That’s when I started playing the notice game.  Every time I was driving to work, or the store, or wherever, I tried to notice all of the Christmas decorations in detail. The game was much easier as a passenger, but I could still notice a lot while driving, especially at red lights.  More recently I have expanded this game and played it on walks, in my yard, or while looking out the window at work. I pick some to “notice” for the day. Today, it was as many red flowers or plants that I could find. Some days it has been as many different birds as I can find, other days it is cars, or street signs, or sports hats. This game has help me to stay present in my day, to pay attention more, and to truly stop and smell the roses.

Tip 7- Learn something

There is so much to learn, to master, to discover, yet the problem again lies in the fact that it can be overwhelming.  Try to pick one new skill to learn this summer. Try using the 15 minute timer again and commit to 15 minutes a day on your new skill. When we accomplish something that we committed to, rather than burying our heads in the phone, we get the most out of our time and it doesn’t see quite as fleeting.  Some possibilities:

  • Learn Spanish
  • Write a blog
  • Learn a tech tool
  • Learn a new instructional practice
  • Play the ukulele
  • Master golf

Ok, no one ever really masters golf, but you get the idea. Put yourself out there and learn a new skill.  

Tip 8- Do Something New

Do you ever wonder why as a little kid a year seemed like, as they say in Sandlot, to last “FOR-EV-ER!!!”? The four years of High School and four of college can hold so many memories, yet the last 10 teaching in the same room at the same school can seem to disappear in the blink of an eye?  When we have new experiences, they are more memorable, time seems to last longer, we have stronger memories. When we are young everything is fresh and new and full of possibility.

As we get older, we know what we like, we don’t like to be inconvenienced, and we can see change as the enemy.  I say slow down time this summer and, as Brenee Brown says, “Dare Greatly”, put yourself out there, and do different. It may be as simple as trying a new restaurant or it may be as daring as skydiving. Whatever it is you do this summer, do different. Have a new experience, have a new food, go on an exotic vacation, do different! You may not like it, you may love it, but either way you will be getting the most out of your time this summer when you do.

We are in what Florida Georgia line calls the sweetheart of summer.  We have settled into the summer mode, the relaxation and good vibes of summer and its inevitable end is far enough away that the negative nellies are not yet signaling its impending doom. It is not too late, you have the opportunity to slow down your summer, to make the most of it.

From one educator to another–I know how hard you work; I know how you lay yourself on the line each and every day. You deserve a long summer that will get you ready to do battle and fight the good fight for our kids come September.  

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There is a different vibe when it comes to the summer school classroom. The building smells different. The pace is a bit slower. In buildings with no air conditioning, everything is pretty much sticky. The sounds of those large airport fans can be heard in all of the hallways. The building staff looks at you a bit strange, as if there is something wrong with you being in the building during July and part of August. That old corny teacher joke about July and August will often get thrown in your face by a well intentioned staff member. And, yet, there you are heading into a classroom to teach summer school. Some look at this as a negative experience before they even start. You’re meeting kids who “obviously” aren’t good students and have to teach them things “all over again”.

Yet, these eight weeks could be the most rewarding for a kid who really needs an academic win. And, they have the potential to be a time that allows you to evolve as an educator.

My first official teaching job was actually a summer school position. Right after finishing up all of my requirements and student teaching, I had thoughts of kicking back for the summer because that’s what teachers are supposed to do, right? After all, I was fortunate enough to get hired for a full time position in September and figured I was set. The harsh reality of a 22 year old is that things like a car, gas, and all of that isn’t free. So, I opened up a newspaper and searched the want ads. For the younger readers, this is the paper equivalent of a job board or Linkedin. I found a middle school teaching position posted and called. I was given the job over the phone and told to report on Monday.

I met with the summer school principal who gave me the district curriculum and told me to make it my own. Basically, I was told to give the kids “another crack” at passing the course before they would move on to high school. I went home and picked the books I was familiar with and wrote out an eight week curriculum that included vocabulary tests, daily reading quizzes, and a whole lot of reading. I was new and didn’t know better. I would learn quickly.

I entered the room the next day and met a group of 12 kids, mostly boys, who weren’t all that excited to see me. I handed out my shiny new syllabus and told them that we would have some fun and get through it together. They perked up a bit with the word fun and genuinely laughed when I quoted from the movie Happy Gilmore. But, then a kid raised his hand and asked me the tough question.

“Why do we have to read The Outsiders again? I did that already.”

And, I responded with the dumbest answer you could possibly give.

“Well, you obviously didn’t do it well the first time so we’ll get it right this time.”

Yup, that’s a way to lose a class within the first 15 minutes of the summer. I just made 12 kids feel like losers with one sentence.

Needless to say, that summer was rough. I was the rawest of raw teachers who could hook a class with some pop culture references, but I was plodding along for a lot of the summer. Finally, in a moment of frustration, I broke down.

“Guys, you aren’t dumb. What can I do to actually get you to do the work?”

What followed was a 45 minute discussion about things they liked and didn’t like about English. They wanted to read new stuff that they were interested in. They wanted projects and something creative. I had kids telling me that they would do work and they were actually telling me they would be interested. So, I stayed after the session and worked in the classroom on a project that would carry us through the last two weeks. The 90 minute sessions were broken down into three parts. 30 minutes of reading something that I picked, 30 minutes of either creative writing or analytical writing, and then 30 minutes of working on a project that had them working as competing companies where they had to create a product, a marketing campaign, and then pitch it to a group of potential investors. Each group had to submit a written proposal and do research as to why their product would be needed. Looking back, I was doing argument writing before argument writing was a thing. Sometimes being “young and dumb” can allow you to stumble into good ideas too.

Those last two weeks were actually fun. Kids liked what we read because I was choosing some edgy stuff, like excerpts from Makes Me Wanna Holler by Nathan McCall or some poetry by Countee Cullen and Biggie Smalls. They wrote because they were interested in the literature we were reading, although looking back there wasn’t a whole lot of depth to my writing instruction. That comes with experience, I guess. And, their projects were tremendous. I invited the principal to be a judge of their presentations and he came away impressed.

So, the lessons I learned from that first year of summer school were ones that I have taken with me and held on to for the last 20 years. No kid wants to fail. No kid wants to sit in a class, even in summer school, and be miserable. And, sometimes, you have to look past curriculum to get kids to be interested. As long as you are teaching the skills that the standards are dictating, the vehicle that gets you there shouldn’t matter.

I taught summer school for the next 19 years, giving it up last summer because of other district responsibilities and, well, it was just time to pass the torch. During those 19 years, I was able to share a classroom with some great kids, many of whom I had in class in later years. Summer school does not have to be a miserable experience. It can help ignite a love of a subject for a kid who didn’t succeed during the year or, at the very least, it can show them how to successfully navigate the subject so they don’t have to spend future summers in school. And, it can actually improve your teaching. If you go in with a mindset of wanting to help kids and making the summer session engaging, new, and rich, so many great things can happen.

Use It As A Testing Ground

Have a new idea or a new approach you’ve been wanting to try? Summer school is the ideal laboratory for this. One of my goals for each year is to do something different. Summer school was always my testing ground. One year, I had been hopped up about the Paideia Socratic Seminar Method. So, I did all the research, attended a seminar, and then spent the summer working on it with my summer classes. I was honest with the kids that I was trying something new and I told them that I wanted their feedback.

This accomplished two things. First, it accomplished my goal of having them do something that they didn’t experience during the year. If a kid feels like he/she is simply going to have to do the same thing that he/she failed already, they aren’t going to be engaged all summer. Secondly, and most importantly, asking for feedback validates that they are important. Part of the stigma of summer school is that kids feel like a failure. Some may show it with some false bravado, but when you break it down, they feel like failures. It’s my job to change their mindset. So, asking them for their feedback and actually using it shows them that I value them as people and don’t look at them as failures. It is the direct opposite of what I said to my first summer school two decades ago.

