Skip to main content


Showing posts from September, 2014

I Am Not Afraid! Well I Am, But I'll Be Brave!

Years ago I took my kids to see a musical version of A Year With Frog & Toad.  It was a great show based on one of my favorite children's books.  One of my favorite songs was Toad to the Rescue, in which Toad bravely sings about his intention to go find Frog, who has arrived late for dinner.  Toad imagines all the dangers that Frog could have faced, but resolves to go find him anyway.

"I am not afraid!  Well I am, but I'll be brave," sings Toad.

Over the years, I had to sing this song to myself many times.  Like when I returned to teaching after taking several years off to be home with my boys.  Or when I had to leave a job for a better opportunity.  Or when I had to direct the summer program at my school for the first time.

Singing the song does not always dispel the fear, but it reminds me to be brave in the face of any danger - real, perceived or otherwise.

What fears still remain?

I want to get my Ed.D.  There are some practical obstacles - time, money, stam…

From ME to WE

I was 23 when I got my first teaching job.  I won't tell you how many years ago that was, but it has been a while.

At the start of my teaching career, I was very ME-centered.  What lessons did I have planned?  How should I handle this situation?  What will these parents think of ME?  How can I get the students to learn?
It took me a while to learn that - surprise - school was not about me.  Once I started seeing teaching and learning as a more collaborative effort, I become a more astute teacher, planner, colleague, listener and motivator.  
This was a difficult lesson to learn.  It is a fairly easy trap to fall into.  "This is my class" or "I built this program" are things that almost every teacher has said or at least thought.  When this is the mindset, it creates a roadblock to success for teachers and students alike.  When teachers are ME-centered, they succeed or fail all alone.  Neither is a good scenario. 
Over the years, I learned to be more WE-centered…

The Curriculum-Technology Question

Should technology drive the curriculum??  I have been back and forth on the answer all day.  My conflict with the question is that there are two underlying questions which require our attention:  Is the curriculum what it should be?  Is the technology that is being used supporting the curriculum in the best way possible?

In order to answer the second question, you need to have answered the first.  Are we teaching students the skills and content that they need to be successful adults?  That is a pretty big question and I think there are as many different answers as there are schools.

For me, I am not sure that I can answer that question with a resounding yes.  I think that as an individual teacher, I try to ensure that my students are learning to interact with and evaluate information in meaningful ways that will enable them to become critical thinkers, effective problem-solvers and competent communicators.  I think that my school strives to do this as well.  But there is always room …

Sleep Races & Fellowship

To me, the best part of the week if Friday.  Even the school day part of Friday is filled with anticipation of what could be.  Once 4 o'clock rolls around - IT IS ON!  The funny thing is, I don't do much that could be considered epic, noteworthy or even all that exciting on the weekends and holidays.  But I love knowing that I will have some time to slow down, be with the people I love and engage in pursuits that I choose.  Having this time allows me to return to school on Mondays with a fresh perspective, improved attitude and invigorated sense of purpose.

Two of the simple weekend activities I like best are:

Having a Sleep Race.  The person who wakes up last in the winner.  I live with my two teenage sons, so this is an incredibly hard race to win.  In fact, I have one exactly once and I think it was because I had the flu.  Even the loser of the sleep race wins (usually me), because that person gets some time alone with her coffee and the paper - outside if the weather is nic…

Edu-Fabulous Sites

Circumstances beyond my control kept me out of school today AND without access to the internet.  How novel.  Even so, it was not terribly difficult to think about my "go-to" sites for most of my educational needs  I'm not really one for tips, but I love learning about concepts and frameworks.  Reading and learning from the thinking and research of others helps me to be more effective.  My three favs are:

Edutopia has a wide variety of bloggers and topics.  The site is well organized and the quality of the posts is consistently great.  When I need inspiration or idea, I often find myself there.

