Sunday, August 18, 2013

Back to School: Falling Down the Rabbit Hole

As a child, Alice was always one fo my favorite tales, not those "princess" ones. She was in search of an adventure. Even though she was unsure of what to do, she ultimately triumphs in the end, learning much about herself. I have to admit, for the last several weeks, I have found myself feeling a lot like Alice in Wonderland. I discovered "strange new ideas," overcome some challenges, and been given an open path to learn, grow, and foster my own creativity. Like Alice, I feel like I have found my "muchness" again (see You Can Handle the Truth). On the other hand, because I'm in a new school, sometimes I'm also, like Alice,  overwhelmed. Would I trade in my wonderland? Absolutely not. I have had wonderful individuals help me adjust to my new teaching reality.

However, as I reflect upon this, I can't help but think about our students who will be entering our versions of Wonderland. For many of our students, like Alice, they are a bit afraid and confused because everything is new and exciting....maybe a bit frightening. Many of our learners have never encountered opportunities to stretch their minds, think about learning in different ways, and nurture creativity. The wonderlands of our classrooms can be overwhelming without the right guidance.

As we begin on our new adventure, there are several types of guides we can be as our students' embark to Wonderland.

  • The White Queen: She was kindness personified. She always looked out for those in her care. As teachers, we must remember the importance of kindness in our classroom. If students do not feel that we care about them, they will not care about anything that we do in the classroom to enhance their learning. It is crucial for us to remember that our students are first and foremost people. Harsh words can stick with them for a lifetime. We need to lead in a kingdom of kindness where everyone is treated with respect.
  • The Cheshire Cat: He was known for his smile and pointing Alice in the right direction. As teachers, we need to remember that a smile can make a difference in someone's perception of a situation. Unfortunately, many of our students rarely have anyone smile at them in their lives outside of school (have you ever watched the interactions between parents and their children at the store?). Many times our students are lost. As teachers, we can be their guides to reaching great knew heights. However, we need to remember that this is their journey, not ours. We need to give them guidance, but let them have a voice and a choice in our classrooms.
  • The Mad Hatter: We all need this person in our lives. This is the person who stands up for us, protects us, makes us laugh and dances the Futterwacken when it's time to celebrate. However, the Mad Hatter is also honest when he notices when we've lost our "muchness." We need to be that person in our students' lives. We need to bring out the best in them and help them realize how special and unique they are. Many of our learners may never make all A's or be the star athlete, but every child deserves to be celebrated every time they reach a goal.
So as our students enter our classrooms, let's be their guides in their adventures in Wonderland. We will be giving them so much more than the content that we teach. Their "muchness" is priceless and can make such a difference in a child's life.

I wish you all the best as you begin the new school year. Dust off your dancing shoes and get your Futterwacken on because your students won't be the only ones learning this year; you get to play a major role in their adventure and that's cause to celebrate.

 photo credit: Brandon Christopher Warren via photopin cc

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Social Media: Who is watching you?

All of you who have read my blog, attended one of my presentations, or have spoken with me know that I am a strong proponent for the use of social media as a means of profesional development and as a medium for giving every student a voice while connecting them to the world. However, over the last several weeks, I have heard many stories about educators who have lost their jobs because of choices they have made through different social media outlets. These are educators who are well-known as experts in their fields, not those new to the profession moving social media from a strictly social means to one that is used for professional learning.

Social Media:"With great power comes great responsibility"
I keep hearing how unfair it is to be judged by one tweet, one Facebook post, one pin on Pinterest, or one Instagram photo. However, I don't believe this is an issue of fairness.  This is an issue of professionalism. We are choosing to make our lives public by joining in the conversation through social media outlets. Most of us put "educator" in our profiles. We are proud of our chosen profession, but we need to remember that there are many people who are reading the content that we put out into the world. Many of whom will never interact with us. That can be an extremely positive never know when interactions can lead to your dream job. Consequently, the reverse is just as true. Other educators, parents, students, board members, and community leaders are all watching you. Good, bad, or ugly.

The good news is that you control what you put out there. You have the power to uplift, encourage, educate, lead, share, connect, and learn. Social media is not something to fear. It is powerful...and "with great power comes great responsibility." Educators are put under intense scrutiny. For all of us, let's take a moment before we push "send" and make sure that no matter what we are putting out into the global community, it is something that enriches the lives of others.

 photo credit:guccio@文房具社 via photopin cc

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

SDE's Extraordinary Educators Conference

SDE's Extraordinary Educators Conference. I am eagerly anticipating being a part of this exciting professional learning event, July 21-22. If you are unable to attend, the good news is that there is a conference hashtag (#SDE2013) where you can learn from the comfort of your own home.

Here are some of the sessions that I will be facilitating:

