It has been a long time since I've blogged.  I think that comes from the business of my schedule as the year wore on.  Patching together two part time education jobs, for about 13 hours a day, as well as trying to maintain some semblance of progress on my online Masters degree left me with little time for everything else.  I stopped blogging, I stopped tweeting, and I stopped pretty much everything else non-essential.  It is now summer time and I actually logged into twitter again today.  I am also blogging for the first time in ages.  What I would really like to talk about is the real spur to getting back into the metaphorical saddle of connecting with fellow educators.

Towards the end of June I was able to participate in a four day workshop with fellow educators to learn to effectively use the Library of Congress website.  There were eighteen of us ranging from a third grade teacher to secondary teachers, with the majority probably being in the middle school bracket.  Over the course of the first couple of days we were led through some of the features that the website,, has to offer.  The focus was on primary sources and how they can be used in the classroom.  We then had a few days off with the goal of writing a lesson plan based on primary sources we found on the website.  

When we came back, we had two days to present, discuss, and tweak our lesson plans, which will be posted here:  Every lesson plan idea I saw was solid and many were excellent.  I was reminded once again how great it is to work with, have discussions with, and collaborate with other educators, which led me back to my #edchats and blogging.  Thanks to all the great folks at the workshop for reminding me of that.

As a note about the workshop, I found good and bad in dealing with the Library of Congress website.  There is a ton of great information and primary sources available there.  That said, they are still working on ease of use as they continue to digitize thousands upon thousands of primary sources.  The search tool functions much like Google, but doesn't do as good of a job of sifting useable results for you.  It can be better to go to Google Advanced, tell it to search just, and then type your search term.  There are already a lot of great lessons already planned for teachers on the site.   If you would like to plan your own, be careful in choosing a topic.  The first topic I looked at had very little in the way of useable primary sources.   The second topic had so much that I would have spent hours looking through everything.  My third topic choice was a great fit, and I think led to a pretty good, useable lesson.  As always, feel free to comment, tweet, or e-mail me in response to this post.
Its been over a week now since I've blogged.  We're only on post #5 and I've already broke my self-imposed, blog once a week rule.  I guess that's the way it goes.  I've had lots of things floating around in my head that I would like to "get onto paper" so to speak.  I've decided that I'll hit a couple of those ideas today and then do some more later.  The first part will be some thoughts on grading, assessment, and grade segregation based on a particular situation I am currently dealing with, and then I have a few thoughts on #edchat, #ntchat, #sschat, #mathchat, etc. that I wanted to share.

Part 1:  How is our current model of assessment, grading, and grade structure by age helping our students?  The quick answer is that its not.  I'd like to very generally and vaguely describe a situation I'm dealing with to elucidate my thoughts on this issue.  I am currently in a long term substitute teaching position.  There is one student with whom I deal extensively who is having a great deal of difficulty with grade level mathematics concepts.  This issue is further compounded by the fact that the student has only very basic English skills due to only having been in the US for a short period of time.  This student is a diligent worker, always tries hard in class, asks for and receives both content and language support, is a real pleasure to have in class, but just doesn't seem to be mastering the grade level concepts at this point.

The way our education system is currently set up, this student is not being successful.  The student may be "held back" in this subject and have to repeat the material.  There is a stigma attached to this, which will likely feel like a punishment to the student.  Why should that be the case?  The student is doing everything they are supposed to be doing.  I know from my own experience that sometimes it takes me a long time to master a particular mathematical concept.  Trigonometry made little sense to me in high school, but when I tackled it again later in college, it came pretty easily.  I think it was a matter of being ready for the material.  Why should students be punished for something they just aren't ready to master yet?

So the big question is, what is the solution.  I don't claim to have the answers, but here are a few (radical) thoughts.  I think we need to move away from grades segregated by age.  We all develop differently.  We're all ready for different things at different times.  We need to acknowledge that.  Groupings should be based on where each student is in understanding and should be malleable between disciplines.  We can have a student doing higher math and lower reading or vica versa.  We need to structure it to take the stigma away from not being on par with your age group.  Part of that is taking away the grades as we know them.  Instead, lets provide relevant authentic feedback to our students.  Lets let them chase their own interests and use those to introduce them to necessary skills and knowledge.  Let them drive their own learning and be the guides to help them through.

