Portfolio Entry #2: Best Things I Used from Other Sources

The goal of the portfolio is threefold: to document some of the work I did this past year, to take the time to reflect and learn, and to share with the larger community I am lucky to have through this blog.  I will be posting a portfolio entry a day until it’s done.  There are eight entries, one for each year of my career thus far.  Questions, comments, and thoughts are always greatly appreciated, but are even more so for this.  Previous entries are here.

I’ve found the teaching truism, “good teachers borrow; great teachers steal” to be an inspiration as I progress throughout my career.  The more I teach, the more of what I do comes from others.  This year, I stole three different things I would highly recommend to any teacher who could use them:

– My highest recommendation goes to the Right Question Institute’s Question Formulation Technique (QFT).  Someone on Twitter recommended the QFT to me last summer, and it was a perfect tool for an inquiry-centered class.  The questions I got each time I used this were phenomenal, and in many cases, became the foundation for my class.  I wrote about using the technique here.  Coincidentally, I was at a conference last week where I got to meet the folk from RQI. Over dinner, I told Dan Rothstein about my use of QFT, and how it seemed to work like magic.  Dan explained to me the science behind its brilliance: it combines divergent thinking, convergent thinking, and meta-thinking.  I could not do this full justice, so for further information, I’ll plug his book.

– I’m a big fan of the Buck Institute’s work around project-based learning.  Unfortunately, I only made time to use one of their Project Based Government units: The Better Budget Simulation.  It’s a great unit, that really helps students understand just how complicated government decision-making is.  It was even more powerful in that we did it as the Congressional “Super Committee” was failing to make similar decisions.  At the heart of this, and all Buck’s curricular units, is a very simple algorithm that can guide any inquiry based unit. For any given situation students are in:

  1. Have students create a problem statement
  2. Students draft a list of what they know and what they need to know to address the problem
  3. Students write questions about what they need to know (note to self: insert RQI here)
  4. Either as individuals, in groups, or as a class, students learn what they need to know
  5. Re-craft the problem statement, and repeat the cycle.

– Finally, one of the highlights of my year was Citizenship Night, where students presented their work from Project Citizen.  My next entry will go into more detail on the unit, but anyone looking to get their students independently and actively involved in policy should look to this curriculum.

Next Entry: Best Unit

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Portfolio Entry #1: Best Lesson

Each of the past two years, I put together a portfolio of my work along with other teachers at Bronx Lab.  I missed that tradition at Young Writers this year, so have decided to take some time to do it on my own before I completely dive into the work of opening Harvest Collegiate.  

The goal of the portfolio is threefold: to document some of the work I did this past year, to take the time to reflect and learn, and to share with the larger community I am lucky to have through this blog.  I will be posting a portfolio entry a day until it’s done.  There are eight entries, one for each year of my career thus far.  Questions, comments, and thoughts are always greatly appreciated, but are even more so for this.

Portfolio Entry #1: Best Lesson

My best lesson of the year was one I came up with about three minutes before class.  In November, we spent most of the month looking at Occupy Wall Street, and we were moving towards a more traditional look at the meaning of democracy and its structure within the United States.  I used the Right Question Institute’s Question Formulation Technique to have students create questions, but they came up with so many good ones, that I was not sure how to move forward.  I decided to put democracy in action, and let my students decide.  My writeup of what happened is here.  What was great about the lesson was not only that it allowed students to apply theories of democracy, but that it also revealed many of democracy’s flaws.  This then gave us a rich case study to use throughout the coming classes, as we examined the advantages and disadvantages of democracy’s various forms.

This lesson also reveals the power of turning complete control over to students.  I later used this as inspiration for a task I gave teachers in my Critical Friends Group: give students directions in the first five minutes of class to complete a complicated task, and then sit back and let them work without your help.  I think both students and teachers would learn more and differently if opportunities like these were more frequent.

Next Entry: Best Things I Used from Other Sources

Goals for the 2011-12 School Year

Following on the heels of my last post, here are my goals for the upcoming school year:

Teaching (The first two are also my “official” school goals that are being used to guide observations)

I will improve the way I give feedback to students.  Formally, I hope to develop a system to give students feedback about writing that meaningfully a) tells students where they are, b) what they need to do to improve and c) is efficient enough that I can provide frequent and timely feedback to all students.  I also need to make sure I am giving informal feedback more frequently to all students.  (I hope that moving to a Standards Based Grading system will enable these things to happen organically).

Students will have multiple opportunities to rethink and revise their answers to large essential questions throughout each unit, and will also reflect on and revise all major work.

I will solicit bi-weekly feedback from my students to ensure they understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, and to give them a voice in what happens in the class.

Leadership
The Social Studies Critical Friends Group will meet once a month, and will be valuable for its participants.

Advisory
100% of my new advisees will either graduate or earn at least ten credits by June.

100% of my advisees will be accepted to college, and will have a plan to pay for it or whatever else they choose to do next year.

Personal / Professional Development
At least once per week, I will write and publish a piece of writing about teaching social studies, be it about my practice or teaching in general.

Every two months, I will write and publish a self-evaluation of how I am doing on these goals.