  • Creating Student Directed Learners with Web 2.0 & Social Media (Gr. 3-12) Learn how, by creating a student-driven classroom and using technology supported projects, learners become self-motivated experts at mastering state and national standards and in integrating digital age learning skills into their lives inside and outside the classroom walls. With the effective support of Web 2.0 tools and social media, learning becomes relevant to students while advancing critical thinking, collaboration, communication skills, and creativity. With these tools students are empowered to make thoughtful and powerful choices for their own learning journey. See collaboratively produced Web 2.0 projects and social media applications spanning grade-levels and content areas.    
  • Technology in the Classroom: Are You Integrating or Innovating? (Gr. 5-12) 
    Is there a difference between integrating technology into the classroom and innovating with digital age learning skills? Today there is much discussion and focus on the technology tools that are being brought into the classroom, but often the focus becomes on the tools and not on the actual learning. This discussion focuses on strategies and practices that challenge our perceptions of digital literacies and the role of technology in today’s classroom. Is adding a technology project into our regular classroom routine enough? Will it help our students become competitive in today’s global society? Is there a key ingredient that our instruction must include? We will discuss best practices on meeting ISTE National Educational Technology Standards for Students, how to give students the tools to make decisions and guide their learning choices, and what innovation looks like in today’s classroom.
  • Can We Skip Lunch & Keep Writing? Collaborating in Class & Online (Gr. K-3, 4-8)  How can we motivate our digital-age students to embrace writing? By guiding our students into finding a relevant reason to write and providing them with an authentic audience, they become highly engaged in creating and communicating through their writing, across content areas. With a collaborative environment supported with digital tools, learners address their individual needs, pursue their interests, and step from the role of learner to leader by becoming experts at genre, mode, and content areas. Engaged in rigorous, critical-thinking writing projects, students not only embrace the opportunity to create and collaborate through their writing, but also actively seek more time to continue writing inside and outside of the classroom.
  • The Global Read Aloud: One Book, Thousands of Connections (Gr. 1-8) 
    Do you want to give your students an exciting, authentic reason to read and discuss a great book? Through different web tools and apps, the Global Read Aloud provides students an authentic reason to read, discuss, write, and publish with thousands of other students from around the world. By connecting with a strong network of fellow educators, you bring the world into your classroom promoting literacy and supporting digital standards.  Learn about the Global Read Aloud project, methods of becoming connected with other classes, and strategies for making this project work in your classroom.
  • Tools & Apps for Amplifying Student Voices: Making Formative Assessment Happen (Gr. 4-6) In today’s test-centric world, we may wonder how much of the content standards our students are really mastering. Through the use of formative assessment, supported by digital tools, we can determine exactly what each student has mastered. When students are given the opportunity to design their own rubrics, set their own goals, publish their own digital portfolios, and reflect on what and how they’ve learned, assessment becomes a personal investment for each student. Although managing formative assessment may seem time-consuming, simple strategies and digital tools shared in this presentation will enable teachers to easily facilitate it within their own classroom, empowering their own students to make their own choices.
  • Ask the Expert: Pinterest:"Thats' Pinteresting!" (Gr. K-12) What is Pinterest and why would I want to use it? Pinterest is a virtual pin-board where one can pin images, and their URLs, from websites across the Internet. The boards one creates can become an excellent tool for organizing resources and connect (and learn) with others from around the world. Join me in this informal session to learn how to set up a Pinterest account, manage it to strengthen your teaching practice, drive an audience to your professional blog, and create a professional development hub for your school, district, or organization. It's fun, it's educational, it's Pinteresting!
I always look forward to all of the amazing educators that I meet and get the opportunity to learn from at events like these. See you soon!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

What Do You Teach?

Most of us are in the “Summer Swing” now. I have already attended a couple of conferences this summer and there is a general buzz about ideas for a new school year. There also seems to be a general hum of trepidation as many educators are facing full implementation of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). 

I’ve spoken to several administrators over the last six weeks who have asked me if I am ready for CCSS. I spent much time contemplating this question in lieu of the buzz traveling around the education community. When one examines the Common Core Standards, one needs to remember that they are just that, standards.

In a world that strives to standardize everything, there is one thing which can never be standardized, our students. These attempts to standardize everything in education brings to mind Camazotz in Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time and the failed attempts at standardizing an entire polulationIt fails to work because people cannot be standardized.

Students come to us with a richly layered, diverse background. They are each different and unique. As teachers, we must get to know our students: their quirks, humor, personalities, habits, likes, hopes, fears, dreams, triumphs, and challenges. Our focus must always remain on the students and how we can  help them continue their growth towards preparing them for lives beyond our classroom walls.

Yes, we have standards. In our lives, we have expectations, rules, and procedures that we must follow. However, in our classrooms, we need to remember that the standards represent the content that we deliver. It's up to us, as professionals, to decide HOW we teach...and that is determined by WHAT we truly teach....our students.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

You Can Handle the Truth

Truth. Sometimes it creeps up on us. Sometimes it rips right through us like a horrific hurricane. Truth. Sometimes we can ignore it. Other times it's irrefutable. Truth. It can set you free. It can be terrifying. Truth. I had to take a long look at myself as an educator and face it. There it was. In spite of all of my advocacy for a teacher's continued professional growth, in many areas, I had stopped growing. Truth. My enthusiasm and passion for teaching was beginning to fade. How had this happened to me?

At first, I wrote this off as being overly committed. For a full time classroom teacher, I have a full speaking schedule. Although I give my students my first priority, there are a few days where I am out of the classroom. I try to travel as much on weekends and holidays so that I can continue to share my students' stories and the impact that should have on our teaching practice. I also write a monthly column, Plugged In, for the International Reading Association, in addition to pieces that I write for several other educational organizations and the two new books that I have underway. I am also a full time grad student which consumes much of my evenings. This, of course, is in addition to keeping my priorities of faith, family, and friends at the forefront of my life. However, were my commitments really the cause of my light dimming?

As I reflected on these ideas, I realized that my professional commitments were not the cause. Truth was unblinkingly staring me in the face. I had to face the fact that I needed to make a change. Fear set in. Although life in the classroom is never easy or boring, I realized that much of what I was doing had become routine, mundane even (to me). My students still loved to come to school to learn...begged for it even. I didn't want for that to change. How could I have let this happen? I love teaching and learning from my students every day, but I knew that before my practice began to negatively change I had to make a change. I needed to face the fear and find a new challenge.

With this truth staring me in the face, this winter, I began praying and looking for new opportunities. It seemed that everywhere I went to speak or learn, I had amazing conversations with middle level educators. I began to long to return to teach in a middle school. Along my journey, the last several months, I met some of the most amazing English teachers, which reminded me of where I began my profession, teaching English at a urban middle school. And there it was, Truth. I longed to return to where I began my career, as an ELA teacher in a middle school. So many of those teachers had come to learn from me, but what they didn't realize is that they helped me find a path. (Thank you!)

Now that I had a path, I knew I needed to continue to find a new home. Facing some hard truths about why I wasn't growing, I understood what I needed. Iron sharpens iron. I knew that I would need to find a community of learners where I could continue to sharpen my teaching practice. I wanted a place where I had opportunities to collaborate and grow as a professional. I wanted to find a new "home" where I could provide my students with the best learning opportunities that I could offer. A place that was open to new, innovative ideas. A place where teachers and students could be creative. I continued to pray and search for this place. Does this place even exist?

The answer was a resounding, "Yes!" I have found a new home and in the short time since I became part of their team, my passion and creativity has escalated exponentially. Each day, I wake up with a renewed energy and an abundance of ideas. I cannot wait to meet my new students and work with the amazing educators that have already inspired me more than they know. Truth was I had drifted further than even I had known. It wasn't easy to face that truth, but because I did I have a feeling of rejuvenation that I didn't even know was possible.

