Saturday, November 20, 2010

I'm Learning Like SpongeBob

I've always loved the SpongeBob cartoons! SpongeBob is one of those ineffable characters that means something different to each person. To me, SpongeBob is the ultimate learner. He is fully aware of his lack of knowledge, and yet that doesn't daunt him as he plunges forward to soak up the knowledge that others around him offer. He doesn't care that he doesn't know everything. It doesn't hold him back from trying new things, no matter how great the risk of failure. Throughout, he remains upbeat and kind to his friends, bringing them along for his intellectual forays.

Even when the going is tough, SpongeBob keeps on trying. I'm still not sure if SpongeBob ever got his driver's license, even though he must have taken the test over 15 times. Despite the frustration of his teacher, he still applied effort with enthusiasm. After all, if a goal is truly important, it's worth repeated efforts to accomplish it. Mastery is worth the effort!

I think SpongeBob is a great example that we all can emulate. We shouldn't be afraid to take on new educational risks, but should relax and enjoy the challenge before us. Like SpongeBob, we should soak in all the information around us, process it, and squeeze out the wonderful juice of knowledge. Look for the knowledge others have to offer. Read the attachments for presentations you were unable to attend. Follow up on the links that others share. There's a wealth of information for the taking, and your friends have already narrowed down the pool to the really worthy material. Take advantage of these gifts that are offered to you. Don't shrink from the challenge, but explore your world and your discipline with the childlike enthusiasm of SpongeBob. You'll swell up in no time!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Keep it Moving!

I just attended some great workshops this past weekend at the NJEA convention in Atlantic City, NJ. Two were particularly inspiring: "I'm the Write Teacher" by Joseph Pizzo and "The Kinesthetic Classroom" by Mike Kuczala. Mr. Pizzo brought new energy to classroom pedagogy with his integration of fun activities that accomplished the same tasks as a boring lecture. I particularly enjoyed his impromptu poetry slam made up with teacher-supplied excuses. It was a fun exercise that also demonstrated parallel structure, a win-win strategy!  Mr. Kuczala showed some simple ways that movement can increase cognitive processing, class cohesion, and just plain fun. He managed to get over 150 teachers moving, laughing, and agreeing that these were worthwhile activities.  I plan to purchase his book that offers more background on the research and many practical applications of movement for all disciplines.

My point? Our classrooms don't need to be boring to be effective.  We need to work on developing energized environments that appeal to all learners and keep them engaged. Humor, movement, and just plain silliness are great assets for teachers.  Let's remember that if we're bored, our students are probably asleep.  Plan for movement. Plan for group interaction. Plan for laughter and silliness.  You'll be glad you did!

Here's a link to Mike Kuczala's book:

Friday, October 15, 2010

Inspiring Future Teachers

Why teach? This is the question that many ask. Given the rigorous academic standards, the difficult credentialing process, and the demands of the profession itself, the question of whether to teach or not may seem like an open and shut case of "No." Nonetheless, for those driven to interact with our youth and to develop the next generation of leaders, teaching is the shining light that beckons from afar. However, there are some who just need to know a bit more about the process before they commit to this rewarding career, and that is where comes in. is a comprehensive site prepared by the federal government to inspire future teachers and to ease the transition into teaching. It provides video testimonials, checklists for the educational and job search process, and many resources, no matter what stage of the process you are in. It even includes job postings! While the site can be a little cumbersome to navigate, it's still a worthwhile venture. Note that you have to explore several levels of menus in order to see the full breadth of offerings. I encourage you to roam its pages and to become a bit more inspired yourself.

Check it out here:

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Celebrating Banned Books Week, Sept. 25-Oct. 2nd, 2010

They banned that?! WHY? This is the comment that I received from students, colleagues, and friends when I taught a lesson on censorship as part of this year's Banned Books Week. It may be hard to believe, but even in this enlightened America, the Land of Free Speech, there are still many challenges to great literary works. When I say banned, I'm not talking about the marching band at football games. No, I'm talking about removing literature, film, art, and other media from publicly accessible libraries, museums, schools, and websites simply because some find their content offensive. 

