Monday, March 29, 2010

3 Reasons Why Teachers Deserve Adequate Pay

Money and taxes are always topics of hot debate, but in light of the recent financial meltdown conversations surrounding these topics have become highly volatile. Take, for instance, Teachers are learning Economic Reality 101, an article that appeared yesterday in the Sunday edition of The Buffalo News. The comments on the online version were suspended less than 8 hours after the article ran due to "a high volume of submissions that violate The News’ guidelines."

If I can’t post comments on their website, I’ll do it on mine instead.

Reason #1 – Permanently or Professionally certified teachers in New York State have at least two degrees, one of which being a Master’s. It’s a simple equation – if you want highly qualified teachers, then you have to pay the going rate for a highly qualified professional. Some states (most, to be honest) only require a bachelor’s degree.

Reason #2 - New York State has extremely high expectations when it comes to standardized tests and the rigorous curriculum that it encompasses. I don’t expect gourmet when I order something off of the McDonald’s value menu (and I certainly know Curtis Stone isn’t the one preparing it). If you want a high quality product, it’s going to be reflected in the bill.

Reason #3 – While some may argue that this last point is a broad over-generalization, the sad truth is it is often too true – Teachers spend more time with your child than you do. We do more than teach the 3 Rs. It is in us that your child learns social skills, consequence, discipline, self-esteem, leadership, and a myriad of other skills that are needed to be a successful human being.

Teachers are worth Every Penny.
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Friday, March 26, 2010

When Parents Put Sports Before Education

A student came to me this morning asking if he could turn his homework in late. I asked him why it wasn’t done, and he responded by giving me a scene-by-scene rundown of his evening.

After school he had practice for the school's modified lacrosse team. He went home, grabbed a quick bite to eat, and then was driven over to the ice rink to practice with the town’s hockey team. After that practice, we immediately went to another hockey practice, this time for a travel team he plays for.

This boy left his house for school at about 7am and, other than a hasty dinner, didn’t return home until about 10pm. No wonder my essay didn’t get done.

Sure, I could have reminded him that I gave two days in class to work on it. I could have also told him that school should come before sports. I could have done a lot of things, but instead I gave him a pass to come up to my room and work on the assignment during one of his free periods. Why? Because it isn’t wrong (or abnormal) for a middle school boy to desire nothing more than living and breathing sports. What’s wrong here is the fact that his parents are letting him do it.

I don’t know all the details, and I’m certainly not going to put myself in the lose-lose situation of trying to explain to someone how to raise their kids, but this boy’s schedule just screams poor decision-making.

My students are reading Todd Strasser’s The Wave, and there’s a cautionary line in the book that we are discussing today in class. Interestingly enough, it fits this scenario nicely.

"This experiment involves young, impressionable kids. Sometimes we forget that they are young and haven’t developed the judgment we hope they’ll have someday.”

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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Audacity Tip Sheet for Students

Audacity Tip Sheet

Introduction to Podcasting for Teachers
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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

How to Register Multiple Users to One Email Address

Here’s a familiar problem that teachers often run into when trying to use web 2.0 sites or services with students. Creating a user name and account may be fast and free, but most times also requires a unique email address. If you teach at a school where students are not given their own address, this suddenly gets much more complicated. Students can use their own personal email to register, but then you as the teacher do not have access to passwords in the event that someone forgets. Also, if your district filters email sites such as gmail, yahoo, or AOL, then students may not be able to retrieve lost information or even activate the account at all.

This one small hang up has prevented me from using sites such as Blogger, Weebly, Xtranormal, Aviary, and SlideRocket (to name just a few) with my students. Until now, that is.

This method takes advantage of a little-known but extremely useful Gmail hack. Gmail has a recipient sorting feature where a “+” can be added to an address to identify the intended target.
For example: Let’s say my wife and I use the fictional email address If you wanted to send a message and wanted to make sure it was clear that it was intended for me and not my wife, you could actually send it to This would still go to the same inbox, but I would see that it is specifically for me.

In three easy steps, you can create unlimited user accounts to any site with just one email address.

Step 1: Create a Gmail account
Gmail is blocked at many schools, so this will have to be done from home. Create an account specifically for your classes. If you are already a Gmail user, don’t use your personal email address.

