Friday, September 28, 2007


The weirdest thing happened to me this morning. I was driving to work, listening to NPR as usual, and I hit the magic BBM spot. Behind Black Mountain. Around here that means NPR goes out for a few miles, no other station does, but NPR does, maybe because its public. Anyway, I switched over to the one other station in Vegas I dare listen to, the pop station which has the #1 morning show. It was a commercial. I looked at my radio, gasped, took a deep breath and pushed the power button. It was about 6:45 in the morning and when the radio went off the only sounds I could hear were the ones coming from my tires bouncing, pot holes and all, along these desert highways. And the whoosh of cars passing me at 80mph. Then something interesting happened.
I started to get panicky and wondered why. Then, in a split, mind numbing moment of clarity I realized where my anxiety was coming from. It was the first time I had the radio off in 4 years of driving this route. Maybe longer, cant remember the last time I turned the radio off and just listened..... just.....thought.
Well, for the first 10 minutes I tried to convince myself I could make it through this new experiment. The anxiety was overwhelming, whats wrong with me? I tried to focus on something to help me get through the silence. I kept thinking about a thought I hadn't finished from last night, how Podcasts could help my kids?
I couldn't focus, couldnt come up with anything. All kinds of thoughts went in and out of my mind, but nothing productive. I took a couple deep breaths, tried to envelope the silence, and then just went with it. Go with the flow Cheech and Chong always said, or some unproductive person, cant quite remember who. Anyway, I went with it. All of sudden swarms of clarity came to me. Thoughts of making my classes better, posting on blogs, communicating with at-risk students, all these thoughts hit me. Of course the only thing I didnt think of was another way to use podcasts in my courses besides students making audio essays, but I did come to one clear resolution.
Monks are smart. Take time to meditate. Its almost impossible for me but the unnerving silence of this morning was the only point of relaxation I had all day.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Professional Podomatic-er

Not really. I made my first podcast today. I used Audacity software and uploaded it to Podomatic. Podomatic's MP3 recorder didn't work for the first 4 days I went to the site, so finally had to break down and get Audacity, upload the special LAME d.ll file, and get it operating. After a few hours of working on my first pod, which only took 5 minutes to actually record, I'm tired. But, I learned the program and put something up. Now lets see how I can use this in my courses.

First guess is to let students do audio essays posted online at Podomatic. They could do this for virtually any essay based assignment. Hmmm, will put some thought into what else and post it at The First Day of Kindergarten when I'm ready. If you have any suggestions, comment below.

Oh yeah, I'm super excited about the K12onlineconference. Already booked some time on my Outlook calendar.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Branching Out

I recently attempted to write my first article for publishing. It was for Techlearning's E-zine and it was about using Web 2.0 tools to enhance student motivation and creativity. I started knowingly using Web 2.0 tools about 6 months ago and immediately saw some of the possibilities, so I played all summer trying to get a feel for how to implement into my courses. So, the beginning of the year comes around, I got a handful of kids to start using them and then the opportunity for the article came up. One month into the school year I didn't have too many student samples that I felt comfortable publishing and wouldn't you know it, once I submitted the final version of the article to the editor, I got A LOT of student samples turned in. Oh well, hopefully it gets published and then I can build from there, if not, I can try again later with some better examples. Nevertheless, I'm completely stoked with what I am seeing and new ideas are popping up everyday.

This week Im going to work with some students to set up a wiki that hosts student samples for online assignments in each of my courses. The student volunteers will run the wiki and post the good, and really bad, examples I send their way. A student ran wiki with student samples for students to use as models. Cool.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Family vs. Work

I love movies..... a lot. I've seen tons of them and a few popped into my mind recently when I began thinking about this blog entry. Lean on Me, Dangerous Minds, Stand and Deliver, The Ron Clark Story, Freedom Writers, these are just a few that fit the classic genre of inspirational educators saving kids in a difficult environment. I figured out long ago one common thing among all of the lead characters in these movies, they all work way too hard and have no life outside of school.

