Argument in the Classroom: Making Claims from Day One

This year, on the opening day of the 2015-2016 school year, after I take roll and butcher some poor children’s first and last names, I will be forgoing the usual, mostly boring classroom rules talk, syllabus read-through, and bathroom pass hand-outs in favor of something I’ve never done before. Instead, I will give every one of my 8th graders a blank 4×6 index card to use as their Claim Card. On that card they will write 3-5 statements about themselves that will be phrased as an arguable claim (just like the claims I made at the beginning of this post). From there, they will share out and discuss in their quads which one of their claims should be shared with the rest of the class. Yes, I will be modeling my own personal claims for them as a way of teaching and sharing myself with them.

This is a get-your-toes-wet kind of exercise that gets two things done at one time: One) We get to know a little bit about each other in a fun and different way, and Two) They are, without knowing it, making their first claims in a class that will be flooded with claims (and debates and…) as we progress throughout the year. Absolutely no arguing, defending, rebutting, refuting, or chair-throwing will be allowed on this day (those will begin at a later date). This is just to introduce to them the very basic component of argumentation.

From the first day, we will be saturated with argument. As we move forward in the school year, I will begin to introduce other components into their understanding to help them not only strengthen and support their claims, but to learn how to spot someone else’s claim, and to argue against said claim in a way that should be more intelligent than, “Uh uh! That’s just stupid. Oh and you’re stupid too, and so are your shoes!” (really, that’s not too far off from reality) In the coming days, I will dig into some of the other strategies that I’ve used in the past that I’ve since tweaked, or new strategies that I’ve discovered along my newly trodden path.

Anywho, more later.

May the force be with you,

-TJ

Why Arguing isn’t (shouldn’t be) Yelling

Star Wars is by far the greatest modern day mythology since Homer’s The Iliad or Dante’s Inferno or Zeus. A very close second would be The Lord of the Rings (sorry Tolkien).

The absolute best ice cream imaginable is vanilla, or more specifically, vanilla bean.

Apple hardware/software products are far and away more superior than anything that any other Pee Cee company could ever produce. Especially Windoze (I say as I’m typing on a Windoze machine)!

Now if you were so inclined, you could completely yell and rage and throw chairs at me (Geraldo Rivera anyone?) about these (perceived) outrageous claims that I’ve made above, or, and perhaps the better response, you could engage with me on the claims that I’ve made and we could have ourselves and impassioned yet civil debate/discourse.

Debate, Argument, Claim, Support, Refute, Rebut, Ethos, Pathos, Logos, Etc

Until last year, for me anyway, reading well and writing well were the end-all be-all pillars in my class. Regardless of the standards-flavor-of-the-day, my students read a lot and wrote a lot. After my blog-reading-soul-searching days last summer, I have incorporated a third pillar into my class pantheon. And that is argument. Argument is the vehicle in which all of my lessons and units will ride this year. Argument will inform our reading and writing, and our reading and writing will inform argument. Argument will be either the basis for or the outcome of nearly everything we do in class this coming year (I haven’t forgotten narrative, I promise).

Argument carries with it many beneficial skills and strategies that, when learned and practiced and honed, will provide my/our students with necessary, important tools to engage the world and culture around them. Skills and strategies that are most noticeably lacking in today’s teens. Don’t want to believe it? Try reading posts on any social media platform out there, and then come back and tell me that they know how to state a claim, support a claim, rebut an attack against their claim, or even refute someone else’s claim.

Not only will argument help them to become better thinkers, writers, and readers, I believe it will help them to become better speakers as well. Mostly because I will force them to speak in my classroom daily within varying audience sizes; table partners, face partners, in their quads, and in front of the class. Have you talked with a teen on the phone recently? Probably not, probably, like me, not even with your own kids. Everything is text, everything is thumb talk, without having to actually verbalize anything. How awful it must be to have to actually answer a phone call out in public where other people might hear you. I shudder to think.

Anyway, argument will be front and center, dare I say, at The Core, of my class, my teaching, my lessons, my units, and my students’ lives 50 minutes at a time. Hopefully I articulated why I am adding Argument in my class; if not, feel free to ask questions in the comments below. In the next few posts, I will cover what I will be doing to incorporate argument into all those areas.

