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 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

I have used 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 - 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 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.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Use izzit! by Mike Siekkinen

To start off, I am not an employee of izzit. I am a public school teacher who happens to be a big fan of izzit products. Being this is a blog on the izzit site; I cannot assume that everyone who reads this knows about izzit products, so thought I would do a shout out about the awesome stuff that is here on this site for you, free of charge. 

First of all, my favorite - the videos! Although I have my favorites (namely 2081 and Pennies a Day), they are all high quality products and you cannot beat the price! The video 2081 is the only video I have shown in 14 years of teaching that I have had students ask to borrow and take home to watch again with their parents. All I can say is WOW! 

I have used about 2/3 of the titles offered to supplement instruction in my classroom. Included with each video is a lesson plan which can be very helpful when including these in your plans. I tend to like hard copies of the DVD. This is mainly because they can be used without the internet and I can also have these available for a substitute who cannot log into a computer. Most titles are also streaming (with a few exceptions). If you are new to izzit and like the products, I encourage you to tell other teachers. And tell izzit as well. These great resources, while free to us, do cost the wonderful funders who make it possible. So your feedback lets them know that their investment in education is appreciated and well used.

What’s your favorite izzit video?

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 10, 2016

izzit: Educational Treasure Found by Ed Tooley

FREE! That word caught my attention as I perused my list of e-mails. Teachers receive numerous educational advertisements over the internet daily. Most products are unattainable because of the cost. At the school where I teach, there happened to be a “freeze” on all purchases because of budget issues. But this advertisement said, “Free.” We could afford free.
I was suspicious and skeptical. But the name izzit also had a curious ring to it. I had to know what it was all about.

I am so thankful that I made the effort some years ago to investigate this free offer. I have been able to show a number of videos over the years. The response is always positive. The videos are short in length, but deep in substance. The content  makes students and teachers think, discuss, analyze and pursue educational issues that are meaningful and weighty.

In graduate school, educators are taught, or should I say ingrained with, an effective thinking strategy called Bloom’s Taxonomy. The purpose of this strategy is to help teachers lead students into higher-level thinking activities. The taxonomy has six levels. The lowest level begins with basic knowledge, and then each level proceeds to higher-level thinking skills, such as analysis and evaluation. The products track with this method very well. 

The videos make students think about serious and important subject matter, like property rights, markets and entrepreneurship. As an educator, I search high and low for materials and activities that are both interesting and substantive. The products creates hit the mark on both counts. They're student-friendly, which captures their attention. The subject matter encompasses a topic that make students analyze and defend their positions, rather than just recalling information by rote. The videos come with supplemental materials that will put a smile on any teacher’s face. (We save so much valuable time.)
I have used the products mainly with my seventh grade social studies classes. It amazes me to observe, first-hand, the quality of ideas and solutions that come from these young people, as they confronted such important issues.
Allow me to share a quick story: Not long after I received my first DVD, I shared my enthusiasm of the quality of the product with the economics teacher. She showed her senior economics class the DVD I recommended, and a magical moment occurred. After viewing the DVD, a senior economics student went out of her way to inform me just how much she enjoyed the video. She went on and on about how much her class enjoyed both the content, and the quality of the program.
One more story:  At a teachers’ conference, I was a seminar
speaker. I had the opportunity to share the products with those in attendance. After a few minutes of sharing, a fellow teacher commented about the cost of the products. "What is it?” she asked.

I replied, “How did you know the name of the company?” I also explained the mind-blowing concept of FREE resources for educators.

Are you looking for great resources to use with your students? Well…look no further…this izzit!

Thursday, October 6, 2016

High School Reunions by Andy Jobson

I reached a milestone this year—30 years since high school!  And for the first time, I decided to take the time and trouble to travel back home to Slidell, Louisiana, to see some members of my graduating class.  I suspected that most of my closest friends wouldn’t be there, and I was right, but it was still relatively enjoyable.  I did decide, however, that while some things have certainly changed, other things never will.

