Tuesday, September 30, 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, stamina - but the biggest barrier is fear.  What if I am not smart enough?  What if I don't get into a program?  What if I can't come up with a dissertation idea?  What if I just can't finish?

I am not afraid!  Well, I am, but I'll be brave!

Monday, September 29, 2014

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.  WE is a much better place to be.  As a WE-centered teacher I:

Question more: Why do students like this but not that?  What might she really be thinking or feeling?  How can I understand his position better?  What is really at the heart of that complaint?  Why do others support or oppose this idea?  

Listen more:  Because - duh!

Collaborate better:  As a result of my questions and listening, I am better able to work with parents, students or other teachers to find a solution or get a job done.

Strive to understand the viewpoint of others:  While this is a thing I still struggle with, I remind myself to ask this question often: What do THEY want from me/the lesson/this school year, etc?  How can we address that need/expectation??

Respect others: When it isn't all about me, I develop respect and genuine affection for students, colleagues and parents.  It seems like a simple thing, but I am pretty sure that I didn't have a whole lot of respect for others back when I was 23.  

Helen Keller said it best: "Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much."  Internalizing this message and showing up at work with this attitude is my daily goal.  And it is a giant shift from the ME-centered place from which I started.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

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 for growth and improvement, so to say that we are teaching students exactly what we should be is a bit of a stretch.

The other question is are we using the technology in effective ways?  Here again, there are many answers.  Some teachers are very facile with technology integration.  Others realize they need support and get it.  There are a few who like things just fine the way they are and see no need for change.  And let's face it, to embrace technology is to embrace change.

But I still haven't really answered the question.

It would be easy to say that technology is a tool and should support the curriculum.  For the most part, I believe there is wisdom in this mindset.  But it doesn't account for the ways that technology SHOULD drive the curriculum.  Coding comes to mind.  Will all jobs eventually require coding?  Probably not.  But should all students learn to code?  Probably.  The process of learning coding builds important problem solving skills and good old fashioned grit.  If you don't believe me, try Code.org yourself.  I have been stuck in level 7 for weeks!  It is hard and my brain isn't really wired to code, but my successful attempts (which are admittedly rare) feel great.  In this case, the technology has driven the curriculum.  And it isn't really a bad thing.

I know, I still haven't answered the question.  But this much I know:

  • Technology is not a learning outcome.
  • Technology should enhance learning and engage learners.
  • Technology should help students start conversations - with each other, with you, with the world.
  • We need to be consistently and critically evaluating both our curriculum AND the technological tools we are using to deliver it.  And maybe then we can answer the question.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

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 nice.  Heaven!  Extra sleep helps me to be less tired and potentially grouchy during the week.  Time alone allows me to reflect on school, world events, kids, coffee, the grocery list...  Good stuff.

  • Seeing Family. I have six siblings and nine nieces and nephews.  Most of them live in other states.  Fortunately, a short drive up or down I-95 will get me in close proximity to a larger group.  Seeing my parents helps me remember the love and many sacrifices that sustained a large group of unruly children over the decades.  If I ever think, "this situation is impossible," seeing them will help me realize that it is not.  My brothers and sisters are a hilarious group of people.  I can always expect to laugh when we are together.  That kind of unmitigated joy goes a really long way.  My nieces and nephews are clever, funny, and kind.  Being with them keeps me up on timely issues pertinent to preschoolers, teenagers and young adults.  I always feel energized by their company.  The icing on this particular cake is seeing my own children interact with their grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins in lively and meaningful ways.  My oldest son calls this "fellowship" which has become the generally recognized term for being together as Ironsides.  "Love is a force more formidable than any other."
It is important for all teachers to remember that life should be lived both in and out of the classroom.  I was not always good at making my free time free.  But enjoying the time we have with others, pursuing our own interests and resting up for the hard (but joyful) work we face each week, makes for a better, happier, more balanced teacher.

Friday, September 26, 2014

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!

Thursday, September 25, 2014

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 collaborative experience carefully. Students need to be clear about the expected outcomes of both the process and the product. Also, they need to be fed!  

I asked them what they liked to collaborate over and the responses were varied. Anything from solar cars, to developing a video game, to writing a book, or (my favorite) creating persuasive political posters. These statements revealed the most important component of collaboration - SHARED GOALS.

When groups work together on things about which they are passionate, the outcomes are the best. The discussion flows, there is a positive exchange of ideas, people are motivated to work hard and the end results are generally better. This is universally true - and yet in schools we sometimes overlook the importance ownership and buy-in. If students feel that the work they are engaging in has meaning for them and is something that others care about too, they are much more likely to "work together, share ideas and listen." Oh, and the cookies don't hurt, either!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

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!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

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 for a modern workforce, shouldn't they see it and learn how it operates?

