Happy Earth Day 2019!

Copyright (c) 2017 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

Earth Day has been celebrated in the United States since 1970 and is now observed in nearly 200 countries across the world. Unprecedented environmental crises such as deforestation, desertification, famine and drought, polluted seas and rivers, and rising global temperatures demand that all of us work together to protect and sustain our common planet.

We can do this through simple acts of conservation. Planting trees and flowers, recycling our waste, caring for animals, and buying organic foods can all help contribute to a renewable lifestyle. Deciding to walk, bicycle, drive an electric or hybrid vehicle, or use public transportation will help make a difference.

Stay informed. Use renewable energy. Learn how to plant and grow your own food. Vote for elected officials who pledge to support the environment and hold them accountable. Do what you can every day. Small acts can produce big results.

Most of all, go outside today and enjoy the beauty of spring. Happy Earth Day!

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.

Getting the Most out of Meetings

Full-time teaching involves a lot more than spending five hours a day in a classroom full of students. Schools are organizations, and as such are subject to the same rhythms and structures as companies and corporations. This is as true for district-run public schools as it is for religious and other private schools and locally organized charter schools.

While they may go by different names, the people who run educational institutions perform the same functions as their counterparts in private business. There are chief executive officers, accountants, marketing and sales managers, vice presidents, boards of directors, and employees, all working together to create a product that satisfies consumer demand and raises dividends for shareholders.

The most visible evidence of that product is a diploma that certifies that the graduate has mastered mandated state content standards and is now ready to move on to higher education or employment. As the front-line employees responsible for delivering that product, classroom teachers must conform to company policy and procedure. As in business, schools maintain “quality control” through effective staff recruitment, training, management, evaluation, and promotion.

This is why teachers attend meetings. When I entered the teaching profession after six years in the telecommunications and insurance industries, I was surprised to discover the parallels between school and office. I still had idealistic notions of school as a place where reading and reflection took precedence over mundane organizational and financial concerns. Perhaps it was my background as a young man in the “ivory tower” of research and writing in the university and seminary. Regardless of my pre-conceived ideas, I soon learned that school was a different experience altogether as a teacher than it had been for me as a student.

Meetings can take many forms for teachers. There are general staff meetings, school certification reviews, annual evaluations with the principal, conferences with students and parents, prep sessions for drills and rallies, staff retreats, department meetings, summer school meetings, interdisciplinary program planning sessions, technology training seminars, in-services, updates on state standards, co-curricular meetings, training sessions for administering state tests, and much more. The list can sometimes seem endless, especially in the midst of an exhausting semester filled with challenging classroom management and piles of grading.

The intention of all those meetings is, of course, to support and strengthen teachers in the performance of their duties. For the most part, I found this to be true over the course of my twenty years in the classroom. I appreciated the resources and teamwork that staff meetings provided and the efforts of my administrators to help me improve in my job. I found that the most effective meetings were those run by leaders who were relatively new to their positions. The enthusiasm and ideas were still fresh.

I particularly enjoyed the support I received in meetings from fellow teachers who were my teammates in special interdisciplinary programs (see my blog entry on “Working With Colleagues“). I am a big believer in team teaching, especially across the subjects. I also benefited from the leadership and guidance of many outstanding administrators as well as the expertise of a host of specialists and consultants at both the campus and district levels.

As in the business world, however, there are times when inefficiency and politics can distort the higher purpose of education. As a new teacher, it is important for you to avoid these pitfalls and keep your mind and efforts focused on why you are there: to provide the best educational experience possible for your students. This means getting the most you can out of meetings. Here’s how:

Form alliances. Human organizations are comprised of alliances and coalitions, as any serious study of world history will show. Schools are no different. As a new teacher, it is especially critical for you to find allies in your new environment. Befriend colleagues in your own department and the other subjects as well. Sit with these people at meetings if you can. Volunteer to be in their group. Choose them carefully, as you may need them one day. Be willing to back them up when they need you.

Speak up. Don’t wait to be called on. It is a big temptation to hold your tongue, particularly if you are in a meeting run by someone who dominates conversation or has held their leadership position for far too long. Express your opinion and believe in that opinion enough to defend it. This doesn’t mean you need to be aggressive or combative; on the contrary, trust that your contribution will make a positive difference at your school. Someone must have agreed with you or you would not have been hired or assigned there.

Pay attention. Listen carefully to what is said in a meeting…and what is not said. Watch the body language. Pay attention to subtext. If you can figure out who is aligned with whom, you can better navigate your way through the often turbulent seas of school politics. Take notes and remember names, faces, and words. Identify the people to emulate, the people to tolerate, and the people to avoid.

Mind your own business. Avoid participating in campus gossip and intrigue. This was an aspect of staff life that I found particularly odious. I expected teenagers to engage in petty quarrels and jealousies, but not educated adults. My discovery that there are many educators motivated primarily by ego and appetite was both disappointing and distressing. I resolved early on in my career to avoid taking sides in a personal dispute. My business was to teach kids.