In other years, I have experimented with different writing workshop models, different literature circle setups, and different project based learning activities. All of that time made my regular year classrooms better and more engaging. The only true way to find out if something in a classroom works or not is to do it. Summer allows for a true test ground.

Focus On Mindset

As stated, students heading to summer school already know they failed. They already have a negative feeling towards the subject matter. If we are using summer school properly, this is the one area that we must focus on. How can we make kids feel more positively about themselves as a person as well as within a subject? This is where the longer periods of summer sessions really help. In 90 minutes, I can talk with each student. In later years, I had developed my writers workshop model that I use now. So, each day, we would meet about their writing. I would make sure to highlight all of their strengths. For some kids, it was the first time they had heard something positive about their writing since elementary school.

I remember one young lady in particular. She was in the ninth grade summer school program and she brought up a piece of writing about her family. She handed it over and said, “it isn’t really good. I’m don’t like writing, but here.” I sat and read. Now, there were grammar issues, but there was, more importantly, a tremendous story about her mother working three jobs, yet always “welcoming me to the breakfast table with a smile as if I was the only thing that mattered in the whole world. She was my sun and I was her earth.”

Ok, seriously? That was written by a kid who failed English. So, I told her how beautiful her writing was and I highlighted that sentence from above. I told her I would never forget those words (I obviously didn’t) and that she should share it with her mom. She started to tear up. I told her she was a writer and that she should continue to write and that I would love to read her work. The next day, she handed me a notebook filled with writing. She told me she never showed it to anyone. I was honored. And, with that, I knew she would do well in her English classes. It was the last time she was in summer school.

Summer school isn’t about content as much as it is about mindset. If the purpose of summer school is to get kids back on track then we must focus on developing skills, not specific content and, most importantly, focus on developing a sense of self, confidence, and pride within a student. You can do that in summer school.

Prepare Them For The Future

I developed this later in my summer school teaching career. It really goes along with creating a mindset for them. If I was teaching a ninth grade summer class, I would put English 10 on all of the headings. Instead of focusing on what they failed, I would focus on the goal of success for next year. Because our focus was on skills and not content they already were exposed to, I flipped the script and set the course as preparation for September. This took the word failure away from them. We weren’t going backwards, we were looking ahead. We would learn from the past, but then move on.

The first week would include some writing about things they did well, things they felt they were treated unfairly on, and things were they own the responsibility of not doing well. Those writings led to some great individual and whole class discussions. The mindset went to what habits can I control so I am successful next year? That’s a pretty powerful mindset for a kid who just spent the whole year and wound up with the label of failure.

Do I Really Need To Say This?

No homework. Zero. Absolutely none in the summer.

Just as I need time to recharge so I don’t start September burnt out, kids need the same thing. They are already in school for the morning. There is no need to take up more time. Remember, we are building mindset. Plus, I think there is some pretty good debate about the virtues of homework during the regular school year.

Closing Thoughts

Just like we have been rethinking our regular school program and approach, we must approach summer school differently as well. In fact, an argument can be made that summer school is critical as that is the place where we can get a group of kids on the right path. We must evolve and allow all kids the opportunity to meet with success and to develop life long habits that will allow them to do so.

Even in summer courses that culminate with a state exam, mindset and skills should be the primary focus. There is enough time to work on all of that during a summer session. And, I’m willing to bet that if a student has a more positive mindset, feels more valued as a student, and is armed with skills, they will meet with better success on state exams.

No student wants to fail. No kid wants to sit in any classroom and be miserable. It is up to us to give kids every opportunity, change their mindset, and arm them with every skill possible in order to set them on a better path. We can do that in summer school. And, we, the teachers, can learn some cool stuff too.

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June is probably the most intense time of year for educators. The end of year celebrations, concerts, retirement parties, student placements, room changes, moving up ceremonies, report cards…the list goes on and on. It can often feel like a rollercoaster ride, one that you are just trying to hang on to.

Ask any teacher or administrator how it is going and you may get a response like, “you know, it’s June” accompanied with a gesture similar to hanging on to a sled barreling down a hill; more animated teachers will throw in some head and shoulder shakes to illustrate just how bumpy the ride can be.

It is not that things are bad. In fact, June has some of the best days of the year; it’s just that it is a lot more time spent with your work family than your home family. To educators, June is like tax season is for accountants.  Then the last day of school hits and you remember how much you love and will miss everyone, even that teacher who steals your Diet Coke out of the faculty fridge. It is a whirlwind and then it is abruptly over; it’s the storm before the calm.  

If you are a teacher– two glorious months of family time, beach time, relaxation, travel, or whatever it is you want to do. If you are an administrator– a more relaxed pace and time to think, breathe, and plan. The problem is if you do not take the time to put closure on your year, reflect on your growth, analyze your errors, appreciate the people who helped you, the years can start to blend together and you will not get everything you can out of each and every year. These six tips are ways that you can close out your year and be ready to have an ever better one next year.

Thank Someone

Think about all of the people who helped make your year better.  Was it someone who taught you a new technique or tech tool? Was it a kind word when you were down? It could have just been a new friendship forged. Pick one person and let them know that they made a difference for you. Send them an email, give them a card, bring them a cup of coffee. It doesn’t matter how you recognize them; just do and do it before the year is over.  I often catch myself putting off the heartfelt thank you, or the mushy card, and have found that most others do the same. I am not sure why; probably part embarrassment, part procrastination, but think about it: when was the last time you received a card, a compliment, and didn’t smile? Didn’t that positive affirmation make your day a little bit better? Why not do that for someone else this week?

Make A Pride List

Take a few minutes to write all of the accomplishments you are proud of this year. This isn’t about bragging because the list is just for you, but take the time to actually write or type everything you did this year that you are proud of.  Was it connecting with a student, learning Spanish, or starting a new club? Maybe you mastered a new instructional technique, implemented flexible seating, started greeting your students at the door everyday, or brought a cup of coffee to a different adult in the school every Friday. It doesn’t matter what is on your list because once you start writing it down you will hopefully realize that you are a better educator today than you were in September, that the school was a better place to work because you worked there. If you find it is not the case, it is time to reevaluate yourself. Either commit to having a better year next year or choose a new field.   

Create a Mistake List

This one is a little harder; no, actually a lot harder, but it is also an immense benefit for the educator who wants to get better each and every year. It is sometimes painful to relive our mistakes, but looking at mistakes and learning from them is how we grow as educators and as people. Did you lose your cool? Were you sarcastic with a student? Did you gossip too much? Did you rely on doing things the same way because “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”?  We all make mistakes and we can not go back and fix them, but we certainly can learn from them and do better next time.

Be A Hero One More Time

Good teachers and principals are heroes to their students.  They are like movie stars, rock stars, and NBA all-stars all wrapped up in one. It’s easy to forget just how important we can be in a child’s life, how they hang on our every word, and watch all of our actions. That is why educators need summer to recharge. We have an immense responsibility, a responsibility that comes with rewards that people in other fields may never experience. How many times does a lawyer walk through the mall and have a child point at them, mouth gaping, so excited that can’t even get a word out?

My guess is never.

Those moments are saved for us and Lebron James.  

I challenge you to be a hero one more time before the end of the year.  Choose a student that you know needs a pick-me-up. Maybe they are struggling at home, struggling with fitting in, or just sad. Once you have determined who the child is, think about something that would put a huge smile on his/her face. Make it a grand gesture. The sneakers they were dreaming of, a poem about how special they are, a drawing that you make just for them, a call to a grandparent telling them how special their grandchild is. You know your students better than anyone; find out what you could do to be a hero one last time this year.  