A school is not like a community garden.  We don't have to make people come to us.  If we want to build a sense of belonging, instill shared responsibility and empower everyone, perhaps we should try sending the students out into the community.

"Let us go forth, the tellers of tales, and seize whatever prey the heart long for, and have no fear."
-W. B. Yeats

Monday, September 22, 2014

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 teacher. These people are in our classrooms all the time and provide the enthusiasm and current research that we veterans sometimes lack.  I had a student teacher last spring and I learned many new strategies for formative assessment.  Tr. Allison found ways to make the most mundane review exciting for students and informative for teachers.  I learned a lot from her.

Secondly, the teachers of our own children offer insight and ideas.  When my son was in 6th grade, he had an incredible science teacher who taught me about new apps and technologies and showed me exciting ways to use them.  Charlie is in 8th grade now, but I still receive the occasional email from Mr. Newdeck sharing an exciting new way to teach and learn.

Educators in the know are all over the place.  While it might not be appropriate to go around hugging them, it is important to keep our eyes, ears and minds open.  It's a great time to be a teacher!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

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 positive message - so there is a great deal of variety.

Sometimes the songs I play are related to a random or obscure holiday.  Friday was International Speak Like a Pirate Day, so I played some sea shanties.  We celebrated further by having a discussion in pirate speak ending most of our sentences with "me hearties!"  I sometimes refer to the internet for ideas about obscure holidays, but often I just hear about them on the radio.  Observing these days often broadens our cultural horizons, but mostly it keep class fun and festive.

I love to feed people and teaching in Middle School provides me with the opportunity to hang out with hungry people all the time.  Sometimes, the snacks have to do with the aforementioned holidays.  Each year, I make a Three Kings Cake and we make a big deal over the student who finds the baby inside.  Recently, we read a short story that featured Mallomars, so we ate them.  I once had a student that brought in spiced cookies every day for a week - so we are those as well.  Teenagers don't always need a reason to eat, but if I can connect the food to the learning in some way, I feel like our understanding is deepened.

I also love to be outside.  While I can't take students swimming, I can occasionally have a class outside.  This is motivating and fun - but also the fresh air and change of scenery often make the discussion more lively and memorable.

Someday I hope to develop some proper hobbies - like surfing or goat herding (two things I'd really like to try).  Maybe then I can share those skills with my students.  Until that time, I will continue to celebrate the small things in life with music, snacks and going outside.  These things make school more engaging, motivating and just plain fun - for the students, but also for me.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

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 when I need them for a conference or evaluation.  The students like to see how far they have come over the course of the year.  Everyone is happy.


Sharing is a trickier matter.  First, we need to clarify the purpose and guidelines of sharing.  This is a sticky matter and I choose not to go there on a lovely Saturday.  Sorry.

The other issue is HOW.  In a modern, often paperless world, how to do we share digital work?  Some things you can print, hang in the hallway and call it a day.

Other pieces of student work are more nuanced and we cannot put them in the "portfolio box." What if the students made a video or Prezi?  How can we "display" those work products that don't lend themselves to paper?  I have three basic ways, but I am always on the hunt for something better.  In fact, the other night I was at my son's Back To School Night and one of the teachers did amazing student sharing with her class Wiki.  You can bet that I will be pestering our Technology Specialist for a tutorial this coming week!  In the meantime, here is what I have found effective:

  • E-mail - If a student does a digital project, I send it to the parents via email.  I also send a weekly email to all the parents letting them know what we've been up to in class.  Often, with the students' permission, I will share some work with the entire group.  The student feels recognized and the parents get to celebrate success.
  • YouTube - I have a YouTube channel (which makes me feel very young and hip) and I upload student projects all the time.  Using an unlisted setting, I can easily share the link with students, parents or anyone else who needs to see it.  I can also make a playlist and have projects and student videos playing whenever parents are visiting.  Fun!
  • Forums - I had the distinct pleasure of organizing and being the emcee at a student project forum over the summer.  Each student in our summer program completed an independent study and had the opportunity to share what they had learned on stage to the student body and their parents.  We had live demonstrations, models, video reenactments, PowerPoint presentations, lectures - you name it!  It was exciting to see students utilizing the skills of speaking publicly (and listening all morning, for that matter).  Skills that are difficult to document, but so important to modern living.  The students all felt recognized, but more importantly, they felt like the experts they had become.  And the parents simply loved it.  It is not easy to pull off on a regular basis on such a large scale, but something that can be used in a classroom on a smaller scale with relative ease.  It gives the students the opportunity to share not only their digital projects, but also their performance skills.  Not a permanent way to curate, but a memorable and valuable one!

