Monday, January 27, 2014

Nathan, Future Poet Laureate of Kentucky

I am celebrating my 20th year of teaching by profiling former students who are doing great things in their field. As I've watched them grow into adults, I have been impressed with an aspect of their lives and want to share them with you. I fully recognize that I was merely a small part in their growth and development, but I can't help to be proud. By highlighting these former students I hope to encourage other teachers that what we do is a noble and worthy cause. We have the ability to boost others to greatness we have never considered. 

Ethan Watching a Storm
Nathan R. Petrie
Purple lightning tears into the night
like thorns tore his shorts last week.
And while the bushes hid poison—spiders
and ivy—this thunder sucks
his fingers to the glass, his head past
the curtain, his eyes through the mist.
He holds his breath
to keep the glass clear and shouts between the brilliance
and the pounding of the storm. His heart drums in time
with the percussive drops. “Wow! Did you see that?”
Watching him hug the window, I see
lightning for the first time. Not electrons, static, or fear.
I see Zeus in his anger, hear God bowl a strike.
How do you write about a writer? As I sit here and try to come up with a way to start this post, I realize that the subject of it will critique every phrase.  This is a difficult task.  I thought that starting it off with one of his poems would make it easier, but...well…this is daunting. I guess I’ll just start.
Nathan is in his second semester, and a Sophomore, at the University of Kentucky.  (l guess AP credits really do help speed up the process.) Let me say that he is one busy person, an English major, writer and editor for a satirical paper, social media director for a literary journal, a member of the Wildcat Marching Band, part of the UK Baptist Ministry, and a member of a three-man literary critiquing team.   I’m surprised he had time to respond to my questions. In reality, he’s living life with 60,000 of his classmates, getting to know people, building his resume, and gaining experience.  

Since Nathan lives with Asperger’s Syndrome, he knows that meeting people is not always his strong suit.  However, he’s taken that disadvantage and turned it around to an advantage.  He admittedly gets super involved so he can force himself into making friends, which is commendable.  “Meeting people and making friends, as you probably know, isn’t my strong area. I figure if I shove my nose into enough places, people will have to like me.”

Nathan attributes a lot of his current successes to his parents and the Kentucky Governor’s School for the Arts.  He claims that his parents worked hard and hounded him about grades from the beginning.  That work ethic paved the way to be accepted into the GSA program.  His three weeks in Lexington during the summer of 2012 changed his life. Not only did this lead to some great scholarships but so much more.

I went in 2012 for creative writing and after three weeks I left a completely different person. Not only did I learn a lot about writing—I understood poetry better, for example—but I learned a lot about people and myself. The 22 writers I lived with at GSA forever instilled in me a passion for honest language and the change that can produce.
Really, GSA is what got me where I am today. Scholarships, community, know-how. It’s all stuff I need, and I use the skills I learned there on a regular basis. I know practical ways to build a career in the literary world now, and I’ve got no one to thank but GSA.

I’m thrilled to know that Nathan also gave me credit for his knowledge of grammar. My previous school pushed grammar hard, using Shurley English as our curriculum. After transferring to public school in 8th grade, Nathan came to realize that he understood the syntax of English much better than his peers.  We also shared some literary love.  Unbeknownst to me, I got him started on the Ted Dekker’s Circle Trilogy, and has enjoyed Dekker’s writing for some time since.

If you know many writers, you know they just feel things and express things differently than most of us non-writers.  I love this response to my question about future plans.

I want to publish a collection of poetry and I want to write and publish a novel. I want to lead someone to Christ (side note, it hurts so much to pray years for someone and see no is painful sometimes). I want to graduate with honors. I want to get accepted into an MFA program and graduate successfully. I want to go to Oxford, buy a drink from the Eagle and Child, open a copy of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and cry. I want to write a screenplay—I’d love to write for TV. I want to be Poet Laureate of KY.

I asked Nathan to participate in this blog series because -- to the best of my knowledge -- he is my only former student who is a published author. He wrote and published a collection of short stories as an 8th grader and he is on pace to do bigger and better things in the future. Ironically, I had no idea till we started this project together that this foray into published writing is actually a source of contention with him. Without going into details, let’s just say that Nathan learned a lot about choosing publishers wisely and came out with a better understanding of the workings of the publishing world.