We all need to remember that banning books has disastrous consequences. It denies an author a voice and risks cutting off the cry for help from oppression. It allows others to make choices, instead of allowing one to make decisions for oneself. It necessarily stifles the creative juices of genius, limiting our citizens to a mediocre, generally accepted existence. I don't mean to say that all censoring is bad. No, some is clearly needed to protect young children from sexually explicit material, and there are other instances where it's appropriate as well. Rather, I'm suggesting that we think twice before removing literature from our schools and libraries. What is offensive to one person may be totally acceptable to another. My students were amazed that Captain Underpants was a challenged book. They appreciated the goofy antics and the language of their peers (elementary school bathroom talk). My friends were amazed that the Harry Potter series was at the top of the list for challenged books when it has received such widespread acceptance and huge movie deals. I, too, was astonished that one of my favorite young adult novels by Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, was banned from a Stockton, Missouri high school library this month even though it was adopted as a required summer read by a New Jersey high school. Nonetheless, if you take a look at the American Library Association's list of challenged and banned books, you'd be hard pressed not to find some novel that you have read.

So, take some time to celebrate our literary freedom. Read a great work, perhaps one that's been banned. Let others know that we don't take our freedom of speech for granted!

Here's a link to the ALA's list of the top 100 banned/challenged books for the last decade:

Here's a link to some lesson plans for Banned Books Week by

Here's a link to Sherman Alexie's book on

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Fun and Games

Don't you wish you could play games all day? Many kids do, and now, for some, it's a reality. A New York school has incorporated game theory into their educational curriculum, and it has transformed how the students approach school. No longer a dreaded institution, the school is an eagerly awaited home for fun and games. Cloaked in the guise of games, however, is some very high-order thinking. Students work in teams to develop their own games, taking on roles as writers, directors, and costume designers. They must learn how all the components fit into the bigger whole, and they must work together to achieve a cohesive product. Further, this systems theory is applied to other standard subject matter as well. Students learn how fractions fit into the bigger picture, how sentences build the story, etc.

The application of systems theory is something we all can use in our classrooms. Students not only need to understand the workings of individual components, but in order to use them to their greatest advantage, they need to understand how the parts function in the bigger whole. They need both the big and little pictures in order to move fluidly through the working world. Sometimes, we get hung up on one concept or another, and we forget to include the relationship of this concept to overarching concepts, or even other disciplines. If we teach with a systems mentality, we can help our students understand the total picture, and they'll be ready to paint new vistas for themselves and others.

We just need to keep it fun!

Here's a video from The New York Times about the gaming school in New York:
New York Times Magazine

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Challenges for a Changing Curriculum

After reading a recent article by a Harvard economics professor, I realized that we have a long way to go to prepare our students for the challenges of the 21st century. He advocated basic courses for students and adults such as introductory economics, psychology, and probability and statistics. His viewpoint is that in order to respond to the issues of today's economy, we must have a better understanding of the forces that influence it. New Jersey's recent addition of a financial literacy requirement is a good step in the right direction. Surely many of our country's home mortgage woes could have been avoided if we all were more informed consumers.

However, there are broader challenges on the horizon. Making sure that our future citizens are empowered to make informed decisions regarding their financial futures is great, but we need to think beyond individual sufficiency. We must prepare our students for the teamwork required of the global workforce. They must develop an awareness of and appreciation for different cultures in order to effectively interact with their global counterparts. The U.S. State Department has identified 10 critical languages for the future: Arabic, Azerbaijani, Bangla/Bengali, Chinese, Hindi, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Persian, Punjabi, Russian, Turkish, and Urdu. Many of our students may not even be able to locate where these languages are spoken, let alone have any appreciation for the cultures of these foreign language speakers. When one realizes that China and India have more honor students than America even has students, the need becomes more apparent. Moreover, India is a young country with over 50% of its population under the age of 25.

