Tuesday, December 27, 2011

One Year and Counting...

Today marks the one year anniversary of my blog, Eduflections. When I started this a year ago, I had just turned in the final manuscript for Can We Skip Lunch and Keep Writing? I missed having that avenue of writing and reflecting about my journey with my students. Dr. Frank Buck suggested that writing a blog would be a good way to continue reflecting on my teaching practice and sharing my journey with others. My initial goal was to write or reflect at least once a week. I came a few blogs shy of that by only blogging 47 times, but by going back and reading what I've written, I realize how much I've grown as an educator, and ultimately a person, over the last year.

Here are some of the things that I've learned this year:

  1. Be bold. Do not be afraid to speak up for your students. If we don't speak up for what is best for our students, no one else will.
  2. Share your students' successes. The community at large has a misconception of what accomplished teaching looks like in the 21st Century. Build a contact list of community leaders, legislators, board members, and parents and send them photos, stories, and projects so that they can see what is possible in today's classroom.
  3. Let your students design the learning environment. I had already given control over so many different aspects of our classroom to my students; I don't know why I didn't think of this. They have arranged the room, the classroom library, and requested that we add a large area rug. They are the ones who need to feel comfortable in the learning environment, so let them take the lead in this area as well.
  4. Blogging is a powerful tool...for students as well as teachers. I tried blogging immediately after I began blogging, but the students didn't enjoy it. This year I tried a new approach starting on the first day of school. I let them design the expectations. As a result, I've gotten to know my students much better and much faster which enabled me to better customize lessons. Their writing improvement has also grown exponentially. They are voracious writers who take ownership for what they are learning each day
  5. Join in the conversation. Although I had been somewhat active on Twitter, I had not started building relationships with other educators. That was the key to really connecting with other educators and not just consuming from the community, but giving back to the community.Those relationships were further solidified as I got to meet them at various conferences, EdCamps, and Tweet Ups. Now my PLN is even stronger and the ones that truly benefit are my students.
  6. Counteract the affects of high-stakes testing on students. I've had students who HATE reading because they associate it standardized-testing and our prescriptive reading program. I've also had learners tell me that the one thing they look forward to is standardized testing. When they begin the year, they struggle with being creative and thinking outside the box. They have very little knowledge of history, science, or art because all of the focus has been on reading and math. These have been a bit of surprise to me, but kids are so adaptable, we've been able to meet those challenges and focus on a well-rounded, student-directed learning environment.
  7. Focus more on math. As I look back over my past blogs, they all seem to focus around the language arts and technology-supported learning. Yes, those areas are where my comfort level is and it stretches across Social Studies and Science. However, there aren't very many blogs about what we're doing in our math class. Perhaps, I need to stretch my wings a bit out of my comfort level and see what I can find to further improve my teaching practice in the field of mathematics.
  8. Get involved in the community.On April 27, 2011, tornado ripped through the community where I teach. I did something I had never envisioned; I took a list of my students' names and addresses and entered theses communities searching for them and delivering supplies. One thing that I learned was how valuable it is to be a part of the community in good times or in bad. It helps solidify a strong relationship between you and families with whom you work in a much deeper manner. The final outcome is a much better education for each of your learners.

Is this all that I've learned? Absolutely not! These are just the highlights. I'm sure once I press the publish button several more will come to mind. However, I would be remiss in not thanking all of you that have helped me along this journey this last year. All of your comments, emails, retweets, and mentions have given me the encouragement to continue writing and growing even when things become extremely challenging, as they often do in a public school classroom.

So if you are considering beginning a blog, or you have a blog that needs to have the digital dust brushed off of it, I highly recommend it. This has been one of the most power tools for my professional growth and I look forward to where my path will take me in the next year. Let's continue to learn together.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Reading: A Book In A Day

My students and I have been desperately trying to carve out some time to just read together for enjoyment. As I've mentioned before, we are bound by a prescriptive reading program. As a result, my readers will tell you without hesitation that they hate reading (see this previous post about last year's struggles). Here is how one of my students explained it:
"Who loves reading, not the subject, the reading-of-a-book reading? I'm not really the reading type, but I am busy reading a book that is very interesting to me and makes me want to tell someone about the book." 
They make a distinction between the subject and the act. And lest's be frank, who can blame them? What do my students want? They want to read and share what they are reading with others. With them having blogs, they have been able to share and have conversations about what they are independently reading, but they've been asking when we're going to all read a book together and discuss it like we did with Frindle, at the beginning of the year, and Tuck Everlasting, for the Global Read Aloud. Our biggest obstacle is finding time...any time we have we're squeezing out to write and publish collaboratively with students from all across the country. None of them want to give that up.

Photo from t0msk
The real goal here is that they all get to read a book and enjoy discussing....all because they want to for the sheer joy of it. So we are doing a book-in-a-day (which has really turned into a week because we only have a few minutes a day). We're reading There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom by Louis Sachar. What fifth grader wouldn't be intrigued by that title, huh?

The way it works is we begin by reading and discussing the first several chapters together. We get to know the characters, the plot, and get a feel for the writing. Then, the students divide up into pairs and each pair gets a chapter or two to read. They are responsible for knowing that chapter and summarizing it. Then, once everyone has completed their chapters, we share them in sequence, putting the story all together. Finally, we wrap it up by reading the last two chapters together.

This would not work with every chapter book, but this book has short chapters that, if you know the characters, can stand alone. There are forty-seven chapters in There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom and we've had a blast reading them. The comments that they make and the depth of the discussions are amazing. (Who would have thought about Bradley Chalkers, the main character, and his struggle being like the Grinch? My readers did.) Every day they come in and want to know if we'll be able to read together. They enjoy reading because it's fun and they have someone with whom to discuss it.

And to top it off, they've asked if they can make several projects to add to our "Coast to Coast Chronicles" which has a theme of Making a Difference. They pointed out that the themes in the book go along with what they have been writing and publishing.

In spite of all the obstacles, they've found their joy for reading.They are so excited that they've already started asking what book we can read together next. Guess I need to pull out all my class sets of  books; I can't wait.

Monday, December 12, 2011

When Things Click

You know those days when you work and work with a certain students and there doesn't seem to be much progress and then ...BOOM, they blow your mind with what they've accomplished? Yep, we've all had those moments. I wanted to share with you the success of a student that we'll call Allison. Allison is a good-natured student who wants to do well in school, but she really struggles with reading and math. She not only is missing some key elements in her phonics understanding, vocabulary, and comprehension strategies, but she also doesn't know her basic math facts. 

When I do intervention or mini-lessons across content areas, Allison is there with me 95% of the time. I have to hand it to her, she never gives up. Then, the day before we take our reading test, she opens up her reading book and I notice all of these hot-pink sticky notes stuck all throughout the selection. Now this is a strategy that I've led her through many times (in reading and other content areas), but this time I hadn't done it with her. In fact, I hadn't even suggest that she do it. I asked her to share with the small group what she had done and as she explained it, she got out some blank sticky notes and started guiding them through her process.

photo by avrene
She showed them how to write notes on words she was unsure of as well as the vocabulary words. She picked out the setting, characters, problem, solution, author's purpose and examples of cause-effect and main ideas and supporting details on each page. She said she wasn't sure what to focus on so she had taken time each time she had read the selection at home to pick out each of the different strategies or skills. (as a side note, the students are not assigned the selection to read at home; all reading is done in class...she did this because she wanted to do it)

By the end of the our group time, she had led these struggling readers through a thorough evaluation and analysis of the selection. They were all focused on what she was saying. Allison doesn't usually volunteer to take a leadership role, but this time she did. She took ownership of her own learning and the skills and strategies that she had learned and she wanted to share them with others.

