Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Speaking in a Monstrous Little Voice

One of the best things about the new schedule at my school is the two-hour literacy block.  Initially, it felt like a long stretch of time.  I was still getting to know the students and trying to find the right books and writing assignments.  Thus far, I have been fortunate.  We have read some short stories, completed a novel and started reading a new book that they are enjoying.  As a passionate reader, I am always thrilled when students connect with books.

In terms of the writing, I have enjoyed being able to connect with assignments to the reading is deep and meaningful ways.  We have had extra time to develop peer editing and revision skills.  Students have produced some quality work. We are putting the finishing touches on a publishable iBook version of our work.  We have had one author's circle and plan to have another on Friday.

It is exciting to see them develop as writers, enjoying the process and the fruits of their labors.  I am impressed with their results.

On Monday, we started blogging.  They selected a name for their blog and a decided how they wanted it to look.  "Now go home and write about yourself," I said.  The students were excited by the openness of the "assignment."

Some students had a lot to say.  Others needed some encouraging.

In class the next day, we talked about how to make the blogs more visually pleasing.  "We can add pictures?," they asked.  "How about a video so that people know what I'm talking about?"  Sure, I said.  It is your blog.

All year long we have been talking about voice.  The writing reflects the author.  In small ways, students have started to develop their own voice - including details about their interests.  As yet, I am not sure they fully understand the impact that voice has in writing.  But in looking at their initial blogging attempts, I am encouraged.

Blogging offers a unique opportunity to explore voice - not just in the words that a blogger selects or her tone or her style, but it the format, pictures and layout.  Bloggers are saying to the world, "This is who I am."  Along the journey, they come to understand themselves better.

Bloggers start out speaking with what Shakespeare called a "monstrous little voice."  Over time, the voice gets louder and more sure.

Hearing the small voice of my new bloggers these last few days has been exciting.  I can hardly wait to hear how it will grow for each of them.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Connected Teaching & Learning

It is no secret that my passion for teaching stems from my passion for learning.  I love to learn and am willing to learn about nearly anything.  Plumbing, arbor culture, tennis, word origins, Phillis Wheatley and German phrases are just a few of the things I have studied in the past year.  I get a little charge when I figure out something new and will pester experts in any of these fields for new facts and knowledge.

It is a little embarrassing, really.

But it is in these connections with others that I gain the most valuable stuff.  As a result of my incessant questing, my arborist has retired and my teenage son will roll his eyes when I ask dumb questions about tennis.

All kidding aside, most of my favorite "experts" are willing to engage in a lively conversation about their field - which is my favorite way to learn.

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of attending a conference run by the Pennsylvania Association of Independent Schools (read my blog about it here).  It was great to have the opportunity to sit and listen to experts all day long.  Like a good student, I paid attention and listened to the contributions of others.

By the end of the day, I was feeling like I had some questions of my own.  I wanted to connect with the group in a deeper way.  I took out my phone.  The conference was tweeting under a hashtag - of course!  Reading the comments of others was fun.  More importantly, it was empowering. I tweeted.  So did many others - people I knew from other schools, my boss, people I had never met before, but later I would follow.  We all had questions, comments, affirmations and retweets.  It was like grilling my arborist about my burning questions - only way better (sorry, Sam!)

WHAT IF teachers held class this way?  As we taught and learned together, students could tweet their questions and comments.  How much more would we all learn and connect?  How would that impact student motivation and drive?

It is hard to say, but think I will find out tomorrow when we experiment with tweeting in class!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Why Is Being Connected Important?

Today was a very busy day.  It actually started last night.  I needed help with an issue, so I texted our Technology Integration Specialist, Karen.  She always knows!  And, like me, she stays up late.  Karen didn't know the answer, but she had an idea for how I might find one.

This morning, I was scheduled to visit another school.  Four of my former students go there.  I drove with a colleague and we were able to talk about some school issues in the car.  At the school, we met with some of their new teachers and learned about their approaches to success.  It was fascinating.

Once back at school, I met with the Dean of Students to discuss a student or two (and drink a little coffee).  She helped me find the words I needed to discuss a tricky matter with a parent. 

I taught class.  More accurately, the students worked on a project after we had a brief class meeting.  I was inspired to undertake this particular project after hearing Adam Bellow speak last week. (I now follow him on Twitter.)  He reminded me that students need to make or create things of value for each and every unit.  This project is taking longer than I thought it would, but the collaboration and revision that I have seen each day is amazing.

After school, I drove across town to watch our soccer team play another school.  I spoke with the mom of one of my students.  She teaches at a juvenile detention center and has been working on advocacy with her students.  It was a great discussion.

As I left the game (we lost), I chatted briefly with our Head of School about the new Innovation Lab at school.  He said he was bringing his metacognition class there tomorrow to work on creating a virtual brain.  I was intrigued.

All of these positive exchanges were a direct result of being connected to other educators.  Without the support, ideas, guidance, experience and artistry of the people I interacted with today, I would have worked harder and had less then stellar results.  

Being connected is important.  It says to the world (and our students) "I am still learning and open to the ideas of others."  It enables us make mistakes, but have the safety net we need just a call, Tweet or room away from someone who can help.  It provides us with ideas no one person could conceive along.  It models collaboration.  

In order to be effective in the classroom, we must connect meaningfully with our students.  I believe this can only be possible when we connect meaningfully with other educators.

"A dream you dream alone is only a dream.  A dream you dream together is a reality."
-John Lennon

Monday, October 13, 2014

What Will You Do Differently This Week?

