Staying hungry, staying foolish? Not quite.

Awhile back, I wrote that I would be exploring the 21st century student and how such a student differs from those that preceded him or her. So, let’s get this conversation started. 

Many years ago, the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs delivered a commencement address at Stanford University, during which he told the students to, “Stay hungry, stay foolish” when it came to choosing a career path and entering the real world. While some people may have misinterpreted his use of the word “foolish” and thought of its negative denotation, what he meant was that sometimes, one has to be foolish and take risks – as he did with Apple – in the search for fulfillment. The mere thought of risk-taking does not sound appealing to many people, but Jobs didn’t let that stop him from forming one of the most powerful companies in the entire world. He was foolish for even considering he could build a personal computer, but look what his foolishness did? 

The reason I bring that story up: as I think about today’s students, I truly wonder how “foolish” (as in Steve Jobs foolish) they truly are. Are they risk takers? Do they put themselves in situations where failure could make them look unwise but where success could elevate them to the status of genius? I don’t know about the first question, but from what I’ve seen over the past few years, I would have to answer, rather unequivocally, “NO” to the second question. 

Today’s typical student does not want to look foolish in any way, shape, or form. Foolishness, for most students, always results in failure, and that simply is not an option. To take the Jobs idea even further, students want full bellies and loathe the idea of any sort of “hunger” in life. A full belly guarantees *something* will always be present, hence no need for hunger or for foolishness. Where yesterday’s students were willing to step out on the ledge and take calculated risks in the name of success, I am willing to be that most 21st century students would rather have the path laid out in front of them and, to counter Robert Frost, take the road MOST traveled. While that path may not lead to a unique result, it is taken so often because it’s safe and lacks any sort of foolishness. I have had students tell me that they fear failure and that they make decisions to avoid failure (and foolishness) altogether. Can anything totally be avoided? Of course not – but for them, there’s a clear safe route that makes the most sense.  

And that’s a crying shame.

The worst part, however, is that most students know they lack the foolishness and the hunger, and that’s just fine with them. Somehow, some way, they have learned that to be hungry and to be foolish is to be a failure, and to them, the world spits on failure (it doesn’t, by the way). Did these students learn this in school? Perhaps…and that’s another blog entry for another time. Did they pick this up at home? Again, another entry for another time. In any case, the chances are not great that that they will heed the words of Steve Jobs. 

I hope that as this new breed of students enters college and the work world, they find out how foolishness and hunger can help them soar. Sadly, I don’t think that will be the case, but I guess I can’t blame them when they’re constantly reminded that they shouldn’t do anything on an empty stomach because, well, that’s just foolish. 

Tell that to the next Steve Jobs. 


As 2016 arrives, so does education continue to shift.

Happy New Year!

I hope that all of you reading this enjoyed your celebrations to ring in 2016. I spent time with my friends and then parked myself on the couch to enjoy The Twilight Zone annual marathon. After two weeks off, back to reality on Monday!

Speaking of Christmas break, I did much thinking over the two weeks about the current state of education. In pondering the paradigm shift, I realized that students themselves deserve a bit of discussion as well, especially since the typical student has morphed over the past few years. Indeed, I can honestly say that most of today's students hardly resemble those who roamed the halls even a few years ago. Many reasons exist for that, and starting next week, I plan on devoting a series of entries to talking about the 21st century student. While I will not identify specific students I teach, I will rely on my overall observations and interactions with them to form the basis of my discussion. While various topics will be addressed, my overarching goal is to explain how today's high school (and college) students need more independence but fail to gain it for a number of reasons. Everything I will speak of comes from my own teaching experiences, so actual mileage may vary for you.

In the meantime, may 2016 bring you health, happiness, and a renewed spirit.

Dusting off the cobwebs…yet again.

Ahem…good morning! As is obvious, I have done a stellar job of ignoring my blog and, in the process, failing to write about many significant educational moments in one way or another. For that, I am sorry. If you know anything about teachers (and if you're reading this, you do), you know that we get into those long stretches where all we can think about is our job and the many responsibilities that come with it. Needless to say, I fell into that trap and am not afraid to admit that I became a little lazy when it came to writing even a short blog post. I'm one of those people who feels the need to write substantially, but I do myself in when I don't have enough to fill three paragraphs. It's funny: I teach timed writing and constantly tell students that they need to condense their thoughts and that they can write solid essays without a ton of quotations or references. Maybe I should follow my own advice! Starting today, I will. Whether I post a few thoughts on a personal experience or share an article or commentary I have read, I will write more. In the words of the venerable band Whitenake, “Here I go again on my own.”