Part 2:  Some brief comments about #chats and why they are important to me.  In many ways, I often find it difficult to view myself as a real teacher.  I have never yet held or been offered a full time teaching position.  I substitute teach and teach part time in an evening alternative program where the students are getting all their curriculum from a computer program.  I have great interactions and many teachable moments, but it is not how I would run my classroom by choice.  I love my students and have a great staff and administration to collaborate with, but I'm not really teaching the way I want to teach.  For me, #chats are giving me an outlet to share my educational ideas.  They help make me feel relevant by reminding me that I'm not alone in my ideas or in my less than ideal situation.  I feel a part of a greater educational community.  In short, I think #chats are helping to keep me from burning out.  Thanks to all the people out there that I've been able to collaborate with.  I really a
The subject of assessment is something I'm still processing.  I'm not sure I (or probably anyone else) knows the right answer to the best way to deal with assessment in the classroom.  I like a tweet I saw a couple of weeks ago.  I apologize that I can't seem to find the tweet itself to share the direct quote or the author.  If you are the tweeter and you read this, please feel free to let me know and I'll edit this to give proper credit.  The tweet basically said that assessment is something you do with students, not to students.  I understood this to mean that assessment needs to be an ongoing process by which you work with students to help them grow to better understanding, strategies, and artifacts.

I think I would love to run a classroom that did not rely on tests, quizzes, etc in order to assess student understanding.  I would rather rely on authentic assessments.  These include, but are not limited to, items created by students (papers, power-points, drawings, songs, poems, etc), observations of interactions of students with each other, with resources, and with the teacher, relevant comments by students, etc.  I like these types of assessments and methods of assessing, because I feel that they more accurately present what the student has learned, is learning, and is still grappling with.  I believe that standardized tests, quizzes, classroom tests, etc tend to lead to a "memorize and dump" response.  There have been innumerable occasions when I have found that students, even those who had done really well on a recent test, no longer knew the material that the test had covered.

I think a portfolio approach would be possible, whereby each student would have a portfolio of completed artifacts that showed their level of understanding of the material being studied.  I believe this would also allow the students to demonstrate integrated knowledge of the material being covered and the forum with which they choose to cover it.  I also believe that this more closely mimics the way students will be asked to prepare items in most careers they will go into. 

One big question I have if there is no testing is what happens when it comes time for College admission.  Would this make it more difficult for a student to get into college, or a particular college?  It probably would, at least to begin with.  However, if we can work up the line to begin having conversations with colleges, I believe a workable solution could be found.  I would love to have a conversation about this issue and encourage you to leave comments to help me have that conversation.  Thanks for reading.
One of the criticisms I have heard about constructivism is that students are allowed to much freedom and discipline is impossible to maintain.  I would argue that, while students are given more freedom, discipline is easier to maintain once the classroom is fully functioning.  As I said in an earlier blog, the teacher must be patient, especially at the beginning of the process, as students are not used to this type of classroom.  In addition to teaching students how to behave in a constructivist classroom, the teacher needs to help students unlearn classroom behaviors taught in past years of schooling.  The key to being successful is to develop relationships with students and to help them develop relationships with each other.

I believe that classroom management is much easier if you are connected to your students regardless of the type of classroom you are in.  I remember having to step in front of a high school student who was bigger than I am in order to prevent a fight from starting.  He stopped immediately and stepped outside of the room we were in.  Later he told me that the only reason he stopped was because of the respect he had for me.  If I hadn't built that relationship, violence between students would have occurred.  I'm in my sixth year as the night school teacher at my program and I have never had an incidence of violence in the night program.  I attribute this to the relationships I have been able to build.

In order to build relationships with my students, I make an effort to get to know them as real people.  I ask them about what is going on in their lives.  We talk about music, movies, books, etc.  We talk about what they did on the weekend.  I also let them see me as a real person.  I talk with them about what is going on in my life.  I share my excitement and frustrations about what is going on with my family with them.  I talk about the music, movies, books, etc. that I like.  Once these connections are built, it is much easier to help students stay on task.  They respond much better to me when I speak to them.

There are several specific processes for building group dynamics mentioned in the books listed in my second post.  I especially recommend the book by Richard and Patricia Schmuck for how to build the dynamics of a constructivist classroom.  I won't go through all of these here, but I do want to share a few general highlights:
  • start by working on creating those relationships; content is secondary in the early days
  • develop specific group roles and procedures and consciously teach those to your students
  • assign specific roles within those groups
  • develop class rules with your students instead of for them
  • provide them procecures and opportunities for working through their own problems


Given time to learn how things work in a constructivist classroom, students will, I believe, thrive.  They will actively manage more of their own discipline with continued instructor guidance.  They will, I believe, accept the new freedom by actively taking on the increased responsibility which must come with it
In my first post, I mentioned that I consider myself a constructivist as an educator, and it has occurred to me that not everyone knows what that means.  Some may also have a misguided understanding of constructivism.  I was at a conference recently where I overhead another educator say the word as if it left a bad taste in her mouth.  I hope to be able to clearly share my views of constructivism and why I believe in constructivism as a teaching method.

