Wednesday, January 23, 2019


By Mark Heintz

Earlier in my teaching career, I had a rough class. It felt like every kid had something serious in their life.  Some were abused, battling drugs, coping with depression, or been in multiple fights.  The deans knew almost everyone in my class by name, and they were only freshmen. It seemed the smallest thing would cause the whole class to explode one minute and calm down the next.  The smallest thing ignited the entire class only to change the very next day.  One time, I put two girls in a group for a short something or other.  They blew up. The two couldn’t stand the thought of being next to each other for five minutes.  One ran out of the class when she saw her name next to the other girls.  She didn’t even talk to me, just ran out of the room. A few minutes later the dean told me the two had a recent incident and shouldn’t be together.  The very next day, the two girls were SHARING a sucker.  The class drove me crazy.  I hate to say it, but I dreaded going. Eventually, I hid behind school policy. I sent some kids to the dean as I tried to maintain control for the other kids.  At least, I told myself I was doing it for them.  I managed to get through my curriculum, but in the process, I stopped focusing on the kids as learners and stopped caring about ALL of them. I made concessions with myself as I hid behind the policy.  I’m still haunted by it years later.

Most of those kids in that class were troublesome to all of their teachers. I checked in on each of them throughout their four years. Unfortunately, two of those kids didn’t make it through high school; both were students of color.  Sadly, my experience is not uncommon.  For decades, minority students in Illinois and across the country have been disproportionally disciplined with suspensions and expulsions.  In an attempt to curb those results, SB 100 passed a few years ago which legally changed what disciplinary actions a school could use.  Additionally, the Department of Education under Betsy Devos and the  Trump Administration did their own assessment on discipline late in 2018 and might mandate what schools will have to do in regards to student behavior.  Despite state or national rulings, there doesn’t seem to be a clear understanding of what discipline in schools means or what it means in the context of learning.

I wrote earlier in the year--and I still agree--that policies don’t instill character traits.  Old me believed that, but now I don't.  Just because we have a certain policy, students won’t miraculously become responsible, dedicated, hard-working, etc.  Maybe, at best, they become compliant.  More often, the more rigid the rule or system is, the more likely that students will be removed from classes.  Since I firmly believe that public schools are here for ALL kids, I generally agree with any policy that helps keep students in the classroom and creates conditions that make students feel welcomed. Not all classes are as tough as the one I had.  Which almost makes it worse.  If it’s only one or two kids in each class, then those kids can more easily be sent out in the name of the other ninety percent.  The biggest consequence for any student not being in class is not being in class.  It certainly was for my class.  They didn’t learn the course material and struggled for most of their high school career.  Given the current context of more minority students being removed than their white counterparts points to a flaw in how we enact policies.  When schools are here to allow students to learn, all students learn.

I keep kids in the classroom now. I haven’t sent a kid down to the dean for behavior since that class years ago. I know it may make me look soft.  But, since backing down on discipline, my scores have risen, attendance is better, I get to know my students, and I focus on learning.  When I was tough on discipline, I assigned the consequences to match the "appropriate" behavior.  Even though I knew it was wrong, I convinced myself it worked.  It was what I was supposed to do.  But, when I did, the students were removed, and their learning stopped.  Kicking the kids out was the easy part.  Focusing on each of them as an individual, learning their story, gaining their respect, learning together- that would have been hard. But, maybe that would have made the difference for them and kept them in school.

If we truly want ALL students to learn then every minute we have with our kids is precious.  Every minute they have with us should be precious to them. Let’s not remove them from the classroom in the name of discipline, when we are here for learning.  I wish I could go back and teach that class again.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

School Chat S1E6: Patrick McGing "Students as learners and leaders"

By Mark Heintz

Patrick McGing is a Career and Technical Education teacher at Elk Grove High School that learns with his students.   His students remodel an entire house that the district purchased from start to finish.  He constantly focuses on learning and pushing students for them to find their passion.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

How does your school define learning?

By Mark Heintz

While a school uses the word learning on a daily basis, does everyone in the community have the same meanings and beliefs about the world?  To get everyone to have that same understanding, I gathered a group of teachers last May to define learning at Elk Grove High School. I wanted to have a common definition of learning across the school. This post is a check-in to see what progress has been made.


Just a reminder to everyone reading that this group of teachers from all over the building with different levels of experience who have all come together with a common purpose (some arm pulling was required).  Along the way, each of us reflected alongside each other and our students.  We don’t claim to have any answers, just the desire to share what we are doing and come together to do it.  That experience is a major success.

Throughout the first semester, I visited each teacher’s classroom in the group two times and discussed the visit afterward. Everyone wrote a reflection of the lesson and personally defined learning. After the first quarter, I added a person to add a larger perspective (art - I’m sorry I didn’t include you in the first place).  As the semester ended and everyone defined learning, I compiled everyone’s definition and gathered the group again.  When we met, we read through everyone’s definitions, found commonalities and trends, and then started to define learning as a group.


I thought coming up with a common definition would be easier.  I think everyone in the group thought it would be easier.  Most of us struggled to define learning when it was just ourselves let alone when all of the definitions were next to each other.  The words mattered more when the same word was used in different contexts.  As the group met in December, we spent an entire hour choosing our words and coming up with the definition.  While tedious, we did come up with a working definition!


We ended up with a three-parts to the definition, because just having the definition wasn’t enough.  The group decided we needed statements to reflect what the learning process is and what the product of learning is.  Without further ado...

Learning is the integration of values, or importance to the individual, and beliefs with new and relevant information, skills, and/or abilities for long-term application in life outside of the immediate task.   
The process of learning is an evolving journey that includes engaging tasks and processes, emphasizes voice and shapes meaning and authenticity. 
The product of all of this is an ever-evolving worldview, the development of skills and awareness to continually evaluate and reflect upon themselves and the world around them.  

Next Steps

Next semester, each person in the group is committed to living the definition.  It’s one thing to come up with a statement, it’s completely another to have the classroom experience live up to the definition.  I will be going back into their classrooms and following up with a conversation.  As I go into their classrooms they are committed to having the lesson reflect their beliefs on learning. Cross your fingers and I will hopefully be sharing further progress of our journey.