Learning Student Names

Yearbook1As a classroom teacher now in my 12th year, I know learning student names is difficult for me. I also know I get very nervous speaking in front of groups, unless I know the audience. So, the quicker I learn the names of students each year, the more comfortable I feel. I suspect the students feel the same way; the quicker I learn their names, the more comfortable they feel.

Some teachers are fabulous at learning student names. I am not!!! I realized I learn names best from repetition, usually from passing back papers. For me sometimes, this does not occur until the second week of school. Until then, I am sunk. To practice repetition, I am trying something different this year. My online gradebook has photographs of most of my incoming students. Why not use this to study… but how? As a student, I practiced mindless repetition through studying index cards (i.e., large amounts of Latin vocabulary or Geometry theorems). I could do the same with student names, since I have the photographs.

I have decided to use an iOS app for flipcards and make a study game out of my students’ names and faces. I reviewed Quizlet, StudyBlue, and Flashcards+ by Chegg against three criteria. It had to be free; it had to allow me to add pictures to cards; and it must allow me to “hide” cards I knew and only practice those I did not know. I found Flashcards+ by Chegg to do all three.

In the Chegg app, you can create your own deck(s) or import common study criteria (great for other classroom applications). I put all of my students into one deck, not a separate deck for each class period. I wanted to make my memorization more challenging, but I also wanted a way to keep the students separated by class. So, I put student pictures on one side of the card and student names + period number on the other side. The Flashcard+ app allows me to sort and practice cards with “period 5” on them (though I just typed “5”). So, I can still practice all the names or just those of a certain class.

The process of using the Flashcard+ app (or any of the others really) does have drawbacks.

Mobile-only setup. In all three cases, I could only set up pictures on cards on the iOS app. This meant I had to save the student pictures to my camera roll, then upload them into the app. This was very tedious. I wanted to create a database in Google Sheets then import (or copy) the data into the app. None of the apps I reviewed let me do this with pictures (text only? yes.). The mobile-only set up is a drawback as I am quicker with this sort of work on a computer rather than a tablet or phone.

Laborious. The setup was not smooth. I have four classes of new students (the fifth class is a returning class of seniors who I already know). Setting up four classes of students took me about two hours on my phone. If not for my extreme handicap learning names, this might have been too long.

Missing faces. Yes, if students move into the district or were for some reason were absent from picture day, their faces will not appear. I have six such cases in my entire roster of students.

Errors. I am sure there are database errors for names of faces or typing errors on my end (hopefully nothing more than a misspelled name). This issue is problematic in any system and should not keep you from setting up electronic flash cards.

So, what do I hope to gain from two hours of set-up labor? I should know all my students’ names on the first day of school. Measure that however you will, but I think it will be awesome. So far, after an hour of “studying”, I know 85% of the names! I was going to struggle for a week (or two) to know some names; now I will be better prepared. What an impression to make! Greet your students at the door with a smile, a handshake, and a correct greeting! For me, the setup was very long, but I will reap huge rewards from this work. Good luck and enjoy your new school year.


Your First Days of School

I’m no Harry Wong, but after teaching for nine years, I have some very important suggestions for the first day(s) of school for both new teachers and the veterans among us.

I’ve been accused of being a reductionist in my views of education; I make complex issues too simple for some. I don’t think my reductionist view is nearly as bad as some of my critics point out, but I thought I should start with admitting their view. I take such a simple view toward education because I think most educators overthink education, making complex issues even more difficult to resolve. We, after all, are simply helping youth along a path of discovery. It’s pretty simple.

Let us begin with two scenarios.

Scenario #1- The First Faculty Meeting

One of your first teacher days back in the coming weeks will be for your first faculty meeting. I’ve taken part in these meetings for nine years, with many different principals and variations. Here’s what happens often. The administrator introduces new staff (usually with an ice-breaker of sorts), shares what is new, reviews the important rules for the school, and reviews expectations for teachers and students. I have experienced these meetings take upwards of three hours. I’m a pretty good listener, but in that time, there is information I will forget and have to revisit. My colleagues and I, knowing these meetings are long, are not excited for them. Yes, we understand the meetings are important, but they are long and difficult to get through.