Pick One Summer Growth Goal

Summer is a time to recharge your batteries, spend time with family, take time for yourself. Just like students, your summer should be about playing, socializing, having fun, and not doing packets of work. Your entire summer shouldn’t be about your craft, but do commit to one area of growth this summer. It may be one professional book you will read, one conference you will attend, one technique you will learn about, or one APP you will explore. Two months seems like so much time, but, as you know, the older you get, the quicker time seems to fly by.  If you pick one thing, and just one thing to prioritize for this summer, professional you is more likely to stick to it and absorb the learning, in turn making you a better educator.

Ramp Up Your Nice

For many of us this is the last week of school. No matter if you had a great year or a bad year, it is almost over.  Let bygones be bygones, let your grievances go. Go out of your way to be positive. End your year on a positive note; nobody thinks they are a negative person, but some people just are. Don’t be that person, especially the last week of school.  Let everyone’s last impression of you before the hiatus be a positive one. You may just find that it will kick start you into the best summer you have ever had.

Educators, you are heroes, you make a difference. Take the time to put a bow on your year so you can enjoy the lazy days and late late nights of summer.

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Whenever you decide to write about any profession or area, there are those within the profession who question your motives. Some wonder why you would take the time to write about something you live every day. Some wonder if you are looking to get noticed and move on from the profession you keep writing about. Some wonder why you are so weird. And, some wonder whether or not you think you know everything.

The first couple are easy to answer. I write because I like to write. It’s what I do. Sometimes I write about baseball. Lately, I want to write about education. No, I am not looking to get noticed or move on from teaching. I have no aspirations beyond the classroom. The best part of each day is in the classroom. That feeling hasn’t left; in fact, it has gotten stronger over the past couple of years. Am I weird? Ok, maybe you got me there.

But, that last one is a tough one. I write things based on my experiences. I write things that I’ve learned, hoping to pass along the lessons from my mistakes. I write things that question tradition and hope that I can, in my own small way, contribute to change. But, I never write anything with the idea that I know better or know everything. A teacher who thinks he knows everything is the most dangerous of all; he isn’t open to anything new and certainly won’t have the wherewithal to adjust to students. A major part of writing is about learning more about a subject. The more I learn, the more I ask. Asking is what I hope makes me a more effective teacher in the classroom. Asking is what I hope makes classrooms better for students.

To be honest, the end of the school year is always a bit difficult for me. It goes far beyond the normal fatigue associated with a school year. It goes far beyond the idea of moving on from a group of great kids that you have shared a classroom with for the past 10 months. The difficulty comes from a simple idea: I wish I did more.

That may sound cliche or melodramatic–or maybe a little of both–but it is truthful. As much as I can honestly say I put into the work, at the end of every year, there is always a feeling of disappointment. I think of the lessons that fell short. I think of the ideas I had after I actually went through units. I think of the things that would’ve been more beneficial. I think of the wasted minutes that could’ve been used to help kids more. Those feelings of failure are what drives me to want to be better, to want to do more. And, most importantly, to want to learn more. I will learn by reading other professionals. I will learn by talking with other professionals. But, my best source of improvement comes from those who I am trying to teach.

To learn more, I ask more. Throughout the year, I will ask students for feedback on lessons and units. At the end of every year, I always give a course evaluation. It is important for me to hear what kids have to say. I want to know what they thought was great. I want to know what they thought was awful and/or a waste of their time. The only way I can know is to ask them.

It is never a waste of time to ask students what they think about your teaching or your class. If you provide a safe place and give the proper questions, students can provide tremendous, in depth feedback that will improve your instruction and make your classroom better for your next group of kids. If you truly want to get better, evolve, and become a more effective educator, you must be willing to hear it all–the good, the bad, the ugly, and the downright nasty ugly. That information is vital, but is often overlooked. We need to make it a regular practice to ask kids about their time in a classroom.

Some suggestions for effective course evaluations…

Make It Anonymous 

You are more likely to hear the truth when a kid knows that he/she can keep his/her identity private. That keeps the worry about grades out of a student’s mind. Even though you would never do it, it is natural for anyone to think that. Think about when an administrator asks you to complete to a survey. If your name is on it, you do think twice or word things differently.

Short Answers Are Valuable

We have this bad trend in the education field that puts quick data as more valuable that actual feedback. Sure, you could probably Google a quick survey with multiple choice answers such as “high effective” and a range down to “not effective”, but what are you really gaining? Ask kids questions; let them write their answers. Their answers can give you a clue about so many things, not just the question you are asking.

Here’s an example of some excellent feedback from the question “What was the area that needed the most improvement in this class? Why?”

I would’ve liked if before the research papers started, we read samples of research papers and pulled them apart and analyzed those instead of spending so much time focused on how to identify reliable sources, bc writing the papers, I personally mostly just used ebsco, which were all reliable/peer reviewed. When I started the research papers, I found myself not understanding the direction the paper had to go and the tone I had to establish. I was confused bc I had never written a research paper so I would’ve liked reading more examples of good research papers.

There’s so much to this answer and it will definitely impact how I approach this type of research paper next year. I will still place an importance on reliable sources because that is important in today’s world, especially when they don’t have a database handed to them. But, showing them more specific models that demonstrate argument research papers will be more of a focus. We focused on models of research papers, the mechanics of it, but the tone and direction, in hindsight, wasn’t done until later. Next year, it will be done earlier.

Without allowing students to actually write and give extensive feedback, I would’ve overlooked the nuances of writing. Covering that earlier in the process will make it far more effective. And, even though it wasn’t a main point of the feedback, I will make a point to explain why reliable sources are important, even with the safety net of EBSCO.

Ask Them What They Wish 

I always want to know what kids would’ve liked to learn in class. A lot of the times, kids will give titles of books that they wished to have read or activities they would’ve liked to have completed. This year, the majority of my 89 students said they wished we had more formal debates in the class. It’s something I will build in for next year.

Ask Them What Activities They Did and Didn’t Like

Ok, don’t be sensitive here. Your favorite lesson on your favorite book may not have resonated with kids. If you get enough negative feedback, it is probably time to revamp. Or, maybe it’s time to pick something that may resonate more with kids. If you get kids to buy in, maybe you can bring in your favorite activity to show the relationship. It’s easy and gratifying to read about the stuff kids dug, but it is equally important to hear what things didn’t interest them. Then, you can decide whether the lack of interest outweighs the intentions of the lesson.

Ask About Your Style Of Teaching

Yes, this can be sensitive. But, wouldn’t you rather know if your way of doing things is effective? If enough kids say they are confused or needed something else, you must change. Changing is difficult, but if your goal is to reach kids, you must be willing to hear feedback and evolve.

On this year’s survey, a number of students wrote that although they loved the lack of a formal structure of the class, they did often wish for a quieter environment. It is something I must learn to balance. I will make improvements, even though it isn’t something that I normal like to do. But, there will have to be a bit more structure during certain activities. Kids are asking for it. It is my job to evolve.

Ask Anything You Feel Could Help

Are you curious about a particular lesson and it’s lasting power? Ask. Do you want to know if students feel like your grading practices are fair? Ask. If you can create an environment where students are free to give honest feedback, you can get valuable feedback on every area of your instruction. That is more valuable than a PD session or reading a book. This is first hand, practical feedback that directly applies to you and your audience. Sure, you may cringe at some things you read, but those moments are worth it because of the improvement it offers.

If you want to learn more, just ask.

**Here is a link to my survey that I gave my 89 students. I normally ask my classes their favorite pieces of literature that we covered, but since this wasn’t a literature class, I took that question out.

