Everything we need to know about teaching is in an 80s movie

On Saturday I was honored to present the keynote address at the Michigan Connected Educators Un/Conference. Here are my thoughts I shared with the group.


I started teaching in January of 1995. This is who I thought I needed to be in the classroom and to some extent it was required. I took over a fourth grade classroom for a retiring teacher who had taken every Monday and Friday off the entire first semester. When I had been there eight days, it was the longest stretch of consistency these kids had had all year.


If I wasn’t being Sergeant Hulka from Stripes I was coaching like Bo Schembechler. I had high expectations. I was loud with very low tolerance. I expected my students to be exactly like I had been. Do what I ask when I ask it with few questions…It wasn’t very fun. I wondered how I would ever endure 30 more years of this.


In 1998 I faced what I figured would be a “make or break” task. I would be teaching a 5-6 split.  I would have six 6th graders who all were academically gifted in one way or the other and seventeen fifth graders who hadn’t been selected for the previous year’s 4-5 split, primarily due to academics. How was I going to tackle this?


This is what I discovered when I started using project based learning with the sixth graders….primarily to keep them occupied while I tried to get my 5th graders ready for the state assessment….MEAP test. That approach overtook my teaching that year and by June all kids were working on all kinds of projects and learning together in so many ways. It also became one of my favorite years of my career. You can smile and cheer instead of bark and gripe when your kids are constantly engaged.


I have also discovered that everything we need to know about engaging learners is in an 80s movie somewhere.

I present to you the ultimate piece of educational technology. Just watch this trailer and think about how this phone booth does exactly what we want our technology to do.  These guys have incredible access to primary sources and get to witness history.  It is total immersion in content. 

If you remember how the film ends, these two put on an amazing rock concert-like oral report. They had the tools to gather information and then presented in a way that expressed the learning through their skills as rock and rollers.


The next step is to value the time together. We can not monopolize the time.  Jeff Spicoli actually makes a great point in the following clip from Fast Times at Ridgemont High.  Mr. Hand shouldn’t be the only one having all of the fun…if we can call it that.

There is probably a better way to set up a “feast on our time” though.


Kids love to the make stuff. It’s our job though to channel that energy into the right opportunities. Gary and Wyatt learned the hard way about being  responsible with tools. Okay….this 3d printer might trump the phone booth for top tech honors but we are still talking about technology being used educationally!  Weird Science brings one more thought to mind. Did these “two guys” grow up to the “Two Guys and some iPads” that host a fabulous Google Hangout on Tuesday nights and are augmented reality ninjas?


Kids love to mess with stuff…even back in 1983 they were monkeying with NORAD and its super sophisticated computer the WOPR. Then in 1986 a kid who looked a lot like the War Games kid was hacking his high school attendance computer so he could go to the museum and a Cubs game. Poor Ferris. He asked for car and got a computer. Talk about being born under a bad sign. But….he had Internet in 1986. That’s not all bad. I wonder if David Jakes ever bumped into Ferris’ principal Ed Rooney in any Suburban Chicago educational circles. Rooney could have learned a lot from Jakes. 

One of the hardest concepts for me to get my head around was the idea everything cannot be the same for every kid. Adam Bellow mentioned it at MACUL, the idea of an IEP, or individualized plan for every kid.


So, here is your opportunity to do just that. Pick one character from the Breakfast Club: Bender the Criminal, Andrew the athlete, Allison the basket case, Claire the Princess, or Brian the Brain and design some engaging learning activities for them. 

Here is the form:

Here are the responses readers are creating. Some are pretty awesome. Please pardon the ones from aspiring comedians.

The principal in Breakfast Club, Mr. Vernon, had required them to each write a 1000 word essay about who they thought they were. Here is the essay Brian ended up writing for all of them.


He is exactly right. Let us never forget that every student is a complex human being and we need to foster development of their whole being.

In closing….

JacksonBig80s.014 JacksonBig80s.015 JacksonBig80s.016 JacksonBig80s.017 JacksonBig80s.018

Get in there and dig around with the kids. Dean Shareski told at MACUL, “It’s not good enough to be the guide on the side anymore. Be the meddler in the middle.”

Make your teaching an excellent adventure and not a bogus journey.

Four things I learned from a week with crummy Internet

The new week is off to a great start primarily because we have had great Internet service at school…last week, not so much. According to our tech consortium, the problem was in some faulty hardware.

Having no Internet may have wreaked havoc on my lesson plans but I did learn a few things.

  1. We really have outsourced many parts of our brains as I have heard Kevin Honeycutt mention several times at conference keynotes. Little things like how to correctly spell “discrepancy” were a lot harder to find without the luxury of a few quick key strokes on the web. 
  2. Cloud storage is miraculous…when it works. Without access to Google Drive last week at times we were trapped in time. Kids wanted to work on projects but without access to their original documents they had nothing upon which to build. When it was up and running today students seamlessly accessed Google Drive to retrieve, update, and save work.
  3. The Internet is an invaluable step forward in human history. Our third graders were researching games children played outdoors and were completely dead in the water without the Web. We were surrounded by books but none had anything to do with pioneer games. Our last resort was the encyclopedia and it offered nothing in the “games” entry or the “pioneer” entry. Had we been writing a report about 2002 Chile, we might have been in business.
  4. Children really lack perspective on how it wasn’t very long ago that our world did not have instant access to immediate knowledge. As a plan B in a 5th grade class, I did my best to trace the evolution of personal computing, especially in education since Jobs and Woz built the first Apple in the garage. One girl seemed completely befuddled that there was any reason to own a computer prior to the Internet.

    “What did you do with it if you couldn’t look stuff up? Just play games?”

    “Pretty much, ” I replied as I looked back at the start of my career where Number Munchers, Oregon Trail, and Carmen San Diego were the pinnacle of integration with a little Bank Street Writer thrown in as differentiation.

The bottom line is that we live in an amazing time and right or wrong we have become dependent on being connected. It was actually good for the kids to experience the outage and maybe not take the connectivity completely for granted. Internet access really has become something we expect as common place as electricity. I am very lucky to teach in a district that has made long term investments in insuring we have great connections and access. I know a lot of teachers and kids aren’t so lucky. Hopefully they will be soon.

Being a Connected Educator is my teaching life support system

I can hardly remember what teaching was like before social media. Twitter runs on my laptop all day long through Tweetdeck. My contacts are organized by education, local, friends, news, and sports. It is a constant stream of ideas, reflections, and life experiences.

Every day I get a list of links and new apps to try. I have instant answers to teaching’s seemingly un-answerable questions. All I have to do is ask. I try to give back as much as possible by sharing techniques and resources I find helpful and offering up the occasional “don’t bother” on websites that seemd promising but bombed with the kids. Bob Sprankle was one of the first educator I followed as I got connected. He talked way back in the day about “Professional Learning Network currency”, essentially the idea that the more you contribute the more you will benefit.

Take a look at this video featuring many edtech all-stars as they better explain how impactful being connected can be. Get connected this month at connectededucators.org.