Friday, September 19, 2014

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 discussion/conference with groups or individuals.  The questions aren't always answered here, but they seem to stew a little longer and sink in a little more deeply.  The drawback is that students might respond in ways that they think you want them to.  However, in a trusting environment, students can learn to think about process and performance in critical ways that - hopefully - lead to some growth.

Ironically, I have had success with asking students to blog!  Using Google Blogger, they can write, revise, comment, revise, comment and write some more.  Along the way, they reflect and refine...

If you ask the questions consistently, students start to anticipate them - a sign that they are developing their own practices of reflection. Pretty cool stuff...

Thursday, September 18, 2014

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 a remarkable crop or outcome.  Other times, the outcome is average or even crummy.  But we keep coming back.


Wednesday, September 17, 2014

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 allow this?  More importantly, what can we do about it?

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

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, classroom, recess, meeting or exchange.  It is powerful stuff!  If only Hogwarts was hiring...

Monday, September 15, 2014

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.  Instead, I teach students the art of discussion - reading the body language of others, learning to add on to someone else's comment, how to challenge someone's opinion and how to redirect when things get off topic.  We use a tool that has helped us monitor the quality of the discussion and keep track of the contributions of everyone.  We keep the record as a reference for both discussion topics and performance.  The added benefit for me is that focusing on filling out the form keeps me from directing the discussion.  Click here to get the Discussion Tool.  It has helped me to be more a listener and less of a director.  Also, giving students an opportunity to TALK in meaningful ways is just plain fun...

3. My class is really fun.  I pride myself in my ability to keep things moving and make learning fun.  That doesn't always mean we play games, but sometimes we do.  Class favorites include The Lightning Round (where you have to answer or pass within a few seconds) or Which Doesn't Belong (sort of obvious).  Mostly, though, I like to crack jokes, keep things competitive enough so that every one tries, give everyone an opportunity to lead/teach.

My reward?  Not only does all this "fun" enhance the understanding of all, but it is motivating enough to keep students on their toes.  They learn pretty quickly that in order to participate in the "fun" of my class, you have to be prepared, wait your turn and show respect to everyone (including yourself).  My students work really hard - but they don't always realize it and they rarely complain!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

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 living document that lists goals and monitors progress.  Frequently reviewing the Score Card with the students allows them to keep their goals in the forefront of their mind, but it also gives the teachers better tools to provide feedback.  A student who was working on "varying sentence structure" and "elaborating on existing ideas" would see that language in the feedback given.  For example, "I noticed you varied your sentence structure in paragraph 2.  Are there changes you could make to paragraph 3 in that regard?"

Carefully structuring my assignments and knowing what each of my students is working on, enables me to give feedback that:

  • recognizes and respects the efforts of students
  • provides guidance and reminders about areas of need
  • challenges students to take action for improvement
One final thought about feedback - students give wonderful feedback to each other.  We try to have a peer-review or peer-edit once a week to foster an atmosphere of trust and promote the idea that our work is never really "finished."  I love it.

Feedback is difficult and time consuming.  I am by no means an expert.  But keeping these practices in mind, enables me to give better, more effective feedback.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

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 favorites are:

