Thursday, April 13, 2017

Educational Field Trips by Mike Siekkinen

I love a good field trip! My students do also. The chance to leave school for the day and visit somewhere, anywhere, can be a really fun and educational time for students and teachers. I have been my school’s “field trip guy” for many years now. I take my classes (team) on field trips at least once a quarter. When I first started this many years ago, I was told this was difficult, dangerous and expensive. With proper planning and research, field trips are high points of the year for all of us.

First, choose a place that can relate to your curriculum. If you are a biology teacher this may be a national park, a zoo, or a museum. For history, look around your area for historical sites or perhaps even in your home town. Many of these sites can be free for educational groups or very reasonable. I use a local military base, local historical sites, state parks and also cultural celebrations in the local area. 

Most of my trips, I only have to pay for transportation. I fund my field trips (as my district has no funding for field trips) by student donations. I have also been blessed to receive the Target Field Trip Grant a number of years ($700 per year). My field trips are always linked to instruction. For instance, I visit Okefenokee State Wildlife refuge. I link this to standards we have to teach in science, history and we always include writing assignments and research before and after each field trip as well as we finds a way to work in mathematics. Most school systems have some procedure and required paperwork to do before going on a field trip. Ask your principal what the district’s policies are regarding trips. Mine is supportive though I have to find my own money. With good planning, field trips are a great way to get students and teachers out of the classroom to show students real life applications to what they learned at school!

Dr. Mike Siekkinen, a retired U.S. Navy submariner, became a teacher as a second career. He teaches history at St Marys Middle School as well as Adult and Career Education at Valdosta State in Georgia.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

From the Homeschool Front …Why Homeschool? by Colleen Hroncich

I never expected to homeschool my kids. Growing up, I only knew of one homeschooling family … and let’s just say they were considered a bit odd. My oldest was in 6th grade and my youngest was in kindergarten when we decided to make the switch. We had a bit of a bumpy start, but 5 years later we’re still at it. 

I love the freedom and flexibility that go along with homeschooling. We control our own schedules. We set our own school calendar. Learning is woven into every part of our lives, not relegated to “school” hours. When people hear I homeschool 4 kids, they frequently say that sounds stressful. Strangely, in many ways our lives are less stressful than when the kids were “in school.” No more packing lunches, hectic mornings trying to get to the bus stop, or chaotic nights trying to finish homework. 

One of the biggest benefits of homeschooling is that each child can work at his or her own pace – slowing down or speeding up depending on the material. This individualized pacing is difficult to replicate in the classroom, although technology is bringing more flexible options to “brick and mortar” schools, too. 

Educating our children at home also lets us expose them to many points of view. We want to raise critical thinkers – adults who see through talking points and challenge conventional wisdom. We don’t want parrots … even if they’re parroting our own ideas. This variety of viewpoints, and the freedom to question them, is essential to developing critical thinkers.

Homeschooling certainly has its challenges. I’m the teacher, disciplinarian, bus driver, scheduler, cafeteria worker, and more. The house is messier than it would be if they were at school all day. There is a lot of togetherness (which can be a pro or a con, depending on the day). But the benefits – to our family as a whole, to each child individually, and to us as parents – strongly outweigh the costs. 

Our kids know they can stop homeschooling if they want. The fact that they stick with it tells me I’m doing the right thing for them.



Colleen Hroncich loves that homeschooling allows her to learn right alongside her children. A published author and former policy analyst, Colleen’s favorite subjects are economics/public policy and history. She has been active in several homeschool co-ops and is a speech and debate coach.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Spring Trip! by Mike Siekkinen

What do you do with your Spring Break? For years I spent mine with my children but as they have gotten older and moved on, I was left with an empty nest and a wife who worked. So several years ago, another teacher asked me if I would consider doing a Spring Trip for students. I was skeptical at first but agreed and we got with a company called Worldstrides and planned a trip to Washington D.C.

Advertising for the trip was not hard and we ended up having 57 students who signed up for the trip. We had to get several other teachers to come with us for that crowd! It ended up being a wonderful (and tiring) experience. Students were well behaved and the trip set up by the company was excellent. We visited so many places and even with a few snags (a broken tour bus in South Carolina, a couple sick kids, etc.) it was still an enjoyable experience.


We all committed to doing it again as long as we were all still enjoying the kids and the trips. I am doing my 5th Spring Trip this March. This year is snorkeling in the Keys and visiting the Everglades. I am still enjoying the kids, the trips and it is a wonderful way to spend my Spring Break! Worldstrides has been a great company to work with and has made it very easy with regards to planning the trips, providing needed materials for advertising and the people they have as guides and drivers have been nothing short of excellent! I highly recommend the company.

