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Year One, Term One: Reflection

After ten years at Explorer West, in Seattle, I transitioned my teaching career in one of the most drastic ways possible. I left a secure teaching position – one where I knew the ins and outs of each day – one where I knew the faculty and the community exceptionally well – and I took a position at a growing school in Casablanca Morocco.

My teaching was tested. I was tasked with setting up a new program in a school that was still finding its way in secondary education. A growing middle school program was my first charge; teaching new content and new lessons my second. Three content classes at three different levels made for six different preps and plans. Plus I had an additional course in advisory and community service. The program was growing. I was the only teacher dedicated to the secondary program. We lacked a math/science teacher. The position was filled by the Head of School while a search was under way.

It took an entire term to find the replacement. The first term we were metaphorically treading water. We were making the best choices we could to keep the program going. We wanted to create a community that was student driven – empowering students in a community that fostered intrinsic learning. But the challenges of building a secondary program from the ground up  was tremendous.

The work changed when a math/science teacher was hired and collaboration could truly begin.

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Robot invasion! (Change what we teach)

How do we teach for the future? When robots will be more intelligent than humans? What qualities must we educators seek to define and cultivate in our students? Creativity is key. This is something that robots can only simulate. Jack Ma has several other keys to teaching for the future. I for one appreciated this singular view from a person so well versed in the singularity.

Teaching beyond Facts…

What does teaching beyond facts mean? I recently read a fascinating article on soft and hard skills in the 21st century. Here is a summary of the article from the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.  

The school system that most adults today grew up with should not be in the classroom of today. The memorization of facts is not the most valuable resource for a student. The analysis and understanding of information – using the information in a way that develops the student and prepares them for the future is more important.

We live in an ever connected world. The future that the children of today face is increasingly changing and complex. To prepare students for the world of tomorrow, a world we cannot fully understand, educators must teach 21st century skills. These skills include Social-emotional learning, Habits of Mind, character strengths and grit. But, these skills are often seen as “soft” or non-cognitive. How does an educator teach them in the classroom. A more interesting question is how does one know when the student has acquired the skill?

Students need to learn literacy and numeracy. These things are still important. Test scores reveal a piece of the puzzle that develops a student. But, teaching a clear skill such as multiplication or letter recognition is not the same as the application of the real-world math problem incorporated with constructing a building or the value that comes with understanding humanity when one interprets and analyzes a poem.

In a 21st century classroom, we distinguish between different types of thinking. We ask questions of varied complexity; from fact to analysis to an application of skills, students must learn to work in a variety of ways: critical thinking, creative thinking, communication and collaboration. These skills move the student from the foundations of fact into the potential to apply their “soft” skills in a variety of situations.

What is uniquely different about these skills is that they are continually developed. The school can give each student the opportunity to practice critical and creative thinking, communication and collaboration through project based learning that targets these skills.
The full article can be found at: http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/mar16/vol73/num06/Hard-Thinking-about-Soft-Skills.aspx

Youth Theater Needs Lessons – not simply games

I’ve been working in the field of youth theater for the past decade. I find that when it comes to training acting skills and getting specific with young actors about the skills they are learning such as voice, speech, physicality, using objectives, and general analysis of a character plot and given circumstances, Drama games do not cut it. Drama or improvisation games are good for general, unspecific, and inferred skills that actors use every day in theater. However, to break through that and actually transfer knowledge in an explicit way, Young actors need formative lessons that are equivalent to a musician playing a piece of music. Similarly, you cannot train a classical musician through jazz improvisation. Drama or improvisation games are good. But, I do not rely on them anyway to actually teach my students. Drama and improvisation games are good for days when I want to depart from a lesson sequence. Yes, fun is essential in learning and especially in a creative discipline such as theater. However, it is difficult to engage student voice and ask students to articulate what they have learned in a drama game. Learning should be based on formative lessons with specific skills that are being practiced in improvisation or a script.

A Case for Playwriting and Supporting Standards in Education

What are standards in education?

