Saturday, September 10, 2016

My Life as an Author and Teacher: A Writers' Lens Interview

The field of education is as diverse as the students we teach. For the sake of steady employment it is necessary for teachers to pick one or two subjects and focus solely on them. As such, they will become experts in the field and sought after as good candidates. Although there is some security in focusing only on one or two subjects, creating a broader perspective beyond science, English, and math may be more beneficial in the long term. The more ways we can connect with our students, the better the probability we can reach them and encourage their learning engagement.

The art of teaching is, of course, a matter of style and preference. As such, I would never try to tell someone how they should conduct their classrooms anymore than I would tell a mother how to parent her child. But, suggestions might be made.

Slowly over time the articles you will find on this website will become more and more in depth once my experiences actually hit the classroom and full pedagogy immersion is achieved. 

One of my subjects that has been a life-long passion and is currently a focus is English and writing. I definitely dream of connecting with my students in the literary field - sitting down with them and dissecting the many times complicated English language and structure.  As a writer, I have a unique advantage with syntax,  editing, and content development which I can bring to the classroom. And so getting to know me personally may help in this endeavor. 

Recently I had an opportunity to meet T.W. Fendley at a St. Louis Writer's Guild event. Teresa is an award-winning author who writes within the genres of sci-fi and fantasy. Her books capture many fascinating elements like the Mayan civilization and the future worlds of the 31st century. You can explore her world at

After chatting with T. W., she invited me to be a guest on her blog. I invite you to explore her world through her publications of The Labyrinth of Time and Zero Time. Here are a couple videos to help you visualize her passion:

Giving our students a taste of modern writing is a fabulous thing because as authors we have access to all sorts of technology. In our day and age writers can bring their literary works to life in ways that have never been achievable in our entire human history. Like Teresa, I too hope to reach audiences young and old with the hopes of instilling this same passion. Here, as well, we have far greater opportunities to reach our students and audience.

I invite you to check out The Writers Lens blog interview of myself at this link:

Here is a little snippet of the article:

"What is your writing process? How do you balance writing with other aspects of your life? 

I am putting these two questions into the same answer block because they are definitely connected. I have a relatively large family with 6 children – 3 are still living at home. I work a full-time job as a chef in a local university and I have also been going to school to be a Middle School science teacher. I am a very happily-married man who is very fortunate to be able to walk this life with my soulmate. I maintain 3 blogs, a monthly newsletter, write professionally, and I am in the midst of 3 more books. My time is incredibly limited and must be strictly managed. Now, you may say, “You have far too much on your plate. Perhaps you should whittle things down and focus only on a couple items.” I could. But I am passionate about everything I do."

Monday, August 22, 2016

Successful Education Systems: An Unorthodox Approach in Finland

High School in Valkeakoski, Finland

Since I have decided to become a part of the education dynamo that perpetuates the learning of our children in the United States, I have continued to hear how broken and ineffective our system is compared to other models in the world. Changes are being made, though. We are moving away from the Common Core Standards that have been in effect since the George W. Bush administration and have set up different guidelines. For my state, the Missouri Standards are now the curriculum to implement in the classroom. 

I do agree that we need to continue to make improvements to our education system in a few major areas. Learning assessment, classroom management, and student engagement are at the top of this list. This article will present some of the issues that lie behind the scenes for these three areas in the United States. Then, in the context of Finland's educational environment, a few unorthodox strategies will be revealed as to how they have advanced these very important aspects. 

One of the most important tools of teaching is to have one or more mentors who help educators make better decisions. Perhaps the top leaders in the United States' education system should follow this same advice. I would encourage them to, in the least, give successful programs like Finland's an honest consideration. Please, let go of the destructive bureaucracy. Our students need be released from the chains of bad policies and misguided leadership.

The Learning Environment

Here in the United States we still have a tendency to lean toward the outdated Industrial Age classroom, although thankfully that is changing. Finally, we are recognizing the realization that sitting forward in a chair and regurgitating spoon-fed information is not the path into the future. We am seeing more diversification in the classroom where students have choices of where they will read, study, and learn. They can choose the traditional chair or maybe they want to pull up a beanbag. When once only the center of the classroom was used for instruction, now the entire parameters are incorporated to help students in how they best can learn. The environment has become more friendly and students can feel a little bit like they are at home. This is important.

