Friday, August 27, 2010

Reflecting Back on the First Year of Teaching

I clearly remember 13 years ago preparing for my first group of third graders.  Intermittent sleep with dreams of incompetence and students running amok were nightly occurrences leading up to that dreaded, yet thrilling first day.  I had no direction and no clue of what to do.  I was clearly unprepared for the job that laid ahead of me.  Yes, I did have some kind colleagues who tried to show me the way.  They were very well meaning, but they had experience and knowledge that takes years to acquire.  At that point my mind was too cluttered and unfocused to listen with clarity.  The brain of a 22 year old can only take in so much.  The University of Connecticut tried to prepare me with four years of undergraduate work plus a Master's degree in the fifth.  Unfortunately a teacher is never prepared for that first year no matter their college experience.  The decisions to be made, the relationships that need to be built, the problems that arise, the parent and student issues are all too numerous to accurately calculate.  The factors are endless.  Thinking back, I did the best I could, but surely my best was not good enough.  I sure hope preservice teacher preparation has improved since 1996.

Heading into my 14th year, I feel confident and comfortable beginning the year with a sense of purpose and a greater understanding of what lies ahead.  I know there will be an infinite number of decisions to be made, but each requires much less thought and effort compared with those of a decade ago.  Many decisions are automatic now with no need to belabor the question or situation.  This is what experience brings.  I am no longer endlessly bogged down with the tiny details that need to be thought out and worked out; the thousands of little problems that arise.  I can primarily focus on what is important, teaching and student learning.

The intermittent sleep and the strange dreams still occur, but I am thankful that I now have the experience and the tools to deal with most of the situations and decisions that need to be made daily in the classroom.

That first group of students will be graduating college this year.  The cycle continues.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Hooked on Reading. How Did This Happen? The Hunger Games!

I am not a fan of fiction, especially fantasy or novels that take place in time periods or places that are quite unfamiliar.  I have always experienced a disconnect in my brain that would never fully allow for comprehension.  There is a remarkable series of books that has changed my thoughts about this genre.

The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins is so well written I found myself up in the middle of the night finding out what happens next.  I have said aloud "Why!"and felt my breathing change in anticipation of the next event.  Now that is something I would have never expected. Yes, the characters have strange names and the setting is in a land once known as North America, but the character development and the pace of the books is just right.  When I find myself saying it's time to move on, the author moves swiftly in a direction so unpredictable the thoughts in your head begin swirling, trying to rationalize and digest what just happened.  By the time you do this, a plot twist will send you for another loop on the proverbial literary roller coaster.  

You will find yourself during your daily activities wondering about Katniss Everdeen and the struggles she is facing.

I highly recommend this book to any adult and any student in grade 7 or above.  There are three books in the series.  The first one is The Hunger Games, the second is Catching Fire, and the third one came out yesterday called Mockingjay.  I have just started this one.  I am only 10 pages in.  I don't want to continue until I can block out a long period of time.

Here is a link about the series from the WSJ:

Thursday, August 19, 2010

A Mind Opening Approach to Teaching... A Powerful Week of Change

Who knew on Monday what would happen when making my first trek up the Merritt Parkway, paired with an arduous stretch on Interstate 91 north, leading to a tucked away magnet school named "Two Rivers". Who knew that I and many others would find that within four days our entire mindset and approach to teaching and learning would be wholly transformed.

This week I along with 28 other fabulous teachers from Danbury, New Milford, and Newtown are entrenched in a new learning and discovery to help understand how to teach science (and all disciplines) in a more practical, logical, and intrinsically motivating way.  We are instructed by three classroom teachers who have been where we are and still teach in a classroom every day.  They have the knowledge, resources and the "educational toolbox"  to help solve our problems and answer our questions.  

We are learning the process of teaching using inquiry based methods.  I will not outline all of the details, but basically using careful planning, guidance and well executed lessons, you create a framework in your classroom that allows students to dig deeper into subject matter that is highly motivating to them. You create a classroom full of curiosity and wonder, a classroom of discovering, asking more questions, and unearthing new information.  