Our first event was in a bar on a Friday evening for a ‘meet and greet.’  The good news was, it was well attended. The bad news was, it was well attended—the crush of people made conversations rather difficult, and southern Louisiana in June is hot, even after dark.  Of course, in our senior year, many people spent many Friday nights drinking somewhere (although I was not one of those people), so it was déjà vu all over again.  On Saturday night, we met at a nice establishment for a buffet dinner, but conversation was again limited due to extremely loud music.  Again, it reminded me of the high school dances I attended.  The photographer hired for the event made sure he got pictures of the football players, the cheerleaders, and the dance team.  For some reason, chorus, drama club, literary magazine, academic rally participants, National Honor Society—in fact, everything I did in high school—was deemed unimportant by this photographer.  Some things never change.

I did enjoy learning the occupations that various members of the class had pursued, and it’s interesting to see the surprises of people who rose far above what their high school record suggested. I’ll admit, one reason I hesitated to go back was that I worried a little about comparisons, just as we all did in high school.  I expect, since I graduated at the top of my class, most people thought I was among the more likely people in my class to become highly successful—which of course is a term that can be very difficult to define.  I think I am highly successful, as I am happily married, I enjoy my work, and I have a significant impact on dozens of students each year.  When I told people that I was a teacher, however, I generally got a reaction like “That’s great!”  or “I could never do that!” but then they didn’t really seem interested in hearing more.  I probably should have hunted down other teachers in the group to swap war stories.

I wish I had had more time to visit with classmates, and I wish more had been there to visit.  The experience did remind me, though, that our students will surprise us.  As a result, we need to make sure we’re investing in all of our students, not just those who seem “most likely to succeed.”  

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.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Take care of those new teachers! by Mike Siekkinen

For those of us that have been doing this for a fewyears (or more), it is often hard to remember that first year teaching. Mine was a baptism of fire. I was hired provisionally and did not do student teaching. Having been an instructor in the US Navy and having several degrees including a Master’s in Education, I thought I would be ready for anything. I thought because of my magnetic personality, quick wit and experience that students would be sitting at my feet waiting for me to feed them knowledge and then thanking me for the experience. A kind of “kumbaya’ moment. 

Boy was I wrong!  A number of times that first year I asked myself, “What did I get myself into?”

More than one day I went home thinking I did not want to do this. If not for some very good, experienced and kind teachers looking out for me, I would have floundered. 

So what I am saying is make the extra effort and look out for the new teachers in your school. Do the daily “check” with them as to how they are doing or if they need any help. Make the effort to get to know them. In other words, remember your first year teaching and how it was challenging, scary and maybe lonely. With a little extra attention, you could make a huge difference and make that first year teachers life better (while also helping the students).
Step up and mentor one of the newbie teachers. 

Have you mentored any new teachers? Do you have any advice for the newbies? Does your school have a formal mentoring program?  

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.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Books from Other Countries by Wendy Buchanan

As a teacher, I am constantly looking for resources that will enhance the quality of educational opportunities for my classroom, while continually emphasizing the importance of my students’ responsibilities to their school community and families.  I try to encourage a “market,” if you will, among the people who help our students grow to be productive citizens – the parents and teachers who, together, educate our children. 

As a result, each year, I divide my class into groups where students must live as a fictitious family. They have to budget, balance a checkbook, invest in the stock market and learn about assigned countries of origin. They ended up learning about famous inventors from different countries, all the while developing valuable life skills.

After attending a Winning Ideas Weekend in San Francisco with my husband, a former Teacher of the Year, I participated in izzit’s Win-Win Trading Game and knew instantly that I could use this activity in my own 4th grade classroom.  I finally understood some of what my husband had been talking about all these years. At first, I struggled with the economic concepts with which my husband wished to “enlighten” me. I resisted the idea of these concepts being taught at a grammar school level. But that all changed.