Step 2: Forward mail
Under the settings menu, change the forwarding option to redirect all mail to your primary work address. This is very important for two reasons. First, you want to have access to activation/password emails in the classroom, but also so that all email is stored on the school email servers. You don’t want to find yourself in a tricky spot where an administrator is accusing you of handing out a personal email address to students.

Step 3: Assign “unique” addresses
When students sign up for whatever service you choose to use, assign them a number. Have them add this number to the email address (,, etc.). The website/service will identify it as a unique email address, but all mail will be redirected to your work email!

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Friday, March 19, 2010

7 Things You Didn't Know About Me

While browsing through @paulawhite’s blog this morning, I came across a post written last May. In it, Paula shared 7 things about herself that few others know. I thought this was a neat idea, so I'm going to give it a try as well.

1. I’ve never been on a rollercoaster. I don’t think it’s because I’m scared of them – I wouldn’t know because I never put myself in a spot to find out. What’s even more interesting is that I spent six summers during high school and college working at a local Six Flags amusement park. I was given countless free passes, but never once did I use one of them to wait in line for a rollercoaster ride. I like water parks though. Go figure.

2. Shortly after graduating from high school, I decided to celebrate my independence by bleaching my hair and then dying it blue. My Mom insisted it looked like a feather duster. It did, but that’s why I thought it was cool. Moms just don’t understand.

3. When I was 7 years old, I found a half-dead turtle struggling in the filter of a friend’s in-ground pool. I took it home and my parents – assuming it was chlorine-shocked and not long for this world – told me I could keep it. The joke was on them, though. It lived for 18 years. His name was Michelangelo. When he died, my youngest brother played taps while we buried him in the backyard.

5. When I was student teaching, my cooperating teacher gave me the unappealing duty of checking the bathrooms. One morning, I walked into the boys’ room down the hall to find an unfamiliar student standing in front of a urinal. He glanced back at me, and failing to recognize me as a student teacher, said “It’s cool” and then continued to smoke his cigarette. I was so stunned by his folly that I turned around and walked out of the room. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had tried to walk him down to the front office.

6. I’m distantly related to Maryland Senator, Barbara Mikulski. My grandfather’s side of the family originally settled in Virgina and he had somewhere in the neighborhood of eleven siblings. She’s from a different branch, but the same family tree. I also have great uncles named Wellington Weldon Mikulski and Winston Churchill Mikulski. What can I say – my great-grandmother had a way with names.

7. I am an English Language Arts teacher, and I have never read any of the books in the Harry Potter series. Some may say that’s like an art teacher who doesn’t recognize a Dali painting, but they just never interested me. I’ve never seen the movies either.
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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Top 10 Teacher Apps for the iPod Touch

Searching for iPod Touch apps for teachers in Google results in close to a million hits, so what’s the harm in adding one more? Here is my list (some scholarly, some not so much) of apps that I couldn't do without.

1. Dropbox – This handy app compliments the file storage website. The service is an excellent alternative to uploading and sending files to your own email. The Dropbox app also allows for offline use, which is where it comes in most handy. It also has a built-in media player. If I’m in a hurry and need a media file but don’t want to wait interminably for iTunes to load, and then have to go through the laborious task of finding my iPod usb connector, this is an effortless alternative.

2. NoteBrainer – This is a must have app for any music student struggling to learn how to read both treble and bass clef. The app displays or (optionally) sounds the note, and then asks you to correctly identify it. It’s simple, but addictive (and much more interesting than rote memorization!). I've been learning how to play piano since August, and this app is great practice.

3. Pandora – Pandora is an Internet radio station that plays songs based on your previous song preferences. This is a must have for any English Language Arts teacher who is teaching a book/unit that takes place in a specific era. For example, if I was teaching S.E. Hinton’s That was then, This is now and I wanted to give my students a taste of music from the time period, all I would have to do is create a Pandora station based on the search term “60s rock.”
4. Stanza – This free e-book reader is not only intuitive, but effortless to use. The app contains a searchable database using e-book sites like Project Gutenberg, and downloads automatically so that they can be read offline. The latest version also features capabilities to highlight and annotate.

5. Instapaper – This app takes any website and converts it to “digital paper” that can be stored on the iPod and then read offline. This is particularly useful to me because many of the news sites that I enjoy reading are blocked by my school’s filter. With a little bit of foresight, I can convert the page at home, and then read at my own leisure during my lunch break!