Edudemic had recently shifted leadership, but the ed-tech ideas and lists are great.  I love the easy to read format as well as their heavy use of infographics.

Te@chThought! I follow them on Twitter and Facebook.  The posts never disappoint.  And neither do the new bloggers I have met thanks to this challenge!  Happy Friday!

Shared Goals Enhance Collaboration

True collaboration is difficult to achieve.  Over the course of any given school day, students are expected to work together to complete a variety of tasks, but not all of these encounters result in collaboration.

I was curious to discover my students' opinions on collaboration.  So today, I asked them in an anonymous Google Form.  Collaboration, one of my students said, "means to work together, share ideas and work and learn from each others ideas and thoughts." Another student indicated that he likes to collaborate with "friends, hard workers, smart people, good listeners, and people who will stay on topic." I asked when collaboration was most successful and they said, "when I work with people I like, when I understand the work, when the directions are clear, when others in the group are on task." Most of them indicated that they liked collaborating best when there are snacks involved.

Their responses underlined the need to set up any collaborativ…

Maker Movement = Awesome

OK - I am in WAY OVER my head here, but I am fascinated by the Maker Movement.  I love the idea of creating as a means to learn.  More than that, I love to see students utilizing technology in cool and exciting ways.  Perhaps the best part is the resulting innovation.

Innovation is not a thing that comes naturally to me.  Most of the time, I believe that the products and items I use every day are just fine the way they are.  But thank goodness there are people who aren't like me!  (I am pretty sure that if the world was made up of people like me, the wheel wouldn't exist.)

But the world is filled with really creative and innovative people - thank goodness - and many of them are in our classrooms.

Then there are amazing tools - electronics, robotics and 3D printers.

What would happen if we put these tools in the hands of creative people - or even just bored teenagers?

Let's find out!

Go Forth & Build Community

Community.  We have been talking about this concept in my one of my classes this month as we read Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman.  In the book, a neighborhood of strangers comes together to create a community garden.  The students in my class have been able to identify the important components of community - a sense of belonging, shared responsibilities, empowerment - and I think for the most part, we have these essentials in our classroom and in our school.

The problem is, we fail to include the broader community in our learning.  What would that even look like, I wonder?

We bring the parents in, we invite community workers and leaders to talk with the students, but do we bring the students out??  Sure, there are field trips and take your child to work day, but we do not have them out in the community on a consistent basis.  What if they worked in the public library once a week, cleaned up trash in the parks and playgrounds, interned at local businesses?  If we hope to prepare students…

Showin' the PLN Love

I am not much a hugger, but I do feel a tremendous gratitude and love for my professional learning network.  The thing is, Bill Nye was right when he said, "everyone you will ever meet knows something you don't."  The educators I am fortunate enough to know - either in real life or digitally - are creative, thoughtful, brilliant, informed and innovative.  And they know a whole lot more than I do.  If I need an idea, if I need motivation, if I need inspiration or just to feel part of an amazing group, I don't have very far to go.

I can go next door, across the hall or downstairs to meet and collaborate with the incredible teachers at my school.

I can join a Twitter chat, read the posts of my amazing and reflective fellow Te@chThought edu-bloggers, check out Edutopia, LD Online or even YouTube.

Given this wealth of information and inspiration, it is easy to overlook two remarkable sources of professional learning I'd like to mention.

First, the pre-service teache…

Celebrate Good Times, Come On!

In terms of interests, I have some pretty boring ones.  I like to read, swim, be outside, listen to music, celebrate obscure holidays and feed people.  I'm not sure that any of these could be classified as "hobbies," but engaging in these pastimes always makes me feel better.  In short, they are just plain fun.

I wasn't always all that "in" to having fun.  I am a "recovering work-a-holic."  Work brings me lots of joy, but I have learned that I need balance between work and play.  My two sons taught me this and I am grateful that they did.  They have exciting hobbies - sports, drama, music, statistics, etc.  Mine pale in comparison, but my kids taught me to use the interests that I do have to make life more fun.