Of course, it probably goes without saying...she aced that test and so did the others in her group. She now is reminding the other struggling readers of what she taught them and giving them other advice. She asks me questions to make sure she's on the right path, but she has taken these skills and she is running with them. Don't you just love it when everything just clicks?

Monday, November 28, 2011

Question Everything!

Almost four years ago I came to the realization that, although I was a good teacher, my students weren't making the growth that I expected. I knew that there had to be a better way to reach my learners, but I wasn't sure how I would do that. So together, we set out on a journey to discover a better way to organize our class. The biggest shift was from a teacher-centered classroom to a student-directed learning environment. How did we discover a better way? We questioned everything. And even now, that is something that as proven to be the most power agent of change....questioning and reflecting on everything that we do.

So I want to challenge each of you (and myself) to question everything that you do with your learners. Here are a few questions to get you started thinking...

  1. Why is your learning environment set up the way that it is? Most of us will recognize that the classroom learning environment makes a drastic change after the primary grades. Why is that? Isn't good teaching, well, good teaching? This year, I let my students design our learning environment. They organized our classroom library in a way that was meaningful to them. They created the anchor charts and displays that are hanging in the classroom (they love the poster maker). Their self-portraits are the first thing you notice when you walk into the room which reflects whose learning environment this is. Our classroom was already set up for small groups, but they also wanted different learning spaces within the classroom. Somehow, even with 27 large desks, they have created different spaces for paired and small group collaboration. But, I think that their favorite area is the large rug. They love to stretch out and work with their peers. They also love to sit around our and have group discussions. Believe it or not, they LOVE to be read to while sitting around our big rug. So regardless of your grade level or content area, question why you have your room set up the way that it is. Ask your students what they think. Is "this is how it's always been" a good enough answer? Does your current learning environment meet the needs of your learners? Does it reflect them?
  2. Do your classroom norms and procedures meet the needs of your current students? Whose classroom is it? Is it yours or your students? We all remember at the beginning of the school year sitting in a new teacher's classroom and having them dictate a list of rules or procedures to us. Did that nurture and environment where you take ownership of what went on in the classroom? Of course it didn't. So often I hear that students are not interest in what's going on in the classroom. Could this be a contributing factor? We have class conversations for days about what type of learning environment we collectively want. Students come up with ideas that we may never think of including. As a teacher, we already know the basics that need to be included. It is important for us to guide students towards those topics, but allow them to set the procedures and classroom norms for the themselves. They take ownership of their own behavior and they hold one another to the standards that they set. My students know that the norms that are hanging on our classroom wall (thank you, poster maker) are a work in progress. They can change as our needs change. Have you asked your students to share their ideas about how the classroom runs? You'd be amazed at the difference it makes to them to feel like their voice is heard.
  3. Do all learners have to learn the same thing at the same time in the same way? Are any two of our students in the same place in their learning journey? No. Then why do we expect them all to sit through the same learning activities and do the same activities? I realize that we all have pacing guides to follow. However, if a student has already mastered a standard, should they have to sit through the same lesson and same activities as students who have not mastered the standard? No. That's why only having whole group instruction in a classroom has proven unsuccessful at meeting the needs of all learners. By giving a pretest on a standard, you'll find out who needs some instruction, who needs a lot of instruction, and who needs no instruction. That gives you the opportunity to provide students with activities that will challenge them. Also, within an umbrella of a standard, it gives you the opportunity to allow your students to explore what interests them. Let them write about a topic that peaks their interest and publish it with tools that strengthens their voice. No two students are alike so there is no way that one way to teach, one strategy, or one tool will meet the needs of your unique learners. This empowers students to guide the path of their own learning. 
  4. Why do you give the assignments that you do? Why do you give the homework that you give? What are these assignments really measuring? I recently had a fellow teacher tell me that the parents of her students told her she was a good teacher because she gave a lot of homework.Is that why we give homework... because of others' expectations? I hope not. It is important that we take the time to really evaluate what we are giving our students to do and whether or not that is relevant and reliable. Here are my thoughts on Homework and on the Reading Log Part 1 and Part 2.
  5. How do you assess your students? I realize that most of us have no say over many of the tests that we are required to give. However, is that the only way to assess our students? Of course not. Here's something to think about: How many of us have come up with a project for our students, created a rubric, taken it to our class, explained it to them and then they proceeded to pay little heed to the rubric? Why might that be? Could it be because this was all about what we wanted and they had little say in the project? Were they invested in this project? No. What do you do to make that shift? Let them design the rubric or standards for each of the projects in which they are engaged. Of course, you are the content specialist. You know what needs to be evaluated. But, it needs to come from the students. Guide them, through your questions, into designing the rubric for their own projects. Let them evaluate themselves and one another. What you will discover is that the students hold themselves to much higher standards because they designed the project and the expectations. It's theirs. So think about how you  assess your students. Is it effective? Is it reliable? Does it meet the needs of today's students?
This is a short list, but I think I've made my point. Just because we have done something in the past and it's worked or just because that's the way that something has been for years doesn't necessarily mean that it is what is best for our students. We are in the classroom for THEM. Our job is to provide them with the best educational experience possible and to help them along their personal learning journey. Our job is to provide them with the tools that they need to be successful outside of the classroom walls. That is why we need to rethink everything that we are doing to make sure that what we are doing is what is best for THEM.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Do We Misdiagnose Our Students?

This week was a difficult week..not because of my students but because I was returning from being absent from school for two weeks because I had pneumonia. The truth of the matter was that there really was no need for me to be gone from school for two weeks except for an experience I had with my doctors.

When I first came down with a high fever, I thought that it was probably a twenty-four hour virus (as teachers we pick all kinds of fun bugs), but twenty-four hours later I was worse and I went in to see my doctor. I explained all my symptoms. Although I'm not a physician, I had a sneaking suspicion I had bronchitis or pneumonia. My doctor shook her head in dismissal, never took my blood, never even took my temperature. She told me that a fever virus was going around and that was what I had. She gave me a shot and a prescription and told me I should feel better in a couple of days. However, a couple of days later I was infinitely worse. It was time to see a different doctor. When I arrived, he asked me a multitude of questions. He ran so many tests. When he returned, he brought his laptop and showed me the results of all of the tests. (If I hadn't felt so awful, I would have been so impressed with his technology.) What was the diagnosis? I had pneumonia...the data proved it. Now here's the part that really upset me. He explained that the shot and meds that the previous doctor had put me on had slowed down the healing process. Had I come to him first, I would have been better in two days. He had me return the next two days to run tests and make sure that the prescribed treatment was working.

So what can we learn from this experience in regards to our students? First, we can determine that it is important that we don't make assumptions about our students. Just because we have had other students with similar backgrounds, ethnicity, strengths or weaknesses does not mean that the child in front of us is necessarily like our previous students. Each learner is a unique individual. Secondly, it is important that we take the time to LISTEN to what our students are saying...to us and in interactions with their peers... both verbally and in writing. We need to make sure that we evaluate our students and get accurate and reliable data on them so that we know how best to proceed in meeting their individual needs.Then once we know what their needs are, we need to constantly check to make sure that our "diagnosis" is accurate and that our strategies are working in helping our students in the ways that they need.