Over the last few days, I have been inspired!  I had the privilege of attending the Pennsylvania Association of Independent Schools Biennial Conference on Friday.  The keynote speaker, NAIS President John Chubb,  was fantastic.  I attended two excellent sessions, one in particular on gamification with Jon Cassie. The closing speaker, Adam Bellow, was phenomenal.  Click here if you want to check out the full program.

I was positively tingling with ideas and inspiration.  But then it was Saturday and I had to buy groceries.  On Sunday, I had a party to attend.  Even though today was a day off, I spent most of it waiting in a doctor's office.

My point is, it would be easy to just show up tomorrow at school and do the same old stuff.  Sure, my classes are engaging and we are in the throes of some really fun projects.   But all of my inspiration would go to waste if I didn't commit myself to implementing my new ideas IMMEDIATELY!  It's October already!  There really is no time to waste.

I made myself a list of the three main things I learned on Friday:

#1 Gamification is powerful.  It engages students and enhances learning.  It requires planning, but I can start small.

#2 Students need to make things that matter.

#3 Independent schools have the power to innovate because they are independent.  We can lead the way.

I wrote these on my calendar, on my phone, on a post-it note on my desk and in my kitchen.  Already, I have seen the list several times.

My goal is to plan in such a way as to address these ideas often and in multiple ways.

Sounds great, but I thought I also needed a more explicit plan.

So under the list I wrote the following question:  What will you do differently this week?

We had already planned to publish our latest writing project into an iBook (#2 and #3), so that doesn't really count.

I started working on a mitosis game for my science class (#1).  It has been challenging, but I am making progress.  I learned some additional ideas here.

I realize that this will not be an easy practice to maintain.  But a worthwhile one.  I am hoping to get some colleagues to help me be accountable to this plan and to provide me with inspiration and support.  Perhaps you are one of those people.  Perhaps you can help.  In the meantime, what will you do differently this week?

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Authentic Connections

The phrase "authentic connections" sounds like such a big thing.  Something epic and earth-shattering, even.  When I was younger, I would define "authentic connections" as those meetings where decisions were made, conclusions were come to and resolution was reached.

No such luck.  It didn't take long for me to realize that this is a pretty silly standard.  In fact, broadening my definition of authentic connections enabled me to realize that they can happen all day long and almost anywhere.  Like the chats you have with the people who sold you donuts, the brief exchanges you have with colleagues in the hall, the email exchange you had with your boss, the Twitter chat you participated in, the laughs you share with your students or even the difficult conversations you might have with a parent, student or colleague.

While there is no exact recipe for authentic connections, I believe that you need to have at least two of the following things present in order to have the connection be meaningful and real:

Trust.  All of the parties involved will likely have their own agendas, but they need to trust that the other person will listen, play fair and be flexible.

Respect.  Individuals might not be seeing things in the same way, but they need to respect the ideas, feelings and motivations of the others in the conversation.

Humility.  No one is right all the time, nor is anyone wrong all the time.  Successful connections happen when individuals are willing to admit that they are wrong, the other person's contribution is more valid, or simply that they don't know the answer.

Honesty.  While it is difficult to resist the temptation to sugar-coat or gloss over issues and problems, this lack of honesty can hamper authentic connections.  It can be difficult to discuss some things openly, but being honest about the problem creates a better environment for reaching understanding.

Compassion.  Even when we are in a hurry or really mad, it is important to show compassion.  Always.

Humor.  Let's face it, laughter always connects people.

A willingness to share your ideas and be vulnerable.  This isn't easy, but it shows that you are investing something of yourself into the exchange.

A happy convergence of all of these elements occurred after school today when I had a visit from a teacher that I don't always understand.  I appreciate her remarkable skills, but I don't always "get" where she is coming from.  Today, our conversation started out with typical business.  A project she was working on required the use of some of my students.

Initially, I was annoyed.  It was late, I was hungry and I really wanted to get home to see my kids.  I took a deep breath and remembered that I had been working on this post.  I put down my phone and my bag and sat down.

The outcome was pretty amazing.  We managed the issue at hand in short order, but then the conversation morphed to how things were going.  How was I using the extra time in the literacy block, she wanted to know.  How were her old students progressing in my classes?  I became more engaged.

As we sat and chatted longer, the conversation shifted again.  How could we best utilize the new innovation lab?  Did I think we should approach the integration specialist about better professional development opportunities to maximize it's use?  How could we get more teachers to embrace the change?  What about the curriculum?  Is it time to review and revise?


It was a fantastic lesson for me - that authentic connections can be most meaningful when you least expect them.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Being Connected

Happy Connected Educators Month!

Being "connected" used to mean grade group meetings, graduate classes and professional development days.  Sometimes, these experiences were beneficial and rewarding.  Other times, not so much.

Today, being connected looks and feels very different.

  • Interactions and activities are more tailored to the needs and interests of the of the individual teacher.
  • Connections span the globe, not just the school or the district.
  • They can occur anytime - not just after school hours or on professional development days.
  • Teachers have greater ownership in the process.  Learning about self-selected topics increases motivation and engagement in new ideas and skills.
For me, being a connected educator is empowering.  I know that if I have questions, there are people who have answers.  They might not be in my building, but I can find them on Twitter or other on-line communities.

I know that I can get answers whenever I want them - at 4 am, in the middle of the night, or on my very brief lunch break.

Perhaps the most significant benefit to being connected is having the opportunity BUILD ideas - based on the ones I share and those I get from others.  It is a powerful thing.