Scenario #2- A Two-Hour Business Dinner

Teachers do not get to many business dinners, but let’s follow this thought example through. If you are invited to dinner with a new boss, you likely arrive at that meeting a bit apprehensive with many questions in your mind. What can I expect from this boss? Will my past practices be good enough or will I need to change? Will the boss like me? Will we get along? With these questions, and likely many others, what would happen if your new boss spent three-quarters of the time, 1.5 hours of your dinner, lecturing you on his expectations for you? What is your impression of your boss then?

Returning to reality, your first day of school with students is right around the corner. If the first day of school is like scenario #1, what good is it for students? Students who are required to mostly sit through seven hours of ice-breakers, new changes, rules, and expectations will likely forget most of them. This follows the same logic of why teachers should not lecture all day. If you don’t like full-day of lecture-based professional development, DO NOT DO THIS TO YOUR STUDENTS! Especially on the first day of school.

In scenario #2, the boss loses a great opportunity to make an awesome first impression. If you get talked to in this scenario, you are likely to think of your boss as autocratic. You might feel like your opinion is worthless. You might even feel like your boss expects you to act unprofessionally; otherwise why would he lecture you on his expectations and rules? You don’t break rules. This isn’t necessary.

You only have one chance to make a first impression on your students. Please think carefully about the impression you want to make.

I do not profess that these suggestions work for everyone, but below are some suggestions I have found very successful. I encourage you to think critically about them and whether they will work for you.

1. Get personal– Your students want to meet you. You want to get to know them. Make a strong first impression on the first day of school, the first moment you get to meet the students. Stand in the hallway all day. I like greeting students at the door, handshakes, hellos, simple conversations. I like to welcome students into our classroom. I’m not a fan of ice-breaker activities, but whatever it takes for you to develop a personal relationship with students, please do it. I put together a “Who is Dr. Staub” video slideshow for students [this year’s isn’t done yet…]. It establishes immediately that I am a person, not just a teacher. I encourage them to share their personal stories with me over the coming days.

2. Limit the rules– I teach high school (11th grade to be specific), so I know this applies differently to me. The more rules you have, the more it sets the tone that you expect the students to break the rules. Think about which rules are critical. I go over NO RULES the first day. In fact, I don’t list rules in a syllabus, hang them on my wall, or expect parents and students to sign. In fact, I have very few rules beyond: RESPECT EACH OTHER. I used to have laundry-lists to go over with students and get signed, and I found I would rather simply expect students to do good. When students break my expectation of respect, I simply talk to them. If the behavior continues, then I increase my behavior modification plans. It’s not about rules; it’s a personal approach to understanding students. Isn’t that what we want?

3. Don’t assign seats– Why do you need to? Here are the main arguments: (a) It helps me get to know the students. If you focus on a personal approach the first few weeks, greeting students at the door every day, you’ll learn names much quicker. (b) It helps control the classroom. Again, this presumes students will act up. If you let them pick their own seats and they act up, change their seats. Don’t presume they will act poorly. (c) It is required for my sub plans. I haven’t had seating charts for two years. Students are creatures of habit- we all are. Within two weeks, students will sit in the same seats anyway. Make a seating chart from their habits. You will likely not be absent by then anyway. If you are, think about what a substitute does. They READ aloud all names for role anyway. How helpful is a seating chart? If your students understand the responsibility of choosing their own seats, the students will act better for the substitute then they will for you. (d) If I make a seating chart, then I can move their seats. I need to mix the class from time to time. Don’t forget, you are the teacher. If you don’t have a seating chart, you can still require students to sit in specific areas. This is actually easier to do when students have a choice most of the time. While I am talking about seats, AVOID SITTING STUDENTS IN ROWS. We live in a connected world. Why isolate students from the genius around them?

4. Teach something– get the students involved- Give the students a positive reason for coming to school. Get into something worthwhile. Heck, make your first day your A+, best lesson of the year. Remember, this is about first impressions. Go BIG. Set the bar high for yourself. Demand the same expectations from your students in everything they do. Wow them!