It was apparent that a key concept such as free trade and the benefits of a free-market competitive society, indeed, had a place in the elementary classroom! I was ecstatic about the possibility of exposing the winning ideas of freedom into the minds of these youngsters. The question of how this would happen lingered.

It wasn’t until two years later that the idea came to me… Each year our school receives donated books. So how could we distribute these books most effectively? We decided to use izzit’s Win-Win: A Trading Game. I viewed my free copy of the Win-Win Trading Game DVD to brush up on how it should be played. And it occurred to me that our “fictitious families” from all over the world would be the perfect situation to bring the concept of free trade to the fourth grade classroom. 

Students were asked to sit with their “family” in a “country-of-origin.” Each was given a book in a sealed paper bag. Students could either keep their book or trade with the other members of their family; suddenly they had a choice.  A discussion followed regarding their limited choices within their countries. Before the students understood where this lesson was going, they insisted on trading with “other countries.”

Trading was now permitted with the other countries, and students quickly began to search for those particular books that were of interest to them. They understood, firsthand, how the simple act of being able to trade freely with the class led to a major increase in their satisfaction.

Discussion turned to global trade and the clothing everyone was wearing that morning.  Clothing tags were identified, and the origin of the clothing was mapped out on individual student maps and on the large classroom map of the world. Students became aware of the global connection associated with their clothing, and witnessed a real life example of just how free trade makes more people satisfied. In the end, my students realized the much larger picture: our freedom to choose what we trade and with whom we trade makes for a better world.

By placing this video in my hands, has given me the necessary tools to not only reach my students this year, but for years to come. I have already lent the DVD to my fellow grade-level teachers. And during our school’s next book giveaway, all 4th grade students will be participating in the trading game. With the addition of other “countries,” the overall satisfaction of the books donated will undoubtedly increase while promoting the concept of free trade.

By producing one high-quality video targeting a specific concept involving liberty, teachers have the opportunity to educate and enlighten millions of students, allowing them to become productive citizens. Thanks!

“The most important single central fact about a free market is that no exchange takes place unless both parties benefit.”  -Milton Friedman

Friday, September 23, 2016

Book Review - Teaching to Change Lives by Howard Hendricks (Review by Andy Jobson)

I recently decided to re-read Teaching to Change Lives by Howard Hendricks. While much of the content is directed to Sunday School teachers, there are several sections that I think are appropriate to any educator. The ideas below all come from his chapter, “The Law of the Teacher.”

1.    As teachers, we must consistently grow.  Like many of you, I try to keep up with a reading program.  Hendricks reminded me of the importance of spending time thinking of what we’re reading.  He says, “If you have an hour set apart to read, try reading the first half hour and use the second half hour to reflect on what you read.  Watch the difference it makes.  You’re reading too much if you reflect on it too little.”  Good thing I read this in summer when time was a little more available, but the advice seems relevant at any time of year.

2.    “The good teacher’s greatest threat is satisfaction—the failure to keep asking, ‘How can I improve?’”  Pre-planning has all sorts of details to attend to, but have you asked yourself how your ideas about teaching have changed over the last year?  With the separation of a few months, what worked and didn’t work last year?  What do you wish you had done differently?  What new insights about people, or your subject, have you gained that will impact your methods or curriculum?

3.    In addition to reading books, we should learn to read people.  That includes getting to know your students outside of the classroom whenever possible.  Some of my colleagues have distributed notecards in the first week of school and asked their students to write down some biographical information, including things like “languages spoken at home,” “favorite hobbies/activities,” “Something people don’t know about me is __________,” or “My attitude toward [this subject] is ________________.”  The value of such cards is twofold:  first, if you can reference the material in class, you demonstrate that you are interested in their lives; second, you can use the details in the building of bridges—the ability to relate your lessons to something important to your students.

Most of us spent at least some time reflecting over the summer.  Don’t neglect that task as the new school year begins and your schedules get more hectic.  If anything, it’s even more important now.

