Monday, December 4, 2017

The Arrival of the Underdog: An Advent Devotional

What follows is a devotional I wrote for the Royal Family Kids Camp of NW Iowa dinner and dessert auction. *

The Arrival of the Underdog

Christmas is coming. We are about to enter the season of the year we call Advent. The word “advent” comes from a Latin root, meaning “arrival.” So in this season we are awaiting the arrival—the advent—of Christ.

One of several Nativity scenes we have in our home...
During Advent, we hear the gospel stories about Jesus’ birth, often multiple times throughout the season, year after year. The story of the angel bringing the news to Mary that she would be giving birth to the Son of God. The story of the angels visiting the shepherds to tell them the good news of Jesus’ birth. The story of wise men, coming so far, seeking the newborn king. In Sunday School Christmas pageants, in candle-lit church services, in devotionals and picture books, we hear these stories again and again. And when I’m honest with myself, I know I’ve heard these stories so many times that they have lost a bit of their impact on me.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Learning to Teach Again: Stumbling Through

I've been blogging my way through this semester of preparing and teaching a course that is new to me. (If you've just joined us, you can see the whole series here.) Getting my hands around a content-driven course in our CORE program has been a fun challenge for me. Most of the courses I teach are pedagogy-oriented courses in our teacher preparation program, so this feels more like what I did when I was teaching in K-12. Teaching Education courses is sort of weird, because the content of the course is also what I'm doing, if that makes sense? So teaching World Regional Geography has been both challenging and joyful for me.

As I've been reflecting on my thinking, teaching, and learning this semester, I realize that I've mostly been sharing stories of successes from class. And it has been largely successful. I'm so grateful to my students for that! They have been willing to play along with each "crazy idea" I've lobbed their way. I keep soliciting their feedback throughout the course as well, and so I'm learning from what worked well from their perspective, and what missed the mark. Thankfully, most of it has worked well.


Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Learning to Teach Again: Questions

I often tell the students in my Education courses, "Questions are good! We love questions!" This usually comes up in conversations about pedagogy (the how of teaching and learning) and especially related to the content knowledge (the what of teaching and learning) we need to have to be effective teachers. I try to emphasize to my teachers-in-training that questions are evidence of thinking, wondering, planning, wrestling, and--often--growth and development.

But I think the idea of students asking them questions scares them a little too. "Will I have enough knowledge to answer all of their questions?" is a common concern.

I always try to reassure them that as the teacher, you don't have to have all the answers. While you can't say, "I don't know..." every day and maintain credibility as a can say, "Let's find out!" at any time, and invite the students in to the learning as they answer their own questions.

But all of this talk in theory came together for me in practice a few weeks ago in class. In my World Regional Geography class, we spent a few class meetings investigating Latin America (Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and South America) and the often-complicated relationship between the United States and these regions. As an introduction to one lesson, I pulled out an old technique I used often in my middle school teaching practice.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Learning to Teach Again: Testing Trials

I am a big believer in closely matching my assessment vehicles to what I want students to know, understand, and do. I think that they way we assess students matter, and I try to use a variety of different kinds of assessments to help me understand what my students understand. This means I use some very informal in-class assessments like quick-writes, Padlet boards to capture their questions, and even monitoring the conversations in small group discussions. But this also means I use a variety of formal, summative assessments that require students to synthesize their learning.

In other words, yes, I give tests.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Semper Reformanda

I've had people ask me sometimes where the inspiration for blogging comes from. Most of the time, it's something that recently happened, or that I recently read, or a recent conversation that sparks a post. Most of what I'm writing here on the ol' blog is just my way of thinking things through, honestly. But once in a while, I have a post that I've been ruminating on for a long, long time. This is one of those posts.

About a year and a half ago, I was in Iowa City at a conference, and my friends and I stopped in to a coffee shop to grab a cup. It was one of those wonderfully hipster places--definitely catering to the university crowd, you know? But I was surprised and struck by the artwork on the walls. In particular, there was a fantastic update to the classic portrait of Martin Luther that I'm sure you've seen before. But in this piece, Luther is decked out in fashion not that different from the barista who served my pour-over that evening. I pulled out my phone to snap a pic:

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Learning to Teach Again: Teaching Controversy

I don't generally think of myself as a rabble-rouser, but I wonder sometimes if my students perceive me this way. I know that I do sometimes speak passionately about topics I care a lot about, but I also try to listen at least as much as I speak. The challenge: sometimes the curriculum involves content that is (or could be) controversial, particularly if there are a variety of viewpoints present among the learners.

I had a bit of that feeling in my geography class today. We are examining Latin America right now, and today we were focusing on Mexico. In particular, we were thinking about contemporary issues in Mexico--and, since we are here in the U.S., about Mexico's relationship with the United States. On the docket were things like NAFTA, drugs, and migration. Migration, in particular, has the potential to be politicized very rapidly, so I wanted to handle with care.


Thursday, October 19, 2017

Learning to Teach Again: Quizzing Basic Knowledge

Over the past 20 years I've served as a professional educator, my thoughts on basic knowledge and skills have fluctuated.

Early in my career, I know I focused a lot on "just the facts." Students in my math classes learned algorithms for solving particular kinds of problems. Students in my science classes memorized a lot of definitions for vocabulary. The idea for me: they have to know the facts! And...perhaps's easier to assess their factual knowledge than the deeper understanding that I hope they will also develop.

Looking back, I now realize that about five years in to my teaching career, a shift began to happen. As I matured as a teacher, I began to de-emphasize basic factual knowledge and instead began to focus more attention on ensuring that students could actually do something with that knowledge. Eventually this meant I embraced standards-based assessment practices for my science classroom, focusing on giving students multiple opportunities to both learn concepts as well as demonstrate their understanding of the concepts. I remember having a (somewhat heated) conversation with a colleague during this time in which I said something like, "If they can find the answer on Wikipedia in under 30 seconds, they don't need to memorize it!"