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Congratulations, seniors. I am sure you are excited, nervous, eager, reluctant. It’s common to have conflicted feelings as you move on to the next stage of your life. I am sure you want to be successful, make a lot of money, and change the world.

When you are 17, you want to be extraordinary; you are not quite sure how, but you know anything less will be a disappointment. But, what does it mean to be extraordinary? And how do you get there?  

As you get older, you start to realize that the path to greatness is not about a grand gesture, an epiphany. Rather, it is about the small things, about trying to make each and every day a good one and about making the world a better place.

I am sure you can accomplish everything you want with hard work, determination, and skill. It is important, though, on your quest to the extraordinary to keep in mind that success is not just about the bottom line, profit, making money, driving that fancy car, or living in a Mcmansion. It is about loving what you do, doing some good, and making others better along the way.

You will spend a large portion of your life working; make sure you love your work, and you believe in your work because when you have that, you will not only have that fancy car, but you will also have happiness.   Keep in mind as you move through your career and life that the most important thing is not the product; it is not the business. The most important thing is the people.

Think about your classes; which ones were your favorites?  The ones with the best curriculum or the ones that were taught by teachers you connected with? No matter what you do in your life, prioritize people. Take the time to talk to your co-workers, your customers, your bosses, and even your acquaintances and get to know something about them–their kids’ names, their birthdays, what is important to them. Try to  find common interests, always look for the good in people and overlook their flaws.

Life is about people and connecting with people. Nobody is perfect, but there’s good in all of us and we all want to be our best selves. Help others get there and you will be one step closer to your best self as well.

Your relationships will lead to success in business, success in life, and can make you extraordinary.

The world is your oyster; you can have everything you want.  I just ask that on your path to success–to driving that fancy car–believe in what you’re doing, keep your integrity, and never ever forget to dedicate the time to building connections with people. When you make others better, you will be better. If you do that you will have everything you want and more. You may not be famous, but you will certainly be extraordinary…best of luck.

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Dear Students,

There are so many qualities that I admire about you and your generation. One of the most overlooked is that you really care about your grades. You might get portrayed as lazy, apathetic, and undisciplined by the media and those outside of the classroom, but those of us who see you every single day, for who you really are, know differently. We see the drive. We see you constantly worrying about whether or not you are going to get into the college of your choice. We see you coming into class tired each and every day because you were up all night studying or completing assignments that may or may not have any significant value. We see you stressed to the point of tears. We see you stressed to the point of self doubt, anger, self-loathing, and, sometimes, even worse. It feels like that “sometimes” is becoming more common.

And, it is all our–the educators–fault.

We have made this culture in a misguided attempt to get you to strive to be your best, drive you to get into the competition that is the college selection process, and to put you into position to have the very best future.

All three of those goals are virtuous. You should always strive to be your best. You should want to work to go into the college of your choice. And, you deserve the very best future. The thing is, though, you would’ve done all that work without our system. You are the type of people who put your all into everything you do. You create. You explore. You work long hours. You find creative solutions to problems that were unimaginable. You stand up for yourselves. You didn’t need our system that places a number value on you to get you to do those things. You do those things in spite of our archaic system.

I admire that work ethic that you rarely get credit for. Your reward for working hard and getting into the most rigorous classes schools have to offer is “more”. You get more homework, more busy work, more lectures, more everything. I admire the drive it takes to get through your classes, go to a club, a sport, or a job, get home at night, and then do hours of that “more”. You do it all, even if it doesn’t always make sense, because you care. And, sure, you may not always take the long road to get the work done; the internet offers a ton of shortcuts, even more when the Teacher actually gives an assignment found on the very same interwebs. But, those shortcuts aren’t a reflection on your drive and your desire.

Instead, they are a reflection of a culture that we, the educators, have created. We have created this culture of number chasing. We have told you that the very best students get grades north of 97, 98, and even 99. We tell kids who work hard, study for hours, and put off exploring their passions that if they get a grade that starts with the number eight, it isn’t good enough. What once represented pretty high achievement is no longer considered a success. In fact, a 90, once the standard, is now not good enough.

Colleges won’t take you. You need those extra 10 points. You have to be near perfect every single time. It is the culture we have established. When teachers wonder why some kids aren’t as passionate about their class, why kids are looking for ways to get points, why kids and parents are obsessed with the online grade book, or why some kids may try to circumvent the system in order to get those points, they don’t have to look too far to find an answer. We are the problem. We’ve made this culture. And, it is up to us to fix it for you, our students, as soon as we can.

We’ve put a number as the goal. We’ve put a grade as the most important thing in the process of education. We have put into a place a system where doing your best and actually learning the material isn’t as important as the number at the end. As you can tell, I am against this type of thing and I am trying to raise my daughter to know that it isn’t about the number. It’s about working to the best of her ability and actually learning. The attitude in our house is that if she works hard, prepares, and tries her best, we are happy. Fourth grade has gone pretty well. Her grades have been great. But, one day, she came out of school visibly upset. I knew something was wrong. She got in the car and started to tear up. She got an 86 on a vocabulary test and was so upset. When we looked at the test, she saw her two mistakes.

My reply was to celebrate the 86. She worked hard. It was awesome. I don’t care if the grade was a 70. She worked hard and knew those words. But, for her, even in our house where the number doesn’t define her, this was a bad grade and a sign that she wasn’t good enough. She vowed to do better the next time and obsessed over the weekend about that “bad” grade. It took some time, but she finally moved on. Now, some may say that this motivated her, but it didn’t. She already had the drive. She already knew the stuff. But, the number was driving the conversation, not the learning or how those words will make her a more powerful writer. And, this is just 4th grade.

Because of our number culture, more and more kids are seeking counseling. I have a feeling that many more are in need. It’s why more kids are finding teachers to cry to, why a fifth grader would think about ending her life, and why, each day in the United States, there are more than 5,000 attempted suicides by kids in grades 7 through 12.  Yes, there are certainly other factors, but I have seen far too many of you upset over grades, upset over a number that wasn’t quite “what it should be.” None of this makes your generation soft; none of this is a negative reflection of you. This is all a result of a culture we’ve created in schools. We’ve allowed behaviors to exist that push people to their limits and make them feel alone. And, we’ve created a culture where only certain numbers give worth. It is our fault.

On behalf of the system and what I’ve done in the past to perpetuate this culture, I apologize.

We need to do better.

You deserve better.

Our system and culture is wrong because of one simple thing.

A number does not define you.

It never has. It never will.

Yes, in the real world, jobs expect you to produce. There are consequences when you don’t. But, this number culture that we established isn’t preparing you for the real world. In fact, it is hindering that preparation. The education system needs to change to allow you to realize that all of this–education, the real world…life–is about the experience, the process. It is about learning lessons, applying them to our life, becoming better versions of ourselves, and then trying to help others do the same.

That is essentially what a classroom is about. What you will eventually learn–once you get out of the education system–is that the number didn’t real mean much. You won’t even remember that number. You won’t even remember those tests that drove you crazy, the insane question packets, or all of those busy work extra credit assignments you did to chase the number. Instead, you’ll remember those moments in the classroom where the crazy teacher said something that sparked a conversation. You’ll remember the project you made with group of friends. You’ll remember that great lesson on To Kill A Mockingbird that made you want to become an English Teacher. You’ll remember moments. You’ll remember the lessons that made you who you are.