I remember being involved in a class discussion in an education class early in my undergrad program.  The professor was sharing with us a variety of different educational philosophies.  Of these, two really stuck out to me.  The first of these is behaviorism and the second is constructivism.  Behaviorism centers around the belief that it is the teachers job to fill the students with knowledge.  Students are essentially viewed as empty vessels which need to be filled with everything the state decides is important.  This is essentially how much of education has been done in past century or so and most often how it continues to be done in today's classroom.  Students come in, are asked to intake (learn) all the knowledge the teacher has to give them, and then regurgitate it for the test.

Constructivism starts from a different place.  To a constructivist, a student already comes to the classroom with a quantity of knowledge, often on the material to be learned in class.  The instructors role is then to help the student find that knowledge, bring it to the surface, connect with it and build on it.  Much of constructivist theory comes from the work of psychologists Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky.  From them comes the concepts of surfacing prior knowledge, which is this tapping into what students already know, the zone of proximal development, which is the range of activities that a child can complete independently, and scaffolding, which refers to working with individual students to help build up from where they are to where they need to be.  Some modern educators who have helped me greatly in understanding what is important in the classroom include Richard and Patricia Schmuck with their book Group Processes in the Classroom and Nancy Atwell with her book In the Middle.

Here are some other random thoughts about constructivism and what it means:
  • a constructivist teacher is more facilitator and collaborator than authoritarian and lecturer
  • a constructivist classroom looks very different from a traditional classroom
  • a constructivist classroom is more student driven and less teacher driven
  • a constructivist classroom provides opportunities and resources, not facts and knowledge
  • assessment looks very different in a constructivist classroom
  • you need patience to build a constructivist classroom, because you have to unteach traditional methods before you can have full student buy-in into constructivist methods
  • classroom management is based on building relationships, mutual trust, and respect with your students instead of on authoritarian power
  • in my experience, learners retain better what they learn, when they learn in a constructivist manner
Thanks for taking the time to read my blog.  I encourage you to comment, share, question, and engage with me on this issue, whether you agree or not.  More will be coming soon on some concrete ideas of what an ideal classroom lo
Last night, in between helping students with their independent, online curriculum, (always my first priority) I was able to read a few and write a few tweets to contribute to an #edchat.  One of the issues we discussed was how to continue to collaborating and sharing in our awesome #edchat group and beyond.  One of the ideas discussed was to blog about ideas, struggles, innovations, best practices, etc.  Since I was one of those tweeting this as a good idea, I figure that I better be blogging myself.  So here is my first education blog.  I'm pretty new to this, so I think I'll give try to give some brief insight into who I am and what I do, as well as a few random educational thoughts.

To begin with, my name is Rick Jackson.  I teach at an evening program at an Alternative High School in Michigan.  I am currently the only teacher in the program.  The students use a web-based online curriculum program to learn and complete classes.  I am there to maintain order and to help on a one on one basis.  I graduated with a major in US HIstory and a minors in Sociology and Education from a small liberal arts college near St. Louis, MO.  I went back a couple of years later to finish the requirements to be a certified teacher after I was sure that's what I wanted to do.  I'm currently in a Master's of Teaching Mathematics at an online university.  In addition to the part time evening position, I substitute teach nearly every day.  

I consider myself a constructivist at heart and always seek to meet the needs of my students.  I think we should begin with where our students are.  I hear a lot of lip service about putting the student first, but I'm not convinced that everybody means it.  I believe in building a collaborative relationship with your students and then helping them become passionate, lifelong learners.  I was inspired by EdCamp Grand Rapids a week or so ago and hope to have an opportunity to really put some of what I learned into practice.  My situation is such that I am not in a classroom where I can do too much.  I'm pretty locked into the format we have, because of the nature of my program.  That said, I am playing around with small things and trying to keep myself growing, so that I can hit the ground running when I'm given the opportunity.  I hope to continue collaborating with fellow educators for the betterment of our students and educational system.  Feel free to let me know what you think.  Thanks.