I think it's all too often (after we've been in the classroom for several years) that we make assumptions based on our own experiences with previous students. Sometimes as teachers we get a little arrogant that we have all of the answers and we overlook some key bit of information on some of our students. This experience taught me to go back and reevaluate my previous diagnosis of each of my learners to make sure that I really am providing them with the support that each one of them needs. Don't wait for an experience like mine; I encourage each of you to take the time to do the same. Each of those learners is depending on us to help make them stronger.

Monday, October 31, 2011

The Transformative Power of Writing

Today, I want to tell you what I learned from a student that we'll call Thomas. At the beginning of the week, we read an article by National Geographic Kids entitled, "Jane Goodall's 10 Way to Help Save Wildlife." This interview with Jane Goodall tied in beautifully to the pieces that my students are writing with their collaborative partners in another state about how they can make a difference in the world.

This led to a great discussion about other ways we could make a difference in the environment. One student suggested picking up trash when they were at one of our local parks. She explained how it would improve not only the park for each of us, but also for the wildlife in the area. The rest of the class were chiming in their agreement when Thomas spoke up and said, "I don't roll like that. It can just stay there 'cause it doesn't bother me and I'm not touching someone else's mess." Many of his peers tried to persuade him otherwise, but he just crossed his arms and shook his head. We returned to our discussion.

A couple of days later, Thomas was sitting with me as we were conferring on his research and ideas for the piece he is preparing for our collaborative journal with the theme "Making a Difference." Each writer chose a topic that interested them. As we spoke about what he had discovered on his topic (for privacy reasons his topic will remain anonymous), I had a lot of difficulty getting him to focus. He set a plan of action and returned to work on his writing. While I conferred with my other students, I was constantly having to redirect him back on task, reminding him of the plan he had laid out for his project.

The next day, while we were working on our writing, he came running over to me with a shocking fact. Not only was he upset by it, but he had come up with several solutions. His focus changed; his pace accelerated. When it was time for lunch and I'm trying to get my students out of the door, he kept stepping in front of me to show me what he had written. Telling him that I would look at it after lunch or even during lunch wasn't good enough. He wanted me to read what he had put together right then.

I was amazed at his dedication and enthusiasm when the day before he was busy doing anything but this project. He was outraged with the injustice of his topic and he wanted to change something right then; he felt strongly that he needed to share it with me without delay. I agreed to confer with him while walking down the hall (we are one of the last classes served lunch...we cannot be late without some unpleasant consequences). As we walked and conferred, I marveled at how expertly and passionately he discussed his topic. When I asked him why this topic meant so much to him, he referred back to that shocking fact he had shared with me earlier. He explained how it made him think of something that had happened in his family. This experience made him re-evaluate some of his thinking. As he wrote, he examined ways that he could affect some change to make the world a better place.

After lunch, we had a guest come and lead my writers in an activity. She had them write letters to a community member who was away at basic training and missing his friends, family, and community. My students were very excited and wrote heartfelt letters. So what about Thomas? Was his new found determination to help make the world a better place a one time experience? After they had been writing for several minutes, Thomas spoke up, "I really like this. I think this is good for us to do because it's really going to make him happy. I fell good about it too." Hmm, I guess Thomas does "roll like that" after all. And what made the difference? Giving him the opportunity to learn and write about a topic that interested him. Writing has the power to help you explore, grow and change your thinking. Writing can transform who you are as a person as it did for Thomas.  I wonder what else he will roll with this year. There is no telling, but I can't wait to find out.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

What's In Your Writing Tool Belt?

With today being the National Day on Writing, my students and I have spent some time discussing "why I write." They have actually created tweets to add to the hashtag #whyIwrite throughout the day today. When I think about the what has made the biggest difference in my students' perception of creating and writing, it has to be that they now write and publish for an authentic audience...not just for me or some mystery scorer. Their writing has an audience and a purpose.

So on this National Day on Writing, I would like to share our top ten favorite tools that support writing. These tools empower my writers by strengthening their voice.

  1. KidBlog- Those of you who have been following my blog know that my learners have latched onto blogging like a fish to water. They have become voracious writers sharing what they are learning, reading, exploring, or contemplating. Rarely is there a time when at least one of my students isn't blogging. They have found the power of personal reflection and love the aspect that what they write has an audience who will continue their conversations and challenge one another's thinking.
  2. Voice Thread- This is a truly collaborative tool that allows participants to make comments and continue conversations. Usually my writers create a piece of writing, upload it, record it and then their peers will comment upon one another's writing. Comments can be done with text, voice, video, or doodling. 
  3. Wikispaces- Wikis are a fast and simple way for students to collaboratively publish their writing projects. It gives you the ability to not only insert text, but also insert Word documents, audio files, URLs, PowerPoints, video files, spreadsheets, and photos. And if that wasn't enough, you can also embed projects like VoiceThread, ToonDoos, Vokis, Xtranormal, Wallwishers, and Livebinders directly into a wiki.
  4. ToonDoo- ToonDoo is a tool that lets the writer create a comic strip. They provide a huge gallery of clip art and speech bubbles, my my creative students love drawing their own illustrations, scanning them and uploading them into their ToonDoos. You can also upload photos. If your students want to create more of a comic book page than a comic strip (like my students), you can try using ComicLife.
  5. PhotoStory-My learners love taking their writing and turning it into a digital story. When they finish publishing,  we often have a viewing party.  The tool that we turn to most often is PhotoStory.It is very intuitive to use as it walks the user through every step of the publishing process.
  6. Audacity- If you are looking for a tool for your learners to create an audio file or podcast, Audacity is user friendly. There are the basic functions of recording a piece of writing as well as a lot of bells and whistles which can really tap into a student's creativity.
  7. Lintor Publishing- I described Lintor Make-a-Book in this blog post.  Because sometimes writers still want a tool that allows then to hold, carry, and physically share their books with others, my writers love using Lintor's products. They provide a variety of templates as well as book sizes so that students have the opportunity to create their own hard copy, hardcover book from start to finish.
  8. Twitter-In class, we have a Twitter account. Many of you may be wondering about this as a publishing tool as a user only has 140 characters. However, with Twitter, my learners have to learn about being succinct and powerful in their words choices. It has really helped them to focus on their message and the best way to get that message across to their followers. They all agree that standard English is what we use when we tweet from school...no "text speak" so that all of our audience understands what they are saying.
  9. StoryJumper-In this post, I wrote about a project that my writers created using StoryJumper. StoryJumper allows students to create digital storybooks which can also be purchased should someone want a copy. StoryJumper has huge selection of clipart and backgrounds, but writers also have the ability to upload their own artwork and photographs, which my learners love.
  10. Voki- I wrote about Vokis in this blog post.Voki allows the user to create a personalized talking avatar that can be easily embedded into wikis, blogs, profiles, and email.Voki has the option for the creator to type the text they want spoken or record their voices with their avatar. 
So there's our list...for now. Ask us again what our favorite publishing tools are in an hour and you would probably get a different list. The one constant is the role that these tools play in our stduents' writing....they support the writing; they are not the driving force. We would love to hear about any publishing tool that your students enjoy. Have a happy National Day on Writing today.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Students Seeking Validation Through Writing

Those of you have been reading my blog know that I recently had my book published. In fact, while I was in DC, I made a trip to the Library of Congress.  Not only is it a beautiful place, it is the home of books, learning, knowledge, and wisdom. Many people do not realize that it is solely a research library where books are not checked out. Also, many people do not realize that the Library of Congress only physically houses 10% of the books ever written. I was curious...would my book be one of the 10%? After asking several people to help me find the answers to my curiosity, I finally found a librarian who was willing to dive into their records. A few bated breaths later, she turned the screen to show me that my book was not only registered there (which I knew Stenhouse had done), but it was also one of the 10% housed there onsite as a physical book. She and I both did a little jumping and clapping to celebrate. I was waiting for another librarian to blow us over with her powerful, "Shhh!"