Maintain your personal boundaries. Avoid being drawn into drama. Despite your best efforts, you won’t get along with everyone. Sometimes there is basic and unavoidable personality conflict. If you find yourself the target of bullying, harassment, or scapegoating, lean on your new administrators and allies and assert your rights. What you can’t work with, work around. You have as much right to a safe, productive workplace as do your students.

Develop a social life outside of school. One of the great saboteurs of school meetings is the misconception that a meeting can double as a party. I saw this all the time. Lots of food and drink, deafening noise, ridicule, and raucous storytelling. Sometimes the principal had to wait 15-20 minutes for everyone to finally be quiet. I saw adult behavior that was worse than anything my most disruptive group of students ever exhibited. Getting together outside of school to have fun is fine, but using a meeting as social activity can interfere with the meeting’s agenda. Business before pleasure.

Keep an open mind. Try to glean whatever you can from meetings, whether it be a new technology skill, a deeper understanding of school dynamics, a suggestion for more effective teaching, or a new opportunity for you to grow as an educator. Look for ways to offer what you have to campus life. There is no one on staff who is exactly like you or has precisely what you have to offer. Believe in yourself enough to learn a new way of doing things.

I hope these suggestions have given you some ideas on how to best make use of school meetings. There is a lot of good in them. Focus on that and what it can do for you and your students. Build on the positive and avoid the negative. Your students will benefit greatly from your efforts.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.



Adapting to Irregular Schedules

The typical school day still starts in the morning between 7 and 8 and ends somewhere around 3 to 4 pm. Each regular period lasts between 45 and 60 minutes and is marked at beginning and end by the sound of a bell. 5-minute passing periods, a 15-minute recess, and a 30-minute lunch punctuate the day. Sometimes there is a shorter reading period included as well as optional sections before 7 am or after 3 pm. Most school years move through 180 or so days of instruction over the course of ten months, with weekends and holidays excluded. Labor Day and Memorial Day serve as the bookends of the academic year.

This traditional schedule developed early in the public school movement (and most religious and other private schools followed suit) out of the rhythms of farm and factory from where most of the students in late 19th and early 20th century America were drawn. Those kids were used to being called to work by rooster or whistle and exerting most of their physical and mental energies during daylight hours. Then they returned home, attended to their family responsibilities, finished their homework, went to bed, and got up the next morning and did it all over again. Weekends were usually free. School breaks were scheduled around national or religious holidays.

There have been significant changes in this picture over the last century. Some schools have moved to block or rotating schedules and others offer evening or weekend classes, especially for older students. The introduction of electricity at the end of the 19th century and internet connectivity at the end of the 20th transformed the nature of the American work and school day as well as the popular culture at large. No longer was everyone expected to be a “morning person” in the traditional sense. Today, many people work and learn from home or attend school part-time during hours that suit their particular schedule. Many districts have moved to year-round schedules with different breaks.

But for the most part, secondary schools still follow the basic guidelines of the 8 to 3 schedule of six 55-minute periods for ten consecutive months. Many community college students are still largely tied to day classes as well. As a teacher, you typically will have to structure your lessons and units within this traditional framework. Lectures, team activities, seminars, research, essay writing, review, and testing must conform to a certain number of hours and days. This can be particularly challenging to a history teacher, who is expected to cover decades of complex state standard material in a period of weeks. Sometimes you have to reduce an entire historical movement to a single hour.

Added to this challenge is a regular school schedule that is anything but regular. Those 55-minute periods can be reduced at any time by fire drills, lockdowns, special lunch schedules, assemblies, athletic events, student club activities, announcements, student news broadcasts, visits from the administrators or counselors, state testing, staff meetings, natural disasters and other emergencies, campus construction and renovation, and much more. Learning to be flexible with your curriculum and classroom management is an important part of teaching in today’s modern and increasingly complex educational system.

I can remember many interruptions of my best-laid instructional plans over the years. Airborne pesticides driven from a nearby farm by unexpected spring wind gusts once led to a three-hour lockdown. Excessive heat and high electricity costs cut short some school days. Flooding disrupted others. Active shooter drills shut down the campus and suspended instruction while the lights were turned off and the doors locked. Lightning struck a tree within sight of campus and set it on fire. A bank robbery a few blocks from campus brought armed police officers in view. Lunch was cut short by a student fight.

Then there were the announcements from the office. Whether it was Teacher of the Year, a student award or scholarship, an important campus visitor, a special activity, a community charity event, or a failure of the bell system, there was rarely a week when something unexpected did not interfere with my carefully crafted lesson plans. Sometimes my department was expected to implement some new test or curriculum passed down from the district office. State tests and the process and schedule of administering them were rewritten. As one of my mentors in the credential program told me, don’t get too used to anything in education. Change is inevitable.

