Saturday, November 3, 2012

A Wow Way to Support Student Learning

Those of you who follow me through other social media know that my students participated in the Global Read Aloud where 24,000 students worldwide read, discussed, analyzed, and published work based on one book. This year the book selected was The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate. To say that my students enjoyed it was an understatement. Not only did they enjoy getting to know these well-written, deeply engaging characters, they also had an outstanding piece of literature to analyze through the lens of a writer.

This book was based on the real life of a gorilla named Ivan. One of the experiences that we (me and the other teachers in our school engaged in the GRA) wanted to provide for our students was being able to visit the Atlanta Zoo, the (eventual) home of Ivan. None of our students had been to the Atlanta Zoo (which is really worth a trip) and many had never been to Atlanta which is only 2 hours away from where we live in Alabama. We knew that this would be an amazing learning experience for our students.

Initially, we planned on taking several digital cameras for the students to take photos of our trip. However, one of my students suggested that we turn those photos into "movie to share with all of the other kids who can't go to see Ivan's home." Pretty brilliant, huh? They all agreed. That's where some real creativity took hold. With that in mind, students brought their own devices on the trip, took photos and shot video of their experiences.

Once we returned, I introduced them to TripWow, a free and very user-friendly tool by Trip Advisor that takes photos and turns them into a travel documentary. My students took all of the photos, debated about which photos best taught their audience, combined them together, added captions, and published it for all of the others students.

The discussions about what they had learned were so rich, they found they couldn't say everything that they wanted in the brief captions on TripWow. That's right, they felt the need to write more...to share their learning with others. So they turned to our class blog. Once they started collaboratively working on a class post to publish to accompany the TripWow,  they discovered that the learning that they wanted to share with their global peers was too long for a class post. There were also more photos and videos that they wanted to include. So they turned to their own blogs.

They have spent the majority of this week writing, editing, collaborating, and publishing because they felt the need to give back and share with their GRA learning community. As I reflect back on this week, it really does make me say, "Wow!" Look at how they took a simple experience and turned it into something amazing that could teach so many others. They truly understand the importance and power of harnessing digital tools and social media to empower not just their learning, but the learning of thousands of others.

Without further ado, here's their TripWow...

The Atlanta Zoo Slideshow: Mrs.’s trip to Atlanta was created with TripAdvisor TripWow!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

An App Stop on Their Learning Journey

As those of you who follow me on Twitter or Facebook know, my students have been actively engaged in participating in the Global Read Aloud. My students have been so engaged in diving into The One and Only Ivan, that they actively pursue finding time in our very rigid schedule to read and discuss it. You have to remember that my students have spent their entire education on a prescriptive curriculum and have not ever had the opportunity to explore an amazing piece of literature (before they come to me). What I love is how a story can really change and move who you are as a person. It makes you re-evaluate your place in the world. It can be transforming.

What makes this experience even more valuable to my learners is that we are connecting with other students worldwide through Skype, Twitter, and blogging in order to discuss and share this book. There is also a wiki where students can publish any work in which they engage that relates to the book; my students were anxious to contribute to this community of publishers.

We are working on analyzing characters in our reading and our writing. Thanks to Lara Deloza at the International Reading Association, I was introduced to a free app called Trading Cards.  This clever little app (also will be available on Android) allows the user to dig deeply in examining all aspects of a character. When my students began a debate about which character was the most important to the story, I felt like I needed to give them an opportunity to share their thoughts and ideas with a wider audience. Since one of my students had helped me test out the trading card app, she suggested that they create character trading cards.

My learners divided into small groups to write about their character. As I travelled around the classroom listening to their conversations, their depth and understanding was amazing. They were inferring characteristics based on how other characters reacted to their character. They were making connections with other books they had read, movies or television shows they had viewed, and their own lives. The idea that they were going to be publishing and sharing their ideas with other students gave my learners an authentic reason to really analyze their writing.

After they had written their summaries and created an illustration of their character based on the description in the book, we conferred. I had them explain and justify the choices that they had made in their writing before they set off to publish their trading card. One group of students even expressed that they felt like these characters had become their friends. (Isn't it amazing the depth of understanding and connections that students will make when they get to read and enjoy really engaging literature?)

Once they began publishing, they discovered that they had to really limit the number of words that would fit into each category. At first this lent itself to some frustration because they really wanted to include all of their writing. Then one of my clever students reminded them that they could always publish their trading cards and their entire characterizations on our class blog. The rest of my learners agreed that this was an excellent solution.

I love this time of year. After months of guiding them, everything has started to click with my students. They have the confidence to state their ideas, justify them, suggest ways to improve upon them and find solutions for one another's challenges. They have learned the power of being in a student-directed classroom. Not once during their discussion did they focus on the technology...they focused on the learning. Our week was filled with a new energy that had not been there until now. They now KNOW that they are the ones designing their learning. Watching them take that step into becoming independent learners has been the best experience...one I never grow tired of witnessing.  I know that there is no stopping them now...and that app was the vehicle that got them to this place on their learning journey. I can't wait to see where they take us next.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Professional Learning: Is it Pulling Teeth or a Sundae with a Cherry on Top?

I have written several posts in the last couple of years regarding our growth as professional educators (see the links at the bottom of this post). Recently, I have been doing much reading and contemplating about the forms that professional learning can take in today's world. Several years ago the term Professional Learning Communities (PLC) started popping up in blog posts, research, articles, and conference sessions. Those of us who have been in education know that there seems to be an ebb and flow of new ideas and initiatives which, in their essence, are a really good idea, but somehow get turned into something far from the initial vision. Unfortunately, those who are not fully aware of these new ideas, take these seemingly positive movements/programs/ideas and can quickly turn them into something negative.

I think that the whole idea of a PLC is one of these ideas. I have heard several stories similar to this one. A faculty was presented with a book that they were required to read as part of a Continuing School Improvement Plan. As they did the required reading and engaged in the required activities, there was an undercurrent of negativity. Teachers may even say, "I've taught for fifteen years. I think I know what I'm doing. I'm professionally developed enough." Then the faculty goes on to have mandated PLC meetings as grade levels, content areas, teachers with ELLs, and teachers with ExEd inclusion classes. They were always reminded that these meetings were mandatory. All of the paperwork that they had to complete as evidence was mandatory. Do you see a reoccurring theme here? Required. Mandatory.

I believe that most educators really do want to do whatever they can to help meet the needs of each of their learners. That is what PLCs do. Teachers with a wide range of experience meet to discuss challenges and look for possible solutions together. There is a dialogue. Sometimes there is a healthy debate. However, there is always an overlying mission of focusing on helping students become successful. It's a positive experience. The conversations are energizing. The collaborations help teachers to find that passion that led them to teaching in the first place because it is all focused on the students.