That is what I do in the classroom.  I love music, so I play some every morning as the students arrive.  Songs by Cool & The Gang get played regularly, but I like to find more contemporary songs, too.  My standard is any song that has a…

Sharing Digital Work

Curating student work is about both storage and sharing.  Let's start the conversation with this - I am not very good at curating student work.  Part of the problem is time - I never have as much as I'd like to be able to sift through, catalog and share/display the work that students spent so much of their time on (shabby, no?).  The other issue is the ever-changing technology that allows us to save, share AND produce work.  It is hard to keep up!


This is both important and somewhat easy.  We need to save the output of students so that they can measure their progress.  Also, parents want to know what they are up to - particularly with adolescents who don't always tell their parents what they are doing in class.

I like to keep portfolios (unimaginative, but effective) that contain pieces I select as well as pieces the students choose.  I have used paper folders, flash drives, and Google folders.  Fairly straightforward, fairly simple.  This way, I have work samples…

Please Reflect

What could you change to get a different outcome?

How could you do that differently?

Why was that successful?
I use these three questions all the time.  Sometimes, for academic purposes, other times for social reasons.  The language is sometimes a little different, but the message is typically the same.  Think about the outcome.  Think about the process.  Evaluate both to identify what works.

I also change the ways in which I ask these questions.  Sometimes it is in a group discussion, sometimes an exit slip, sometimes a form.  I try to mix it up so that it doesn't get stale.

I really like using Google Forms - particularly for self-evaluation purposes.  They are easy to create and easy for students to use.  The drawback is that sometimes they are too easy and students don't think all that carefully about their responses.  But it is a good way to get a quick pulse of where students are and at least remind them that these questions should be considered.

I also like a good discussi…

Teach Like A Gardener

I compare teaching to the garden.

Students are like plants - the same in many ways, but each one having specific needs and requirements.
Teachers, like good gardeners, need to figure out what each plant needs.  They also must to determine which plants compliment each other.  
Gardeners must figure out how to make the best use of the space that is available.  How to balance sun, shade and water.  And how to give each plant the space it needs to grow and thrive.
Gardeners need to ensure that the soil conditions are favorable for growth and the weeds don't encroach on the their plants.
Finally, gardeners and teachers alike must also take a leap of faith.  They are continually striving to give their plants and students suitable growing conditions and adequate supports, but they must also accept that things are sometimes outside of their control.  Plants will grow they way the grow and the same is true of students.  We can give them all the things they might need, and sometimes we get…

Funding Challenges

I believe the most challenging issue facing education has to do with money - or more accurately, the lack of money.  This seems like cheating, a little.  I mean, poverty and educational funding are societal issues, really.  But their impact in education is far-reaching.

Students who live in situations of chronic poverty face a myriad of academic challenges.  Limited access to vocabulary, books, pre-K and quality educational opportunities.  Not to mention showing up hungry at schools that are often unsafe makes it nearly impossible to learn.

Add to that the stark problems facing many school districts strapped for cash.  Class sizes are large and there are no school nurses or counselor.  Toilet and copier paper are back to school supplies.

How can students who face these situations daily compete with their suburban peers?  Or the rest of the developed world?  How can teachers - even the very best teachers - create classrooms where students are safe and engaged?

How does our society all…

A Magic Spell for Teachers

I don't really identify with super heroes, but I am a big Harry Potter fan.  So instead of a teaching super power, I'd pick a magic wand and a spell.  
I thought a lot about what spell would be the most helpful.  One that graded the papers for me?  One that cleaned off my desk?  One that helped students behave?  But the more I thought about it, the more I thought the "spell to rule them all" might be Animum - or Open Your Mind.
A student is struggling with a concept -  Animum!  Let's open our minds and clear things up.
Two students are arguing - Animun!  Open your minds and see the other person's perspective.
I am frustrated by a student -  Animum!  Open my mind and think about what is motivating the behaviors.
A colleague is behaving in a way I don't understand - Animum!  Hear them out and learn what they are trying to accomplish.
A parent is complaining - Animum!  Consider what fears and worries they are facing.
Animum could improve any lesson, classro…

Tightly Woven Strengths

Three strengths that took me a long time to cultivate and are very tightly woven are...