And flexibility is necessary. The best lesson plan in the world must be designed to be presented in parts, because that is what you might end up with. As a classroom teacher, you have little control over the decisions about schedule that are made at the administrative or district levels, unless you join the bell committee or the leadership council (if such things exist at your school). You need to be able to adapt. If you are interrupted, it is important that your students have continuity in what they are learning. This means allowing them to wrap things up quickly and finish up later.

For example, I decided at some point to never schedule tests on Mondays (since so many did not study over the weekend) or on those shortened schedule days that were part of the regular weekly rotation of periods (in one of my schools there were bi-monthly staff and department meetings that cut the periods down to 40 minutes each). I consistently allowed my students to have a full class period in which to take a test and a day ahead of the test in which to review. Sometimes I had to change when those two consecutive days would be if the school changed the regular schedule at the last minute.

I tried not to schedule multi-day activities such as DBQ writing assignments and Socratic Seminars during weeks when I knew other things were scheduled. The same was true for field trips and class excursions to the campus library (in the days before district-issued laptops). When I designed my curriculum for the year, I left several free days in each unit, just in case I had to suddenly incorporate something from the department or the district or something else unexpected came up in the schedule. I used pencil instead of pen in my lesson plan book. Nothing could be set in stone.

Communication with your department, administration, and district is key. Always pay attention to your emails from the office, particularly those regarding the schedule. The few times I got too busy or tired to do so was usually when something was announced that would affect what I had planned for that day. Include as much as you can in your lesson book ahead of time, and have alternative activities at the ready. If you can’t get to something today, do it tomorrow or next week. Be flexible on due dates and levy late penalties sparingly. Explain to your students that completing the assignment eventually is more important than getting it all done today.

I never had to deal with any of this when I was a part-time community college instructor. But in every full-time middle and high school position I held, I had to adapt what I did to the school schedule as a whole. This is natural, of course, as kids need more from school than just sitting in class for six hours. All the social and campus wide activities are important in building their connections to the school, and the drills and announcements are designed to help them stay safe and on track. Anything you can do to help them succeed in the midst of change will build their sense of success as well as your confidence as a teacher. Remember that you are helping to prepare them for success in a competitive and complex world. Starting with the complicated environment of the school schedule is a good start.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.



Historical Travel

Historic Fort Gibson in Muskogee County, Oklahoma. Copyright (c) 2004 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

As a history teacher, it is important to ground yourself in the people and events of the past. This is also true of historical places. Many world cultures and religions emphasize the spiritual power of key locations in the national story. Visiting those places can help your understanding of historical events and how you teach your students about those events.

Historical travel is a special type of “vacation.” You are there to experience and learn as well as rest and relax. School breaks are to be prized as time to regenerate (see my blog on “Pacing Yourself“), so an extended trip must allow for that. Teaching can be exhausting, but an historical trip can energize a history teacher. As a new teacher, you may be too tired to go anywhere on the weekend or over break. But if you have the energy and resources, visiting historical places can be worth the effort.

I am not talking about field trips or leading a tour group overseas. You can click on these links to read about those topics. What I am discussing here is a getaway for yourself. This could take the form of a trip by yourself or with your spouse/partner, your own children, or a friend or colleague. No students, no parents, no responsibilities except for your own education and enlightenment. Decide what places you want to visit and go there. Take a good camera and remember to bring home as many new educational materials as you can carry.

I did this on Winter Break 2003 in London. I allowed myself the first few days of break to relax and rest before flying out of LAX into Heathrow Airport on Christmas Day. I spent a week in the city and flew back on New Years Day 2004. During that time I visited the British Museum, Hyde Park, Buckingham and Kensington Palaces, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster, the Cenotaph at Whitehall, the Tower of London, and many other prominent historical sights. I especially enjoyed the Crypt at St. Paul’s, with its collection of tombs and memorials to famous people from British history, including the Duke of Wellington, Lord Nelson, General Gordon, Florence Nightingale, William Howard Russell, and Melton Prior.

This trip was a rich resource for my World History classes. For my U.S. History students, I shared what I learned on visits to important places across America, particularly battlefields of the American Civil War. I had visited many of them as a kid growing up in the South, of course, but returning as a teacher years later helped me appreciate them with new eyes. I went to Prairie Grove, Arkansas in 2001 (where my great-great-great-grandfather fought with the 19th Iowa Infantry in 1862), Gettysburg in 2003, and Antietam, Pea Ridge, Wilson’s Creek, Baxter Springs, Cabin Creek, Fort Gibson, Honey Springs, and Crampton’s Gap in 2004, as well as the Cherokee Heritage Center in Park Hill, Oklahoma.

Many important sites in the history of the American West are fairly well preserved today. Virginia City, Nevada and Calico Ghost Town near Barstow, California are well known tourist destinations. Several of the gold mining settlements of the Sierra Nevada foothills are now popular destinations for historical travelers. Sutter Creek, Nevada City, and Columbia are all worth the effort to get there. The same is true for the Empire Mine State Historic Park in Grass Valley. Over the course of my many years living in California, I enjoyed visiting all these remarkable places.