What's the difference between the two? One is forced; the other one is inspiring. That is such a small shift, but it makes such a huge perception in how educators engage with one another.

We are fortunate to live in a time where we can find the PLC that we need, even if there is not one where we teach. To me, that is where Personal Learning Networks come into play. If we don't have access to a PLC where we teach, through the use of social media and digital tools, we have access to educators from around the world with whom we can connect. As most educators are, these connected educators are willing to discuss the challenges that we might having and provide insight on how to meet those challenges. These are the people who are in the classroom trenches every day just like you. They know what works because they are living it.

Several years ago, I found myself craving some professional growth that was not available to me locally. I began to connect with other educators through Second Life, Twitter, blogs, nings, and Facebook. They helped me address the challenges that I was facing. They celebrated my successes. They asked my opinion in helping them to meet their challenges. It became an online relationship where we all contributed. I found myself renewed each day after connecting with these educators. As I awoke each day to go to school, I couldn't wait to try out something new I had learned.

I was so excited about my PLN that I realized that I wanted to provide this type of collaborative learning to my fifth grade students. That is when there was a real shift in our classroom. My learners began forming their own PLN. First they built it within our classroom, and then online through social media as we connected with students from all over the world. My learners look to their peers for assistance now instead of to me. They problem solve together collaboratively. Each day they enter the classroom excited by the possibilities without fear of the unknown. They are fearless because they know that they have a strong network to support them on their learning path.

Isn't that the purpose of building PLC and PLN, to empower our students with the tools to become self-motivated students with an unquenchable thirst to learn? So next time, when one of those required meetings comes up, remember what your mission should be, helping your students. And if you find yourself in a quandary as to what to do in a particular situation, keep in mind that there is a world of possibilities available at your finger tips online. All you've got to do is grab a spoon and dive in.

So is professional learning like pulling teeth or is it the sundae with a cherry on top? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Some of my other posts about professional learning:


 Sundae: photo credit: stevendepolo via photopin cc 

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Looking to Connect Your Students? First Steps in Social Media

There is much debate about the use of social media in the classroom. Those of you who follow my Twitter/Facebook/blogging/speaking know that I am pro social media. Our job is to prepare our students for today's world. Our classroom is the opportunity to teach students the importance of making safe choices while they are engaged in social media...and let's face it, even our youngest students are already there. We can guide them in how to safely harness the power of social media in order to support their learning.

As I mentioned in my post, Our First Day(s) of School, we begin these discussions from the start of school. I want for them to develop these skills before we begin connecting with other students. Many may wonder how to take their first steps. When I started, I really had to search to find other classes with whom we could communicate, create, and collaborate. But the good news is there is a prefect project where you can make connections and have much support as you venture into this avenue. This project is the Global Read Aloud.

The Global Read Aloud is the brainchild of fifth grade Wisconsin teacher, Pernille Ripp, who had a vision of connecting students from all over the world through the reading of one book. Teachers are invited to participate, add their ideas and then a mutual, collaborative project is formed. This year the books selected are The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate and Charlotte's Web by E. B. White.  You can select which book best meets the needs of your learners.

So what does social media in the classroom have to do with reading a book?  Simple, teachers register to connect with other teachers. You can connect through Skype, Twitter, Edmodo, Google Hangout, or KidBlog. If there is another way you would like to connect, simply put it on the form and see if anyone is interested in connecting in that way. The great thing about this project is that it is participant driven. The teachers who are here are here because they are passionate about connecting students through the reading of literature. If you have been wanting to try a new tool in your classroom, this is the perfect opportunity to do that because you have a very supportive network of teachers willing to help you. If you are unable or uncomfortable in participating using social media, there is also the Global Read Aloud wiki complete with the reading schedule, a map of participants, and a place for students to publish their writing and projects for other students to enjoy. This is a project that you can  mold into whatever the needs are for your students.

We know the power of reading; it takes the readers on new adventures, challenges their thinking, and inspires them to action. Thanks to Pernille and all of the teachers who’ve connected through the Global Read Aloud, we can bring the world into our classrooms, giving our students an authentic and exciting way to discuss literature and have their voices heard globally. 

If you haven't connected with the Global Read Aloud, you still have time. It begins October 1st. Won't you join us? Your students will become so passionate about reading, connecting, and collaborating, they will be begging to continue the learning long after the project ends.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Whose Voice is Heard?


At this time of year, we see many people sharing their beginning of the year activities and strategies. You see tweets, blogs, Pinterest pins, Facebook posts, articles, and Back to School Conferences. Many people asked me how we started our year, so I shared some of our activities in the post Our First Day(s) of School. In that post I also explained that I felt like it's not so much about what you do as it is about how you do the activities. Are you nurturing a learning community that communicates, collaborates, thinks deeply, and puts the learning into the hands of your students?

As I mentioned in that previous post, one of the activities that we begin the first week of school is blogging. My students set the criteria for themselves. They know what is expected of them when they blog because they set those standards.  Blogging is one of the most powerful ways for me to get to know my students, academically and personally. Through their writing, I get to know about their thoughts and expectations, their strengths and weaknesses, their hopes and dreams. They reflect on their own learning, discuss the things they wonder about, and generate meaningful conversations on a wide variety of topics. 

I have written several posts about the drastic decline in my students' interest to read. When conducting a survey in math about favorite school subjects, reading has fallen at the bottom of the list every year for the last three years. So when a student posted the following comment in a blog last week, I saw an opportunity to facilitate a blog conversation with the class. He wrote,


I asked him to clarify what he meant and share his thoughts on those statements. He obviously understood the relevance that reading has in everyone's life when he replied with...


This was like throwing a match on extremely dry tinder. It ignited a heated discussion among my students who expressed their frustration in our prescriptive reading program and all of the different aspects of it. No one had ever asked them how they felt about it. They shared how much they wanted to be able to just read books, articles, blogs, comic books, and graphic novels for fun. I found it interesting that they began to formulate ideas of how to work around all of the required practices to include what they found meaningful. They weren't complaining, they were problem-solving. All of this dialogue was generated by one student who stuggles in reading because English is his second language and not spoken in the home.

This just reaffirmed what I already knew. Students need a voice....every student. This is their education. Let them discuss it, try new things, and find their own solutions. The learn to communicate effectively and critically analyze. It empowers them and sets them on a path of being a highly-motivated lifelong learner in spite of obstacles they may face.

When people ask me which tech tool I find most valuable, I find it difficult to come up with one tool because we use so many to support the diverse needs of my diverse students. However, with blogging, my students have an avenue to share, discuss, reflect, dream, plan, and debate. It has greatly enhanced the way I teach my students and the way that they learn. If I could only use one tool, blogging would be my choice. Because with blogging, my students each have a voice.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

When the Shift Happens

As school is beginning, we hear many educators talking about their preparations.

