Wednesday, May 27, 2015

To The Class of 2015

For the last five years, I've written a "graduation speech that wasn't" on the blog. We don't even really have a speech at our high school's graduation anymore, but if I had a chance, here's what I'd say to the class of 2015:

I’m struggling to keep up with you. This is the first year I’ve noticed. Once during my first year of teaching, one student asked a classmate listening to a “walkman”—“What are you listening to?”  The student replied, “nothing anybody in here would recognize except Mr. Turner.” Not any more. I still think of Pearl Jam as new music.

I’ve finally reached the age of jumping the chasm across the generation gap, and when I look back to the other side it often leaves me confused. Here’s what I see that is different—not worse, just different.

You expect things to start faster. I used to wait for my favorite show every week, sit through a 1-3 minute elaborate theme song, tolerate a short commercial break, and then enjoy the slow build up to the main plot of the show. Today we binge watch shows online, that mostly start with a cold open, right in the middle of the action.

You don’t have to plan ahead.. When I was a teenager, if you showed up late, or even worse, if someone else was on the phone, our plan for the weekend could end before it even started. Today, we just send a text when we’re ready to meet.

You can legitimately outsource some responsibility. As a teenager and young adult, I had to keep up with class handouts, and later on, my bills. Today, we don’t need to remember as much because it is accessible on demand. I’ll admit, I even get a weekly text reminder from my google calendar to take out the trash.

Notice I didn’t make a stark contrast with me and you. I binge watch, text when I’m ready, and remember only what I deem necessary. We live in the same world, but the world that made me is different than the world that has made you.

What can we learn from this different world?

Early in your life, you experienced September 11,  Hurricane’s Katrina and Sandy, numerous shootings and civil unrest, even an earthquake in Central Virginia. We learned that safety, security, and stability shouldn’t be taken for granted. Policies and plans are necessary, but human wisdom, flexibility, and cooperation get us through the chaos.

Throughout your life, access to nearly everything has expanded. You can find out the GDP of New Zealand, learn about the origins of Punk Rock, or watch a monkey drink it’s own urine, with a click of your mouse. You learn from an early age that some things seen can’t be unseen. As you grow older, you will learn that just because something is available doesn’t mean it’s ok to consume.

Today, you live in a world with unprecedented recording. Whether in written word, images, or moving pictures, much of our life is documented. You’ve grown up learning how to manage a profile. But integrity is still vital for your mental health. It’s hard to manage our image, so the quicker you learn to be who you are, the better off you will be.

My hope for you as my future is this: May you enter a new world of technology and innovation with a strong sense of yourself, your world, and your part in it. May you continue to recognize the importance of civic responsibility and your greater connection to humanity. May you continue to seek out wisdom, and struggle to find a strong moral code. This will prepare you to wield the power that our world is about to place in your hands.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Time and Priority

We've been apologizing a lot lately about the absence of activity on the Underground. I was a little surprised to notice today that we haven't added a post since December. Over Five months ago! Where has the time gone? The easy answer would be we just don't have enough time to devote to the blog anymore. That easy answer is actually a lie. Not having enough time is a mind set that limits our perception of control over our life and ultimately adds to the stress and pressure of life. We could have written more in the last five months, but the truth is we've chosen to do other things with our time.

This week, our school planned a few activities to help students "destress" since our testing season opens next week. In the midst of passing out candy and watching students blow bubbles and make chalk art on our breezeway an administrator jokingly made this comment: "If these teachers would just stop stressing these kids out with so much work and pressuring them about these AP and SOL tests we wouldn't need to do this."

His comment really hit a nerve. I was probably a little rude in my response, but I pointed out that many of these kids were returning from an 18-hour road trip, missing two days of school and returning home at 1am on Sunday morning. (band trip). Many of these same students will joined a number of other students who were at school from 4pm to nearly midnight every day this week preparing for our Spring Musical. Multiple sports had competitions this week and in addition to daily practice from about 4-6:30 students were out until as late as 11:00 some nights. Yet the burden of student stress rests on what I'm doing in my class?

"I just didn't have time to do it?" I often hear from students. And, this is what I tell them.

There's no such thing as not having enough time. We prioritize and choose what we do. If sleep is more important that our work we make a rational choice to sleep and take the consequences of not doing our work  If connecting with friends and family is a more valuable use of my time than studying for a test, we make a rational choice to spend time with people close to us and take what we get on the test. If you really think the paper is more important that afternoon practice, you make a rational choice to miss the practice and accept the fact that you may have to sit the bench for a period or two as a result.

There is no such thing as having enough time to do everything and to do it well. This attitude allows you to take control of your time instead of letting your time control you. I encourage my students to remove the phrase "I didn't have time" from their vocabulary. It lets you move beyond making excuses and toward finding solutions.

It doesn't just apply to students. If I don't eat lunch with my colleagues it's not because I don't have time, it is because grading assignments is more important to me than conversation. If I don't grade an assignment within a given time frame it's not because I didn't have time to do it, it is because I chose other activities instead. It means that we will choose to do some things well, some things good enough, and other things not at all.

I was a little snarky with the administrator, but I'm glad those kids got to take such a great trip. I appreciate the excellence that our school achieves in the arts and athletics. But I'd like for everyone to stop pretending that getting stressed is not the normal response to an attitude that we can do everything we want to do and we can do it well.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

A Few Thoughts



I thought about this one today as I wrote college recommendation letters for students. I guess I'm not a part of the real world, since whether I complete and submit the letter for my students by the deadline actually does matter. Sometimes in life, a single mistake actually has life altering consequences not only for ourselves, but others.

