Ed Interview: Mike Popelka

1) Can you briefly describe your background in education and what your current position is?

I graduated from the University of Iowa with a BA in Elementary Education.  I taught upper elementary in the Chicago Public Schools system, then worked for a couple of years as a kindergarten teacher at a social service center/childcare provider that fed students into the public school system.  I moved to Seattle and apprehensively took a job teaching middle school at a private school; I found that I loved interacting with the older students as much as I did the kindergarteners back in Chicago.  I was responsible for teaching 6-8th grade science, 6-8th grade writing, and 6th grade homeroom.  I learned a lot during these years, and I found that I had a rekindled love for science– especially biology and physics.

I spent some time teaching PE at a K-8 school in Seattle, then briefly lived in Des Moines, Iowa working as a K-5 intervention teacher in the Public schools.  When my family and I moved back to Seattle, I was hired as an interventionist at Roxhill Elementary and soon found my way back into the kindergarten classroom.  I’ve taught a lot of different subjects in several different schools in three different states.  It’s been an interesting career so far!

2) What inspires you about the work you do at Roxhill?

This is my fifth year teaching at Roxhill, and every day I feel fortunate to be at school.  Any teacher will, with 100% honesty, answer that they are inspired by the personal connections with students and their families.  I feel the same way.  Many of the students I work with come from less than ideal circumstances; 40% of our students are English Language Learners, 80% of students qualify for the free/reduced lunch program, and understanding the cultural differences that occur in the classroom can be challenging.  As a kindergarten teacher, I often have students enter my classroom with no academic skills and often very little ability to communicate.  I probably complain about the amount of effort it takes to build up the foundational skills required to succeed in school.  I find inspiration in that struggle, though—I love the fact that I work hard, my students work hard, and that after all the work we do students finish the year ready for the challenges to come.

One other thing that inspires me is the professionalism and dedication of the entire staff of the school.  I have never worked in a school where each member of the staff is so interested in improving their own skills and gaining new knowledge before coming to Roxhill.  We solve problems as a team and genuinely keep the best interests of the students and the community in mind.  Even the most veteran teachers on staff routinely implement new methods.  It’s rare that one finds a place where their co-workers are helpful and friendly; rarer still is a place where one enjoys going to after work functions with their coworkers.     

3) Can you share a story from your first year of teaching that illustrates an important lesson or skill you think all first year teachers should know or have?

I learned a lot of important lessons during my first year of teaching.  I was miserable, and after not having my contract renewed I almost left the profession.  I worked in Chicago at the time, and I felt unsupported, underprepared, and foolish.  I showed up to substitute teach in a three story, 1,000 student school one day mid-year and was (surprise!) immediately assigned to take over a fifth grade class with 33 students for the rest of the year.  I felt it would be a good way to prove myself and work my way into a job with the district.  Unfortunately, there were no curricular materials, my students brought knives to school on multiple occasions and threatened each other in the closets, a student who had previously tried to light his sleeping grandmother on fire threatened to kill me, police arrested a student with a backpack of full of loose marijuana, etc.  I knew I wasn’t cut out for teaching.

No other jobs in other fields were feasible (many teachers like myself have a pretty limited skill set for office work), so I reluctantly accepted another teaching gig and found that despite my own struggles in the classroom the previous year, the problems were not all my own fault.  I learned that my first year failure was not simply because of my ability to teach, it was the situation that exacerbated my inexperience.  The students at my new school were just as challenging, but with a very trying year under my belt, support from other teachers and administrators, and a professional environment where openness and honesty were valued   I was able to complete two very successful years of teaching.  I realized that I was definitely going to be okay—I had not thrown away piles of money on my elementary education degree.

4) How do you continue to develop as a professional? Where do you see your professional growth taking you?

I recently completed a graduate program that focused on environmental education, community, and inquiry based teaching methods.  The work I did in that program have continued to help me see new possibilities with teaching—especially in trying to incorporate as much student voice into my lessons as possible.