"In my classroom..."
"My discipline plans is...."
"The classroom procedures I designed..."
"The lesson plans I created..."

I had the opportunity to speak to a conference of new teachers and those who were new to our system. One point that I made that elicited many confused looks was when I said that our classroom is not about us at all. 

Yes, we make preparations for our students; we learn stronger strategies for reaching all of our students; we design a learning environment that is conducive to learning and meets the needs of all the different learning modalities. We plan, read, reflect, and change our plans as necessary, but that classroom is not about us and what is best (or easiest) for us as educators.

We must be flexible enough to adapt our plans, find new resources, and allow our students to explore areas that interest them. We all have pacing guides and standards that the students need to explore and master, however our job is to facilitate that learning, putting the responsibility of learning and succeeding into our students hands.

One of the easiest shifts that we can make is to change I, me, my, and mine to we, us, and our. It lets our students know that although you are there and you are the professional in the classroom, we are all on this journey together. We are all learners and all teachers. That shift drastically changes our learners' perception of their role in the learning environment. Their motivation and drive to learn sky-rockets. They begin to crave learning and when it's time to leave our classrooms to go home, they beg to stay. (They may even be like mine and ask "Can we skip lunch and keep writing?")

So as we enter our classrooms, let's keep these simple ideas in mind. Let's become partners with our students in the learning because when this shift happens, amazing things happen in our classrooms.

Photo: Krissy.Venosdale's photostream

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Our First Day(s) of School

Several people have asked me what I do with my students for the first few days of school. So, I thought I would take some time and share what we did to get this year off to a great start.


  • We read The Dot by Peter H. Reynolds. This book always sets a great tone for the beginning of the school year. It has great life lessons about never giving up, always trying your best, overcoming misconceptions, and inspiring the uniqueness in others. After we read the book and had some amazing discussion, the students always ask if they can design their own unique dots to display. I love the creativity in each of these and how something so simple can have such a strong meaning for each learner.
  • On the first day, I always take time to introduce myself. They notice that I have several photos in my classroom and I tell them that we need to put pieces of them in our classroom too. You'd be amazed at how excited they are about being included in our learning environment in such a  simple way. Each student creates his/her own self-portraits which we display on the wall that you see when you first enter the classroom. The stay up the entire school year reminding them that this is their classroom.
  • So often I hear from parents something along the lines of..."He just hates math. I always hated math so we struggle through it each year." As a child who hated reading, I understand the dread and apprehension, but I don't want them to write off an entire subject because of previous experiences. To get a true feeling for where each student is in math and their perceptions of it, good or bad, I have my students write a Mathography...the story of their life with math. They write about how they feel about it, their experiences and how they see math in their lives. It is always an eye-opening experience for all of use. Usually, through their own reflections, they draw the conclusion of how important math is in our daily lives. It opens up the channel for some great class discussions.
  • Spaghetti and Marshmallows...that's right. Since our class is so student-directed and they need to learn the crucial skills of communication, collaboration, problem-solving, and critical thinking, I give each team of four students 20 pieces of raw spaghetti, 1 yard of tape, 1 yard of string, and 1 marshmallow. Their goal is to build the highest tower that can hold the jumbo marshmallow at the top. Some teams need encouragement as they start to struggle and many want to give up, but by asking guiding questions, they get inspiration and set off on another idea. (Check out the photo album of this year's challenge.)


  • Since we use many web tools, digital resources, and social media, it is imperative that my students develop good online habits. We use a resource called NetCetera to spark much conversation about cybersafety, netiquette, and cyberbullying. (I discuss this in further detail in my book.) On the first day, my students are introduced to Twitter and our class Twitter feed, @RamsaysClass. We talk about all of these good habits within the context of tweeting and the students set the guidelines. At the end of each day, each group writes one tweet on a sentence strip that we hang up in the hallway. This is a way that I can guide them into creating meaningful, powerful tweets for our class. Within three days, my students were ready to start conversing with the Twitterverse and all of the other students with whom we are connected.
  • Beginning to tweet led into our lessons on beginning to blog. Karen McMillan has created series of lessons that teach students how to blog by starting them off on paper. Before we begin blogging (on paper first then digitally), I lead a discussion with my students about what expectations they have for their blogs. These lessons are a huge hit with my students. It gives them experience in writing high quality posts and comments before actually setting off to write their digital blogs on KidBlog. (Check out the post that I wrote about their first blogging experience.)

  • Another activity in which my students engage is that they "build their wildselves." We want all of students to be safe when using digital tools, but we also want them to have some identity. BuiLD YouR WiLD SeLF is a site hosted by the New York Zoos and Aquarium. Students (and their teachers...because we all want one of these) visit the site and they create avatars that begin with kids and then you can add different animals parts like peacock feathers and octopus tentacles to the character. This is a great way for students to create an identity that's safe. My students use their wildselves in all of the different tools where an avatar can be used.
So that answers the question that so many people have been asking. To be honest, I don't think it's so  much about what you do as it's how you do the activities and lessons that you plan. For me, it's important that they start learning how to think, dig deeper, stretch their wings, be kind to one another, communicate well with others, and take responsibility for their own learning. The biggest shift for them is that they are put in charge of their learning...which is totally foreign to them when they enter my class. I hope that all of you have had as wonderful of a beginning of the school year as we have. I look forward to all of us learning together this school year...and beyond.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

An Original Tale for Teachers...Nikki the Giraffe

On the first day of school, this original tale was sent to me to remind me of the importance of what we do for our students in spite of the many challenges that we face in the classroom. It was such an uplifting and inspirational story that I asked for permission to publish here for all of you to enjoy as well. Meet Nikki...


Nikki was an amazing giraffe. She spent her time working hard to help others and be better each day for those who counted on her.

She was great in all forms of her life, especially her job. She was a walking instructor. As many know, when baby giraffes are born they take a minute to get up and going. Their uneasiness of being able to walk on their new stilted legs is obvious and can be very frustrating for them. That's where Nikki comes in. Every year she is met with the new challenges of working to get those new giraffe calves up and moving so they don't become easy prey to their predators and so they can begin to learn more and eventually fend for themselves.

Nikki's job is pretty involved. She gives of her time and she focuses on each individual giraffe. Some come along quickly and some come along slowly, but it's Nikki's job to be sure they are up and moving in a speedy time frame.

There are others in Nikki's herd who claim to do the same thing. Many of the other walking instructors have been in the their game so long that they almost get frustrated when new calves just can't seem to "get it". They berate and push and cajole to get these new babies up and moving. Many times the little ones get so frustrated that they cry and some give up completely because they refuse to be pushed. The older calves just move on without them and get the ones that are more naturally talented and able to get moving and they leave the slower ones to fend for themselves.