I visited the Ludlow Massacre Memorial in Colorado and the Glorieta Pass Battlefield in New Mexico on a trip through the Rocky Mountains in 2002. The next year I made my second journey to the site of the Manzanar War Relocation Center in the Owens Valley of California, where Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II. On all these trips, I took pictures and collected artifacts and posters to display in my classroom when I returned home. Over the course of the year I would refer to those visual aids as I worked my way through my various units of instruction.

Digital technology has been a great help in organizing these materials for presentation in class. I was still using a hand held 1984 Olympus XA camera when I did most of my educational traveling between 2000 and 2005. The advent of smartphones in the past decade with their outstanding photo editing functions allowed for exciting new options for curriculum development. Make use of the latest technology to present the mementos of your travels to your students.

Trips cost time, money, and energy, of course, and you might not always have enough of these resources at your disposal to run off to a distant place as soon as the final school bell rings. This is especially true of group tours that focus on historical themes in the United States and Europe. But if you are able, visiting these places on your own, without students, can really make a difference in the quality of your instruction. Do what you can, and let the history do the rest.

Equestrian statue of the Duke of Wellington in Hyde Park Corner, London. Photo copyright (c) 2003 Torin Finney.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.

All the School’s a Stage…

Happy Tartan Day! Here I am wearing a Davidson tie during my first year of teaching in 1999. Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

Effective teaching involves performing, and the classroom is your stage. The very nature of the job is theatrical. There are sets, props, costumes, and scripts. Whether or not you have a theater background as I did, all teachers find themselves in the role of entertainer as well as that of educator. Embracing this role is better than resisting it. Keeping your students engaged will lead to better results, both for you and for them.

Setting up your room is like preparing a stage. Make sure you have the right lighting. Arrange your desks and other furniture in the proper feng shui. The way your students enter the room and find their seats is critical in grabbing and retaining their attention. Your equipment needs to be in working order, particularly your sound system for music and films. Classroom supplies are your props. I decorated my walls with maps and posters that reinforced my content. I went shopping for wooden, laser, and collapsible pointers to use during lectures.

Costuming is important as well. As an historical reenactor, I had a large period wardrobe at my disposal, but creative combinations of ordinary clothing can do the trick just as well. I began wearing bowties, lapel pins, socks, and colors that corresponded to the succession of national and cultural holidays marking the mileposts of the school year: Labor Day, Indigenous People’s Day, Halloween/Day of the Dead, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, Winter Break, Martin Luther King Day, Presidents Day, Lunar New Year, Mardi Gras, International Women’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Spring Break, Tartan Day, Cinco de Mayo, Malcolm X Day, Harvey Milk Day, Memorial Day. These outfits helped both me and the kids enjoy ourselves and have fun as we moved through the semester.

Your personality is one of your greatest assets. Those of you who are extroverts can capitalize on your natural gregariousness. If you are more introverted, you can still keep the kids entertained and engaged with a clever wit. One of my favorite instructors as a kid was my high school government teacher. He was a dignified, quiet man who kept our attention with his funny facial expressions and ways of saying things. Whenever the office interrupted him over the intercom system, he would stop in mid-sentence, stare at all of us with a mortified expression, and say, “Of all the unmitigated gall!”

As in theater, familiarizing yourself with your script and rehearsing it to perfection will help you earn acclaim with your audience. That script, of course, is your lesson plan and the state content standards that support it. Planning how to present those standards in a creative way is the first step in successful teaching. Try different ways of doing things. Hone your craft through trial and error. Be flexible. Develop what is successful and discard what is not.

Offering a variety of engaging activities and presenting them with an infectious excitement and enthusiasm will draw in your students. I had an array of eccentric sayings and expressions over the years that my kids found entertaining. When I caught them imitating me, I knew I was getting somewhere. One even created a brilliant graphic design of me as a comic book character. I proudly displayed it on my front wall and made frequent references to it in class.

Turn to supportive colleagues and administrators for ideas. Incorporate the styles and mannerisms of your own favorite performers. Use lines from shows and movies. Include music in class. If you are facile with elaborate lighting and sound systems, employ that background in your teaching. Participate in campus wide fun activities to call attention to your contribution to the personality and character of the school. The more you enjoy your job, the more the kids will enjoy your class.

Dismiss any negative voices that ridicule your style or try to persuade you that “school is not supposed to be fun.” Let them have the dull classes. You want your students to look forward to learning your subject. This means offering them something they can’t get from a smartphone. The teacher’s business is to educate in the most effective and enjoyable way possible. If that means dancing, singing, and acting in costume, then on with the show!

Presenting on the “Bohemian Brigade” of the American Civil War at an outdoor living history event in California in October 2005. Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.