Afterwards, I have been thinking about the power of publishing your work for others to read...especially in regards to our students. Those of you who are familiar with my classroom know that my students use a wide variety of digital tools for publishing their work for a much wider audience. They love all of the different publishing tools that they use (and are constantly finding new ones), but one of their favorites is still using Lintor Make a Book to create their own hardcover book. It still surprises me that with all of the other digital tools that they use, my students thoroughly enjoy...and seek out new opportunities...to publish a hardcover, hardcopy version of one of their pieces of writing.

Lintor Publishing makes publishing a hardcover book extremely user-friendly. Their product makes it simple for students to create and publish their own hardcover books from start to finish. They have a variety of book publishing packages to fit most needs.

Just like me, (I wanted tangible evidence that my book was in the Library of Congress) sometimes our students enjoy having that tangible book in their hands as evidence of their hard work.They like taking it to share with others. My authors love taking their books to read to younger students.We keep a library of their books for them to be read by everyone in the class.They are shared with anyone who will take time to listen and look at their books. Their books always receive a lot of attention at our Young Authors' Conference because they look so professional and my students are so proud of and enthusiastic about what they've created. After all, they created it so that others would read it.

So next time your students begin to publish, remember that sometimes students want to have that tangible book in their hands to share with others. It's a way for them to receive validation for all of the hard work that they've done.

(As a side note: Many of you know that the community where I teach was hit by the April 27th tornado that came through Alabama. One of the first people to reach out to us was Janice Miller, owner of Lintor Publishing. She not only reached out as concerned  for our safety, but she suggested that the students have the opportunity to do some therapeutic writing about their experiences with those storms. She generously sent my class book covers so that they could publish their own books. Her generosity touched my students and they treasure those books that they wrote.) 

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

An Afternoon in "Pleasantville"

Today, we had the most pleasant afternoon. My students spent this afternoon blogging, answering questions and making comments to their collaborative partners on Moodle, and working on a Global Read Aloud Project. They were all sitting in different small groups all over the room, occasionally chatting about what they were thinking about, writing, or creating. There was just a nice, low hum of happy kids discussing what they were learning with one another. I loved it!

Moments like this just make me want to do a little dance. They are so highly engaged and independent from depending on me to tell them what to do. Of course, this afternoon didn't just happen. It's taken weeks of modeling, discussing and practicing how and why we use these tools and what behaviors they deem appropriate. They've set their own expectations and they are holding one another to those expectations.

The great thing about this afternoon (besides listening to their happy, thought-provoking and somewhat humorous comments) was that this gave me the opportunity to work with some students one-on-one. While they were all actively engaged in meaningful work, I was reading through their pending blog posts. By looking at their writing, I was able to determine if they had a misunderstanding with their grasp of not only content area but also with grammar and mechanics.

It was a great opportunity to visit with my students and have them explain what they saw in their writing that could improve it for the reader. Almost all of them would take a minute to look at what they had written and determine what should be corrected. Others needed a bit more prompting, but by leading them to making those discoveries meant much more to them. They found the error; they determined what needed to be corrected; they determined why it needed to be corrected. (By the way, those of you itching to write a comment about how blogging shouldn't be evaluated, need to read these previous posts: Did I Make the Grade? The Reading Log Conundrum and What is Homework? It's not a luxury that I have where I teach right now.)

This method of conferring, letting the students make the edits and corrections with your guidance, is much more powerful for the students. We use this in my classroom for all of our writing assignments regardless of genre, content area, or method of publishing. It allows them to make these discoveries for themselves. It's no longer a teacher telling them what to do and how to do it. It's them making these choices because it strengthens their voice in whatever they are writing.

So, I look forward to many more days like this where my writers are all engaged in meaningful, (and let's face it) fun and yet rigorous work. Now back to reading those blogs....they have passed 400 blogs since school has started. What do you think? Do my kids like to write, or what?

Sunday, September 25, 2011

A Tale of Two Tools

In a small school, not too far away, two tech tools hesitantly stepped into a classroom of excited fifth graders. The anxious fifth graders were sitting in pairs with net-books at their fingertips awaiting a new experience...one that could make them experts. The first tool, Lit2Go boldly stepped up first.

Lit2Go knew his power. He has hundreds of pieces of literature to share with the world. They are in print and MP3 and he can find what anyone needs whether by author, title, reading level, or subject matter. If those don't work, he also has the power to search by keyword. He's confident in his abilities to put quality literature into the hands of every student.

The students excitedly put Lit2Go to good use and found examples of 71 different fables to read, listen to and discuss with their partners.But where would these students put their new-found knowledge? That's when Lit2Go remembered his friend who had come into the classroom with him. He looked around and saw Lino-it waiting patiently for her turn.

Lit2Go called, "Hey, Lino-it! These kids need you. They have all of these new discoveries about writing in the fable genre, but they have nowhere to put all of this new knowledge. Can you help them?"

"You know, I'm the master of organizing important things. They can put post-it notes on me and I'll help them collaboratively build a wall that they can use day after day while they are writing," Lino-it confidently replied.

Together Lit2Go and Lino-it worked to help these fifth graders become experts at analyzing and creating fables of their own.The students loved that they had a plethora of fables to read and learn from. They were thrilled about how they could individualize the look and organization of their post-its on Lino-it, building their own tool to help them create fables for their collaborative fable anthology project.

At the end of class, Lit2Go and Lino-it gave each other a high-five, "Smack!" They knew that they had done their job and supported the learning and discovery of an amazing group of fifth grade students. These students were now fable-writing experts thanks to their support. They look forward to teaming up again whenever the need arises.They wave "good-bye" to the class as they set out in search of another class that may need their support.

The moral of this story is that powerful student learning is enhanced by quality tools like Lit2Go and Lino-it....so choose wisely.

(PS My students..who have discovered this blog...may point out that I missed a few of the characteristics that they discovered about fable writing in my little fable here. That's fine with me...they are the experts now.)

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

What is Writing?

I was recently sitting  in a grade level data meeting. As usual, I sit and listen, often keeping my comments to myself as my opinions and viewpoints are often counterproductive to the mission of the people driving these meetings. However, as the discussion turns to standardized testing, the comment was made that the students could not write as evidenced on the recent scores.   What they were calling writing is the portion where students answer an open-ended test question in reading or math. Yes, they physically have to use a pencil to compose an answer, but is that really writing?

I continued to sit and listen until I finally had to jump in.What they were describing is not writing unless you are calling the action of using a pencil to compose words on a page writing. Now don't get me wrong. My students do well on open-ended questions. I teach them a basic formula for answering this type of question that even my lowest of students can use with success.