Our isolated approach to preparing American citizens must change if we are to empower our future leaders to move fluently in an economy where India and other growing countries play a greater role on the world stage. It is not enough to remotely study these other cultures. Our students must be able to interact with students of other cultures, thus broadening awareness on both sides of the divide. Sure, foreign exchange programs are great for this, but they serve a limited audience and are financially impractical. Rather, we educators must fully use the technology available to us. Setting up Skype conversations, furthering email contact, opening up global wikis, or perhaps even arranging for group projects across nations are a first step. The CIA World Fact Book provides comprehensive information about all aspects of different countries, and is a wonderful resource for both teachers and students. The door is wide open. It's our job to help our students cross the portal onto the world stage.

Here's the New York Times article from the Harvard professor:
A Course Load for the Game of Life

Here's a link to the U.S. State Dept.'s Critical Languages Program:
Critical Language Scholarship Program

Here's a link where you can explore the over 6,900 languages of the world:

Here's a link to the CIA World Factbook:
The World Factbook

Thursday, August 5, 2010

For the Love of It

I've been an avid reader since I was introduced to books as a preschooler. I was always finding opportunities to read. Even the labels of cereal and tissue boxes provided reading material while eating breakfast. Yet there are many kids who are turned off by reading. What led to their dislike? After reading the linked New York Times article, it seems clear that kids need to be given their choice of what to read.  They need to be encouraged to read anything, even if adults consider the material trashy and media-centric.

This article relayed a recent Florida study that offered students their choice of summer reading material. Some of the books were simply about celebrities, while others were kid classics like Junie B. Jones. No matter the selection of books, these kids who read over the summer outperformed their counterparts in standardized tests, even years later! Moreover, offering $50 in free books (of one's choice) for summer reading provided results comparable with summer school attendance.

We need to do more to encourage our kids to read. We need to stop getting hung up on whether they are reading celebrity-studded news or fantasy-based dragon novels. We first need to develop the avid interest in reading, and then guide that interest toward more challenging works. My youngest children love to read, and will pick up books easily. My eldest son has been a reluctant reader, and I struggle to find the genre that interests him. Recently, I think we've clicked on something that works. He seems to prefer nonfiction, military history works. I never would have suggested what I consider such dry reading. It goes to show that we need to offer our students a WIDE variety of literature. I'm hopeful that this will be the light that switches him on to reading. If not, I'll keep on trying other avenues.  We need our kids to read!

Here's a link to the New York Times article that got me thinking.
Kids Must Read Anything

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Digital Permanence

It's true that educators have always faced more stringent standards for public behavior. Rules for dating behavior from the early 1800's have been modified, but the fact remains that a teacher is still expected to be a moral exemplar in the community, a shining role model for students.

The integration of the Internet in our daily lives means that anyone can monitor another's actions via the Web. It is no longer possible to have a work self, an after-hours self, or even an I'm-with-my-high-school-friends self. The proliferation of social networking sites means that all these selves are visible to anyone: employers, friends, business associates, and family. It's not 1984, but Big Brother is watching closely, this time through the multitude of users searching the World Wide Web. Multiple selves just aren't possible anymore. You are the complete package, take it or leave it.

You may be asking, so what? This is nothing new. However, the permanence of images and posts on the Internet is receiving more attention. As the linked New York Times article notes, educators are helping students think about the implications of such permanence. The European Union produced a campaign called "Think B4 U post!" to help young people think about the consequences of publishing photos of themselves or friends. Also, we've heard too many stories about the longevity of cyberbullying when nasty posts are left for others to view ad infinitum. It won't be too long before people will be able to take a picture of you on the street and then use that photo to search for other images of you on the Internet. When combined with data aggregation software, analysis, and live video, the possibility of finding inappropriate moments for anyone are almost guaranteed.