Not Nikki. She looks at each calf as the new creature that they are. She gets them each up and going at a pace they are comfortable with and that makes them want to keep trying. One by one, the calves in her care get up and start to teeter, then walk, and eventually run. Those slower to stand see the others and become more encouraged by them than Nikki. Many times Nikki will ask an already walking calf to go and help the ones having trouble. It's been some time since she learned to walk that maybe the encouragement of a peer would be better suited. Nikki stands by and watches and answers questions when needed, but for the most part her job is that of encourager and advisor.

There is never a forcing nature or a mean demeanor in her presence. She exudes patience and knows that her calves will all succeed to the measure they are meant to. She does all this with the constant nagging and backbiting of the other walk instructors. "She takes too long with each one", "All her calves love her. She must just be the 'fun one", "Parents always ask for Nikki. What's she got that we don't have. I mean, we've been doing it longer than her and everything".

It was true, but the reality was that Nikki loved what she did and had not allowed the weight or monotony of her job to get the best of her. She knew how to encourage and direct and to give guidance when necessary but for the most part she also knew that each little giraffe in her care would have to get it on their own to really make it in their world. Pushing them could be more detrimental than good so she took the time needed to be sure they were comfortable where they were and not where someone else thought they should be.

"Thank you Ms. Nikki" was a common theme as both mommy and daddy giraffes approached her. Calves who had learned from her would constantly come back to see her and even worked with the new ones to help her.

Nikki did more than just instruct. She taught little giraffes how to be successful at becoming big giraffes and to stand on their own 4 feet.
How many of us can see ourselves in Nikki? For me, I see the endurance, patience and kindness that I hope to exhibit with all of my "young giraffes" this year as I guide them to walk on their own learning path.  All of our students deserve educators like Nikki. Will you be a Nikki this year?

~Special thanks to Gene Ramsay for writing 'Nikki the Giraffe.' A best first-day-of-school gift I've ever received.
photo credit: ucumari via photo pin cc

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Finding Your Fortress of Solitude

In my last post, What's Your Superpower? Lessons Learned from Superheroes, I drew some comparisons between superheroes and educators. There is one additional lesson I feel like we can learn from superheroes that needs to be a separate post.

As a general population, I think we can easily identify with superheroes because they are seemingly ordinary people who do extraordinary things. They come through in a time of need and bring hope to those whose lives they touch. As teachers, we want to do the same for our students.

However, often, and especially at the beginning of the school year, it is easy to become overwhelmed. There are so many things to accomplish, many of which don't actually have anything to do with the actual teaching of our students. Then as school gets under way, we have data meetings, content area meetings, IEPs, grade level meetings...the list could go on and on. With each of these, there is usually a pile of work to be accomplished in addition to our classroom repsonsiblities.

For me, I tend to think in to-do lists. But the lists seems to grow so long, and then they jumble up with all of the plans and ideas I have for my students (even though I diligently use many productivity and time management tools). For many of us, it becomes a jumbled mess inside of our brains. What are we to do with all this scary gibberish inside of our heads? (If you find yourself struggling to stay organized and effectively manage your time, be sure to check out Frank Buck's website and blog...he's an educator's organizational guru.)

Let's take a cue from our favorite superheroes. After all, Superman has his Fortress of Solitude and Batman has his Bat Cave. They realize the importance of taking time away from the ensuing chaos to regroup, analyze, and strategize. Don't we deserve the same? If all we are doing is jumping from one fire to the next instead of stopping to clear the our minds, we aren't doing anyone any good...including ourselves.

I learn. What's your SuperPower? I feel strongly that for us to become the most powerful and effective educators that we can be, we must take time to become a reflective practitioner. Our success with our students depends upon us taking time each day to analyze what we did in class and how it impacted student learning. If something went well, we need to be able to identify what we did that caused that success so that we can recreate it and adapt for other lessons and learning activities that we lead. If what we did was unsuccessful and didn't positively impact students and learning, we need to identify the causing factor and strategize how we can make improvements in the future.

The thing about reflecting is that we each need to be transparent and honest with ourselves. No one, not even a superhero, is always successful. Situations changes, students come in with different life challenges and even disasters happen. The only way we can help each of our students every day is to diligently reflect and refine our teaching practice. This is how we learn and grow as educators.

This time may be while your are driving home at the end of a school day, when you are taking a shower, or through writing a blog. For me, this blog is serving as a reminder that in spite of all the deadlines and demands on my time, my primary focus must be how I use my time with my students. It's the choices I make with them that will impact them in the long run...not all the chaos filling up my mind.

Set aside some time to find your Fortress of Solitude. Become a reflective practitioner. Be strong and teach on!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

What's Your Superpower? Lessons Learned from Superheroes

It seems like anywhere you turn now days there is a new superhero movie with the accompanying advertising and merchandising. Who doesn't love a good story where the good guy, usually the underdog, comes back against great odds to become victorious?

But, what is it about superheroes that appeals so much to us? Perhaps is the fact that they are seemingly ordinary people who do extraordinary things. Like us, they have ordinary jobs: computer programmers, newspaper reporters, photographers, a member of the armed service, or librarians. All of us can see a bit of ourselves in our favorite superheroes.

Also, we can learn valuable life lessons from our animated (and now live action) heroes. As many of us are beginning a new school year, here are a few of the lessons that apply in our classrooms with our new students.


  1. They have a secret identity. They realize that life isn't all about them (of course, Tony Stark and his huge ego is the exception). They go about their lives and let other people live their lives and solve their own problems. As teachers it is important for us not to become the Tony Stark of the classroom. That classroom and the learning therein isn't about us at all...it's about our students, their needs, their goals. Students today are masters of their own universe with the ever flowing information at their finger tips. They make decisions about what they learn, how they learn it, and how they share what they learn. They are connected with others 24/7. As teachers, it's our job to bring that into our classrooms. We need to give them the control and change our role to one of facilitator or lead learner in the classroom environment. 
  2. They always do what's right. Often superheroes are not popular, often being labeled as a nuisance or a vigilante. But, they also know that "with great power comes great responsibility." Unfortunately, often times when we try new strategies, techniques, tools, or lessons plans, we become unpopular with other educators. Teaching is not a popularity contest. It is our responsibility to do whatever it takes to reach each and every learner in our class. Be bold...think outside the box and try new things. They need our support, guidance, and leadership as they set their own goals and strive to meet them. 
  3. They dress the part. When a superhero shows up, you notice them. They immediately put the minds of those in distress at ease. They command respect. We should do the same for our students. They should be able to look at us and know that we do, in fact, have the ability to help them meet their challenges. They shouldn't have any worries in the classroom because they know it is in good hands...yours. You are the professional and although the classroom isn't about you, it sets a tone for your students about the expectations that you have from each of them each and every day. 
  4. They form alliances. Superheroes know that sometimes they are not up to the challenge alone. That's why we have the Justice League, Avengers, Fantastic Four and Xmen. They realize that that by working together, they become a much stronger force. It's the same with educators. All of us have challenges, but we are not alone. We need to find other educators who have experience, who have successfully met challenges, and who are willing to share. It's up to us to form our alliances by building our own PLN (personal learning network). With technology, it's easier than ever to build a relationship with other educators through Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and Second Life. We might be strong on our own, but together we can become invincible forces for our students.
  5. They save the world. We may not be fighting off Loki and an army of aliens (even though we may think there has been an invasion of the body snatchers with our students at times), but we control the worlds of our students. For many of them, school is the safest place in their lives. We don't know the struggles they face outside of the classroom walls. We must remember we have the power to change our students lives forever. 
So as we enter our classroom, for many of our students, we are a superhero in their lives. It's up to us to live in such a way that we deserve the honor and respect that our students give us. Best wishes as you set out to teach "Truth, Justice, and the Global Way."

