Sunday, October 19, 2014

Walking With Giants

Several weeks ago I posted this on Facebook:

As the first hectic week of school comes to a close I am reminded once again that I am so fortunate to walk with giants every day. Not giants in stature, but giants in terms of the size of their hearts, the strength of their spirit, and the depths of their understanding and humanity. I'm humbled by both students and colleagues, who uplift and inspire me beyond words. Look for the giants that surround you-they are often disguised by humility.

It occurred to me that I should share their stories as they are key characters in my own story. This is the first of a series of posts about the giants in my life. I hope they inspire you as they have inspired me.

On Friday morning I opened an email with the following attachment:

This is the culmination of months of collaboration between one of my students and Grant Anderson and his mother, Julie Anderson. Grant and his mom came to visit my school last year as part of a disability workshop. Grant shared with my students the story of how he suffered a traumatic brain injury several years earlier in a car accident. Two hundred and twenty students sat enthralled as he shared images and movies of his grueling recovery process. His message was clear: work hard, persevere, and remain positive. One of Grant’s passions is music and before long he had all of us singing along to one of his own compositions. He touched every single person in the room that day, but he especially inspired one student in particular.

She had written lyrics for a song about our school partnership with Project Cope, a non-profit organization working to eliminate poverty in rural Zambia in a single generation. Having no composition experience, the song and melody was trapped inside her head, but in Grant she recognized an opportunity. We asked Grant and his mom if they could help and over the next few months they visited school several times to work on the song with my student. Seeing the product of their efforts on Friday reduced me to tears. 

I am humbled and honored to know people like Grant and his mom, giving so generously of their time not only to support a good cause, but to help a little girl realize a dream. They truly are giants, teaching both myself and my students much more than any written curriculum could.  If you are looking for a guest speaker to inspire your students I cannot recommend Grant highly enough. Click on the image below to learn more about Grant’s story, as he was deservedly recognized as someone who makes a difference on The Heart of Detroit. Who are the giants who make a difference in the lives of you and your students?

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

#ISTE2014 Where Were You?

It was my privilege to attend and present at the ISTE conference in Atlanta this weekend. Eighteen thousand educators, education leaders and corporate entities gathered to share, learn and explore the many amazing resources and initiatives that are happening all around the world. The major challenge for most attendees is being able to be everywhere and see everything!

I spent a long time in a long line to see Ashley Judd’s opening keynote. I expected to learn more about her global advocacy work but instead was surprised to hear the story of her troubled childhood. She poignantly shared with us her memories of abuse, abandonment, and depression and how she more often than not dealt with these issues alone. She often repeated the phrase, “Where were you?” not in an accusatory context, but to remind us that as educators we have a huge responsibility to know our students. “The most important thing you can do is believe the child who comes to you. It is incumbent on us to see, to ask questions,” she said. She highlighted teachers and educators who saved her life by giving simple words of encouragement, by demonstrating faith her in abilities, by showing that they cared. It was a powerful start to my conference experience.

The next two days were spent running around trying to learn more about the maker movement, S.T.E.A.M, augmented reality, genius hour and so much more. The Expo alone would have taken days to explore and the whole place was fairly buzzing with excitement, exhilaration and passion. In the hours leading up to my own presentation about teaching kids to harness the power of technology to solve global problems I experienced many moments of abject terror. What could I possibly have to say that would be original or inspiring or worthy? But the lovely Krissy Venosdale calmed my nerves with her constant encouragement to all teachers to share, share, share! And ultimately it’s that sharing, connecting, and engaging with peers that makes ISTE such a significant event.

I was so fortunate to be able to spend quality time with outstanding educators like Kelli Etheredge whose knowledge, compassion and commitment to students inspires me every day. Joli Barker, fearless educator and author of The Fearless Classroom rejuvenates my joy and motivates me to dream big. Adina Popa ,School Improvement and Accountability Specialist at Loudoun County Public Schools strives for excellence and encourages me to unleash student potential through innovation and transformation. At the birds of a feather session hosted by Suzie Boss I was able to make new connections with educators from all over the nation who share my love of project-based learning and I look forward to the new learning journeys we will embark on together. I left the conference energized and uplifted but my bubble was burst when I got to the airport.