Dr. Mike Siekkinen, a retired U.S. Navy submariner, became a teacher as a second career. He teaches history at St Marys Middle School as well as Adult and Career Education at Valdosta State in Georgia.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Parent Communication by Mike Siekkinen

How do you communicate with your students’ parents?  

Setting up a routine way to communicate with parents will make your life easier and your students more productive. Most of the time, parents are your greatest asset and support with student learning. Experienced teachers know there are “always a few” parents who are not the most supportive but as a general rule, they can make things happen in ways that you cannot.

I have found many ways to help this process along. First, during open house, get email addresses. I will have a couple computers set up in my room and have a Google form set up to have parents fill out. This gives me a good start on a data base of parent emails. Secondly, I send out an introduction letter the first few days of school, requesting the same thing from parents. Any parent not responding will get a phone call from me asking for an email. I always have a few students without internet access but the vast majority has it even if they do not have a computer (smartphones).

Once established, I do a weekly email to all parents, telling them what we are doing, important test dates, assignments coming up, etc. I send the same information home for my few students without an address on paper by simply printing the email contents into a document. I also use this form of communication to request supplies and inform parents when report cards are coming, school functions are happening, etc. I prefer to use my school email address when sending out information as the parent can then easily reply back if they have questions. The only thing to be cautious about is when sending, use BCC (blind copy) so you are not sharing anyone’s email address with anyone else. With a routine method of communication set up, you’re making allies with parents as well as covering your butt with due dates and class requirements. No one can say they didn’t know about an assignment if you can prove you sent it to a parent!

Do you have any helpful tips to improve parent communication? Does your district have another standard method? Tell us what’s going on in your school.


Dr. Mike Siekkinen, a retired U.S. Navy submariner, became a teacher as a second career. He teaches history at St Marys Middle School as well as Adult and Career Education at Valdosta State in Georgia.


Thursday, October 27, 2016

izzit, 2081 and the Meaning of Equality from Rachel Colsman

One teacher’s Story of How an izzit.org DVD Changed the Life of a Struggling Student


Irving Kristol once said, “Democracy does not guarantee equality of conditions – it only guarantees equality of opportunity.”

This concept has always been a challenge to teach in my government classes.  This past year was no exception.  I teach in northwestern New Mexico, in a district that serves the Navajo Reservation.  My particular school is over 80 percent Navajo.  Their history makes it hard for many students to understand individual rights when, for many years, their rights had been ignored.  

My classes had just finished studying the Bill of Rights. We read the document, broke it down into terminology, and looked at Supreme Court cases.  They were still struggling with the idea of equality. I had to find a way to teach them that equality does not mean everyone should earn the same amount, or live in the same size house.  Enter izzit.org.


I have used izzit.org for a couple of years for a variety of topics.  I just happened to order the video “2081.” It was sitting on my desk waiting to be watched.  I took the video home to preview.  My first reaction was awe… followed very closely by apprehension.  There were guns. The production was dark. It was filled with powerful symbolism.  I knew that it would be a major risk to show it, but I felt that the benefits of using it would outweigh the risks.  

I went to my principal for guidance. He told me to go for it. So I did. I could not have anticipated the results.  


I had one particular student that was struggling to finish his senior year. He rarely came to class. He seemed disconnected. I thought we were going to lose him. But after I got hold of the 2081 DVD, I asked him please to come to class the next day, as I had a great lesson on equality, and would really like him be there. He looked skeptical. But to my surprise, he actually showed up.


I began class by writing “equality” up on the board.  I asked each student to write down their definition of the word.  We had a brief class discussion and developed a class definition of “equality,” and wrote it on the board.  I handed out the video questions and began the movie.  The students were giggling and whispering through the introduction, but when the movie started, things got dead silent.  

The students were mesmerized.  At the conclusion, you could hear a pin drop. I asked the students to revisit their definition of equality for homework, and to bring it in for class discussion the following day.  I could have never predicted the response. Students had been discussing the idea of “equality of outcome,” versus “equality of opportunity” with other teachers, in the lunchroom, and at home.  The next day, every student was in their seat ready for discussion before the tardy bell had even rung – including our struggling young man. The classroom was abuzz with ideas and meaningful exchange.


After class, the young man who’d been missing class came up and asked if he could borrow “2081” to show his parents. I allowed him to take it, and the revolving door of checking out the video began. Over 50 students took “2081” home to share. Parent-teacher conferences four weeks later revolved a lot around my lesson on equality.  