When I expressed my opinion that what they were describing was not writing, I was met with confused faces. I honestly don't think they had ever thought about the true difference in the physical act and the craft. Unfortunately, the only "writing" that is given any credence is the writing that is done for standardized testing.

Not only was I irritated that they refused to listen, but I worried about the students who would never know the thrill of composing something that reaches others or helps them to explore who they are as people. What if students aren't given the opportunity to create something new and communicate it to others through their writing? Think about all of the ways that we write every day...mostly using a keyboard or touch screen. Students do it everyday through texting, messaging in games, blogging, Facebook, etc. Shouldn't they have the opportunity to learn how to amplify their voice through the written word at school?

This was still bothering me when my students and I returned to the classroom. So I asked them to explain through their blogs what writing is to them. It was not an assignment, just a request. I just wondered if my 10 year old students understood what teachers missed. Here are three examples of what I found:
I think we write so we can first of all learn. The only way we can learn certain things is by reading. Another reason we read and write is to express our feelings about different topics. Two more reasons that I think we write are to share our learned findings with other people and to explain how to do things. Everyone should write. ~LH
What is inspired writing?  Inspired writing is a good way to connect to your conscience. The hardest part of inspired writing is allowing the writing to happen instead of questioning what people will think about it. But how do I know my writing is true? It’s what speaks to me that’s true. When I write I think about what would interest my readers about this writing or what could make it better, but I also must be true to myself. I hope you begin writing with the intention to share your soul or the thoughts that amaze you.  ~KV 
When I write I like to express what I think about the question or the answers I write down.  Also, some grown ups don’t like to write anything even sometimes for work.  Writing is fun to me  because when you write you can express your feelings in it. That is why I like poetry. ~KA 
Do my students understand the importance writing? Is it more than the physical act of picking up a pencil or pen and putting it to paper? You can tell from these three examples (I could have put many more) that they each understand not only what writing is but also why we write.

I recently read that one of the biggest downfalls of students today is their inability to communicate. One of the biggest ways that we can communicate with one another is to write.. compose, create, explore. So no matter what age group or content area, please encourage your students to write. So even if you feel uncomfortable as a writing teacher, I hope that the quote below will give you something to think about.
We write because my teacher said so. We write to prepare for standardized testing. We write to explore who we are, to connect to those in the world around us, and to create something new.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

An Update to the Reading Log Conundrum

A while back, I wrote about our school's nonnegotiable practice of requiring every student to complete a reading log and how I felt like it was counterproductive to a student developing a real love of reading. Here's the original post. Since then, I've had quite a few people question me about that blog and request an update.

As I wrote earlier, my students started off the year blogging. One of the expectations that my students designed was that their individual blogging would replace the dreaded reading log, among other things. In fact, most of them have taken to it like a fish to water. A few others have needed to have a bit of encouragement that their voices were important enough to be heard.

Now, I realize that I have a totally different set of students with totally different needs than my previous class. However, this is one of he most diverse classes that I've been fortunate enough to work with. With that in mind, I want to share with you what I've observed.

When my students complete an activity, project, or assignment, they are much more likely to pick up a book and read. Shortly after they've read a few minutes, they ask to use the computers so that they can blog. (As an aside, the students don't have to ask me to use the computers. It's a hang over from previous years.) When I finally asked one of my students about their willingness to read as often as he was, he said, "Well, in my last blog post, I told about what was happening in my book and made a prediction. Three people commented on my post and asked me questions. I had to find the answers so that I could answer their comments."

My students have discovered what has escaped so many, well-meaning educators: Having an interactive conversation about a book, even through writing, provides students a reason to read and write. It's so simple really. How many of want to share something great we've read with others? Isn't that what we see so much of on Twitter? How about all of the book clubs that people have? All of those speak to the fact that we like to talk about what we've read. We want to share our discoveries with others. It's real, it's relevant, and it's fun!

...and as a side note, I'm finding a ton of new books to read, all reviewed by my 5th graders!

So is it working? Absolutely! However, if at any time it doesn't work, my learners know that we will stop, have a discussion, find a solution, update our blogging expectations, and move forward. I love that my students have taken such ownership of their reading, writing, and blogging. It's exciting to see every day.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Are you Sad?

We've just finished our second full week of school with our students. The teachers returned three days before the students and something that a teacher said to me is still floating around in my head. After asking me how I spent my summer and I told her the highlights, she frowned and said, "Aren't you sad that summer's over and you wasted your summer?"

I was a bit stunned. How could someone look at all of the things that I did over the summer and think that I would be sad? My summer was full of things from participating in a flash mob, having my book released, presenting at four different conferences, speaking with Alabama legislators, and meeting the most amazing educators from around the world...and those are just a few of the highlights.

Was I busy? Yes, but I was energized as an educator (and a person) by all of the connections and life experiences I had over the summer. As I thought of all of those things it brings to mind an assumption that many have about a student's perception about returning to school. They assume that they student is unhappy about returning to school. We know that if a student hears something numerous times, they will start to believe it. Should they be sad about returning to school?

As I mentioned last week, my students started blogging. As I've read some of their first blogs, I realized there are under currents of this mentality. However, they have told me, through their writing, that they don't dread school, they look forward to it. Here is an example:

While I was out of school for the summer people always asked me,”Are you ready to go back to school?” I always said , “No, not at all.”   I said this because I thought that fifth grade would be horrible. I hadn’t seen my teacher once before the first day of school and I didn’t know how she would act. I was a little surprised because I hadn’t met any teacher who did as much as she did in the class. We have so many opportunities this year. I was also a little freaked out because throughout my whole life (well at least kindergarten to fifth )I always had the nicest most creative teachers. It’s hard to say that is a coincidence. Now I can barely sleep because I wish that school could start again as soon as dinner is over.
I could share several other quotes, but I think this one makes my point. Learners should look forward to school. It should be a place with "many opportunities" to learn and engage with one another and explore new concepts and how they fit into their lives.  It should not be a place where students are sad. I'm definitely not sad about my summer or the fact that I get to go to school each day and do what I love...and I hope that rubs off on my students every day.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Did I Make the Grade?

I've just finished my first week of school with my new class of fifth graders. This week, we started out building a strong foundation for the rest of the year. We did many of the same activities that I discussed in Chapter One of Can We Skip Lunch and Keep Writing?, but we also stretched and adapted those strategies as they best met the needs of my students. Much of what we do springs from conversations from reading Frindle by Andrew Clements. It serves as a great example of writing as he expertly weaves together the different modes of writing and the use of figurative language, with an entertaining story for middle aged readers. As we read it, I encourage my students to not only enjoy and discuss the humorous story, but also to begin looking at it through a writer's eyes.

As we are reading, my students begin to create a list of "Characteristics of Great Writing." My new students begin a bit hesitantly to add to the list as I've requested that they explain and justify their answers. I ask a lot of questions to guide them in this kind of thinking. They've been so trained to think that there is only one possible answer or conclusion to a question that when I told them that most questions have a multitude of possible answers, you could see a burden being lifted off of their shoulders. They were so eager to grasp this new kind of thinking. This discussion led students to making conclusions not only about the craft of writing, but also they purpose of composing using correct grammar and mechanics.