May the force be with you,

-TJ

Thinking, Teaching, and Good Ol’ Mountain Air

I went out of town this past weekend with my family, for just a little over 36 hours, to get up into the clean mountain air, do some hanging out, some destressing, some reading, and some thinking. Now, I don’t need to get out of town to do any of those things, but where we go, we have no wifi or cable or cellular service whatsoever, so by default, we are forced to do those things.

Anyway…

Confession time: Until last summer, I never really gave much thought to my teaching. Thanks Doc, how much will that cost me?

Well, not the important type of thinking. I thought about what lesson I would do (usually that very morning), what worked last time that I would keep, what didn’t work last time that I would try to modify a bit for next time, what I would do/say if administration walked in unexpectedly, what dog and pony show I would give on the day of my review, what I was going to eat for lunch now that I ran out of Mac n Cheese cups, and why I cannot seem to stop wearing the pants in which the zipper never seems to stay where it should be.

I was good with thinking about The What and, to a lesser degree, The How, but I never put much (read: any) thought into The Why and The What If. And as I mentioned, I began thinking about the latter two last summer; and I haven’t looked back since. My teaching underwent a minor shift during the first part of last year, and I kicked it up a notch towards the end of the school year. But I feel like I’m on the cusp of a major overhaul for this upcoming school year. What’s weird though is that in my mind the shift is dramatic and life-changing and revolutionary and Homer epic-poem worthy; when in reality, it will be dramatic. Period. And that is still way better than is ever has been! (I will still live the others out in my head along the way though because Epic Poem)

You might be asking, “So what happened there Mr. Jedi sir, what caused the shift?”

Hey, thanks for asking 🙂

There are two things that, as I look back, greatly influenced this change. One) I actually began reading about teaching (I had to put down some of my YA Lit to do that, sad face) and Two) a change in our administration. Now I’m no weird mystic type of person (except with The Force of course) who reads their horoscope or checks out the stars or believes in the astrological signs; however, I am a big believer in the idea that things are meant to happen, that there is a reason for (almost) everything. I truly believe that my mindshift could not have happened without both numbers one and two happening at the same time. Just keep that in mind as you read the following explanations.

Number One:

Since the beginning of my teaching career back in ’07, I got really good at using Google to find docs and power points and lessons that I could “steal” to use in my class. As the years went on, and as I became more confident in my classroom and lessons and units, I began to refine my searches for more specific things to enhance the units I was already doing. I also discovered along the way the Teachers Pay Teachers website. From there, I was able to expand and embiggen my already good (good in my mind at least) lessons and units and such. I was doing this type of searching last summer to update my lessons yet again and I came across something rather curious. It was a website I had never heard of before written by a guy I had never heard of before writing about a topic that I have never read about before. It was weird and exciting and revelatory (sp) and humorous and enlightening and more adjectives all at once. It wasn’t an educations site like We Are Teachers or Edutopia. No, it wasn’t like those; this was a bonafide teacher blog. The very first bonafide teacher blog that I had ever seen. It was there that I saw someone else, in the same years of teaching as myself, articulate their thinking about their teaching in a way that was meaningful and useful and that could be practically applied in my own career. Mr. Dave Stuart Jr. single-handedly, in one blog post (I wish I could remember which one it was), got me to actually think about my own teaching, and why’s and the what-if’s within. From that one post, I was exposed to other teacher-blogger-authors whom I now follow religiously (see this post that links to some of these bloggers).