Briefly, standards are agreed upon learning points in specific disciplines that are specific to a grade level and the skills that the average student in that grade should acquire. Standards can be found in every content area from English and Math to Physical Education and Theatre Arts. There are different groups that have organized and authored standards. In Washington State there are the Essential Academic Learning Requirements (EALR) that are comprehensive for every discipline in Washington State Schools. Nationally, there are the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for reading, writing, and mathematics. These standards have widely been adapted across the states so that the education of one child is (ideally) the same as the education of another child in a different part of the country. In general every public school and many private schools have adapted the use of the CCSS into the regular curriculum. There are also National Standards for the Arts that are comprehensive for all grades, K – 12, and the four major artistic disciplines of Theatre, Dance, Music, and Fine Arts. Given the movement to standardize the content of the classrooms across the country it is a best practice to, at the very least, integrate the national standards into the local standards of the classroom.

How do teachers use standards?

Most importantly, standards do not tell teachers what content to use for their instruction. Standards are simply a list of skills that students should develop. For example, when studying plot structure, the teacher may ask the students to read a grade level appropriate book or craft a narrative that includes essential plot points. The teacher may integrate a historical lesson about the Fraytag Pyramid or use a modern construct such as the five and eight part story structure.

Standards help to measure student performance. They do not need to be summative (resulting in a numerical grade). These measurements can be formative (descriptive of the student’s work) in either a formal or informal application from the student, peers of the student, or the teacher. That is to say, students should be made aware of the standard and be asked to evaluate their work in the context of the standard. They will gain two important things from this. First, the students will be accountable for their own learning. Second, they will not be caught off-guard when that standard reappears in another format or when the instructor discusses their work in the context of the standard.

Using standards is only a small part of being a great teacher. It is still up to the teacher to fill the gaps left in the framework that the standard provides. Standards are benchmarks on the roadmap to learning. There may need to be alterations, backtracking, fast-forwarding, or absolute disregarding of the standards to make sure that the learning of each student is addressed.

Why use standards?

The arts continually fight to be justified in the context of traditional education. By utilizing standards at the state and national levels for both the arts and the areas of overlap in the common core, teachers and artists can justify the existence of arts programing in a school. This is especially important today when arts programing is cut and when often teachers with low qualifications to teach art are at the helm of a dwindling arts program.

Second, standards are used to clarify and support the education of each student. Think of each standard in the same way that you would think of a painter learning the primary colors, or a ballet dancer learning proper alignment, or a drummer learning to count the rhythm, or an actor learning the difference between stage left and stage right. These are all basic standards in the arts. You can think of standards as the building blocks of knowledge, the rules of the art form, that help artists create.

As it is well known, one must learn the rules to break the rules. Artists are no exception. Standards are the rules that the creative spirit can use or break to create new and interesting pieces of art.

How does playwriting fit into all of this?

Writing a play is the ultimate task in writing. It requires the author to be both creative genius and literary technician. The CCSS addresses both aspects of writing, though it does more heavily cover the technical aspects of writing well. The playwright must learn to tell a story, develop a character, use contrasting points of view, follow the syntax and format of a play, use established writing structures, and most importantly follow the arduous process of writing, rewriting, revising, peer editing, critiquing, and then writing again. These are all found in the common core state standards.

Graduation 2015

The following speech was delivered to the class of 2015 on June 9, 2015 in Seattle WA.

