Thursday, June 22, 2017


Starting our trip in Berlin has been an intriguing experience. As much as I love being in a European capital, Berlin has a unique spirit about it ( which was easy to understand, as EVERYTHING is in English). Exploring the city with the group (i.e: navigating the U-Bahn, language barrier, and trying new foods) made for quick bonding, inside jokes, and friendships forged. I am quite sure that these new relationships will be my most valued souvenir from this trip.

Though I loved seeing the remnants of the Berlin Wall, the Reichstag building, and the amazing parks, the city carries a heavy, heavy weight of history. Specifically, the Soviet influence on Berlin remains palpable. The socialist architecture, sculptures of Karl Marx, and memorials (specifically at Treptower Park) are all a testament to the historic influence of the USSR.

At the same time, what most impressed me about Berlin was the German people's eagerness to embrace their history, and tirelessly shine a light on the horrors of their Nazi past. Not once did I witness a “whitewash” of history in Berlin.  Instead, I experienced a consistent willingness to engage with that past, and to emphatically say “never again.”  I am so impressed, and it is a lesson from which all of us can learn.

Traveling with 27 other public school teachers with Go Global NC is refreshing. Being surrounded by teachers who care deeply about the craft is always inspiring, and this trip is no exception. But visiting the JFK School in Berlin illicited such great conversations with my new friends about teaching, and new perspectives. Seeing how the Germans “do school” is every bit as interesting and informative as I hoped it would be.

 I left Berlin with more questions about our education system, a deep respect for the German people's historic self-awareness, and (most importantly) 28 new friends.

On to Baden-Wurtenburg...

Why Germany?

Why travel to Germany
On day one, sitting in the Newark airport, looking at pictures of my two boys at the pool - I confess that I am struggling to remember why I chose to leave for ten days, and travel to Germany. As I have never been away from my family for this length of time, it stings. But I will push on, because man I love to travel. I love it all: the moving sidewalks, bad food, security weirdness- it is my jam.

So, Why am I going on the trip anyway?

 1. Because William Faulkner says “the past is never dead. It Isn't even past.”  To understand our world, we have to live it. What we are experiencing today will tomorrow be the past, so we must drink deep. Traveling to Germany is a huge step in that effort.

2. To teach it , we have to model it. It is my hope that my students see the world as something amazing to explore. At the core, I intend to return to my classroom with a fresh experience that I can share with my students.

3.  I have taught for 17 years. At this point, it is crucial that I consistently find new catalysts for inspiration. Never one to rest on my laurels, this trip is already turning my gears. Meeting so many of these great teachers from across NC, and seeing a new country is just the ticket to help me grow as an educator.

So here's to Deutschland!!

Monday, June 5, 2017

Building a Culture

How to we build a classroom culture?  And how important is it?
2017 Champions League

Over time, I have come to believe that any teacher can avoid numerous daily classroom issues, as well as create fertile ground for inspiration, if we can successfully create an environment in our classrooms that rewards creativity and curiosity, while empowering students to take on leadership roles.

Culture starts with our ability to establish social norms and values.  Once we have made clear to our students what will be valued and rewarded, and what will not be tolerated - we can begin the long process of "selling the vision" to our students.  If nothing else, we must be great salespeople.  We must never forget that our ability to create buy-in from our students will create the culture to which we aspire.

In my experience, the experts in this field (of building a culture) are summer camps.  Daily, summer camp staffs figure out creative ways to engage kids, and they are adept at creating a culture that rewards community, friendship, and fun.  They use games, music, and entertainment.  They make camp t-shirts, and have meals together.  So, I am a firm believer in this model - and have not only drawn inspiration from it, but worked diligently to translate it into my classroom (though not always successfully).

I have tried to institute this in numerous ways, below are examples:

Be Yourself/Authenticy:
The first step in building a classroom culture is to make sure that I am being true to myself.  As the leader, and the person who sets the core values in the room - it is most crucial that my students know me, and understand that I do not mind making mistakes, being ridiculous, or laughing at myself.  In addition, I incorporate my personal;l interests into my class, modeling my passions for the students.  My hope is that each student will feel free to be him/herself - and will bring his/her individuality and gifts to our community each day.