Number Two:

Since the beginning of my teaching career back in ’07, our school has been under the direction of three different principals. While I understand that in some districts, even districts around ours, that number can seem really low compared to other sites. But I assure you, in my world, on my site, that number is still too high (we can talk about middle school principal as a stepping stone in a later post). Principal #1 was in place for four years, but he was released under suspicious, conspiracy-theory type circumstances. Principal #2 was in place for two years before he moved up (thankfully) to the D.O. Principal #3, whom I’ll call Awesome from here on out, came in two years ago, will begin a third year with us, and, Lord willing, be with us for many more years to come. Prior to Awesome’s arrival, there was a great distrust of the admin at our site and in our district. Because of that distrust, we teachers turned to ourselves and among ourselves for encouragement, validation, and support. Since Awesome’s arrival, our collective mental health and morale shot through the roof within two months. It was insane to see. Teachers, including myself, felt the weight of uncertainty from the previous management and district woes lift off of our shoulders for the first time since Principal #1 was removed. Teachers who holed up in their rooms at lunch came out into the sunshine and the free, unrecirculated air. Our staff has always been close and tight-knit, but those few years wore on us mentally and physically. I am lucky in that I truly and honestly like and enjoy every staff member I work with, office, custodial, library, paras, etc. While we were great in our affection for one another, we all felt a gaping hole in mgmts trust in us as professionals. ***Until two years ago***  Awesome has given us trust, freedom, security, responsibility, and the okay to fail at something we think will work. Awesome has encouraged us to try out new things in the classroom and has given us the go-ahead on just about every idea our staff has thought up (budget limitations so far have been the ONLY limitations). Awesome has pulled me into the office and has shown me implicit and explicit worth as a professional, and has let me do and try and ask and fail and experiment and play and push and has given me the confidence to know that I am in a safe environment to do all those things.

It is these two events, happening within about 3 mos of each other, that have forever altered they way I will think about, and work within, my teaching and my classroom. And I don’t believe that without these two happening simultaneously, that any of this would be happening right now.

I feel blessed.

I’m excited for this next school year; the first day can’t get here soon enough!

Until next time my friends, may the force be with you,

-TJ

Using Remind to Send out Reminders so That You Don’t Forget to Remind Them

Human beings have issues. And one of those issues is that we tend to forget things. Trivial things, important things, things that we did just five minutes ago (I just showered and forgot my wedding band on the bathroom counter; but I’m comfortable right now, I’ll get it later. If I remember…). And we joke that memory is the first to go, yet I can’t count, nor would I want to begin to try, how many times I’ve heard the ole, “But TJ, I forgot”, from my pubescent middle school students and my own pubescent kids. It’s the go-to on the spot; like their crimes are instantly absolved, their penance is automatically paid, and their sins are uniformly and unconditionally forgiven and then thrown into the sea with a millstone wrapped around its neck.

Uh, no. No they’re not. Not by a long shot pal.

My students won’t be allowed to forget anything this year! Why? Because of a delightful little website/app called Remind. I “discovered” this beauty when my wife and I were enrolling our youngest into kindergarten. In the rather thick packet of stuff was a little colored half sheet of paper with this rather curious website on it. It also had a number and a class name to send a “subscribe” text to that would add us to the kindergarten classroom and put us on the “remind” list, to be sent periodic reminders about upcoming events, dates, or to dispense important info. This is brilliant! No, seriously, this is absolutely brilliant! Where was this nine years ago when I began my teaching career?! And I thought I was progressive by giving out my personal cell phone number to all of my students so that they could text me if they have questions after school or on the weekends (I’ve done that and will continue to do that; it just works for me).

And wouldn’t you know it, not a week later, our church started using Remind for the middle and high school ministries to send out their information to parents and students.

Anyway, because I thought it was so brilliant, I signed up for my own Remind, and downloaded the app, the same day that I signed in to my child’s Remind class. This will no doubt completely and totally revolutionize how information is disseminated in my class. Okay, not really totally and completely, but it’s going to be brilliant! So you sign in, you set up your classes, it hooks you up with a PDF of you class names and codes, that you can then print and copy and hand out to every student and parent that you can shove a paper at. Once humans are signed into your specific classes, you can send out specific info and reminders to your specific classes once, and it then transmits to all who are subscribed to your feed. Remind even has a built in chat feature that you can “message” back and forth to individual parents/students. I turned mine off for now because I still want my main form of back and forth communication to be email (parents and students alike). I feel like the possibility of reaching most of my students and parents are even greater with this medium, because in our district, while not everyone has a computer in the home, almost all the homes have at least one smartphone.