Nathan was a Christian fantasy writer, but now he writes narrative poetry. While he dabbled in poetry early on, it was really GSA that got him hooked.  It was there that he understood poetry.  “Poetry is simple and honest. Poems can offer novel-type insight in 14 lines. It's challenging and the payoff is tremendous.”
Of course, Nathan is more than a literary wonder. It’s been interesting to invite someone to this blog profile for one thing and learn much more about that person for instance…

I had the joy of introducing him to geocaching, which is a fun and geeky high-tech treasure hunt game. One summer, I hosted a geocaching camp, where a group of 7 students and 2 adults ran all over Northern Kentucky looking for objects hidden in the woods.  It was great fun, and Nathan took that home to his family.  His father is now a cacher and they enjoy doing that together.

As a pastor’s son, Nathan enjoys making his faith his own, and learning in another setting. In fact, it seems that Nathan is always learning and growing.  There is an alarmingly large number of kids who grow up in the church and walk away from it in college or young adulthood. Nathan is dead-set against becoming one of those young adults.  

Getting away from home, where my Dad has been a pastor for almost my whole life, I’m finally getting to discover my faith first hand. There’ve been times where I’ve felt closer to God, but I’m understanding now that as real as it all was, I’m for the first time understanding and applying the Gospel to my life. I’m glad God chose now to show up in a huge way. I never wanted to be part of the statistic of college kids who leave the faith.

As a male elementary teacher, I have always recognized that I had a special place in kids’ lives, but I guess I don’t see and really know it every day.  Nathan and his parents were unaware of his Asperger’s in elementary school, so I just knew Nathan as a somewhat awkward boy who was trying to fit in to school.  (Of course, what 12 year old boy isn’t awkward in some way?)  I was stunned when I read this.

I was a very different person in elementary and middle school. Very shy, very awkward. I’m still learning about who I was. I thought I was funny, likeable, and all that nonsense. I’m understanding now how blind I was. I was sooooo scared of people. My Asperger’s, still undiagnosed, controlled me until high school. I latched onto people that accepted me and who were better than me—Orry especially. I definitely put you on a pedestal too. You were my first male teacher and so one of my first male role models besides my dad. I don’t have local uncles or local involved grandparents so you were a rare role model in my life. Looking for someone to shape myself after, you were high on that list. So, thanks for being you and putting time into me inside and outside the classroom at things like Geocaching week. Meant more to an impressionable, lonely 6th grader than you might’ve thought.

Lesson learned: As a teacher, you never know the impact you may have on students.  Love on all of them!  
Some fun facts:
1. Nathan told me, “I learned the expression, ‘dry humor’ from you, and decided it was my favorite kind.”
2. One of my favorite Nathan memories… We were out caching one day, and he and a friend were in my back seat, when Nathan discovered a tick on him.  He was a bit freaked out and tried throwing it out the window.  Either he was riddled with ticks or he never succeeded in getting it out the window, but he spent about 10 minutes trying to become tick-free.  I dropped him off at home with the recommendation that he run to the shower.
3.  Nathan was my dog Mandy’s last dogsitter. >sigh< Mandy is now in Doggy Heaven, but I don’t blame Nathan one little bit.

I’m really excited to see what’s in Nathan’s future. One day, and probably quite soon, we’ll be able to go to Barnes and Noble to pick up a copy of one of his books.  I’ll be in line for a signature!

Friday, January 17, 2014

A New Batch of Innovation

It's a new semester, which means a new round of middle school technology students... and new Innovation Projects.

We started simply with students spending Wednesday and Thursday thinking about project ideas.  We talked about how much of school, students are forced to learn about things they are not interested in.  While we hope students learn to care about such things... well... you know.  I promised them one hour a week when they get to learn about what they want to learn about.  I got excited as I talked about my passions of adoption, gardening, and writing, and wishing I had more time to devote to them. (Maybe I should write an iBook while they work.)

I had them read through this document and this one too to get their brains rolling. Then, we exchanged emails back and forth taking their ideas and crafting them into something they could feasibly accomplish and we could track measurable growth.

As I worked on contracts today, the students worked diligently.  I did not have to get on them one time about behavior.  Everyone was working on their project!

Once a student and I agreed on the project and the goals, I printed out two copies of a contract.  We each signed the copies and kept them for future reference.

Here are the projects we'll see in action this quarter:

  • A website dedicated to basketball (including pics and videos).
  • A website dedicated to cats (including an informational page).
  • A video montage of sports clips, including original Dubstep music as the soundtrack.
  • A website dedicated to Balisong flipping. (Don't try this at home, kids!)
  • A Revolutionary War blog
  • A YouTube video of a walk-through of Skyrim.
  • A MineCraft version of the Pentagon. 
  • A MineCraft amusement park with rides and games.
  • A video game made from scratch using C++ (We have a backup plan if/when he realizes this one is over his head.) 
  • A Lego stop animation video, editing videos together and adding sound
  • A MineCraft version of the Empire State Building
This is going to be fun! 