Overseas Educational Tours

Visiting the Rock of Cashel in Ireland, April 2000. Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

Taking students overseas has become a popular way of providing an exciting supplement to their regular education. Numerous tour companies offer packages which include room and board, transportation, tour guides, and a free or discounted place for every teacher who signs up with at least six students. Many of the packaged tours focus on historical locations in the British Isles and the European continent as well as parts of Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.

My only experience with this was as the leader of a large group of 30 people in the spring of 2000. A colleague and I had started a cultural club at our campus and organized a tour of Ireland as part of the group’s interest in the Celtic lands of Europe. I was only in my second year of teaching. I had never been to Europe and never led an educational tour. We held many rallies and fundraising events and built a lot of excitement in anticipation of the trip. The administrators and parents expressed their support, and by early April we were ready to go.

The flight to Limerick and then Dublin went fairly uneventfully, and our first few days of the eight day tour were as exciting and informative as I hoped they would be. My colleague and I served as the teachers and leaders for a group than included 20 high school students, seven parents and grandparents, and even a musician friend of ours who brought along his bagpipes. Other than adapting to people driving on the left side of the road and getting used to Gaelic road signs and Irish accents, traveling in Ireland began relatively smoothly.

Then we started having trouble. A few of the seniors were caught drinking and I had to make long distance calls home to their parents. There was a personality conflict between the bagpiper and one of the parents. My colleague and I were distracted by a side tour and lost track of the some of the group. Several of the kids slept all day in the bus and stayed up all night. A few tried to sneak into the local pubs. Kids divided into sub groups and argued with each other. The tour guides were ready to throw in the towel.

We did finish the trip successfully and returned home laden with great photos and souvenirs, but tales of our troubles spread to the administration and my colleague and I were called in to explain what happened. We emerged with little more than a mild reprimand, but I felt terrible that I had not anticipated more of the potential pitfalls of such a venture. While I treasured my memories of Ireland, I felt so demoralized by the experience that I stuck to local field trips for the remainder of my teaching career.

This is not to discourage you from leading an international tour. On the contrary, the educational aspects of such experiences are well worth the effort. But there are certain parameters and precautions that should be considered before embarking on an adventure overseas. Remember that you are assuming responsibility for someone else’s children in a foreign country. This is not something to be taken on lightly. I took my role as leader seriously, of course, but my inexperience led me to make some key mistakes.

My first was allowing every student to sign up who had the means to go. The only criteria I used was that the students were members of our club, they maintained a good GPA, and their parents signed their permission slip. I did not hand pick the students based on their behavior at school or how well I knew them or their parents. I trusted that any student who had the opportunity to experience such an exciting trip would conduct themselves accordingly.

My next error was one of negligence. I failed to monitor the student hotel rooms every night and did not assign adults to watch small groups of students. Since so many parents were along, I assumed that everyone would behave themselves. This assumption turned out to be a faulty one, with regard to some of the parents as well as some of the students. My colleague and I, both Irish Americans with a deep passion for Irish history, were so thrilled to be in “the Auld Sod” that we focused more on the historical sights than we did on our own group.

Bringing the bagpiper was a great addition to an Irish trip, especially when he broke into classic tunes at the Cliffs of Moher in County Clare. But in hindsight I might have left him home. He was not a teacher at the school and did not know the families in attendance. My friend and I wanted him there so we invited him to go as a chaperone, even though he was unqualified. Neither were the parents qualified to serve in such a role, except for their own children they had brought along. I expected too much of the other adults and not enough of myself and my colleague.

On the positive side, my organizational skills were good and I managed to keep everyone together, no small feat for such a novice teacher with so large a group. I think everyone who went enjoyed themselves and collected fond lifelong memories. Visiting the land of my ancestors was a remarkable journey I will never forget. All of us learned a lot about Irish culture and history and brought home great stories. But there were times when we lost focus on why we were there.

Educational tours are not a “senior trip” where partying takes precedence. In fact, I would have probably left most of the seniors at home if I had it to do over again. The younger students had more of their parents along and generally behaved themselves, except for a few who came under the influence of the older kids. If you get to know the kids you want to take before you leave, you will be able to make a better judgment about their character and intentions. If you are an inexperienced teacher as my colleague and I were, try to recruit a veteran teacher to go along to help you.

Larger groups are tempting because of the additional chaperone spots they create and the possibility of reserving your own tour bus. But smaller groups are much easier to manage. Traveling with a colleague or your spouse and less than a dozen students will make for a much smoother experience. If you do decide on a larger group, make sure you hand pick all the kids as well as the parents. Trust your instincts. If you have questions about a particular person or persons, err on the side of caution. When in doubt, leave them out.

Lay out clear discipline guidelines before you leave and have the students sign something that says they understand the consequences of poor behavior. Serious infractions like alcohol and drug use are strictly prohibited. Most tour companies allow you to send students home at parent expense in the middle of the tour if they violate the rules. Thorough homework ahead of time will reduce the need to resort to this option.