I certainly have high hopes for this tool. Now, Lord willing, I remember to use the darned thing…

May the force be with you,

-TJ

PS. I do not get any kickbacks for linking to Remind, I just think it’s that brilliant 🙂

Building a Foundation for Tech in the Classroom

I’ve been thinking and reading a lot these past couple of days, and building off of my last post about War Games, I’ve decided to begin writing about, planning to use, and then actually using the resources our district has made available in the form of GAFE.

Now, some might say that I’m really late to the party on this one, and I will have to say, yes, yes I am. But like most parties (I really haven’t been to one in a while. My idea of a party includes some good food and a nap, but I digress…) it’s usually better late than never. And I’m actually really excited about being able to dig into and use Google’s suite (sweet) of education apps. We used Docs and Slides and Gmail and Drive quite a bit last year, or at least towards the end of last year. While it was effective for what we did, I can’t say that I/we really maximized them to their fullest because I never dove into them and embraced them like I could/should have. This year, as a way to force myself to use these “new” tools, I intend to do my best to stay away from all things Microsoft (so far so good) and go exclusively with Google. You know I’m serious when I tell you that I don’t even have Microsoft shortcut on my dock/task bar, see…

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I’ve already converted most of my important files over to Google Docs. Obviously there were some formatting and font issues, but I was able to work through those pretty quickly. But Docs aside, what I’m really looking forward to is using Google Classroom this year. However, as much as I’ve read about it, and watched tutorials about it, I can say for sure that I will have no idea how it will actually work in my class with my students until I’m actually in the thick of it. I have my classes set up already (as of today, our schedule hasn’t been finalized, so I’ll adjust periods and class names accordingly), and I have a video shared on the timeline waiting for the students when they sign up.

There is so much that can be done using Classroom and I look forward to exploring the different options available and seeing how Classroom can impact my teaching, grading, and the student’s interaction, cooperation, engagement, and collaboration. I will definitely be updating you as I work further with GAFE and as the school year progresses.

Until next time my friends…

May the force be with you,

-TJ

Lessons from War Games

I recently, like three days ago and yesterday, rewatched the Ferris Bueller, I mean Matthew Broderick, classic 80’s movie War Games. The tension and danger and suspence that was so present and palpable when I watched it as a teenager, was, interestingly enough, completely absent from the movie. Is that a result of me getting increasingly older and grouchier; the poor acting and scripting and directing of the movie, the complete and total annihilation of our sensitivities to anything that’s isn’t overtly outrageous or shocking or in-your-face, or a combination of the three? I don’t know, but I do know that I saw something in War Games this time out that I missed as a teen.

I saw the advancement, the pioneering ideas, the rogue computer hackers, the fear of those not in control, and the ultimate demise of brand new and the outdated and outmoded technology. There has always been a cutting edge, in any field really. What we don’t like to admit though, is that the cutting edge gets dull and needs to be resharpened. Dull, resharpened, dull, resharpened, until the tool is no longer reshapenable, and you throw that one away in favor of a shiny new one.

Enter The Teaching Jedi and his quest to use and infuse meaningful technology with his students in a middle school English classroom. Okay, that’s all fine and good TJ, but what does any of this have to do with an ’83 classic?