 photo credit: Krissy.Venosdale via photo pin cc

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Wild Jungle Brains...How to Tame the Beasts

Yes, that's right..my brain is a wild jungle full off all kinds of gibberish. I'm on overload right now. I know it's the summer, but I have been going at a frenzied pace speaking, researching, tweeting,  reading, writing, learning, blogging, planning because the summer is the time I can really dig into new ideas. I have the time to read. I spend more time on Twitter and reading other people's blogs. I meet smart educators at all of the conferences where I travel to speak. All of this brings amazing epiphanies and new plans for next year.

BUT...I find myself struggling now to focus on one thing. As I sit here typing on my antiquated desktop (my laptop decided to go on permanent vacation this summer), I found I needed some quiet time for my brain to slowly begin to formulate some clear thoughts. I needed to find some takeaways from all this PD I've been shamelessly partaking in for several weeks now.

That is when this occurred to me...maybe in the rush to meet all the standards, pacing guides, and mandates and still provide our students with the hands-on, student-directed learning they crave, we bombard our students with so much stimulation that they struggle to actually form one clear and concise thought or sentence. More is not actually better.

We have no idea what is already going on in their heads. They already have a jumble of thoughts before they walk into our classroom. We need to make sure that we are making purposeful choices in what we bring into our classroom, whether it's a hands-on activity or a new tech tool. We need to ask: Is this the most powerful opportunity to support my students' learning or is it a fun activity that kind of relates to the topic at hand?

We are the content specialists and strategists in the classroom. It is our responsibility to provide our students with the BEST support that we can. We aren't doing them any favors by bombarding them with a lot of mediocre projects/stations/tools/activities that will cloud their minds from what is most important...their learning. They need the time to formulate ideas, plan projects, reflect on their progress, and set their own learning goals. By providing them the support and time that they need, we can tame those overstimulated brains and help them find their own paths to success.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Questions and Answers

As I was presenting my sessions at SDE's National Conference on Differentiated Instruction, several questions arose that I feel like deserve more attention. One thing that I always try to remember is that my perspective is different than many other teachers. Many teachers that attend my presentations and workshops are great teachers, but some haven't made the shift from teacher-driven to student-directed learning. Others want to make that shift, but they don't know how to go about making that a reality; they aren't able to "see" what it looks like in a real honest to goodness classroom.

I know, from my own experience, that it can be a scary proposition to let go of that [illusion of] control; when we are in front of the classroom, we feel like master and commander of our classroom.But the question that I challenge everyone who spends a majority of their time in front of their students disseminating information is: How do you know what each student is grasping while you are leading the instruction?

Does a traditional test measure everything that a learner can learn in a certain subject? Does a right answer necessarily indicate understanding any more than a incorrect answer indicates a lack if understanding? It is crucial for us to each consider the answers to these questions about our own practice. Without taking the time to evaluate and reflect on our own practice, we become irrelevant for our students. We must do what is best for them and their needs and not what is best [or easiest] for us.

Here are some of the queries that were posed to me this week as teachers were trying to "see" how they could make student-directed learning work for them:


1. Are these collaborative projects graded? Yes, a majority of these projects are graded. In my classroom, when we engage in a writing/publishing project, my students brainstorm their ideas of what the final outcome will be. As they begin to formulate an idea, a discussion ensues about what should be included. They decide the purpose, the audience, the tone, the type of writing that will best support the project, the content should be included. As they are discussing this, I'm asking them probing questions, having them justify their choices. They need to understand that the decisions they make should be substantive. 


Learning is the ultimate goal. In these discussions, the learners are designing a basic rubric that will guide them and ultimately assess them. They designed it, not me. What do you notice is missing? There is not one mention of the tool that the students will use for their final product. Learners need to understand that the ultimate goal is learning. Technology is just the tool to get them to their ultimate goal. 


2. If students aren't assigned a specific tool to use, how do they know what tool will support their project? Most of my students come to me with very limited experience using digital tools. Their previous school experience is mostly "drill and kill" games. So, this is how I do it. The first week of school we do not have any of our "extras" classes. That gives me additional time in the school day to do some additional activities. 


One activity in which my students engage is an online scavenger hunt. They work in partners and search all of our class' digital resources and tools that they will find useful throughout the year. In additional to our class website, wikis, and blog, they also search the projects that previous students have published. They are searching for specific information while experiencing a host of different digital options. This gives them a general idea of the types of things that are possible. Do they necessarily know the names of all the tools? No, but they begin to get an idea of what is possible when it comes to publishing. 


3. How do you find the time to teach the different tech tools that your students are going to use to publish their work? Since the lack of time is usually our biggest challenge, my students have found several ways to squeeze in more learning time. Many of my students arrive via bus an hour before school begins. When I arrive at school, I invite my students to come to our classroom to work. During this time, I can pull a small group and show them the basics of how a tool works. This is usually a 10 minute or less lesson to several students who a now the class experts. 


Many of my students are so excited to begin publishing their work, they don't want to wait until the next morning so they begin exploring a tool on their own. They explore, troubleshoot and depend on their peers if they get stuck. They enjoy becoming independent and working together to problem solve. They depend upon one another. In reality,very little class time is actually spent on the tech tool side of the projects. The focus is always on the learning. 

Thanks to all of you for your participation, comments, questions, and challenges this week. I appreciate all if the hardworking that you put into becoming the best teacher that you can be for your students. If you have any more questions, you know how to reach me. I'm only a blog, tweet, Facebook post, or email away.

