Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A Typical Teacher Workday

I'm writing this on my iPod touch while waiting to get my oil changed. I'm sitting in a claustrophobic room with eight other people who are also waiting for work to be done on their vehicles.


I figured it was going to be a bit of a wait (it always is) so I brought one of my school books to keep me company. I was pretty absorbed in my reading when a woman came in and sat down in the seat next to mine. I hardly noticed when she flipped open her laptop and started padding away. But when I looked up, I saw she had also pulled out a book - and it bore the unmistakable resemblance of a teacher's edition textbook. Sitting next to me was another teacher, and much like myself, she was trying to make good use of her time by writing lesson plans while at the automotive repair shop.

Ten minutes later another woman joined us. She carried a green canvas tote filled with wrinkled, dogged-eared papers that I immediately recognized as a formidable stack of homework. Without glancing in my direction, she took a seat in the opposite corner of the room and pulled out her red pen.

So here you have it. Three teachers, all waiting for their cars to be worked on, all doing schoolwork.

Did I mention it was 5:00pm?

There has been a lot of criticism regarding teacher salaries and one of the most enraging comments is that we practically work a part time job for full time pay.

I woke up at 5:30 this morning, and other than the 20 minutes spent driving got the car dealer, I haven't stopped yet.

Does that sound like a part time job to you?
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Get "Free" Books with Bookmooch

I am always on the lookout for new books for my students to read in class as well as recreationally (I’ve also had success running SSR – silent sustained reading). The bookshelf in my room is home to our class library of books, and judging by the mangled bindings on some of them it is clear which are the favorites. Granted, there are others that have never been opened. I’ve struggled with this – how can I afford to replace the popular books and cycle out those that go untouched? Despite what many people in Wisconsin think, my modest teacher salary doesn’t quite support a bottomless well of extra cash for piles of new books.

I was thinking about this recently, and I remembered a website I found several years back. I took a look, and thankfully the service – and my account – was still active.

Bookmooch is a online book-trading community. Users create an inventory of books that they own but would like to get rid of. When someone requests a book from the inventory, the user sends it and then receives a credit so that he/she can request a book from someone else. Users can also create wishlists of titles if they are not currently in the Bookmooch system. If a wishlisted book gets added to an inventory, a notification email is sent out so that book can be “mooched.”

The whole process is amazingly simple. Bookmooch relies on ISBN numbers and is tied in with so it is easy to search and find books that are of interest. Also, books can be sent as media mail, and only costs a few bucks (I sent two books yesterday to Florida, and was only charged $2.77!).

Bookmooch is a great way to rotate your class library collection without spending a fortune on books.
Credits are received and spent with each mooched book.
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Create a Podcast Studio in the Classroom for under $200

A few years ago, I created and ran a short range radio station at my middle school. In the most basic of senses, it was just a series of podcasts that were programmed to play on an empty FM radio channel. The experience taught me a few valuable lessons:

  1. The power of audio is extremely powerful when used correctly. It is captivating and engaging.

  2. Students take producing audio very seriously. After the initial “do I really sound like that?!” comments, they buckle down and focus on important aspects of oral reading such as inflection, meter, and pronunciation.

  3. The broadcast over the radio was not nearly as popular as the mp3 uploads for each show. Students preferred listening to each other on the computer or through an iPod or MP3 player.

It is because of the last lesson that I don’t run the radio anymore, but I have certainly taken the wealth of experience I gained from the radio station and use it regularily in my classroom. Considering their educational value, student interest, and relative ease of creation, it’s amazing that podcasts are not part of every classroom. The reason for this is most likely because teachers get caught in the details of the equipment before they ever have a chance to publish their first podcast. Sometimes technology is its own worst enemy.

So today’s post has a simple purpose – remove the technology from the equation so that podcasting can be used in the classroom. For under 200 bucks, you can create a podcasting studio that is equipped to handle multiple students recording conversations, plays, oral readings, book reviews, etc.


  • That you have a computer or laptop

  • You have some general understanding of Audacity (If you don’t, here’s a tutorial)

  • You know what to do with the podcast after it is created

What you need:

Everything on this list can be found at Musician’s Friend. By ordering it together, you will be eligible for free shipping. This setup will accommodate three students recording at the same time (it is better to have a microphone for each student so you can control their individual volume levels).