Allow me to (kind of) illustrate…

  1. If War Games is any indication of advanced technology, then we need not fear the newer, bigger, better, more concept that is so pervasive in any and all tech companies. Their job is to keep advancing and our job as consumers is to play keep up (at least that’s what they want us to do, right?). If we play their game as they want us to play it, we will never hold onto one electronic device, app version, OS longer than 3-6 months. So, from a user/consumer stand point, we are (rarely) ever at a place where we have a deep comfort level with a product before we drop that one in favor of another one that we have to relearn, or at least force the new one to work like the old one we just got rid of. Edtech to me doesn’t seem to be much different. The are dedicated edtech companies, there are established companies with edtech divisions, and there are a million voices shouting into the void about what they think you should and shouldn’t use. And then after you buy into what they’re selling/telling you, their post tomorrow will tell you to go and get something completely new. Ugh… (*this illustration might be a stretch. Oh well)
  2. New technology always seems to carry with it a very steep learning curve and a lot of bugs to work through. Now in this case, for me as an edtechnoob, even some of the old technology carries a steep learning curve and a lot of bugs to work through. Edtech seems to have one additional step that normal consumer tech doesn’t, and that is a classroom full of students. It’s one thing that we need to learn a technology, but it’s a completely different monster when we have to learn to use the technology, use the technology seamlessly in the classroom, and teach our students how to use the technology responsibly. War Games showed us that just because something is fancy, shiny, and new (WOPR anyone?) doesn’t mean it will work and play well with others. Or be all that user friendly either. Learning it takes work, and sometimes it’s best not to listen to the creators; but it might be better to break out and learn it on your own. Which brings me to my last point…
  3. David Lightman didn’t go to computer hacker school, he didn’t enroll in a computers elective at his high school, and he definitely didn’t go to the manufacturer for insight on how to properly use his computer and modem and 5 1/4 inch floppy disc drive. What did he do? What did anyone do at that time? They were on their own to learn how to best use their tools that would best serve their own individual needs. Sure, there were a few usenet groups that one could tap into for help and pointers, but one was generally on his/her own. This is how I plan on approaching my own incorporation of tech into my own classroom with my own students. Now, I’m not going rogue, but I certainly feel like a trailblazer at my school by going all in with edtech this year. I’m not going whole hog with all the latest and greatest of the edtech out there. I am, though, reading and learning everything I can about a few simple tools (GAFE most notably) that I will begin using this year. And I am doing all of this, for the most part, on my own. I’m not opposed to getting pointers from wherever I can; however I still feel though that for me to really truly learn, I have to really truly do it myself.

Now that I’m at the end of this post, I’m not sure how War Games relates to my current or future teaching situation, but it was fun reminiscing in the 80’s for a bit. Let’s just not bring up the feathered hair styles, parachute pants, or Culture Club.

May the force be with you,

-TJ

Do or Do Not, There is no Try

Technologically speaking, I’m not really a Noob. I’m not hacker status by any means but I definitely know my way around a computer, various OS’s, devices, etc. However, I am a completely and nearly totally helpless EduTechnoNoob. Again, I can work my way through all sorts of online grade books and attendance sheets and email programs and proprietary websites that we are made to use to keep a calendar and docs for students and parents. Those I can do, easily and without looking, in my sleep, one handed. I’m good there.

It’s the bringing-the-tech-into-the-classroom-to-enhance-learning-and-engage-the-student-where-it’s-not-just-for-show-or-novelty that I struggle. Now, I can argue that it’s my district’s fault for not supplying me/us all the right equipment and training and PD and whatever to make our technology lives better, easier, and saner. I could, but that would be a lame excuse. And I really hate being lame. What the district did do with it’s limited budget is get us two Chromebook labs and accounts and access to the GAFE (Google Apps for Education) suite. We are not a 1-1 site; we are not even a bring your own device site. We have been, until last year, an untech school (unused Smartboards and underused ELMOs aside). With the introduction of GAFE last year, and the daunting task of moving from an Outlook-centric email system to Gmail, we were given the free reign to work within this new online collaboration and sharing community, without much help or support at all.

How did I use all this great new stuff you ask? I saved some stuff to my Drive just to say that I used it. I used Gmail just to forward my gmail to my Outlook. I continued to use and create new hard-drive based docs and such in Microsoft Office. I used a lot of paper making copies of the docs I was creating. Essentially, I played with Google, I batted it around for a bit , like a cat with and injured rodent, in an effort to say that I used it so that I could complain and gripe about using it, and once sufficient complaining was achieved, I went back to the comfy worn-in couch that was nice and ratted and broke in. If myself and my school and staff, albeit small, sound all too familiar to you of the “teacher’s aversion to change”, then that’s sad. Sad like a big, juicy burger with cold, unmelted cheese on top. Sad like Yoda speaking proper grammar. Sad like thinking that Starbuck’s is the best coffee around. Sad like students not knowing who Ducky is.