Monday, July 2, 2012

ISTE: Changing Lives Forever

I've just returned home from my eleventh ISTE. My experience at ISTE is probably much different than most of the other 20,000+ people who attend because, for the last ten years, I have attended with my ten and eleven year old students. They have been invited to present a Student Showcase. I get the rare opportunity to see the wonderful, hectic, sometimes chaotic learning machine that is ISTE through the eyes of my students. I get to see what their perceptions are of other educators' opinion on what should be going on in today's classroom. Surprisingly enough, they are extremely tuned into what is worthwhile and what is pure "fluff." Each year, my students choose to spend less and less time in the exhibit hall and hotel pool and more and more time in formal sessions and speaking to people informally between sessions, on the conference bus, and impromptu networking sessions. They speak passionately about their learning and the technology that supports it.If you are willing to listen and converse with them (you'd probably be shocked by how many attendees don't and are downright rude to them) you will see that they have very powerful voices...each distinct one from the other.

As I'm reflecting on this year's experience, I have one even that keeping circling back to the front of my mind. I want to share that story with you here.

If you attended my students' presentation, you know that it is 100% their work. They prepare what they are going to say to attendees, they've designed the take-home souvenir (instead of a hand-out), and they've designed the display. Of course, everything that they are sharing is also 100% created and published by them as well. We usually get a very good crowd that visits us and the kids don't get to come up for air for over two hours.

This year, I had one student with me that we'll call Trent. Trent is a quiet guy with a great sense of humor. Through our student-directed classroom, he has become an extremely strong leader often setting aside his work momentarily to help a peer in need. He encourages others when they feel like success is out of their grasp. He is an amazing individual who doesn't pull any punches when you want the truth.

Each of my students simultaneously run their own little presentation with groups of educators throughout our allotted time. We really need one computer per student, but we weren't able to travel with that many computers this year. Trent asked if he could use our iPad,"I know it won't show many of the awesome projects that we did, but I know I can explain it well enough that they will get a good idea of what I'm talking about.That way everyone else can keep using the laptops." Pretty selfless for an eleven year old, huh?

As my students present I stand back, field any questions they feel they can't answer fully and provide any support that they need. They've told me that if I stand too close it makes them nervous...so I keep a small distance. I could overhear Trent speaking with a small group and doing a beautiful job. They had so many questions that he was able to field effortlessly. That small group dwindled down to one teacher. She continued to pepper him with questions and take notes furiously. Trent took his time to explain all the tools, helped her write down steps, and even helped her spell out the tool's name if she asked.

She thanked him after about thirty minutes and went on her way smiling. Trent looked up at me with a huge grin, "Mrs. Ramsay, I just changed that woman's life forever. She'll never teach the same again. And isn't that what all of this is all about anyway?" Before I could answer, he turned and started his next presentation with another group who had just walked up.

WOW! Trent understands the importance of going to a conference; he knows it's not just about getting, but about giving back; it's about sharing a piece of yourself. It really is about changing lives forever.

As educators it is so important that we take the time to let our students have these experiences. They need to share what they are learning with others of all ages and geographic locations. They need to know that what they are doing can positively impact more than just themselves. They need the opportunity to share their perspective in the field of education and beyond. As I've said many times, they are the reason we are constantly learning and growing. Let's not underestimate our learners, but give them the opportunities to change people's lives forever.



Monday, June 18, 2012

What Motivates Students Today?

Do you ever have the feeling that although you are speaking up, somehow your voice isn't heard? Those of you who follow my blog know that one of the issues close to my heart is the power of student-driven learning (see In Defense of Student-Directed Learning). I've attended several conferences and workshops lately where when I made a comment about putting the power of learning into our students' hands; people looked at me like I had three heads (could you imagine the hair styling time for three heads?). That's not going to change what I know to be true. Students want to learn, but what motivates them is not extrinsic rewards. It is our job to guide them in pursuing how they learn, what they learn, and how they share their learning with the world while not just mastering standards, but far exceeding them.

Enter Alan November, the keynote speaker for the Alabama Educational Technology Conference. This man has been providing students with the opportunity to apply what they are learning to solve real-world problems since the mid-1980's. His students find a need and they design a solution. His TED talk is very close to what his keynote was. He shared student ' stories that illustrated that what students really want is purpose, authenticity, a global voice, and time for mastery.



Throughout his keynote, I found myself wanting to stand and cheer. Here is a man who had his students living this over twenty years ago....it's nothing new. The stories he shared inspired me to try new things, really let my 5th graders have more freedom. I hope that you enjoy his talk as much as I did and I'd love to hear your thoughts on student-directed learning. And if you are in San Diego next week attending ISTE12, be sure to come by and hear my students tell you all about the power of student-directed learning.


 photo credit: . Entrer dans le rĂªve via photo pin cc

Friday, June 8, 2012

Professional Development: One Size Does Not Fit All

For many of us, one of the busiest times of the year is upon us.Yes, it's summer, but for most educators that means a summer filled with a myriad of opportunities to learn and connect with others. I have colleagues who think I'm crazy to spend my summer travelling to speak at a host of conferences. I had one teacher say to me, "I'm professionally developed enough. I've been teaching for 22 years. I think I know what I'm doing." I didn't quite know how to respond to her comment in that moment, but as I've had time to reflect, I think she embodies the perception that many teachers have. They have been forced to go through some workshop or training regardless of whether they need it or not. They view it as something they have to suffer through so that they can get back to what they want to do with their students in the classrooms.

Perhaps the problem isn't these mandatory training sessions, but the fact that many have lost sight that each teacher is an individual with a different background of experiences, different interests, and different talents. These need to be taken into consideration when pursuing professional growth. Aren't these the qualities that we seek out in our students so that we can best meet their needs?

People seem surprised by how many sessions I attend at the conferences where I present. I'm often asked how I choose which sessions to attend when there are so many from which to choose. Here are some of the factors that I take into consideration when selecting professional development for myself.

In what area do I need to grow professionally? My natural inclination is to gravitate towards presentations that include technology, differentiated instruction, or literacy. However, those are the areas that I present on myself. Is that what I really need? Although I do attend some of these sessions, lately, I've been seeking out opportunities to learn about teacher leadership, math (because I've just started teaching it), innovation, and strategies for (further) promoting student-directed learning. Like our students, we all know the areas in which we don't feel as strong as educators. This is an opportunity to strengthen those areas and make connections with other educators.

Who is the presenter? How many of us have gotten into a session and been "sold" a program or tool for the hour long session? It's rotten because often we know our school doesn't have the money to purchase the program. One of the first things that I consider is whether this person is in the classroom like me. I don't want to hear theory about how something could work in a  classroom. I want to see how it's used. I want real examples from real students. I want a practitioner, not a theorist. Do they actually practice what they preach or are they just good a research? Once you start looking, I think you'll be amazed at how this narrows down which opportunities you pursue.