I realize that this is a very personal story, one that was difficult to share, one that in many ways is out of character for my writing. But, I felt that by sharing, maybe someone would stop and re-evaluate their own choices. Often times as teachers, we make excuses as to why we can't try something new: new strategy, new tool, new practice, new position. I see it all the time. I think we fail to stop and truly look at the truth staring us in face. We may be unhappy in our current situation, but do we stop and look at the truth of the matter? Do we stop and re-evaluate if our decisions are what's best not just for us, but most importantly, for our students? Do we let fear of failure, fear of change, or fear of the unknown stop us? Do we let fear overshadow truth?

That is the real danger, fear....stepping outside of your comfort zone. We can see the truth and let fear stomp it out. If we are stepping into a new position, new school, new district, new community, there will always be those anxious feelings, but we cannot let that cloud the truth. As long as we are educators, we must remain passionate and excited about what we do everyday. Without that, our lights will dim; we will lose our drive to meet the needs of every student. Truth is that our profession is crucial for the success of future generations. Our learners are counting on us. Will you stop and look at Truth?

Epilogue: Yes, I have found a new "home." I will be teaching 6th graders ELA at Rock Quarry Middle School. I am so excited to be able to learn from and collaborate with the amazing educators there, many of whom have already reached out and welcomed me to their team.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Concerned Teacher...thoughts from ISTE13

Everything is Bigger in Texas.
ISTE is "my conference." If I don't go to any other conference during the year, I always block out time to be there. This year was my twelfth year...eleven of those I have presented. Yes, ISTE is bigger than life; I guess what they say about everything being bigger in Texas is true at ISTE too. However, as I begin to process and contemplate on my experiences over the last few days, I have to say that I am concerned.  I am concerned that as educators, we have lost sight of what really matters. This conference is not a technology conference; it's an EDUCATIONAL technology conference. It concerns me that many of my fellow educators have lost sight of that distinction.

With so many options at ISTE, it is difficult to select the right events, sessions, and activities. The word I heard most often was "overwhelming." Today, our students are diverse individuals with unique needs. There is not a one-size-fits-all solution. As educators, we must have a plethora of options. Using my previous ISTE experience, I looked for sessions that would deepen my understanding as a teacher. I want to continue to grow and learn new ways to provide my students with the best possible learning opportunities.  I want to sharpen my teaching practice. After all, this is an educational conference...we're all educators.

As I attended session after session, I became a bit disheartened. In almost every session, the entire focus was on tools and apps. Very few student examples of work were shown. The work that was used as examples, although fun to watch, held very little merit. After a day and a half of this, I sent out this tweet:

I am a concerned teacher. Where is the high level of engagement? Where are the learning activities that are promoting higher level thinking and problem-solving? How are students connecting their learning to their lives? Where is the creation of something new to share with an authentic audience? And collaboration...maybe I have a different definition than many others. I believe collaboration is when students each contribute something unique to a project. 

I began to wonder if I had unrealistic expectations. If so, I realized that I would not have very many to attend my session, "Are you integrating or innovating with technology?," because in my session there is a heavy focus on best practices and the role that technology has within our classrooms and schools. Yes, I share tools and apps; yes, I share student examples. But these tools and examples are used to support how we as teachers need to change our thinking and our practice in order to empower students. The conversation we had during this hour I found exhilarating. Many of the people who attended (it ended up being a closed session with people being turned away) expressed similar concerns to mine. They also had been looking for substance that they could take back to their schools and districts.

Of course, there is a place for the "60-tools-in-60-minutes" type of sessions as we do need to know what is out there, but it doesn't need to stop there. As Vicki Davis tweeted, we must "transcend hype and share practical ways that give us hope to reach all kids." We need to remember to keep our focus and become discriminating in our teaching practice. Dressing up a pig doesn't change the fact that it's a pig. Likewise, all the bells, whistles, and animations does not take the place of true learning and teaching. After all, it is not about the's about the learning...and our students are counting on us.

P.S. I'm positive there were other sessions out there offering fantastic models, practices, and ideas. I'm sorry I didn't find you this year. Please realize that I'm writing from my own experiences. Thank you ~J

Monday, June 24, 2013

I'm not a gamer...or am I?

I'm at ISTE. To give you some perspective, I am here with 20,000 other educators, representing all 50 states and 70 different countries. This is my twelfth year to attend. I've seen many changes in the area of educational technology over these years. Recently, there has been a lot of discussion about gamification in education. But, I'll be honest, I'm not a gamer. So, I have remained on the sidelines of this conversation...until yesterday.

I had the good fortune of hearing Jane McGonigal speak. She said two things that spoke to me. Those of you who know me know that I write a lot about empowering students through student-directed learning. Much of my students' learning is done through their writing and publishing with the support of technology to provide them with authentic, collaborative learning opportunities. So where does gaming fit within an already jammed packed day? Is it worth taking a second look?

McGonigal shared the statistic that 99% of boys spend thirteen hours a week and 94% of girls spend eight hours a week gaming. Now that is a startling statistic that, as an educator, made me contemplate..what could I do to harness some of that highly motivated, super-engagement to support my students on their learning continuum? She said that the element that pulls students (gamers) into games is a strong narrative with richly developed, multilayered characters who collaborate to overcome obstacles and solve problems. They make choices and have ensuing consequences. Without that richly developed storyline, gamers wouldn't continue to pursue success within their games, in spite of failing 80% of the time. And whether or not you agree with gaming as a valid mode for education or not, as an educator, these statistic demand some consideration.

The writing teacher in me couldn't help but see this for it was...what is driving these amazing games that are consuming so much of our students' time? It's the story...the writing that went into it when it was being created. I couldn't help but wonder why more writing instruction has not posed student problems to promote this kind of writing. McGonigal showed brain scans of a gamer's brain while engaged in a game. A good portion of the brain was actively engaged.  The only other activity that I have seen that lights up the brain more is...wait for it...writing. Writing is what is going to empower our students. Without it, these games won't exist. We will miss out on having rooms full of super-empowered hopeful individuals.