Tuesday and Wednesday we were exposed to stream tables and did a short guided activity with the flow and slope. Out of this came many questions that we had.  We were then able to pick a question we wanted explore with like-minded individuals who wanted to explore the same question.  There were eight different investigations simultaneously being conducted in a small classroom.  My group of four was so focused on our investigation of the formation of deltas (see our deltas in the picture above), we were oblivious to the flurry of activity around us.  We were given a basic framework, time, materials, and trust to work together to accomplish our goal of making new discoveries. We did.  We collaborated, assigned roles, measured, discussed.  We presented our investigation and the data collected.  Most of all we had fun...and learned.  We learned more than we ever could have in an article about delta formations.  Could an article be helpful to our understanding?   Absolutely!  It does not need to be a front-loading activity for the students.  Much more was gleaned from this cooperative endeavor than could ever be from a text.

Making a shift and leaving your teaching comfort zone is quite a challenge.  My thinking about instruction is beginning to change.  Now I need to jump in, push away the apprehension and doubt swirling about in my mind and get to it.

(We have learned so much more.  I will continue to write about this inquiry approach because we will be working on how to implement this in science all year long.  I am going to be thinking about and trying this approach in reading and math as well.  Our program is a collaborative effort between Danbury, New Milford, Newtown public schools, Western Connecticut State University, The Connecticut Science Center, and the Sate Department of Education.  It is an instructional  coaching academy funded through a Math Science Partnership grant.  I will attach the link at a later date.)

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Quest for the Perfect (and economical) Cup of Coffee

The only thing that can bring a smile to my face in the morning besides my wife and children is that heavenly smell of fresh brewed coffee; wafts of steam slowly emanating from the stark white cup.  Java, Joe, Brew, whatever you choose to name your morning, afternoon or evening vice, for some late morning and early afternoon vice too, it does not matter.  What matters is the taste and smell, and the feeling that fresh brew invokes in you.  Whether you have some fancy Krups contraption, a regular old Mr. Coffee 10 cup decanter, or you purchase your lot at the local joint by a barista named Johnny Nice,  you know that first sip will dictate most of the rest of your day.  Sweet, delicious, aromatic prepared just your way, the day will be splendid.  Too much cream, not enough sweetener, watered down, way too strong; your day is headed for sheer disaster.

I do not claim to be a coffee expert in any way.  I know little of the fancy terms that litter the caffeine landscape.  Coffee is my drink, iced once in a while, frappuccino type blended drinks more seldom.  I do know a palatable cup from one I would pour out in the parking lot.  At home we make the standard Trader Joe's Classic Blend, the big 32 ounce can for $9.99 in our Wal-Mart purchased Black and Decker standard white 12 cup coffee maker.  The results are usually satisfactory.  Sometimes quite good.  It all depends on dates of the milk or cream in the fridge. Cups on the road have innumerable variables.

Last year I presented my students with a serious mathematical problem.  We were studying decimals, so I laid out the cost of coffee in varying sizes from three different establishments.  They needed to find out which was the most economical cup.  This led us to the belief that this was the best coffee.  Thinking back, many flaws lie in this thinking. The first and most considerable is taste, with cost a close second.  With taste buds, wallet, and an amateur coffee vocabulary in mind I will try to outline some of the fantastic cups I have enjoyed in my limited traveling area in Connecticut.

The Blue Colony Diner in Newtown was my first foray into the caffeine world as a teen.  Late Friday night or heading out after school meant endless refills for one low price.  I have not been there in years, but that is where my taste buds came alive.  I plan on returning soon to experience once again the roots of my daily vice.

Dunkin Donuts
Dunkin Donuts came on the scene and was the second place my addiction spread. A decent cup, but undependable flavor.  You also can not find consistency from one shop to the next.  The price on average $2.20 or so for a large is too high for the quality.  You can have a fantastic cup, one you can't put down on Monday, then at the same establishment you need to walk back in to have them make you a new cup on Tuesday because it is half cream and sicky sweet.  I go there quite often for the convenience, drive through or "thru", and sheer copiousness of this franchise that pervades the Connecticut landscape.