5. Connect– Let students know how and when you are available, at school and electronically. Invite them to connect with you how you are comfortable. I have a school-specific Twitter and Gmail account. I allow students to chat and tweet me, professionally, at any time. Students who know you are available will come to you more often, even if this is just the hours you are available at school. Send an email home to parents sharing the same information. The more connected your classroom is, the better year you will have.

6. Refine your message– You will say something the first day of school. Practice it, and make sure it aligns with your vision and big goals for your classroom this year. This is why I do not go over rules. I feel rules set the bar too low. Rules tell students what NOT to do. Rather, here are some of the messages I want to work into my message to the class in the first week of school.

“I don’t care about your grade- NOT AT ALL. I care about how much you learn.”

“I expect to fail a lot this year, attempting new practices I am not comfortable with. I expect you to fail too. You cannot push yourself to new horizons by remaining with what is comfortable. If you fail, keep trying. You are only a failure when you give up trying to get better.”

“Effort creates intelligence. If you don’t give 100%, do not expect to get 100% return. It doesn’t work that way.”

“Your learning is personal, but you need others to help you reach your success. We learn best when we learn together.”

So, there it is. Please think carefully about what you do in the first days of school. Do not set the standards and bar too low. Do not talk at your students. Be engaging. Be personal. Smile. Laugh. Challenge their perceptions on what is known. Set the bar high. Repeat this model every day, and you will have the best year of your career.

Dare to change the world

On May 18, 2013, I attended an education “un-conference” called EdCamp in Philadelphia, the birthplace of the movement. At the Saturday conference, I met Angela Maiers (@angelamaiers), who spoke with passion about her believe in student genius. Many educators at the conference were excited about her ideas, but when challenged to implement the vision in their schools, many recoiled. They asked, “What about the standards?” “What is your business plan?” “What if my administration says no?” Perhaps because I am daring, bold, or simply because I like a challenge, I raised my hand and asked to those who doubted- “Why would anyone stand in the way of your students daring to change the world?” I said yes.

The rest of the weekend, I spoke with Angela many times in person and on the telephone. By Monday, I had enough confidence to bring Angela’s and my idea to a set of innovative teachers at the Downintown STEM Academy. These teacher always focus my ambition and provide checks of reality. After a few moments, they agreed we should give this a shot.

I followed by emailing the Headmaster of the school and the superintendent of the district, asking for support for our plan—I wanted Angela Maiers to come to my school for a two-day workshop in the last week of the school year, AFTER students had finished finals. The biggest fear was whether students would show up. They gave me the latitude to continue, and I put aside the doubt and proceeded.

I believe it was Thursday, May 23, that Angela Skyped with some students of mine to discuss the possibility of coming to the Downingtown STEM Academy. The group of about 30 students were very excited. A colleague of mine and I then planned out the two-day event on Friday, May 24. The dates are important because this happened very quickly.

Taking a pause—many times in this process I doubted it would work. Would students show up? Would all teachers support it? Would Angela’s visit be worthwhile? Would Angela be disappointed? Could I organize support from all stakeholders? Would I disappoint them? If I had stopped at any of these breaking points, none of this would have happened. Public education needs risk-takers. Breaking barriers and making school better for your students requires daring and risk-taking. It would have been easy to quit, but my growing network of support kept me going. Voices joined together and said, “Keep going.”

Angela came to my school on June 3 and 4, and still on my way to school on Tuesday, June 3, I had doubts. What if the students didn’t buy in to her vision?

I have a personal belief that students excel with less boundaries; they will use creative, curious, innovate, and investigative means to reach new plateaus of knowledge. Teachers should support these endeavors, not block them with standards, tests, and requirements in schools. Would students buy in to my vision? I had no proof.

Well, Angela has already posted her view of the two-day workshop. More posts are coming.  Below is the proof- in two short days, these are just a few of the organizations my with which my students will change the world.

Do not underestimate the innovation of your students. Do not dare to take risks. Do not say no because everyone else is. Believe you can make an impact and you will. You matter.