Why will those things be the ones to sit in your consciousness? It’s simple. That’s what life really is. Your life will never be about a number. Ever. Life is about a collection of experiences that help make you want to stand up in the world. It’s about taking those lessons learned both in and out of the classroom and applying them in your life. It’s about improving each day, doing better than you did the day before. It’s about learning, evolving, and finding your way to your passion. A number didn’t define me; it never will. My parents didn’t let it. They wanted me to do my best and I usually tried to do so. If a number defined me, my AP English Teacher would’ve extinguished my passion for writing, my passion for the subject. If I had let that happen, I wouldn’t be here, with you, today. A number does not define me. My experience, my successes, my failures, my shortcomings, and the lessons learned from all of that define me.

So, we have to change our culture and change it soon. That doesn’t mean we don’t have high expectations or will just give you things. It doesn’t mean that what we are teaching isn’t important or that you shouldn’t care. And, it certainly doesn’t mean that we think you and your generation are soft.

Instead, it means that we won’t hold grades over your head as if your very existence and future depend on them. Instead, it means that we will place value on the process of learning, value on working hard, and fight against an unfair number system that doesn’t even accurately measure progress. Some of us are already standing up and making a change. You know who they are. They are the ones you are confiding in, asking them to allow you to sit in the book room and cry for a bit. They are the ones whose office you walk into and start with the sentence, “I’m stressed and failing at life right now.” We are there. There will be more of us. We will create a culture that values the process and doesn’t hold the end, meaningless number over your head. That culture will get you to the college you want. That culture will allow you to get the life you want and deserve.

In the meantime, do what you’ve done in every other area of your life. Let your generation be the one that puts an end to the obsession with the number. Follow your passions, realize that the learning, the process, and the improvement are the things that will not only help you in your life, but the only things you will really remember in your life. You will get into the college you were meant to go to. You will find success. If you are putting in the work, learning from a place of passion, and always looking to improve, you are getting the most out of your education, no matter the number.

A number can never define you. Don’t let the system or anyone ever make you feel otherwise.

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Today started like most days for me: tooling around in the backyard, filling the bird feeders, water the flowers, checking for new growth on my plants, and then heading to Dunkin Donuts for the morning coffee. The day was unexceptional until I picked up the morning paper and saw a picture of some of my students sitting in a classroom having a discussion with me. The headline read Down with Homework.  

My first thought?  ““How do I look?”

My second?  “I better take a picture and send it to my mom.” We all know moms are always their son’s biggest fans and Barb is no exception.

Then I got a little nervous because I was on the cover of the newspaper talking with my students about a topic as controversial as homework. I frantically read through the piece, making sure I didn’t say anything dumb, that the article was an honest reflection of what we doing, and that our kids were painted in a positive light.

After the first read, I was able to breathe a bit easier and give it a second, more thorough read; and this time I smiled. I smiled because the students in our District were brave enough to put themselves out there, brave enough to create a petition, solicit signatures from other 5th graders, and present the petition to a guy in a suit that they hoped would take them seriously.  

That’s why, later in the day, when I saw a Facebook post that said North Rockland should be ashamed of themselves for entertaining 5th graders, I felt shock, then anger, and then just pity. No matter where you stand on homework or any other pedagogical issue, to say that we should be ashamed for listening to students, well, that is just wrong. If I ever become jaded enough to think that it is an embarrassment to listen to students,  I hope I will have the good sense to get out of the field I love so much. I feel sad for the person who said that today’s kids are “soft” because they don’t want to do homework. I disagree, maybe they just don’t want to do “our” generation’s homework. Maybe they understand that the assembly line jobs that we were prepared for no longer exist, that doing worksheets does not create the innovative thinking that they will need to be successful in today and tomorrow’s world.

We were tougher because we suffered through meaningless homework?  We were tougher because it was ok for teachers to insult us and use sarcasm back then?

Times have changed, kids have changed and, yes, they do spend too much time on their screens, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have passion, they don’t have important things to say, and/or they aren’t strong. Sure, we had those scary drills preparing us for a nuclear war, but I am pretty sure we weren’t worried about someone coming and shooting up our schools, an unfortunate, but real fear for students today. Kids will often tell us what we want to hear, what they think they are supposed to say to play our game, but what if we asked them and we truly listened?

Then we may have a better understanding about how things really are, and how we can actually make them better.  Why is it so easy for adults to discount what children have to say? It is that big of a shock to us that we don’t see a real glimpse into their world?  Especially when students who are brave enough to speak out and be heard are later bashed by the social media stars who call them soft? It seems outrageous that some think it’s a disgrace to give students a voice in how they are schooled.  

It didn’t take me long to get over the social media buzz, among the comments were intelligent posts and people who debated the polarizing topic of homework.  As my day wore on, the homework story picked up steam(covered by several TV stations) as did I, fueled by caffeine and the smiles of Chris and Nico as their fame continued to grow. I almost forgave the ills of social media, realizing that it has helped to increase communication, keep people in touch, expand audience, and spread good ideas.

I say “almost” because after a whirlwind of a day, I sat on the couch and played around on my phone.  Please don’t judge me, but, yes, like our students, I spend too much time on the screen. That’s when I saw it on the community page of the school my son attends.

A group of parents started a thread bashing the election process for school president. I try not to waste too much time reading these things, knowing that often people just want to show how clever they are, but this time it was personal as my son was one of the candidates running. Their comments, veiled in a passive but certainly aggressive tone, proved to me once again what I have known for a while; it doesn’t matter your age, your income, or what school you went to, sometimes kids are smarter, more thoughtful, and have a more important message then we do as adults.

This was confirmed when I wanted to reply in anger and my son simply said “I have campaigned on social media; they are entitled to their opinion and entitled to express it on social media. Leave it alone.” I am proud of my students, I am proud of my teachers, but nothing compares to the pride you feel as a parent when you realize your child is smarter, kinder, and more level-headed than you are.  

Kids have a lot to say and we have a responsibility to listen. Kids today are not soft; all you have to do is look to Parkland, Florida. Watch Emma Gonzalez speak and not speak and tell me today’s students are soft.    Bravery, resilience, grit, determination are not defined by homework, by conformity, by clever social media posts. Bravery is standing up for what you believe in, putting yourself out there, and by being kind when being kind is hard.  

Are kids today soft ? They are most definitely not; it’s just that maybe the adults aren’t always listening hard enough.  

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It’s a little embarrassing to admit, but one of the primary reasons I got into teaching was baseball. I knew I was never going to be a professional baseball player–Derek Jeter may or may not have stolen my life–but I grew up in a baseball family. Spring and summer family dinners were planned around our (my sister, brother, and me) game and practice schedule. The dinner conversation would often lead to someone getting up from the table to demonstrate a specific swing or skill. I grew up with a love for the game and knew that I wanted to coach.

Truthfully, the job of coach, when done right, is the same as the job of teacher. You are entrusted with a group of kids and it is your job to not only teach them, but to foster a culture of engagement and fun. Achievement is important, but it is not as important as improvement and learning.

I actually started coaching high school baseball before I graduated from college. I was lucky enough to get a junior varsity head coach position at one of the best programs in the county. The varsity coaches helped me learn the ins and outs of coaching my own team while allowing me to be myself, learn from my mistakes, and to really understand the potential that a coach has to positively impact young people. I would coach JV baseball for six seasons before taking the middle school job at the school I was teaching. Years three, four, and five of teaching were spent in the middle school with the additional title of baseball coach. It was a difficult decision to leave that middle school, partly because of the coaching job. But, I decided to leave for the only district I would’ve left for–the one I still work at 15 years later–and to give up coaching. I didn’t give it up for that long because two years into my high school teaching career, I was asked to assist the freshman team. After that one season, my 10th as baseball coach and my 8th as a teacher, I decided to step away from coaching.

