Julia Kivlin Volleyball Tournament, 2015

As teachers, we all know learning is much more than what happens in school between 7AM and 3PM. Learning is also much more than the homework we assign or the extracurriculars in which students participate.

Last evening, I had a blast playing in a staff and student volleyball tournament to benefit the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia in memory of Julia Kivlin. Julia passed away before her ninth grade year. I taught Julia’s sister, Kate, and I know the heartbreak of losing a sister to cancer much too young. Last evening’s volleyball tournament was in memory of Julia, who loved to play volleyball.

Three students came to me Friday during school and asked if I wanted to play on their team. The students, outstanding sophomore volleyball players, assured me we would not lose. I have recently found it harder to participate in these events, with a family of young boys, but now that they are getting older, I said yes. Thanks to Sophie, Jasmine, and Mary, our team was awesome. I think it is fair to say Mr. Lowe, Mrs. Gantert-Lee, Emily, and I were just role players. On such a superb team, we dominated. It was not until our last two games that we fought hard. We made it to the final game but were defeated.

Our schools are more than the building we occupy eight hours a day, roughly 200 days a year. We are a community that grows, learns, competes, celebrates, and unfortunately grieves together. To the Kivlin family, Julia will always be remembered because of a strong Downingtown community that will always celebrate her life.


Two years ago, I attended my first EdCamp at its birthplace- Philadelphia! Going in, I was reluctant that I would learn anything new. When I left, I was overwhelmed with new ideas; I have never had that experience with professional development. The EdCamp, unconference model of professional development, opens professional development in a way many teachers never experience.

Rather than the sit-and-get professional development we all experience, EdCamp encourages multi-directional, collaborative, shared experiences from professionals, both leading the session and in the audience. This is the first part of the EdCamp I love. You are expected to contribute. In fact, the leader of your session is not the expert on the topic. It is expected you come to participate, share, and take away new ideas. If you do not participate, you miss out. The second part of EdCamp I enjoy is “the rule of two feet.” If you happen to attend a session you realize is not benefiting you, you are expected to leave and find another session. You do yourself no good to listen to shared ideas that do not apply to your educational situation.

After such a great first experience with the EdCamp model two years ago, I encouraged colleagues to attend EdCampPhilly last year. We had a blast. By inviting some DASD colleagues and their friends, I made local connections, shared great DASD teaching practices, and had a blast.

But now, it’s our turn. Kristie Burk enlisted a few daring individuals to pull together an EdCampDtown. We need your help. First, we need your expertise. Come share the best practices and wisdom you practice every day. Second, be bold. Even if you have not led a work session at a professional conference, come, lead and share. I plan on holding sessions on topics I am not comfortable with, so I can learn. For instance, I love using Google Drive, and I like to think I’m pretty savvy with it. My session will encourage the audience to share best practices with Google Drive. There’s always something new to learn with Google!

So, come on out. Share. I can’t wait to learn with you!

#EdCampDtown Saturday, March 21, 8:30-1PM, at the STEM Academy.

A Reflection after Reading FDR and the Jews

FDRIt has been a long time since I have posted to my blog. Let me begin with… I teach International Baccalaureate History of the Americas and International Baccalaureate Economics. All 120+ of my students are IB-level students, which simply means my work is cut out for me. Added to this, I am still in the first years of each course, so I am consistently preparing new material for my classes. I rarely have time to add cogent thought to my blog anymore. Well, until today.

Recently I took a trip to Rome, Italy (more on that to come, I’m sure), and I took along a book I have had on my shelf at school for some time, FDR and the Jews. In about a week, I will have a very short amount of time to teach my students about the Holocaust. I am very comfortable with the topic, having read personal testimonies, witnessed dozens of Holocaust speakers, and read secondary source history of the events. However, one question my students ask often, and I often oversimplify in answering, is why did the United States do nothing about the Holocaust.