My 2010-2011 Teaching Portfolio

It’s done! Last year, along with two other teachers at my school, and inspired by a similar program at the Manhattan Village Academy, I put together a teacher portfolio this year to help my own personal development, consisting of the following sections.  This year, five of us are completing the process.  Hopefully there will be more next year, at both Bronx Lab and my new school.

  1. Inquiry Question: How can my engagement with online education communities improve my teaching?
  2. Year’s Best Unit and Reflection
  3. Best Major Assignment: French Revolution DBQ
  4. Goal for the 2011-2012 School Year
  5. Reflection of School Year Goals #5 – Late June
  6. What I Wish I Had Known at the Beginning of the Year
  7. Top Memories from My Time at Bronx Lab

Inquiry Question: How can my engagement with online education communities improve my teaching?

2010-11 Teaching Portfolio Entry #7

I first started blogging toward the end of my first year of teaching, back in 2005.  At the time, there were very few teachers who were doing reflective writing about their practice.  I maintained the blog for a couple of years through grad school and the beginning of my time at Bronx Lab.  However, I stopped blogging as I felt more of a disconnect between the problems I faces in my urban classroom and the issues the other teachers I communicated with engaged with in their suburban ones.

I returned to the “blogosphere” last spring, seeking once again to connect with others beyond the walls of my school, walls that at the time seemed to retard my professional development.  I was very quickly encouraged to join Twitter, which I did just in time for the maiden #sschats last summer, giving me a quickly expanding network of teachers who could support my growth.  My network would grown organically over the year.  Through my experience at the Educator Writers Association seminar, I also became connected to a much larger circle of more activist teachers.

My number one goal when I started writing again was to force myself to be more reflective in my practice.  In the past year, I’ve published 62 posts.  Thirty-three of these were reflective, or otherwise directly connected to my classroom.  Twenty-nine of the posts would fall more into the “advocacy” territory.  I’m proud that I was much more reflective than I was in the past years, but at the same time, I think I often allowed myself to get distracted by the hot educational topics de jour, which allowed me to focus more on larger issues of which I have no control at the expense of thinking deeply about the classroom that I do control.

The most important thing that came out of my online engagement was a frequently needed morale boost.  Especially as I moved into more of a coaching and leadership role this year, having another network of like-minded teachers to engage with kept me going through a lot of difficult periods this year.  I was able to get regular reminders of the value of the work I have been trying to do with my students, as well as hundreds of big and little ideas for improving my practice.  The best thing about being connected is the ability to get resources on demand, be it the right document for a lesson, or a better rubric for discussions.  There are so many things I took from others this year that it’s hard to even differentiate what I came up with and what was inspired directly or indirectly by others.  They all made me a better teacher for my students.

Looking back though, perhaps the most important things that my virtual interactions did was to encourage me to make new physical connections, which in the long run, may be the most important things I did this year.  It was only because I was online that I learned about EdCamp NYC, and on a whim when I woke up that morning early, I decided to put a presentation together.  It went well, and it gave me the confidence to step up to two other opportunities that I otherwise may have allowed to pass by: presenting at NCSS this fall, and much more importantly, taking a job doing professional development around inquiry-based assessments that are being piloted as part of NYC’s new teacher evaluation system.  Not only has it been an incredible experience to be part of this new work as it’s being developed, but working with the three other educators involved has been the best professional development of my life, and has completely transformed my approach to a lot of things I do in the class.

I am also quite proud of the EDUSolidarity initiative I conceived and helped organize.  It was great to see over a hundred bloggers step up in solidarity to share why, as good teachers, they support unions.  I hope that for many it was an experience that encourages them to get more involved with larger educational issues, where teachers’ voices desperately need to be heard.  On a personal note, helping to make that happen was an incredibly empowering experience, greatly increasing my sense of efficacy in the world.  Had that not happened, I never would have believed I could do something like raising money for a scholarship for one of my students who is undocumented.  Last I checked, we had raised somewhere north of $6000, which along with the money already in the scholarship, is enough to cover almost all of her first two years’ tuition.

Best Major Assignment: French Revolution DBQ

2010-11 Teaching Portfolio Entry #6

I’m using “best” loosely here.  The most important “best” is the assignment that elicits the best work from my students, which was my History Day assignment.  Another “best” might be the project that demands the most of students, thus serving as a model for the directions I want to move in my teaching.  The best example of this work was the Bill & Ted Project.

The “best” I am going to talk about, though, is the best assignment I gave to develop and assess students’ historical thinking, which is on the surface, a relatively simple DBQ essay on the French Revolution (for copyright reasons I can’t post the whole assignment, but the documents are here).

Like just about any history teacher, I’ve been using DBQ essays for a long time.  The structure is an easy way to make you feel like you’re “doing history” in the classroom, while still assessing traditional skills such as depth of knowledge and writing ability.  While AP teachers seem to be used to DBQ’s that force students to think critically, the ones that are used on the New York Regents are rather straight forward tasks that ask students to write explanatory essays using the supplied documents as factual evidence.