Bikes with Benefits (@BikesBenefits)- Supporting emergency medical relief to isolated portions of third world countries. Visit our Facebook page. [youtube:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ShvPMyZi-4o%5D

Brighter Days (@BrighterDaysOrg)- Raising money, raising awareness, saving lives. Taking suicide prevention to the next level. [youtube:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zA0udPIOBk8%5D

Cancer Matters


Lunchbox Notes (@YouMatterLBN)- Lunchbox Notes sets forth on a mission to create a world where smiles are genuine and happiness isn’t rare. A world where thoughts count and actions matter.

Need2Lead (@Need2Lead)- Providing inner city boys and girls, ages 11-15, with a friend and mentor who teaches what leadership truly is.


Valour Organization (@valour_org)- We’re setting out to change the world’s mentality toward mental illness. We are part of @AngelaMaiers #Choose2Matter [youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M2Yw7NObIIY%5D

A Dialogue with Kenneth C. Davis

Friday, March 15, noted author Kenneth C. Davis is coming to the Downingtown STEM Academy to dialogue with students about the modern American presidency. Mr. Davis is the New York Times bestselling author of the Don’t Know Much About® books, including Don’t Know Much About History, which spent 35 consecutive weeks on the bestseller list, and his most recent work, Don’t Know Much About the American Presidents.

Mr. Davis first interacted with students via Skype in October 2012, and he was so impressed with the students’ depth of Humanities knowledge in a STEM school that he agreed to come visit the STEM Academy. During his visit this Friday, Mr. Davis will tour the school and then meet with approximately 200 sophomore and junior students for a question and answer session about the American presidency, with strong emphasis on post-World War II history.

In an attempt to open this dialogue to many schools, I intend to live-stream the event via my UStream channel. The dialogue will last from approximately 12:45 – 2:00PM EDT. You are encouraged to join the conversation on UStream and ask questions via Twitter using the hashtag #KCD1. Please submit questions, and I will try to balance online questions with questions asked by Downingtown students.

If you have questions prior to our event on Friday, please reply below. I hope you are able to join us in a informative dialogue about the modern presidency!

Everyone Can Innovate

Innovation is the buzzword of the 21st century. Perhaps because of the way technology is quickly changing our lives (think Apple, Google, and social media) or because globalism is helping us realize others can do our job just as well (or better) than we currently do. Dan Pink (@danielpink) wrote in his 2006 book, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, Abundance, Asia, and Automation will take over current economics, and if countries do not adapt to innovate and create, existing superpowers will see an end to dominance. For educators, if our job does not adapt to right-brained, innovative teaching, then our students will be ill-prepared for the future.

So, how does one innovate? It’s not a professional development session of “innovative idea-sharing.” Jonah Lehrer, in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works (yes, I know the controversy over his book, but it’s not all plagiarized) found only 1% of Psychology papers published from 1950 to 2000 focused on an aspect of creativity. Perhaps no one is clear on how to innovate and create.

I believe innovation is a life-style, which ultimately leads to new ideas. Like anything else, I do not think innovation is a gift special to a chosen few. I believe innovation is for those who cultivate it; some have a special gift toward innovative thought. This does not mean individuals cannot learn or practice innovation.

To quote Lehrer, “Every creative journey begins with a problem.  It starts with a feeling of frustration, the dull ache of not being able to find the answer.  We have worked hard, but we’ve hit the wall.  We have no idea what to do next.”  As Larry Page said, “If you’re not doing something crazy, you’re doing the wrong things.”

I’ve made innovation a goal of mine this year. I see many, major problems in education. I also know I am equipped to tackle them, but I need to dedicate energy to creative solutions. Here are my notes on what I’ve been practicing so far this year.

1. Innovation requires time. 3M, one of the most innovative corporations in the world, gives engineers 15% of their time to an innovative idea. Google copied this idea, giving engineers 20% of their time (essentially one day a week) to cultivate innovative ideas. Innovation takes time. Do not think you will turn on your creative juices over night.