I think it's pretty "pompous" to act like this issue is black and white and to paint teachers that require deadlines as uncaring or idiotically out of touch with reality. The fact is, we must balance accountability with understanding. How about giving us support in that instead of attacking from the outside.

2. Homework


This one has popped up in my newsfeed on several platforms lately. In my Psychology class I teach students to recognize that usually the phrase "research shows" is a power statement that people use to bolster a weak argument or to hide a lack of substance. Too often, research is cherry-picked to support our preconceived beliefs rather than used effectively to shape our practices. The research on homework is inconclusive and it would be foolish to strongly argue either side without enough humility to acknowledge you may be wrong. In the absence of a unified set of data to inform universal attitudes toward homework administrators, teachers, students, and parents must work together to discover what is best in a particular context.

3. An attempt to induce a little Cognitive Dissonance

No picture for this one, but it strikes me that sometimes the same voices that unilaterally dismiss the value of homework and deadlines love the way technology allows us to "extend the learning" beyond the school day. When did we go from thinking that a teacher lecturing in the classroom was bad instruction to thinking that a teacher lecturing to a student at home via video was great? And if spending a few hours reading and responding is an unreasonable burden for some students at home, how is spending a few hours watching a video and responding somehow manageable? I don't have a major problem with this type of "flipping", but when the same people who've bemoaned the burden of homework on students suddenly love the idea of technology providing the chance to keep students learning 24/7, I think you can't have it both ways.

4. Twitter and education.

Twitter has helped me grow as an educator in the last two years more than any other professional development in my career. If you're not using it, I won't say you must, but you really should give it a try and not be dismissive.

But I would like to let administrators know something. Sometimes your tweets sound dismissive and condescending toward teachers. They are hurtful and damage your credibility with people you work with. Most of them probably earn you credibility with your fellow admins and promote your attempt to build a larger platform. I suggest that first, you run your ideas by your staff and think them through in the depth and detail that our students deserve, and then, if your thought or idea is both valuable, practical, and novel tweet it out. It's easy to make people think you're a progressive educator 140 characters at a time, but make sure you're serving your primary audience- students, teachers, and parents in your own school- before you think you can make a difference in the world.

5. Twenty-First Century education.

Just throwing it out there, but I don't see many classrooms anymore that look like they came out of the 1950's. But what hasn't changed since the 1950's? Organizational structures of education oriented in a vertical hierarchy. We know that integrating technology without addressing pedagogy doesn't change much. Can we apply 21st century learning in a classroom embedded in the leadership structure of the 20th century?

6. Word/Phrase of the Year

Here I'd like to offer my suggestion for the Phrase of 2014 that should be put to rest. Drumroll....

"What's best for the student"

It's not the idea I want to retire, but the wording or anything like it. This phrase shuts down any productive dialogue in education. Perhaps some devious types actually got into the business or stay in the business because they want to make a buck at the expense of the most vulnerable of our species, but if I think that is true of another person I can't respect anything they do or suggest. When someone thinks that about me, I am offended and realize that my ideas or suggestions are not respected (because they shouldn't be if it's true).

Whether it's Arne Duncan or the teacher next door to me we must assume that our motivation is to do what is best and most appropriate children in our schools. Only from that posture will we stand on level ground able to learn from one another and through our conflict and compromise find the best path toward serving our children to the best of our ability.

7. Final thoughts.

I feel like Ferris Bueller at the end of the movie. "Why are you still here? Go home." If you made it this far, thanks for reading. The Teaching Underground has been rather quiet for some time. Personally, I started to feel like we were saying the same thing over and over. Also, we took some of our own advice if you look at #4. The first priorities are the students in front of us every day, our own families at home, and the people we work with. It's gotten harder to attend to those priorities and consistently blog as we have in the past.

We're not dead, just a little quieter than before. But we do wish everyone a safe and happy holiday season and thanks for taking the time to care enough to read what we write.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014


To the readers who once upon a time used to frequent this blog, we're sorry.  We just don't have time right now.  Our focus on family and work over the past few months has meant we have less time to dedicate to this endeavor.  But don't fear...there are plenty of teachers out there providing a glimpse into their experiences which will suffice in our absence.  Are they the TU?  No.  But might they have something to offer?  Yes.  Personally I feel our lack of activity is a direct byproduct of the reality that we rarely have time to eat lunch with each other or anyone else for that matter.  What does that say?

I am sorry to disappoint those of you who happened upon this post thinking it mostly dealt with the recent TIME magazine cover.  You could read this past post to kind of get an idea of where we're at on that one.  In short...yes you could dump the "worst" teachers...but that doesn't fix the problem and why they exist there in the first place.   Too bad no one in the article asked teachers for their thoughts.  I thought this letter to the editor and the comments did a fine job with what I don't have time to do.   And don't for a second think there hasn't been plenty to write about.

We could have covered the ground level impact and perceptions of  maker spaces, the lockdown of our school that came before we even had a lockdown drill,  the debate about our Where's Waldo  "1%" raise, the conviction of our state's former first family, the rise on ISIS, the Ukraine crisis, the 4th year of the 8 period day or a thousand other things that sail through the collective minds in our workplace on any given day.  Instead, we've just been trying  to make sense of the world around us and teach our students down in our little basement. For me that always is a bit easier with a little inspiration.  Needless to say for teachers, that inspiration seems harder and harder to come by. So take it wherever you find it.  From your faith, your students, your curriculum or somewhere else.   Don't let the bad news get you down.  Try to not stop dreaming.

 I'd have done better in Neil science class I think...
Also it often helps to listen to some Movie Theme Music while you grade

Or if you prefer...

No doubt at some point when we find the time and inspiration we will reappear with greater frequency.  Or maybe we'll just starting eating lunch together with some regularity.