I have so many thoughts that I could post here, but I want to share an experience I had a couple of weeks ago when I served on a Visiting Team for a school evaluation. (For privacy reasons, I will not share the name of the school, except to say it is a beautiful prep school in New Jersey.) Teachers rarely get to see colleagues from other schools in action, so I jumped at the chance to do just that. As I migrated my way through the school's hallways and observed the different learning experiences taking place, I also noticed something that, until that point, I had ignored in all of the school's I previously had seen: classroom design. The classrooms in this school seemed more like learning centers, very student-focused and designed to appeal to all sorts of learners. Even though the school was built in the 1960s, I could tell that the school's architect planned not only for those present-day students but also for students that would fill the halls in subsequent decades. In other words, future planning became a key part of the school's construction. Of course, it cannot be assumed that today's building is an exact duplicate of the original structure; after all, technology alone has grown by leaps and bounds since that time. Still, it seems that while many schools built in the 1960s and later now show their age, this one does not.

When we think about the 21st century classroom, we not only need to consider the content and the learning taking place within the room, but also the physical space itself. Many schools have very little wiggle room with respect to redesigning classroom spaces; cost, location, and even building materials (the dreaded cinder block) make it difficult to convert yesterday's classroom to tomorrow's learning center. However, if a school wants to ensure its own survival, it must at least give thought to the types of learning that will occur in the next decade or so. Then, it becomes a matter of future-proofing classrooms and school buildings to stay ahead of the curve. Such changes also can reinvigorate and re-energize school communities that might feel stuck in a time warp.

This future-proofing will become a reality for me very soon, as my classroom is scheduled to receive a significant upgrade over the Christmas break. I know for a fact that the remodel will allow me to refine and to expand my teaching methods in very positive ways, and I'm looking forward to showing my students how a new space can enhance their learning and their appreciation for literature and writing.

Harper Lee v.2.0

Show of hands: How many of you have never read the classic To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee? A perennial summer/school-year reading book, TKAM has become a staple of contemporary American literature since its publication in 1960, a must-read for anyone looking to learn about the racial tensions permeating the southern United States during the 1930s. Lee’s only novel, the book tells the story of the Finch family: older brother Jem, younger daughter (and narrator) Scout, and their father, Atticus. Set in fictional Maycomb, Alabama (based on Lee’s hometown of Monroeville), attorney Atticus is faced with the task of defending Tom Robinson, an African-American male charged with the rape of young (and white) Mayella Ewell. At the onset, most of the town puts it’s support behind the Ewell family, making the job of Atticus even more difficult. I won’t get into more detail, other than to say this: read this book. Pronto.

Indeed, it is quite easy to obtain a copy of the book – much easier now than it was two years ago. While TKAM is considered a literary classic, many would be surprised to learn that until last year, the book had not been available in ebook format. That all changed when Lee (who, by the way, still is very much alive) won a court battle to reclaim the rights to her masterpiece. Having achieved that victory, the author felt inclined to allow her work to be made available to a wider audience, one that might not have had the opportunity to learn about the racial injustices that affected her upbringing and inspired her novel. In addition, new readers could examine one of the most powerful courtroom scenes in all of literature, not to mention the defining moment: Atticus Finch’s brilliant speech to the court.

As amazing as it was to hear of TKAM becoming an ebook, nothing could prepare us for some truly astounding news: Harper Lee had written a sequel to TKAM before composing TKAM and would be releasing that sequel this summer. Wait…what?? That’s right: Harper Lee officially had shed her label as one-hit wonder. Titled Go Set a Watchman, the story picks up with the now-adult Scout returning to her hometown to visit her famous father.

Some critics of the move, including writer Katy Waldman, opine that this is nothing more than a desperate ploy to reignite interest in a struggling publisher. To quash rumors that she had been tricked by publisher HarperCollins into releasing the work, Lee issued a statement noting that she is “alive and kicking and happy as hell” with the anticipation for her “new” book hitting the physical and the digital shelves. In reality, though, we simply need to take Lee at her word and appreciate the fact that we finally will have more of her writing to enjoy. I, for one, cannot wait to get my hands on Go Set a Watchman.

Next up: J.D. Salinger and more of Holden Caulfield? You never know…


New school year, new tech!

While it has been some time since my last post, I hope that all teachers out there have enjoyed smooth beginnings to the school year. Can you believe that we just finished Thanksgiving and are on our way to Christmas? I don’t know about you, but I’m already itching for that next break. The life of a spoiled teacher, right? 😄

In any case, I am always on the lookout for innovative technology to enhance my instruction and/or classroom management. For example, one struggle that many teachers face involves students failing to check homework sites for their daily assignments. Our school currently uses Moodle as its course management system; while I appreciate the ability to post assignments and other important information, I have noticed that Moodle has become a bit too big for its britches, so to speak. The result: students (especially when they are absent) do not log on to ensure they have completed the necessary work. Rather, they email their teachers to find out the status of missed classes and assignments. That said, they often do not check email for important information. Indeed, email slowly is going the way of the dinosaur. However, I read about a relatively new app called Remind (formerly known as Remind 101) that allows students to subscribe to text alerts sent by teachers. In my case, I use the app to remind students of upcoming large-scale assignments (essays, projects, etc.) as well as last-minute changes to coursework. Parents also can subscribe to get the alerts so that they know some of the major work being done by their children. The beauty of this app is that no phone numbers are exchanged! This ensures privacy for all parties and no hint of impropriety. I highly recommend Remind for anyone who works in a group setting and who wants to remind people of events without having to send out a mass email.