I think that in our enthusiasm for a new tool or strategy sometimes we lose sight of what our students want. All we have to do is ask them. They want to be engaged. They want to be creative. They want to solve real world problems. And, they want to write a book some day.  As teachers it is our obligation to give students want they need and what they want our of their education. If getting involved in a game is what is going to help meet the needs of our learners, we need to provide them with those experiences. Those experiences open up a world of possibilities in developing effective, powerful writers and communicators. If students want to write and publish a book, then we need to provide them with those opportunities to write, publish, speak, create and change the world.

Am I gamer? Right now, no. However, that doesn't mean I won't become one. Because I love writing, I thoroughly enjoy an intriguing narrative, I thrive on collaborating with others, and I pursue activities that allow me to be creative, gaming has an appeal to me as it seems to meet all of those needs. And, if I don't try it, how will I meet the needs of large percentage of students who are gamers? As educators, if we lose sight of how students learn and engage, we miss the boat. So, this week, this summer, I encourage all of you to consider how we can grow professionally to best meet the needs of our learners because, after all, it is all about them.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Living Out Loud

I recently had the opportunity to hear Kevin Honeycutt deliver the Opening Keynote for AETC2013. If you have never heard him speak, I highly recommend that you look him up on YouTube. He tells heartwarming, poignant stories which leave you laughing until your sides hurt or tearing up because they hit so close to home. While he spoke, I sent out this tweet:

This idea of sharing our stories has really stuck with me over the last several days. Stories...we all have them. How many times have we reminisced about how we should write all of these stories down? Teachers have stories of student successes, challenges, heartbreak, and triumph. With our lives in the classroon, we are walking anthologies of the lives we have have touched or been touched by. But, how many of us are sharing these stories? Are we taking the time to show the impact that our teaching brings to the lives of our students every day? Or, are we allowing someone else to author our lives...someone who is not living our life; someone who is so far detached they could not cipher all of the clues upon which we pick up from our students every single day; someone who is creating a work of fiction instead of a collection of memoirs.

The idea of "living out loud" came to mind when a couple of news stories were released this week and (per usual) "experts" weighed in on the ills of today's schools. How many teachers were asked their perspective? How many of our stories were being shared? None! I've heard many teachers bemoan that they don't have something important to offer to an already inundated information age. I strongly disagree. If we don't start sharing our students' stories, who will? Those "experts?" If that is the case, who will become the victims of these fictional tales? Our students.

So as we take some time this summer to reflect and begin making plans for the upcoming school year, devote some time to document and share some of these stories. We live in a time where there is a host of media where we can amplify these unforgettable stories. Tweet about them. Photograph them. Write a blog about them. Video them. Curate them into one easily "shareable" location. These collections become a living testimony of what our students are accomplishing, many against great odds. Reach out and connect with other educators and spend some time swapping stories.  We are teachers and it's time for us to share our stories and live out loud.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Mythbusters: Technology in the Classroom

I recently had the good fortune to hear Rick Riordan speak (he's the author of the Percy Jackson many, many more amazing books for middle level readers). Of course, when you mention Rick, one can't help but think about myths as those are the foundation of all of his books. His keynote was about the "Myths of Reading." This got me to thinking about the myths that many educators believe regarding technology in classroom. This is 2013 and I think that sometimes we get caught up in the minutia of our teaching and non-teaching responsibilities and forget that the world around us is changing. If we want to remain relevant for our students, then we too must adapt.

Here are the five most common myths regarding technology in the classroom that I hear from teachers. Let's bust these myths.

Myth 1: I don't know enough about technology to use it with my students.
Many of us grew up and were educated during the time where the teacher was the disseminator of information. The teacher was considered the content expert within the classroom. Once we begin to teach, it is easy to fall into the mindset that we must know everything and be able to answer all of our students' questions.
Yes, we are the content specialists and strategists in our classrooms, but students no longer need us to just deliver content. They have access to content 24/7 in the palms of their hands. They need us to guide them in how to use and apply this knowledge to create, collaborate, and critically solve authentic problems.
How do we overcome the fear of not being the classroom expert in technology? We change our mindset. Yes, we need to have some basic understanding of how a tool is used. However, the most important aspect is not how a tool works, but how a tool supports the learning needs of our students. My students learn how to use tech tools much faster and more efficiently than I do. Nevertheless, they understand that a tool is just that, a tool to support their learning. I am honest with my students and let them know that we are all learners looking for new ways to strengthen and grow as individuals. This takes the focus off of me (the teacher) and places it on the students and their learning.
Myth 2: Technology is an "extra" in the school day.
Believe it or not, I hear this one quite frequently. Often technology is treated as a separate entity where students go to a computer lab or the classroom computer/iPad to play games as a reward. Is that really the role of technology? Absolutely not! Technology is fully embedded in their daily lives. We need to embed technology seamlessly into our lessons and into their learning activities in a meaningful way. It's a tool, just like a pencil, a book, a globe, or a microscope. We only pull those tools out when they are relevant and meaningful for the learner. Technology is no different, but is a part of their lives; it cannot be ignored. As their teachers, we need to provide them with the opportunities for harnessing these tools to safely support their learning.
Myth 3: It is time consuming to teach students tech tools.
I agree that if I did a mini-lesson on all of the tools that my students use throughout the school year, it would take an enormous amount of time. That is why I spend very little time focusing on the tech tool. When we begin a project, we focus totally on the content standards and learning goals. We do not ever mention their mode of publishing (the tool) until they at the point of publishing. Then students select the tool that they feel will strengthen their voice in this project.
Many teachers ask how they know what their options are. There are several ways that I expose my learners to the different options for publishing their projects. First, at the beginning of school, we have an online scavenger hunt where the students search through our different school websites, wikis, and blogs. Through the scavenger hunt, students will see many different projects that past students have published. They may not remember the name of all of the projects, but they do remember what the final product looked like. 
Secondly, my students are connected with their global peers through projects like the Global Read Aloud. On these projects, they collaboratively work with other students and learn from them different tools and manners of publishing their work. Because they want to find something new to share, often my learners go searching for new tools and apps on their own and bring it to me to share how it will support their learning. When I find a new tool, I'll share it with a couple of students and have them explore it and review whether or not it would fit into the projects on which they are working.
These methods take very little class-time, but they put technology where it belongs in the learning is there to support, not be the driving force in the learning.
Myth 4: My students don't have keyboarding skills.
Quite frankly this one surprises me. However, many teachers equate technology with typing. Let's face it, today's students usually have an email account, but they rarely use it. They spend a majority of their time using a smart phone, tablet, or iPod Touch. Although these have keyboards, they are not traditional keyboards. They are very adept at using their thumbs/fingers to type on these devices. Should their ability use technology to support their learning be hindered by the fact that they are not using the traditional typing methods on a desktop or laptop? My 5th grade students have never been taught formal keyboarding skills. Would it be helpful for them to learn? Probably, but when given the choice of taking valuable school time to teach them keyboarding or giving them time to collaborate and create with their peers, I will always choose the latter. I think what we really need to focus upon is how these devices are helping them grow as learners rather than whether they fingers are on the correct keys when they are typing. 
Myth 5: Technology will motivate students.
When a teacher says this, I always wonder how long they expect the motivation to last. Students are exposed to so many technology gadgets at such a young age, if this is the sole source of motivation, you run the danger of desensitization.  I call this "Christmas Morning Syndrome." All kids are thrilled on Christmas morning by all their new toys. All they want to do is spend time playing with them. But, where are those toys in July? Usually sitting on a shelf or in a closet. Toys and gadgets only give a brief moment of motivation; the more students are exposed to these tools, the quicker they lose interest.
How do we avoid this in the classroom? We must evaluate what truly motivates students for the long term. When students are given the opportunity to make decisions and take ownership of their learning, levels of enthusiasm skyrocket. Today's learners want to connect and collaborate with others applying their knowledge in meaningful and authentic ways. They want to know how what they are doing in class affects their lives today...not some vague, undisclosed time in the distant future. Our learners have high expectations for what they want out of their education. Is technology present? Yes! Technology is the medium we can use to provide all of these aspects for their education, but technology is not what will motivate students for the long haul....student-directed learning is.
I know that this is not an exhaustive list of educational technology myths, but these are the ones I hear most frequently. What myths do you hear? I'd love for you to share some ways for busting common myths for technology in the classroom.