While I have always been a baseball fan, I didn’t miss coaching all that much. The classroom became my favorite place. Being “Armida” the teacher was far more rewarding than Coach Armida. Maybe it was because I was getting older, but I do think it was because I realized that the classroom was why I got into coaching, not the other way around. It was never about wins and losses for me on the field. It was always about teaching kids, helping them improve both on the field and in life. I was a teacher who happened to coach, not the other way around.

Fast forward a dozen years to this past March. My District’s middle school baseball coaching job was open. I simply asked about it. Suddenly, it was offered to me. I wasn’t sure for a number of reasons. First, it has been 12 years since I last coached a team. Could the older me still do it? Could I do it without sacrificing job performance? And, would I still be able to relate to today’s players? After a whole lot of thought, a blessing from my daughter, and the green light from “The Admin”, I decided to give it a go.

The season comes to an end this week. It is has been one of the most positive experiences of my 20 year teaching career. The baseball has been fun. The team is comprised of 18 great, young men. Our experience together has led me to learn even more about kids, what they perceive, and what drives them. Despite having quite a bit of coaching experience and being involved in baseball for my entire life, this season has been a reminder of something that I have been preaching about the education field; no matter how much experience you may have, you must continue to learn and evolve. I learned that because of my time with these 18 young men. Those lessons will stay with me for the rest of my teaching career.

Lesson One: Kids Have So Much Pressure On Them

In the 12 years since I last coached, the most significant change to school baseball is the proliferation of private coaches and intense travel schedules. 12 years ago, kids played school baseball and Little League. A few played on a travel team. Now, almost every kid plays on at least one travel team. Some are playing on two, while also playing in their local town league. And, a bunch of my players have their own, private coaches. A couple have their own private batting coach, another couple of have a private pitching coach.

What was once a game is now something that has specialization and intense training sessions, all with the “next level” in mind. With competition, scholarships, and even scouts in mind, many middle school students are already thinking about how they can get to the next level. Now, this isn’t like the dream of being the Yankees shortstop that I had; that was more fantasy and wonder. Today’s kids are training, targeting specific exercises and drills, and have multiple “experts” making decisions about the number of pitches thrown, number of swings taken, and positions they should play.

With all of that, every at bat, every pitch means a lot to them. They press, they analyze, and, even after a successful play, they are analyze what they can improve.

That’s similar to what happens in the classroom. Today’s students are highly competitive. College looms over their every test performance, their every essay submitted, and every lab completed. Many believe that one bad grade could take them off that path. It’s why more and more students are getting less sleep. It’s why more and more kids are stressed to the point of breakdown. Many students are pushing themselves through whatever means necessary to perform at the highest level. There isn’t much down time. There isn’t as much fun as there should be.

On the field, it was my job to decipher when to push my instruction and when to back off. It was my job to see which player was pushing too hard, so hard that it was detrimental to his performance. A classroom teacher has the same responsibility. A teacher must know when to push instruction, but, more importantly, when to backoff and give kids some time. A teacher must be able to see that the quiet, often unnoticed kid in the back of the room, needs a kind word or even just acknowledgement.

This generation gets the bum rep of being apathetic and lazy. They are neither. The majority of today’s kids are so motivated that they are pushing themselves too hard and sometimes missing out on the real reason why they are in school or on the field. It is up to us as teachers and coaches to remind kids that it is about learning, about exploring passions, and about enjoying to process of improving. It is up to us to acknowledge all of the pressure and stressors and put our students/players in the right mindset so they can thrive in a healthy manner and learn lessons that will take them through the rest of their lives.

Lesson Two: Delivery Must Change

I was never the militaristic coach. I never believed in yelling at a team or embarrassing a player in practice or during a game. But, during my first run as a coach, it was definitely a top-down approach. I set the agenda. I set the drills. I told players when and where to be. I had practices laid out down to the second with notes full of what they would be doing each and every one of those seconds. While I would also teach why we were running a certain play the way we were or why we were doing a certain drill, the players had zero say in practices. They had very little say in positions they could play or plays we would run in defensive situations.

This is another area where my years in the classroom helped me with this year’s team. The successful classroom is a collaborative effort. Students should have a voice in their learning, or, at the very least, how they learn. Lectures only reach a portion of students. Students learn best when they are allowed to explore things they feel are relevant. Students learn from each other as well as the teacher. The environment must be one that encourages collaboration, challenges, failure, and opportunities to learn from that failure.  

On the field, the players had a voice in practices and instruction, even if they didn’t know it. Like the classroom, taking the time to talk with kids will help form instruction, or, in this case, practice plans. During the walk out to the field, I would make a point to talk with different players. I’d ask about school, how their other games went, and what they felt they needed. Those conversations formed practice plans. During practices, drills were designed to address common team skills as well as individual needs. Players were paired up to allow collaboration. If a player saw something that a teammate was doing incorrectly, he was encouraged to point it out respectfully. 12 years ago, I would never allow that. My voice was the only one allowed when it came to instruction. That doesn’t work today. Kids need to feel a part of the process. If they feel that way, they are more engaged and more likely to take your lessons seriously.

Does it take time to set parameters for how to help teammates? Of course. It wasn’t perfect at the start. But, it is worth the effort. During our last game, I overheard one player tell a teammate that he noticed that he was constantly behind in the count and that he should be more aggressive. Now, this was a message that I’ve been harping on, but a teammate helped contextualize it in a slightly different manner. The next at bat, the player was aggressive, getting a base hit, which ended a bit of a slump. That culture of collaboration helped a kid with his performance.

In the classroom, there cannot be one method of instruction. And, that instruction can’t always come from the teacher. With a culture of collaboration, all students have a value and a role in the classroom.

Lesson Three: Let Them Think And Experience

Coaching is a delicate balance of preparation and allowing teams to take action. The tendency of most coaches is to instruct every single possible scenario. During practice, this is important. Baseball is as much of a mental game as it is a physical game. Knowing where to throw the ball and where to position yourself ahead of time is essential. In practice, you drill this. You teach the different scenarios. You expose players to certain scenarios so they are prepared for the real thing in games. But, then, you have to let players experience them. You have to let players work through them without you giving step by step instructions, for every possible scenario. So, my goal when my team is playing defense in games is to be as quiet as possible. Sure, I’ll cheer for our pitcher and when we make good plays, but I will not go over every scenario before each pitch. I’ll call a play if the situation calls for it, but then I let the players perform. Most times, they perform well. Other times, not so much. If it’s the latter, I will make a note and then review in practice the next day. But, that experience, whether positive or negative, leads to more impactful learning. Players have to learn to think for themselves. They are reinforced when successful. They learn better from mistakes because they are allowed to make those mistakes.

The same thing is true in the classroom. Students need to be given opportunities to learn from mistakes, go through a process, and demonstrate mastery. They cannot do that in the traditional lecture classroom when all that happens is talk, homework, test, and move on.

One of the buzzwords in education is grit. The only way that is developed is when students are allowed to perform, explore, and then receive feedback. If we want kids to become writers with something important to say, this is the only process that allows them to develop and refine their voice. We cannot give them fill in the blank templates, graphic organizers that basically layout a cookie cutter essay, or example essays to copy. They must be allowed to think for themselves, experience the failure that occurs in almost every writing process, and then learn from that failure to produce something meaningful. We must take a step back from controlling each and every moment and allow kids to develop a sense of fearlessness in the learning process.

Final Thought

Like the classroom, sports have evolved. But, they have evolved because kids and the world have evolved. What worked even just a few years ago must change to meet the needs of today’s kids. The game of baseball is essentially the same one that has been played for a century. Yet, the teaching and skills required to excel need to be different because more is known, athletes are different and better conditioned, and more strategies have been incorporated because of all that has been learned about the game.

