If you aren’t getting better, you’re getting worse

On homeostasis and entropy:

Homeostasis is a simple, yet powerful core concept of biology – that all living things strive for balance

The catch is that the mortal enemy of homeostasis is entropy – the principle that all things in the universe tend to disorder and that it requires energy to resist the inevitability of this disorder.

If I don’t work out every day, my physical fitness deteriorates. I have to put energy in every day to maintain (better yet, improve) my fitness level.

I want to be a better teacher. If I don’t direct energy every day into getting better, I’m getting worse.

A challenge to myself:

Teaching is incredibly complex and if we aren’t careful, we can get worse at it – and quickly. So I’m going to use this blog to help me do some work on my craft. I hope my readers will feel compelled to question, criticize and otherwise push my thinking.

To start down this road, I’m pulling together 3 core tenets of my classroom to place emphasis on. The first is inquiry. Since moving to a new school, I’ve been swimming upstream to try to get back to the headwaters of inquiry. The second is student engagement. More student connection to the content, more student thinking, more student doing. The third is assessment; both formative and summative (standards-based grading).

To summarize, 3 goal areas to improve my teaching practice:

  1. Inquiry (more and better)
  2. Increased student engagement
  3. More effective assessment

How will I improve?

Cal Newport has blogged repeatedly and brilliantly on the idea of deliberate practice. Daniel Willingham, in “Why Don’t Students Like School” wrote:

“… if you want to be a better teacher, you cannot be satisfied simply to gain experience as the years pass. You must also practice, and practice means (1) consciously trying to improve, (2) seeking feedback on your teaching, and (3) undertaking activities for the sake of improvement, even if they don’t directly contribute to your job.” (Willingham, 2010)

All roads lead to practice, it seems. So that’s where I’m going.

The Plan:

It isn’t complicated: Pick a focus strategy, protocol, method, whatever. Plan it. Do it. Reflect. Revise. Redeem. Repeat. Attack those 3 goals fervently, consistently and intentionally. The plan and reflect parts will happen here – for all to see. If I get really ambitious, I’ll post some video. That idea scares me, so that probably means I should do it!

Where to begin the story?

eat it one bite at a time

When I have time to plan a lesson in detail, I often put a lot of thought into the “story arc” that I am trying to present.

What am I going to at the outset to suck the audience (aka students) into the plot enough that they are willing to work through some slower “character development?”

I often use imagery, video or mysteries to do this with kids – and it has been highly successful.

Now, I’m considering another story that I want to tell.

I’m not sure where the hook is for this story, though.

The story?


The audience?

My science PLC at my new school.

From my experience thus far this year, my colleagues are so far away from teaching through facilitating inquiry that I’m not even sure they have even considered it. Furthermore, it doesn’t seem to be on the radar of our administrators either. Obviously, they are all familiar with the term inquiry – in the sense that it is part of our state science standards. My feeling, though, is that the general perception among the group is that inquiry means doing labs and writing lab reports.

This is a big, complicated story with many twists and turns.

I have worked my way through a lot of learning, thinking, experimentation, failure, reflection and revision over the past 7+ years. How do I bring my colleagues up to speed without burying them?

I have to remember to eat the elephant one bite at a time… but which bite should I take first?

Image used under CC license from the Flickr photostream of schmish

What makes for high quality teacher learning?

Professional development?

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about teacher learning (aka professional development).


A few reasons:

  • I’m taking a class at UW Oshkosh this summer about professional development and doing research for this class
  • I was selected as one of ten Success at the Core Fellows and this organization is all about professional development (for teachers, teacher leaders, coaches, administrators, etc.)
  • I’ve experienced some good PD in my career and a lot of bad PD

So, the real question I’m wresting with right now is “what makes for high quality teacher learning?”

This question really has two  parts: what IS high quality teacher learning (what does it look, sound, feel like, etc.) and how can schools facilitate effective learning for teachers (what are the criteria, key aspects, logistics, etc.)?