photo credit: marksmotos via photopin cc

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Are You a Disseminator or Facilitator?

At IRA 2013, I am doing my session "Can We Skip Lunch and Keep Writing?" Collaborating in Class and Online (yes, that also happens to be the title of my book ).  Each time I do this presentation, I have attendees who come because they are looking for strategies to teach writing. I also have people who attend looking for technology tools and applications. Do they get those? Absolutely, but I think they leave with much more. They leave with an understanding of what it means to create a classroom or school environment that is driven by student's choice.

The title of my book was chosen because as I was writing the first draft of a chapter, I shared a story about how my students wanted to write so badly, they were searching for any additional time within our very structured schedule. One student's solution was asking me, "Can we skip lunch and keep writing?" What can we as educators do to keep our students excited about learning?

The answer is simple, we must give them the power to make choices about what they will learn, how they will learn, and how they will be assessed on their learning. If you have no idea where to begin, the first place that I always turn is to my students. Ask them. Let them give you feedback. When you combine their feedback with your expertise as an educator, you've got a winning combination.

Although we are the content specialists and strategists, our role is no longer the sole disseminator of information. They have that in the palm of their hand, 24/7; they don't need us for that anymore. We must be the facilitator who guides them through all of the information and provides them with the individual support and opportunities they need to become the most successful student possible.

Those of you who read this blog know that I am very passionate about student-directed learning. Here are a few of the posts that I have written that give you a peek into my classroom to see what this really looks like when implemented:

I hope this gives you some inspiration or causes you to take some time to reflect on your teaching practice. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to ask them. Our classroom is an open book.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Top Seven "Forget-Me-Not" Presentation Practices

The busy spring time is upon us and for some of us, it will carry us into an even busier summer. One thing that I love is the opportunity to travel to speak and facilitate training all over the U.S. I thoroughly love the opportunity to meet and learn from other passionate and dedicated educators. Even though I do present, I try to take the time to continue by professional growth as well. I attend a lot of sessions. Every one of the presenters is knowledgeable on their topic, but sometimes it does not translate well to an audience. In Pay It Forward: 5.1 Ways to Share Your Expertise, I mentioned ways that we can guide our colleagues into sharing their teaching successes and experiences. Not one of us can claim to be where we are as educators without the assistance of others; it is important to give back to the educational community. Once teachers begin to feel comfortable sharing their best practices, the next progression is to present at a conference. The teacher who had asked for my advice in the previous post asked for some tips in creating an engaging presentation. Here are my top seven "forget-me-not" presentation practices.
  1. Set the tone of your presentation. People walk in wondering if they are in the right place and whether or not this is going to be beneficial or not. Music does a good job of setting the tone when people arrive. Also, add humor to your presentation. I am not saying that you should be a stand-up comedian because that sends the message of "I am silly and what I am saying is not all that important." However, when you add humor to the beginning and people get a chuckle, their brains release endorphines that help them connect with you and become engaged in what you are saying.
  2. Streamline your presentation. Slides with too many words or images takes the focus off of what you are saying. If someone cannot easily read or see what you have on a slide from the back of a ballroom, do not include it. The slide/image is there to support what you are saying. It is giving the attendees a visual or a graphic that will help your message stick in their brains.
  3. Be prepared. Time is one of our most valuable commodities. How many of us have sat through "death by PowerPoint" presentations where the presenter read off of the screen? How much did you learn or remember about what they said? If you are going to speak, prepare a presentation where your expertise is the focus. You are the expert. Practice your presentation and prepare for tech malfunctions. Could you do your presentation without your slides?  If not, then you are not prepared enough to speak as an expert. Here's what works for me: I have a pretty good memory, but I am not memorizing a script....especially for those 6 hour workshops. My presentations have graphics. With each graphic, I learn key phrases that I want to say within the point. Practice makes it flow easily for me when I am in front of an audience.
  4. Provide resources. Everyone wants to leave with something, but let's be honest about handouts. We get a paper handout, it goes home in our conference bag, and then it sits in the hall closet until we get rid of it a couple of years later. We live in a digital world so we need to provide our attendees with access to resources digitally. There are so many ways to share information in our world...blogs, websites, DropBox, Evernote, wikis, Facebook, etc. Most people now attend with a smart phone, laptop, or tablet. You can give them instant access to your resources and save them from lugging around the paper version. 
  5. Accurately name your session. We have all attended sessions based on their title and then come to realize that the session was nothing like what the title indicated. You want the people in your session to know what you are going to present about so that you have the right audience for your message. Don't worry if there are only a couple of people there. Those are the people who need to hear your expertise. If one person walks away with something that makes them a better educator, your presentation was a success.
  6. Listen and engage participants. As teachers we know that one of the least effective teaching strategies is straight lecture. Yet, you see educators doing this in presentations. The active participation strategies that work in your classroom with students will work those in attendance at your session. Facilitate conversations in your sessions, get them actively engaged, and remember it is about THEIR learning. Your goal needs to be to let them learn from your experiences. We know that the brain learns best when it is active in a fun and relevant manner. Don't forget to add that into your session.
  7. P.S. They're looking at you. You are there to share your expertise with other educators. Although we have always heard that we "don't judge a book by its cover," let's face it, we do. When people first see you, they are going to make a judgment about your ability to lead professional learning. Flip flops and vendor T-shirts do not instill a lot of confidence in your professional credibility. They want to know that they are not wasting their time by staying in your session. If they walk in and you look like your going to the ballpark or making a quick run to the grocery store, they are less likely to stay or open their mind to learning what you are sharing. (see Because Books are Sometimes Judged by Their Covers by Amanda Dykes).
These are my suggestions to those new to presenting at conferences. I would love to hear what your suggestions are about what makes a session a great professional learning experience.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Students Drive to Pass It On