1. Helping students get excited about reading.  I admit, my students didn't always care that much about reading.  Part of the problem was the books that I selected for them to read - things that I liked or that I thought they "should" read.  Sometimes, it turned out well, but more often than not, I was met with resistance.

Over the years, I learned to choose books that were challenging, but also engaging and fun.  It helped if they were banned somewhere.  Or if the content was somewhat scandalous.  Not that I let them read "trash," just something trashy enough to get them hooked.

Additionally, I learned to give them fun ways to respond to their reading.  Often, we Tweet.  Sometimes we write.  Mostly we engage in class discussions....

2. Leading a good class discussion.  The word "leading" is somewhat misleading, because I learned to avoid that role as much as I can…

Setting Up for Feedback

I learned a great deal about feedback from reading Amy Conley's "Nurturing Intrinsic Motivation and Growth Mindset in Writing."  I have found myself rereading it many times, as giving timely and appropriate feedback is a professional goal of mine, but not an area of expertise or strength.

That said, I think the set up for quality feedback begins well before the students ever submit their work.  In order for teachers to give effective feedback, both the teacher and the students must be very clear of the expectations, guidelines and processes.  Knowing the expected outcome and being provided with quality examples as well as tools for completing the work (checklists, rubrics, etc.) gives students a target for which to aim.  It also provides teachers and students with common language for providing and accepting feedback.

Another important foundation for effective feedback is individual goal setting.  At my school, each student has a "Goal Score Card" which is a liv…

Let's Talk Tech - Do You Have All Day??

I am only sort of kidding.  Technology has changed the environments and practices of schools drastically and we really could talk about it all day.  When appropriately used, the impact on student learning is powerful.  Due to the rapid expansion of the technological landscape, it can be difficult to know what technologies to use, how to use them and for what reasons.  Being an effective implementer of technology in the classroom requires vigilant evaluation.  Things that work, we need to keep.  Often, tools that work get replaced with even better tools.  Additionally, tech tools serve a multitude of different purposes, so it is difficult to rank them, so I categorized them instead. For all of my favorites, student engagement is essential.  If students don't connect or feel motivated to use the tool, I move on.

Tools for assessment:  Assessment matters.  A lot.  Knowing where students are, enables teachers to move them forward.  While there are many tools for assessment, my favorit…

Five Years is a Long Time

Five years ago, I started my current teaching job.  We were starting up a Middle School program at a Quaker School which had historically been K-6.  It was an exciting time for many reasons, but mostly because of the technology we were getting.  Coming from public school, I was thrilled to be part of a 1:1 laptop program, use Quizelt, have a SmartBoard and be able to utilize email to communicate with students.

Today, all that fancy stuff seems pretty passe.  Now we have Chromebooks AND iPads, Google Classroom, Pear Deck, nearpod, and Genius Hour.

I am bad with imagining the future.  I can adapt to change quickly, but I have trouble predicting it.  But if you think about how much the landscape of school has changed in the last five years, the next five years seem filled with capabilities that I can't even imagine.

Still, there are some things I know we should move towards and somethings we should reconsider...

Ideas and methods we should reconsider:
direct instructiontraditional hom…

5, 4, 3, 2, 1 - Nancy!