  • nearpod -  allows teachers to deliver a lesson directly to the students' device.  The lesson can include content an interactive features (quizzes, polls, open ended questions, etc) that are engaging for students and give the teacher immediate feedback on student understanding.  My students accuse me of having a nearpod addition.  Also, free!
  • Pear Deck - a new to me, yet similar to nearpod approach to lessons and assessment.  Allowing for content delivery and embedded assessments, Pear Deck allow the teacher to add a quick question mid-lesson.  Sadly, not free.
  • NWEA - MAP - While not a favorite of my students, this web-based assessment system allows teachers to see exactly what skills are mastered, what skills need practice and what skills are long term goals.  When implemented in a school/district-wide basis students can track their growth over the course of their academic career and teachers can tailor lessons based on outcomes.  The nerdy teacher in my gets a little high on all the data!
Tools for student organization and collaboration: Both are important "21st Century skills" and there are a myriad of tools available.  My favorites are:
  • Google - sharing, collaboration, calendars - all in one place. Need I say more?  Even better with Chromebooks!
  • Google Classroom - brand new and really cool.  This allows teachers to set up classes and post assignments or discussion questions.  Students can interact with teachers and peers by posting as well.  Easy to access and read home page shows students exactly what assignments are due for which classes and can even turn in work digitally.  Just. So. Awesome!
Tools for projects: Students must produce.  Having them show what they know using technology is engaging, rewarding and just plain fun.  Some of my favorites are:
  • TouchCast - an easy to use video making tool that allows users to add music, sound effects, titles and more.  Students can create videos for projects OR teachers and create lessons for flipped classrooms.  I used it make a quick video for the cheater blog the other day and it took all of 5 minutes.  See it here.  Add an additional 2 minutes to upload to YouTube and you can share it with anyone! Free!
  • ShowMe and Explain Everything - John Madden style white boards with voice recording features to make and share tutorials.  Fun and free!  
Tools to help students connect (and quite possibly my number 1 pick):
  • Twitter - Last spring, my class read a book and had class discussions on Twitter.  We were fortunate enough to get the author, David Lubar, to join our discussions on a few occasions.  Connecting directly with the author not only gave students a deeper insight into the novel, but it also improved the quality of their own discussion and questions.  We continued the practice of tweeting as we read over the summer.  Students were motivated to read, learn and share.  It was amazing!

As I said, I could go on all day about different tools that support student learning.  In six months time, there will be even more to discuss and share.  But the above tools have proven their usefulness and efficacy.  They have helped me to be a better teacher and helped my classroom to be a more engaging and connected "place."  Now if only there was a tech tool that made coffee and delivered it directly to me....

Friday, September 12, 2014

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 instruction
  • traditional homework
  • early start times for adolescents
Things we should be moving towards:
  • game based learning
  • student centered learning - what, where and how
  • authentic collaboration for teachers and students
  • student led seminars
  • opportunities for connections between students and authors, scientists, historians, mathematicians and writers
  • field experiences - going out into the real world to intern
  • more effective differentiation for skill and interest
  • cross-curricular learning
It is both exciting and overwhelming to ponder what schools will look like in five years.  But my very best hope is that they look markedly different from the way they look today.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

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 verse, which is all about redemption and overcoming tribulation, I always cry.
"There's an ocean of darkness
and I drowned in the night
Til I came through the darkness
to the ocean of Light."

1 thing that I wish people knew about me
  • While I am totally comfortable with solitude, I really appreciate being invited to join in.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

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 about goals that we set for ourselves.  Do I call on every kid?  Do I have the same expectations for each of my students?  Am I delivering this content in the best way possible?

These sorts of questions should haunt our practice.  We should review them and check for progress.  We should also forgive ourselves for the inevitable failures - the crash and burn lessons, the botched conference, the unintended hurt feels and the missed deadlines that all teachers experience.

But I still don't really have an answer to the question - what is the accomplishment that no one knows about?  Except, maybe this: I reflect.  I evaluate myself - sometimes harshly.  I take notes, blog, discuss with trusted colleagues what went wrong, research ideas for improvement. It is not always fun, nor is it something I have always been able to do.  I used to want to just forget the bad lesson ever happened and try something different the next day.  Now, I try to grow from my mistakes, rather than simply acknowledging them.  What can I learn from that botched lesson?  How can I make it better next time?  That conference went poorly - why?  What can I do differently in the future?

Does it count as an accomplishment if you are supposed to do it?  Reflection is something that we all should do, so maybe I'm cheating a little.  But to me, being a regular "reflect-er" is the one accomplishment that enables all my others.  It helps me to be forward thinking and proactive.  It enables me to make improvement a priority. And it has made this 30 Day Blogging Challenge really fun, rewarding and eye opening.  Thanks, TeachTought!
Blogger Challenge Badge 2014.png 

Monday, September 8, 2014

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 class
  • notes from colleagues and students
  • a camera that contains pictures I am too lazy to upload, but might want to look at one day
Things I need on a regular basis:
  • pre-sharpened Ticonderoga pencils (my favorite writing implement)
  • tape
  • paper clips
  • school letter head notepaper
  • staples
Random 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 desk looking much better!

Sunday, September 7, 2014

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 response to new ideas, technologies or strategies.  I have seen her jump up and down and clap her hands in faculty meetings with enthusiasm over anything from professional development opportunities to the new Maker Lab we were having installed.  She celebrates math holidays and famous mathematicians.  Her enthusiasm for teaching and learning impressed me the first day I met her and has never ceased to amaze me.

Debbie works extremely hard.  Mastery matters to her, so she is tireless in her efforts to assess and reteach skills.  She helps students during lunch and after school.  She spends time researching new ideas and implementing them.  She is often the first person at school in the morning and I am fairly certain she doesn't sit down very often while she is there.