Through their book, Richard Breitman and Allan Lichtman present four different major periods in Roosevelt’s presidency and his impetus to help Jews during each period. The first phase focuses on his first term as President. This phase is dominated by the domestic affairs of ailing a troubled nation during the Great Depression. During this phase the plight of American and international Jews takes a back seat to domestic reforms. The second phase focuses on Roosevelt’s second term up until the start of World War Two. During this phase, Roosevelt is more activist toward helping Jews, but his actions toward international Jews is simplified to trying to alter the constrictive US immigration quota. The third phase, in the early stages of World War Two, is fraught with more difficultly. While Roosevelt desires more international action against Axis aggression and in support of international Jews, his hands are again tied by domestic constraints and politically minded decisions. While Roosevelt wants to speak out against the belligerent Nazi regime, he finds such speech difficult lest he be accused of taking sides in a war while leading a neutral nation. The last phase, Roosevelt has undeniable proof of the horrors of the Holocaust, and the United States is active in World War Two, but military objectives and stark reality of saving the remaining European Jews limit his actions.

Breitman and Lichtman present a very interesting account of a personal Roosevelt and his actions during his presidency. They portray an individual who wanted to act, but whose career ambitions, political handcuffs, military objectives, or other roadblocks made action difficult.

Upon completion of this book, I was left with an awful sense that Roosevelt wanted to help Jews internationally, but he could not. A president with grand popular appeal, who stretched the power of the executive more than any other president, who led a country with vast material resources, this President had little power to help the Jews. Thus, I have arrived at this personal conclusion. Individuals should not wait for the actions of governments to protect the lives of those in danger. Even when it seems impossible for a government lay aside and not act, unfortunately it is possible. Yes, while many examples exist of governments helping protect or assist the less fortunate, the Holocaust and recent genocides present the awful conclusion that governments are very slow when responding to such crises. Individual actions save lives. The resistance fighters, those who hid Jews from persecution, those who acted to protect Jews while risking their own fate… these are the models of action and courage in the face of danger. These individuals should inspire modern action against tyranny, abuse, genocide, and injustice.

I do not fault Roosevelt or the United States government for being slow to react to an international crisis. I do not fault current administrations for inaction against international crises. The actions of governments will most always be slower than necessary in times of need. Knowing this, I realize now that when tyranny, abuse, or injustice present itself, I cannot must not wait for others to stand against it. Individual actions are fast, and individual actions save lives.

Should you shop on Black Friday?

Black Friday
Reuters photo from 2014

With Black Friday only one week away, should you venture to the stores, looking for the best deals? Consider the origins of Black Friday and the economics behind the day before heading out. Podcasts below are brought to you by International Baccalaureate Economics students from the Downingtown STEM Academy, the number one ranked high school in Pennsylvania.

A Review of Year Zero: A History of 1945

Image“An astonishing global history of the pivotal year 1945 as a new world emerged from the ruins of World War II.”

Many approaches exist to teaching World War II. The International Baccalaureate (IB) History of the Americas course approaches World War II through its causes, practices, and effects. Doing so, students in the IB History course receive a global view of World War II. This approach is still heavily focused on the military history of the war. Much like the results of World War I causing many global conflict, including World War II, the results of World War II are still impacting the world today. Unfortunately, these results are often overlooked. Teachers and students are too quick to move onto the next topic that the results are simplified.

For this reason, I picked up Ian Buruma’s book, Year Zero: A History of 1945. I hoped I could recommend it to my students as a supplement to understanding the results of World War II while providing me context for better teaching about the war. Buruma’s book is set up in three thematic sections: Liberation Complex, Clearing the Rubble, and Never Again. Within each theme, Buruma examines different regions around the world in 1945. He provides some context for his investigation outside of 1945, but he holds true to his sole focus of 1945. Topics detailed include: retribution of the victors; postwar war crimes trials internationally; the relationship between the USA and USSR that led to the Cold War, with some mention of the Potsdam and Yalta Conferences, the transfer of power in Germany, Japan, France, China, Indonesia, Philippines, and Great Britain in 1945; and some mention of displaced persons worldwide.