5 random facts about me

Growing up one of seven children surrounded by the love, chaos, camaraderie and weirdness of my family taught me appreciate small things and understand what really matters in life. I love turnip.My cat has only three legs.I lied about my height on my drivers licence.I am right handed and mathematically challenged but the mother of two left-handed mathematical geniuses.4 things on my bucket list Go to Florence, Italy.Buy a beach house.Adopt a goat.Learn how to sail.3 things I hope for this year To make each day fun and productive.Utilize the amazing technology available to me effectively.Be careful with the feelings of others.2 things that have made me laugh or cry Once I was teaching students to use speech-to-text software.  A student dictated "Walt Whitman was an important man," but the text read "Walt Whitman was a dentist on vicodin."I work at a Quaker school where we sing a song about George Fox.  When the entire student body is singing this…

Does It Count as an Accomplishment If You Are Supposed to Do It?

Accomplishments (and failures) are both very public things - especially in a really small school.  I have been thinking about this this question all day.  I even polled my students to hear what their secret accomplishments were.  It was a really great discussion, but it didn't really lead me to my own answer.

The thing about success and accomplishments is that they generally have an impact on someone other than the accomplisher.  So they are inherently not secret.  There is usually an audience, if only a small one.

On the flip side, there are accomplishments that the accomplisher doesn't know about - until later on, if at all.  These are the kids that you thought weren't getting anything from your class who come visit years later and tell you about how much your class meant to them.  Or the parent that you thought hated you all year who sends you a lovely note at the end of the school year thanking you.

This really only leaves those really personal, hard to think and write…

A Chamber of Secrets

I have exactly one drawer in my desk.  The contents are strange and I am continually finding things in it that I did not know were there, which is why I call it The Chamber of Secrets. In it, I keep things that fall into three different categories:
Things of sentimental value: a picture of my very first classnotes from colleagues and studentsa camera that contains pictures I am too lazy to upload, but might want to look at one dayThings I need on a regular basis: pre-sharpened Ticonderoga pencils (my favorite writing implement)tapepaper clipsschool letter head notepaperstaplesRandom things which have no real use, but I can't seem to get rid of: small toys (mostly Lego guys) that I have confiscated from a student (he never did ask for them back)brass fasteners (I might one day find a purpose for them!)grey thread (because I might need to sew someday) but no needle (oh, wait..)a hair barrette (I don't ever wear them, but...) It isn't much to look at, but it keeps the top of my …

Inspired By Teacher Debbie

Teacher Debbie was my son's math teacher before she was my most inspirational colleague.  I remember sitting in her classroom on Back to School Night wishing that she had been my math teacher.  Her passion for math was both palpable and infectious.  My son learned a lot from her that year and as a "mathy" kind of guy, her's was his favorite class.  
The following year, I was had the opportunity to work closely with Tr. Debbie.  We brought her up from the Lower School in the afternoons to teach math in the Middle School.  She and I shared students, so we interacted often.  We were in bi-weekly meetings together discussing student growth.  I got to sit in with her on some parent conferences, a thing that she adored because it gave her an opportunity to share good news with parents.  
Debbie's gifts are many, but it is her enthusiasm, hard work, innovation and kindness that have inspired me most over the years.
Excitement doesn't begin to cover Debbie's res…

Thank You, Harry, Tim & Gretchen!

Over the course of my teaching career, I have had the privilege to work with and learn from countless brilliant educators.  Some were colleagues, some were administrators and some were para-professionals.  Three of these people stand out as mentors - individuals who supported my efforts, challenged me to improve and recognized my success.  Each of them were a source of guidance, support and accountability.  I could write all day about the gifts they shared, but the "job" of a mentor, as I see it, has three basic components.

Lead by example.  My first teaching job was in West Philadelphia.  You can imagine the challenges, so I won't bother to list them.  Harry, the assistant principal, never once lost his cool.  He treated everyone, without exception, with dignity and respect.  I admired him and worked hard to emulate his attributes.