Despite these positive changes, there is still the strict adherence to standardized testing. Yes - parents, teachers, and administrators must have some means to evaluate students. But perhaps the traditional fill-in-the-bubble sheet or the mixture of multiple choice and short answer tests are not the only answer. I think many teachers know this to be true, but they are employees at the same time, and so their hands may be tied. Here is where the country of Finland is very different. 

“Finland’s historic achievements in delivering educational excellence and equity to its children are the result of a national love of childhood, a profound respect for teachers as trusted professionals, and a deep understanding of how children learn best.”

This statement sets the tone for Finnish education. One of the biggest differences between teachers in this country and those in Finland is how they are treated by the government and society as a whole. Only educators with Master's Degrees from one of their 11 elite colleges are allowed to teach. They are deeply respected and trusted with running the learning environment - from curriculum creation, classroom management, assessment, and so much more. Finnish teachers are encouraged to try new things to test whether or not their ideas are more feasible or simply work better. In Finland, the people who are working at ground zero with the children make the decisions, not the bureaucrats. Doesn't this approach make common sense? 

When it comes to ascertaining how well a student has mastered the learning curriculum, the teacher decides how he or she will be evaluated. There are no state tests. There isn't any government evaluation that predicts how much money a school will get. There are little criteria that explicitly state if a teacher can get his or her students to perform higher on the testing, then they will be given a bonus. Schools are not run like corporate businesses, driven by the power of the dollar. Instead, they are treated as the educational environment should be - with the student in mind. Teachers are paid well and they are fully trusted with the assessment process.

Managing the Classroom

Discipline is handled a bit differently in this Slavic country. When students are being disruptive or chattering, the teacher continues forward with the curriculum. If the incidents are too involved, then the teacher will quietly speak to the student after class and ask how this issue(s) may be resolved. The focus is on student engagement, not reprimanding bad behavior. 

Flickr -  Mika Hirsimaki
It is asserted by some teachers that Finns in general are shy people and so if there were strict boundaries between the student and teacher, then students would not contribute or ask questions. This context suggests that behavior management is defined by cultural boundaries. These cultural boundaries also carry over into the curriculum, as teachers may cover the same material in a 4 week time period that would be covered here in the U.S. in a mere few days. Slowing down the advance of the curriculum boosts student engagement, which will be discussed in a moment.

All classrooms are fully-integrated with all types of students. There are some small concessions for special needs and some students are equipped with IEPs. But overall, students are expected to work with one another, despite any differences in learning styles, levels of proficiency, or behaviors. For students who may be more proficient in the subjects they will be given extension tasks as a means of compensation. These are assignments that are built around the class activity which require a little more in-depth work to complete. This prevents boredom from surfacing while other students are focusing on the core assignments. 

The mixed ability philosophy and behavior models seem to work well for Finnish educators, although at first glance it would seem they would not. One of the most successful aspects of this philosophy is their sophisticated support system. 

"Special needs teachers... help to support students who need it in class, and also run small group sessions in certain subjects to give students a boost when they need it. Students' needs are tracked carefully by the form teacher, who meets with a multi-disciplinary team in the first term of each year to discuss each student.... Solutions discussed here address the needs of the pupil as a whole, rather than addressing only the particular thing that is causing a problem at the time." 

Capturing a Student's Full Attention

Inspiring students to want to "own" their education experiences can be quite a challenge for teachers here in the United States. Their hands are bound by some degree to the state and government policies that are in place. It is within the context of an environment that they do not have complete control over where they must work the learning miracles. Many teachers have exited the field because educating students has too many hoops to jump through and the mounting frustration eventually overwhelms them.

Changes are, of course, being made and a few new approaches are currently in practice. The use of technology may perhaps be the best way to get students engaged in their learning journey. Just yesterday my high school son could not stop talking about a horribly disgusting video he watch on YouTube in his health class. The teacher chose this footage to make a lasting impact on her students and it worked. 