6. Free RSS – This app is exactly what it sounds like. Again, similar to instapaper, I appreciate that this app stores posts from a blog’s RSS feed so I can read them when I am not connected to a wifi signal.

7. Office2 Plus – I wrote about using Zoho on the iPod Touch as a portable word processor, but this is only possible when within range of an Internet signal. Office2 Plus is a suitable alternative. Files are saved in .doc format and can be emailed to a desktop computer for further editing and printing.

8. Paper Toss – Fine, maybe this isn’t very educational, but if I am making a list of my favorite apps, this has to be on it. Paper toss is a game that challenges you to do exactly that – toss balls of paper into a trashcan. It sounds lame, but it is dangerously addictive!

9. Wink – If you have an iPhone with a built-in camera, then this app is especially useful. Wink allows you to take pictures stored on your iPhone, or from Flickr, Facebook, or Shutterfly and organize them into a photo strip. Then, for $2.50, that strip can be printed and sent via snail mail. This could be a great way to creatively document field trips or in-class activities.

10. Wikipedia – Maybe it’s a bit of a cop-out to put this on an app list, but there’s no denying how important Wikipedia has become. In fact, a recent study has shown that more than 80% of college students turn to the source when beginning research. Of all the apps on this list, this one offers the greatest potential simply because of the extraordinary amount of information that it contains.

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Monday, March 15, 2010

The Fine Line Between Acceptable and Inappropriate Behavior With Students

In my school, teachers are allowed to celebrate the weekend early by dressing down on Fridays. I choose to do so by wearing jeans instead of my usual dress pants, and to compliment the casual look, I also lace up my favorite pair of Converse All-Stars. This has come to be known among my students as “Cool Shoes Friday.”

I don’t feel like this is inappropriate – my role in the classroom doesn’t get disrupted, I don’t look ridiculous, and my students don’t see me as any less of an authority figure because of it. If anything, my coveted pair of low tops actually helps me. My Friday attire humanizes me in the eyes of my students; those shoes serve as a gentle reminder that I’m not a robot that gets plugged in next to the laptop cart after the dismissal bell rings. Plus, my choice in footwear comes across as pretty hip. They don’t call it Cool Shoes Friday for nothing.

But there is a fine line to be walked between casual and unprofessional.

Take, for example, the recent incident involving North Carolina Social Studies teacher Rex Roland. His name hit mass media outlets Yahoo, AOL, and the Telegraph (to name just a few) this past weekend after repeatedly calling students “losers” both verbally and in written comments on homework assignments. His argument was that his informal banter was just part of his laidback teaching style, but this certainly seems like a thin excuse for such unprofessional behavior.

I sort of understand what he’s trying to get at though – relate to students by using their language. Perhaps he watched Dangerous Minds or The Principal a few too many times. Regardless of motives, you just don’t call your student a loser no matter how “real” you’re trying to be.

Much of what I wrote is assumptive – I don’t know what goes on in Mr. Roland’s classroom on a daily basis, and I certainly don’t know what was going on in Mr. Roland’s head when he wrote “minus 20% for being a loser” on a student’s homework. I actually emailed him requesting an informal interview for my blog so that he would have an outlet to explain some of his actions, but it was not been returned. My guess is that his silence is the result of a gag order imposed by the school district. Perhaps they should have suggested he keep his mouth shut before this incident took place.

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Friday, March 12, 2010

The Great American Mail Race

Last week I received a letter from Tami, a 14-year-old student from Butte Valley Middle School in Dorris, California. The letter was simply addressed to “Any 8th Grade English Teacher” and began by explaining that her class was participating in The Great American Mail Race.

After reading her letter and the accompanying note from her teacher, I wanted to learn more about this project. I was surprised to find an absence of an official website, but Google helped uncover the basic premise of the Mail Race. Students from around the country use the computer to find the address of a faraway school and then write to them sharing information about their personal interests, and their school and community. The class who receives this letter is encouraged to respond to it, and then find a new school to write to. The Great American Mail Race is like an educational version of a chain letter.

The problem with correspondence sites like e-Pals and services such as Skype is that the difficulty is in finding someone willing to participate. I love the idea that the Mail Race removes this barrier.

I’m planning on having my students participate in The Great American Mail Race. I’m going to randomly assign the state, but each student will be able to choose two different schools to write to. I figure this will double the odds of receiving a return letter. As a team, we’ll be mailing out over 200 letters – I’m interested to see the number of replies we get in return.