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Alyssa, Much More Than Just Cereal

I am celebrating my 20th year of teaching by profiling former students who are doing great things in their field. As I've watched them grow into adults, I have been impressed with an aspect of their lives and want to share them with you. I fully recognize that I was merely a small part in their growth and development, but I can't help to be proud. By highlighting these former students I hope to encourage other teachers that what we do is a noble and worthy cause. We have the ability to boost others to greatness we have never considered.

I bumped into Alyssa’s dad last fall, and we both had one of those, “Hey, I know you,” moments. We quickly started chatting and catching up on life, and like any proud dad, he lit up when I asked him about his family.

Let’s just say that Alyssa is a multi-faceted young lady.  While I reached out to her based on her future career, her answers show that we are more than our jobs -- an important thing to remember once in a while.

I am coming up on my final semester at Morehead State. I am majoring in Business with an International Management focus. My last semester is going to be pretty enjoyable, I took a lot of credits my sophomore and junior year, so my senior year would be easier. I’m going to be taking piano, singing in the Black Gospel Ensemble and doing ceramics along with my classes for my major.

I currently work for the school as a tutor. I tutor business courses, writing, English as a second language, Gen-eds, and other random classes I’ve taken. I already have a job lined up at Kellogg Company, which I will be starting after I graduate.

Piano, Black Gospel Ensemble, ceramics, tutoring… Not exactly what I thought I would get as an answer, but I’ve come to realize that Alyssa enjoys diverse things in her life. As it turns out, she decided to make college a time of exploration, mixing in some fun things that didn’t count toward her major.  So, she’s learned about Photoshop and app development along with her international business studies. After taking three ceramics classes, she has learned to love making pottery and now even has a pottery wheel to continue her hobby after graduation. Morehead sits in rural Eastern Kentucky, a gorgeous part of a beautiful state. So, she also spent a lot of time hiking the mountains, swimming in the big lake, and doing some rock climbing.  (Just thinking about it, makes me long for another camping trip down there, but enough about me.)

Alyssa chose to focus on international business because she really enjoys travelling.  When I first reached out to her, she was in France.  I thought for sure it would have something to do with the international flavor of her studies, but in reality she took part of her Christmas Break to go visit a friend who lives in Paris. So, I asked her where she’s traveled.  Here’s her answer.

I've traveled to the Dominican Republic (Mission Trip), Uganda (Mission Trip), Africa (Mission Trip), Canada (Mission Trip), South Korea (Study Abroad), and Paris, France (Fun Trip). I've also had the pleasure of traveling the U.S. which is pretty cool in a lot of places.

Of course, I perked up when I read South Korea, having travelled there to adopt our daughter. It was interesting to hear that she was in Korea for four months learning culture and language and enjoying the awesome food!

I don’t know about you, but I got my first job AFTER I graduated from college, not two semesters BEFORE graduation.  So, I was shocked when I first heard that Alyssa was hired by Kellogg’s so far in advance of her big day which was the main reason for me asking Alyssa to participate in this blog series.

I applied to a ton of companies throughout the fall and spring of my sophomore and junior year, and landed a summer internship with Kellogg Company. After working with them for the summer and completing a project that I presented to corporate, they offered me a position; it was such a happy day for me knowing that I will have a job when I graduate! Hooray!

With a desire to see new places and meet new people, Alyssa requested to work in Oregon, Idaho, or Minnesota, where she will start out as a retail sales rep, managing 10-20 stores in a  territory.  This will involve ordering product, making sure it’s stocked, and working with store managers to work out promotions and optimum display space when possible.  She never expected to land at company like Kellogg’s, but she’s happy to be in a stable company and plans to make the best of it.

However, there are future goals that may or may not include ordering Froot Loops for the Walmart Supercenter in Mountain Home, Idaho. Eventually, after saving up enough money, Alyssa would love to start her own small business, boarding and grooming animals.  She absolutely loves animals, and is excited to begin planning to live that dream.  She says it’s a work in progress.

She also talked about building or renovating her house one day, thinking if they can do it on HGTV, then it can’t be THAT hard. She also is interested in finding a good church that connect her with Christian people her age.

