January 23, 2014

KUED Innovative Teacher Nomination

At the beginning of this month, I received an email from KUED explaining that I had been nominated for their annual KUED Teacher Innovation Awards. At first, I thought it was spam, but after digging a little deeper, I discovered that it was indeed a valid email.

I was speechless. I hadn't even heard of the award, let alone ever thought that I would qualify as a contestant (especially during my second year of teaching). It took a couple days for me to process the anonymous nomination. Who? How? Why? The answer finally came when I drafted my lengthy response to the nomination, which I have posted below.

Why am I sharing this? Because I want to create a time stamp on an important event in my life. I didn't win the competition, but that couldn't be further from my mind. The nomination alone was humbling, but even more, my response dropped my jaw. I had never thought through everything that I do to give my 7th and 8th grade students a good Language Arts education. Call me conceited if you'd like, but I'm proud of myself. :)


Dear KUED,

The reason for my last minute response is that I have been spending the past two days contemplating my classroom and teaching methods so that I might be able to give you a fully rounded response.

I assume you have all of my personal information, but I still want to provide the basics of my teaching background. In addition to what I share in this email, I encourage you to read this blog post that I wrote in 2011. It captures the essence of my choice to become a school teacher (Reading Changes Lives).

In 2011, I was a full-time author. I had just been laid off from a failing civil engineering firm. I didn’t begrudge the layoff, though. It enabled me to tour across Utah, providing free instructional workshops/assemblies to students K-12 (tour summary). I visited every school with one central focus, “Inspiring an unwavering passion for reading across the globe, one community at a time.”

During my tour, I spent two weeks at Excelsior Academy in Erda, UT, where my son was attending 1st grade. I tutored the junior high students in crafting competition-worthy personal essays. Of one hundred and twenty student submissions, over half were recognized as high merit essays and printed in a national publication (www.poeticpower.com). In addition, Excelsior Academy was awarded a handsome grant for finishing as one of the top ten schools in the nation.

The next fall (2012-2013), I was hired at Excelsior Academy as the full-time Language Arts teacher for junior high (through USOE’s ARL Program). My students grew in many different areas last year, but their greatest accomplishment revealed itself when we received our CRT results. My students averaged well above the national average, and 100% of my 8th graders had achieved a 3 or higher in Language Arts.

With that background, let me respond specifically to your requests. As an obsessive “techy,” it is only fitting that I begin by listing the technological resources that I utilize every day in my classroom.
• C.O.W. (Computer on Wheels) charging station, with 30 student Macbook Air laptops

• Dual input projector

o Connection 1 = Apple TV (for my iPad and iPhone)

o Connection 2 = rotated between my two laptops (1 pc, 1 mac)

• Classroom surround speaker system

o Wireless microphone

o Multiple wired inputs (Apple TV, laptops)

• Desktop wireless laser printer with auto duplexing (to print emailed essays and reports)

As a published author, it is second nature for me to ramble in written form. In order to keep my response somewhat concise, I will first focus on my innovative and modern instructional techniques during last year’s lesson plan of The Diary of Anne Frank. After this, I will summarize other frequent and innovative uses of technology in my classroom.

I approached The Diary of Anne Frank with two goals in mind: a well-rounded education about the positive and negative events and effects of WW2 on a girl my students’ age, and to inspire them to appreciate the value of reading and writing literature.

Before diving into the book, I wanted my students to have a solid foundation regarding Anne Frank’s life in 1939 Europe. Consequently, students were given individual assignments to prepare a five-minute PowerPoint presentation on historical, religious, political, and military subjects during that time (all of which Anne Frank encountered). My students jumped at the chance to give a report that didn’t involve essays. They researched and presented with confidence, while I filled in any critical pieces of information. I am overly passionate about the events surrounding WW2, and my enthusiasm bled into my students. For three days and without any prompts from myself, they participated in engaging conversations with the presenters and each other. By the time I gave my final pre-reading instruction, they had already become engaged in Anne’s life without even knowing who she was. Armed with a large supply of tissue boxes and emotional music playing through my surround speakers, I had my students close their eyes as I walked them through the experiences of a WW2 Jew—from the moment of their capture to the extraction of their murdered relatives from gas chambers. Everyone was in tears, myself included, and the experience only strengthened our bond with each other and respect for the many sacrifices surrounding WW2.