One day he walked into my class and commented, "I love coming in here.  You never lose your cool, Ms. Ironside."   Thank you for se…

My Classroom & Why I Love It

I am so fortunate to have a classroom that I love.  It is big and bright.  Because it is on the top floor of the building, we have a great view of the treetops and people are often too lazy to walk all the way upstairs to interrupt.  Also, over the summer the room was painted and we got brand new furniture.
A lot goes on up here.  Some of it is great - the learning, the laughing, the thinking, the collaboration.  Some of it is hard - frustration, the occasional hurt feelings, disagreement and disappointment.  Often, these more difficult moments lead to deeper understanding and increased determination for teachers and students alike.
There is more I'd like to see here.  More student work, for starters.  But it feels pretty great to start off the school year in a newly renovated space.  
Being in this room always fixes my mood and gets me ready to work.  I like to think the students feel the same way.

Bouncing Back

Teaching is one of the things that I love best in the world.  In thinking about why, I came up with many reasons.  I like the problem solving required.  I love the planning.  I personally really like to learn and I enjoy being in an atmosphere of learning.  I like figuring out what motivates students.  I love to witness growth, progress and success.  
All of these components make teaching a (mostly) rewarding job.  But as I was thinking about what to write today, I realized that there was so much more to it than the intellectual parts.  It is working with the students that makes teaching so very great.  
The thing about working with students - particularly adolescents - is that you get to witness their best and worst selves.  You see them when they are excited by a newly acquired skill or idea.  You see them when they experience success.  You see them when they forget their homework or fail a test.  You see them set goals and work hard to attain them.  You see them do careless things …

Blank Stares

"Huh?," he said.
"How many yards are there in 15 feet?," I asked.
"You know, if I had something that was 15 feet long, and I wanted to know how many yards that was, how could I figure that out?," I prompted.
"Another way to think of it is how do you convert feet to yards," I replied.
Blank stare.
As teachers, particularly those of us in middle school, we have all been faced with the blank stare.  It elicits many responses, but as educators, we are required to "provide individualized instruction" in these moments.  At least that is what the Evaluation Form states.
When we know that a skill has not been mastered, we are usually pretty good at planning for this.  But in those moments when we know that the skill should be mastered and we are faced with the blank stare, we tend to fall apart.
At least I do.  I'm not really proud of the fact that I ended up doing the aforementioned problem for the afor…

Maximizing Potential

It is almost ready!  Our school's new Maker Lab.  I admit that I was drooling when I saw the plans for it in a faculty meeting last spring.  New chairs, new computers, new robotics equipment, new paint, new space!  What's not to love?
The only problem is, I am old.  Old maybe isn't the right word, but I am certainly attached to some ideas and practices that may not be compatible with all this new thinking.  Sure, I like to innovate and try new things.  Yes, I want to enhance my curriculum with meaningful and modern experiences.  But my hunch is that isn't enough.  
In order to maximize the potential of this new lab, I need to be open to new ways of doing things.  I need to be always learning.  I need to experiment and sometimes fail.  I need some exert guidance.  I need to find colleagues who can help.  I need to research.  I need to try.
Sir Peter Blake sums this up nicely.  "New technology is common, new thinking is rare." Along with the new chairs, paint,…

Get Up More Times Than You Fall

A month ago, I was at the beach.  I realize it seems strange to start a 30-Day Reflective Teaching Blogging Challenge with a story about summer, but it is relevant.  Stick with me.  For a blissful week, I spent time relaxing, reading, daydreaming and watching for dolphins.  There was group of teenagers who came to the beach every day to surf.  This fact alone impressed me.  They had clearly done their homework, because they arrived just as the waves were surf-able.  They laughed, joked, sang and had a great time.  They also fell down.  A lot.

In my imagination, surfing seems carefree and fun.  It isn't.  For every wave they successfully surfed, these guys wiped out at least ten times.  Some of the falls looked painful.  Others were simply embarrassing.  But after each fall, they got right back up.  Every single one of them.

In thinking about the new school year, I have been afraid of wiping out.  Our school is undergoing big and important changes.  It seems scary.  We have restru…