I also truly enjoy many of the professional development opportunities I’m lucky to have in my district and my school.  I usually try to sit in the front and find at least one thing—a “take away”, if you will—that will benefit my instruction.  I have served on many committees, including the building leadership team and on a team that helped bring many aspects of full-service community school ideals to Roxhill.  Finally, I continue to work as a cooperating teacher with the University of Washington.  I have had three student teachers during the past four years, and I enjoy learning from the students and their instructors at the college.

I am working toward being a versatile educator who runs a safe, nurturing, interesting classroom.  I feel that my professional development experiences contribute bit by bit to me becoming the teacher I want to be.  Hopefully I get there before I hit retirement age!  

5) What kind of learning culture do you try to establish within your classroom and among your colleagues?

The learning culture I value most is one of discovery, confidence, and humor.  In my classroom I enjoy finding unique activities for my students to undertake.  My classes have sung Louis Armstrong songs at school assemblies, monitored bird populations in the woods near school, and analyzed old Harold Lloyd films.  I enjoy leading lessons of discovery that I feel I am uniquely suited to teach.

As a colleague, I try to balance humor and professionalism.  I want teaching to be seen as a profession for professional people, and I pride myself in (usually) being able to back up what I’m doing with solid research and from a place of authority.  I enjoy goofing around, but I am confident that everyone knows that I do my job, I do it as well as I can, and I truly care about the outcomes of my students and school.

6) What are you currently reading for personal enjoyment? And what book would you recommend for a first year teacher?

I’m always reading about four books; this is a tricky question to answer.  Right now a “hard” book I’m reading is War and Peace by Tolstoy.  I think that Tolstoy is really amazing at painting visceral pictures of emotions, and I’m really enjoying discovering this book for the first time.  A professional book I’m reading is The Nature Principle by Richard Louv, a long book about the value of connecting students and communities to the nature around them.  As for some light reading, I’m going back through my collection of Iron Man comic books.  He’s been my favorite since I was about 11 years old; I still love rereading the stories.

I feel that a first year teacher should definitely read Steven Wolk’s book A Democratic Classroom.  I was assigned this book as an undergraduate elementary education student, and I reread it every couple of years.  The website of Heinemann, the book’s publisher, advertises it perfectly:  “In his call to reinvent teaching, Wolk argues for teacher who ask questions, challenge assumptions, respect children, and understand the enormous role they play in shaping minds and society”.

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Student Focused: Effective teaching through learning centers

The following post was first published in the January edition of BiBimBap, the bimonthly Jeollanamdo, South Korea teachers and foreign residents newsletter.

The Logic of Learning Centers

Learning centers are a constructivist teaching method designed for Pre-K through 3rd grade classrooms, where students engage in self-guided work, either independently or cooperatively, that attends to multiple learning styles and ability levels. The students are split into manageable groups which then rotate through different areas and different activities. The teacher acts as a facilitator, creating different stations or “centers” where groups engage in different activities that will educate and stimulate them. This is a student-centered method wherein teachers provide structure via planning, modeling the activities, and guidance during the center’s rotation. When I think of the Centers Model, what comes to mind is my Montessori pre-school days of rotating between an art activity, making block patterns, and counting hundreds of tiny toy soldiers; but it can be an effective teaching model for many of us, as well.

The Logistics of Learning Centers

Many NET’s in Jeollanamdo teach small groups of students in extra classes after school or work in rural schools where the class sizes are small. Learning centers are ideal for groups of fifteen students or fewer, especially if there is a wide range in ability levels and managing students is a challenge. However, learning centers are also used in large pre-K through 3rd grade classrooms of twenty or more throughout the world.

There is a significant amount of work up front in the form of planning, creating materials, and modeling the activities for each center. You must also practice the rotations, reinforcing the behavior expectations for individuals or pairs at each center and ensuring that centers are accessible to all students while also providing a challenge for those able to do more.