All of these fabulous conversations lead us into our blogging conversation. None of my students have ever blogged before and most of them were unclear about what a blog was. I used a variation on McTeach's blogging lesson, but the students naturally linked the importance of good writing from our Frindle discussions to our blogs. We also read and discussed parts of Net Cetera (I ordered copies for each family) to ensure that the students understood digital citizenship, Internet safety, and cyberbullying.

One strategy that I love is that I let my learners create their own criteria/rubrics for each of our activities. It puts the power of expectations into their own hands. After all, this is their blog, they should have a say over what should be included. (Note: I realize that many feel that blogs should not be evaluated. However, those that read my blog regularly know that this is not a luxury that I have in my classroom. See: Homework and Reading Logs)

Since this was the first criteria they were going to create, I led them through it as a class. Here is the list that they created of their Blogging Expectations:

  1. Use proper capitalization, organization, punctuation, and spelling. (As they explained, "If you don't edit, it doesn't matter what you've written; no one will understand you.")
  2. Be safe with all of your choices.
  3. Create posts that show what we've learned.
  4. Always use appropriate and kind words.
  5. Think about the audience.
  6. Explain and give great details in your posts. ( As one student said, "Who wants to read something that's boring?")
  7. Compose three or more blog posts a week. (They really wanted to have more in this number, but several students do not have access to a computer outside of school hours.This was a heated debate...pretty cool that most of the kids were fighting for MORE work instead of less, huh?)
  8. At least one of your blog posts will be about what you are reading. (The class actually cheered when they figured out this was going to replace the dreaded reading logs.)
  9. Create comments that are thoughtful, relevant, and continue the conversation.(One learner actually pointed out that by creating comments like this, they were also giving evidence that they were reading...score another point for getting rid of reading logs, but still meeting that independent reading standard on the report card. Yep, he got a high five...wish I had though of that.)
  10. Practice using characteristics of great writing in every post.
Is this the of expectations that I would have made for them? Absolutely not! It is infinitely better. This list demonstrated to me how well they had grasped all of the activities and discussions that we had done all week. They tied it all together and saw the relevance of how all of the pieces of the puzzle fit together better than I did. What I didn't realize (until we were done) was that they were grading me on how well I had done this week. Did I make the grade? Did I grow as a teacher this week? I think so. This group of learners are going to keep me on my toes. The sky's the limit now. Who knows what tomorrow is going to bring?

Sunday, July 31, 2011

My Own Educational Reform

I’ve just concluded a week in Washington D. C. This week I had the opportunity to participate in Hill Day where I got to speak with 8 of Alabama’s nine legislators (or their staff). At the National Boards Professional Teaching Standards, I co-presented two poster sessions promoting the Alabama NBCT Network and the Second Life Network. I also had the opportunity to meet several Stenhouse authors and have my first official book signing. And I presented a session called “Empowering Students with Web 2.0” in person and virtually.

I knew that I was going to be busier than any other conference that I attended. I knew was I was going to get to connect with people that I’ve been connecting with for several years virtually. I knew that I was going to hear dynamic speakers like Daniel Pink, Diane Ravitch, Sarah Wessling, Arne Duncan, and Pedro Noguera. And let’s not forget about the amazing Save Our Schools March.

With all of these events, speakers, and activities, my mind has been struggling to find a single thought and lesson that I can take away from all of this outstanding professional development….I am on overload. However, as the conference was winding down last night a thought came to me. I need to do a better job of having my voice heard. That may seem strange considering all of the speaking, blogging, social media and PD in which I engage on a regular basis. But, as I was sitting in the final activity, I realized that I need to be better at practicing what I preach.

In my classroom, I am always encouraging my students to share their voice through their writing, their work, their projects, their collaborations. I listen to their voices grow stronger through the school year. I let them voice their opinions and guide their choices in the classroom. Shouldn’t I be putting my money where my mouth is, so to speak?

I think as educators, many of us have been threatened with our jobs if students’ standardized test scores don’t rise or if we don’t teach scripted programs to fidelity. Fear has been used to try to make educators compliant and time and again it has been proven ineffective. It’s ineffective because good educators are not doing the job for pay or incentives. We do it because we are passionate about giving our students the best education that we can… in spite of the challenges, lack of support and difficulties.

So although I do speak up on occasion, I plan on making a much more concerted effort to stand up for what is right for our students. I am going to show them through my example what it means to have your voice heard because they are the ones who are ultimately being affected. My legislators (and administrators) are going to know me by name and they are going to see the work my students do. There are many more educators than there are elected officials. It is up to us to be the voice of change. Things will not change by just talking about it amongst ourselves. We must speak up. Our students can’t wait. Who’s with me?

Friday, July 29, 2011

SMOKE Detectors to the Rescue

Scripted reading programs, grade level meetings, data meetings, CIP boxes, mandatory standardized test practice, required no-choice professional development...OH MY! As teachers, we know that this list could go on and on of the things we have to do that has very little to do with our day to day teaching. Unfortunately these things also have little to do with improving our learners. Now some of these things do have a place...collecting data (as long as it reliable and relevant) is what helps us find individual weaknesses in our students and chart their growth.

However, as teachers it is very tempting to give our students something to do at their seats so that we can complete the mountain of tasks and paperwork that comes with our teaching responsibilities. We must NOT give in to this temptation.It is our responsibility to fight against SMOKE...


We need to become SMOKE Detectors. We all have those things that tend to creep into our classroom time. We have last minute deadlines we have to meet. We have yet another form that we have to fill out. We have practices enforced that squeeze creativity out of the classroom. These things are different for all of us. What we have in common is that we can protect the integrity of the learning time for our students. We can see that something has the potential to eat up their time to work together, your time to meet in small groups, or time when all of us need collaborative learning.

As the teacher it is our responsibility to detect it, stand in that gap, fight back the SMOKE, and give our students the best possible education possible within the confines of a (sometimes) restrictive system. So who will join me in becoming SMOKE Detectors? Our kids are depending on us!

(Anyone else feel like donning a superhero cape? Superheroes created on HeroMachine)

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Real 3D...No Glasses Required

This summer has been a hectic one for me....exciting, but hectic. I have been busy travelling to conferences and participating in activities to promote my new book, "Can We Skip Lunch and Keep Writing?" As I'm preparing to travel to D.C. for the National Boards for Professional Teaching Standards Conference, I am looking forward to many things: getting to speak with our congressmen about the importance of National Board Certification and education in Alabama, networking sessions to make new connections, learning new things to add to my educational knowledge, my presentation on Empowering Students, and a book signing. However, what I am most looking forward to would be getting to meet the people that I've been working with for over three years now.

People not involved in technology like twitter, blogs, Skype, or Second Life, think it's a bit strange that you have friends that you've never met. One person tweeted at the beginning of the ISTE conference whether they thought that face to face conferences would eventually become a thing of the past. That really got me to thinking. Would it? As I continued to ponder that thought, I had the opportunity to meet, for the first time, face to face, with five of the other seven teachers involved in the collaborative project where our students collaboratively publish The Coast to Coast Chronicles.

We made the time in our busy ISTE schedules to meet and chat over lunch. As we talked and brainstormed ideas for the next year, I kept thinking, "What an amazing group of women. They're smart, and funny, and compassionate." I loved just listening and watching their mannerisms and inflections. Of course, I already knew much of this from our planning times via Skype, TodaysMeet, and emails, but after meeting them those previous meetings seemed so two-dimensional. What was missing was that depth that you only get from face-to-face interactions.