What can we do about the situation? We can demand the right to new beginnings and the right to self definition. Some say to limit our presence on the Web and avoid social networking sites, but in this day and age, that is an impossibility! We can establish positive virtual identities, perhaps using services such as ReputationDefenders. We can push for new legislation similar to the Fair Credit Reporting Act that limits the ability of servers to publish unwelcome images after a set period of time. We can push for new technology to monitor our virtual image. Nonetheless, most people seem to be concerned about valid, but embarrassing posts they make themselves. Perhaps we can take advantage of services such as Mail Goggles, a voluntary late-night email service from Google Mail, that helps patrons avoid embarrassing drunken emails, asking users to complete simple math problems before an email will be sent out. We can monitor and define our image via sites such as Yet all the legislation and technology will do nothing if we don't monitor our behavior before acting.

So, what's my best advice? Assume that EVERYTHING you do or say is visible to others, or will be shared with others. Think of yourself as a fabulously hot celebrity, where everyone wants the dish on everything you do or think.  It may be more comforting to believe that you are being sought after, rather than hunted down. In any case, watch your step. Your career may depend upon your digital footprint.

Here's the fabulous article that got me thinking:
The Web Means the End of Forgetting -

Here's the website for GetUnvarnished:

Here's a link to more info. about Mail Goggles:
Official GMail Blog

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Cyberbullying and Digital Citizenship

The World Wide Web... When people hear that term do they think of the global impact their postings can have? Or, do they just think about easier access to information of all sorts?  Whatever you or I think, our students may not understand the implications of all their postings on the web. The New York Times article linked below discusses the prevalence of cyberbullying and the inability of schools to address the issue of off-site postings. Even the courts are confused about where responsibility lies. The only thing that is clear is that we need to educate our students about ethical and responsible digital citizenship. We need to start from an early age, and continue to teach throughout a student's years in school. Bullying has more impact now that it can remain in a permanent and publicly accessible format.  We need to help our students understand not only the impact of their words, texts, and video, but also the permanence that web postings maintain.

Here's a link to The New York Times article about cyberbullying:
The New York Times - Cyberbullying

Here's a link to Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization working to develop responsible digital citizenship.  They also have some cool lesson plans and parent/student contracts.
Common Sense Media

Friday, June 18, 2010

Honoring Enlisted Graduates

This week, we learned from The New York Times that more school districts are choosing to honor students bound for military duty at their commencement exercises. At debate is whether this recognition takes away the prestige of academic achievement being lauded during the ceremony. Many of these newly-honored are average students, unlikely to be singled out for their academic success. As opposed to many others who are college bound, these enlisted students have chosen a career rather than a more challenging academic future.

So, does that mean we should refuse to recognize their future service? Certainly no one would discount the hard work and potentially life-threatening sacrifice offered by these students. Putting their lives on the line, they will be working hard to defend the freedoms we hold so dear. Clearly, there is value in military service. However, does that mean that we should diminish the attention to academic achievement that is the purpose of commencement exercises?

In our increasingly career-driven world, the push for a jobs orientation is strong. We encourage students to choose college majors with strong earnings and career potential. We include cooperative education assignments with employers to broaden the real-world experience for our students. Should a career in the military be different? Surely there is the potential for later academic growth made possible through the various programs offered to veterans, and few would deny the need for a strong American military. Yet, does that warrant special recognition at an academic ceremony?

I can certainly see both sides of the issue, and even the viewpoint that this recognition glamorizes a deathly future of warfare. Yet, I believe that our world has positive futures for all our high school graduates. Some may have to delay college for familial or financial reasons, and others may just not be ready for the academic rigor that college demands. Choosing to serve in the military is a admirable alternative. The difficult choice to serve others is something that should be lauded, whether it is service through the military or through non-profit organizations such as AmeriCorps. Most importantly, these students have achieved what our society has demanded. They have graduated from high school, when all too many have dropped out. In my opinion, recognition of enlisted graduates is a worthwhile activity, but I'd love to hear what you think. Add your comments to join the debate!