Once you have the learning centers running, you are free to confer with students as they engage in the different activities. You can also take advantage of flexible grouping so that a lower ability level student has a strong peer model to work with at each center.  However, the real benefit of establishing centers is that you, the teacher, become a learning center where you can provide targeted, differentiated, one-on-one (or small group) instruction to help a struggling student or encourage challenging one that is excelling.

The Lowdown on Learning Centers

I have implemented five learning centers with my extra class of ten 3rd grade students. We meet twice a week for 40 minutes, so it took me about one month (or eight classes) to plan, model, practice, and gradually release the students to work in pairs at the five centers. I do not have a co-teacher in my extra class, so clearly and repeatedly modelling both the task and the behavior expectations was essential. I used ClassDojo prodigiously up-front to reinforce both good and bad behaviors that I saw and then wanted to either encourage or snuff out at the centers.

11 Examples of Tiered 3rd Grade English Learning Centers Activities (easy to challenging):

  1. Shapes, Colors and Numbers practice, draw 10 green squares, 9 purple triangles, etc.
  2. Letter/Sound Recognition practice
  3. Spelling practice with a list of three letter words, a whiteboard, a reader and a writer
  4. Vocabulary matching or memory game with word and picture cards
  5. Number Scrolls, students write the word and the number together using a number grid visual aid, the rolled numbers papers become a scroll
  6. Rhyming word practice with ending sound examples, write as many words that rhyme with ‘am’ on the whiteboard or paper as you can think of
  7. Body Parts Labeling using pictures of people and animals
  8. Phonics Sliders, create sliders with all the vowel sounds so students can see and hear the difference between ‘bat, bet, bit, bot and but’ (nat, net, nit, not, nut)
  9. Word Fragments or Sentence Fragments, students have to put the fragments together and categorize them based on key words
  10. Quizbean.com, create a visual vocabulary mastery test on the free online site and create a station at a classroom computer
  11. Buddy reading, provide a level appropriate text for students to take turns reading to each other

Currently, my five centers activities are tiered, meaning they vary in difficulty level for the students, and are fully based off the content we have previously covered in the extra class. During the roll-out, I wanted the content of the centers’ activities to be easily accessible for the students even if the task was new. In this way, I hoped to scaffold their entry into the self-guided pair work and set them up for success.

The centers have been running for almost three weeks now. The students are really responding to them and have their favorite center. They are taking responsibility for their own learning, their own behavior, the clean-up of their center before rotating to the next and they are working well with their partners. The next step is adapting and evolving the centers to respond to the learning growth and interests of the students.

If you would like to see my centers in action, feel free to watch a video of my extra class here:

https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B8Ahbqb_1JzeVHRxSHAxLWhIR2s/view?usp=sharing

If you would like to see an expert teacher implementing and managing learning centers in their classroom, watch this Teaching Channel video here:

https://www.teachingchannel.org/videos/classroom-management-guided-reading

Resources:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Learning_centers_in_American_elementary_schools

http://www.talesfromoutsidetheclassroom.com/2014/10/using-powerpoint-to-manage-centers.html

http://www.naeyc.org/files/yc/file/200707/OfPrimaryInterest.pdf

http://www.abcteach.com/free/l/learningcenters_rev.pdf

https://www.google.co.kr/?gfe_rd=cr&ei=zMpyVJbhDcGJ8QeG24GgDQ&gws_rd=ssl#newwindow=1&q=classroom+learning+centers+elementary

 

A Post from Paris

This is not hyperbole or self-importance from Grant Wiggins, this is what is at stake when we talk about the core aim of teaching and learning…and it should be inspiring!

Granted, and...

I happened to be in Paris the day of the terror attack, and it was a bit unnerving since I was at the American School. Our meeting abruptly ended as heightened security went into immediate effect, and I took the train back to Paris.

I seem to be bad luck: I was in DC during 9-11 (At NSF, no less), and I was in NYC during the first attack on the world trade center in the early 90s. So, I have had a lot of opportunity to ponder terror, our responses to it – and links to education generally (and UbD specifically).

“Ubd? Really, Grant? Isn’t that a bit of a stretch?”

