Author: Owen Fulton

Classroom Observations in Sitka

I’ve observed several teachers in both the middle and high schools here in Sitka, and by far the most effective strategy for opening a lesson I found was to have an opening bellringer that students completed as they entered the room. Having some task prepared for students that can be completed in a short amount of time, independently, is an effective means of starting a lesson. The best bellringer I’ve observed was in one of the 6th-grade social studies classrooms at Blatchley Middle School, where the teacher had students write a short response to a question she posted on the smart board at the beginning of class.


For classroom management during the lesson, teachers I’ve observed employed a variety of strategies for keeping students on task. The best strategy I’ve seen in the classroom was the strategy of proximity; that by moving physically closer to the misbehaving students, those students will stop misbehaving due to the closeness of the authority figure. My mentor teacher employs this strategy quite often and organized the layout of his classroom around the idea of proximity.


At the end of the lesson, having an exit ticket or closing activity helps students stay on task till the very end of the period, allowing for learning throughout the entire lesson. One teacher I observed had students answer a question about the learning for the day, and ask a question of the teacher on a sticky note at the end of the period. This not only gave students a closure to the lesson, but also gave them the opportunity to ask the teacher a question about the lesson as well, constituting an informal assessment worked into a classroom management strategy.


As for transitions, the teachers I have observed have typically handled transitions by having the entire class participate in some kind of short activity. My mentor teacher transitions between sections of his lesson by giving students a mid-class break. During this break, students can use the restroom, grab a drink of water, or use their phones quietly in the classroom. These breaks typically last around three minutes.


In the middle school, transitions are typically managed by having all students trade out materials. For example, students may need rulers for the first part of the lesson but may need computers for the next part of the assignment. Having all students put away their rulers and then grab their laptops all at once can help provide structure to a transition that may otherwise be messy.


Sometimes transitions aren’t so clear. This was the case in one of my recent American Government classes, where students had two assignments that they were working on at their own pace. For transitioning between the two assignments, my mentor and I worked with students individually as they finished the first assignment, quietly moving them on to the next part of the lesson. This reduced distractions, and offered students the opportunity to work on their own and help their peers, as students could help their neighbors move onto the next assignment as they finished the first.


Out of all these strategies, I think I would like to use bellringers and exit tickets in my future classroom. I like the structure they provide to the classroom, and I enjoy that both offer the opportunity for informal assessment throughout the day.

What Makes an Effective Learning Environment?

I really enjoyed reading through both of these articles. The advice offered in each article is powerful and relevant to classroom instruction in any grade level or content area. The section that spoke to me most, however, was the section discussing the principles of relevant caring in the article from Bondy and Hambacher. I had never heard about the “hidden curriculum” concept before – the notion that students need to learn how to become part of the school culture in order to have success – and I think this is an extremely helpful concept to consider. Pairing this concept with their discussions about how to talk to disadvantaged students and show genuine care towards students who struggle provides an excellent framework for thinking about how the lives of students outside the classroom can affect one’s teaching.


I went out to find more articles about the hidden curriculum in education, and I found this interesting article on the Association for Middle-Level Education about how the hidden curriculum affects middle school students. The instructor, Tracie Cain, determined what parts of the hidden curriculum her students were and were not meeting by asking them directly to name three things they learned in school that were not related to math, science, history, English, or other content area instruction. Cain’s middle school students identified numerous non-academic skills they learned in middle school, such as making new friends, asking teachers for help, studying habits, and others. Cain reported that this exercise showed her that her students were ready for high school, and helped her identify any areas that needed improvement.

Personalized Learning: The Way Forward, or a Red Herring?

Personalized Learning has been a hot topic on the tongues of Fairbanks teachers and administrators since the North Star Borough School District decided to implement it in its schools. Common complaints were that the goals were ambiguous, the implementation ill-defined, and its effectiveness completely unknown.


When I set out to research personalized learning for this blog post, my searches turned up one of two results: either an explanatory post from a curriculum company or a resource site providing a brief overview of the personalized learning approach, or a news article documenting teacher frustration and confusion with personalized learning. The question “what is personalized learning?” appeared in nearly every resource.


