Thursday, March 31, 2011

Make Teaching Better By Eliminating Intellectual Incest

Teachers love to copy ideas.  We're plagiarizing whores.  We copy lessons from each other all the time.  We haven't created an original lesson plan since 1983.  True story.

Generally, this is a good thing.  We take what has worked for others, tweak it a bit to meet our specific needs, then roll it out in our own classrooms.  It gets the job done.

There's one problem- it lacks true creativity.  We keep rehashing the same ideas.  It's like when I make Mexican food (or at least my version of Mexican food.)  I use some sort of tortilla, chicken or beef, cumin, lettuce, cheese, some hot sauce, maybe some beans, and an occasional avocado.  The ingredients can be mixed in a variety of ways to create different dishes, but they all taste pretty much the same.

In teaching, this is manifested by  the use of the same basic lesson ideas.  If we want to infuse more creativity into our lessons, we need to add more ingredients.   Learn a new way of cooking.  

How do we do this?  

Look outside the teaching profession.  

Over the last year or so, I've read a lot about unorthodox business practices that have resulted in success stories.  On the surface, this doesn't appear to have much application to the classroom.  Until you dig a little deeper.

For example, I like reading about methods to increase blog readership.  There are some brilliant minds out there with fantastic ideas.  Many of the suggestions are methods to create interest in blog content.

How can this be applied to the classroom?

Think of your lessons as your blog content.  Your students are your potential audience.  How can you get them to "read your blog?"  Simply apply the blogging experts' advice in the classroom setting.

Viola!  More effective teaching.

As it turns out, this idea of synthesizing the classroom and ideas completely unrelated to education is a gold mine.  ANY topic can be used to enrich your lessons.  Here's a good way to find inspiration:

2. Sign up, get the toolbar button
3. Choose a few topics that sound interesting
4. Stumble to random sites
5. As you read through different sites, think of how you can apply this to the classroom

Other teachers should be the last place you go for original ideas.  Date outside the family and look for ideas in unconventional places.  It'll make you a better teacher.


Saturday, March 19, 2011

Using Cell Phones in School... Hey, What a Novel Idea!

This post was inspired by this article in the Grand Rapids Press:

Several years ago, I proposed allowing students to use cell phones in school.  The technology has the potential to revolutionize how we teach AND save schools a good chunk of change.  Cell phones can be used as student response systems, video cameras, still cameras, podcasting tools, and a host of other tools.  Unfortunately the idea was shot down.  Instead, we've spent the last few years in a futile war to punish kids for using phones in school.

This issue perfectly exemplifies why we need to fully embrace innovation, especially that which utilizes technology.  To that end, we need to identify and eliminate the "always say no" gatekeepers that inhibit technological innovation.

Today's teens use technology to communicate in ways that seem foreign to many adults.  It's not a matter of teaching kids to use technology, it's a matter of teaching them using their preferred medium.  Failing to understand HOW kids communicate is a recipe for failure.  If we can't speak their language, we can't teach.  The Luddites didn't survive.  Neither will we.

Hopefully someone out there could use these ideas, especially since some schools seem to be embracing this technology.  The following is the text of the form I would have given to students:

Cell Phone Integration Project
Student-Response Experiment

Project description- This is an experiment to test the feasibility of using student-owned cell phones in conjunction with the Internet to create a student-response system.  A student response system works like this: The teacher presents a question to the class and gives several options.  Students respond to the correct answer by sending a text message to a predetermined number that corresponds to the answer they choose.  The web service we will be using is located at  This project will test the likelihood that this system could be used on a larger scale for assignments and projects such as test reviews, etc.
What is needed- A cell phone with the capability to send text messages.  A phone is NOT required for all students!  The class will complete this project in small groups.  Students will be divided in a way to equally disburse available technology.  For the duration of this project, students will send approximately 5-25 text messages per week.  Because of this, please do not approve your student if they have a limited number of text messages on their cell phone plan.  Mr. Robillard and/ or the school cannot be held responsible for expenses incurred from the additional text messages that will be sent with your approval!  If you are not comfortable with approving this project, please do not sign the paper!  The availability of a cell phone will have no bearing on your child's grade!