No. Because we are talking about understanding and a lack of understanding – in this case, with very high stakes. It is crucial that we learn to understand – not like or respect, but understand! – why young…

View original post 613 more words

Birds Korea in the Classroom

Birds Korea Logo

Birds Korea is a conservation and research non-profit that collaborates with governments, non-governmental organizations, scientists and academic institutions within Korea and internationally. Andreas Kim, a long-time German expatriate member of Birds Korea and birding enthusiast in his own right, visited my classroom for a special English language presentation on the birds of Korea, birdwatching, and habitat conservation. The guest lecture also included a walking field trip down to our nearby marina where my 5th grade students were able to do some real birdwatching and document their scientific observations.

You can view the Korean language report of their birdwatching observations that my students wrote for the Birds Korea website here. Below you can watch a short video/slideshow of the highlights of Andreas Kim’s visit to Ansim Elementary.

My 2015 Professional Development Plan

I have finished up my student-teaching clinical with Teach-Now and am in the process of applying for my K-6 teaching certificate from the Washington D.C. OSSE. In the mean time, while I am here in Korea teaching English I am going to have pursue my own professional development as an elementary classroom teacher via my Personal Learning Network, MOOC’s, and keeping up with the latest education research. I have tried to make each of my PD goals a SMART goal, therefore many have a specific deadline for implementation at some point in 2015.

Here is the link to my full PD Plan for 2015:

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1t-_parfMDI6mP-GR_idkJUYEo_6t1Pf8maKfvZFl3W0/edit?usp=sharing

I will list just a few of my top PD goals for the coming year below, along with some commentary on my progress where relevant.

Objective: Create and execute more student-centered lessons.

Action Step:

  • I am gathering student-centered materials and methods, experimenting with implementation, and will be giving a formal PD session at a teacher orientation of new foreign English teachers here in Korea.

Implementation:

  • As I research student-centered methods in more depth while I am teaching here in Korea, I will identify appropriate methods that I feel confident in implementing one-at-a-time, and integrate them into my lesson plans, routines and activities. My goal will be to implement two new student-centered activities in each grade level that I teach per month.

Objective: Deepen my understanding of math instruction pedagogy for elementary school students.

Action Steps:

  • I will have regular correspondence with my math mentor, University of Washington professor, Elham Kazemi.
  • I will complete the readings that have been assigned to me by my math mentor, Elham Kazemi.
  • I will take notes, ask questions, reach out to my PLN for further clarification and advice, and create a blog post about each math reading and my personal study in general.

Implementation:

  • I will have at least two blog posts about my math pedagogy investigation by July of 2015.
  • I will have more than 5 blog posts about math pedagogy and instructional methods a year from now.
  • I will observe at least 5 recorded math lessons and take copious notes in the next year.
  • I will note my preferences and pedagogical beliefs around math instruction, and make sure to create goals for my first year math instruction based on that research and understanding.

Objective: Investigate methods of teaching character in my classroom.

Action steps:

  • Take the Coursera MOOC “Teaching Character” with the instructor, David Levin, a KIPP schools co-founder. (I am currently in the middle of this six week MOOC. I am taking notes on the videos and getting a little behind on the assignments, but learning a lot, collecting many resources and strategies on character education.)
  • Read and blog my notes of Paul Tough’s book, How Children Succeed. (This is done, see the link.)
  • Identify further readings and professional development opportunities in this area. (From the David Levin MOOC I have discovered and saved to my reading list a number of good research articles on teaching character and its importance.)

Implementation:

  • I will create a student character self-assessment Google Form to be filled out at the beginning and end of the school by both students and their parents.
  • I will design community-building activities or a project that will emphasize the development of character strengths.
  • I will intentionally observe and note character strengths and weaknesses in my students and create a routine that facilitates regular one-on-one conferences or interactions with students in need of character support.

Objective: Develop my leadership capacity as a teacher, including in specific areas of education interest like Design In Schools, teaching character, student data management, global education, meetings and PD facilitation and collaboration.