Without even scrolling past the title and opening sentences of the articles, I could tell that personalized learning is a mystery to many and that its implementation in schools around the country is controversial among teachers.


So what is personalized learning? And, perhaps more importantly, where did personalized learning come from? An article from identifies the start of personalized learning as being in the late 19th century in Pueblo, Colorado. Preston Search, the superintendent of schools in Pueblo, created an education plan that allowed students to “learn at their own pace.” This idea developed throughout the years, eventually becoming the “School of One” project in New York City, an AI informed education plan that identified student needs through a complex series of computer programs. This School of One eventually transformed into the “personalized learning” that we know today.


The first working definition of personalized learning was developed by a group of education interests, philanthropies, and technology advocacy groups, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. This working definition used four broad categories with critical questions in each category that administrators and teachers should ask to effectively implement personalized learning in their schools. The four categories in the working definition were 1. Competency-Based Progression 2. Flexible Learning Environments 3. Personal learning Paths and 4. Learner Profiles. The general ideas are that all students are continually assessed on their progress towards personalized goals, student needs drive curriculum, each student is assessed against personalized expectations, data on student strengths and needs are continually collected on an individual basis. The goal? Every student has a learning experience that is catered to their needs and challenges them to an appropriate amount.


As mentioned earlier, this working definition includes critical questions that schools should ask themselves to identify areas of improvement. For example, within Competency-Based Progression, teachers and administrators are instructed to ask themselves “In what ways and how frequently should we assess each student’s level of mastery within the dimensions that we believe are essential for his/her success?,” the intent being that teachers and administrators develop appropriate assessments for the students based on their individual strengths and needs.


This definition is useful in some ways, but even after reading through the definitions and critical questions, I was still asking myself “what does it look like in the classroom?” A second article from Education Elements I found provided some examples of what personalized learning looks like in the classroom, though they proved to be even more puzzling.


The first example of personalized learning in the classroom is using self-reflection and goal-setting in the classroom. According to the article, all students in all age groups should reflect on their own work, and set goals for learning.


The second example was flexible and intentional master schedules. This included having small group meetings, student choice in classes, and blocks for individual student instruction.


As I read through these, I realized that these examples of personalized learning were not, at least in my experience, new or revolutionary at all. They were simply rebrandings of practices that I experienced all throughout my educational career. Throughout my years in public school I was constantly asked to self-reflect on my own work, grade my own assignments, and identify areas that I could improve. In elementary, middle, and high school there was time set aside for “packs,” or small groups of students where we discussed any struggles we were having, any issues with the school, and developed activities for extended learning. Other items on the list, including personalized seating, intentional use of technology, student involvement in grading – all of these were hallmarks of my own education.


Now, it is entirely possible that my educational experience was unique among students in the United States. Sitka is known for pushing the pen on social and educational issues in Alaska, and it’s possible that the School District was simply way ahead of the curve on personalized learning.


However, what I believe is more likely is that personalized learning is not anything new, unique, or special in the education world. Rather, it is an attempt by policymakers, special interests, and administrators to codify what is already accepted teaching practices.


If personalized learning is just simplified teaching practice designed for policymakers and administrators, why the fuss? Why is it so controversial? The answer lies in its intent and its implementation.


Personalized Learning is designed to be individually based – this is evident in its name. However, this also means that the extent to which learning is “personalized” will differ from class to class. Prior to the popularization of district-wide personalized learning, teachers would identify the needs of students in their class, discuss their needs with other teachers and paraprofessionals, and informally accommodate student needs in their classroom. With a district-wide mandate for personalized learning, how do administrators formally track this mandate? How do they ensure that every student has their individual needs met? The FNSBSD website states that personalized learning will be achieved through a combination of teacher effort and technology. Again, is this not what teachers have already been doing?


The technology component is also troubling. FNSBSD claims that integrated technology in the classroom will be used to further the personalized learning implementation. The “technology” linked on the FNSBSD website is the product of Ted Dintersmith, a wealthy venture capitalist who has traveled the country in an effort to change public education to reflect the goals of personalized learning. His products include books, films, and an innovation playlist meant for schools to develop for their students (i.e. a learning toolkit for students). Other resources include the Dreambox, which is an educational product that promises to, through technology, provide individualized instruction to students.