Praise Academic Prowess/High Standards:
Concerning academic rigor and accomplishment, I use "The Champions League" and public distribution of "high score candy."  Named for the elite European Soccer tournament that only includes the best teams form each European nation, I created it to reward students who score an A on all five of the AP World History Thematic (Unit) Exams.  The Champions League is quite an accomplishment.  To that end, We make a HUGE deal out of it - posting the list of students in public, and hosting a ceremony at the conclusion of the class (which we just did this past Friday) to hand out certificates and prizes.  We play awards show music, and just generally celebrate these kids and their accomplishments.

Use the Senses:
Culture needs to be all encompassing, and it must be a sensory experience.  To that end, I use classroom murals, and a constant barrage of music, whenever possible.  I use my guitar to teach, and we sometimes learn class dances, depending on the lesson. Typically, we start class with a song on the stereo - as it sets the tone.  We also identify one song per year to act as the "quiz song."  (This means that whenever this song is played, we will have a quiz at its conclusion).  This year's Quiz Song?  Kung Fu Fighting - Carl Douglas ( For the record, Quiz songs by year: 2016 - You Make My Dreams Come True, Hall & Oates, 2015 - Hooked on a Feeling - Blue Suede, 2014 - Low Rider, War, 2013 - Austin Powers Theme, etc.)

Class Historians/Value the Past:
To ensure cultural memory, we choose class historians.  These students (selected by their classmates) are in charge of documenting any and all moment throughout our class that are significant.  Other students will often instruct these historians to write down certain things that are particularly funny, or meaningful,  in our time together.

Make a Shirt/Tell Your Story:
At the end of my AP World History class, we make the class t-shirt.  The cumulative work of the class historians is documented on the back of the class t-shirt, acting as a historical document of our time together.  This helps instill a sense of pride in what we have created.  It also helps remind us of our strengths, and our community, for years to come.

Teamwork, Play Games Together:
In my class, we play games...a lot.  The most notable one is the Grahammys (G.G.R.ammys), a days long review game that tests one's academic, trivial, physical, and performance abilities.  The students compete on teams, and choose names.  It scores build over the semester - but more importantly, it builds friendships, rivalries, and community.  We also go outside to play games like World Cup, Capture the Flag, or egg toss, depending on the lesson.
NBHS Students at Ellis Island, NYC

Class Field Trips:
At the conclusion of each year, we take our AP History classes on a massive field trip to a place as far from our own culture as possible.  Essentially, it is a challenge project to help our students see new places, and empower each of them to gain confidence.  We strongly encourage all of our students to go, and it helps build an environment of tolerance, and leadership.  We have traveled to Chicago, Philadelphia, DC, New Orleans, Atlanta, Montgomery, Baltimore, and New York City.

Eat Together:
Food brings people together.  So, whenever is is called for, we eat together.  From the cake of Africa, to the cultural guidebook project - we try to incorporate food into our days.

And this stuff ( above) will not always work.  Sometimes none of it will work.  And so we have to be willing to change, and find new ways to build a culture....which remains the most important tenet in building a culture.

Friday, May 26, 2017

New. York. City.

84 Teenagers in NYC.  It was amazing.

Half of us at St. John the Divine

Ellis Island Museum

Strawberry Fields, Central Park

China Town

Brooklyn Bridge

Wall Street

We successfully moved 84 students through the NYC Subway...TWICE

The Guggenheim Museum

Thursday, May 4, 2017

The World Cup {Its in the Curriculum now!}

In a serendipitous series of events, the College Board added the World Cup to the "list of things to cover" for the AP World History Exam.  I, being a lifelong soccer fan, have been more than pleased to teach world history through the lens of the beautiful game.  And most of my dear students are probably sick and tired of hearing my comparisons of all things historic to either rock bands or soccer teams, but alas - I have a good reason to talk soccer now.