I tried something new with DBQ’s in the second half of the year, and the results were extremely promising.  I modeled what I did on Historical Thinking Matters, which presents students with contradictory documents, asking them to then develop historical arguments based on the evidence in front of them.  Because students are faced with conflicting primary documents, the students need to assess sources for credibility and perspective, which is an increasingly important skill in our information-rich world.  I took my assignment to an even deeper level by including a questionable secondary source from Wikipedia, which was actually contradicted by evidence in another document.  Students were asked to write an essay evaluating the extent to which the French Revolution was successful.

The most important move for me was in how I assessed these essays.  Previously, I would have assessed the students for the strength and coherence of their arguments.  For this essay, I went further, demanding that my students demonstrate the historical thinking skills that I had been working on with them throughout the year.  Students were assessed for not just the their arguments and organization, as I had in the past, but also for evaluating evidence in terms of its perspective, believability, and accuracy.  Students were expected to not just take a black or white side and support it, but to demonstrate their understanding of the shades of gray that make up history.  No student who argues that the French Revolution was entirely a success or failure is making a historically accurate argument, and it was high time I held my students accountable for that.  Students were also held accountable for engaging with counter arguments.  (It was a pleasant coincidence that all this jives completely with the new Common Core Literacy Standards for Social Studies).

I had 14 different aspects of students’ writing that I tracked on this assignment, divided into four larger categories: argument, use of evidence, content, and organization.  The argument and organization categories were basically the same as how I previously assessed my students, whereas the evidence and content categories contained most of the new expectations.  As this was only the second time I was formally assessing my students in this manner for evidence and content, it is not surprising that students scored the most poorly in these categories.  This points to the need to be doing this kind of assessing explicitly from day 1, which is something I plan to do moving forward.

The more interesting development, though, is that for argument and organization, students did their best work on this assignment.  By asking my students to do much more complex work, they exhibited a far superior ability in the “basic” skills I had been teaching and assessing all along.  This is perhaps the most important takeaway I have from this project, as well as from my time at Bronx Lab: the key to helping students to develop the basic reading and writing skills that many of them lack is not simplify the curriculum, but rather to make the thinking and content required for the curriculum even more complex and advanced, so that it demands them to better their skills in order to engage with complex and engaging topics.

Goal for the 2011-2012 School Year

2010-11 Teaching Portfolio Entry #5

As the school year gets nearer and I have more clarity around the expectations of my new school, I will set more specific goals.  For now, I have one main goal, which is to get back to being primarily on the side of my students.  Since the first year at Bronx Lab, I have been primarily concerned with building an institution.  Often, there were moments where the needs of individual students had to be made secondary to the larger goal of growing a new school.  Similarly, as I have taken on more leadership responsibilities over the past years, I have had more of my time focused on adults than the students in my classroom, an experience Jose Vilson recently described quite well.  While I certainly am still excited to support other teachers in my new school in any way that I can, I am looking forward to being able to focus all my energy on my students, to ensure that I can serve them with the entirety of my professional self.

Year's Best Unit and Reflection

2010-11 Teaching Portfolio Entry #3

If I’m going to judge a unit by how well it accomplished its goals, I have to go with our third unit on Golden Ages, which was basically a unit aimed at “covering” a lot of content in a little amount of time.  This unit revolutionized how I will think about “coverage” in the future, and proved to be even more successful than we hoped.  While it makes me a little sad that the best work I did in my Global class this year was the one where we made the largest sacrifice to coverage and content, it is also the one that might be most useful to people in a similar teaching situation.

The full unit plan and reflection can be found here.

What I Wish I Had Known at the Beginning of the Year

2010-11 Teaching Portfolio Entry #2

I wish I had known at the beginning of the year that, as a school leader, there is no “off” button. I’m proud of the job I have done this year as Social Studies Department Chair, as UFT Chapter Leader, and as an instructional coach. I am relatively confident that the members of my department and of my chapter that I interact with while wearing those hats have a view of me that jives with the view I want to have of myself. But in the past months, I have realized that the view I want to have of myself does not match up with the one many of my fellow leaders, whom I have known the longest, have of me. To them, I am often bitter, curmudgeonly, and overly negative. And that is a totally fair and accurate portrayal of who I have been around them. With the vast majority of the people who were at the school when I started now gone, I felt that there was a select group around whom I didn’t need to “watch what I say.” I treated my time with them much as teachers often do when they enter the teacher’s lounge: as a time to vent and get stuff off your chest. This, coupled with my innate tendency to focus on where things can be improved as opposed to focusing on where they are already good, made for the majority of my interactions with them being negative.

I have never seen myself as an excessively negative person (excessively critical, though, of course). I am not negative with my students, where I have been often (wrongly) accused of being too friendly with them. I am not negative, by conscious effort, in my writing or interaction with teachers virtually or physically outside of school. But I have been extremely negative in department chair meetings and in other similar groupings. At times this has hurt the morale of others, other times it has caused people to hold their tongues, and at worst, it has led to a defeatist attitude in some meetings. This is never the person I wanted to be. I wish I had known that there was no time to let my guard down. Just as I censor myself when I’m with students who when working with a struggling teacher, I’ve realized I need to do this at all times professionally, as it’s not fair to those who have wanted nothing more than to work with me in helping to address the many problems our students face.