Category Archives: Great Teachers

Great Teachers

A Child Struggles in School: Where Does the Problem Lie?

In a conversation recently with a caring, conscientious teacher, she commented that she had success working with struggling learners and helping to make them feel smart.

But when they got to the next grade and perhaps had a teacher that wasn't as effective at reaching those children, or perhaps thought there was a pace for learning and students should stick to it, or perhaps simply saw the onus for learning as being on the student, the students really struggled again.

She worried that perhaps she had led those students to have an unrealistic view of themselves by not being more up front with them about being struggling learners. She wondered, despite her success helping those students to learn, to feel successful, and to feel smart, if she shouldn't be more direct with them about being struggling learners, to prepare them for possible pain and disappointment later.

And I caught myself wondering, is the problem that each child isn't where the school is in the curriculum?

Or is the problem that the school isn't where the child is in the curriculum?


We Thought We Were Pretty Good Tech Integrators, Until We Met Jennie

Our team of technology integrators is very experienced and does great work. At least we thought so, until we met Jennie Magiera. 😉

Jennie works with teachers in Chicago Public Schools on leveraging technology to engage and motivate students, as well as strengthen their learning. We were fortunate enough to have her join us for last year's Leveraging Learning Institute: iPads in Primary Grades. She not only keynoted, but led several sessions, collaborated with participants, and worked closely with our middle grades twitter reporters. She even convinced us all (in the middle of the Institute!) that a panel of our student reporters should do one of the evening keynotes! (We took her advice, and the kids were great!)

Her energy and positive attitude are contagious (although there is a chance that the Energizer Bunny is exhausted by having her around!), and her great ideas about teaching with technology are so numerous, you just can't try them all at once.

But that's ok. Take your time. It's worth the investment of practice and the effort to make them part of your repertoire.

This is her keynote from last year. Her slides are here. I hope you get as much out of it as we did.


The Leveraging Learning Institute highlights Auburn's experience and “lessons learned” from the country's first district-wide 1to1 iPads in primary grades initiative, and helps participants learn how to successfully design and implement an iPad initiative to customize learning for students. This year's Institute is Wednesday Nov. 13 through Friday November 15, and registration is currently open.


It’s a Matter of Using the Right Prompt: The Words of Gary Stager

This week, both Gary Stager and I were featured speakers at the Association for Independent Maryland and DC Schools’ (AIMS) technology conference.

Gary is an old friend and colleague, who has a long history of working with 1to1 learning with laptop schools (including the very first, in Australia) and with other schools interested in leveraging technology for learning and in constructivist learning. He clearly loves children and everything he advocates for schools is based on creating better experiences (especially learning experiences) for children. He is provocative and takes on a lot of populist education ideas with a very common sense approach. He always leaves his audience thinking.

What follows are some of the ideas and quotes Gary shared in his sessions at the AIMS conference.

  • The secret to engaging students is using the right prompts. A good prompt is worth a 1000 words – a good prompt, challenge, problem, or motivation; appropriate materials; sufficient time; supportive culture (including expertise) – kids can do works that is beyond them. Good prompts require a really different educational environment, one that values the kinds of things that Reggio Amelia values.
  • Gary has several articles on effective PBL on his “virtual handout.” (among other great resources)
  • We have to think less about teaching how to do computers, or about working at someone else’s pace. We need to stop teaching secretarial skills. We need good prompts. We need to teach students to use the computer to create what they want to create.
  • Alan Kay – the computer is simply an instrument whose music is ideas.
  • Gary’s only rule when he is working with students – you have to be doing something.
  • Teacher as “Ringmaster”
  • “Students will do it for themselves, when it matters to them, but not when it is arbitrary or coercive” – Gary Stager
  • Less us, more them
  • Gary likes it when schools/classrooms focus their work with children by asking the question, “What are the 5 big ideas of your grade level or course?”
  • Some of Gary’s recipe for being successful with students: Being sensitive to the passions, talents, and styles of kids. Being receptive to the learning differences of kids. If you are doing active learning activities, then you can get to know kids.
  • The best decisions about education are made closest to the child.
  • What if we simply reduced it all to waking up every morning and asking, “How do we make this the best 7 hours possible for these children?”
  • The biggest problem we have in school is we don’t get to know the kids and everything is taught disconnected from everything else. That’s followed by not trying to make things interesting for students, not finding out what is of interest or a passion to the students, not having resources, not letting students do things.
  • Gary on why teachers need lots of PD that puts them in different learning environments as learners: People can’t choose from what they haven’t experienced

Correct Answers vs. Building Understanding: What Do Learners Need?

My step-son, Sam, is one of those otherwise bright students who struggles with math. Back when he was in high school, his mom asked me to help him. He had gotten a question wrong on a Geometry quiz and didn’t understand the correct answer. My wife hoped that since I was a former high school math teacher that I could help him out.

The question was, “What is the intersection of two planes?”

He told me that he had answered that the intersection was a point, since only lines intersect. Sam went on, “I went in to ask my teacher about the question, but she just kept giving me the right answer. I really don’t understand it at all.”

“So, you’ve only talked about lines intersecting?”

Sam nodded.

“And you haven’t really talked at all about planes and how they intersect?”

Sam shook his head.

“Then I could see why you thought it was a point,” I told him. “But look at this.” His notebook was on the kitchen counter where we were talking and I said, “Let’s say this is one of the planes,” while tapping his notebook. I grabbed a magazine, saying it was the other plane. I held the spine of the magazine at an angle against the face of Sam’s notebook.

“How do these two planes come together? What kind of geometric shape?” I asked.

Sam got one of those “Oh, my gosh! Is it that simple?!” looks on his face and said it was a line.