Many of you who follow this blog know that my students are voracious writers. Much of their writing is through their KidBlogs (Did I Make the Grade?Whose Voice is Heard?). They set the expectations the first week of school. Rarely do I give them a prompt, however, I wanted to know how they felt that they had grown and changed a person from our time together this year. I wondered if they had seen the same growth that I had seen or if they had made discoveries about themselves that I had missed. I always find these posts particularly insightful. If you want to know what a student thinks, ask them. You will gain a wealth of information that can guide you in preparing learning activities that will meet their needs.

What I learned this time was a re-occurring theme. Their own words express it best...
What I want to accomplish by the end of Fifth Grade is I want to learn how to teach other individuals how to become better learners so that they can teach others. 
I have learned to teach myself and others too. So now others can learn the same way I did. In the fifth grade, I have learned how to become successful in life. 
I want to accomplish learning about what everyone is like what their opinions are because they all matter.  what I want to accomplish at the end of the year to here what others think and what they got to say. 
I need to help other people to under stand the subjects that they are having trouble with. 
Well, when I began 5th grade I usually did things on my own, but now I see why it is important to work as a team and not always do things alone. I guess that is one way I have changed as a person.
In a world where so many in society are complaining about apathetic youth and bemoaning our future, I discovered a class who was very "others" centered. Yes, they want to learn, communicate, and share their voices, but they understand why it is important to connect and collaborate with others. My brilliant learners had come up with this separately on their own. Yes, in our classroom, we live that idea everyday by sharing our background experiences, thoughts, ideas, and respectfully challenge one another's thinking. However, through their experiences they found the relevance of it and pursue that course daily within and without of the classroom walls. We cannot be a world that only looks for what we need and "take" from others without being willing to jump in and give back our knowledge, our expertise, and parts of ourselves. 

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Teaching or Learning?

This week I have been involved in an ongoing conversation about whether as educators we should be focusing on our teaching or on student learning. As was contemplating this idea, an analogy came to mind that I feel represents how I feel about this discussion:
A teacher is like a good cab driver. A good cab driver knows the best routes to get from Point A to Point B. He knows how to get around construction, avoid troublesome traffic, and make the ride a pleasant one for the occupant. However, until someone gets into the cab, that knowledge is superfluous. Once the occupant gets into the cab and tells the driver where she wants to go, it is the driver’s abilities and skills that help her successfully reach her destination. He gets her to her destination avoiding construction, gliding around traffic jams, while still maintaining an enjoyable experience. As teachers we must be knowledgeable and skilled in strategies and ways to meet all of the challenges that students bring to us. However, without the students showing us their needs, we have no way of knowing which way to navigating their learning. 
I feel that this debate is really focusing on the role of the teacher and the role of the student. Do we want our learners to be passive recipients of information? Or, do we want them to dive into topics, applying their knowledge and skills in a real world, meaningful way? Do we want for our students to merely score well on a standardized test? Or do we want for them to become successful in their lives outside of the classroom walls?

What do you think? I'd love to hear your voice on this subject.

photo credit: Thomas Hawk via photopin cc

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Pay It Forward: 5.1 Ways to Share Your Expertise

As we are beginning a new year, I have seen many posts, Tweets, and blogs about people paying it forward to individuals they do not know personally. In a world that is often driven with negative news, it is heart-warming to see people reaching out and helping others. It has gotten my mind to thinking about us as educators. We spend our days giving our best to our students, but often we keep what is happening behind the closed doors of our classroom.

I recently engaged in a conversation with another teacher at my school. She hesitantly shared an after-school program that she had started two years ago. She explained how she saw that her students needed some extra tutoring in academic subjects, but they could not afford to hire tutors. She also recognized that many of them lived in single-parent homes where the parents worked multiple jobs. This limited the types of extra activities that they could provide for their own children. To address those needs, this teacher began an after-school program on Friday afternoons where the students could stay after school for an hour for some additional help in academics. Then, the second hour each Friday, this teacher had arranged different community leaders to come in and do activities with the students. This has made a huge impact on her students, their families, and built a strong line of support from the community.

This amazing program was going on in the same school where I teach and I had no idea! When I encouraged her to share her experiences, she told me that she did not think it really counted as an important enough idea to share. That's when I realized how important it is for us to find these hidden gems that are lurking behind closed doors and encourage these teachers to share their ideas. She told me she had no idea where to begin so I shared with her a few of my suggestions.

