Thursday, June 16, 2011

School Spirit/Sweet Ties

I didn't learn to have school spirit until I was an upperclassman in college.  School gear wasn't my thing, identifying with a school mascot wasn't, and the last thing I wanted to do was be associated with the cheerleaders, pep club squad, and athletes that seemed to make up the face of both my high school and college.  Only after investing a sizable sum of my own money in a college education, as well as attending a school with a nationally renowned sports team, did I start to budge on the issue.

When I started working in my current position, many of the things that made up a school culture at the schools I attended (and student-taught for) were missing, though I was too wrapped up in dodging pencils and various other projectiles to notice.  Our school had no mascot and its only logo was difficult to rally behind, as it was the outline of a computer (as it turns out, few athletes and students want to identify themselves as a piece of plastic a silicon).  There were no official school colors, which led to an odd mix of jerseys, ranging from purple and white to gold and blue, and an awkward, generic basketball as on the front of our championship basketball team's jerseys.

About half-way through my second year I began listening more carefully to what other staff members thought should be done to improve the school.  By then it was much easier to tell the difference between the chronic complainers and the people who really wanted to move the school forward.  Several of the latter were pushing an initiative to create a more college-going culture, as many of our graduates do not go to college or if they do, they attend a small community college that has less than rigorous academic programming, to say the least.  This push by our staff included wearing college gear, posting what colleges we attending on our classroom doors, talking up our own college experiences, etc.  Nothing astronomical, but a valid attempt to bring the idea of attending a good school to the forefront of our students minds. 

For me, it also involved a tie- a delightful $45 tie I purchased from the university I attended.  Once I wore it several times and determined that I really enjoyed it, it struck me that what I really wanted was a tie with my current school logo on it.

Only I wanted a new school logo before I invested in a tie with our logo on it.

And so a School Culture Initiative was born.  In order to justify spending loads of my time and student time on getting me a new tie, I designed a project that would run a full semester, was tied to state standards and gave some real world experience in polling, economics, letter-writing, and contacting and working with professionals outside of the school.  We started the School Culture Initiative by tying it in to our Roaring 20's unit- a time in the U.S. when there was dramatic change in American culture.  We used our study of the period to springboard into a project that was designed to alter the very culture of our school- including rebranding ourselves so I could get another rather nice tie.

With the blessing of the School Leadership Team (SLT), we organized school-wide polls on what the official school colors should be and what our new mascot should be.  After that we worked with a professional designer to create a new logo that incorporated the mascot and colors, that could be used to rebrand the school community, and would be professional, yet versatile enough to work on everything from business cards to basketball jerseys.

The students also worked to plan the first pep rally in school history.  This was to be the place where the new logo would be revealed, where the new basketball jerseys were to be made public- a place where we could celebrate our championship basketball team, and hopefully, if the stars aligned, I could wear a brand new, newly branded necktie.

What came to pass was a strong step in the right direction for our school.  After months of work and organization, as well as the use of funds generously donated by the New York Yankees and even more generously donated by our school's principal, we put a t-shirt with the new logo emblazoned across the front on the backs of every student and teacher in the school at precisely the same time (an organizational nightmare to be sure) and marched the whole lot of them all out to a street we'd blocked out for the event.  It was the first time in our school's history that the entire school was in one place, as we do not have a gym or an auditorium.  Our gym teacher, a towering Irishman who commands attention fairly easily, M.C.'ed the event and pulled the crowd of students around him as our students danced, our tiny school band marched and played, and athletes received trophies for their accomplishments this year.  After an hour the students walked away in their brand new t-shirts (as did I- regrettably there was no tie involved, but I was ecstatic to have the shirt) with a much better idea of what we'd been referring to when we said "pep rally".  We also knew what to start working on for our school's first homecoming in the fall.

After teaching for a couple of years, and especially since my high school glory days, my perspective on many things in education have changed substantially.  Two years into my current position it struck me that the symbols, mascots, colors and various other school spirit pieces are incredibly important for many students and teachers to feel as though they are part of  something larger- a community.  Hopefully our rebranding is just the beginning of a major shift in the way our students view their school and school community.  Hopefully the momentum that's been started carries us into the next major stage in our school's history.

And this summer I'll find a flipping awesome website that will make me a shiny new tie. 

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Hook Up the Germans- Online Language Learning

"These N*ggas betta give me some points!  I wanna hook up my Avatar!"

These were the words uttered by one of my miscreant Germans last week when he was showing interest in learning the language for the first time in months. 

Earlier this year I spoke about how the Germans were on track to do better this spring than they had in the fall.  For the most part this has been true, though the process of getting through our textbook curriculum has still been slower than I'd like.  With a month of school left, we're about half-way through the book that is supposed to take one full school year to complete.

This lack of apparent progress has been due to several things: one, the short classes the Germans have had this year (just 45-minutes a day); two, our shift from a textbook to an online curriculum and back to a textbook, inspired in part by the lack of delivery of instructional materials resulting  from the incompetence of a third party; three, my inexperience as foreign language instructor; and four, the Germans' absurd behavior nearly every single day.

In part because we're so far behind and in part because this is the time of year that I need to start looking toward next fall and potentially trying out a few things I believe will be successful then, we've switched to a second online language acquisition platform.  When I told the Germans we were going to do this, they literally screamed and yelled at such an incredible decibel level that they cracked up, stopped briefly, and then whined about how the last platform sucked so bad.  I assured them that the new one wasn't as bad and told them I didn't particularly care if they wanted to do it or not- it was going to happen.

And so, with a resolutely defiant attitude about online foreign language learning, my students started in on a new platform last week.  

Two days in it was clear that this one was different.  This was in part the result of a function on the platform the students could use to design and clothe an Avatar (see image above) using dollars they earned by completing various foreign language activities and in part due to the fact that it was far easier to navigate and simply had better content than the other platform.

At any rate, two days in a student who had basically given up as a German and was waiting for his F at the end of the semester could be quoted as saying:

       "These N*ggas betta give me some points!  I wanna hook up my Avatar!"

Since then, the student has completed more work than in previous months, though expectedly not as much as all of his classmates (due to his lack of prior language development).  Regardless, he's doing better with the language and has convinced me in part to use the platform in my classroom next year.

Next year I'll have two levels of beginning German in one classroom.  Powerspeak, the platform we just started using, will allow me to provide more individualized instruction to my students and allow for multi-leveled Germans in my elective classroom.  A last point I should include is that this is not an entirely self-contained language instruction program (like Rosetta Stone), but it does require a certified teacher to grade subjective portions of the course and, as I have found, does require a person knowledgeable about the platform and about the German language to really help the students navigate the language and and technology.

As for the Germans, if their Avatars could just do battle once in a while, they'd be completely sold and then some.