1 All students all alike in dignity

2 In dear Seattle where we lay our scene

3 from ancient text to music harmony

4 We study things we know and things unseen

5 From the communal mind of what we know

6 Each student now walks across this great stage

7 To celebrate all that they’ve done to grow

8 and now to walk onto histories page

9 their wondrous passage into their high school

10 is now for everyone to take in stride

11 just please remember Our one golden rule

12 respect is how you live your life with pride

13 and with today as in all of your dates

14 go forth and make us proud dear graduates

My speech tonight is filled with quotes. Words of people I admire. Listen closely for the quotes. There may be hidden wisdom in them. Friends, Romans, Graduates, lend me your ears. It is an honor to have been selected to speak. Thank you. I would like to reflect on the purpose and path of education and why all of you are in an excellent position to succeed beyond your imagination. First, the teachers, faculty and especially your families have helped you to get to this point – please be sure to personally thank them. Then, be sure to thank yourself. Your work, all your efforts, has gotten you here- sitting in the garb of a graduate. Graduates oh graduates, wherefore are thou graduates? That is to say, why are you graduates? Culminating in walking across the stage today your education has been formidable. I know there has been struggle and angst; yes there has been the predictable blood, sweat, and tears of learning in Middle School. But, there has also been great joy that details your memories of EW. I will guess that you will look back on your time here and recognize the achievement of completing middle school at EW. It is an excellent preparation for any of the schools that you are each attending next year. I think that once you get out of the metaphoric woods that EW lives in, and start comparing your experience to other ninth grade students, you will see how vast and deep your education has already been. As you move from middle to high school, remember this, to learn or not to learn that is the question; to tank and fail – perchance to be in the zone and succeed. Ay there is the rub. Yes, the difference between learning and tanking is the task of the student. Ultimately – and I am sure this may spark great debate – it is not about the grade. Your memory of each score will fade, but the lessons learned will last longer and always be there to support your future ambitions. One of my favorite Zen quotes is, “The expert in anything was once a beginner.” I am reminded of the learning process daily. Not only as I watch the students of EW grow, but as I watch my own children grow too. My daughter, almost six months old now, has recently learned how to belly crawl across the floor. She illuminates the idea that learning is failing and then trying again. That is how you stay away from tanking. She, regardless of her failure to get her knees involved in the process of crawling properly, is in the zone and continues to work on the task of moving across the floor. I believe that the EW graduates align with this idea and Bruce Lee when he said, “I either win or I learn.” I hope that each of you can take that mentality with you in your future years as life continues to present the challenges and rewards of being an engaged life long learner. “You don’t always need a plan” I saw this quote recently posted online and read on. “Sometimes you just need to breathe, trust, let go, and see what happens.” The powerful moment here is the potential of each one of you. Through the following years each of you will earn, win, face challenge, experience success. These events will continue to shape who you are: A Nobel Lauriat; A social worker eliminating homelessness; A politician fighting for equal rights; An artist that addresses the concerns of society? Doctors that work across boarders; lawyers that advocate for the rights of everyone; the next inventor of the next tech revolution; Loving Parents; Loyal friends; engaged people that care about the world around them and a sustainable future? I hope so. I have said for a long time, “The essence of life is not about being perfect. In fact, perfection exists so that we have something to strive for.” This is at the heart of education, for me. There will always be someone that knows more than you; someone that can run faster than you; someone that will outperform you in one-way or another. Yet, for every person better than you, there is someone looking at you with the same thoughts. And, today, we are looking at you with pride in our hearts. Your achievement today, makes us proud. Regardless of who is better than whom, what matters is that you each run your own race and “don’t let your perceived limitations ruin your creativity.” Creativity is one of the greatest assets that you all have acquired at EW. From Drama to every other subject, creative thought is required. Every vocation benefits from creativity. It is our imagination that spurs ingenuity. It is one of my favorite parts of this school: creativity is held in the same regard as responsibility, confidence, and integrity. When students arrive here, in my class and every other, one of the other great lessons they learn is self-confidence. And, this is important because self-doubt is one of the most crippling forces. Self-confidence is one of the most empowering. EW Graduates know that have a voice that both matters and will be heard, because they have self-confidence. Education Researchers, Fay and Funk put it this way, “A positive self concept comes from feeling capable.” EW graduates are highly capable: from challenge assignments to an immersive curriculum that spans many of the most essential subjects, EW Students are empowered to take on the world. EW Graduates, you amaze me with your self-confidence. You are empowered to speak you mind, engage in civil debate, solve problems with elegance, change the world and address the problems that have been handed to you. Gandhi was smart and can give us this guide, “You can be the change that you wish to see in the world.” Rumi would add, “You should first change yourself.” I hope that I have not been too dogmatic here. The best teachers show you where to look but not what to see. To turn this idea around here Graduates, I predict that you will be showing the world where to look. In just one short decade, you will be entering the workforce as informed impassioned leaders. I would like to credit you time at EW as partially responsible for that. Regardless of where you end up, no matter where you are, how educated you are, how rich, poor, or cool you are, what matters in the end is how you treat people. Ultimately, this tells everything about you. Act with integrity and respect in all things. I know you graduates will stand up for what matters and for what is right in the world. I know it is in good hands. Vince Lombardi gives me my final words for you, “Every job is a self portrait of the person who did it. Autograph you work with excellence.” Congratulations graduates. I am truly proud of each and every one of you.