While sitting at the gate I received tragic news about a former student and I've spent the last twenty four hours scouring my memories of the time I was lucky enough to spend with her. ISTE is a truly amazing event and learning about new products and services and tech integration strategies was invaluable. But I have to remain mindful of the fact that the tools and the toys must not distract me from my primary responsibility-the kids. Ashley Judd’s keynote has left an indelible mark on me and I take away from #ISTE2014 three simple words: Where were you?

Wednesday, June 18, 2014


I’m weary this morning after listening to storms rage through the night. Rain always reminds me of home and at some point in the small hours I found myself thinking of my lovely St. Anne’s in England and a wonderful guest teacher we had.

The first time George came to our school we were in a period of unrest. Our principal was on long term medical leave due to stress, an OFSTED inspection was looming and our staff, consisting of six ladies from the ages of twenty two to fifty two, was feeling the strain. George was older, retired and completely awesome. He knew what he was doing, needed little direction, he was wonderful with the kids, and more importantly he was wonderful with us. He was the consummate gentleman, ensuring each of us had hot steaming cups of tea waiting for us in the staffroom, and once we were all settled in he would entertain us with tales from his long career in education. He quickly became a favorite and was a regular visitor; he somehow brought stability during that uncertain time.

During one lunch break I asked George why he had retired as he obviously had a lot more to give as an educator. “I couldn’t hold up my umbrella anymore,” he replied quietly. I was obviously confused so he explained that when he retired he was a principal. He expected his teachers to be like umbrellas to students, shielding them from educational storms and reforms, protecting them from scary unknowns so that under their care, children could learn and grow safely and happily. He perceived his own role as an umbrella for his teachers, shielding them from similar storms so that they as educators could learn and grow safely to better serve their students. The school board was his umbrella; theirs was the local education authority and theirs the legislators. Each umbrella protecting those below so that at all layers of education people could feel secure enough within their realm to take risks, fail forward and ultimately do their best to ensure quality learning was happening.

“At some point,” he said, “the umbrellas above me began to collapse. The storm became too strong for me to withstand and when I couldn’t hold up my umbrella and protect and shield my teachers, I had to leave.” I don’t think I ever saw him look so sad and then understood why we were all so drawn to him; he had made us feel safe. I also felt the true weight of my own responsibilities as a teacher, seeing clearly for the first time that a classroom simply has to be a safe and happy place for students to realize their true potential.

Summer is a time for educators to mend holes in their umbrellas; to recover from the storms of the previous year, to reflect on their effectiveness, to follow their own learning journeys, to restore their sense of self. When we take time to re-evaluate and care for ourselves over the summer, we can ensure that as umbrellas, we return to school robust enough to weather another year. I hope the umbrellas above me are taking the time to do the same.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Flip Your Mindset!

Several weeks ago classroom conversations included ways we could finish the year strong. One of my students asked if we could have a party if every student achieved an A Grade by the end of the quarter. I told him no, but said that we could push the boat out if my gradebook showed no missing assignments, as that would indicate to me that everyone was engaged and invested in their learning journey-and that would be something I would be more than happy to celebrate!

While I thought I was offering a much better deal, several students groaned and eye rolled. When I asked why, they insisted that it was an impossible task because there were always some kids who didn’t complete their work. Sensing defeat before we had even started I asked the class why they thought that was the case. I invited them to question why assignments did not get completed. The responses were diverse and enlightening:

I forget to finish assignments

I sometimes don’t know what I’m supposed to do

I don’t want to do homework

I have no access to technology at home

I can’t get organized and lose papers

I have so many after school activities I’m overwhelmed

I don’t know when assignments are due

I need help but don’t like to ask

I need help but have nobody to ask

The list goes on but as we recorded responses on the board I began to see some of my kid’s faces reflect surprise and revelation. One student summed it up perfectly when he said, “Wow! I just thought people were slackers!” Now that we had gained some insight, I charged the students to generate solutions to these barriers and they have astounded me with their commitment to help each other through these final weeks of the school year. They have been calling and Skyping one other at home to pass on reminders and guidance. Students have asked for sherpas and many a lunch period has been foregone in the quest to support their peers. They have been tweeting, emailing, taking photos and I was thrilled when a parent told me she was pleased to see her child engaged in conversations and conferences about assignments with kids in the class he had never mentioned before.