Rules and regulations- Because our school officially bans the use of cell phones during the school day, we will have special rules set up to govern cell phone use IN MY CLASSROOM during your child's class.  These policies are in effect from the time your student enters my room until my class ends and they leave my room.  When they are outside of my room, the school policies regarding cell phone use will be in effect.  Essentially, if they are caught using their phones, they will be confiscated and turned in to the administration.  The following are the rules that will govern cell phone use in my classroom for the duration of this project:

Cell Phone Expectations:
  1. Phone ringers must be set to "vibrate" or "silent" at all times.  This is to prevent disruptions to the class. 
  2. Phones are placed on top of desks in plain view f the teacher at al times when they are not in use as a class.
  3. All media produced/messages sent must be course related.
  4. You may not use another person's phone at any time.
  5. All media published about/of others must be approved by them.  For example- you may not take pictures, video, or audio recordings without the subject's permission.  Also, no media may be published online without written approval.
  6. All messages can be accessed at any time by the teacher.  Remember, there is no such thing as privacy in electronic communication- you cell phone company has access to all messages/ media sent over your phone!

Failure to comply with the expectations may result in disciplinary action by Mr. Robillard, including confiscating the phone until the end of the day and that class losing all "stars" for the remainder of the chapter they are covering. 

If you have any questions, please email me at *******************

Thank you!

-Jason Robillard

Parent Signature________________________________________Date__________________

Student Name____________________________________ Hour__________________

This is the details of the plan I wanted to implement.  It would have been rolled out in three phases, each one teaching kids additional methods to use these tools:

Cell Phone Technology Integration Plan
Purpose: Take advantage of tools many students already possess to help reduce strain on school technology budget; help meet technology integration standards; teach responsible use of cell phones in society.
Phase 1- Student Response System Phase 2- Citizen Journalism Phase 3- Capturing and Editing Video

Use cell phones as “clickers” to operate student response system. Teacher presents a question, students will respond using cell phones. Will be used in conjunction with Can replace systems that cost between $2000 and $5000. Use cell phones as “citizen journalism” tool. Since most students carry phones at all times, they can immediately report when they see something happening that pertains to class (citizen journalism). Students can either text “stories” or post audio clips (mobile podcasting). Will be used in conjuction with secure, private blogging sites such as or wiki sites such as Use cell phones to capture video for video projects. Video editing will be accomplished with secure private video editing website such as or Will replace digital cameras and editing software, can save several thousand dollars.

All three phases together meet or exceed at least 23 METS (Michigan Educational Technology Standards) created my the Michigan Department of Education.


Tuesday, March 15, 2011

How Much Should Teachers Get Paid?

This post was inspired by this article from the New York Times: 

Nicholas Kristof makes a case for paying teachers more, not less.  I've used his same argument many times.  By diminishing the profession by eroding pay and benefits, governments are unwittingly making the profession significantly less attractive.  The vilification of teachers and our unions by the media and general public make the profession even less appealing. Why would talented individuals choose teaching as a career?

It's not hard to become a teacher.  Any reasonably intelligent individual can successfully pass through teacher preparation programs and pass the state-required certification tests.  This means one thing- the bottom of the barrel is pretty bad.  

There are a lot of unemployed teachers floating around right now.  They are unemployed for a reason... the better teachers have already been hired.  As the profession becomes less appealing, the talented teachers are going to leave.  Their talents will assure gainful employment outside the profession.  In many cases, they will find a position to help people more effectively than they did from within the school system with superior pay, benefits, and status.

This mass exodus of the talented teachers opens the door for the less talented teachers.  The result- the quality of schools drops even more.  Add scarce resources and growing class sizes and we now have a recipe for disaster.  This entire scenario is laughable given the sudden focus on rooting out and eliminating "bad teachers."  If the fanatical right-wingers think there are bad teachers in the profession now, wait until their policies are fully enacted.