Guidelines for this project appear to be flexible and not really documented on any particular site. Some schools have students write friendly letters, others mail out formal surveys. It’s usually encouraged that the teacher mail a letter along with the student’s to help explain the project, but even this seems to be optional.

If you’re interested in participating in The Great American Mail Race, feel free to use my handouts as a model for how to approach it with students, and also how to formulate your own teacher letter.

The Great American Mail Race - Teacher Letter

The Great American Mail Race - Student Directions
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Thursday, March 11, 2010

Take Time to Be a Dad Campaign

Last night my wife and I loaded our kids into the van so that we could surprise my mom and brother at the airport on their return trip from a week’s vacation. Never to be without a treasure, my 2-year-old daughter, Sophie, asked if she could bring something along for the ride. My wife told her she could take one special toy with her. She chose the painted noodle necklace she and I made together last week during an impromptu craft session at the kitchen table. I couldn’t help be feel a little proud that my craft beat out her usual picks - an Abby Cadabby doll or her pair of plastic flower-rimmed sunglasses.

On the way to the airport, I spotted something upsetting. There was a billboard depicting a man and his son bouncing happily across a grassy knoll. Above them was a simple directive – Take time to be a dad today.

Maybe it was the fact that my daughter was sitting directly behind me playing with her cherished daddy-daughter necklace, but this billboard offended me.

The display gives the over-generalized message that fathers don’t spend enough time with their kids. And to make matters worse, the organization that commissioned the ad,, is government sponsored. My taxes went to a billboard announcing that I was insufficient in my role as a dad!

Maybe I’m blowing this a little out of proportion. I understanding that nuclear families aren’t exactly the norm these days, and many times it’s the male figure that’s absent. But nonetheless, maybe there’s a better way to facilitate father-engagement than erecting large sweeping statements on Rt 33 heading toward the Buffalo Niagara International Airport.

It’s also surprising that a campaign of this nature hasn’t been faced with more opposition. doesn’t even exist, but if this fictional organization decided to promote a Take time to be a mom campaign, you can bet that the uproar would be earth-shaking.

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Thursday, March 4, 2010

Introduction to the Holocaust

The New York State curriculum for Social Studies is bursting at the seams. Unfortunately, the students have no other option than to get a shallow understanding of a lot of information. Take, for example the topic of World War II. The Holocaust could be a full-year course in itself, but it is usually stripped down to little more than a tangent lesson from the war.

As an ELA teacher, I try to do my part by teaching something with Anne Frank, or a novel like Wiesel’s Night or We are Witness by Jacob Boas. This year, however, I am taking a different approach. Instead of teaching the content of the Nazi horrors, I decided to focus more on the context in which these horrors occurred. I want my students to understand not only what happened, but why it happened. I want them to understand the power that Hitler had as an authority figure, and how everyday, good-hearted people allowed for the extermination of their friends and neighbors.

To start this conversation, I asked my kids a simple question: Why do we follow the rules? In every class, I received similar answers – It’s the right thing to do; We have rules to protect from harm; Breaking rules means facing a consequence.

I then shared this story about a prankster who called public places under the guise of an authority figure and persuaded people into dangerous and disruptive acts of vandalism. After they listened to the audio clip, my students were asked to explain what this prank illustrated about obedience. They were beginning to understand that people do not necessarily follow the rules, they follow the person telling them the rules.

To reinforce this idea, I then moved on to Dr. Stanley Milgram’s famous shock experiment from the early 60s. If you’re unfamiliar with this study, Wikipedia has a pretty solid overview on Milgram’s work in understanding why we obey authority figures. The actual experiment footage is over three hours long, but I managed to find a 9 minute overview that the kids found fascinating.

To end the lesson, I again returned to the original question, Why do we follow the rules and asked the class to think about what they had just learned and then answer the question again. It was amazing how firmly they grasped the concept that following rules is something that is inherent in all of us, and when prompted by authority, we will do things that go against our better judgment.

I going to continue this conversation with the novel The Wave by Todd Strasser. It doesn't take place during 1940s World War II era, but I think it will tie in easily to best show how Hitler was able to convince Germany to commit such atrocious war crimes.

Here is the Prezi presentation I used with my kids to guide them through the lesson. Feel free to use it yourself and share with others!

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