I reached a landmark today, closing my gradebook for the first time with every single assignment turned in and accounted for. My students not only finished strong but engaged in some of the most important learning of the year. When we put aside our own assumptions, when we flip our mindset and actively listen to each other, we can generate successful, user centered solutions. Tomorrow I will be sad to say goodbye to my sixth graders, but look forward to my fifth graders returning next year, armed with some powerful tools to help them embrace our new team members with empathy and compassion.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Barcelona and Beyond!

I am incredibly fortunate to have experienced my third Microsoft in Education Global Forum event in Barcelona, Spain, last week. Being able to gather with peers, education policy leaders and innovative school leaders from around the world has a direct impact not only on me but also on my students.

There are so many outstanding moments and learning experiences crammed into this amazing event that it is difficult to articulate succinctly the full effect it has on me as an educator. One of the most challenging aspects of the conference for me was the Learn-a-thon activity. I was teamed with three other teachers from Spain, the Czech Republic and Costa Rica. We were charged with developing a learning experience for our students with a central focus of poverty, gender equality or sustainability.

The process required me to employ the same 21st Century skills that I demand of my students daily: communication, collaboration, perseverance, flexibility and productivity. Initially we were excited to get to know each other’s strengths and interests and learn about our respective roles at school, but as we tried to reach consensus about the direction and content of our project, frustration levels grew due to language barriers.

It was a fantastic opportunity for me to walk in my students shoes and be reminded of the difficulties they face every day working in teams, and implement the strategies I teach them to overcome barriers and be successful. And ultimately we were successful because we found common ground: we were all passionate and invested in the project, we appreciated and utilized the diverse talents we brought to the table and we were motivated to do the best job we could. There were moments of struggle and tussle, and moments of joy and laughter and in the end we walked away feeling good about our work. More importantly we walked away as friends.

Therein lays the key to what makes the Microsoft Global Forum so powerful. It’s about bringing like-minded people together to talk and share and learn from and with each other. My personal learning network grows exponentially and I return to school supercharged with energy and ideas and the knowledge that I have a web of colleagues who I can turn to for advice and support, encouragement and inspiration. It’s about connecting and empowering people who want to make a difference in the lives of their students.

My only wish is that my students could be there with me. They also deserve to experience the exhilaration of being around like-minded peers, to share and learn and grow from collaborative learning experiences with students from all over the globe. They need to be uplifted by expert presenters and gain sustenance from building meaningful, authentic global relationships. My desire to somehow make this happen has filled me with a new sense of purpose, and I am thrilled that I can immediately start making progress towards achieving my new goal.

I am beyond excited that my students have been invited to Skype into the We Day event in Seattle tomorrow. We Day brings together students from around the nation who aspire to make a positive change in the world. Participation is earned through service and my students will be sharing the work they have done this year with Project Cope. Every time I watch the We Day video I am overwhelmed with emotion as the purpose is to empower students to redefine what is possible.

I am hopeful that the experience tomorrow will prove to my students that by working together, they can make the world a better place.
   I am hopeful that Skyping into the event is the first step towards my students attending the event in person next year so that they too can experience for themselves the power of gathering with peers, leaders and policy makers. I am determined to provide them with the opportunity to experience their own Barcelona!
                                      Image Courtesy of Partners in Learning Network

Saturday, January 18, 2014


I was so excited today when my sister called to let me know that she has booked an apartment for us to share in Barcelona, Spain, in March. It’s been a long time since I got to visit with my sister, nephew and brother-in-law and it’s so important for not only me, but my own children to spend time with family: the people who love and support you, laugh and cry with you, inspire you to be the best version of yourself, and ultimately let you know that you matter.