If the educator's family life is shown at all in the movie, its usually because their relationship goes bad due to overcommitment. For the last couple of years I could of never been one of those lead characters because, although I always work hard and maximize my time between 7-3, I relished my time at home without a lot to do. I told myself, well, if you are getting all your work done on campus, than why not enjoy your time at home. Gosh knows a regular school day is ultra draining.

I was cheating a lot of people this way. First of all I cheated myself because I wasn't learning on a daily basis. I cheated my kids because I wasn't learning on a daily basis. I cheated my wife because I wasn't improving myself or our position in life. Now I'm cheating my family in a whole new way.

I work all the time now. I'm learning on a daily basis (mostly how to use Web 2.0 tools to help my students). I'm helping my kids more than I have ever done, both with the tools I'm teaching them and my commitment to communication. That all sounds good, but I'm having trouble balancing time with my wife and newborn son. When I get home from school, I'm on the computer whenever the baby is sleeping or feeding, which is most of the time. I play with the littlebabyman whenever he is awake. Who do you think gets left out, my wife. AHHH, how do I balance this? I'm more satisfied than Ive ever been in my life as a collective whole, but there is this one LITTLE thing. Trying to find a balance, but its not easy to pull myself away from what I know is going to make me a better educator, more fulfilled, and hopefully help provide a better life for my family. My wife is so patient.

I may be able to get my own movie soon. Time will tell.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Opposing Forces

My school made several commitments to dramatic change this year. Since we are a charter school, have missed AYP every year, and are on the verge of losing our sponsorship from the district, we had to make some HUGE changes. The two biggest changes seem to be opposing forces though and that is making the teachers lives very difficult right now.

The first major change is the new Learning Management System we use to host our online courses. It was never made clear why this system was brought in but it has proved to be the opposite of what we needed at this junction in our school. You might be thinking, "its so early in the year, how can you make that judgment right now." Well, there are two really good reasons. One, this system is not designed to communicate with high school students, and in an online school filled to the max with At-Risk students, communication is a major factor to success. Two, this system takes a lot more time to operate than our previous system and right now time is not one of our luxuries. This is where the second major change comes in.

We have shifted our focus as a school, hopefully as an entire school culture, to promoting the success of our lowest achieving students. We are supposed to be better mentors, better student advocates, better instructional designers (in order to motivate production of course work), and better communicators. As stated earlier, the nature of our new LMS demands WAY more time. So if the system forces us to take more time to grade, more time to input quality assignments, more time to communicate and more time to operate the basic system components than we are losing more time to call the students, losing more time to visit them when they are campus, losing more time to work one on one with both our online and mentor students, and losing more time to track their progress.

Opposing forces: How do we better mentor and communicate with our students, as demanded for the success of this student population, when so much more time is lost due to a system clearly not designed to fit our high school right now?

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Ive Made a Decision

Ive been trying to decide how I wanted to best use my student blog The First Day of Kindergarten. Ive been promoting it as a place for them to get help with research and project alternatives. Since almost all of the blog entries are based on Web 2.0 applications, they will get to learn those tools on top of having choices for assignment completion. A couple weeks ago I realized its not enough that they know the options are out there, I have to give them incentives to use these Web 2.0 tools that Ive been promoting. So, Ive made a decision.

Im going to run weekly themes. The theme this week is SlideShare. I will post an announcement modeling the theme for the week (see below). I will link them to a blog entry about how to use that tool. And, here is the incentive part, I will give them additional points for any work that they turn in that week using the tool. I think this might work.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Noticing Some Major Differences in Myself

I have had some paradigm shifts in the last 6 months that have changed a tremendous amount about how I am approaching teaching this year. I'll try to put them down on paper, or zeroes and ones as it is known today, and see if I can express what I feel motivating me every day.