Now, there was nothing wrong with the teacher asking the plane intersection question without first modeling it for students. It is a great way to have students apply the concept of intersection of geometric shapes and see if they really understand it. And the teacher was a kind and knowledgeable math teacher.

But students who struggle with a subject need more than just someone who is sensitive and kind and knowledgeable. Sam needed more than the correct answer. I think teachers who are intuitive mathematicians (or social scientists, or literacy specialists, or scientists) know their subjects in an intuitive way that makes it hard for them to explain ideas to students who do not understand their subject intuitively.

When students get an incorrect answer, it is too easy for teachers who understands their content intuitively to assume that the student simply made a mistake (perhaps in calculating), or didn’t study hard enough, or is simply a slow student in their subject.

What they don’t understand is that more often than not, a student’s wrong answer is actually a correct answer within the student’s current (but incorrect) schema for the topic – the student’s internal model that tells him how things work.

If the teacher’s goal is to have the student understand the material correctly, then simply offering the correct answer is less productive than trying to understand the student’s misconception and then think of an example or a way to model the material that will create a bridge between the student’s misunderstanding and the correct understanding.

Sam’s schema said only lines intersect and he knew that lines intersect in a point. We could either stop with proving that Sam was wrong by giving him the correct answer, or we could work to understand his thinking so we could lead him in the right direction.

I don’t blame the teacher. She simply did what I did when I was a math teacher. It wasn’t until long after I stopped teaching math and became of student of learning that I grew to understand this principle.

How much more effective would our teaching be if we approached our students’ incorrect answers as misconceptions rather than missing information?


Remembering Gordon Vars, One of the Grandfathers of Middle Level Education

I’ve been lucky enough to work with a couple of the people I consider to be the modern founders of middle level education. One of those is Gordon Vars, professor emeritus at Kent State University.

How I knew him was through his decades long work on “Core Curriculum.” This isn’t the way we mean “core curriculum” now. In fact, the irony is that the “new” meaning of core curriculum is the four “core” subjects. But the historic meaning of Core Curriculum is something more akin to curriculum integration, teaching students through activities that blend content from the various subjects. (One of my favorite analogies is when you order a pizza, they don’t put just sauce on 2 slices, just cheese on 2 slices, just pepperoni on 2 slices and just mushrooms on 2 slices. They put it all on every slice.)

Core Curriculum was used quite a bit in the first half of the 20th Century. In fact, Core Curriculum was studied pretty closely in the 30s and early 40s and was found to be significantly more effective than the separate subject approach, including for things that we have always assumed separate subject approach was better at, such as college preparation. These results were published as The Eight Year Study.

I think of Gordon Vars as the shepherd of Core Curriculum. As others reinvented it as Integrative Curriculum (including James Beane and Maine’s own Gert Nesin), Gordon reminded us of the historical foundations on which that work was based. He was a gentle man who was always willing to share his expertise and empower others to succeed.

Gordon Vars died Tuesday night (1/31/12) after being hit by a car while walking home from choir practice. He was 88. I feel honored to have known him and to have had the opportunity to have collaborated with him in a couple small ways. Core Curriculum and Integrative Curriculum have contributed greatly to my interest in motivation and contributed to the kind of educator I try to be today. Gordon will be greatly missed for his contributions to Core Curriculum, and to the Association for Middle Level Education.

(Cross posted at the Bright Futures blog and the Multiple Pathways blog.)

It’s Your Turn:

How will you remember Gordon Vars?

Tammy Ranger Receives Middle Level Teaching Award

For more than 10 years, I’ve been married to one of the best teachers I know, Tammy Ranger (of course, that is purely a professional opinion!).

On October 21, I was honored to be with her attending the annual conference of the Maine Association for Middle Level Education (MAMLE), where she was awarded the Janet Nesin Reynolds Outstanding Middle Level Educator Award.

According to MAMLE’s website, the Board of Directors calls for nominations for the Janet Nesin Reynolds Outstanding Middle Level Educator Award recognizing the work of educators who exemplify the five core values of MAMLE:

  • Meets the developmental needs of young adolescents
  • Promotes local professional development
  • Promotes a healthy work environment for both students and teachers
  • Exemplifies high standards based on research
  • Invites active participation by students, parents, and/or community

The award is named for Janet Nesin Reynolds, who was the kind of middle grades teacher all our middle schools need more of.

Tammy was nominated by her principal at Skowhegan Area Middle School, where she has not only been a highly effective literacy teacher, but has taken lead on school and district literacy initiatives, and led numerous professional development opportunities for her colleagues. Numerous parents report that, after having Tammy as a teacher, their children now like to read. She and her teaching partner enjoy some of the highest lexile gains of any teachers involved in the Read 180 program in Maine. Tammy has also taught university education courses on literacy, where she earned high marks from her students and was often requested as a professor. Tammy both has her Masters Degree in Literacy and is National Board Certified in Middle Grades literacy.

Left to right: Tammy Ranger, Gert Nesin (Janet’s sister), Commissioner of Education Stephen Bowen, MAMLE President Sandy Nevins

It’s Your Turn:
Who are the educators in your life who have made a difference? How did they impact you?

What does make a great teacher?

I first got to know Audrey Watters when she worked for ISTE. Now she’s a freelance writer and blogger. Today she wrote a tribute to her favorite teacher, Mr. Callahan. Audrey goes so far as to say that Mr. Callahan is the best teacher she ever had.

In reflecting on this wonderful teacher, she repeatedly makes the point that what made Mr. Callahan a great teacher was not the kinds of things that officials are talking about using to measure the greatness of teachers.

What if we were going to make our own rubric for measuring the greatness of a teacher… What are the criteria we would measure? What makes the best teachers we ever had the best?

Please leave your thoughts as comments.

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad