Sunday, November 28, 2010

Distance Learning That Changed My Teaching Style.

A friend wrote to me recently and asked about "correspondence courses."  I had forgotten that term and yes, the course I took on Abnormal Psychology while I was in the Army would have been called a correspondence course.  I had forgotten that term.  Universities used to have a department in charge of correspondence courses.  I suspect today that department is renamed "office of Distance Learning.

Today we can deliver a course or lecture by YouTube, computer and DVD and not have to go near a classroom.  But there can be negatives involved.  A student taking a distance course HAS to have high internal motivation.....or some form of external motivation like "I have to pass this course to get credits for a pay raise."

Some years ago I had a chance to teach a Distance Learning Course via the telephone line.  It was fascinating and in the end changed my teaching style.  Let's start at the beginning.  That State of Washington was in one of their "cut back modes" in working on the state budget.  Someone had decided that the legislative members as well as other state workers were traveling too much for committee meetings and such.  So some in our state capitol decided to install a dedicated phone system throughout the state where people would come to the phone station closest to their home and participate in the meeting by phone.  

Because it had a dedicated line, good microphones, fairly large speakers (and a number of them) plus a main unit for dialing in a room had to be almost dedicated as well for its use.  At the time it was decided to locate the one in my area at the university.  As it was, my university was short of classrooms and was not interested in holding our one classroom for this "phone committee system" and so it came to pass that the whole mess was hooked up in one of my learning laboratories.  I had a laboratory where education students came to learn how to thread projectors, focus overhead projectors, play with slide projectors and so on.  It had about fifteen learning stations that they had to complete and when done take a test administered by a graduate student.  We had a bunch of carrels where students could work on the assignment.  Somewhere in the room was a large table with multiple chairs that we used for testing purposes.  The powers to be had decided my table was just the thing for the phone system.  

So for the first month or so, it just sat there.  Not necessarily in the way but just not used.  Every time I looked at it I wondered who else had a setup like this and were?  A bit of nosing around I discovered that in every major city, university and area was one of these setups and that by scheduling it any person in the state could use long as there were others in the state with the same purpose.

So I decided to give it a try.  I got my distance learning department to advertise a three credit class in "Learning Packets."  This was something hot in the K-12 teachers' world where they would make a learning packet for some unit of learning for their class curriculum.  It was so designed as to be pretty much self contained and a teacher could set it up in the corner of the room and students could work on it when they had spare time.  This type of learning packets was pretty popular with the intermediate teachers in a grade school.  One could have a geography unit about their neighborhood, or how to look for something in a reading unit.  I know of one high school chemistry teacher who almost entirely taught her class with learning packets.  Kids could come into her class and do a packet that included tape recorded instructions, materials to get, materials to read, and photographs of the end result so that the student could compare his/her work to the photographs.  Pretty amazing stuff.

So I set up a class on how to design learning packets.  

It turned out that I had enough students sign up--if I remember correctly, around fifty-eight students, mostly fifth year (BA or BS graduates working on a fifth year certification) all around the state of Washington.  I had one experienced teacher in Spokane, two teachers in Walla Walla, about six or seven teachers in the tri-city area of Richland, another eight or nine in Longview down on the Columbia River, and about twelve teachers in Olympia at the Evergreen State College.  There was only one sign up in Seattle. I almost forgot.  I had six students in Bellingham, all undergraduates but major in education.

I had a list of the students in front of me when I first turned the phone system on and my six students had a phone in front of them.  We had two speakers set up around the table.  While the rest of the laboratory functioned as it always had, we started our learning packets class.

The first thing that I did was to introduce myself and tell the objectives of the course, what the requirements would be.  Then I started around the state: "Hi Spokane, tell us about yourself."  And she did but mentioned that she was late getting there because the room that she was using was on the top floor of the Bon Marche, a then great department store in that town.  I teased her about shopping on the way up and she mentioned something like she hoped that we could get out early so she could pick some stuff up.  Nice banter.

I then went to another part of the state--Walla Walla or Richland, I don't remember but this continued for about two hours as we visited each classroom attached to this phone system.   They were talking to me, asking questions, telling other teachers in the class some ideas they had used in the past and so on.  It took the entire two hours of phone time to get most of the distance learners taken care of.  When we shut down the system, I then talked to my six students directly in front of me.  Good kids.

The next week was pretty much a mirror of the first week except that students all had to describe what they had done over the week and where they were with their learning packet.  I liked the way that other teachers would offer suggestions and in a couple of cases actually sent materials to the teacher working on that subject packet.  There appeared to be more give and take among the class members then I would have expected in a classroom of fifty-eight students.  Because it was a phone system, you had to talk to get attention, no raising of your hand here.  And there was lots of give and take.

The course proceeded pretty much as I had planned with the different steps in the completion of a learning packet.  I had to schedule the last two classes pretty much for each person to describe their packet, goals, tasks, materials, etc.

Almost every week someone would be describing what they had done and in telling the rest of the class would say something like, "...then I want my student to go to...oops, I need a section here for the kids to go to.  I'll work on that his week."  It seemed that everyone from time to time would talk to the rest of us and find something that had neglected to take into account.  Or if they didn't find the problem, someone else in class would say, "how are you going to get the learner to this area?"  It was immediate feedback all the time.

The class continued for ten weeks (one afternoon a week for three hours) on the phone system.  I have to say that many of the projects were exemplary.  Outstanding.  I was more than pleased but so were the students.  Several made copies of their packets for others to use.  The final was a descriptive questionnaire that I sent to all students in the class (except the six in Bellingham) that they had to fill out and send back to me.  It would have been too expensive to ship the entire packet in some cases to me to review and then to ship back.  I could foresee the department chair going berserk on the budget.

 Feedback indicated that the students were highly supported of this style of learning.  But coupled with it was the fact that they didn't have to drive far to attend the class.  The dedicated phone system really worked!  They also said that it was one of the more valuable courses they had taken so far in education. Whoa!  Why was this?  It seems that in many education classes a student sits, takes notes, takes tests and that's it.  More likely in upper division courses, students do talk and exchange ideas and philosophy but it is theory.  Certainly necessary.  But in this learning packet class we had much discussion on how a young student learns and what materials might encourage that student to move ahead in learning.  The packets were great but the thinking AND talking were invaluable. 

An interesting aside.  That year at graduation I was walking around the master's degree candidates looking for some of my graduate students and I was stopped several times by someone who would say, "I was in your telephone course."  It was funny--I recognize the voice, not the face.  

EXCEPT for my six undergraduate students at the university who took the course with me in the laboratory.  They all agreed that it was "great" course.  But I realized that I should have had them describe their packets on line to everyone else rather then to me alone.  I think their work would have been even better with the experienced teachers talking to them.  I think all six of the them said they really "...learned how to teach" in this class.  They learned this by listening to experienced teachers....not from me.  

How did it change my teaching?  I made an effort that in my classes I would listen more to the students explaining their work.  Shut up, Les and listen to what they are saying.  As an example, in later work where I was teaching a 'Computers in the Classroom' course with thirty students at computers, I would hand everyone a CD of Time magazine from their beginning to almost the present.  Every issue.  Then I would ask them to find the first person of the year that was not a man.  While there are several ways to seek an answer and there are several answers to the question, I learned to say when a hand went up, "what was your answer and how did you find it?"  While they told me the process they used you could see most of the class banging away following that approach.  Almost always there would be someone who would say, I did it a different way and I'd let them give out their answer.  It seems to me that I got more learning in when I used everyone in class to help teach.  Then it was a logical step to asking (or giving an assignment) "how would you use this in your classroom?"

There is a statement that Winston Churchill once said that I like very much--I repeat myself from time to time so I apologize in advance if I've already told you.  Winnie once said, "We shape our buildings, then they shape us."  How true.  Given the great advance of technology why can't we teach and learn in different ways--why can't we have distance learning for those that need this approach?  We all don't have to be in a classroom.

I'd like to thank all those teachers who took my learning packet course so many years ago on the telephone system.  It was a fun time.  And thanks for teaching my six undergraduates how to teach.  Have you thanked a teacher today?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Long Distance Learning

Some say that the best learning is a boy at one end of a log and a teacher at the other end of the log.  The symbolism is that an adult can teach a child important things one on one.  Over the years I've daydreamed about this image of one on one.  Can we make the log longer?  How far away can a teacher be and still be effective?  I've already told you that I enrolled in a University of Michigan course on Abnormal Psychology in which I read a textbook, did assignments after looking at subject (fellow band members) who may have had those characteristics discussed in that chapter.  Then I would send in my assignment and someone at U of M would read, correct, and send it back to me.  Those assignments kept me sane in an insane world at that time.  

Perhaps it was that course that got me interested in "distant education."  Why do we have to always put students together in a room to learn?   Quite frankly, it is economics--it's cheaper to do it that way.  But the evidence is out there.  People by themselves can learn many things.  We don't always need a classroom.  If we can believe Doris Kern Goodwin, the historian, Abraham Lincoln learned much of his law degree from books reading at night.  Seems feasible to me.  And so given the above data, I have been interested in how we can use "Distant Learning" to assist those that want to learn.  

First, a caveat. There are those that don't want to go to the effort to learn but want the degree and so they "buy" them.  We had a mail house college in this state and I'm glad to say that it was investigated and shut down but not before a number of rather important people bought a degree from them.   Accreditation becomes an important part in this study of distance learning.  There are some sites on the Internet that can recommend universities and colleges that have accredited plans of study....a few stay in touch with this blog and perhaps they will leave a comment as to their web address.

My first experience with distant learning was with a college class dealing with instructional media (films, overhead projection, 35 mm slides, realia, sound recordings, television, etc.).  However, a local commercial television station wanted to air a university course and so I decided to teach my class in Instructional Media in the university's rather small at that time television studio.  I would teach like I always did in front of the classroom, use the media like I always did but the only difference would be two rather large studio television cameras which would roll about the room videoing me and the students in the class. That and some faces looking down at us from a "control" room.  Although the course was scheduled in the catalog as a three hour evening class for ten weeks, I decided to break each evening into two parts thereby presenting the television station with two one hour tapes which they could play as they so wish.  They would play the tapes twice a week, I suspect, at a slow hour.  I then told the class that after the first week they need not come to class but could watch the class on their television station.  They would be required to attend the final exam.

The first weeks class went off pretty much without a problem.  I demo'd some equipment, some learning stuff and the class sat there and watched.  I asked questions and got less then normal responses.  And the student didn't ask questions....why would they?  As soon as they raised a hand, one camera or the other would slowly roll and focus on them.  They could see the monitors around the room--they were on TV!  It was not conducive for teacher/student interaction.

The next week (in which they could have stay home and watched) most of the class returned to the studio classroom.....better dressed.  Although this was the height of the hippy era, some had put aside the acceptable student dress and had chosen more acceptable social dress that adults were wearing.  Interesting.

But like a coach I watched the first two tapes and noted something fascinating.  While I was lecturing or showing something to the class, the director in the booth would have the camera people get "shots" on how the students were reacting to what I was saying.  And nine out of ten of those shots were female students in my class--where were the guys?  So for the second week I demanded that the television camera personnel be female.  As I suspected when viewing the second weeks tapes I found almost the opposite.  More guys were "shot" reacting then the gals.  I had found a problem with my "gate keepers" with the visuals.  I had then to educate the director up in the booth that we had to have equal shots of guys and gals.

But the other interesting thing was that the class continued to "dress up" and even when I challenged them on this subject, they said they weren't dressing up for the class.  

We did ten weeks of video recording of that class and very few, perhaps maybe two, elected to view the course on their television monitor at home. But sometimes they came to class as well.   Course work that the students had to turn in remain fairly high--equally as good as my other section which was not being televised.  Final test grades were also similar.  One thing that I didn't measure was if a person came to class AND then also watched the class on television.

So I concluded that the students in this section of the Instructional Media course (3 credits) learned as much as those in a non-televised sectioned.  But I had to conclude that offering this class as "distant learning" didn't seem to work.  The students kept coming to class when they had the option to stay home.  But there was another interesting piece of data that came to light.

I quite often had my classes evaluate me and the class.  This was done just before the final examination.  These evaluations were not seen by me until the following quarter so that there would be no possible influence on the students' grades.  This time the evaluation was in the cellar.  They didn't like the class, they didn't like me, they thought it was a waste of time....believe me I wouldn't have gotten a pay raise based on this class' evaluations.  It remained to the end of my career the lowest evaluation I ever received.

But there is a strange twist to all of this.  Students who took that course seemed to remember more of what I said and did and to the best of my knowledge "used" the learning in their other classes.  Also, over time I would visit some schools and a teacher would say "they had been in my televised course on media."  They still remembered it.  

My evaluation of the evaluation is that the students really didn't like the television cameras zooming in on them all the time and they really disliked it when I would ask them a question or an opinion.  Damn, here comes that camera again.  But it did keep the class more at attention.  There was no sleeping in this class and no chatting in the back rows.  You stayed alert because you never knew when that camera would catch you.  By the way the ratings at the station were also low although I did receive one letter from up in British Columbia that said I continually mispronounced a word.  Since I don't speak Canadian, I'm sure the letter writer is correct.

I'll write about "forced attention" in a later blog.  And I have more "distant learning" experiences to share with you.  It is, in my opinion, a viable learning opportunity.

If you have had a distant learning class in your background, let me know.  I'd like to hear from you.

I'd like to thank all those teachers who now communicate learning from their computers and their smart phones.  What a task.  Nice going.  Have you thanked a teacher today?

Monday, November 15, 2010

Bullying--it will always be with us.

Let me start out by being slightly academic.  If one were to go to the dictionary and look up the word, "bullying or bully," you would find a definition close to this one:  A person who uses strength or power to harm or intimidate those that are weaker.  If we look in a Thesaurus  and find out other words that could be substituted for bully or bullying you would find some of the following:

  • oppress
  • tyrannize
  • browbeat
  • harass
  • torment
  • intimidate
  • dominate
  • pressure
  • force
  • badger
  • goad
  • prod
I have been bullied as a kid and as an adult.  Numerous times.  Probably my first exposure to being bullied happened in an Episcopal church choir in Utica, New York when I was probably seven or eight years old.  We younger (and smaller) kids were picked on by the older kids in the choir.  I learned quickly not to use the bath
room off of the choir practice room.  The big kids were waiting.  And as soon as the practice was over, I scooted for the bus stop and the protection of the metro bus.  No, it was not nice or enjoyable.  I've always wondered if my family stayed in Utica and I stayed in the choir would I have bullied the younger kids when I grew older.  I wonder.

Of course I was bullied in the Army.  That is how that institution works--it is a top down bullying factory.  Lieutenants yell at the sergeants who yell at the corporals who yell at the privates.  Each has power over the lesser.

Deans have bullying rights over department chairs.  Don't do it his way and your budget gets cut.  

 I suspect my point at this point is that bullying is in the fabric of our society.  My parents prodded, nagged, goaded and from my point of view, tormented me into studying and doing my homework.  I also had to practice my trumpet and do my chores.  I doubt if the courts would say I had been bullied--rather the court would say that my parents loved me enough to get me to study and do those other things.  So parents bully their kids for a variety of reasons.  But we don't call it that, do we?

Right now there are a number of articles and opinion pieces in the newspapers, the evening news and pretty much all over the web sites dealing with news.  Unfortunately, there have been a number of young people who have committed suicide because of bullying--high schools, colleges and the military have not escaped this sadness.  Why these tragic events?  Because the lesser cannot get away from those in power.

So the next question is why do people bully others?  I suspect the simple answer is because they can.  Bigger kids can push smaller kids around physically.  So they do.  There is research on bullying.  It starts with size and aggression in the kindergarten--taking away play toys from others.  Some research (I don't have the book anymore) suggested that white kids pick on black kids who pick on Hispanic kids who pick on asian kids.  What I do remember of that research book is the kids in school learn to bully, then together with friends, bully others.
That is the beginning of gangs.  One joins a gang so as not to get bullied by others.  It is a learned behavior.

So how do we stop the bullying that is in our classrooms?  (Trick question so be careful with your answer)  My initial answer is that the teachers have to be cognizant of bullying behaviors and to not only stop them but to teach about that behavior.  For the elementary teacher the playground becomes the place to observe who is doing what to who.  In some school districts I think we need some "observers" on the school bus.  The driver has enough to do with picking up and letting off as well as driving safely.  Another adult in the back of the bus would be advantageous.  

At one time I decided to ride all five bus routes home from my elementary school.  I only completed two routes.  The noise and horseplay was too much for me.  It is a breeding grounds for bullying.  So we have to teach what bullying is and how to stop it.

I found that in the intermediate grades I stopped some bullying by talking to the whole class about it.  I didn't use names but said that I had seen enough that it bothered me and I didn't want to see it anymore.  Besides it did not make out class look good.  In a sense I used bullying tactics to stop bullying.  I pulled power over my kids.  "Don't do it anymore, understood?"

But the trick part of my question is that not all bullying happens in a classroom or a hall.  Some gangs are smart enough to not do things on a school campus but wait until they get to a "home" neighborhood.  To keep bullying from becoming an epidemic we need all parts of society to say no to such behavior from parents, to neighbors, to police and at the schools.  

Isn't it parents we bully (prod, command, nag) our kids to do their homework and chores so that they will grow up to be a valuable part of society.  But it has to be carefully done or we might be teaching them how to bully.

This blog is not the end all answer on bullying.  Rather it is meant to be a descriptor of sorts on what is bullying and where does it happen.  Unfortunately it is always around us and we need to be diligent in recognizing what it is and where it is.

Now I want you to get busy and thank your teacher right now!  Do you hear me?  If you don't do it now, you will get no recess!  For the whole week!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Time to Remember....

The eleventh month, the eleventh day, the eleventh hour and the eleventh minute we revisit those that have served this country in war and peace.  For the most part as I see it, we spend little time remember those who have served.  Perhaps that is the way it ought to be.  I am a veteran, drafted into the Korean War.  I was teaching elementary music in a Seattle suburb and I didn't want to go.  I didn't want to leave my kids.  I got my draft notice in January and my district was able to get them to hold off until the end of the school year in June.

I also got married in June and we had a month together before I had to go for basic training.  I remember a little kid in one of my classes that I taught wanting to know if getting married and getting drafted were the same thing.  Smart little sucker.  I still don't know the answer to that one.

I write about this today not to memorialize those who served but to write about the teachers I had in the military.  No, they weren't professional teachers like I normally write about and no, for the most part, they didn't care about their "students."  They were drill sergeants who were prone to yell, scream, punch, prod, kick and say and do whatever they thought might get your attention and to change your attitude.  But they also taught young men how the military worked.

Most of these drill sergeants had been in combat, had been under fire and had done the dirty work of "fighting."  Their goal was to teach us "civilians" what we would have to do when going into combat.  By and large, if my memory serves me at all, I liked my drill sergeants.  They had something to teach me and I was well aware that some of this "stuff" that I was learning might indeed come in handy someday.  Most of the sergeants use external motivation to make sure we learned.  "Now listen up, I'm going to show you this once and only once and you don't get it right the first time, I'm going to have you run around this camp with full pack ten times.  DO YOU UNDERSTAND?"  

Most of the kids that went through basic training with me were just that--eighteen and nineteen year olds who had never left home before.  A number of them had their future decided by a Judge. "Either finish high school or go to jail or do four years in the Army."  I suspect most chose the Army. They didn't know how to make a bed (bunk), wash their clothes, shine shoes and boots, keep their mouth shut, stand still, follow orders, eat with any degree of manners or keep a neat locker.  Life up to this point was anything they wanted life to be.  It took yelling and screaming and threats to get their attention.  It was possible but it was hard work. 

So the drill sergeants taught us how to walk, march, stand tall, fire a rife, a bazooka (now called a grenade launcher), machine guns, how to crawl low on the ground under fire, put on gas masks, and a variety of skills that were needed at that time in the Army.  I thought to myself that teaching kids was harder work quite frankly.  There was a lot of standing around and waiting in the Army.  You couldn't do that with kids.

After "basic" I was assigned another base and did my advanced training.  Most of advanced training was mostly skills needed in the Army such as clerks training, medical and para-medical, air-borne (parachutes), heavy equipment (tanks and personnel carriers), radio, etc.  

My eventual assignment was in an Army division band.  One might call it "easy duty" but I was not a happy individual.  We played out of tune most of the time and we played the same tunes for almost the two years that I was in that band. And the Army's hurry up and wait was a predominate feature for this group.  We'd wait for this general or some VIP from the states.  My feelings have not improved.

But I did do one thing that gave me some satisfaction.  Given that we had time to wait, I signed up for a college course from the University of Michigan through some sort of an Army system in education.  The Army would pay for the course, books, everything--all I had to do was learn.  So, I signed up for an abnormal psychology course.  I figured that it might help me in later years in my teaching career.  I got the textbook and started to read.  This in itself was an abnormal 
behavior in this unit as no one read.  I don't remember anyone ever getting a book out.  

But the fascinating part was reading about different abnormal behaviors, their characteristics, evidence, treatment (if there was treatment) and possible causes of that behavior.  Great material.  But even better was that I had actually examples of these deviant behaviors all around me.   Manic-depression?  Yeah, Sergeant Crowley fit the bill exactly.  A controlling nature?  Oh my,  did First Sergeant Pagio fit that behavior. For every chapter I had one or more examples right by me.  

I did my written assignments and got excellent grades and much encouragement from some professor back at the University of Michigan.  However, I never finished the course for a variety of reasons.  

I'm a school teacher, plain and simple.  I was not military material--never would be.  I spent two years and then two more years in active reserve and was very happy to be discharged after six years.  

It is interesting that I find this blog difficult to write.  I don't want anyone to write and thank me--I'm happy now writing and talking about teachers and teaching.  Maybe we teachers need to do a better job so there will be no more wars and violence.  Maybe?

You can thank a vet but be sure to thank the teachers around you.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Some random thoughts of kindness and teaching...

A day or so ago my wife and I watch a DVD, "Julie and Julia."  As critics have said, it was a delightful show with good acting and a theme to keep you interested.  Although I am not Italian, I was raised in the Italian part of town and enjoy good foods and eating.  During one trip to Paris to attend a conference, I enjoyed a Bistro and everyday good food of the French culture.

There was a small section in the movie that I felt quite close to as Julie (Amy Adams) is blogging about her culinary trials and tribulations and writes,  "Is there anyone reading this?  Is there any one out there?"  Ahhh, Julie.  I know the feeling.

If on cue, I received an e-mail from Kaitlyn Cole who works with  She pointed out that her organization recently published "20 Essential Books on U.S. Education Policy."  She thought my readers might be interested.  I agree.  You can see the list at: .  I was a little concerned that if I looked at the list of books I might feel left behind--I do get overwhelmed with my readings at times.  But it is a good list in as much as a couple of the books I once housed in my library.

One of the books I actually read and made use of.  It is "The Homework Myth" by Alfie Kohn.  So I went to my bookshelf and looked for it.  Not there--probably loaned it out and it hasn't come home.  But I remember it.  Mr. Kohn (and I) dislike grades and grading and.....Homework.  I haven't read the most recent research on homework but I suspect it will be saying the same thing.....that homework does not increase knowledge or grades.  That is a generalization since I believe that small doses of homework and for specific reasons beyond just doing it might show value.  But by and large homework just tires us all out and the teacher still have to correct and grade it.  Mr. Kohn has a website:

I use to tell my parents at the first PTA meeting my thoughts on not sending homework home and I was surprised to find most were acceptable to this policy.  Many European countries do not send home assignments but I have not done my research on this for some take me with a grain of salt.

However, my point being that this is an interesting list on the blog.  Kaitlyn--thank you for the headsup e-mail.

Then following Kaitly's note, I got an e-mail from Emma Taylor at pointing out an article on "10 Shocking Stats on the State of the U.S. Education."  It would be interesting to check out some of the statistics that the article quoted.  For example, 43 percent and 53 percent of eighth graders receive inadequate music and visual arts.   My initial thoughts was that this seems low--I would suspect 60 to 70 percent of eighth grade students receive little or no instruction in music and art.  But I am a biased ex-music teacher.  You can find the complete article at  .

One of these days I am going to do several blogs on distance learning.  I am a believer.  And have taught for an on-line university.  

I am also looking into bullying.  It seems to be a popular topic these days.  But it happened in my classroom.  I don't think it will go away without education and supervision.  Parents, you can help on this.

I would like to thank Julia Child for teaching me how to make an omelet.   I use to fuss and worry and carefully tilt the pan and raise my blood pressure when making an omelet.  Then one day I watched a video of Julia making omelets--many of them.  Some of them actually landed in the stove.  But she'd pour the eggs in the pan, shake the devil out of them and then plop them onto the plate.  I tried it and it worked.  Thanks, Julia.  You're a good teacher.

Have you thanked a teacher today?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Bulletin Boards

When I first started teaching at the intermediate grade level after having taught elementary music, I was assigned a classroom in a new elementary school that at the time was quite innovative.  It had a number of large circular buildings divided into four classrooms with restrooms in the center of each building.  No halls to clean or heat, each classroom had a door to the outside which had covered walkways.

In each classroom were two walls, one was covered mostly with a blackboard, the other wall was composed mainly of some sort of soft wood quite accessible to thumb tacks, pins and staples.  It was considered by the principal to be the classroom bulletin board which he wanted filled all of the time.  The outer wall was curved with mostly windows.  

I was not a good bulletin board person.  I did not have the creativity nor the inclination to spend a lot of time putting up material.  At first I let the kids in my room put their papers up but my principal wanted sometime more and let me know his desires.  Now this so-called bulletin board was about ten feet tall by about twelve to fifteen feet wide.  By my standards it was a royal pain in the...but I had an idea.

The class was studying in Social Studies the wester expansion.  Starting with the original thirteen states the class was to cover the migration westward until we hit the Pacific ocean.  In my day (I dislike that phrase but it is appropriate) Alaska and Hawaii were just entering statehood so our textbooks did not mention them.  I also had the assignment of teaching geography, mostly of the states, rivers, mountain ranges, etc.  Sort of fun, actually.

But the bulletin board was nagging at me.  So I decided to cover the entire wall with butcher paper and cover the paper with a large map of the United States (I can't remember if we put up Alaska and Hawaii--probably but I cannot be sure).  But how to do it was somewhat the problem.  I could borrow from the janitor a stepladder so both the kids and I could staple the paper right up at the ceiling.  Not a big problem.  But how to get the map drawn was the problem.  I thought about making a transparency for the overhead but that meant I would have to copy a US map onto a sheet of paper and then go into the Intermediate School district to make the transparency.  This meant a lost Saturday and driving into Seattle proper.  

What I finally decided was to ask several students who lived within walking distance to the school if they would be willing to come back after dinner and help me draw the outline of the United States and the individual states.  When the class found out about my evening project at least half of them wanted to come. "Mom will drive me here and pick me up!"  But I stuck with my original four or five walkers.  The reason for the night work was that the opaque projector just didn't have the power to project that far during the daylight hours.  Even with the lights turned off we couldn't darken the room enough to see the outline.

So one night I went back to the classroom, got out the opaque projector and by placing it just outside the entrance door, we could see the outline covering the entire wall.  When the kids came, I handed them a black felt pen and turned them loose on a section of the map.  It was just an outline of the country and then the outline of each state.  No rivers or mountains or names of the state.  That turned out to be the right thing in the long run.  Brilliant even thought it was not planned.

So there I was with a map of the United States covering my entire so-called bulletin board.  The class was enamored with it and we had fun guessing which state was which.  I was good with the east coast states but most of the kids had traveled during the summers and knew the west coast states better then me.  Talk about delight when a kid can beat their teacher at getting the right answer. Did I make mistakes on purpose?  I'm not telling and I'm sticking to this story.

I also assigned a state to each student to research, write about, and eventually give a talk to the entire class as to what their assigned state was all about.  But I only had about thirty five kids that year (I later had over forty kids in my classroom) so we had a few states to spare.  I gave the class some guidelines as to what they should be looking for for information about "their" state.  Population (this wasn't important to them--numbers that large had no meaning), cities, rivers, ports, agricultural areas were also good subjects of interest.  History of the state and state flag was also to be on a lookout.  Then I said I'd give bonus points for who were the native Americans that lived there before the western movement.....things like that.  The kids ate this stuff up.  My one set of old World Books did yeoman work.  The "N" volume got the brunt of the assignments.  As the kids "found out" about their state, I began to have them post notices, pictures and such onto the state with thumb tacks.  I got groused at in the office for using two boxes of thumb tacks--they normally only gave out a half a box to each class!  

My principal was still not happy but he really couldn't complain.  I did cover up my bulletin board--it just didn't fit his sense of what a bulletin board was suppose to be about.  And I suspect his comments about me in the files probably said I didn't cooperate all the time.  But I have to admit that the kids and I learned alot from our bullitin board map.  

Would I do it again today?  Nope.   In todays world I would assign a state to each of my kids and then have them do a section on a class web page.  But using this method I would have to be a bit more organized.  Because information about each state is so huge the class and I would have to decide "which knowledge is of most worth."  Now the kids would have to pick and choose.  Is this video of something worth that much gigabytes?  Does this picture really say something about my state?    This is all good stuff on how to learn.  And, yes, I would have the kids do some sort of an electronic presentation to the class about their state--powerpoint here we come!  What would I do with the extra states?  Assign them to some of the faster students in the class. They might complain but I doubt it.  This sort of learning has great enjoyment to it.  I suspect i would hear a lot of "...look what I found!" and groups of children going over to see what's new.    What would be difficult for me about all this?  How do I test the entire class on the Western Movement, knowledge of the states, geography, history of the states and so on.  Lots and lots of material to cover.  I don't like to test but I do need some sort of a base line.  How did I do in teaching this stuff?  What should I do differently next time?  How can I improve and become more efficient?  You get the picture.

And what about the damn state tests measuring all the kids?  Do they test the knowledge of how my kids put together their presentations?  Does the state test measure the enjoyment of learning that I think my kids would have in doing this assignment?  

I did this project for a couple of years.  Highly successful.  It is interesting that I learned as much as the kids did each year.  By the way, the entire class had to do the State of Washington, our home state.  By the time we got to it, the kids were skilled researchers and ferreted much more information then was in our textbooks.  Some parents also got involved as many had lived in different places within the state.  My kids were delighted.  I would also like to try something different by letting two or three girls do their states together.  Girls learn better in a group according to the research.  I'd like to give it a try.

I'd like to thank my principal from those days for egging me on in covering the bulletin board in my room.  It wasn't what he wanted but it turned out to be a good thing for my class.  They were great kids.

And thanks to all those teachers (who are now probably retired like me) who shared their ideas with me so I could do a better job of teaching.  That won't happen if we have merit pay.  But thanks all, you were great.