A school’s purpose is essentially the same as its purpose a century ago: to produce young people who can thrive in the world. Yet, the teaching and skills required to excel need to be different because more is known, students are different and smarter, and more strategies have been incorporated because all that has been learned about education.

Tradition is important in baseball, but that tradition hasn’t gotten in the way of training methods evolving, the game being played better, and kids learning differently. We must apply the same logic to education. A return to the coaching sidelines after a dozen years away reminded me how we all need to evolve, even if we have a lot of experience. If we don’t evolve, we are doing a disservice to kids.

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Much like my students, I love technology. There are things that we can do today that were unimaginable even a few short years ago. There are so many resources available that it can be a bit overwhelming at times. As my work and home life become more demanding, I find that I do not have nearly the time I once did to explore and play.

I often feel left out or as if I am missing something if I am not up on the latest and greatest. I hear a lot about Voxer and I have dipped my toe into Flipgrid, but I have not yet figured out how to incorporate them into my workflow.  It is not that they are hard to use; in fact, as technology advances, Apps–what we used to call programs–and web resources have become more intuitive and easier to use. The problem is determining how they can be used to make me better at my job.

The questions I ask myself when determining if a specific new “toy” is something I want to put in my repertoire of tricks are:

  • Does it help me to be more efficient?
  • Does it help me communicate better?
  • Can I use it to model good instructional practices for my administrators and teachers?

We are lucky to so many tech tools available to use for free or at very little cost. Yet, it is hard to filter through what sometimes seems like a gluttony of resources. Determining what can make us better at our jobs is essential. For me, it is best to dig right in and apply the resource to my work. For me, practical application is the best way to assess if it is for me or not.

Occasionally the timing may just be off–tools that I tried previously may not have worked then, but can work now.  If I want to try menti-meter or poll everywhere I don’t read the directions or watch the video, but rather create a product that I will try to use in an upcoming presentation. Once I have general understanding, I find going back to the directions much like the videos games of my youth–playing first, then going back into the directions to try to figure out the nuances and master the game.

Following this process has helped me and other educators I respect find new and different ways to utilize a tool. A way that others may not have thought of or a way that meets the unique needs and styles that we all have.  Following this process has allowed me to find three tools that I have incorporated into my work and have made me better at what I do.

Google Keep

I was first introduce to Google Keep a few years ago by my friend, Amaris.  She was excited about color coding notes and loved the virtual post its that Keep provided. I just didn’t get it at the time and, after trying it for a few days, abandoned it. I have revisited it this year and now find it one of my most valuable assets.  I have found and continue to find more and more ways to utilize Keep.

The first and most logical is as a to-do list that I can access on all of my devices. I have found attaching a picture and pinning it to the top of my noteboard makes it easy to see and find. The to-do list was the best digital one I had found to date, but what hooked me was using Keep as a way to save and organize articles. If I see an article I want to read, but don’t have time, I simply click the icon on my toolbar, label it as an article and post it to my board. This can be done on my desktop, my laptop, my Chromebook, or my phone.  Once I have read the article I can add a second label that indicates how and whom it may be used with in the future.

I have also started using Keep to organize the information gathered in the books I am reading.  Taking pictures of key pages, concepts, or ideas for activities and then labeling them as a means to organize the information has not only saved me time, but has helped me to remember that great activity I thought of using for my administrators when I read Innovator’s Mindset.  

My assistants love that we have now started using this tool as a way to communicate with each other. When my office receives a call, Diane and Joanne capture the important information in a Keep Note, which they share with me. Joanne, who handles parent calls, will often take long detailed notes by hand. She simply takes a picture of her notes and attaches them to the virtual note.  I am notified via email each time they share one with me, which prompts me to label, respond, take my notes and archive when done. This not only saves trees, but it also allows me to go back to the note anytime I may need to in the future.

There really are so many ways to incorporate this tool into your work; some other suggestions are:

Project management notes- Link docs, web sites, create tasks,and share with those on your team.

  • Shared To-Do list
  • Shared grocery list
  • Dragging common phrases or terms into a Google Doc
  • Saving Ted Talks or other videos for future viewing or access
  • Reminders to others on your team

The applications for this simple to use resource are endless; it really just depends on your work flow and your imagination. I highly recommend incorporating Google Keep into your work life.

Padlet

Padlet is an easy, fun tool that can be used in a multitude of ways.  This digital canvas lets you post text, videos, pictures, links, and files in various combinations on various locations on the board.  After seeing writing guru Angela Stockman discuss using post it notes and pictures to story board ideas as a means to spark writing in even the most text-reluctant students, I have used Padlet in my writing process. I capture various ideas and thoughts, move them around on the canvas, reordering and adding details as I go. After spending some time organizing my ideas in this manner, I find that my pieces often write themselves. What once seemed like hard work, now seems to flow with ease.

I have used padlet with my administrative team as a center activity.  They have been asked to post their favorite quotes, authors, books, and presenting ideas to a shared canvas  One principal took it one step further by using padlet to have his teachers post their favorite lessons to the canvas. Others used padlet to hold a virtual book club, summarizing their thoughts and responding to questions about their selection, Culturize by Jimmy Casas.

Padlet is visually appealing, which makes it an easy sell for kids to create digital posters with pizzazz and flash.  The most economically disadvantaged students are no longer at a disadvantage because their parents can’t afford glitter.  I would suggest giving it a try; I am sure you will find new and useful ways to take advantage of padlet that haven’t even been thought of yet.

Twitter

I know I am late to the game on this one. I have had a Twitter account for years, but never found ways to use it to make me better at my job. I remember when my sister in-law told me how her principal was the “master” of Twitter and how effectively he was using it as an educator. I was a bit perplexed.  I kept asking, rather ignorantly, ‘Twitter in schools?”

I wondered what this principal could know that I didn’t and figured it was just another “bell and whistle”.  I couldn’t have been more wrong. Her principal, who turned out to be Eric Sheninger, was, in fact, onto something, and he turned out to be about much more than Twitter. I  have found out just this year what a great tool for educators it can be. The most useful ways I have found to use Twitter are:

To find content. There are so many great ideas, article resources, videos, and more.  If you only use Twitter to find stuff, it will still be worth your time.

To find People. It is amazing how many incredible educators I have gotten to know through Twitter and how many opportunities I have been afforded through those connections. Being a school administrator can be a lonely job. Knowing that there as so many like minded, passionate people in our field and being able to instantly connect with them is a comforting feeling.

To Share Content.  Have a message you want to share?  Are your administrators, teachers, students doing great things? Celebrating on Twitter is a way to promote the good work happening in your schools.

Bring People Together- In a District of over 8,000 students and over 600 teachers I am lucky to have the opportunity to work with so many amazing educators and students in 9 different schools.  There is so much talent in my District, yet many of these great people didn’t know each other or know about all of the great things going on in each other’s classrooms. Twitter has started to break down those barriers.  As more and more people begin to use Twitter in my District, more and more excellent connections are being made.

There are so many amazing tech tools out there.  It is important that we find the tools that work best for us, not just because they are flashy, but because they make us better at what we do.

Google Keep, Padlet, and Twitter are three that I have embraced this year and I believe they have helped to make me a better school administrator.

Next up my list to master are Flipgrid, Voxer, Peardeck, and InsertLearning. I hope they turn turn out to be as useful as the three I rediscovered this year.

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There is actually really good reasoning behind summer reading programs. School Districts put together summer programs to address one of the bigger problems the education industry faces. While it is famously called the “Summer Slide”, the somewhat playful name is actually a euphemism for something that is detrimental to many kids–a decay or loss of reading skills.