1. I no longer focus on learning my content as much as how to deliver it. I have 100's of history books, geography resources, war volumes, even the lonely economics book in my collection, but I haven't picked any of them up in awhile. I used to read those books so I could get MORE info to share with my kids, as well as broaden my understanding of social studies ideas. Not saying that I won't shift back to reading those things, but right now I spend all my time learning Web 2.0 tools and software programs to deliver that material. This new focus stems from another shift, or crack, or some might say break in my mind.

2. Im no longer going to blame kids for my course failure rate. This is a hard thing to say out loud (can you say something out loud when writing it down?) since it correctly implies that I have blamed kids in the past. I had a 50% failure rate across my 3 courses in the final semester last year. That does not include the other 25% that dropped out or were removed from my classes. The average person failing received less than 10% of all the points in the course. That means that the kids failing just weren't trying. They weren't doing ANYTHING! The last couple years I just figured the rates were like this because our school was known as a place where kids could sleep in, work only if they felt like it, and fall between the cracks when they wanted too, and they did. But I put the emphasis on them, I blamed them for not completing their work, for not organizing their course work schedule, for not motivating themselves, but something has changed. Im holding myself MORE responsible because I know there is a lot MORE I could do to communicate, motivate, and help them organize which are the crucial factors to success in an online environment. Especially for teenagers.

3. Im no longer relying on the face to face component of our hybrid model as the save all. Ive believed incorrectly that if I tracked my online students down when they came into their homeroom courses once a week, I could help them with their problems and get them going on their work. Yeah right. First of all, its rare that a struggling student shows up every week so its hard to keep regular contact that way. Also, its impossible to help all your online kids the way they need to be helped in the few minutes you can actually sit with them in their homerooms. Besides how logistically difficult it is to help kids face to face, one time a week, there is also the idea that we are an online school and I believe in online learning.

4. I love working. I spend a lot of time doing it because, and here is the kicker, Im learning MORE than I ever have before.

5. Individualized instruction for all kids, not just those that have mandates.

i can do MORE

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Individualized Instruction Online

To steal a saying from Oprah who probably stole it from someone else, yesterday I had an "ah ha moment." Usually those moments come for people when they hear others speaking or see something inspirational. My moment came when my own words were leaving my mouth. Sounds a little arrogant so far, dont worry, I'll knock myself down in the next couple sentences to balance things out.

Im not really good with labels. I rarely set a course and say here is the name of the course Im setting. For the most part, I just start doing things because I feel something is right, not because of a label or category it fits into. Sounds vague so far, okay, let me clarify.

Back to yesterday. A handful of thoughtful teachers stayed late on Friday to be part of a new Restructuring Committee at our school. Our principal got the idea out of the Model Schools conference he went to this summer. During the meeting we were bouncing around ideas and my principal said something that I felt needed clarifying. Im usually fairly heldback when it comes to these situations because I have a little bit of spotlight fright, but I spoke up. As I was speaking I heard myself saying, "Well, my goal is to provide individualized learning for all my students" or something to that effect. At that moment I realized I had finally found a label for an idea Ive been working hard at developing the last 6 months.

I feel blessed to be part of a charter school, and online distance education, and this is just one of the many instances why. If I say I want to provide individualized learning for all my kids, I can actually do it. All I have to do is be willing and flexible. Here is how it looks right now in my online classes. 3 of my 4 courses are essay and project based. The lessons are written up as projects, but for the most part they are assessments where kids write out their ideas. Beginning this year, Ive told my kids that anytime they see the words writing, essay or review than they have carte blanche how they want to handle it. Ive created a blog where Im posting lots of methods for completing projects and research to help them with options. The only stipulation is that kids have to meet the requirements I post in the lesson, but they can show me they have learned almost anyway they want. See, Im confident in my lessons enough to know the kids are going to get all the literacy and content that I want them to have, I just want them to have options for how to show it to me. I just want them to get excited about doing work because they have found a method for doing it that stimulates them. Does the method matter all that much or does the fact that the student learned something and can prove they learned it the most important requirement for my evaluation?