Three Tiers of Words: Three Reading Strategies: Increased Personalization and Understanding

At the heart of great teaching is differentiation; this teaching tactic of differentiation inside of the teaching content area applies to language acquisition, stages of language, and academic language development; this work will help students across multiple content areas (P2).

In researching this teaching topic area, I reflected on two effective techniques for teaching academic language through a differentiated approach.

FIRST: Three Tiers of Words for Differentiated Instruction

  • Tier One includes vocabulary that the student already knows; teaching these words will help the student activate their prior knowledge.
  • Tier Two words are important over many years in many disciplines both your own and others; examples include parallel, theme, and base; teaching these words will help students make connections to ideas outside of the content and reinforce the meaning in the content.
  • Tier Three words are technical with narrow definition; these words should be taught for the lesson and looked up for further clarity; a student will engage the text at an analytical level.

SECOND: Three Levels of Reading for increased meaning and differentiated instruction

  • Level One, read for general understanding (identify words in all three tiers)
  • Level Two, making personal connections to other content areas
  • Level Three, extending the text to connect and converse with other texts

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(LINK TO POST)

Breaking the academic words into these three tiers allows both the teacher and the students to strategically approach the task of learning. By emphasizing the vocabulary early in the process of learning it can be reinforced at every step of the lesson.

In pre-reading students can identify words across tiers and note their meanings.

In connecting to personal experiences, a second stage of effective reading, students can connect their experiences of each word (especially Tier Two Words) in other classes to the text that they are examining and use the Tier One Words, words they already know, to build their knowledge and connection to the new text.

Finally as a student reads for deeper meaning, they are ready to ask bigger questions about the words and their interconnected meanings. By engaging in a process of inter-textuality, they will solidify the understanding and be able to comment on the text in relationship to other texts they have read.

Academic words in all three areas continually emerge in both Theatre Arts and English Language arts because both content areas examine texts from multiple sources with multiple narratives. I often tell my students that my class is not simply a drama class. Rather, my class is every class in the disguise of a drama class. Students must be prepared to speak about any topic that they know about. Because of this, they build their understanding of both of the first two tiers. Some common examples of these words are: inner-monologue, character development, and memorization.

The third tier words are then used most commonly through the language demand and are particular to the performance assignment. One simple example would be, blocking (the specific movement of actors on the stage).

Because of my research into the three tiers of academic language and three common phases of reading, my instruction has changed. I am more apt to point out academic words that make a connection between subjects and encourage students to read a text three times for increased clarity and deeper meaning. With each reading of the text I can guide the student by suggesting that they look for general understanding on their first time through a text, connections between the text and other subjects on their second read, and the conversation between one text and another in their third reading.

By using this three tier and three read through strategy, students are more likely to fully understand and personalize the text. Because a central practice of Theatre Arts is personalization and finding increased meaning, these strategies are invaluable to the students (and to myself). Further, different students will be reading at different levels. Knowing which level a reader is working on will allow myself to differentiate my instruction for that student.

One consequence of using this technique is lost time. It will take students three-times longer to complete any reading assignment. Because of this, reading assignments must be both shortened and be given in class time for guided completion. However, the benefits will outweigh the cost. Students will generate more connections inside of my content area and in content areas outside of my classroom.