2. Effort and Focus. Though 3M gives time back to its engineers, 3M also requires dedicated work to the job. Though the work environment is relaxed, this does not mean no work is done. Rather, innovation requires a strong devotion to an idea. Diligent, direct action can help focus the mind and fix problems. Yo Yo Ma believes his ability to improvise only comes after hours upon hours of practice. Without the effort input, he is not creative. Focus to a goal or a problem is important, but focus can also be detrimental. Focus drives the mind outward, to analytic problem-solving. Caffeine and stimulants help. However, such focus limits right-brained thinking. So, while focus does help, only this intense focus is also bad.

3. Relax. For as much as focus can help you accomplish your goals, so can relaxation. We have all experienced this. The one time in the day when you are disconnected, where you have time to yourself—the morning shower! How many a-ha moments do you have in the shower? It’s not coincidence. First, you are most relaxed immediately in the morning. Also, your brain is finalizing the random right-brained connections from nighttime dreaming, and your relaxation in the morning fosters these creative ideas. Daydream. Meditate. Think positive thoughts. Relax. Whatever technique is best for you, practice it daily. Give yourself this time in the morning, when you are most likely to continue the right-brain connections from sleep.

4. Collaborate & Share. One person cannot figure everything out for oneself. Share ideas among colleagues in different fields. Share ideas with new peers and established peers. A mix of new and old ideas will foster creative thought. Encourage this in schools and model this with students. Avoid brainstorming; brainstorming limits creative ideas. Rather, criticize ideas in positive ways, building on what could make bad ideas better. This encourages new ideas to arise.

5. Fail. You cannot achieve ideas without testing dozens of failed ideas before. Do not be discouraged with failure. Reflect on the reason for failed attempts and build toward success.

6. Lead. Innovation in organizations needs leadership, one who is crazy enough to support new ideas. Latch on to individuals in your organization or community who foster innovative thinking. Find a leader who challenges you. If you cannot find someone, become the leader to tackle new problems with innovative peers. Unless leaders support innovative solutions, the new ideas will only support the existing status quo, not the creative solution result desired.

So, what does my routine look like? I’ve taken my own advice this year, and I have enjoyed looking at problems from uncommon vantage points. Here’s what I do.

  • I get up earlier, adding about 10 minutes to my morning routine. With there small boys, sometimes this isn’t enough.
  • I’ve delayed or eliminated caffeine as much as I can, unless I need to have strict focus to one task. This is easier some times than others.
  • I am trying to meditate and pray more often. I prefer the repetition of the Catholic rosary, but I submit I’ve used simple meditation techniques to the same success.
  • I’ve branched out to so many new peers for collaboration that I could ever imagine. This has led to many new ideas I hadn’t known existed previously.
  • I’ve encouraged these ideas with my students and colleagues.

I have not attained innovation nirvana, nor have I had any million-dollar ideas to save education. I have felt more self-aware of the problems around me, and I feel better prepared to identify future problems than I ever had before.

The Need for Collaboration

My school’s Student Commons (or cafeteria), during third period.

When is the last time you worked on a project from start to finish entirely on your own? It’s rare, isn’t it? In some capacity you collaborate with colleagues, professionals in a related field, or with customers who shape your vision. The physical design of most high schools and the curriculum, unfortunately, is organized in a way that encourages individual work, both for the professional development of teachers and for the education of students.

Many high schools are arranged by department; Social Studies, English, Science, World Language, Mathematics all in separate areas of the building. One might argue this is so like-minded colleagues can offer common assessments and share teaching strategies. This could be true if the high school schedule was not further divided into separate periods where one would be lucky to share a period with a similar teacher. Also, demands placed on teachers ultimately means any non-teaching time in school is pre-established for looking at student data, monitoring hallways, contacting parents, grading assessments or preparing daily lessons. A traditional high school offers little time for collaboration. With a little creativity, we can begin to break the mold.

Let’s start with the easiest solutions. Rather than sequestering oneself in a teacher workroom during prep time, open yourself to sitting at a desk in the hallway, in the library, or in the cafeteria. If you make yourself visible, you will find others will sit next to you and chat. Is this always productive? No, but the first step to collaboration is opening yourself to new people and new ideas. You will need to change your physical behaviors for this to happen. In Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, he noted that Jobs built his Apple headquarters with centralized common space. Restrooms were only in this common space, and people were forced to mix. With the physical mixing of individuals, new relationships were formed and new ideas sparked. The first way to increase collaboration in high schools is through opening up to common space.