Action Steps:

  • Watch, take notes and blog about the 2014 Global Education Conference sessions with education leaders that I admire.
  • Take IDEO “Design In Schools” MOOC in March of 2015.
  • Lead a professional development session for the new ESL teacher orientation here in Korea in April.
  • Execute a Skype in the Classroom lesson in Korea by August of 2015.

Implementation:

  • Be available to the principal in areas where you can advise and provide a level of expertise.
  • Participate and grow in my presence as an educator online, expand my Personal Learning Network, keep blogging, tweeting, and collaborating via the web.
  • Identify and cultivate a good, collaborative working relationship with a mentor teacher when I arrive at my first American school.

South Korea Education in the News

Lately, there have been a few trending education articles in the U.S that have mentioned the South Korean education system, comparing it favorably to that of the American K-12 ed system. These references to Korean education, and other Asian education exemplars, Hong Kong, Shanghai, etc, follow the usual U.S. media narrative of marvel, favorable comparison and limited perspective. There are certainly many aspects of the Han River Miracle which can be attributed to praiseworthy aspects of the Korean education system. And I would always acknowledge the value in observing and taking note of the strengths and innovations of foreign education systems. However, in my opinion and with few exceptions, U.S. educators, policy makers and journalists tend to selectively cite the Korean education system, ignorant to a few key realities here. As a Native English Teacher currently teaching in a public elementary school in the Jeollanamdo Province of South Korea, I’d like to make a few observations in response to a couple recent headline-making ed articles in the US.

 

OECD Instructional Hours

First, in a widely-read guest post on Valerie Strauss’ blog in The Washington Post, Ellie Herman makes a compelling argument on the extreme challenges that result in high rates of teacher burnout in inner-city, high-poverty American schools. I want to first say that I do not for one minute doubt the veracity of her burnout story, as I have seen it happen first-hand with my classroom teacher colleagues in a Title I public school in Seattle that I worked at before coming to Korea. I know that teachers in these challenging, high-poverty schools in the U.S. operate in “executive function overload” for most, if not all, of the school year. Part of the problem certainly is disproportionate amount of instructional time versus planning time in the US. Herman also writes about the other major problem, that teacher “planning time” is either so structured and prescribed by district mandates, Common Core trainings, staff meetings, or Professional Learning Communities (PLC’s) that it cannot seriously be considered planning time. Or, teachers have many parents to contact, an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meeting to attend to discuss the special needs of one student, a School Improvement Team (SIT) meeting to attend to discuss the behavior of one student, nevermind a leadership team or union meeting to help further an innovative school or professional initiative. For me, there is no question that in most Title I schools in the U.S. there is little to no time during a long work day to actually plan relevant, differentiated lessons. That kind of lesson planning requires time to reflect, time to create materials and time with a brain that is not in a constant state of emergency.

That being said, there is one statistic cited in Herman’s piece that I had to question and feeds into the rosy and incomplete picture of the Korean education system that many Americans most likely have. Herman writes that according to the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, the research and policy organization of the developed world, “the average secondary school teacher in the U.S. puts in 1,051 instructional hours per year” while the average Korean teacher puts in 609 hours. Admittedly, I am not sure where that Korean instructional hours number comes from exactly, how it was calculated or what report Herman found it in. This is what I do know, the average Korean homeroom teacher on the elementary level spends at least four hours a day in front of students according to my own Korean colleagues in my school. That means that in a single school year, which lasts 220 days here versus 180 days in the US, the average homeroom teacher would teach 880 hours. From what I know the same estimation would be true for secondary teachers here in Korea, and this is a conservative estimate for both. Even if you estimate an average of four instructional hours a day over a 180 day school year, Korean teachers would still teach 720 instructional hours per year on average.