A proactive approach can make overseas educational tours very enjoyable. Seeing the actual locations of famous events can bring history home for your students. The stronger a structure you create for this experience, the more positive an experience it will be.

At the banks of the River Liffey in Dublin. Copyright (c) 2000 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.

Taking Notes

Taking notes is a big part of your history class or any other subject in the social sciences. There is a lot of material to keep track of, and state content standards are rigorous and extensive. Knowing how to take detailed notes in the right format will help you keep up with that content and achieve your best grade possible.

Cornell style notes are a time-proven method of organizing and engaging with historical content. I used them for most of my time as a high school teacher and encouraged my college and middle school students to employ them as well. They were a required part of both lectures and documentary films in my classes. I provided a paper copy of printed Cornell forms for students to use as well as online copies in my digital classrooms.

If a printed Cornell form is not at your disposal, create your own. Write your name and the course title at the top of the page and the subject of the lecture or discussion in the top left corner. Draw a column along the left margin about a third of the way into the page and divide that column into three or four parts. This is where you will create topics or questions that can funnel the content you are hearing or seeing into specific categories.

If the instructor is unclear about those categories ahead of time, you will have to do that part yourself as best you can. Keep track of the information you hear and see in the larger space to the right of the subject column. Write down important dates and places (When and Where), people and groups (Who), important events and ideas (What), cause and effect (Why), and cyclical patterns (Historical Consequences). These were the same themes I had my students use when creating their quarter projects and taking notes on them in class.

Repeat this pattern on both sides of your paper. At the bottom, create another margin where you synthesize the page’s content into a summary statement or conclusion. Then review everything you have written before turning it in at the end of class (if that is what the teacher requires) or filing it in your subject notebook.

Of course, Cornell notes are not universally required or accepted by all instructors, but they are nonetheless a good way to organize content as you go. Organize your notes into sections according to the units of the course so you can use them to study for tests and exams. Color code your notes to help you make connections between patterns of people and events. Use the same color code in linking your class notes to the written assignments you complete in your textbook. The more consistency and connection you can create, the better.

Many people try to rely on their “photographic memory” and feel that extensive notes are unnecessary. I can tell you from decades as a student and teacher that this is not the case, at least for the majority of learners. History tests tend to be fact heavy and historical writing demands detail and documentation. The same can be said for economics, psychology, sociology, political science, anthropology, and world religions. Copious and well-organized notes are an essential part of academic success in the social sciences.

Save all your notes and other written assignments until the end of the semester after your final exams are over. If the course lasts for an entire year and culminates with a comprehensive final, continue to save and reorganize your notes until then. It is too much to ask of yourself to try to remember something you learned many months earlier. A well-organized notebook will aid you in recall and reanalysis.

Use your notes to help you in constructing essay assignments. Remember that writing in the social sciences is different from the expository or creative writing you might do in your English class. The more evidence and analysis you include in historical essays, the more persuasive and impressive they will be to the person reading them. In history, one can never have too many notes. The key to success is to organize them in such a way that they can help you achieve it.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.

Happy Cesar Chavez Day 2019!

Copyright (c) 2017 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

Today would have been Cesar Chavez’s 92nd birthday. In the years following his death in 1993, support grew to commemorate March 31 each year as a “day of national service.” President Barack Obama established Cesar Chavez Day as a federal holiday in 2014 and now eleven states have followed suit.

I decided to answer his call to service as an educator. During my five years as a middle school social studies teacher and drama coach in Bakersfield, California, I had the good fortune to have some of his grandnieces and grandnephews in my classes. Chavez’s wife Helen Fabela attended nearby Delano High School during World War II and many of her relatives settled in Kern County.

Cesar’s legacy is strong in the Bakersfield area. He is buried at Cesar E. Chavez National Monument near the rural town of Keene. I incorporated the story of his civil rights and educational work in my history curriculum over the course of my seven years in Bakersfield and continued to do so during my subsequent thirteen years in Orange County.

There are many forms of national service. As teachers, we have the unique opportunity to continue Cesar Chavez’s work for equality and human rights in a lasting and meaningful way. May his vision of an America that celebrates dignity and diversity come to fruition through the efforts of all those who serve.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.

Teaching as Vocation

The summer it all began: returning to Boston from California in August 1984. Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

Not everyone who becomes a teacher dreamed about doing so as a kid. Not all decided to enter a teaching career right out of college. In fact, many professional educators today are in their second or third careers. Whatever path brought you here, it is important to appreciate the unique character of your background and abilities. Whether you are 25 or 45 when students begin addressing you as “Ms.” or “Mr.,” you take on the mantle of more than a job. Becoming an educator is more of a vocation, from the Latin for “calling.” Discerning and answering that call is at the heart of your career in the classroom.

