Archive for category student advocate

In Their Words Video

I created this video from over 2 hours of student interviews and dozens of still images.

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How Does it Feel to be the Worst?

According to Education Week’s study of P-16 Council effectiveness called Diplomas Count 2008, Nevada has the worst graduation rate in the country. In 2005, only 45% of students graduated, that was 25% below the national average. In the four years prior, Nevada had actually decreased its grad rate by over 9% while the national average saw an increase of nearly 3%.

Diplomas Count 2008 State Chart

My first thought after reading this was, does knowing this change anything about how I approach teaching these kids?

I work at an online charter school which attracts a wide variety of students, many though, and possibly the top tier of kids who choose to attend our school, have failed out of their zoned school and are hanging on by a thread. These are at-risk kids in the purest form, they are almost ready to quit the system and have found us as a last alternative. I knew that already, but what I didn’t know before this report was that we had one of the worst districts in the country so our students have been failed by the system at the highest levels.

So, does it change how I approach teaching these kids?

This report confirms that our school does not have it easy. It validates some of the reasons our staff has quit on these kids. It proves that our task of educating is as difficult as any in the country. What it doesn’t do though, is change how I teach these kids. I’m not bowing out of this fight now that I found out its even harder than I imagined.

I’m not trying to come off as some sort of higher-than-thou evangelist, I hope it doesn’t sound that way. It’s just that so many of the people I work with quit. So many of them have lost faith in these kids, and it’s a lot easier to do that than to fight for them.

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Breaking Down Personal Barriers

Forbidding Wall

When I was in High School I was petrified of public speaking. It got even worse when I went to college and didn’t know anyone in the room. In fact, early on in my college career I would drop courses if I found out there was a speech involved. I hated that about myself, but hated the idea of speaking even more. Then I became a teacher.

Knocking Down that First Big Wall:
When I began college at 21, after 3 years of floating around through life, I knew I wanted to work with kids. I wasn’t interested in teaching at that point because I didn’t think there was anyway I could get up in front of a class everyday and just….talk. But after a few years of college, something changed. I had to take a speech class to move to a 4 year school, there was no way to avoid it anymore. Even though I dreaded every one of those 3-5 minute monologues ( I would shake, my stomach would get upset, and I felt flushed with heat), I started getting a little confidence in myself. The final assessment of the semester was presenting a Persuasive Speech I wrote about working with kids in the community (I still didn’t think I could teach at this point). My speech got nominated by our class and I ended up in a school-wide competition. I didn’t win but made it to the finals and the observers were about 50 students, a dean from Stanford, one from Cal Poly, and the head of my school. In about 6 months I had gone from being deliriously nervous just to talk in front of 30 kids in a community college classroom, to the finals of a speech competition in front of some very intimidating people.

Going for It:
Once I got through that course, I knew I could become a teacher. But the fears didn’t stop once I did. I still get nervous in front of my peers and large groups and there are still personal barriers that I keep trying to knock down. The main difference now is that I set goals to break down those walls. I push myself to handle uncomfortable situations. Just last week I presented at my first NACOL Webinar, which was really strange and awkward. I wasn’t happy with how I presented my ideas in that hour, but I know that next time will be better because I got through it.

How This Applies to my Kids:
I want to push my kids to do things that unnerve them. I want to teach students to play outside of their safe zones. I want to help them get through their fears at a much younger age than I did. I talk to kids about this in very limited situations right now, but as I’m growing as a teacher I’m learning that this plays more and more of a role in students lack of success. I think I’m finally beginning to understand the role of fear in a teenagers mind, and hopefully I can help them break down some of the barriers that fear creates.

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Simple, but Cool Afternoon with Kids

A little background. Our school is an online high school with a single day face-to-face component. Our interaction with these kids is limited for a number of reasons. They only come on campus once a week and its usually not to see their online teachers (me). Many of the phone numbers they provide us are disconnected and/or they just don’t answer. The main form of communication is email, and whenever I send out an email asking for all students to reply back (usually at beginning of semester to set up my Outlook) I get only about a 20% response. The kids at our school aren’t the tech savvy teenagers that are rumored to be about and email is often ignored even though that is how we “talk” with kids. On top of all those factors, I’m working from home and taking care of my son right now so even more limited on communication. That’s what made the other day so cool.

I received a new student at the 2nd semester and she was turning in her first short essay paper too me. She uploaded a .wps file which our computers won’t open so we ask all docs be converted to .rtf. I have a form email that I send out for this very occasion. A day later I received a frantic email from her saying that she tried and tried to convert the document but just didn’t understand what my email was saying. I asked her for her phone number so we could walk through it. A few hours later, I was using Skypeout and showing her this process. While we are on the topic I taught her how to make folders for each of her online courses so she could organize her work. Then the little light bulb that is Google Docs went off and made a deal with her to get her Google Doc account up and running (I couldn’t do it at that moment because we were 20 minutes into the call and baby was screaming).

A few minutes after I got off the phone with her and the baby had calmed down, I received an instant message from another student. She needed some assistance with a class assignment so we walked through that via chat. An hour later I received another message from my Facebook account that a former student wanted some tutoring for her high school writing exit exam. We made temporary plans to set that up soon. While I was on Facebook another student chimed in with some concerns about a grade he had received at the semester, it wasn’t in my class, but as his mentor teacher I promised to talk with his English teacher on his behalf.

Could all of this have happened at a traditional school in such a short period of time? Of course. Could all of this have happened at my virtual school a year ago, no way. The use of these social tools has changed the way I collaborate and interact with my kids. Now just hoping others at the school will see the benefit.


Opposing Forces

My school made several commitments to dramatic change this year. Since we are a charter school, have missed AYP every year, and are on the verge of losing our sponsorship from the district, we had to make some HUGE changes. The two biggest changes seem to be opposing forces though and that is making the teachers lives very difficult right now.

The first major change is the new Learning Management System we use to host our online courses. It was never made clear why this system was brought in but it has proved to be the opposite of what we needed at this junction in our school. You might be thinking, “its so early in the year, how can you make that judgment right now.” Well, there are two really good reasons. One, this system is not designed to communicate with high school students, and in an online school filled to the max with At-Risk students, communication is a major factor to success. Two, this system takes a lot more time to operate than our previous system and right now time is not one of our luxuries. This is where the second major change comes in.

We have shifted our focus as a school, hopefully as an entire school culture, to promoting the success of our lowest achieving students. We are supposed to be better mentors, better student advocates, better instructional designers (in order to motivate production of course work), and better communicators. As stated earlier, the nature of our new LMS demands WAY more time. So if the system forces us to take more time to grade, more time to input quality assignments, more time to communicate and more time to operate the basic system components than we are losing more time to call the students, losing more time to visit them when they are campus, losing more time to work one on one with both our online and mentor students, and losing more time to track their progress.

Opposing forces: How do we better mentor and communicate with our students, as demanded for the success of this student population, when so much more time is lost due to a system clearly not designed to fit our high school right now?

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