Sunday, November 20, 2016

I Have Cancer: Telling My Students

After being out for so long, I was
happy to see I made the "Did You Know"
I hadn’t seen my students in nearly two weeks and I wanted to get out of the house. I also knew I had to come clean to them about my surgery.

As I arrived to school, I met briefly with Brian and the school counselor, Laura. I asked them to both join me for morning meeting as I shared the news and to look over the letter I was planning to send to parents. They both said they could be there and that the letter looked good.

The students began trickling in at normal time. I was greeted with hugs and smiles. Carson, whose mother works in the building, was first. He came in to drop off his stuff and saw me. A second later, he ran out of the room to get the other “teacher kids.” When Sophia walked in, her face lit up and she rushed over to me. Many were surprised to see me with a cane, but this surprise would pale in comparison to what was to come.

The late bell rang and the video announcements rolled. Knowing that the transition would not be easy, I started in on morning meeting. I rattled off the normal, mundane things - expressing how happy I was to see them again, thankfully they earned good sub reports, and detailed the daily schedule. I shared that I would be a little slower in my movement but the cane was helpful. Brian and Laura walked in and took a seat. It was go time.

“So I wanted to tell you more about my surgery. The whole reason I had to have surgery is because I have cancer.” Somehow, being on the other side of those words didn’t make it any easier.

Instant tears from some. Bewildered looks from others. Awkward glances from most. I continued.

“The important thing for you to know is that this is curable. I will need chemotherapy, which is a form of medicine that will kill all the cancer. I need to do this so I get better. I don’t know how long I will be out, but you will be taken care of. Mr. Fitzgerald, Mrs. Hoover, the fourth grade team, and all your old teachers will support you. You have each other. I know it is not easy to hear that your teacher has cancer. I want to answer any questions you have.”

Hands shot up. Was I in pain right now? Yes, from my surgery, but not from cancer. How did I know something was wrong? I felt something wrong on my body and went to the doctor. How long will you be out? I don’t know. Will the chemo hurt? It might, but I can handle it. Would my hair fall out? It might, and that would make me sad, but I would survive. (Later, a student came up to stay that if I lost my hair, he would shave his. He has a buzz cut already, but the sentiment was cute.)

Laura reading The Can in Cancer
Many students already had experience with cancer from grandparents and other family members. In most cases, as with my own grandfather, cancer got the best of them. I reassured them that it most likely wouldn’t happen to me. They had their stories; I had mine. Blending stories and the straightforward facts seemed to be the best way to handle this.

A somber silence hung over the class. I gave them a moment to process.

“Right now some of you are angry. Maybe you’re sad or shocked or confused. You might be blocking it out. All of those are ok. When I found out, I went through all of those emotions. I want you to know that I am here for you. If you have questions today, ask. If they come to you tonight, have your parents message me whenever. I will answer questions you have whenever I can.”

A hand went up, “Where is your cancer?”

Crap. I wasn’t prepared for that. “It was in one part of my body and has spread to others.”

“Yeah, but where did it start?”

Brian stepped in to save me. “Some part of this cancer Mr. B wants to keep private. Your parents will be getting more information and can discuss further details with you.”

There were no more questions at that moment. I realized it was a good point to stop and try to transition to Virginia Studies. Operative word being try. We were starting a new unit about Jamestown, Halfheartedly, the students began on a Jamestown HyperDoc. I couldn’t blame them. Who can focus on the reasons for settlement when they just heard that news? After giving it an honest effort, it was time to take them to gym.

After gym class, we happened to have guidance. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Laura had planned to do a lesson on cyberbullying, but switched it to discussing more about cancer. She had brought a book called The Can in Cancer, which was a cute story about a boy who went through cancer. It helped the kids relate, and she then took the students to do something secret for me. (The next day, I’d find out that they had created inspirational posters to cover our classroom walls.)

"Can In Cancer" posters
The physical teaching of the day was ok. I had to teach from a chair for part of the day, which is not my usual style. The kids quickly became attuned to my pain attack face and would rush to grab me a chair. They wanted to help me stand up and bring me things. It’s really cute and awe-inspiring to see how students will look beyond themselves to help others in need.

To put it simply, I knew telling them would suck for both them and me, but I always preach honesty and openness to them. I couldn’t be a hypocrite. Although my students were filled with emotion that day, I was more or less devoid of it. Was I masking it? Maybe for their benefit. Had I still not fully processed this momentous thing had been thrust upon me? Most likely. Despite my uncertainty in my feelings, it was the right thing to do. Paired with my budding desire to become an advocate for under-discussed men’s health issues, I knew I had an opportunity to model open medical discussions for my students.
Maybe none of them would be touched by cancer beyond me, but at least they would have a good example for how to deal with trying times.