Now, it’s not sad that people are afraid of change, it is a little, but it’s more sadderer that it’s all too familiar within our classrooms, not just with schools in my area, but in schools across the country.

So I came up with a plan to become un-sad, just this summer, like literally six weeks ago, and it’s revolutionary! Here it comes…hold on to your butts…

*pause for effect*

I decided to go all in.

I know! It’s crazy right! I just up and decided that it was time to stop dabbling and dangling the very small tip of my very small toe into this thing, and just jump in. I mean really, what was there to lose? Answer: absolutely nothing. The planet didn’t open up and swallow me whole, my dog didn’t die, my kids still love me, and pizza still tastes amazing.

But check this out. I really didn’t even do anything, except decide to do something (Yoda’s wisdom is swimming in my head, and hopefully yours now too).

While I did make this decision recently, the school year doesn’t start for me for another few weeks, and I have the luxury to sit at home on my computer and research and watch and read and migrate all my files over to Drive and begin reformatting my important files in Drive and think and plan for all the wonderfully fantastic things I’ll be doing this year in the classroom.

I’m doing that now, but reality will hit soon and a new school year will start and I will be faced with the real challenge of navigating my new-found invigoration and passion for this new-to-me tech, and then translate it to the students in a way that is usable and not distractable.

That is what my next few (read: many) post will be focused on. Things I’ve learned and taught myself about edutech over the summer, how I see these tools being used in my classroom, and what the challenges might be like as I move from paper to practice.

Stick around, it’s about to get funky!

May the force be with you,

TJ

What Is My Purpose?

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I’ve been reading and devouring blogs religiously since last summer. A few of my favorites are: Teaching the Core, Love Teach, The Nerdy Teacher, Free Tech for Teachers, and anything of Jim Burke’s and Kelly Gallagher’s. There are obviously plenty more blogs out there that you could read, and I’m sure I’ll “discover” more along the way, but these were the first ones that I found, or, you could say, the ones that found me.

Anywho, as I was thinking about doing my own blog I began to wonder what my blog would be about. I began thinking of the many blogs that I’ve read so far, and the variety of topics and genres and styles that are out there, even the ones listed above are so very different in nature.

So, what’s my purpose?

I think I’ve been thinking about this for too long and too hard. And I think that is why it’s taken me soooooo long to pull the trigger and start a blog. You either poo or get off the pot, amirite?!

I quoted Keating from Dead Poets Society yesterday, but I believe that in that quote my purpose for this blog is found. We are living in this thing called life, “the powerful play”, and we all have a “verse” to contribute. Now, whether we are intentionally writing our verse, or letting it be written for us, is totally and completely up to us. There’s my purpose in writing this teaching blog; I want to actively and purposefully contribute my voice and style and (what little) wit and wisdom I have.

“When will the teaching part of this blog actually happen?” you might be asking. Fear not my Padowans (and remember, fear leads to anger leads to hatred leads to becoming Darth Vader), The Teaching Jedi is coming, I promise. Think of these first couple posts as an epilogue to a larger, greater narrative.

Be good my friends, and may the force be with you,

-TJ

Why Didn’t I Do This Sooner?!

So here I am, starting a teaching blog at the cusp of beginning my ninth year of teaching and I have to wonder out loud,

What took me so long?

Oh, I can come up with all kinds of lame excuses as to why this never happened, ones I’m sure you’re familiar with in your own life as a human being on this planet. The chief one for me was/is: “I’ve been sooooooo busy doing_______.” Insert whatever into that blank and I’m sure I’ve said that at least once or thrice. However, I can’t sit here and beat myself up over the past, nor would it make for good reading if I just castigated myself, one post at a time.

No, I’m here to move past that, and this first post is proof that my intentions are good, my motivation is high, and I feel, with eight years under my belt, like I actually have something to say. Like I can contribute something to the ever-increasing white noise of the internet. Like Keating said, that the powerful play goes on, and I might contribute a verse.

Well my friends, my fist post has come to a close. I am excited about this new endeavor and look forward to where this will take me in the weeks and months and years to come.

May the force be with you,

-TJ