I would like to find a church filled with people that I can truly connect with. My home church is really great, and filled with people that do love me, but I don’t feel a strong bond with the people my age, it’s mostly people that are much older than me that I talk to. I’d like to have a group of strong Christian friends that can grow with me spiritually, mentally and emotionally.

I’m always interested in students’ memories of our time together and how those memories affect these “kids” into adulthood.

Well, I only had you as a teacher for half a year, but it was a very productive half-year. I didn’t realize how well you had set me up for success in my English and writing. Of course I do get lazy with my English and grammar, shamefully so, but I have a good understanding of the way things should be thanks to you! The reason I said I never realized it is because I figured everybody had the same opportunities for education that I did, but after I started tutoring I quickly realized many people really have no idea how to write, much less what a verb, pronoun, or prepositional phrase are. I know that stuff, because you taught me songs to remember!

What’s funny is that during our conversations she would apologize for her bad grammar, and sadly it was lost on me.  I guess I should blame Twitter.  However, it’s great to know that what I used to teach 6th graders sunk in (with only a semester’s worth of work) and is now helping college students that I’ve never met.

I love that Alyssa has a diverse set of interests and it’s obvious that she strives to be the best she can be in all she does.  It’s been wonderful to reconnect with her, and I’m excited to see where she goes in life.  

Oh, and one more thing… Her favorite cereals are Rice Krispie Treats and Apple Jacks.  Mayb there be many free samples in your future!

Interactive Whiteboards?

My next big project at school this year is to observe and investigate how we are using our interactive white boards. During the summer, we used grant money to update our science labs, and this included the purchase of two 70 inch Sharp Aquos Interactive Whiteboards.  Personally, I'm not a fan of IWBs, as I know many of you are not as well.  I think they served their purpose years ago, but we have better technology available to us today to put interaction in the students' fingers rather than in front of the room.

Be that as it may, it's now my job to evaluate how we are using it and to see if we're just treating them as glorified projectors or Apple TVs.

Oh, and I was just informed that the next two boards we purchase will go in my computer labs, so I have duel interest in this conversation.  

Over the next couple of weeks, I am going to push finding information about how to use these boards to their fullest Web 2.0 limits.  If you have any ideas, please post them in the comments or contact me via email (cncdky at gmaildotcom) or Twitter.  

I will periodically update this post with ideas that roll in, so others can learn too. 

Personally, I want something like what you'd see on Hawaii Five-0 or NCIS: Los Angeles. 

Thanks for your help!

Some ideas:

Friday, January 10, 2014

Book Review: David and Goliath

You may think this is strange, but one of my favorite Christmas gifts was David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell.  While this book is not necessarily an education book, there are quite a few things that educators can glean from its pages.  So, I'm going to attempt my first book review on this blog and hope it goes well.

Main Idea: What appears to be an advantage is often times really a disadvantage. Conversely, what is viewed to be a disadvantage can be used as an advantage.  

More Detail:
1. Readers of the biblical account of David and Goliath may be surprised to know there are is historical and scientific data that could point to David's victory being not as miraculous as we once thought. 
2.  Too much of a good thing is really a bad thing.
3.  It's better to be a big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a big pond.  
4.  There are such things as desirable difficulties. 
5.  Leadership must be viewed as legitimate to have any success.

My Recommendation:
Read it! Gladwell does an amazing job of challenging conventional thinking. Many of his examples come directly from the world of education, which is a bonus.

---end of short version---

Spoilers: (Seriously. Don't read this section if you intend to read the book one day.)
1.  Goliath was infantry -- a foot soldier. He expected hand-to-hand combat with another infantryman. David was a projectile warrior -- an ancient version of our artillery. The goal of projectile warriors was to defeat infantrymen. David encountered Goliath in a totally relevant but unexpected way.  To make matters worse, there is evidence to point to Goliath having a medical malady called acromegaly, which causes gigantism and vision problems. Goliath in all of his massive glory was wholly unprepared to do battle with a wiry little teen with a slingshot and some rocks.
2.  Gladwell spoke quite a bit about an inverted U curve. Did you ever consider that you could have too much money? How do you raise your kids to value money like you did if your hard work made you a billionaire? Likewise, is it possible to have a class that's too small? More on this later.
3.  If given the chance, would you prefer to go to an Ivy League college or a state university?  The perception is that the more prestigious the school, the better your education.  Nope. We tend to compare ourselves to people around us, not to the population at large. Once you start to struggle at a top notch school, the tendency is to drop out (or transfer to an easier major).  The best road is to go to a mediocre school and excel there.
4.  We would all agree that dyslexia and the death of a parent at a young age are tough things to overcome. We wouldn't wish these problems on anyone. Our prisons are full of people who have suffered one of these problems.  However, many successful people in today's world can be linked to one of these problems. When we encounter difficulties in our lives, we have a choice: cope and be stronger or let it weaken you. Those who have learned to cope with it can achieve great things.
5.  There is a time and a place for rules and discipline.  However, a leader also must legitimize himself through fairness and caring. This applies to the classroom, police, and a military dealing with an uprising.