Buruma’s book provides clear connection between World War II and the origins of the Cold War, the conflict in Korea, General MacArthur’s career, the second half of the Chinese Civil War, and the Vietnamese conflict in French Indochina. These connections, in particular, are lacking in many histories of World War Two; these are the connections necessary for students of modern world history. Buruma details them very well. I particularly appreciate the last chapter of his book, One World, in which he examines the origins of the United Nations. In this he calls for the need of a global security organization while questioning whether one can be successful. This parallels nicely with Henry Kissinger’s critique of collective security in Diplomacy.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Buruma’s book. It is a quick read, even for someone taking notes. I recommend the book for teachers and very mature readers studying the end of World War Two. The global connectedness of this book make it very applicable as a complement to studying World War Two as a topic for IB History of the Americas. Year Zero includes very graphic detail in the chapters on retribution, which make me hesitate to recommend this book for younger readers. This detail should not be ignored, but as a teacher, I would be more discreet with the detail.

Ian Buruma’s Year Zero: A History of 1945 is an important read for anyone who wishes to understand the full implications of World War Two on the next seventy years.


Your Last Days of School

If you are a K-12 teacher or student, you know what time of year it is. Post-Memorial Day… beginning of June… the end of the school year quickly approaching. Education in the United States is one of the most bizarrely cyclical institutions. Ten months ago we were ending the summer and getting ready for our first days back at school. This cycle is nearly complete, and now many of us are getting ready for our last days of school. It is very easy to slowly march to the end of the school year, but I would like to suggest the last days of school are as important as the first. The last days say a lot about your character, and how you view your role in K-12 education. The last days of school present the last opportunities to leave an impression on students. If you sluff across the finish line, it sends a message. In my ten years of teaching, nothing bothers me more than teachers and students who end the school year with a whimper.

From my ten years of observation and practice, I’ve tried to live by the following simple guidelines for the end of the school year.

Never ignore what is most important. No matter what calendar day it is, teachers and administrators come to school, every day, to serve the students. The last days of school are just as important as the first days. Greet all students (not just the ones you know) with a smile and a hello. Spend all your extra time in the hallways between classes. Greet students with a personal welcome when they come into your class. Students are why our jobs exist. They are the most important, every day of the year.

Don’t quit. In many states, high schools now offer end of course assessments. In Pennsylvania we call these Keystone Exams, in New York, they are the Regents Exams. Add to these exams the Advanced Placement and the International Baccalaureate exams, much of our required coursework ends before the end of the school year. Do not quit! I have yet to meet a teacher who got his or her degree to help students simply master a test. Sprint through the finish line. Use the “extra” time you have after the state, national, or international requirements conclude to do something extraordinary. Consider changing how students look at school. Let them create. Last year, I invited Angela Maiers (@angelamaiers) to my school to inspire this student genius. We are challenging more students in varied and different ways with her return this year. I couldn’t be more excited. Simply because our content is done does not mean students should stop learning.

Reflect and share. Since teachers do not have a next unit to teach immediately, we must reflect on our school year. Because we will have a lengthy break before beginning our work again, we should record what worked and did not work this year. After you reflect, you must share. If you have the time, sit with a colleague who teaches the same subject to share your reflections. If you have more time, share with someone outside your discipline. Both experiences will enrich your practice. Determine how you can make your next school year better. If you feel comfortable, place your reflection online for others to read, critique, and praise. I will post mine this month.

Set goals- aim high. Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end. Make plans for the summer months and the upcoming school year. Keep it simple; make sure you can do it. I suggest making three important goals for the summer. Use your time to refresh, recharge, and reinvent your practice. Again, I encourage you to share your reflections and goals. I am twenty calendar days away from the end of my school year, so I have plenty to do before I reflect.

Finally, when I graduated high school, my principal put these final words on our graduation video. I share them with you here, as they are a good reminder that what we do in school isn’t the most important lesson our students must learn. Happy summer!