A few core ideas that I keep circling back to about effective teacher learning are that it must be inquiry-based, differentiated, ongoing, supported, and job-embedded.

So, readers – if there are any of you left – what makes for high quality teacher learning?

Image used under CC license from http://cynicsgirl.blogspot.com


What can you do today to make yourself a better teacher?

I have a confession to make.

I’m a learning junkie.

There – I said it!

Yesterday was the first day of my Winter Break. I’ve been mildly sick all of the last week of school and refusing to stay home because I didn’t want to call in sick right before break. I have a 4 week old newborn at home. I really need a break this year!

So what did I do yesterday?

  • Wrote a proposal for a Washington STEM Entrepenurial Award (partly done with one hand while holding a sleeping infant)
  • Wrote a proposal to lead a Professional Learning Community study of formative assessment, feedback and summative assessment with my colleagues in January
  • Read 2 chapters of Making Learning Whole (mostly while riding my exercise bike)
  • Caught up on reading a few of my favorite blogs by my fellow educators

Of course, I also had plenty of time to read to the kids, hold the baby, take a nap, and watch A Christmas Story with the whole family.  Don’t worry – my family is not getting neglected!

I’ve gotten to the point where I can’t learn enough. I can’t improve my practice as an educator fast enough. The longer I teach, the more urgency I teach with.

The desire to become the best teacher I can be drives my voracious appetite for learning. I have a really hard time understanding teachers who don’t engage in any self-directed professional learning. It’s actually become a real pet peeve of mine to hear teachers say things like, “I don’t have time to READ!” Then they launch into a long-winded conversation about whatever crappy T.V. show they watched the night before.

How do you have time to NOT read?

How can you NOT care to improve as an educator?

I’m going to enjoy the heck out of my vacation. I’m also going to come back from this break a better educator than I was before it.

What can you do today to make yourself a better teacher?

Important conversations

survey says....

survey says....

I took a survey 2 weeks ago about our school.  It covered a wide variety of questions, but one stood out to me:

The teachers in my school meet as a whole staff to discuss ways to improve teaching and learning.

I’m sad to say, I clicked the radio button for ‘Never’ and moved on to the next question.  I didn’t even deliberate.  There was no doubt in my mind that the answer was ‘Never.’

I brought this to the attention of the staff last Friday while leading part of our professional development.  I saw some nodding heads around the room, as well as a few blank stares.

The real epiphany, though, was when I led them into this conversation.  I led a socratic seminar focused around the question, “if you were a student at our school, what would your education to be like?”

The level of emotion in this conversation was palpable.  Many people expressed strong feelings and opinions that had clearly been pent up for years.  Several people shed tears.

This was an important conversation.

Yet, now that the raw emotion has been released and tears have flowed; now that people have had a chance to vent –  the real conversation has to begin…

What are we going to do about it?

You teach how you were taught + pressure = FAIL

I work in the Yakima Valley, in central Washington.  The combination of poverty, migrant populations, English language learners from monolingual homes and weak local economies has turned the Yakima Valley into an educational quagmire.  The state of Washington has increasingly poured in resources in an attempt to “fix” our “failing” schools.

With all of this “support” has come additional pressure on teachers.  When people are put under pressure, innovation and experimentation go out the window.  When we are under stress, by nature, we reach for what is known, for what is safe.

I’ve seen the old axiom, “you teach how you were taught,” proven true time and again.  It’s hard to create something that you’ve never experienced.  This becomes even more true for teachers under pressure.

Pressure on teachers has not inspired change in instructional practices; quite the opposite.  Pressure has caused teachers to do what they know, and do it harder.  It has caused them to lecture harder, to push more worksheets, to give more tests, to assign longer homework, etc.

Meanwhile test scores go down, attendance drops, dropout rates increase and graduation rates decrease.  Now comes less state money and more pressure.

Scores going down

Scores going down in ESD 105