I entered college in 1979 as a creative writing major, determined to be the next great American novelist. This dream was gradually dissipated by the demands of freshman core classes in the humanities. Between the hundreds of pages of classical tragedies, political essays, and dry historical monographs I had to read and analyze in interminable polemic prompts, I had no time or energy to add to the collection of adventurous and fanciful tales I had woven in my high school years. Disillusioned by the end of my first year, I began looking for some new program with which to affiliate myself.

This proved a daunting task. Uninspired by my many choices, I chose to defer my selection and focus on completing other core course requirements. I finally had to make up my mind by my junior year and chose the American Studies program. This seemed a perfect resting place for my indecision. History, literature, political science, art, and music classes would all count toward my major as long as the emphasis was on the American experience. Then I read the great 1930s U.S.A. trilogy by John Dos Passos. I resurrected the idea of the novel, determined to present as my senior thesis a similarly multidimensional historical epic.

I chose as my topic the experience of the Japanese American soldiers in World War II, having just learned for the first time of their tremendous sacrifice for their country in spite of the betrayal of the internment camps. I interviewed veterans, attended a 40th reunion at a Los Angeles museum, compiled news clippings and memoirs, and carefully crafted a compelling protagonist and an engaging plot. I spent the entire summer of 1982 writing an exhaustive first draft. But much to my horror and disappointment that fall, my academic advisor read it and declared, “You are capable of a great work, but this is not it.” My dreams of a literary career came to a sudden and ignominious end.

But all was not lost. My rewritten thesis garnered awards and praise. While my talent did not appear to lie in fiction writing, I did seem to have a flair for writing narrative history. Still uncertain on my career path, I stuck with American Studies, continuing on to UMass/Boston to earn a graduate degree. This included a paid research assistant position, but the experience of poring over historical manuscripts in library vaults failed to keep my interest. I returned to California after my first year in Boston, committed to finishing my M.A. but lukewarm about the doctoral work for which my graduate professors were grooming me.

Then a college friend I met in the Catholic student group at UC Santa Cruz offered me a job as a counselor at a CYO summer camp north of San Francisco. They needed male counselors, he said, especially bilingual ones. He knew I had taken years of Spanish in high school and college and traveled extensively in Mexico. I had nothing else planned for that summer of 1984, so I agreed to go. I was assigned a cabin of a dozen or so 9-10 year old boys, including a handful of Spanish speakers, from a group home run by the archdiocese.

The experience turned out to be transformative. After months of surviving the long, cold, dreary New England winter by wearing layers of wool garments and secluding myself in cavernous libraries, I was entranced by my new world of sunny forest glens, soaring redwoods, canoeing and swimming and horseback riding, wearing shorts and T-shirts all day, playing beach frisbee and volleyball, and hosting outdoor liturgies, dances, parades, and games. I had emerged from a black and white world into one of living color.

I returned to Boston that fall convinced that my calling was to work with children rather than books. I initially thought this would be in the context of church work and decided to enter seminary. First I considered the Catholic religious orders, perhaps the Paulist Fathers for their media and campus work or the Maryknolls for their Latin American missions. But the mandatory celibacy did not work for someone interested in eventually getting married. So I ended up choosing the Protestantism of my mother’s family over the Catholicism of my father’s.

Over the next eight years, I did get to work with youth groups and lead Bible study and confirmation classes, but in the end I realized that parish work was not my long term calling. I then worked in corporate office jobs for six years and eventually was hired to teach theology at a Catholic high school while I worked on my teaching credential. Now I was working with both children and books. Credential in hand, I went on to teach in public schools for the next eighteen years. In so doing, I believed I was answering the call I first heard in that camp in the summer of 1984, although in ways I never could have imagined then.

Every teacher has a story behind their decision to enter the classroom. Many go in straight out of college, and others like me embark on a second or third career. Whatever that background story may be, every teacher learns that teaching is more than a job you can forget about when you go home at the end of the day. While the education world does not use the word “vocation” as much as the church, the concept still applies. People don’t enter teaching for the worldly perks. There are no lucrative salaries or commissions, no stock options, no designer clothing, no luxury cars, no first class airline tickets or hotel suites. The motivation is different.

Teaching is more a vocation than a job or even a career. Jobs can be taken and left at will, and careers can be changed. I don’t remember feeling any grief when it was time for me to quit my positions as paperboy, library page, administrative assistant, amusement park custodian and ride operator, food server, data entry clerk, or even insurance agent. There was little emotional or spiritual investment. I needed to work, so I worked, I collected my paycheck, I went home, I woke up the next morning and did the same thing until the weekend arrived.

A calling cannot be dismissed as easily. It was hard for me to deny that the way I ended in teaching was atypical. I enjoyed my own teachers when I was a kid, but I never imagined becoming one of them. Unlike those colleagues who went into teaching right after college graduation, I came in through the back door, but it was a door that opened for me all the same. Over the course of the next two decades, I taught more than five thousand students at five different schools. They came from every walk of life. While this was not something I dreamed about doing in childhood or even as a young man, I ended up finding my place in it.