During our in-class student reading (powered by a wireless microphone), I utilized many different literary strategies to keep them engaged.
• We sectioned off a portion of my white board, where we wrote the life changing dates and events Anne experienced.

• While reading, my class was divided in half. One half hunted for vocabulary words, which we first defined together with inferencing, then they looked up accurate definitions with dictionaries or via dictionary.com on the student laptops. The other half of the class focused on our comprehension packet, helping to identify pages and paragraphs that would help answer their questions which would later appear in quizzes. When either side found the location of an answer, they would share their discover with the rest of the class. Everyone ultimately had to complete both packets.

• During many sections of the reading, I utilized my in-class technology to bring Anne’s story to life…

o My students expected me to interrupt them frequently as I wandered up and down the aisles with my iPad, posing questions and constantly referencing back to their pre-reading presentations and packets. With the iPad, I frequently projected maps, pictures, and 3D models of Anne’s “Secret Annex.”

o We watched the opening air-raid clip from the Chronicles of Narnia on my projector, then used the laptops to research and discuss the concussive power of shock waves and the exportation of children from major cities.

o During an entry when Anne talked about the terrifying anti-aircraft guns and machine gun fire in the streets, I interrupted their reading with those same sound effects roaring through my surround speakers.

Even though it took many months for us to complete our reading of Anne Frank’s diary (due to other vocabulary, grammar, and essay instruction), I never heard a word of complaint from my students. They eagerly awaited their next chance to feast upon Anne’s words. The pinnacle of their instruction unveiled itself during our “Day of Silence” near the end of the book. Every student received a 3” X 3” neon yellow sticker with the words, “I am having a day of silence in memory of Anne Frank,” printed on it. The students wore the stickers over their hearts, and remained completely silent the entire day, unless required to speak by a faculty member. Even during lunch, students refrained from talking. For homework that night, the students wrote a journal response about the thoughts and feelings they experienced while “forced” to remain silent. However, the whole day required zero management from any faculty, and that’s what impressed me the most. Their love and respect for Anne Frank had burned itself upon their hearts.

I encourage my students to have strong opinions. I have a poster hanging at the front of my classroom that says, “Be the change you want to see in the world,” and I push that philosophy all year long. Two podiums sit at the front of my class for just that purpose. We frequently debate over complicated circumstances without clear answers. One of these concerned the two Jews Anne saw fleeing down the street outside her “Secret Annex.” I asked my students what they would have done if they were in her shoes, invite the Jews in or remain silent. The depth of my students’ perspectives and arguments in such circumstances astounded me.

Now, I’ll quickly summarize other frequent circumstances when I use technology in my classroom:

• Every class begins with a bell ringer—typed instructions projected on the board from my laptop, requiring grammar corrections, a written response, or a quiz.

• While students are working on the bell ringer projected from my laptop, I use my iPad to take role directly into our online database, Compass. Parents receive a real-time update of their child’s attendance and grades through this website.

• Through Compass, I also host course blogs that contain important documents and instructions. I also use Compass to communicate with parents, whether as mass emails about assignments or to one specific parent about their child’s behavior or grade.

• The iPad/Apple TV combo has become invaluable to me because it allows me to interact with my class without ever turning my back to them. I can wander up and down aisles, observing student behavior while I manage my instruction with interactive apps on my iPad. One such app is SlideShark. It is used to broadcast PowerPoint presentations, and it’s powerful enough that I can use my iPhone as a remote to run the PowerPoint on my iPad. This is handy when a student needs my iPad for a closer view of the presentation or to see my clarifying notes.