Finding ways to incorporate social media into the curriculum is also a great way to engage students. English teachers might present a Facebook challenge where a student would create a poem on whatever subject he or she chose. Then it would get posted on a classroom page where students and other Facebook members could "Like" the poem they think is the best. The flurry of activity from this assignment would certainly get students more involved than they would from monotonous in-class readings. 

Research has shown that there are three criteria that need to be present.

"To be engaged, students need to have high levels of interest, skills, and challenges." - Linnansaari

Finland has gone to great lengths to try and understand the core reasons behind student engagement and how exactly it is figured into the education equation:

"Most recent studies of student engagement treat it as a predictor of academic achievement, inferring being disengaged, or disaffected from school, causes poor academic achievement. However, the theoretical literature argues that is low achievement that causes students to withdraw from school, or that engagement and academic achievement go hand-in-hand." - Willms

Final Thoughts 

There is a great amount of information coming out of the education system in Finland. Keep in mind that a majority of its members hold Master's Degrees and spend an extensive amount of time researching and trying out new ideas in the classroom. Their work is revolutionizing the field of teaching and it would behoove the country of the United States to take some good notes. 

I believe that we need to do a type of cleansing in our educational hierarchies by removing all of the money-hungry avarice that tends to settle in its governmental ponds. For our students, many of the policies that are currently in place serve better as scum on the surface of the water than in being the life force they should be for our children. The bottom line is - for our education system to truly work, students and teachers must be the highest priority.

Works Cited 

Linnansaari, J. Finnish Students' Engagement in Science Lessons. Universitetet i Oslo. 2015.

Willms, Jon Douglas. Student Engagement at School: A Sense of Belonging and Participation, Results from PISA 2000. Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

The Challenge of Information Processing for Students: Two Technology Solutions

In the learning process students can take basic information and process it in their own way – whether through rote memory, placing the material into a story, or by watching a video. It is quite helpful, though, to put this information into a compare/contrast form so that they can identify the similarities and differences with the information that they are trying to absorb. There are a few ways that teachers can approach this technique.

In this article I wanted to offer up a couple technology solutions that can help with this task. Each of the following websites have a purpose they serve. The first functions as a data collection and analysis tool and the other is designed as an organizing and brainstorming software.


Data can be collected in a myriad of ways such as polls, online questionnaires, scientific studies, or just simply by collecting the facts around an event. The means by which the data is collected is not as important as with how it is presented to students. It has to be easily viewed and the differences and similarities should be apparent. 

Here is where spreadsheets come into the equation. Spreadsheets will list the information in column form and then the sheet can be fed into a chart format. When I first thought of collecting information in this manner I thought of history class. In the course of history class students are inundated with a mountain of statistics, dates, and events that they are expected to sort out and keep in their memories for future testing. In my middle school classroom this scenario would certainly be a reality.

I found a website that would work well for this application. It is called Infogram. With this tool teachers and students as well can plug information into spreadsheets and then the results will be displayed in the format of choice. With this site you can create visual representations of data using any of the examples you see in the photo above.

Infogram can be useful in the classroom for all other subjects as well. Any information that can be plotted into spreadsheet can be useful on this site. Along with charts or graphs, Infogram offers infographics or reports and the use of maps as well. Creating visual tools for students to see the similarities and differences with an abundance of facts can help disseminate the material and see it in a new context. This site might also move you into the direction of video infographics like this one:


When it comes to organizing and brainstorming software there is a long list of possibilities available. True, as a middle school teacher I could use a simple Venn diagram to illustrate the differences and similarities with a chosen topic. 

They are, ideed, very effective tools for accomplishing this goal. However, I am an educator in search of something more involved and on the edge of innovation. I want my students to have the most effective tool available to capture their ideas and to flesh them out in an expanded form. Here is where the software of MindMeister makes its debut. This tool has a wide range of versatility and it can create mind maps like this one:

This is a simplified version of what this site can do with ideas that need to be developed and expanded upon. The maps can not only reveal your choice of photos, but they can also be embedded with videos and interactive tools to bring the brainstorming map to life. The website states that “MindMeister has been positioned as the number one mind mapping and online collaboration tool available today” and when you begin to navigate through the site, you can see why. 