Starbucks is the place I am quite ambivalent about.  I always find myself wanting to love the coffee and the ambience of the setting, but for my tastes, neither is just right.  I find the brew too strong, even the mild.  Inside, the color scheme is much more pleasant than Dunkin Donuts, so the experience sure rates higher.  Being able to control the fixings that go into your cup is a big plus.  I want to put the cream and sugar in.  I know as you do, each customer has a perfect color and sweetness.  The logo laden cups and trinkets for sale on every shelf of the store remind me of a vacation gift shop trying to sell you everything as a reminder of the wonderful time you had on your visit.  My favorite mug at home is a cylindrical heavy, 20 ounce white cup with a simple brown Starbucks label.  They make good products, but the coffee, not so much.  The frappuccino is tasty, but for $4.00, a once in a long while treat.  A venti at $2.10 is on average less expensive than Dunkin Donuts, and the paper cup gives it the edge.  As you can  see...ambivalent.

McDonald's has peeked my interest in the past six months or so.  They serve Green Mountain coffee, which on its own deserves a great deal of print space for the delicious flavors they deliver to many different types of coffee shops around the state.  McDonald's carries Newman's Own organic.  Very good flavor, you can fix it yourself if you wish, but... it's McDonald's with their super corporate and step on everyone for a buck philosophy.  The positive in that, that is the cost of the coffee, one dollar for any size, even a twenty ouncer ".  Now that is economical and it is quite tasty.  Good to the last drop.  Just don't order any food there.  That is their hope. With the java, you order sausage mcsandwiches with bacon and more sausage.  If you can avoid that marketing ploy, be sure to give it a try.

Green Mountain and New England Coffee
Back to Green Mountain.  You can find this coffee at many gas stations, small sandwich shops, cafeterias, banks, and libraries throughout the state.  They have a wide variety of flavors, including my two favorites "wild mountain blueberry" and "maple syrup".  I am not a flavored coffee guy but these two are irresistible when available.  This is my brand for the Kuerig maker in my classroom as well.  For a good cup at any time for a reasonable price where you can control the contents of the cup, you can't beat Green Mountain no matter the establishment.  One of my favorites is a gas station off of the Merritt Parkway.  Twenty-four ounces fixed the way you like for $1.90.  If you can find New England coffee, that is a delicious alternative.

My New Favorite
A small coffee shop with good coffee and atmosphere recently closed in Sandy Hook, Connecticut (a section of Newtown) called Mocha.  This quaint shop overlooks a rambling river called the Pootatuck.  A new place Demitasse took its place, so I thought I would give it a try.  Holy cow, I downed this cup in minutes.  After asking a few questions, I learned they serve Willoughby's roasted coffee out of Branford and New Haven.  This is near my home.  I happened to have an appointment right across the street from the Branford Willoughby's shop a few days later.  Reasonably priced, flavorful, leaving you wanting for more. It is just a bit difficult to get to, not on my ride anywhere.  I will go out of my way for this cup though.

Coffee.  What else can be said.  Other thoughts come to mind, but I will save that for another day.  In the mean time, greet good morning, good afternoon, and good evening, with an unforgettable cup of Joe.

Please feel free to add your favorites to this list!

Friday, August 13, 2010

Summer Waning...Random Thoughts

In the weeks leading up to the first day of school my mind begins to fill with work that lays ahead.  Two weeks and two days from now I will go to bed with all of the possibilities.  The racing thoughts will begin.   Is my room ready?  What do I do on the first day of school?  Is there enough time to meet about the new schedule and the new students?  I will toss and turn until the alarm awakens my exhausted body.  Once at school, I will chat with buddies, exchange smiles and pleasantries with colleagues, and hear the same old same old same old "How was your summer?" interactions, innumerable times. Meetings will pass by in a blur, information will fail to penetrate my brain because I will have one thought and one thought only.  "I need to work in my room!" All will be on edge. The fear of unpreparedness will flow through everyone's brains.  The best plan of action:  Ignore, ignore, ignore.  It's best to have tunnel vision.  For now,  focus on anything but school.  Once you step on the treadmill you can't get off, so it's best not to step...yet. Two weeks, two days. I will not waste my time calculating that math problem.  We'll wait...and embrace the sweet last days of summer.