Teacher Wars

Can we agree to end the teacher wars?  I am a huge proponent of using social media as an educator who has been inspired by so many around the world.  However, Twitter only gives us so many characters and this can lead to overstatements, misunderstandings, and even sadness.  Feel free to disagree with me – but this has been on my mind a lot lately.  I see many posts stating an absolutist stance on a topic – one that can unintentionally make others feel angry, disillusioned, frustrated, or ready to throw in the towel.

Worksheets = bad, boring, uninspired

Lecture = bad, boring

Technology = perfection – has to be infused in EVERY lesson

No teacher desk = only way to set up a classroom

Paperless classroom – ONLY way to go – don’t you love the environment?  Paper is so 2008.

Project Based Learning, guide on the side/not the sage on the stage = only way to teach because it is authentic and is a complete representation of the current world and workplace.

Students need to want to come to your class every day or you aren’t interesting/engaging/fun enough

Students must never use the textbook = evil!  (Instead, they should only read comics and graphic novels – lol!)

Homework = waste of time, stress on students.

Etc, etc, etc.


I think everything has its place – I am not against any of the above practices/ideas, but feel that we need a varied approach.

So much can be done with a “worksheet” – empowering questions, deep thinking, and analysis are but a few.  Same can be said for the dreaded guided reading packet – yikes!  It all comes down to this – what are you putting into those worksheets and packets?  Are they engaging and encourage deeper level thinking?  Do they give students pause and a chance to reflect with specific textual evidence? Can they form opinions based on evidence?  However, we also need some lower level questions as well – there is a place for them in our teaching as we learn.  I have had some amazing experiences in my classroom that came from “just” a worksheet.

Lecture I LOVE listening to engaging lectures – isn’t that why Ted Talks are all the rage?  I loved it when history professors would just go off on a topic and tell the most amazing and personal stories of historical actors.  Funny thing is – my students love my lectures as well – perhaps it is just the name.  Lecture. Perhaps we should call it presentation, or personally guided engaging chat.  However – lecturing all day every day is certainly not in the best interest of anyone.  We also need to turn the mic over to students as well – let them lecture.

Technology – I am lucky enough to work in a one to one laptop district, let me put this up front.  If you don’t have access to tech – it is not your fault, you are not doing any damage to your students, and they will be able to find gainful employment in the 21st century world.  Even with all of the access to tech, there are days when I will not allow students to bring out a device – there are many instances when the students tell me how much they need a break from all the screen time.  That they want to talk with their table partners, not interact via an online discussion.  However – technology also allows us to interact with classrooms around the world, to virtually visit museums, discuss with authors, share our learning with the world, etc.  Again – everything has its place.  I will say this – I sent a survey out to dozens of universities and asked History Professors to share their experiences with students and their preparation for higher education.  Just about all responded that their students do not have a dearth of technological skills – but that they are weakest in writing a cohesive and analytical argument.  The second most mentioned need was a basic background knowledge so that they can readily interact and contribute in class discussions.  This is the core of learning and will remain so, not matter the century.

No teacher desk.  This wouldn’t work for me – need a place to grade my 120 research papers, essays, etc throughout the year.  But it is not a wall between my students and I – nor should it be.  Whenever I chat with my students, I am never behind my desk, but in the classroom.  I do not lecture from my desk.  I have a wireless doohickey that allows me to present PowerPoints or other smartboard material as I walk around the room – never standing just in front.  Just because there is a desk in my room, does not mean that I sit there all day.  That being said – I have tables in my room, reading chairs and a reading nook, a small rug to lounge on, etc – I like having the flexibility and warmth in my room – it is a home.  I am there every day – I also want to feel at home.  I do not like walking into rooms with bare cinderblock walls – so depressing.  I have up posters, comics, student work, etc – and I change these throughout the year.

Paperless classroom – I personally do not see the value in getting rid of everything on paper.  In addition to being a social studies teacher, I am also a reading specialist who believes that we are all teachers of reading.  There are so many studies that tell us – pen to paper makes connections.  Students must interact with the text and, yes, this can be done on the computer.  However, in my experience, most students enjoy the tactile feel of paper and even the ease of flipping through the pages.  My students annotate (or close read – whatever jargon we are calling it today) when they read.  They make connections.  They draw.  It is much easier to do this on paper – they tell me this to be true.  We are also currently reading two different comics to learn about the civil rights movements.  One is online (the Montgomery Story) and the other is a paper format – March.  The students are already reflecting that they like the ability to read the paper text better – they have sticky notes and will often show the book to others in the class as they are reading, to point out different panels and discuss.  This is obviously much harder to do while reading on a laptop or other device.  That being said – I would not have even been able to offer the Montgomery Story unless it was free and online.  We were also able to find versions of it in Spanish, Arabic, and Farsi – none of this is available without the technology.