Is this worth my time? Not every session is for every person. Just because someone is a renowned speaker that everyone wants to attend, it doesn't mean that it's what you need. Sometimes in spite of narrowing down the choices of sessions for ourselves, we might still find ourselves in a session where the speaker isn't offering any content that we need. If you get into a session and the presentation isn't what was portrayed in the program, it's okay to move on to another session. If a presenter rolls out a "death by PowerPoint" and reads every word on all slides, it tells me that they didn't value my time enough to be prepared for their presentation. Here's a novel idea: Get up and leave. Your time is valuable. Find something else from which you can glean something.

Although most of my examples involve attending a large conference, the same principles hold true for other professional development whether you are building a PLN through Twitter, Facebook, blogging, Second Life or you are attending virtual discussions and webinars. Your learning is personal. You are in charge of your own growth. Take a few minutes to consider if this is the learning that YOU need because ultimately, your students will be the ones to reap the benefits.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Education is NOT Broken

It's all around us: the negativity about what's wrong with education, what must be repaired. I've written several blogs explaining some of the practices that my students and I have put into place because there are things that need to be re-evaluated. However, in the last month I've had the great fortune to hear stories from some of the most amazing educators in Alabama. Many of them working in difficult, high-need schools across the state. The resiliency and creativity of educators and their students abound in spite of the challenges that many of us face day to day. I know these educators and students are all over the world, often fighting to overcome what may seem insurmountable obstacles to find success. They are the unsung heroes that we should be hearing about regularly. I'd like to share a few of the stories here to remind all of us what is right in classrooms and schools everywhere.

Until a few weeks ago, I had never heard about Green Ribbon Schools. Green Ribbon Schools (GRS) is an award program that recognizes schools participating in activities that promote and encourage a healthy and environmentally friendly learning environment. It's a program where students can learn to better use their resources and addresses the issue of childhood obesity by promoting health and fitness. Munford Elementary School in Talledega County partnered with the park rangers in the Talledega National Forest to create environmentally sustainable learning spaces, to protect health and foster wellness for Alabama students while saving energy and reducing costs. They also integrated forestry, conservation, and environmental education themes throughout the curriculum through "theme immersion." For their hard work and dedication, Munford Elementary School was a National Winner for the United States  Department of Education Green Ribbon School Award.

One of the must heart touching stories that I heard was from Kim Beaty who teaches at Hope Academy in the Eufaula City School System. Hope Academy is not your average public school. It's an alternative school for students who have personally (or through their families) experienced truly horrific things. No student should ever have to live through the violence, abuse, or, or crimes that they have endured. Most people would write these kids off as a "lost cause." But not Kim and her fellow teachers.  These teachers dedicate their time to helping these students become a powerful voice for change instead of just letting them coast until they drop out of  school. These teachers see the potential in every student and, in spite of obstacles, many of these students do successful earn their diplomas and enter the work force as successful members of society. 

Often we hear that students today are not interested in the world around them. This story proves that statement unequivocally incorrect. Here's the story of a teacher, Brian Copes, at Calera High School who challenged his students to build a basic utility vehicle that could be used in developing countries. Their challenge was to create these out of donated parts that could easily be found in these countries. The students not only created a vehicle that survive the remotest terrain, but they also built variations: a school bus, an ambulance, a drill for wells, and a plow. Additionally, after hearing from an area specialist that there are many people in these countries who are amputees, but cannot afford the $2000+ prosthetic, he let the students experiment and investigate with the prosthetic. Then they build replicas that could do the same job for under $100. These amazing students and their teacher are travelling to the Honduran Cloud Forest this summer to deliver one vehicle, help them construct a second vehicle, and fit amputees with their prosthetic.(Watch their amazing story here.) And did I mention, these are kids who haven't even graduated high school yet? They are confident, knowledgeable, and have a clear understanding of how math, science, and engineering directly impact the lives of people. (Yes, they've won multiple awards against university students, but that's not what drives these students.)

I hope that these stories encourage all of you to take a few minutes to see the trees in the giant forest of education. There are some real stories of triumph and student empowerment all around us. Yes, there is no doubt that there needs to be some change in education, but these are stories that must not be overlooked. If you've got a story of an unsung hero, I'd love for you to share it here. We would all benefit from celebrating these successes.

photo credit: Stuck in Customs via photo pin cc

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

What Great Teachers Do Differently

While I was at ASCD, I had the opportunity to hear Todd Whitaker speak. Some of the thoughts that he expressed have really been rolling around in my brain lately. His advice is plain old common sense, but like one of students said, "You know, common sense isn't so common." Sometimes, we may need reminding of these things to give us some persepective....especially as the school year is winding down and we are making plans for the next year.

We have a choice of what comes into our room whether it's positive or negative. As the teacher, we set the tone. We are the filter as to what gets through to our students and impacts our days, positively or negatively. We must treat every student with respect every day for the entire school year. We all know that learners who are treated with respect will, in turn, treat others with respect. This creates a positive culture where students feel open to exploring new ideas and trying new things.

Parents send us their best kids. I laughed when he said this, but as I pondered it, I realized that it is absolutely true. Those kids are the best the parents have. It is our job to nurture, educate, and give them the best that we've got. Making excuses does not help anyone. It's a waste of energy.We know that students don't have a choice in where they live, their socioeconomic level, or their family situation. Our job is not to judge them, but work with each of them, nuturing their talents, finding their challenges, and empowering them with the ability to be successful people who can make a difference in this world.

Great teachers are intentionalists. In a great teacher's classroom nothing happens randomly. Great teachers plan and guide students into correct behaviors instead of fighting those discipline fires that will continue to pop up throughout the year. They understand that they have the ability to respond to something or not to respond, remembering what is best for each of the students within our classrooms. In a great teacher's classroom, the students don't know how to push their teacher's buttons because they've never seen their teacher's buttons. It's easy for us to pulled into the "reality show" mentality where using sarcasm, insults, and outrageous behavior is acceptable. However, it is our job to make sure students know that being a teacher is an honorable career. We are professionals who carefully and intentionally make educated decisions for ourselves and for them.

Here's the good news: what teachers do matters. The bad news: what teachers do matters EVERY day. We never know what will stick with our students, good or bad. Sometimes a flippant response to one of them can stick in their minds for the rest of their lives (some time I'll have to write about why I became a teacher). We all have those days where we are exhausted, stressed, sick, or feeling blue. However, we need to remember that everything we say and do in the classroom has an audience. What we do matters. One comment or action can really impact our students positively or negatively. We are the professionals. We need to remember it's not about us...it's about them.