Our Knowledge Commons (or library) at any given time of the day.
Next, convince your administration to allow talking in the library. Convince them to use the cafeteria during off periods for group work. Get chairs and tables for lobby areas so students can work. Open these physical spaces, limit the rules, monitor the space of course, but open it up. Once these spaces are used, teachers should work there too. This mixing of ideas, between teachers and students, will increase collaboration on projects.

One last idea with physical space—and this one is much more difficult—encourage the administration to let you teach in another wing of the building. Some subjects will find this easier than others, but the more you mix teachers in a building, the more you will share teaching ideas with those outside your discipline. You will collaborate more.

After you open the physical space in a building, open your doors. Search for interested community members to teach a lesson, give a guest-lecture, speak in a native language, or assist in a lab experiment. Many community members want to help, and collaboration outside the building is crucial. Connect with interested educators and community members via social networking. Bring their ideas into your school. Skype with your classes. Travel to visit their school, if funds permit. By connecting with individuals outside my school, I have been able to arrange a New York Times bestselling author for a future visit. We frequently have many interested businesspersons in our building too. These connections are crucial for collaboration.

Once you establish these connections and you mix with others in the building, share your ideas on how to improve your teaching. Build group projects that cross curriculum. Invite experts from the professional field to assist in authentic learning in the classroom. Require your students to communicate digitally with a classroom in another state or country on a project. Students need the ability to build these relationships and work on projects in this way. The global society they will graduate into demands it.

As teachers, we must model effective collaboration and idea-sharing before our students can perform. Students need this skill to succeed in the modern workforce. It is only with collaboration and cross-discipline ideas that one can hope to innovate and perfect education for his or her students. Unfortunately such collaboration is starkly missing from most high schools.

Unless we, as individual teachers, attempt to make the changes, we will continue teaching in a model built in the early 1900s, and our students will suffer for it.

Leading Educational Reform

Many critics argue that public education should change to meet the needs of a changing society; some more hostile critics would like to disband public education in favor of a privatized option.  It is undeniable the need for strong public education for a strong democracy.

Jefferson stated:

“. . . whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that, whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them right.” (as cited in Padover, 1939, p. 88)

Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter stated:

“The public school is at once the symbol of our democracy and the most pervasive means for promoting our common destiny.”

Unfortunately, in my opinion, education looks too similar to a factory-model built in the early 1900s.  Our system, which is vital to our society, is sorely lagging behind the society it should serve.

Tom Whitby (@tomwhitby) hosted an #edchat challenging us to examine who should lead educational reform.  My simple answer, now, is we all must take a part.  Active participation is vital to any democracy, and in America most school are run by local governments, that best represent a true democracy in America.  Yes, America is a republic, but one’s voice counts the loudest at the local level.  Since educational decisions are made at this level, we need to speak up.  Teachers need to attend school board meetings, present to boards, hold public meetings, and sponsor strong reformers for such boards.  In our schools, we need to lead the change for better teaching practices.  We need to hold ourselves and our peers accountable for a higher quality.  We need to actively engage in supporting educational innovators and reformer.  Principals should not run schools simply because they have the longest tenure and the right certificates.  Teachers should demand more in the principal selection process.

While our individual voices are sparse, we need to connect our voices through social media.  So many good ideas are spread through Twitter and blogs, but the ideas need to lead to action.

George Washington was did not join the American Revolutionary movement with the intent to lead and become the first president.  Rather, he was chosen among his fellow reformers to lead the new nation to prosperity.  Our educational reform movement must arise the same way.  Our many voices need to combine as one voice.  We should support a Declaration of our unity, and begin calling for conventions to change the system.

Radical?  Yes.  Do we have any other choice?  Complacency breeds complacency.  Inaction does not fix problems.  The institution that was created to support the American Republic, in my opinion, has fallen behind the needs of society.  Quick, strategic reform is necessary.  If action is not taken, we may need an education revolution.