Here's a link to the New York Times article that got me thinking about this:

Here's a link to AmeriCorps:

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Effort and Responsibility

President Obama made his first presidential commencement speech this week, and he offered some down-to-earth advice for the high school graduates in Kalamazoo, MI. He told them that they are likely to make mistakes, but that they must persevere. He noted that there may be occasions where they work hard, but to no avail. Why such seemingly negative words? His key message was, "Don't make excuses. Take responsibility not just for your successes. Take responsibility where you fall short as well" (

How refreshing it was to see someone encouraging our youth to avoid the blame game and stand up for both their good works and their mistakes. Claiming ownership is certainly one of the first keys to fixing, and learning from, our mistakes.  Lately, I've been in meetings where one segment of the education field will blame another for the current deficits in our system. Colleges are pointing at high schools, and high schools are pointing at elementary schools, and elementary schools are pointing at preschools, parents, etc. Rather than working on pointing the finger at others, we all need to stand up and be a part of the necessary change to help our youth grow into responsible citizens. I'm pleased that in this day and age we can admit to mistakes and yet still overcome them.

I'm also pleased that President Obama reinforced the principle of effort. Current research indicates that effort, more than talent or ability, is the necessary ingredient for student success. I believe we need to empower our youth with the understanding and skills to help them succeed in this new century. They need opportunities to practice perseverance, and the support system to help them overcome their mistakes. President Obama's speech sent the right message; now we need to put it into action.

Check out the full article detailing President Obama's address at The New York Times with the link below.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Hungry for New Novels

This week I learned that one of my favorite young adult novels, The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, was being adopted by the Lenape High School as its school-wide summer read. It's a futuristic dystopian novel with a teenage female protagonist battling in a televised Survivor-style competition in order to provide for her home town.

Why do I love this book? There are many reasons. It has a wide variety of themes that can be incorporated into all sorts of units. Bravery, loyalty, friendship, family, social classes, political systems, media influence, and self-identity are all possible avenues of exploration with this text. It's probably between a 6th and 7th grade reading level, but it can  easily hold the attention of those much older. Besides the diversity of themes, it offers the basis for a discussion on change. Its a great start to contrast this malfunctioning, futuristic society with that of today. My biggest reason is that the book is truly engaging. The reader is drawn into the plight of our heroine, and can easily empathize with the struggles she faces.

The book itself is a hot new read across the country. I first learned of it from my sister who teaches English out in Colorado, where the middle school in her town has rapidly adopted it. The popularity of the book also is evidenced by the broad sales of the second and third sequels in the series, Catching Fire and Mockingjay. I'm waiting for a bit of free time to read them (I know, keep on laughing!).   If you're teaching middle school or even high school students, I encourage you to check it out.  Let me know what you think of it, and be sure to post your own favorite novels for teenagers!

The Hunger GamesThe Hunger Games

Catching Fire (The Second Book of the Hunger Games)Catching Fire (The Second Book of the Hunger Games)
Mockingjay (The Final Book of The Hunger Games)Mockingjay (The Final Book of The Hunger Games)

The First Time!

Wow, after a long time contemplating this, I'm finally entering the blogosphere and creating my own! What do I hope to accomplish? My goal is share my thoughts on American education, and hopefully gain your insights into how we can improve teaching. As a pre-service teacher, I'm acutely aware of the enormous task our educators face, and I can't wait to be a part of this shared journey toward academic excellence. There are so many educators making a fantastic difference, but the data shows that we still have a long way to go. I enjoy following education news, and so when I come across an interesting article I'll be sure to post a link. Perhaps you'll read it and offer your own comments, thus sparking the creative discourse necessary for improvement.