Of course, some suggest performance-based pay is the obvious solution.  These people obviously do not understand how schools work.  If merit pay is based on standardized test scores, the best teachers will simply flock to the upper-class schools where test scores are highest.  even within schools there would be competition for those students that would score best.  Also, there would be even more incentive to teach to the test.  There would also be more incentive for schools or individual teachers to somehow cheat the system so their students will score higher.

The solution is simple but seems to be unpalatable in today's economic climate- pay teachers more.  Attract the best of the best.  Give them the autonomy and resources to inspire our children.  If  we want to pay teachers based on performance, let's give a bonus for every student that goes on to change the world.  

Of course, that would require more taxes, and we don't want that.  After all, then we wouldn't be able to afford that new flat screen plasma TV for our bathroom.


Friday, March 11, 2011

Whining, Complaining, and Criticizing: Symptoms of a Serious Problem

I've been reading John Wooden's "Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections on and off the Court."  As many of you know, John Wooden is considered the most successful NCAA men's basketball coach in history.  He won 10 national championships at UCLA in the 60's and 70's.  More importantly, the man had a a ton of great advice on how one should run their life.  Even though I dislike basketball, I HIGHLY recommend this book to anyone interested in teaching, coaching, leadership, or just getting the most out of life. 

John's philosophy is really quite simple.  He advocates being a hard working, enthusiastic leader.  His beliefs can more or less be summed up based on his definition of success:

"Success is peace of mind that is the direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming."

I really like this idea along with many other ideas Wooden outlines in the book.  One area in particular hit close to home.  Wooden repeatedly talks about always doing your personal best given the resources you've been given.  However, late in the book he talks about enthusiasm.  Specifically, he talks about the point when enthusiasm wanes.  

When enthusiasm diminishes, there is a tendency to start a vicious cycle of negative thoughts.  These negative thoughts manifest themselves as negative behaviors.  These behaviors often take the form of whining, complaining, and criticizing.  This struck a chord with me. 

Over the last few months, I've become an acute observer of the behavior of those around me.  Almost without exception, I see frequent whining, complaining, and criticizing from everyone... students, colleagues, leaders, parents... pretty much everyone in my professional life.  It creates a toxic pool of poison where people go through the motions in a detached, indifferent trance while chanting hollow words of conviction and passion.

The worst part- I'm just as guilty.  I have allowed other peoples' outsides to affect my insides.  That has resulted in my own bout of whining, complaining, and criticizing. I have fallen into that trap.  Worse, I rarely recognize it as such.  I'm sure those around me don't recognize their own behaviors, either. 

Wooden also states "... valid self-analysis is crucial for improvement."  I do not have the power to change others, but I do have the power to change me.  Since this entire blog is about the need for change in education, "me" is the best place to start.  

Wooden notes it is impossible to work up to your fullest ability without enthusiasm.  Enthusiasm is the antithesis of negativity.  Enthusiasm is the natural cure for the cycle of negativity.  Enthusiasm can disinfect this pool of pessimism.

In my running life, I am routinely surrounded by positive people that truly love what they are doing.  Their passion is so intense, it is impossible for them to hide it.  This passion creates an energy that is absolutely infectious.  This is the enthusiasm I want to bring to my professional life.  

I realize I contribute to the creation and nourishment of this environment.  The only hope I have of changing the environment is first changing myself.  This involves a conscious monitoring of my own behaviors, which is difficult for us to do.  To help my self-awareness, I'm going to employ a trick used my my friend John DeVries.  I'm going to wear a rubber band around my wrist.  Every time I complain, whine, or criticize, I will move the rubber band to the other wrist. 

Widespread negativity is a symptom of a toxic environment. My influence over the environment starts with my own behaviors.  If I have any hope of correcting these problems, recognizing and correcting my own behaviors is the first step.

Thanks John Wooden.