I am fortunate enough to be visiting Barcelona at the invitation of Microsoft. As a member of the Microsoft Expert Educator Program I will be attending the Education Global Forum event. The Microsoft in Education Global Forum recognizes and celebrates the achievements of educators who are preparing students for life in the 21st century. Each year, the Microsoft in Education Global Forum brings together participants from more than 700 of the world’s most innovative educators, school leaders, and education leaders from 75 countries. Unbelievably, this will be my third time attending and I cannot express my gratitude enough.

The event provides me with the opportunity to participate in cutting edge professional development activities, learn about new and up and coming technologies, hear lectures from industry experts from around the globe, and study schools that are developing sustainable models for system change. Most importantly, it provides me with the opportunity to share and learn from my peers from every corner of the earth. Over the last three years I have developed relationships with teachers who inspire and teach me every day. They have become my family: the people who love and support me, laugh and cry with me, inspire me to be the best version of myself, and ultimately let me know that I matter. Being a member of the Partners in Learning family has not only transformed my teaching but also helped my students gain a deeper understanding of their role as global citizens.

Before I joined the PIL Network, it was difficult to find a classroom to reach out and connect with. Now, when my students need help or support, have questions or are curious to learn a new perspective, it is easy for me to look to my PIL family and find a classroom to visit. The world has been opened up to my students and we are able to Skype with classrooms in my PIL family on a weekly basis. Through these interactions they are learning to build creative, intuitive, trusting and collaborative relationships with others. Their communication and collaboration skills are growing exponentially and they are becoming more caring and thoughtful citizens, inspired to change the world. They are growing in their own global family.

The trip to Barcelona will be inspirational and restorative for me both personally and professionally. The time I spend with my families will sustain and uplift me for the following year, enabling me to be a better parent and teacher. I encourage all educators to join the Partners in Learning Network, to connect with people who will enrich both yours and your students’ lives. In doing so, you will become a member of very special global family.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014


There is much educational “noise” about learning for the 21st century and the need for U.S. schools to prepare our students to compete on an international level. Talk of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) is predominant, along with project/passion based learning and innovative teaching design. Many educators are making great strides in these areas but in order for them to achieve optimum success, to truly forge the global citizens we hope our students will become, it is critical that we include empathy on the list of key 21st century skills.

Empathy enables us to stand in somebody else’s shoes and see the world through their eyes. Educators are increasingly challenging students to identify real world problems and develop creative solutions to those problems but how can they do that effectively if they have no empathy for the end user? Unless we help students build creative, intuitive, trusting and collaborative relationships with others, their solutions will based upon their own perceptions of what the end user needs, not what they actually do need. Empathy enables students to integrate other people's perspectives with their own. It is the ability to identify with others; it forms bonds, develops leadership, and brings about a level of self-awareness that helps us find meaning and purpose in our lives.

So where do we begin? With active listening. Active listening is where you make a conscious effort to hear not only the words that another person is saying, but more importantly, try to understand the complete message being sent. If we can learn to actively listen we leave little room for assumption, interpretation or doubt. If we can learn to remove distractions and fully focus on the speaker we will be more able to listen to content and match the verbal and non-verbal clues to understand both the content and the emotion of the person’s message. We can suspend our own frame of reference, avoid judgment and let the speaker know that they are being heard and understood.

I am fortunate enough to have a school counselor who was willing to come and teach my students and me a lesson on active listening. We all learned so much, particularly about how to create an atmosphere of trust and mutual understanding. We witnessed first-hand how a speaker is more likely to be open and honest with you if he knows he is speaking to an empathetic, active listener. And that’s powerful.

I believe my job as an educator is about helping young people to become effective human beings and rounded individuals, able to make a positive contribution throughout their lives. It is about preparing them for their role in society, to be able to know and manage themselves. But doesn't that begin with me? To help my students make the necessary leap of imagination needed to walk in someone else’s shoes I need to learn how to do it too. Building empathy is my own personal goal this year, it’s the goal I have for my students, and it is my wish for everyone.

If we could all develop empathy for each other, for our students and colleagues, family and friends and for those we have yet to meet, wouldn't our world to be a happier, loving and more unified place? Empathy helps us to see and understand how others may be struggling. This can inspire us to develop solutions or a commitment to help. We are more likely to become more caring and thoughtful citizens, and this is how we change the world.