My students will be able to work on projects together and do so in real time because there is that collaborative option here. The information can be shared on all of the major social media channels with the presentations being sleek and attractive. This will motivate my students to really explore MindMeister and see how far their creativity will take them. If they wish to present their mind mapping ideas to the classroom (or maybe that would be my assignment), it can be done in a number of ways with floating topics that represent the keywords, a live broadcast with a slideshow on the website, or an even cooler way is to use their iPhone or iPad to wirelessly present mind maps on a larger screen. 

I really like what I see with this software in regards to organizing material and presenting the flow of ideas through mind mapping. MindMeister has even catered to those who like to use emoticons in their presentations because that option is also available within its formatting tools. I think this software will bring smiles to my classroom and provide a great tool for intrinsic motivation. :)

Any Thoughts?

The two websites presented here are by no means the only ones out there. Technology is still in its infant stages when it comes to bring education to the classroom or to a home-school environment. I believe we are just beginning to understand the importance of these tools and just how effective they are in getting our students to "own" their education and learning experiences. I see complacency with traditional methods of teaching as being perhaps the biggest reason behind why students find school to be boring and disengaging. I hope these suggestions can help you in some way.... as I too look forward to implementing them into my classroom someday!

If you would like to share your thoughts, I'd love to hear them! Just type them into the comment box below or on any social media site you find this article and.... thank you!!

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

My Teaching Philosophy

“An Amalgamation of Styles Intent on Breaking New Ground in the Field of Education”

Just as you cannot see the sun rising in the photo above, so too do many in the field of education not see the great changes that are breaking the horizon. We now live in an era of massive potential and innovation in the course of teaching our children. Philosophical avenues will be opened that will challenge the very foundations of education and may be labeled as being completely absurd. Technology will continue to transform the mediums we use to teach, think, and create. In time, educators and administrators will either need to embrace these challenges, these “absurdities”… or be left behind.

The above statement is intended to be a summation of my teaching perspective in a neat little nutshell. No where in these statements do I state exactly how these innovations will transpire and, in many ways, I only have small clues at this point of how this will happen. But there is one thing that is certain – I am determined to join the pioneers in these phenomenal changes and to do my part - for the sake of our children. Here are a few of my ideas.

Starting With the Basics

Essentialism, one of the five approaches to teaching, attempts to keep things the way they have always been in the American education system. The Anglo-Saxon core-standards base of this philosophy is rather outdated and for those who still advocate it, in my opinion they are akin to the residual product of the centuries-old patriarchy that has ruled this country. Times have changed. What has worked for centuries is no longer effective. It is time to step down.

The latest product of essentialism comes from our past president George W. Bush. He still believes in essentialism, which guided him to create our current mandated No Child Left Behind policy. In many ways this policy has been ineffective and I believe the reason for this is that this approach is outdated and lacks pragmatism. In my philosophy I would take a few of his ideas and use them as a foundation from which to build a new approach. Rather than scrapping the entire program, let us glean what we can from it.   

The Classic Approach

The perennial approach, although a brother of essentialism, has a couple aspects that I think are useful, one in particular being very essential. Studying the Great Books does give students the opportunity to learn some of the underlying timeless themes about humanity, although I think we need to find books that fit the context of this day and age. War and Peace is ridiculously long and The Iliad is far too complex. Students will never stick with these sources of literature because they are too challenging and will not hold their interest. I do firmly believe that consistently reading books and other publications is critical for lifelong learning and this ideal will be embraced in my teaching philosophy.

The most critical aspect of perennialism that I firmly believe students need is the teaching of values and moral principles. I see this country as a whole heading in the wrong direction with its extreme egocentrism, disrespect of others and their property, and the phasing out of professionalism. All of these traits – including lying, cheating, and even the slavery of consumerism – stem from undeveloped, immature values and moral principles. I will be finding any way that I can to weave values and moral principles into my teaching approach. Students are our future. The pathways of their minds and how they act upon their thoughts will shape the continued direction of our American and global societies.