Your Last Lesson from Justin Staub on Vimeo.

Ideas for Managing Teacher Workflow

Our lives are… BUSY! Whether you are a teacher, student, office worker, lab technician, artist, or general savant, we live in a digital world; if you are like me, your digital world is messy. Me? I have multiple cloud accounts spread across multiple services. I am active on social media. I have several email accounts. And, I would rather still take notes on paper. Some days, life feels very messy! In a recent Twitter chat (#edtechchat– Monday evenings at 8-9PM Eastern), we discussed how to manage this workflow. I began investigating some options in the past week, and I am proud to report on some success.

1. Managing e-mail. At last check, I have four very active email accounts, and a fifth as a throw-away when I sign up for free stuff. One person cannot manage all the data! One account is a work email from my school. Two others are Gmail accounts set up for Google Drive access. Both of those are active, but I never check them. Technically, those are both school-based accounts that I use primarily with students. I have a third Gmail account for personal use. My last account, as I said, is an older Hotmail account with no contacts or personal data, because a few years ago it was hacked. I still keep it around to collect my unsolicited email. To manage these accounts, I prefer to use the built-in email forwarding features common in most accounts. I mirror both of my work-related Gmail accounts to my work-provided email. If a student emails any of these addresses, all the mail funnels to one account. I have this work account and my personal Gmail account all funnel into my iPad, and I routinely sift through and manage my email on this device. My older Hotmail account is attached to nothing, but it allows me a level of security against unwanted email.

2. Cloud-based storage. I love Google Drive. I use the account to create and share digital files with my students. I have two accounts so I can separate my course content into separate parcels. It also affords a bit more storage! I recently used my old Hotmail account to access Microsoft’s SkyDrive. I have been tinkering with some SkyDrive-based syncing options on my iPad to improve my workflow. But, sometimes I forget where everything goes. For that, I have recently been introduced to the iOS app Cloud Browser. With this app, you can sync your cloud-based files to your iOS device and share to different users. The Google Drive iOS app is frustrating because those of us with multiple accounts cannot access multiple drives at once. Cloud Browser makes this possible.

3. Note-taking. Teachers take notes. I find many of my notes are still on paper. I write more quickly than I type on a device, and I believe electronic devices alter the conversations you have with others. I always carry a Field Notes brand notebook in my pocket. Aside from the plethora of useful features, I like that Field Notes brand products are still made in the United States. But, workflow from a paper notebook is difficult if you don’t carry it with you. Or, so you thought. I was recently introduced to Evernote’s fantastic ability to search for text within an image. Rather than keep my notes in a stand-alone notebook, I now take a picture of my notes and load them to Evernote. I’ve just started this process, but it has already been a lifesaver. In addition, Evernote allows me to schedule notes to address later; if I need to remind myself to attend to an item at home, I can do that very easily.

4. If this, then that. I’m not completely sold on If This, Then That, a website which allows you to create simple “recipes” to bring together your data. I use two “pre-made” recipes now: one sends me an email of the top ten news items I should know about each day, the second records all of my favorited Tweets to my Evernote notebook. Neither of these features are game-changers for me, but IFTTT is worth investigating when bring together your workflow chaos!

Honorable Mention- iCloud. I have not used iCloud much for more than syncing my personal “home” life; mostly pictures and music. However, Apple’s iCloud allows online creation and sharing of documents among peers like Google Drive does. Apple’s recent improvements have made iCloud better, but for efficiency, Apple cannot beat Google. What I do love about Apple’s iCloud is the appearance. The Keynote presentations and the Pages document templates are design-oriented while the Google Drive suite are more efficiency and collaboration-driven. So, I have begun working more in iCloud, but it is still not the greatest program for a connected lifestyle.

As I said when I began, I have data everywhere, in both digital and print format. Hopefully some of these tips give you more ideas to try in your classroom. Good luck!