As you can see, my rudimentary calculations confuse the OECD findings for me. I speculate that the Korea number and the U.S. number are skewed, Korea to the lower end and the U.S. to the higher end. In Korea they hire many contract teachers, a category of teacher we do not have in the American public schools system. These contract teachers may teach a specific subject like art, music or English and have a defined amount of weekly instructional hours that may average out to 3 hours or less per day. In contrast, in the U.S. we do have some 0.5 FTE teachers, but usually we bring their status up to 1.0 by combining part-time positions, or the teacher has full-time instructional hours cobbled together at multiple schools. Thus, these contract teachers may skew the number downward for Korea, while the hiring and funding systems of the U.S. produce more teachers with full-time instructional hour schedules.

 

OECD Homework Hours

Another OECD education statistic which confused me this last week came from a Vox.com article on the amount of time students spend on homework in developed countries. Again, I am unsure of the methods that the OECD used to collect this homework data, nor I am sure of what specific OECD education report Vox is referencing. In any case, the article displays the following graph which shows that Korea is second only to Finland in how few hours students spend on homework per week.

Homework Hours

This statistic absolutely shocked me as a teacher currently working in Korea. Unless the Korean education system has significantly ramped up the amount of homework given to students since 2012, and did so without regard for the already outstanding PISA results of their students, then I am baffled as to how this number was tabulated. I have no hard data on the amount of homework my elementary students or secondary students in general in Korea undertake each week, but within the country the workload of Korean students is notoriously and proudly high. Parents and educators are not ashamed to say that students should spend long, hard hours studying. For example, most of the students at my school attend the famous or infamous hagwons or after-school academies where they sometimes get even more rigorous instruction in STEM subjects, English as a Second Language, or the arts as they do in their regular homeroom. More to the point, students receive homework from their hagwon on top of the homework they get from school. I would assume that most of my elementary students do more than OECD number of three hours per week in homework just from their regular school studies. And from what they tell me, and what I see after school, they are doing much more than that when you include their hagwon workload. I’m talking about 3rd and 4th graders here!

 

Korean Education Realities

In the past few weeks there have been two realities that have been revealed to me about the Korean education system, which I somehow suspect will never make it into a Washington Post international education policy article. These facts of the Korean education system are completely unrelated to each other, but they both add some complexity to the discourse about the merits and shortcomings of the Korean and American systems.

The first is an allegedly atrocious act by a Korean hagwon teacher here in Yeosu, my town of residence. The police have taken into custody a teacher who allegedly beat a 6th grade student with a Kendo stick causing her to fall, hit her head and die. The police are investigating, but there are reports that the girl stole something from the unregistered, illegal hagwon and at the request of her parents she was corporally punished by the hagwon teacher, leading to her death. Corporal punishment was essentially outlawed in schools in 2012, but there is a significant legacy here and it is not without it’s proponents in the current teacher ranks in Korea.

Second, in my teacher certification program we were asked to identify the primary objectives of the district in which we work so that we could align our unit and lesson planning to meet both the district objectives and the educational standards. I worked with my wonderful Korean co-teacher to translate the Jeollanamdo Office of Education objectives into English. The one that stood out was this, “Reduce the workload of teachers.” I think most teachers in the U.S. would consider this an unfathomable objective to propose in a district strategic planning meeting, even if they thought it to be a good and reasonable idea that would net better outcomes for students.

I mention these two things because they add some nuance to the perception of the Korean education system. Like most things, the system here is not black and white, it is not all academic gains and happy students, nor is it all rigorous teaching based on extensive planning time. There are significant systemic problems here too. These problems are functions of the local culture and context, just as many of the strengths of the Korean education system result from the specific socioeconomic and cultural situation of the country. I think Ellie Herman makes a strong case for more unstructured planning time for U.S. teachers and I also think there is significant research that says that, depending on the developmental stage of a student, a certain amount of homework can start to do more harm than good. Considering our unique makeup in America, Korea and Finland will not always show us the way educationally speaking, and these statistical comparisons can act as red herrings. If the logic and the research are there, lets rely more heavily on those arguments. If we are going to use international comparisons to boost our policy point, lets be more rigorous in our acknowledgement of the nuance unique to each educational system.