• Another app that has become invaluable to me is Name Selector. While I teach class from my iPad, I keep my iPhone in my front shirt pocket with the Name Selector app running. Whenever I ask a question, I’ll hit a button on the app that randomly generates one of the student’s names. That student is then required to answer the question. This is much handier than being stuck in one spot with a cup of popsicle sticks, or switching between apps on my iPad.

• During poetry study, students are given paper copies while I project the poem onto my board using my iPad. Through an app called pdf-notes, I annotate the poem to help my students extract meaning, while my students model my notes on their own paper.

• Every worksheet and exam is corrected by my students from an answer key projected upon the board from my iPad. Answer keys vary from simple worksheets to interactive pdfs with highlighted notes on how to grade each section.

• During Shurley Grammar study (an intensive Q&A flow to identify parts of speech), sentences are projected on the board. One student will sit at the board and write as the rest of the class asks and answers the questions to label each word with its correct part of speech.

• As with my exams from Anne Frank, any lesson can be bolstered with quick and easy access from mobile internet (through my iPad). I can look up pictures of the types of dogs in The Call of the Wild, trace out the path Huckleberry Finn took on a digital map, instantly look up abstract meanings, etc. All of this is done seamlessly without need to sit down at my desk.

• Once a week, I have a “Computer Day.” Every desk is donned with a laptop from the C.O.W., so each student can work on their own computer without ever needing to leave my classroom. We workshop proper MLA formatting and how to utilize Google Docs. We practice typing through the free, yet powerful, website www.typingweb.com, in which I manage all of my students’ typing accounts to track their typing speed, accuracy, improvements, and completion of lessons. We also use the laptops to take practice CRT exams through www.myutips.org–to study proper techniques for answering Language Arts questions, as well as rotate through important testing strategies with exams designed to push their abilities to the limits. Lastly, I tutor my students on how to track their grades through Compass, and manage their missing work.

• When a class earns excellent homework and test scores, I reward them by turning off the lights on computer day. My students thrill over the opportunity to use their laptop’s backlit keyboard in the dark.

• During Study Hall (our 8th period class designated for students to complete homework and make up missing work), I frequently have students visiting my classroom with questions or requests. It is difficult to manage my own classroom’s behavior while other students are coming and going. I have found the best way to manage this is with www.classdojo.com. I project the website onto the board from one laptop, while I use the other laptop to help other students with their missing work, etc. If I see anyone in my class off task, it’s as simple as shifting my hand to the other keyboard, clicking on their classdojo avatar, and marking the appropriate misbehavior. When that sound pours out of my surround speakers, it silences the class without any word from me.

• I have created an Excel spreadsheet that tracks weekly grade trends for each of my student’s classes. Once a week, I print out these reports for my Study Hall students and have quick interviews with them to evaluate their grades and set goals for improvement.

• My incentive program gives students opportunities to look at funny pictures, listen to entertaining audio, or watch 30-second video clips that I have preselected. These are projected from my laptop and broadcast over the surround speakers.

• While my students take exams or have independent study, I play carefully selected classical music softly over my surround speakers. This has dramatically increased their focus and scores.

• Because I utilize so many electronics in my classroom, I have found the best way to manage my files is through Dropbox. Although my students don’t see it, Dropbox saves me oodles of time because I can simply save a file on one computer, then it is automatically updated on the other machines before I can even walk across the classroom. An example of this convenience came during an exam. I realized I had forgotten to digitize an old paper answer key, so I quickly took a picture of it with my iPhone, which synced with my iPad, then I used the iPad to broadcast the makeshift answer key through the projector.

I could continue with more examples, but I fear I have made this email too long already. Thank you again for your consideration for this reward. I am honored with just the nomination.

Mr. Terron James
Excelsior Academy
Junior High English