Now don't get me wrong...technology opens up all kinds of worlds, connections, and collaborations, but sometimes I think we get so caught up on the possibilities, we lose sight of how important it is to make those personal face-to face connections. We need to keep that in mind when we are offering opportunities to our students. Technology does open up an infinite amount of opportunities for them and us, but nothing can replace actually touching a snake, receiving a pat on the back, or getting a high five when success is achieved.

So as we beginning planning for next year and we include all of our great collaborations made possible with technology, let's remember that our students also need a that three-dimensional, hands-on experiences that only we can provide for them.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A Shocking Answer from a Future Student

Yesterday, we had our registration for the upcoming school year. It is the first opportunity where I get to meet some of my students for the next year. I look forward to this opportunity to get to know some of my future students and get a feel for their expectations for the upcoming year. One of the questions that I ask is, "What are you looking forward to the most about 5th grade?" I usually get a wide variety of answers, but yesterday I got an answer that shocked me. One of my future students told me  (without hesitation) that she is most looking forward to standardized testing in the Spring.

WHAT?!? Really?!? What does this say about the state of education that a student would look forward to testing as the most exciting thing in the upcoming year? I know that we are constantly bombarded (sometimes assaulted) with the constant pressure to have students perform on these tests. For some of us, we hear about it at every faculty meeting, grade level meeting, data meeting,  and via email correspondence. We have mandatory PD about the new strategies we are required to employ with our students in the name of meeting AYP. As a teacher it can really wear you down, stress you out, and kill all of your creativity.

However, as teachers, should we be passing this pressure of standardized testing off onto our students? Are we giving them a false sense of the priorities in their educational journey? Just because we are assaulted with the pressures, that doesn't mean that our learners need to be. We still need to protect the integrity of our learners' education. It is our job to stand in the gap. I know first hand that it isn't easy. I'm envious of the teachers who get to teach and promote literacy and not be hampered by a scripted reading program. I long for time to actually have a writers workshop. Unfortunately, that is not the case.

But, that doesn't mean that our students can't still thrive in our classrooms. They can be creative; they can connect; they can make choices in what and how they learn. It just takes a little bit of effort on our part to find a way to give them that freedom. I tell my students at the beginning of the year that we are not in fifth grade to prepare for a test. We are here to prepare for life. The looks of relief that I see are remarkable. It's a small shift that makes a big difference. Are we still mastering the standards? Yes. Actually, my students usually far exceed the standards. They become thinkers. They love what we do in class so much that they beg to come to school early, stay late, or even skip lunch.

Does that mean that they don't hear about testing? No, that's being unrealistic. We hear about it everywhere. In spite of this, we can make a difference so that none of our students leave us at the end of the year and only having testing to look forward to for the next year. I'm looking forward to this year and changing this student's expectation for the year. Once we get started, testing will be the furthest thing from her mind.

Monday, July 11, 2011

A Sincere Thanks

This weekend I had the good fortune to have several friends and family members host a small book release party for me to celebrate the release of my book "Can We Skip Lunch and Keep Writing?" Collaborating in Class and Online. I don't know what I was expecting, but I came away from this experience extremely humbled.Some people came from quite a distance to celebrate with me. Many gave up or changed their Saturday plans to attend. I was even able to reconnect with a dear friend with whom I shared my (our) first year of teaching. I had friends who I have shared much of my lifetime with and friends and colleagues I have only known a short time.

The kind words of praise, encouragement, and support really moved me. It dawned on me that often as educators we don't get that kind of recognition. We fight for our students and bend over backwards to look out and provide the best for them. Sometimes I think we forget that there are other educators fighting the good fight right next to us. We have no idea what challenges they may be facing in their classrooms that day. As teachers we rarely seem to get much positive reinforcement for our hard work. It can feel lonely and isolating. A kind word, a bit of encouragement, or some praise can make a huge difference in their day. We are all in this together.

So I wanted to thank all of you out there who have helped shape me into the educator I have become today. And although you may not realize it, the positive, uplifting words, even in passing, have really helped in lightening the load that I (like all of us) carry in my mission to give each of my students the very best. Even though I may not have said it as often as I should have, I appreciate all of the hard work and dedication that each of you puts in every day for all of our students. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

When is Enough...Enough?

I recently reflected on some of my ISTE2011 experiences, but I still have something rattling around that I feel I need to further explore. One of the things that I often hear from newbies to ISTE is the overwhelming volume of opportunities to learn and connect. One of the things that I love about ISTE is that there are so many ways to learn with and from so many other passionate educators from around the world.

As we connected and shared with one another, this year I noticed that a majority of what we were sharing were the tools and how they supported learning. I was thrilled that much more of the conversation was about the learning as this is what I passionately believe in.

However, this is often not reflected in the Exhibit Hall. Amanda Dykes did a great blog post about the misguided selling seen in so many of the vendors in this year's Exhibit Hall: It's easy and cool. Now, I realize that the exhibitors are the ones that sponsor the conference, but don't they need to hear from those of us who are in the classroom? My students would walk away from a booth and say, "That was fun, but I don't see how it's going to help me learn better." Now if 11 year olds get it, shouldn't exhibitors get it?

It's easy to get caught up in the newest, hardware or software. It's new and shiny and the salespeople are good at convincing you that your classroom is incomplete without their newest tool. We all enjoy new toys. But it's our job to really look at the tool and see if it really will improve the way our students learn or if it is just  a fun new tool to amass in our classrooms.

If you look at the ISTE NETS, you will see that technology plays a supporting role. It supports collaboration, innovation, creativity, and critical thinking. Technology doesn't do it for them. The focus is on the learner and how they use technology to support their learning across content areas and grade levels. We don't always need more "stuff." So many of the tools we use in the classroom that supports real, rigorous learning are free tools that are available online.

So the next conference that you go to, really listen to what someone is saying. Are they sharing something that will really positively impact your students' learning or are they trying to sell you on a new toy? Sometimes you already have enough in your classroom. Enough can really be enough.

Friday, July 1, 2011

ISTE Insights from Troublemakers

I've just arrived home from ISTE11 which was held in Philadelphia, PA this year. My experiences are probably much different than most of the other 20,000 educators in attendance as I travel with a group of my 5th grade students. For the last nine years, I've had the opportunity to bring a group of students to present their big technology project for the year. We count it as an honor to be invited to travel and share our experiences. However, even though we do attend the conference every day and attend sessions and workshops, having students with you changes your perspective on what you are seeing and learning. We always have great discussion and debates about how we can adapt and change our learning practices based on our new insights and learning. Yes, they are 11 year-olds and their insights are priceless.

The highlight of each ISTE for me is to see my students present their project (This year they shared our collaboratively produced, student-driven journal). Yes, THEY do all of the presenting. They begin working on their presentation and public speaking skills in February. They design and create the look of their display. Knowing that many of the students that attend each year are students who have overcome great obstacles to find personal and academic success is fulfilling. Hearing all of the comments from the 400+ visitors to their presentations is gratifying for me because they see the value in what my students have to say. My students exude confidence and enthusiasm for their topic because it is THEIR project...not mine. 

My students soak up all of the praise, the questions, the encouragement that visitors to their Student Showcase offer. At the end of their presentation day, after they've had time to reflect on their day, we all share how we've grown as people due to this experience. My students shared that they realize how important their presentation was to all of the students who had teachers attend their session. They said that because of them, other students from around the world may have the opportunity to do collaborative projects, create new projects to support their learning, and design their own learning path.