Of course, many of the skills and experiences I had in other lines of work helped prepare me for the classroom and provided helpful curriculum materials. My Master’s thesis was published by Paulist Press and was later incorporated into my U.S. History unit on America in World War I. My Spanish came in handy with ELD students and their families. My clerical jobs gave me organizational skills. My church work taught me that learning is about people as much as it is about ideas. Even my odd jobs as a student provided a useful resume for helping my Economics seniors craft theirs.

If you feel like you belong in the classroom despite your inexperience, you are probably in the right profession. This sense of calling will help you survive the first few difficult years as you learn the ropes of curriculum planning, classroom management, differentiated instruction, and working with colleagues. The longer you stick with it and pace yourself as you go, the stronger and more skilled you will become. Remember this in hard times when you want to quit. You have been given your own classroom for a reason. The fact that you have a teaching position is a gift in itself in these uncertain economic times.

Make the most of your opportunity. Believe in yourself and your calling. Your students will be able to tell if you believe in what you are doing. Your life experience is as much an asset as your list of skills. Your own inner strength and sense of conviction will empower your efforts. A calling is an often amorphous thing. None of us can predict how long an opportunity will last. Seizing the moment and trying our best is all any of us can do. Listening and learning and keeping our eyes and ears open will allow us to see and hear where we are called next.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.



Classroom Supplies

A teacher can never have too many markers!

A fully-stocked classroom is an important part of your success as an educator. When I started teaching in the prosperous days of the dot.com boom, there was plenty of money for schools and teachers to get much of what they needed in the classrooms from their administrators and department chairs. A decade later, the Great Recession decimated school budgets and teachers were left on their own. The cornucopia of plenty could no longer be taken for granted. Resourcefulness and creativity were needed in the new world of scarcity.

The want of the Recession years has waned, but not the need for teachers to make the best use of their resources. Not all school budgets have returned to the robust levels they enjoyed before 2008. Most teachers have learned to stock their own classrooms with what they need. The sometimes frustrating path of putting in campus requests for supplies has been abandoned by many in favor of visits to Michaels or JOANN, where receipts for purchases can later be deducted from taxable income as educator expenses. Some secondary level teachers have emulated their primary school colleagues in making or designing their own materials for use in class.

I supplemented campus materials with my own projector, boom box, VCR, music collection, and video library for much of my career in the classroom. I also stocked my own extensive collection of dry erase markers for my front and back white boards and colored pencils and markers for students to use in completing maps and other assignments. I kept extra copies of all handouts, including maps, test review study guides, and forms for taking project and Cornell notes. Any pencils or pens I found in my room at the end of each period were collected on my podium for students who needed writing implements.

Make sure you have two working staplers and plenty of extra staples. A pair of pencil sharpeners and hole punchers positioned at different points in the room is also helpful for students. If you collect recyclable bottles, find out who collects them at your school and make sure the can or container is empty at the end of the day. Have paper clips, whiteout, tape, rulers, scissors, and erasers within easy access. Keep extra printer cartridges and computer cables in your desk drawer. I also kept a small broom and dustpan in my room as well as an absorbent doormat for rainy weather and towels to clean up unexpected spills. Make friends quickly with the custodial staff at your school. Good relations with them can make your job a lot easier.

As you learn which of your lesson plans are most effective, keep a ready of stock of whatever supplies are needed to deliver those lessons. Get all your photocopying done in advance of each term and store extra copies for future use. This can help both you in a pinch as well as any substitute teachers you call in during an absence. Have plenty of paper assignments and art supplies on hand to keep your students busy in the event of an equipment failure. I also kept the tools in my desk needed to change my overhead projector bulb. You never know when you will need them.

Many stationery and art supply stores offer teacher discounts for school supplies. Sign up for all these programs and keep the cards with you when you go shopping. Save the receipts and submit them to your accountant at tax time. Most bookstores also offer educator discounts. As you increase your classroom library of books, videos, and music, take advantage of these cost saving programs. Share your resources with colleagues if you like and donate overflow to your school or local public library.

I always maintained a colorful front board and decorated all four of my walls with educational material. The visual learners I had in class certainly appreciated this, as well as the numerous administrators, colleagues, and visitors I had over the years. Whatever you have in your room should reinforce your curriculum. Having enough colored markers or posters available to make your room “pop” will bring rewarding results.

Classroom teaching on the supply level has a lot in common with camping and other outdoor adventures. I was always struck by the parallels between my twenty years of teaching indoors and the fifteen years of outdoor campaigning I did in historical reenacting. Think of yourself as an intrepid explorer striking out on a great expedition. The more prepared you are at the outset, the more readily you will meet the challenges that lie ahead, and the greater your opportunity to leave a lasting legacy of learning.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.