A group of researchers from John Hopkins University conducted a study that showed that students from lower economic backgrounds slipped during the summer months. It was found that, during the school year, students of all economic backgrounds increased reading levels/skills equally, but the economic difference showed in the summer, presumably because lower economic students didn’t have as many opportunities to read. Follow up studies have generally concluded that most students experience reading skill loss during the summer. 

The data doesn’t lie. There is, undoubtedly, a problem. Schools must do something to help all students retain more of their skills in the summer. It is our problem.

Like most well intentioned, misguided actions in the industry, educators responded with a summer reading program. The idea of reading in the summer isn’t the issue. It’s the execution of the idea that is the problem. The execution is about giving “more” rather than addressing the true cause of reading loss and, more importantly, a disinterest in reading, especially at the middle school level.

The Typical Summer Reading Program

Once the “Summer Slide” became a thing, most Districts hastily created a program of summer reading lists. Each grade level was given a title list. Kids were able to choose in the sense that they weren’t be assigned a specific novel, but kids were mostly limited to lists of books that adults say are “high interest”. Sure it’s a choice, but if you don’t like anything on the list, you are out of luck. Essentially, to those students, the message is, “we don’t care if you like it, just read it.”

After being forced to read a book, students are often asked to demonstrate that they read the book. It’s one of those conundrums that all teachers of English face. How can we put students in situations that allow them to successfully demonstrate that they have read. For summer reading programs, this usually comes in the form of annotations, response logs, or any note taking device. While there are some people who take notes or highlight when they are reading for pleasure, the majority of people don’t. We don’t interrupt progress to put a sticky note in the novel to remind us that there was something important there. We simply read, take in a good story, and get something to take away into our lives.

Even worse, most districts have summer reading tests during the first week of school. These tests usually take the form of an essay exam. So, most kids are getting a grade for reading based on their ability to write something that they were not taught in the first place. Does any of that make any sort of pedagogical sense? Does that sounds like a way to get kids to like reading or does that sound more like reading as a punishment? And, perhaps more importantly, does that sound like a positive start to the year?

Why It Doesn’t Work

Perhaps the most simplistic argument as to why the typical summer reading programs don’t work is the simple fact that it sounds an awful lot like homework. It has evolved into a chore for students, rather than an experience that could foster a love for reading. It is about coming up with the proof, gaming the test at the beginning of the year, and making sure that you give the teacher exactly what they want. It becomes more about looking up summaries, group chats to exchange notes, and to fulfill requirements. This is more about compliance–just like homework–rather than skill development or creating a culture that can foster a love of the written word.

A bit more complex argument is the fact that the education industry has thrown a summer reading assignment to address a skills problem. This is false logic at its finest. It is similar to the a teacher wanting students to become better writers by giving them assignment after assignment, rather than giving lesson after lesson during the writing process. Assignments don’t equal teaching. Assignments don’t address skills; they are measure them. Therefore, a summer reading program doesn’t help develop skills, prevent skill loss, or anything having to do with skills. At best, it could, conceivably help maintain skills, but as currently constituted, it doesn’t give kids the opportunity to even do that.

If Districts are truly interested in preventing skills loss during the summer, an investment must be made in summer programs where students receive skill lessons and reviews. There must be something other than giving an assignment.

That, however, does not mean that summer reading can’t serve a big purpose. In fact, if done correctly, it could actually be the asset it was intended to be in the fight against skills loss. The lens has to change from it being an assignment to it being a tool to help develop a love of reading. If that love can be developed, students will read more. Reading more will help maintain skills.

Creating A Culture

If the goal is to develop a love of reading, which in turn will allow students to retain reading skills, a summer reading program cannot be about compliance. It must be about allowing student choice. Students must be given the freedom to pick what they want to read. They must be permitted to read different genres, different mediums, and different styles. If a student wants to read a classic, excellent. If a student wants to read a blog, also excellent. If a student wants to read a contemporary fiction piece, also excellent. If the goal of the summer reading is to have kids actually read, don’t we stand a better chance of that happening if they are actually reading something they enjoy?

Creating a culture of reading can be done if we actually commit to having students choose. Elementary teachers get this right. Kids generally love to read. My fourth grade daughter is devouring book after book, series after series. So many of her peers, both male and female, are doing the same. Just today, I had the opportunity to visit one of our district’s elementary schools. A group of kids were in the library. They were excited about getting their weekly book.

Why is all of this true? Elementary schools do an excellent job of creating a culture of reading. Kids are allowed to choose their own novels. They are allowed to talk about their books in class. Their literacy blocks are filled with lessons that develop skills, but their reading time and selections are left up to them. The majority of kids love to read.

Then, secondary education gets involved. We assign them books. We may even add some “outside” reading so that they are reading more, but we, as an industry, hand out a class set of books and expect them all to read it. We systematically kill a love of reading with this practice. And, not only do we assign them books, we assign them packets, we make them put a million post it notes in the books, and then we give tests. Suddenly, reading is a chore. It is a punishment. Is it any wonder why it is avoided by many?

So, the traditional summer reading program, obviously, doesn’t work. It doesn’t develop skills. And, it certainly doesn’t develop a culture of reading. But, that doesn’t mean summer reading should go away.

My district was like the majority. We gave the summer reading list. Kids had to come in with notes. They took a test. They got a grade. We moved on.

Luckily, I work with a group of progressive thinkers. When I first became the English Department Coordinator, I asked if we could rethink summer reading. I was given permission to explore options. We came up with a Summer Reading Challenge. The philosophy behind this approach is simple. Summer Reading should be about reading what you love. We teachers do that. Non-teachers do that. What shouldn’t students?

Our students are challenged to read at least one thing this summer. They are permitted to read any genre, any medium, and any style. We don’t give book lists. We do give links to book reviews, but we don’t assign a grade level list. We encourage reading blogs, reading about sports, or any other area of interest. We encourage to read the popular fiction books. We encourage the classics. That all underscores the message, “Read What You Love.”

Students are not required to submit anything. They can, however, submit a review of the book, magazine articles, blog posts, graphic novel, poetry, etc. to our online review form. Reviews can take any form they want. Most write a review, but some created a review website. Others created an audio review. Others created posters. And, some even wrote reactions. Again, they had choice. The funny thing is that a large portion of our middle school and high school students submitted at least one review. We didn’t require it, but they read and were willing to share that they read something they enjoyed.

To make it even more fun, our excellent PTA kicked in a Barnes and Noble gift card for the student who submitted the most reviews for each grade level. For the past three years, one of my favorite nights is presenting the awards at our Board of Education Meeting to our excellent students from grade seven through twelve.

Our challenge is our effort to develop a love of reading. We want to develop a culture that allows students to read about things that they are passionate about and care about. If they are interested in what they are reading, they will be motivated to read more. The more a student reads, the more likely their skills will remain intact. While that last part isn’t the goal of the program, it certainly is a great byproduct.

A culture of reading can be established with giving students choice. That choice will result in reading for enjoyment. That enjoyment turns to motivation. That motivation turns into skill. That skill allows for great work to be done in the classroom when we assign them pieces to read. But, that culture can only be established when we give up trying to control what they read, how they read, how they show they read, and why they read. Instead, we can allow them to make choices, enjoy their choices, and to grow because they are choosing to grow.

Closing Thought

It is important to define the intention of summer reading. Because we do not want it to take on the qualities of homework and its misguided applications, we must, as an industry, resolve that summer reading’s purpose is to establish a culture of reading, not to directly prevent a loss of skills. Creating and fostering that culture of reading will have benefits across all areas and on all levels, including AP. When adults realize that reading isn’t the punishment that it was during their school years, they enjoy it as an escape or as a means to learn something about an area that they are passionate about. Why doesn’t the same thought process and logic apply to students?

It actually does. We simply have to give them the opportunity.

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