Here are my suggestions for those just beginning to share their expertise:

  1. Share informally with co-workers. Because she was so reticent about even talking to me one-on-one, I knew suggesting that she speak at a conference was an unreasonable idea right now. I suggested that she begin sharing her program with her grade-level co-workers. She has some really open-minded co-workers who I am sure would be interested in joining her program and helping it to grow.
  2. Celebrate success at a formal meeting. In our weekly faculty meetings, occasionally, we are asked to share successes. This is an open opportunity to share a quick piece of what is going on behind classroom doors. This allows teachers in other grade levels and content areas to know what you are doing. Chances are they will have a contact that would like to participate or support a new and innovative idea.
  3. Speak up at training session or presentation. The best sessions are the ones where there is audience participation and much discussion. This is a way to build more support for that new idea. You never know who is in that room who can help you sharpen your ideas or challenge to reflect on how you could make it more impactful for your students and your school. It also increases your level of expertise in this area and build further support for your project.
  4. Volunteer to have others visit your classroom to see your expertise at work. Sometimes people are hesitant to try a new idea, program, lesson, tool or strategy until they see it at work. If you are the one they are visiting, it is really not any more work on you. You are not putting on a show, but letting them see your idea in action. Let them observe, get involved, and ask questions. They are not there to criticize you (they were interested enough to come for a visit), but to learn from your expertise.
  5. Begin blogging. This is an excellent way to share what is going on in your classroom and it gives you a global audience. All of the educators that I have encountered through blogging have challenged my thinking and helped me become a much stronger educator. It helps you clarify your thinking and make tweaks to your ideas. By gaining a much larger audience, you are also broadening your horizons and influencing others by your experiences.
    • 5.1 Tweet on Twitter. This microblogging site allows you to connect with other educators and have on-going professional conversations all within 140 characters per tweet. Like with blogging, you have the ability not only to share your expertise, but also learn from some of the best educators from around the world. Not sure where to begin? Here's a post I wrote Why Should I Tweet on Twitter?
As is often quoted from an unknown source, "The hardest part of any journey is taking that first step." That's what I hope I have been able to do for my colleagues as well as some of you and your colleagues...encourage people to take that first step and pay back what so many have given to us in our quest to become the strongest educator possible.

photo credit: sidewalk flying via photopin cc

Thursday, January 24, 2013

It's Time to Let Go

This week, I read Chris Lehmann's blog post, Plan to Letting Go. It really drove me to reflect on the importance of giving our students not just the ability to learn, but the ability to learn and apply their knowledge independently.

I told my students at the beginning of the year that the right answer is not enough. Becoming databases filled with random information on various topics is not developing deep, critical thinkers. Learners need to be able to explain their reasoning, justify their answers, and use their knowledge to apply it to real problems. Students will not gain this ability if they sit all day listening to a teacher disseminate information.

As teachers, we naturally are helpers. When we see a student struggling or making mistakes, we immediately want to jump in and help by giving them the right answer. By doing that, what kind of learning are we fostering? We must guide them towards mastering the ability to think and reason, while instilling in them the confidence to tackle new challenges. It can be challenging and tedious work, especially when you are working with an inclusion class with a large population of English Language Learners. Perseverance is key to success. Then, when it seems that all of the guiding, questioning, and modeling is not making an impact, all of a sudden everything comes together.

A day like that happened in our classroom a couple of weeks before Winter Break. Since our class is student-driven, my students design not only their own learning projects, but also their own rubrics for the projects. At the end of the school year, I have had several students mention in passing that they wish they had a scrapbook of all of the projects that they had created. That spurred the idea of challenging them by giving them the opportunity to create digital portfolios to provide evidence of their learning in all content areas.

I created a class account on Weebly, which provides each student with webspace, and led them through a discussion of how they could use it to prove their learning (I'll share specifics about the portfolio in a later post). The discussion sparked so many ideas from my students; they had so many questions. As they began to work, I expected to have a demand on my attention to give encouragement, redirect attention back to the portfolio, troubleshoot technology issues, and ask guiding questions about the choices they were making to show their first semester learning. However, once they began work, I looked around and not a single student was demanding my attention. They were focused on learning how manipulate Weebly to make it do what they visualized in their heads. When they had a challenge, they turned to one another. One student even "Googled" a tech question to find out how to load something to his Weebly.

The conversations they had with one another were amazing; deep and thoughtful answers were given along with encouragement. They graciously showed one another their work and taught them how to do the same, if they were interested. My learners began to challenge one another to explain how the samples and projects they selected showed how they had met their personal learning goals. Then as the day came to a close, and I told them it was time to sign out and shut down the netbooks, there was an outcry of frustration. They did not want to stop...what were they doing...that's right, creating a form of formative assessment to prove their learning. Who ever hears of students begging to participate in assessment?

As they reluctantly packed up to go catch their buses, I was struck with the reminder that none of this would have happened had I not taken the time to build this framework for their learning and LET GO so they could thrive.

Please take a few minutes and think about your students. Are you giving them the guidance that they need to become motivated, independent learners and thinkers? I know it might be scary to think of letting go and letting them grow. However if you do let go, amazing things will happen.

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Thursday, January 10, 2013

Let them Assess

Assessment. That is a word that can send cold shivers down the backs of teachers and students alike. In our society, that word has been linked to a "gotcha" mentality where standardized testing scores have become punitive towards districts, schools, teachers...sometimes affecting entire communities. I have spent a lot of time contemplating, researching, and discussing this topic and I realized that I needed to reframe my ideas and ultimately my teaching practice in the area of assessment.

Like many of you, I am in a district where standardized tests scores pull much weight and drive many of the decisions made at the district level. Often as classroom teachers, we may feel disempowered. Is this where we throw up our hands in defeat? And the most important question: Is this what is best for our students? I think that any one who works with students know that the answer is a resounding "NO."

The question that I often hear is, "So what do we do about it?" I thought I would take a few minutes to share where I began in my journey of rethinking assessment. As I have continued to grow (and still do each day), my practice has adapted. In the interest of not overwhelming anyone, I'll share more of my journey in future posts, but I wanted to share where I began.

Those of you that follow me or have read my book, Can We Skip Lunch and Keep Writing?, know that several years ago, I made the shift from a teacher-led classroom to a student-directed one. In this amazing journey, my students led the way with many ideas. The idea to let the students take control of their assessment came from one of my fifth graders.

Now like many of you, I have used rubrics my entire teaching career. I'm sure we've all had the frustration of going over a rubric in detail at the front end of a project; then we observe our students trudging ahead with little (or no) regard to how they will be assessed at the end. The shift was that I wanted to make should address students' lack of connection with the purpose of a rubric as well as their idea to take control of their own assessment. I would not be presenting them with the rubric; they would be creating it for each learning project.