  1. Behringer Eurorack UB1202 Mixer $79.99
    This connects to the computer through USB and will allow for each microphone (or channel as it’s called in the “biz”) to be controlled separately.
  2. Musician's Gear 5 Pack Windscreens $9.49
    These windscreens fit over the microphone and will help keep students from “popping” their Ps and breathing heavily while recording. These screens will greatly improve the quality of the recording at very little cost to you.
  3. Audio-Technica M4000S Microphone 3-Pack $49.99
    Are these the best microphones? Not really – but they’ll get the job done and are ideal for podcasting. I would suggest upgrading to something in the Shure line if you plan to record instruments/music.
  4. Musician's Gear Lo-Z Microphone Cable $4.49 (x3)
    The length of cable will depend on the physical location of the computer and where you expect students to be sitting during recording. The 15 cables are less than 5 bucks and should be long enough for most situations. Don’t forget to buy three of them!
  5. Musician's Gear Tripod Desk Mic Stand with Clip $12.99 (x3)
    Mics are suprisingly sensitive and often put up the sounds of hand movements and vibrations when held during recording. The easy solution are these cheap microphone stands. Buy three!

There you have it – your very own classroom recording studio. All for the low price of $191.91.

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Sunday, March 13, 2011

Is a Salary Cap for Superintendents a Good Idea?

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Last week, Governor Cuomo proposed a statewide $175,000 salary cap for superintendents. The cap would use student enrollment to determine the maximum salary for superintendents, and would range between $125,00 - $175,000. The cap would save an estimated $15 million which is meager when compared to the overall debt of the state. In this sense, the cap is symbolic and echos the popular disconnect between the education system and the public’s opinion of it.

Rational arguments over the salary cap exist on either side. Grand Island Superintendent Robert Christmann suggested that the proposal revealed a lack of understanding of leadership in education. It downplays the role and responsibility of the superintendent. Others, however, disagree. Supporters of the cap argue that low test scores and graduation rates suggest that highly paid superintendents have not earned their keep. In theory, there should be a correlation.

Buffalo Superintendent, Dr. James Williams came under fire when he flatly warned of his resignation should the cap pass into legislation. Williams currently earns $223,372 annually. Despite Williams’ explanation that he has not seen a raise since 2005 and that his salary accounts for like than .5% of the school budget, many Buffalo residents are calling him greedy and unsympathetic to the difficult economic times.

Whether Williams deserves his salary is not up for debate. He has a contract that was negotiated by the Buffalo Board of Education. If his leadership is not worth the nearly $224,000 price tag, then the board members who agreed to that salary should be the ones under fire, not him. Furthermore, you can’t blame him for leaving should his salary be slashed. If I was told that I would be taking a mandatory %22 pay cut, I would question the future of my employment too.

So let's say the cap goes into effect and Williams leaves. Now what? The district is already in shambles - dismal test scores and countless layoffs and school closings. Will someone step forward to bear this burden for a lesser salary? If so, will this person be capable of turning the struggling district around?

Take a look at this segment from WGRZ. I find it a bit unrealistic that the school board member - one of the folks who signed Williams' contract in the first place - thinks someone would sacrifice a salary for the "good of the community." Superintendency is a position that requires at least three degrees - it's not charity work.

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Friday, March 4, 2011

Do Typewriters Produce Better Writing Than Computers?

About a year ago, I found a used 1960s portable typewriter for sale. I thought it would be an interesting novelty to share with my students, so I purchased it and brought it in to my classroom. I figured it may peak some interest, but my students’ responses were truly memorable. Several simply had no idea what a typewriter even was; nearly all admitted to never having used one. This was evident when I began to let them experiment on the machine. There were baffled by the missing ability to delete and correct mistakes. One student even apologized after the carriage return bell sounded. He thought he had broken the typewriter!

I was a bit intrigued by the dinosaur as well; I am 29 years old, so other than pounding on my mother’s electric typewriter as a kid, I had no experience with this medium. As a novelty, I decided to write a few blog posts on the typewriter (I later learned this was a niche form of blogging called typecasting). I found that my writing and thought process changed considerably – I was more cautious about syntax and word choice because I was unable to go back and edit, and the length of time it took to write each passage increased simply because my finger dexterity forced me to take my time and firmly strike each key. In the end, my efforts produced a well-thought piece of writing.

I began to wonder how typewriters would affect my students’ writing. After all, a common complaint by teachers is that students rush through writing assignments and are usually hasty when it comes to planning quality responses. I wondered if my district could learn something about teaching the writing process from these archaic machines.

For the past year, I have been slowly accumulating typewriters from community members and friends so that I can use them with my students. I have almost 20 manual typewriters dating from the 1930s to the early 1980s.

This Spring I am planning a writing project to determine the affects of manual typewriters on demand writing tasks. Judging by my own experiences, I predict that the quality and depth of the responses will be better for students who type using a manual typewriter rather than a laptop.

By no means am I suggesting schools abandon computers for typewriters; rather I feel that a lot can be learned by examining how students write using these devices. As more schools move toward a 1:1 environment, this information will become invaluable.

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