Project Based Learning – again – it is a great tool to use – but not all the time.  There are appropriate times when you do need to be the sage on the stage – it is why you are in the classroom.  You have experience.  You have years of reading and learning.  There are times when the students need to do what they need to do – not everything in life is a choice.  There are books that they need to read.  There are periods of history they need to learn specific things about.  However, there are awesome and engaging projects that we can do and through which I learn a lot!  For instance – I am teaching World History for the first time this year – I am more used to Euro.  I had a legitimate question – what was the role of non-Western peoples in WWI?  I presented this question to my students and turned them loose – no rubric, no minimum number of slides, etc.  As they researched, so did I.  We all presented and we all learned.  I am never afraid to tell students when I don’t know – I am not that sort of sage on the stage.  I also allow my students to choose their research topics for their papers – yes, there are guidelines, a rubric, etc – but they choose the topic which I then need to approve.  This eliminates the 100 papers on the beginning of WWII and allow me to learn along with the students.

Comic Books – I do not teach with comic books every day and in every lesson.  As much as I love them – they are but one tool in my arsenal.  There are some students who will NEVER enjoy reading a comic and will never understand my love for them.  But there are others who can be reached in powerful and engaging ways.  I hated reading Anna Karenina in high school, but I read it and I, begrudgingly, learned a thing or two from the experience.  My point is this – I am guilty of sharing out on social media my successes – but not my failures.  But believe me, I fall on my face.  A lot.  But I give myself the permission to fail (as long as I am not being observed – lol).  Some days, I have an amazing lesson and I delivered it in the most amazing way – but the kids were off.  Or they were not into the topic as much as I – and that’s ok.  We learn, improve, and move on.  If you don’t see the value in using comics as a way to create analytical readers and writers, that’s ok.  I will disagree with you.  But I will not judge you.

Homework – I am going to weigh in here as a parent to three children.  I love that they bring schoolwork home and we can sit and review the day with them.  It is an important window into their worlds and allows me to also give them my own personal insight.  We do need to pay attention to what and how much we assign, true.  I also volunteer after school in a grass roots program that we began to help our underprivileged students.  They come from situations at home that may not be conducive to completing homework – for many reasons.  So I also understand that part of the argument as well – that, for some, homework simply will not get done.  On this topic, I cannot come down definitively on either side.  However, I will not judge a fellow educator as unkind or uncaring because he or she assigns homework.  Nor will I think that teacher is too easy or non-rigorous because he/she does not assign homework.

When we see social media giants tweeting out about these great ideas – that’s awesome.  I have learned so much by so many wonderful educators from around the world.  But there is only a limited amount of characters in a tweet.  Nothing can be absolute in education.  Take it easy on yourself.  Breathe.  Do you.  Be you.  Find success and share it with all of us.  Just be open-minded.  I hope, that should we have an actual face to face dialogue, that we will share our imperfections and that we really do use many tools.  Just because someone has 50,000 followers doesn’t make them any better or worse than you or I.  If you only have one Twitter follower, but have managed to inspire him/her – be happy.  Your job here is done.

I remember, following the birth of my first child, all of the advice that was given to us – some helpful, most not.  My daughter had some issues that made her inconsolable and a truly challenging child.  So many told us that we just to do to ______________ or __________ and everything would be fine. Many judged us as parents – and not in a kind way.  No one knew what we were going through.  Much of this continues to this day – as does a lot of these types of issues for parents.  Be kind.  Do what works for you, your students, and your children.

(I hope I have not left a bad taste in anyone’s mouth after reading this – my intention was to show how we all learn from one another.  There is so much more to say – but, even in a blog post, only limited time and space to do so.  Feel free to comment below.)