All of her research leads Debbie to innovate like crazy.  She taught a bunch of kindergarten level students robotics.  She had her math class build and rebuild catapults so that they could maximize the distance.  She tries new apps and technologies to teach and assess student knowledge.  She does whatever it takes to help students understand the content in ingenious and inventive ways.

Tr. Debbie also happens to be one of the kindest people I have ever met.  She treats all of her students with respect and tenderness, even when they are being decidedly unlovable.  She forgives mistakes instantly, she offers support to teachers and students who need it and she always smiles.  This isn't a sappy, Pollyana-type kindness.  She sets high standards and holds students accountable, but her capacity for patience and gentleness seems limitless.

Once, I had to cover Tr. Debbie's math class.  I was a little worried that I wouldn't do a good job.  Towards the end of the period, as student referred to me as "Tr. Debbie, Jr." and I was inwardly thrilled.  To be identified, even in a small way, with her remarkable gifts was a high compliment, indeed!

Saturday, September 6, 2014

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 setting the example, Harry.

Challenge you to find your own solution.  My current boss, Tim, is a brilliant educator. (I feel OK saying this, because I am pretty sure he doesn't read my blog.)  He is savvy and forward thinking.  He has high expectations for teachers and students alike.

I used to always go to Tim for answers.  Sometimes, I would get some, but often he would press me.  "What do you think?"  "How could you solve that?"  It took me a little while to figure out that this wasn't evasion.  The thing about Tim is, he expects that I will find a solution and that enables me to do so.  Grappling with a problem while knowing that someone expects you to find a resolution is hard, but really empowering.  Thank you for challenging me, Tim.

Celebrate your successes.  Not all of the work of mentoring is serious and hard.  I learned this from our former Director of Admissions, Gretchen.  She was insightful and driven, and insisted that all the teachers and students work hard.  But she also continually reminded us of our successes.  To students, she would say, "Remember when you couldn't multiply and now you can?"  I relied heavily on her for advice, but what blossomed was collaboration and friendship.  We spent lots of time brainstorming about how to be more effective, but each conversation ended with an affirmation of my latest success, which she had always noticed, even when I had not.  Thank you, Gretchen.

Today's post is dedicated to the memory of a brilliant educator, wise mentor and my very dear friend, Gretchen.  This picture was taken at graduation - at which she was frequently called upon by students to read their diplomas.  She knew how to celebrate success!

Friday, September 5, 2014

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.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

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 and then suffer through the consequences.

The truth is, few adults are this open about their success and failures.  We hide our mistakes and pretend they didn't happen.  Students don't have this luxury, and yet, they show up every day and are usually able to recover from setbacks.  Certainly, we help them, but it is typically their own powers of determination and will that get them back on the right track.

Being able to witness - and sometimes take a small part - in this sort of redemption is pretty powerful.  It is humbling and inspiring, no matter how messy or long the process of bouncing back takes.  And if you pay attention in a classroom, it happens on a consistent basis.  Mistakes are made.  Sometimes the consequences are severe.  But more often than not, students are able to reclaim their focus, salvage a bad day or triumph over a difficult problem.  Being able to witness this every day - usually even before lunch - is the thing I love most about teaching.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

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 aforementioned student.  Tacky, right?

"Teacher provides individualized instructions when necessary."  While I have never been called out on this on a formal observation, I know in my teacher heart, that I don't always do this.  I like class to be fast paced.  I am impatient and I don't always want to slow down.

It is hard to admit that.  Individualized instruction is at the very core of what teachers ought to do.  But if there is an observation category that I know I need to improve - rather than giving you the blank stare - I'll just fess up now.  And plan to reteach feet to yards conversion tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

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, machines and software, I need new thinking about the goals, expectations and implementation of all my lessons.  It is both exciting and terrifying to contemplate.  But easier to imagine when one is in such a beautiful new space!

Monday, September 1, 2014

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 restructured the schedule, moved teachers around, and lost a beloved administrator.  There will be new students, new faculty members, new technologies, new procedures, new responsibilities and new curricula.  I am going to fall down.  A lot.

My goal is to be more like those surfers.  I want to be able to show up prepared, bringing with me the tools, skills and determination I need to be successful.  I want to laugh, joke, sing and have fun - even in those moments when the waves seem overwhelming and the odds are not in my favor.  Most importantly, I want to be able to keep getting up.  I will fall.  Sometimes, it will be painful.  Other times, embarrassing.  But like the surfers, I must remember to get up more times than I fall.