Student-Centered Approaches

Progressivism, Social Reconstructionism, and Existentialism are more oriented towards the student. It is within these three realms that I intend to forge the core of my teaching philosophy. The progressivists have a wonderful focus on pragmatism which essentially means that if an idea works in the real world than it has merit. One of the greatest disconnects that I see students struggling with is that they do not see how the things they are expected to learn are going to be useful after they graduate. And, I must admit, I agree with them.

Our current system tends to push the essentialist agenda and assert the reasoning that this approach is the best way to learn. In some ways, as well, hands are tied with the state testing. Outside of reflecting school performance, students do not see any real tangible motivations for them to do well in school. Let’s face it – what kid really gives a crap about the statistical testing results of a school? Progressivism moves away from this ineffective approach and builds “the curriculum around the experiences, interests, and abilities of students, and encourage[s] students to work together cooperatively.” (Sadker, 255) I like this aspect of progressivism.

Many of the deepest and most concerning issues that our society faces are centered around racism and sexism. We cannot continue to turn a blind eye to these topics when they have such a heavy impact on our daily lives. I think to a large degree the social injustices and inequalities that occur in this country stem from a simple lack of education. Teachers and leaders alike are shying away from the hot-button issues because they are either afraid to breech the subjects or their school administrations/parent organizations will not allow certain curriculum to be taught in the classroom. I believe that when students are given opportunities to create projects around race and sex issues they gain an understanding and empathy for the people who have been negatively affected by society as a whole. This makes them better citizens and neighbors. 

Existentialism, the fifth philosophy, is the most challenging approach to tackle. When I first heard about students not studying if they chose not to or that the school’s central role is to provide students with options and choices, I balked at the ideas. But, in hindsight, I believe that this approach has the most potential even though it may be the most rejected. I also believe that pioneers create seemingly absurd ideas that later on make sense to everyone once they have been fully implemented. Existentialism is so far removed from our current teaching approaches that, for the most part, it is alienated and written off as absurd or irresponsible. I intend to research this approach more thoroughly, as I feel it is on the cutting edge of the education field. It is within the “cutting edge” that I intend to forge the core of my teaching philosophy.

Oh, the Traditional Methods

Teachers, as we already know, have been the single driving force in our educational system since its inception. Standing before their students, they bird-fed their pupils the knowledge they believed advanced their learning and give students the edge they needed to survive in the world. Children were expected to sit straight in their seats, face forward, and recite the daily lessons. This teacher-centered approach worked well in an Industrial Age classroom as it produced smarter and more productive workers. This is not to say that certain aspects of the 20th century classroom cannot be utilized today, because they can. The seating arrangements of the classroom need not be in strict rows, but I do believe that the teacher should be a strong focus in the learning process. Teachers possess the knowledge and the processes required to achieve comprehension and application of the academic material. These skills are imparted to the students so that they can “take the torch” and run with the knowledge as they see fit. Our students are the next generation of teachers.

When it comes to assessing student performance, the age-old methods of testing are quickly proving themselves ineffective. It is a shame that our government bureaucracy is consumed with outdated modes of assessment, but I look at it as a starting point. We live in a society that wants tangible results and testing gives them something on paper to shake in the face of progress. The problem is, standard testing no longer works. I believe that in time the alphabet grading system also will be phased out.

We are beginning to see some fundamental changes with teachers promoting digital portfolios as a means of assessment. The portfolios allow students to use any technology or any medium they choose to flesh out who they are, what they know, and all that they have learned. Portfolios are a great start, but the question still remains – how can we accurately assess student performance without having them sit at a desk and regurgitate test questions?

I would assert that the best way for students to be assessed would be to have them show us what they have learned. Projects and presentations are great ways of accomplishing this goal. It gives students the opportunity to reveal how they can apply their acquired knowledge in the real world. This is one of the biggest issues with students, in that they fail to see the value of the curriculum, and using a perfromance as an assessment tool tears down this enduring barrier. As I move forward in my journey to become a teacher, I hope to have a better, more tangible idea of how to accomplish all of my ideas.

Our children need us to be bold and stand up against the status quo. The time for major change has arrived….