In early November 2016, I was diagnosed with Stage IIb Nonseminoma cancer, a form of testicular cancer that has spread to my lymph nodes. I had surgery to remove the original tumor, but it had already spread. Soon, I’ll be undergoing chemotherapy to eradicate the cancer. I am documenting my journey from discovery to being cancer-free on I invite you to join me as I process and move through this. 

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Is Homework Really the Devil?

"I like a teacher who gives you something to take home to think about besides homework." 
-Lily Tomlin

For better or for worse, homework seems to be a highly polarizing issue in education. People seem to think it's either inherently horrible or it's an absolutely necessary element of school, regardless of actual value. Many arguments on Twitter quickly devolve into "Homework is bad and if you assign it, you're a bad teacher!" or "I had homework when I grew up and it taught me responsibility!"

Students demonstrating understanding of
prior night's video.
Yes, we all have heard the studies that "prove" homework is horrible and has little to no effect on achievement nor does it effectively teach responsibility. By and large, a lot of homework is meaningless, developmentally inappropriate, and just perpetuated for the mere sake of "it's part of school." But what if we stopped being so black and white about it and started analyzing how homework can be best leveraged for learning?

We interviewed Connie Hamilton and Starr Sackstein on the EduRoadTrip to discuss their new book Hacking Homework: 10 Strategies That Inspire Learning Outside the Classroom. (As an aside here, I contributed to the book. I'd recommend picking up a copy - page 107 alone is worth it!) The custom of the EduRoadTrip is to ask guests for a bumper sticker - a memorable takeaway from their episode.

Starr spoke up and said, "We're not anti-homework. We're anti-stupid homework."

Homework must be relevant and meaningful. In my classroom, I do assign some homework in reading, math, and reviewing history. I always give a digital and physical choice for each. I keep it to a minimum and allow the students some choice in what they do. 

The value of reading outside of school
Image Source: 
In reading, the students must read at least 25 minutes a night. This could include reading a good book, visiting, or having a parent read aloud to them. I absolutely insist that students are reading every night. Reading will make a difference in life. If students walk out of my classroom not being able to recall who won the battle of Yorktown or how to multiply by hand, there is Google and calculators, respectively. However, if they can't read, they can't use those resources.

What I don't do is force a reading log. I don't understand the value of reading logs.  The main argument is it's "proof" that the students read. It's really just proof that students can write down numbers and parents can initial (or as I often did in my middle and high school years, students can forge their parents' initials.) How about just asking students what they read the prior evening? A rich discussion outweighs a log that gets thrown away.

In math, we do a flipped classroom. Each night, students watch a video to frontload them with the information they are expected to master, according to the state. I create the videos with my iPad and ExplainEverything, so I can tailor it to my students' interests and my teaching strategies. The key benefit to this flipped classroom is that the student can self-individualize. Watch the video once and you got it? Great. Need to watch it three times? That's great too. Viewed it 10 times and still want to keep at it? More power to you, but we can work on it in class more.

Practicing learning how to take notes for a
flipped video
If a student can't or doesn't view a video at home, I give the student a choice; watch it during class or do it at home the next evening. Either one is fine by me, but inevitably students choose to double up and do it at home. Why? They say they rather work in class on stations and they can focus better at home. 

For history, my students have a variety of methods to review: classic study guides, online Jeopardy, or Quizlet flashcards. I use the study to teach study tips because like it or not, studying will be a part of their life later on. I noticed numerous students saying they could "never study the whole study guide" in an evening so I took some time to lead some mini lessons on chunking it down, self-monitoring, and having someone else to check their understanding. 

What you'll notice is there are no worksheets being sent home to be completed. If a student doesn't understand it in school, why would they understand at home? If a student gets it in school, why should they waste time at home practicing what they know?

I want to make homework purposeful, engaging, and in smaller amounts than the norm. I'm a big fan of students using their time at home to be kids with their families (which doesn't include little Johnny sitting playing Call of Duty in the family room while Mom updates her Facebook in the office.) I want families to spend time together, and it's even better if that involves learning together, as I shared in my earlier post Forming Family Foundations. I also know that students these days are incredibly busy, with sports, music, Scouts, and other extracurricular activities. If students spend 7 hours in school, another 2-3 at sports, an hour or two for traveling and eating, when do they get to just have unstructured play time?

I do not have children of my own, so I can't approach this from a father point of view, and I know my outlook will change if I do have children. The fact of the matter is they are kids (yes, even high schoolers) and we need to give them time to be kids at home. It's also important to note that this is what has worked in my classroom and I have modified it to be responsive to family needs along the way. Homework will look vastly different for everyone.

So next time someone starts ranting about homework, engage them in discussion. Shift the conversation from demonizing homework to discussing how the homework experience can be improved. It's not a black and white issue, and it won't be going away. It's not enough to simply not assign homework in your own class.

We can do better by our kids, so how will you make an impact on a larger community?