So, for those who may not know, the World Cup is an international soccer tournament held once every four years.  It was created (like the modern Olympic movement in 1896) in 1930 to be a peaceful way for nations to interact and compete.  Before 1800, soccer (er, football) had only been played formally in Britain (where it was invented).  But by 1900, the British Empire had conquered almost 25% of the earth, bringing with them their laws, tea, Christianity, Cricket, and...Soccer.  While Cricket continues to be the most popular sport in India and Pakistan, soccer (with its simplicity) took over the world.

Nowadays, soccer is the world's game.  Not only is it easily the most popular sport on earth - but it most often acts as a great "international language" of sorts, enabling people from all across the world to come together in peace.  My youngest son knows more players from Africa and Latin America, than he does from North Carolina.  

In addition, the World Cup provides a chance for developing countries (and the B.R.I.C. countries) to compete on the international stage.  (Point in fact, Brazil leads with five WC titles, followed by Germany and Italy with four, and Argentina and Uruguay with two each).

This has resulted in many countries angling to host the World Cup, as it is the world's most viewed event for one month.  And countries who are currently looking to extend their international profiles have been the most recent hosts, including South Africa (2010) Brazil (2014), and Russia (2018).  To be fair, the Olympics, Cricket, and even (the growing international popularity of) Basketball play similar roles in the world now.  But soccer remains undefeated, and the World Cup remains the crown jewel.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Sticky stuff {The Whitehead Model}

"The justification for [education] is that it preserves the connection between knowledge and the zest of life, by uniting the young and the old in the imaginative consideration of learning" - Alfred North Whitehead
For many years, I have held a firm belief in the work of the philosopher/educator, Alfred North Whitehead.  Overall, he argues that great teachers are able to build their instruction around three steps. These steps include: Romance, Precision, and Generalization.   

Here is what it looks like:
Step One Romance (Selling It):  Here is how Whitehead describes Romance: "The primary acquisition of knowledge involves freshness, enthusiasm, and enjoyment of learning."  Meaning - when we (as teachers) first introduce a concept, our most important task is to sell it, and create student buy-in.  "What we are about to talk about is amazing! and here is why..."  Great teachers are often great salespeople.
Step Two, Precision (Practice):  This is the boring, though necessary repetition of skills and practices that come with any new skill.  Whitehead warns educators to be mindful not to overuse this, as it is a romance-killer...

Step Three, Generalization (Sticky Stuff):  Here is how Whitehead describes this: It is the moment of educational completeness and fruition, in which general ideas or, one may say, a philosophical outlook, both integrate the feelings and thoughts of the earlier moments of growth, and prepare the way for fresh experiences of excitement and romance, signaling a new beginning to the educational process.  
This (Generalization) is my favorite part.  If we do this well, we use the students' newfound knowledge and understanding to reconnect them to the romance of it all, inspiring them to live into their curiosity.  This is challenging, to say the least.  So, this is often the moment when I look for "sticky" activities, that allow the students to use their knowledge (gained from Precision) to connect to wider influences, and provide context and meaning to what we have learned.  Equally, the activity of choice needs to make the information stick in their minds, so that they can see its interconnection throughout their lives.  

I usually fail at implementing Whitehead's strategy on a daily basis - but it is my goal.  From time to to time though, it all comes together.  Baking and eating the cake of Africa for the Conference of Berlin, or creating human statues for the various Latin American Revolutions certainly helps the content "stick" - while providing some fun in the process, which is what most often makes anything stick.  

Either way, I love trying to make it connect - and I am not afraid to fail in front of my students.  They usually just laugh at me.  Which means that sometimes my failures become some of the stickiest stuff..

Wednesday, March 1, 2017


This June, I am headed to Germany.  I was lucky enough to be selected by Go Global NC to receive the Beattie Grant, which sends NC teachers to foreign countries in order to build connections, learn about the different education systems, and experience the culture.

It requires some pre and post educational work on my part - but it is a subject about which I am passionate, and I am thrilled to have this opportunity.
In my application and subsequent interview, I spoke about how I hope that this trip will change me - so that I can be a better teacher for my students, and a better person overall.  And that is as honest as I can be about my expectations for this experience.

Teaching and travel?  In one ten day trip to Germany.

Dreams do come true.

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