Still a spoiler... What would you consider to be the ultimate class size?  I've taught classes as small as four and as big as 26.  I figured the perfect class size to be 13-15.  Gladwell interviewed numerous teachers, and the overwhelming answer was 18 (and second place was 24).  We all know that with a very large class, there is too much activity, too much discipline, too much everything (including papers to grade).  When the class gets too small, students feel less compelled to speak up.  They have less connections in the classroom.  Just about every researcher agrees that the teacher makes all the difference. It's better to have a great teacher in a big class than a bad teacher in a small class. Solution? Fire the bad teachers and let the great ones do their thing.

Personal Reflections:
1. Gladwell certainly pointed out some major scientific and historic data to explain David and Goliath, making it seem less miraculous. However, I cannot discount the supernatural in the story. David attributed his skill to God and had great faith in the outcome. Maybe the rock wasn't supernaturally guided into Goliath's forehead (or maybe it was...), but God still enabled David to be David. Read the introduction of the book and the story in 1 Samuel and see what you think.
2.  There was a comment in the class size section about how a teacher teaches the smaller classes. If a teacher can adapt and adjust his teaching style with the smaller classes, they can be more effective. Do I adjust? Am I great, or at least good?
3. I teach at a private school.  The kids come from families that have much more money that my family does. They have nicer toys than me. Many of my colleagues are wives with husbands that make more money than me.  They do nicer things than me. My salary is nothing to get excited about, and my wife is a stay-at-home mom.  We both have part time jobs to pay the bills. It's easy to compare myself to those around me and feel poor.  The truth is that I am much more wealthy than a large percentage of the world's population.  It's all about perspective, my friends.
4. Desirable difficulties. I've been through some nasty junk in my life, and you may have been too. I'm  not happy about them, but James 1 talks about how these things make us stronger.  I recognize that I'm a better person for some of the journeys I've endured...but I don't know if I'd put the word "desirable" in front of them. Would you?
5.  I'm from Philadelphia originally.  I once was the Head Counselor of a camp in Oregon.  You can imagine that trucking in some dude from the other side of the country to lead the counselors didn't go over well. I flubbed it up by flexing my muscles on Day 1 and had some major push back from my counselors.  About a week later, I got into a pickup basketball game, and I had some supernatural skills that night. I'm normally a nominal (I'm being generous here) ballplayer but somehow that night I ruled the court. Most of my troubles went away that night and it was a great summer.  Why? I took time to become one of the guys, not some loudmouth from Philly who was only interested in abusing my power.

Applications for Education:
This book is laden with applications for educators.  You'll have to read it to get your own application.  However, here's what jumped out at me. 

I teach at a mid-sized private school.  From PreK through 12th grade, we have roughly 350 students. Last summer my daughter took swim lessons at our local public high school.  They had a big sign up about summer camp at the Academies of Innovation and Technology, and I drooled.  I immediately asked myself, "How can we do that at MVCA?"  The answer... We can't!

In some ways, comparing ourselves to the big public schools is akin to the small fish in a big pond syndrome.  There are some things those bigger schools can do because they have the personnel and the money and the talent pool.

Instead, we need to be like David.  We need to find ways to be innovative and different and still make a difference.

Update (January 13, 2014):
As a Christian who believes the Bible to be God's Word to us, I was interested in this book for more than the cool stories and applications for education.  I wanted to see what a non-Christian writer would do a classic Bible story that all church kids know from a very young age.  One thing I realized immediately was that Gladwell never called the story a myth or discounted the veracity of it. However, I was extremely excited to read this account in Relevant Magazine last night about how writing this book rekindled Gladwell's faith.  It's a great testimony to how people of faith living life (as difficult as it may be) in full view of the world can help spread the Word.  You can see open the article at the link below. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

I'd love to hear what you thought of the book! Drop a comment and let me know.