I know at this time of year, in spite of being exhausted, all of us are planning for our next group of students. I hope that these bits of wisdom help you (as they've helped me) to focus on what's most important...our students.

photo credit: mkrigsman via photo pin cc

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A Few of Our Favorite Poetry Books

Since April is National Poetry Month, I thought I would do a short post on some of my current students' favorite poetry books. Last week, I hosted a Link Party where everyone could add their favorite poetry resources, lessons, blogs, or projects.There were a total of 46 links added.

My students have had a great time collaboratively publishing poetry with some third grade students. Here are some of the (maybe lesser known) books they enjoyed reading as mentor texts in addition to the ones they read digitally on our LiveBinder.

This year, our school hosted author and poet Diane Z. Shore. She is an amazing speaker who really gets the students enthusiastic about writing. Her interactive presentation teaches the young writers about the power of figurative language in writing. Many of her poems have been published in Highlights magazine or turned into picture books for younger students. These two books are anthologies from many different poets, as well as her. You can tell from the titles why kids love these poems.

 

As a self-contained teacher who teaches all content areas, I bring literature into all content areas. My students love the writing of Greg Tang. We read many of his books in our math lessons. My students were so inspired by Math-terpieces, that they created their own digital version for their collaborative writing partners.


Another fun math poetry/riddle book that my students enjoy is Riddle-iculous Math by Joan Holub. Two of my students were so inspired by this book, that they designed an entire lesson (that actually took two class periods) of math riddles to help review some of the math standards that we had already explored earlier in the year.

These are our current favorites, but we are always looking for more inspiration. Do your students have a favorite poem, poet or poetry book? I'd love to learn some new titles to share with my learners.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Celebrating National Poetry Month

In celebration of April being National Poetry Month, I thought I would host a Linky Party. One of my most popular blog posts is What's in Your Writing Toolbelt? where I shared our 10 favorite publishing tools. I know how much we love learning something new that we can use in our own classrooms to support our students' learning. The most powerful way that we can learn is from one another. A Link Party is a great way we can share what we love with others in our PLN. Please share links to your favorite poetry website, resources, lessons, blogs or publishing tools that we can use to celebrate National Poetry Month with our learners.


Thursday, March 29, 2012

Serious Fun at ASCD

Yes, I used the "F" word in my title...fun. Fun is a word that has been banned from many individual's vocabulary when speaking about education. People tend to feel that the word "fun" means that there is a free-for-all playground going on in the classroom with little to no learning occurring. That is unfortunate because fun, humor, cartoons, synectics, word play, analogies and true passion are all fun and foster creativity. This is one of my big take-aways from ASCD12 (more blogs to follow). There needs to be more fun in the learning process.

Now, let me be clear, if you asked one if my students if they had fun learning or being a member of our class, they would say "yes" without hesitation. However, there are aspects of this fun, creative thinking that I have overlooked in my classroom. By starting the day by putting up a cartoon or analogy for the students to reflect upon and respond to, they get another mode in which to become familiar. It reaches a different type of learner, sparks a different part of the brain. It helps them to really analyze (and perhaps get a good laugh) about a topic that they may not have taken the time to analyze.

With Rick Wormeli
By giving my students the opportunity to use synectics, where students compare two things that would not seem to have a relationship promotes creative thinking skills. If learners use these relationships, building metaphors, it takes learning that they are doing and puts it into their long term memory. It fosters learners who think outside the box and critical thinking skills that prepares them for their future. As Rick Wormeli said, "Novices think in pieces. Experts make connections." And don't we want our students to become those experts?

Reed Timmer
A true expert is someone who has a passion for their expertise and is so excited about their topic that they can't wait to share it with others. Anyone who was in the general session with Storm Chaser Reed Timmer knows what I'm talking about. He is so excited about storm chasing and the practical use of STEM in a real world application that it makes anyone listening tune in closely and care about what he's discussing. Passion is contagious. If we are passionate about learning and teaching, our students will be too. They will listen closely, become actively engaged, and strive harder to become those experts. We need to keep this in mind every day when we stand in front of our learners.

So I'd like to thank Rick Wormeli, Reed Timmer, Carolyn Hirst-Loucks and Kim P. Loucks for reminding me of the importance of fun in the classroom. Because (as I'm often reminded by my husband) if you're not having fun, you're doing something wrong.


Tuesday, March 20, 2012

What does good teaching look like?

This is a question that I have been pondering a lot lately. What does good teaching really look like? Does it look like what we see on television, movies and commercials? Is it a teacher standing at the front of the room in front of a board lecturing students who are sitting in rows passively listening? Is it assigning students to watch lectures at home and then have them come to school to complete digital worksheets?

These are questions that all teachers need to ask themselves. One thing that I learned by going through the National Boards process and becoming a Candidate Support Provider is that there isn't just one right answer. However, there are some constants that you can find in the classrooms of each amazing teacher.

In these classrooms, students always come first. We cannot continue teaching in the same way that we've always taught because our students have changed. Just because it's easy for us, doesn't mean that it's what is best for our learners. Whatever their individual needs are, it is our responsibility to identify them and help them grow. Every decision we make, must focus on them and what they need to accomplish. We must get to know our students and have conversations with them. We need to let them design their learning environment, set their classroom norms, design their own assessment, and set their own goals for learning. Amazing teachers listen to their students and let them create solutions to academic and personal challenges.

Learning has to be meaningful and engaging. With technology, students are the masters of their own universe. They have a 24/7 constant flow of information and connection to those around the world. Everything in which they engage themselves is meaningful and purposeful to them. Students, no matter the age, need to find the relevance to what they are learning and how it improves them and the world around them.No longer are students enthusiastic about digging into a subject matter because it's going to be on a  test.  "About" presentations aren't engaging or meaningful as students are just spitting out facts that don't relate to their lives.They want to know how they will use the content standards now. They must have a reason to connect with their learning.

In these classrooms, the teacher is the facilitator learning, not the sole disseminator of information.We are the content specialists and the strategists. We need to guide our students in making important discoveries and reaching their academic and personal goals. Can this be done if the teacher is in the front of the room lecturing for the entire class without active student participation? No. It doesn't matter if we give the best lecture of our lives if we don't know what each student is thinking, processing, and applying  from the content into meaningful context for them. Our students need an opportunity to share their voices and their thoughts. They need to communicate with one another and with those around the world to share their learning and ideas.  With our guidance, they need to make choices about what they will learn, how they will learn it, and how they will share their learning with others.

Because none of us has the exact group of learners, the appearance of  good teaching will differ from classroom to classroom. However, outstanding teachers know that their students must come first and that they must be engaged in active, meaningful learning. It is important for us to reflect and make sure that we are doing everything we can to positively impact student learning. Without it, we've lost our lost our kids and ultimately...our future.