Spreading the Nerd Word at GMercyU

I completed my MS Reading Specialist degree requirements at Gwynedd Mercy University in 2008.  I had a unique perspective in being the only male and almost only secondary student in the program.  One of the repeating topics of concern was the idea that boys don’t read, don’t like to read, and were falling behind.  I began to ask what were boys being given to read and remarking on how I didn’t like to read those titles either (I always relate how Anna Karenina almost destroyed my love of reading in high school).  I was lucky enough to have dynamic and open-minded professors who encouraged me to research and write about using comics as one tool to engage these students. ( Here is a link to the paper I eventually wrote – https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B0q0hv_n2-9xajBkejd5aVd2N3c )

This is the paper and initial research that began to fundamentally change me as an educator – the idea of bringing in my passion to ignite my students.  To bring in a tool that was, at the time, not looked upon with much praise or value.  After writing the paper, however, I still did not implement the use of comics in my classroom- not for several years.  Two people eventually gave me the final push to integrate comics – my own son, designated a “reluctant reader” – and a student with whom I was having difficulty reaching (more of that story here – (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/how-i-use-comic-books-as-a-learning-tool-in-my-social-studies-classroom/) .  I began finding much success and decided to bring my passion to the greater world, beginning in June of 2016 (https://historycomics.edublogs.org/2016/06/08/best-worst-year-ever/) .  In 2016, I went from seriously considering leaving teaching, to reinventing myself and loving every minute of it.

Long-story short – I was published in a local newspaper after Dutch Godshalk (@dutchgodshalk)  – an amazing writer – check him out – published an interview with me on the front page of the local paper – http://www.montgomerynews.com/amblergazette/news/comics-in-the-classroom-how-one-wissahickon-teacher-uses-comic/article_aceed392-c658-5dfb-bec2-e339fecacd56.html – when my picture made the front cover, my kids went crazy!  After this was published, Gwynedd Mercy reached out to me to also conduct an interview.  My wife and children were asked to come to the interview and we were met with a catered lunch, bags of goodies for my children, and a most welcoming hostess – Kirsten.  It was such an amazing experience – to be welcomed back by my Alma Mater in such a rewarding manner.  When the interview was published – I was placed on the front cover of the university’s magazine – I am still laughing at the picture.  I received some phone calls and emails from alumni and friends – but the hoopla died down after a few weeks.  However, this was not to be the end of my new relationship with the university. (https://www.gmercyu.edu/career-outcomes/griffin-success-stories/tim-smyth)

Another person from GMercyU, Nick, reached out to me and kept in contact – telling me that he really enjoyed the article and could relate to it in a number of ways.  He then reached out to the dean of education and business and set up a conversation that led to me being invited to be a guest lecturer at the university.  I presented on Jan. 31st, 2017 – almost a decade after I had begun my initial journey at the university.  Needless to say, I was nervous and did not know what to expect – this was the ivory tower, the hallowed halls of post-secondary education.  However, my experience could not have been further from this expectation.  I was able to meet Nick in person (we talked a lot of nerd shop) and then had lunch with the dean and an immensely dedicated education professor – Mary Jo Pierantozzi.  They treated me to lunch in the cafeteria as many students came and went.  They knew many students and interacted with them in a family-friendly manner.  We did not eat in an executive dining room, set apart from the masses.  I was thoroughly impressed with the sense of community I was experiencing at Gwynedd Mercy.  We talked shop about education and, by the end of lunch, had so many ideas on how to change the world and education!  These were not the stand-offish academics that I had unfairly stereotyped in my mind.  These were real people with real passions – fired up about education and making a difference.

When lunch was over, we walked to the room where I was to present.  Nick was awesome as he helped me transport my boxes and graphic novels to and from my car.  Not knowing what to expect, as any educator, I over-prepared and wasn’t able to just pick a few good examples.  The students were standing outside of the room, waiting to go in.  I did not know what to expect from them either – but, as a teacher of juniors and sometimes seniors in high school, these college students didn’t look all that different.  Again – I noticed the warm interactions between the adults and students, even as we waited for the classroom to be cleared.  As we shuffled in, the tech department rep made sure I was set up and comfortable (after we talked some nerd shop! – seriously, I have found in my travels, that everyone is a fan of comics – to one degree or another).  I was introduced and then began my presentation.