Awhile back, I wrote a post about how Google inconceivably broke apart Google Drive and spun off Docs, Slides, and Sheets into separate apps. In doing so, the company did not include basic folder access in the new apps, thus resulting in a great deal of app switching between Drive and Docs, for instance. For me, the grading process became more difficult, and I had thought about going to Office for iPad for the handling of all student work. After some time with Microsoft’s product (and a bevy of enhancements to it), I safely can say that Microsoft’s iPad suite officially is my favorite productivity bundle to use on my tablet. Microsoft has managed to take its full-blown Office suite and make it extremely tablet-friendly; this past Fall, it also made Office available for iPhone. Productivity fans rejoiced! Okay, that might be a stretch, but after it took the Seattle-based company some time to arrive at the party, Microsoft made great strides with its mobile products in a short amount of time. The most recent announcement involved allowing non-Office 365 users to create and edit documents on their iPads and iPhones, essentially rendering the apps free. I slowly am weaning my students off Google Docs and plan on embracing Office from hereon out. You should, too. Kudos to Microsoft for listening to their consumers!

My last tech note is somewhat of a plea: a plea for more teacher-centric apps, apps that make our job easier. For example, if there’s one app most teachers would want, it would be a calendar/attendance/lesson planning app. In all fairness, such an app already exists – it’s called iTeacherBook. I used it to help me track attendance for one of my sports teams but quickly found the app too buggy and lacking in updates. As you can see, the developers have not updated the app in over a year, instead spending their time on the student version (called iStudiezPro). While I understand the need to push the student app (a larger clientele means more money), teachers deserve just as much assistance with their daily tasks. While many corporate task managers are present in the App Store, how about one for teachers that hasn’t turned into a pumpkin?

Keeping on that same theme, I also have to take Blackbaud to task for its mishandling of an app for which I consulted. Our school uses Netclassroom and FAWeb, two products part of Blackbaud’s grading platform. While the web versions function pretty well, other companies have mobile apps that allow teachers and students to input information on the go. For example, if I was at a function and quickly wanted to input grades without turning on my computer, I theoretically could do so with other products, but not FAWeb. Last year, Blackbaud reached out to several individuals (I was one) and asked us to help them develop a mobile app, set to be released this year. Then, just as the app was taking shape, the company shelved it with no explanation or updates. In this day and age, every major educational company should have a mobile presence or run the risk of becoming yesterday’s news. Time to step up, Blackbaud!

Let the Christmas countdown commence…now!

O Captain! My Captain!

While most of my entries have been about technology, this one won’t have that focus. Instead, I want to reflect on and remember someone who influenced me as a teacher, someone who I never met but who brought out some of my best traits in the classroom.

Robin Williams.

And yes, if you guessed I mean his role as English teacher John Keating in the classic film Dead Poets Society, you are indeed correct. That role, that movie, profoundly influenced the teacher I am today. His energy, his flair for the dramatic, his humor in making a boring subject fun – fictional or not, Robin Williams played one hell of an English teacher. Who else could take Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” and make it so memorable? Ironically, one of the most moving parts of the film comes when Mr. Keating, along with his students, must cope with the suicide of one of his prized pupils. Williams’ character felt a sense of guilt for encouraging the student (Neil Perry) to follow his dream of acting, even though Neil’s father forbade it. That scene, among other ones, still gets me every time I show it to my students, and I have a feeling it will take on a greater meaning now.

Of course, there was more to Robin Williams than that one role. He was the actor who could make you bust a gut laughing in Good Morning, Vietnam or Mrs. Doubtfire, then bring you to tears in Good Will Hunting. Does anyone remember his portrayal of Popeye? Sure, the movie was iffy, but only he could even attempt to turn a cartoon character into a real-life, spinach-eating sailor man. The guy was pure genius, plain and simple. He had his share of duds, but who amongst us hasn’t experienced failure? I know I have, and I sure you have as well. Yet, for some reason, his failures ultimately led to the shocking news that he is no longer with us.

We have lost so many famous people over the past year, for all sorts of reasons. While I feel sorrow for any life lost, for some reason, this one has affected me more than others have. Maybe it’s for the reasons I stated above: his enduring presence in some of my favorite films. Or maybe it’s because he put on such a positive face in public when, in reality, he had been suffering from terrible depression in private, so much so that he felt trapped with no way out but one. Whatever the case, Robin Williams showed us happiness, showed us sadness, and – in his death – showed us his humanity, that even the best are, after all, human.

Carpe diem indeed.