Have a great year!

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.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Is it an izzit day? by Elizabeth Harris

What do you read when you have no books and a high-school classroom full of struggling readers?

Nearly a decade ago I had to answer that very question as I began a new chapter in my career – teaching English and Academic Literacy at MacArthur High School in San Antonio, Texas. During the interview process, my principal challenged me both professionally and personally. She explained that my classes would be full of students who need a teacher to see beyond their well-documented disabilities and challenges. Enthusiasm for what you are teaching and respect for the students must be displayed every day. You must believe in them even when they don’t believe in themselves. Can you do that while teaching students who are struggling or resistant learners?

Challenge accepted.

The first week of school brought another challenge that I had not anticipated. My classroom was nearly empty. A few desks and small tables were scattered amidst four white walls, but there was not a single book in the classroom. No books, no bookshelves, not even a filing cabinet.

My search for high-interest, expository texts or current event-based materials began immediately.

During this time, I discovered I was thrilled to find an organization dedicated to providing quality teaching materials. Although the emphasis of the materials is primarily in the economic or government and business realm, the topics readily lend themselves to cross-curricular learning experiences.

In my Academic Literacy classroom, From Poop to Profits becomes a lesson about problem solving, innovation, and overcoming obstacles.

Bee the Change becomes a lesson about learning to take risks in the face of hardship, and the importance of being committed to follow through in order to effect change for your family and community.

Paradox of Progress becomes a lesson about facing change. When is change good? When is technology enough? Or too much? Who decides?

The Singing Revolution becomes a lesson about individual acts of heroism, the power of choice, and the resilience of the human spirit.

Each engaging video depicts real people facing real challenges and demonstrates the importance of perseverance and individual choice. My students cheer whenever they see the icon. “Is it an izzit day?” is a favorite question.

Whether teaching my struggling readers, students with learning disabilities, or second language learners, provides excellent educational resources for teachers that can easily be adapted to teaching any level of secondary students. Teacher guides coupled with quality films and documentaries depicting real world situations provide students with authentic learning opportunities that extend beyond the classroom walls. In my classroom, videos frequently serve as springboards for student-driven, inquiry-based research projects. This type of learning promotes critical thinking, problem solving, and higher level processing as well as collaboration.

Several years ago after reading a current event article from titled “Kidneys for Sale”, even my most apathetic student had an opinion. We paired this with a similar article and then viewed a segment of the video from the Drew Carey Project: Vol. 1. My students were engaged and did not stop talking about this topic even as we were ready to move on. So, I changed my lesson plans. Students continued generating meaningful questions and talking with their parents outside of class – about organ donors and organ transplants.

Their momentum carried us from learning about how to become an organ donor to learning which other organs can be successfully transplanted. As students questioned, we expanded our research. The culminating effect that year is that students began to learn why some people need organ donations. And they wanted to do something to help. One young lady challenged her family to begin eating more vegetables and become healthier so that they won’t need organ transplants. Others decided to raise awareness about how to become an organ donor.

Momentum continued and one final project brought all of my classes together in a collaborative effort. Students’ inquiry-based research led them to learn about several diseases such as cystic fibrosis, diabetes, and Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD). When students read an article about a young boy with DMD and learned it is a fatal childhood disease that affects boys, they wanted to do something. Their ideas flowed.

Students planned, developed, and carried out several events on campus and in the community to raise $1,500.00 dollars toward research for finding a cure. Through a grant proposal, students published a calendar outlining their journey and continuing efforts to raise awareness for their cause. Calendars were sent to principals, counselors, and librarians at each middle school and high school campus in our district.

Instead of focusing on their own challenges, this project provided a platform for students to realize their potential and celebrate their ability to impact the world around them. Participation at this level is empowering.

Curriculums may change and textbooks will come and go, but current event updates and educational videos remain a constant in my classroom because they provide opportunities for students to grow and learn together