The crowd was a mix of professors and students – approximately 40 in total.  I had to laugh internally when many of the students pulled out notebooks and began to write down some of the information I was sharing.  Me – college students were taking notes on me!  Ha!  I always start out shaky and nervous, but then the passionate nerd in me takes over and I just start talking.  Several professors and students asked me some excellent questions and we genuinely interested in the information.  One great question centered on how students relate to comics and each other in my classroom.  That there are cliques and students who would not respond well to comics.  My answer was that comics cut across all social status groups – that while I may not be able to reach every student, there is enough diversity to allow for many personal connections.  We also discussed how being a nerd today is a self-described compliment, that so much has changed since I was in school

I watched the audience as I showed a clip of John Lewis accepting the National Book Award for March.  It is an emotional but quick speech – relating how coloreds were not allowed to have library cards.  Yet, here he was, accepting this book award. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uqmYNOPVyO4&t=45s) It was a universal message of hope and redemption and a reminder of why we are educators.  I noticed students nodding their heads and smiling when I discussed the diversity in comics and how we need to see ourselves in our heroes.  When I spoke about the impact of comics on my own children, the audience understood and internalized my feelings.  The presentation went better than I had hoped – I only wish I could have kept them for many more hours.

The first part of my message is always that I am a rigorous and challenging teacher.  My students write, write, and write more – we focus on textual evidence, analysis, annotations/close reading, persuasion – even culminating in writing two research papers a year.  Some people may initially view me, and my presentation idea, as a gimmick or way around rigor.  This could not be further from the truth.  It is after showing how I use comics and visual literacy to promote reading and writing that I begin to win converts.  I show Common Core standards and how comics are a perfect tool to use (one of many) to meet and surpass these standards.  But we also discussed the idea of breaking from the textbook, allowing for imagination, and giving student strengths to show through.  I give GMercyU a lot of credit for having me present – it is still an uphill battle convincing educational leaders of the value of this medium. I loved that I was able to have the audience laugh, be emotional, and to connect on a personal level to comics in education.  I was also able to invite them to an Edcamp which I am running on April 22nd (https://www.eventbrite.com/e/edcamphuman-tickets-30742174672) and to share in a collaborative google doc being shared with educators on how to teach March – (https://docs.google.com/document/d/1dwm96U7CfvPtRgc6Azd3mO3bF8wy4z4_i9tGh-1D2Ao/edit?usp=sharing) – I always reinforce the idea that we need to collaborate – social media is such a wonderful vehicle for this idea.  I remember, as a beginning teacher, how confining the four walls of my classroom were – but now, I am co-planning the teaching of March with a teacher in Norway, engaging authors on Twitter, participating in Twitter chats, etc – such a wonderful time to be an educator.

When the presentation was over, I had many students waiting after to speak with me.  One student even asked for my autograph!  Me!  This was certainly a first for me and I was happy to do it.  Students came to shake my hand, tell me their names, and to let me know that they would be in contact with me.  I was humbled by the experience – to know that I might have an impact on a classroom in the future.  That I helped students see beyond standardized testing, observation frameworks, etc.  One student even asked if I would teach a course and if these resources could be included in ongoing college courses.  This is when I began to think that this could be taken to another level – perhaps, one day, I will look into teaching a higher education course on integrating comics on the classroom.

To bring this blog back to a beginning idea – my mental prejudices of higher education were shattered throughout my experiences with Gwynedd Mercy University.  I found passionate, warm, and caring adults who cared deeply for the success and engagement of the young people in front of them.  I was welcomed and made to feel as if I was an official part of the family.  I have already been welcomed back for happy hours and to be kept in the loop for future events.  Many issues in education come from the wide chasm between high schools and universities – there is little interaction between the two (at least in my experience).  I now see that we all need to reach out to one another – to open the lines of communication.  A few years back, I had sent out a survey to PA university professors about their expectations and experiences – the number one comment was that they would be happy to engage with primary and secondary teachers.  I know fully understand the value of this connection and look forward to many more experiences.  To close, I will share an email I received from Dean Pfleger – one which will help me to stay motivated as I spread the nerd word –

Thank you for a wonderful presentation yesterday!   The students and faculty in attendance were thrilled with the information you provided. I think you opened a lot of minds to a new way of presenting material to classrooms. It was a pleasure meeting you and having some time over lunch to chat. You are a remarkable teacher.


My parting words – put yourself out there.  Blog. Share your ideas and make connections. You never know where it will lead you – but you’ll never know unless you try.