Helping students understand the difference of equality of outcome, versus equality of opportunity has always been a challenge.  Many of my students believed that government has a responsibility to ensure that everyone has exactly the same things. But this lesson helped them understand the fundamental principle of a democratic republic: equality before the law. 

My young man continued to come to class, rarely missing a day.  I asked him what made him want to come. He informed me that the video and the lesson really touched him. He realized that hating the system would do nothing to fix his problems: “Democracy doesn’t mean that everyone ends up the same.  It means that everyone can make choices, and whether they succeed or fail is up to them.  It might not be fair, but at least we each have ownership of our individual journey in life.” 



(Note from izzit.org - Please be advised that 2081 is not streaming on our site but you are able to select it as your free DVD for the year! It's a powerful video, and we highly recommend it for high school students.)

Friday, October 21, 2016

Stay out of the lunch room! by Mike Siekkinen

When I first became a teacher, I was lucky enough to have several great mentors who helped me along the way and made a huge positive impact on me. Although most people are willing to give advice, you do not always receive “good” advice.

I thought I might pass on one of the best things that was told to me my first year teaching: “stay out of the lunch room.”

One of my mentors was a wonderful teacher named Bonnie London. Bonnie passed away a few years ago and I know would appreciate being remembered this way. Bonnie was one of my college professors who had previously been a classroom teacher and an administrator. Having her for several classes as a student, she pulled me aside one day for a little one-on-one chat, as hers was my last class and I had just been hired to be a teacher during the next school year. She told me to make her one promise for my first year of teaching: to not eat lunch in the lunch room with the other teachers. 

When I asked her why as this sounded like an odd promise to ask of me, she explained that there are teachers who complain a lot. When I said I understand that there are always “complainers” and I thought I could handle that, she said, “It’s more than just complaining.”

She explained that there is a lot of negativity and general bad talk that occurs between teachers and it is easy to fall into that mindset. She said stay away from it all, especially your first year, as it’s hard enough surviving your first year without falling onto the gossip, trash talk and bad attitudes from a few teachers. I promised her I would do this and kept that promise my first year teaching. When I saw her next she asked me if I was, in fact, keeping my promise. I have done this now every year, having just completed my 14th year teaching. I open my classroom as a safe haven for students during lunch instead of going to the lunch room and sitting with the other teachers. For the students who need to get away from the noise or who are just having a bad day, they know they can come to Dr. Siekkinen’s room and that that is OK. I typically have a dozen students each day eating in my room.  I know this has made a difference in who I have become as a teacher and I pass this same advice on to other new teachers.

Negativity breeds negativity. How do you manage to keep a positive attitude?


Dr. Mike Siekkinen, a retired U.S. Navy submariner, became a teacher as a second career. He teaches history at St Marys Middle School as well as Adult and Career Education at Valdosta State in Georgia.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Jumping to Conclusions by Andy Jobson

We live in an age dominated by sound bites and hashtags—simplistic thinking and immediate gratification. I like some parts of it, like being able to call up the next episode of a favorite TV show without having to wait for another week (or, in the case of shows I like, never having access to these obsolete shows), but I am deeply concerned about the trend.

This became more evident to me over the summer as I watched the responses to the news cycle, specifically to the deaths of two black men from police shootings in the course of just a few days. Both are undoubtedly tragedies, but in both cases, as with previous shootings, people rushed to judge the situation before having all the facts.  Without getting political, I want to encourage teachers to remember just how important it is to teach the process of gathering evidence, of considering alternative scenarios, and of waiting instead of “rushing to judgment” for something we hear about on social media or a news update.


I fear that many teachers are not emphasizing this important skill.  At the NEA Conference in July, I was helping izzit.org provide free DVDs.  Many teachers were quite excited to realize that the resources were indeed free to them (thanks to generous donors!), but I remember one who was looking at the “Raise the Wage” DVD.  I noted that the program tried to be as even-handed as possible but did indicate that maybe raising the wage was not such a great idea. 


Upon hearing this, she immediately huffed that that was a ridiculous idea, that she believed firmly in raising the minimum wage.  When I gently suggested that perhaps her students would benefit from hearing both sides, as she obviously felt strongly about the issue, she left pretty abruptly.  It’s a good reminder to me to be willing to listen to both sides and to encourage my students to do the same. This doesn’t mean I can’t determine who has the better answer, but I need to model the process of inquiry instead of immediacy.  Perhaps you will benefit from the reminder as well.

An educator of 22 years, Andy Jobson has taught government, economics, and U.S. History. Currently teaching English literature at Riverside Military Academy in Gainesville, GA, he’s also  been an administrator, a STAR teacher twice, and taught elementary school with Teach for America.