“It is… critical to treat teachers like the professionals we are. Allow us the flexibility and judgment to try new and innovative approaches to teaching kids. Administrators who help teachers reflect on their practice naturally encourage them to try new things.” – Dave Mendell, USA

Dave Mendell’s class blog is subtitled, “An honest look into the lives of fourth graders,” and it’s that same honesty and openness that characterizes his work. From his “Meet the Teacher” video on his class homepage to his overall philosophy on teaching, Mendell knows how to establish the right environment for learning. “One of my core beliefs has always been that it’s much easier to learn if you are truly interested and engaged in what you are doing,” Mendell says. “People who don’t like to cook aren’t very good cooks!”

Mendell was included recently in this great New York Times piece on how technology is changing the way students learn – citing the value of engaging students with technology.

In today’s Daily Edventure, Mendell shares his secrets for engaging fourth graders and talks about the importance of bringing real-world technology into the classroom.

Can you describe how your professional achievements have advanced innovation in education?

If I can get kids to like what they’re doing, I can get them to engage and work harder and do better.  Technology has become a big part of things. It’s the world these kids are growing up in as digital natives. I need to always be looking for ways to meet them on their terms.

As a member of our district technology committee, I am always looking for new trends, ideas and strategies to make learning meaningful and manageable.  I am fortunate to teach in a school where my administration (I have the most amazing principal in the world!) allows me to take risks and try things.  Some work great, some send me back to the drawing board, but that’s OK. I just reflect, learn and try again.  As a result, I feel that more and more teachers in my school are willing to look and listen to the things I do and find a way to implement similar strategies and tools in their own classrooms.

What has changed as a result of your efforts?

Lots!  We have a brand new building with Smartboards in every class… What’s great is that everyone is using them.  Teachers are constantly seeing something that I am doing in class and asking how they can do something similar, or they are coming to me with questions on how they can integrate more technology into what they are teaching.  Quite often, a few informal minutes can be more productive than a half-day training session.

How can others facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work? 

One of the most important things that I stress to teachers as they try to find ways to integrate technology is to keep it simple.  People have this false notion that just because something is computerized, it’s easy. That just isn’t the case. Elementary school teachers have enough on their plates already. We need to use tools and strategies that are easy to manage and learn, for both the kids and the teachers.

How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?

It’s in everything that I do!

What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?

Standardized testing.  I appreciate how standardized testing has raised awareness of the achievement gap and helped schools find ways to raise our neediest kids, but high-stakes testing has created an environment in education where creativity and high-level thinking are being stifled.  I worry that too many schools and teachers are spending time prepping for a test instead of creating engaging and challenging lessons that will get kids to think and achieve at higher levels.

What is your school doing well currently to support education?

I think our school does a good job of looking out for all kids.  We support our neediest kids and strive to challenge all of our kids to achieve at high levels.

What conditions must change in your country/region to better support education? 

Treat teachers like the professionals that we are.  I worry when I see teaching become politicized.  I think folks like Diane Ravitch, Daniel Pink and Paul Tough are onto some really big ideas that will truly make a difference in education. Educating the whole child, not just his/her reading and math skills is how we will reach the top.

What is the best opportunity for innovation in education? 

Good leadership.  Schools and districts with good leadership are key, from school board members to superintendents and principals. It is also critical to treat teachers like the professionals we are. Allow us the flexibility and judgment to try new and innovative approaches to teaching kids.  Administrators who help teachers reflect on their practice naturally encourage them to try new things. Focusing on high-stakes tests and the scores kids get doesn’t do much to get teachers to think out of the box.

What advice would you give a new teacher (or to anyone wanting to make a difference in education)?

Don’t be afraid.  Find a school and leader who understands that you are going to make mistakes and is willing to help you grow.   Take small steps, savor the little victories and teach for the future. Do what you can to give kids the tools they will need to be successful later on. The basics are obvious, but creativity and critical thinking will set them apart.  I love it when students come back to me in middle and high school and tell me that now they understand what I was trying to do!

What educational “trend” do you think is helping students? Is there a trend that is getting in the way of learning?  

Is high-stakes testing a trend?  If so, I think it’s getting in the way. Schools are being forced to “teach down” to a minimum level of understanding because of the pressure of the tests. Why can’t we raise up ALL of our students?  A trend I think is helping? I think the more we bring in tools and strategies that look like the world we’re living in the better. For instance, Facebook is ubiquitous in the real world. Edmodo is a website that essentially looks like “Facebook for schools.” It’s an effective tool for even elementary kids.  Focusing on student creativity and higher order thinking skills will also continue to help kids of all abilities.

If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?

Any device that can access the Internet and enable kids to create their own meaningful content.  Tablet, laptop, etc., it doesn’t matter. There is just so much available for kids to be able to do when they have access to the resources and a way to capture their own ideas. When every kid in my class is connected, they stay connected beyond the school day. I am fortunate that my classroom exists beyond my walls. I have kids who would never share a thought or pick up a pencil to write, doing exactly that when they can connect with classmates beyond the school day. Very powerful!

About David Mendell
@fourth_write (class)

  • Birthplace:  I grew up in Newport, Rhode Island.  (Born in NYC)
  • Current residence:  Wallingford, Pennsylvania
  • Education:  BA – Univ. of Pennsylvania,  Master of Elem. Ed – Cabrini College
  • Website I check every day:  My own.  CNN, I still read the newspaper!
  • Person who inspires me most:  My wife… she smart, hard-working and successful… She’s a great leader, has a great mind for business, yet she would make an awesome teacher…
  • Favorite childhood memory:  Spending my summers at the beach.
  • Next travel destination (work or pleasure):  Harrisburg – for my next marathon.  In the past year, I been to Israel, Costa Rica and Ireland… I need to start saving $!
  • When was the last time you laughed? Why?  I laugh every day.  I always try to find ways to have fun while I’m teaching.  Learning needs to be interesting, engaging and fun… If I can’t laugh, how are my kids going to?
  • Favorite book:  Love That Dog by Sharon Creech. I am a huge fan of writing and teaching poetry with kids.  When this book first came out, it almost felt autobiographical (it isn’t!)…  I have believed for years that poetry is a very powerful teaching tool… It enables kids of all abilities to shine.  I also host occasional poetry nights at a local coffee shop… This great little story gets kids thinking in very meaning ways… Once I teach the book to my class, all I ever need to is tell them to “think like Jack!”
  • Favorite music:  I’ve been listening to the Red Hot Chili Peppers for years… now I listen with my kids…  Always a fan of indie rock and singer songwriter type stuff… I’d rather see a band at a small local venue than go to a big concert…
  • Your favorite quote or motto:  Be cool.  Ask anyone that knows me… my students, my family… It’s how I live and think and act…  In a good way… I don’t worry about what other people think, my goal is to stay relaxed, focus on the positive and try not to let things get me too stressed or frustrated…
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