At the end of it all, I’m left with only two possible explanations for what personalized learning is: At best, personalized learning is simply a rebranding of current teaching practice. It is misguided but ultimately harmless to students. At worst, personalized learning is a sham being sold to school districts by wealthy business interests and entrepreneurs with very little educational value, and a program that may end up hurting students.


It seems to be another case of administrators trying to reinvent the wheel, rather than allowing teachers to do what they do best: teach.


Here are my sources:

Partisan Politics and People’s Lives; The Debate Over DACA

The Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, is an Obama-era immigration policy that has been a target of the Trump Administration for the past year. DACA was introduced to help undocumented residents who faced deportation gain government protection and employment eligibility as long as they met requirements for staying in the U.S., and paid a hefty fee of $495. This protection expired after two years unless renewed with an additional $495 fee. The requirements for being a DACA recipient  are as follows:

  • You were under 31 years old as of June 15, 2012;
  • You first came to the United States before your 16th birthday;
  • You have lived continuously in the United States from June 15, 2007 until the present;
  • You were physically present in the United States on June 15, 2012 and at the time you apply;
  • You came to the United States without documents before June 15, 2012, or your lawful status expired as of June 15, 2012;
  • You are currently studying, or you graduated from high school or earned a certificate of completion of high school or GED, or have been honorably discharged from the Coast Guard or military (technical and trade school completion also qualifies); and
  • You have NOT been convicted of a felony, certain significant misdemeanors (including a single DUI), or three or more misdemeanors of any kind.

As you can see, the restrictions on who is eligible for DACA are pretty tight, and no DACA recipients are felons, criminals, or even guilty of petty misdemeanor crimes, as some of the political rhetoric might suggest. The overall purpose of the program was for DACA recipients to use the extra time DACA had given them in the country to either apply for citizenship or return to their country of origin without being deported.

Last year, the Trump Administration decided to halt the DACA program, preventing new applications and halting any renewals. This decision was part of the Trump Administration’s larger “zero tolerance” immigration platform, which aimed at drastically reducing the number of migrants entering the United States. Amid significant backlash for this decision, the Trump Administration gave the DACA issue to Congress, requesting that they develop a solution for the nearly 700,000 DACA recipients around the country.

Since the Trump Administration’s decision, the DACA population has been in a state of free fall. Employers are hesitant to hire them due to their ambiguous residency status. Students who are DACA recipients are having trouble applying for admission, financial aid, housing, and other aspects of university life. Parents are forced to reevaluate their savings to account for the very real possibility that they and their children may be deported in the near future.

I’ve always felt that the debate over immigration has been painfully ignorant towards the needs of immigrants. Nationalistic rhetoric blinds the public to the fact that immigrants are just people wanting a chance at a better life. Instead, immigrants are often reduced to numbers, or worse, demonized as criminals and thugs. The debate over DACA is just another example of nationalist pride turning a blind eye to a population that is, by all reasonable accounts, American.

As teachers, we will likely see the effects of the outcome of DACA in our classrooms. We may have children whose parents face deportation due to their DACA protection expiring. We may have coworkers who are laid off due to ambiguous residency status. Some of our fellow student teachers may even be DACA recipients without our knowledge. Though the DACA battle is being fought at the national level, its impact will be felt most in American communities around the country.


Here is where I found my information:

Owen Fulton Introduction

Good afternoon everyone!

My name is Owen Fulton, and I am currently doing my student teaching internship with Howard Wayne at Sitka High School in the small coastal town of Sitka, Alaska.

I was born in Seattle, Washington, but I moved to Sitka, Alaska when I was only three years old, so Alaska is the only home I can remember. I graduated from Sitka High School in 2015, and began attending the University of Alaska Fairbanks in the Fall of the same year. For the past three years I have been studying Secondary Education, History, and Political Science.

After finishing my internship and obtaining my teaching licence, I would like to teach social studies somewhere in Southeast Alaska. As much as I enjoyed going to school in Fairbanks, I missed being close to the Ocean, and I know that any future home of mine will need to be near a major body of water.

I look forward to working and learning with all of you this semester, and hopefully next as well!