They were thinking about other students. They proudly wore the "Troublemaker" ribbons on their ISTE badges and explained to anyone who asked that they were troublemakers because they want education to change and they weren't afraid to fight for it. They know the importance of learning supported technology and the power of students making decisions about how and what they learn.

So I want to thank all of you who came by and lent your ear to their presentation. That day my students grew up. Through your words of encouragement, praise, and challenge, my students are more driven than ever to change the face of education. After all, it's their education. Don't all of our students need a voice in the direction that it goes?

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Best Kind of Learning aka Finding our Peeps

This week was the Alabama Education Technology Conference in Birmingham, Alabama. I was really excited to attend and present at this conference as I had not been there for the last several years. I was looking forward to getting to share my presentation "Can We Skip Lunch and Keep Writing? Collaborating in Class and Online." This was also the first conference where my new book would be available. And although both were extremely enjoyable experiences, what I enjoyed most was the opportunity to meet and get to know so many other educators.

As I sat down to sign my first book a thought came to me that I wanted to inscribe in it which was inspired by my friend Nikki Robertson, who was holding that first book out to me. She and I connected first on Twitter  and then met face to face several months ago a EdCamp Bham.

"It's all about learning from one another." 

When I think about the professional journey that I've been on in the last couple of years, I realize that my deepest growth has come from times when I was learning with other educators, like Nikki, that shared a passion for learning to better themselves as educators in order to positively impact student learning.

Sometimes these are formal situations where you are sitting in a workshop or a presentation to learn about a  new tool or strategy that you could use in your class. But more and more often my learning has come from those informal times of just chatting with other educators between sessions, at a TweetUp, or over a meal. When you see the passion in their eyes as they share what they are doing in the classrooms, their success stories, or something that they're contemplating the learning becomes infectious. You want to know more. You ask a lot of questions. You listen. I can hear my students saying, "These are our peeps. They get us." These are people who are actively practicing what they preach. It's not something in theory. They are living it.

Today, my mind is still reeling from the connections that I've made and the new things that I want to try in my classroom, but I find myself missing that constant face to face informal learning that I've had for the last two days. Thankfully for me the learning never has to stop. I've found new people to follow on Twitter. Through some of the sessions, I've found new blogs to read.Because of the age that we live in, we can have that informal constant feeding of infectious passion everyday.

So today, I'm feeling very thankful to all of you who have helped me become the educator that I am today whether you have been with me on my learning journey for a while or you are a new member of my PLN. After all, it's all about learning from one another.

Monday, June 13, 2011

A Moment of Truth Part 2

In my last blog post, I mentioned that after 23 months, I had finally  received a copy of my book in my hand.  This thrilling (and noisy) moment of truth led me to reflect on how this experience could lend itself to lessons that we need to apply into our classrooms... like the importance of trying new things.  Here are a couple of other truths that gained from this experience which I feel should be passed on to our students.

Hard work pays off

Was writing a book easy? Absolutely not. To be honest, at times it was a bit painful trying to find a way to make my voice heard in a clear and concise way that stayed true to the story I was sharing about my students.  I wanted to tell their story, but at times their story almost became an all consuming thing, overwhelming other aspects of my life. There were times where I had to take some days away from the writing in order to find myself. After all, what good would I do my current students if I lost touch with who I was because of my previous students? 

However, as I continued to write and work with my talented editor, Holly, I found that these difficult times rendered the best work I had produced. Through her guidance, I learned not only how to become an author for a broad audience, but also how to better guide my students in their writing. The results were not immediate. It was hard. It was tedious. There were times that I wanted to just throw up my hands and walk away.

In our classrooms, our students experience this same overwhelming feeling of frustration. We all have had those students who don't feel like the work is with the reward. They also just want to throw their hands up and walk away. It is our job to reassure them and guide them. We know from our experience that the hard work does pay off. We see it every day in our classrooms. Just like Holly did for me....she saw the forest when I was lost among the trees. We need to help our students see the forest. 

Time to Share
Even though I had imagined a million times what it would feel like to physically hold my book in my hand, the actual feeling was indescribable. Following quite closely to those feelings, was the feeling of showing my book to others...especially my parents. Even as an adult, it was so wonderful to receive the validation of others who valued what I had done. They realized the large investment of time, energy, sweat, and tears it took to complete this job. 

Think of all of the work and projects that our students complete everyday in our classroom. I'm afraid that so often, we are so strapped for time in our jam packed schedule, we forget to let the students take the time to share their accomplishments with their peers, other faculty members, community members, friends and family. They have tried news things. They have put in all of the hard work, inside and outside of the classroom. By forgoing the time to celebrate and receive that validation, we are missing the key element. Let them enjoy their success, their journey.  With the tech tools of today, it is so simple to let them share their projects with people from around the world. They need to revel in their accomplishments so that they begin to value the importance of hard work and personal growth.

So as we contemplate the beginning of a new school year, let's all keep in mind the importance of passing these truths on to our students. Trying new things, hard work, and having a time to share all play a key element in students learning  valuable skills not only in the classroom, but also in life.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

A Moment of Truth Part 1

Today, after two years of hard work, I received a moment of truth. I was deep in some work preparing for an upcoming presentation when someone lightly knocked on front door sending our beagle into a fit of barking.  Once the noise and furniture surfing subsided, I opened the front door to find a smallish UPS envelope. My heart skipped a couple of beats at I looked at the address…Portland, Maine. Could it truly be a package I had imagined opening a million times in the last two years? I carefully opened the envelope and peeked inside. Out slid one of the most beautiful things that I have ever seen….my book.

In my hands I held my moment of truth. The time that over the last 23 months I had yearned for and dreamed of, sometimes wondering if it would ever happen. Would all of these words on my laptop actually end up becoming a book?  After the dancing around and noise subsided (this time me, not our little beagle), I immediately thought about this journey and what I learned from it. There are so many things that are running through my head, and I’m sure once my feet touch the ground again, I’ll come up with many more. I wanted to share a few of them now as I feel like they directly impact our students.

Try new things.

I had never thought about writing a book, but at a presentation in Atlanta, Holly Holland, from Stenhouse Publishers, approached me and asked me if I would be interested in sharing my teaching experience and journey with others. The thought of authoring a book while teaching and fulfilling my other professional and personal obligations was a bit daunting even at the front end of this experience.  But with the encouragement of my husband, I decided to try this new experience. What I discovered was that I loved to write and reflect on what I was doing in the classroom, even if I was the only one reading it. One might say that this experience has born a true passion for writing, and in spite of family encouraging me to take some time off, I started this blog and have even outlined a couple of new chapters for a potential new book which may only be written for my own introspection.

Isn’t this what we want for our students? Don’t we want for them to try new things, overcome the fear that sometimes comes with the unknown? As teachers, it is our responsibility to provide as many experiences as possible for them in the short time that they are with us. We need to be there to encourage them to try something new.  Guide them and reassure them as they discover new passions. How exciting is it to witness those discoveries that students make?

So as you are doing all of your professional learning this summer, keep that in mind. Make some connections, learn some new strategies, discover new avenues of learning so that your students can reap the benefit of trying something new.

(My initial post ended up being so long, I've decided to post the rest in a couple of days...stay tuned!)