When you stop and think about it, if we are giving them control over selecting what they learn within a topic (or standard), how they are going to learn it, and in what manner they are going to create something that proves that learning, shouldn't they also have control over how they are assessed on that learning?

In order for us to make this shift, I relied on my students' previous knowledge. Since third grade, they had been trained to write towards our state writing test using a rubric. They understood what the specific difference was in earning a 4, 3, 2, or 1 in each category on a rubric because they had already been doing that for at least two years. When we began a new project or learning activity, I would guide my students in designing the criteria. Then I led them into determining the specifics assigned to the 4, 3, 2, or 1.

Yes, when you look at it, their copy is much simpler than most rubrics, but this is their rubric, not mine. The "master" list of the specifics would stay on our interactive whiteboard for reference, as needed, although most students took down notes (by choice) as a reminder of how to earn each score. As is our regular practice, my learners would meet together with one another for peer reviews and ideas, as well as, conferring with me throughout the project.

Once we reached the end of a project, they would assess one another's work based on their rubric as would I. My initial trepidation was that they would assign high scores to one another afraid to be honest. On the contrary, I discovered that my students held extremely high expectations for one another. When you think upon it, it makes sense. They design the projects and set the expectations. They talk about it with one another and me a LOT throughout the process. They know exactly what is expected to prove their learning.

This put an integral part of the learning process firmly into my learners' hands. Assessment plays a vital role in determining what our students know, what they need to know, and how much they have grown in each area. It informs and guides our instruction so that we can help each of our students meet their fullest potential. Having this knowledge is important not just for us, but for our students as well. If we want for them to take ownership of their learning, they need to be informed and see the goals that they have set in front of themselves.

This is only the beginning for me an my students and we sharpen our assessment practices. Stay tuned as I continue to grow and reflect upon how we can empower our students with relevant and authentic assessment practices.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Staying Focused in our Whirly-gig Lives

As we enter a new year, many of us take time to reflect upon over our previous year and set goals for the new year.  The year 2012 has been an exciting one full of rewarding experiences, professional and personal. I've met some amazing people, had thought-provoking conversations, visited some intriguing places, and experienced many things for the first time.

However, (as I suspect of many of us) in spite of all of the positive things in my previous year, I find that towards the end of this year I have lost some of the clarity of focus on what my true mission is as an educator. It's easy to do as we race towards the end of a semester with all of the holiday festivities. Throw in speaking engagements, professional development, family commitments, grad school, illness, deadlines, professional obligations to organizations and it's enough to make your head spin. So how do we deal with it? How do we stay focused when so many things begin to blur our vision? What do we do when our lives become a massive checklist and we race from one have-to to the next?

These are questions that I ponder regularly. I have done some extensive reading on the subject of trying to take control of the crazy whirly-gig life so many of us live today. I thought I would share a few thoughts and practices that I have found helpful...even though I am still working toward mastering them each day.

  1. Create a mission statement. I know it sounds like an assignment from a well-meaning professor, but if you do not have a clear understanding about why you are doing what you are doing, whether in your teaching practice or your personal life, how will you be able to stay focused? You must know what it is on which you will spend your time. Without that mission, you will easily become distracted by anything else that pops up. My husband and I call that the "Monkey, monkey underpants" syndrome (see this post for an explanation). It is very easy to become distracted when online and follow down many random paths. Exploration is great, but not when it begins to creep in and push you off course. I actually have mine where I can see it regularly to remind myself of where I am headed...and yes, sometimes, I find I need to update it as I change and grow as an educator. My professional mission statement has two parts, one is my life as an educator in the classroom the other is my mission as a professional educator in the field of education.
  2. Prioritize. When you are around and interact with passionate people, it is very easy to jump on their bandwagon, whether it's a great new teaching strategy, new tech tool, or new hobby. All of those things definitely have merit, but in spite of all of our best time management strategies, we only have a finite amount of time. We need to set our priorities and only invest in activities that will promote and support our priorities. Eight years ago, I determined to lose 40+ pounds. I found the key to my success in weight loss and maintaining it for the last eight years, is that I had my priorities and goals set before I was presented with an obstacle. By setting your priorities up at the front end, you are setting yourself up for success. You have made a plan, you know what is important and what is not. Isn't that what great educators do for their students? We set them up for success. We should do it for ourselves as well.
  3. Limit your commitments. I'll admit, this one is a challenge for me. When we began teaching, most of us determined that we would do whatever it took to spark excitement and learning in our students and positively impact the future. We get into our classrooms, continue to grow as professionals, find success, and then the requests begin to come our way. Would you be interested in joining this committee? Would you share this great lesson with our faculty? Would you be willing to be a guest speaker at our conference? Would you write a piece for our blog? At first, we feel flattered. Even though we didn't go into education for our own glorification, it feels great when all of your hard work is getting recognized. That is why it is so important to have your mission statements and priorities set in advance because as flattering as it is to be invited, it is important that we weigh each opportunity to see if it really fits within our vision. Does it support where you want to be, professionally and personally, or is it something that blurs your vision and pulls you off course? It is tough to say "no" to an opportunity, but without keeping your focus, you will not be able to maintain the standard of excellence that brought you to the point of getting those opportunities in the first place.

I know that when my life seems overwhelmingly out-of-control with so many demands on my time, I am not my best. In spite of my best efforts, I cannot be the best teacher that my students need. My focus is too splintered. When this happens to us, we begin to lose sight of what specific students need. Our focus on truly knowing each of our students and connecting with them as individuals fades. The relationships that we have built between home-community-school begin to break down. Ultimately, our effectiveness and relevance as the leader of learning in our classrooms and our schools deteriorates. None of us want that to happen.

I realize that none of this is ground-breaking information, but it has been around forever for a works. I think what so often happens in our crazy lives is that we begin to lose a grasp on what's important a just gradually begin to drift off course. We're off-center and in the midst of all the crazy confusion, we wonder how we got where we are. It does take a commitment to be diligent and maintain focus. But, the result is a much more committed, focused person that is there for the important people in their lives: family, friends, and students. As educators, we all want to give those important people our best, and isn't that why we became make a positive difference in the future of others?

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