Friday, December 23, 2011


Okay, it's official, I'm done! I've shopped, packed, wrapped and stacked and I'm ready to kick back and enjoy this holiday. But I can't savor the satisfaction for long. As I sit and look at the fruits of my labor I'm suddenly overwhelmed by the amount of stuff that I've managed to acquire over the last few weeks. Stuff to fill stockings and stuff to fill stomachs. Shiny stuff and smelly stuff, stuff to play with, stuff to make, stuff to share and stuff to wear. And the acquisition of it all has sure taken the stuffing out of me over the last few weeks. Is all this stuff really important?

That's a thought I have many times each day while sat at my desk in school. It's constantly cluttered with stuff to grade and stuff to return. Stuff to sign, stuff to read, stuff to apply for and stuff to complete. Stuff for field trips, stuff for P.D., stuff for the office and stuff I need to see. Then there's the technology stuff! The interactive whiteboard, the Doc cam and flips, the laptops ,the netbooks and the PicoCricket kits. There's Evernote and One Note, Kodu and Scratch, voicemails and emails with all sorts attached. There's wikis and Moodle, Prezis and Blogs. There's movies and Bing maps, Google and Glogs. Then there's the new iPad that I've just received , I'm excited about it, but it means I've got to read. I'll be reading a lot of stuff to learn what stuff I need to get the most out of my new classroom toy.

I'll step into my Twitter stream for a quick paddle and before I know it I'll be sucked into a torrent of ...guess what? Really cool stuff! The blog posts, the best apps, the links and the chats, the messages and retweets, the quotes and hashtags. I'll follow more people then make some more lists, favorite a few tweets and look for good tweets I missed. Before I know it, hours will have passed and my head will be buzzing with the stuff I've amassed. And how much of it will enhance my teaching and how much of all this stuff will get in the way of my teaching?

And how much stuff gets in the way of learning? I read a great post by Josh Stumpenhorst about the stuff that some students will have to endure this holiday: fighting, yelling, domestic unrest, caring for younger siblings while parents work, working themselves to support the family, cold, hunger... the list goes on. How much of this sort of stuff do our students have to put aside each day to open up their hearts and minds in order to learn and grow?

Wow! Did I really just use the word stuff thirty times in one post? Well for the next few days the phone goes off, the iPad goes to sleep and the laptop lid goes down. I'm pushing to one side all of the stuff (31) that occupies space in my head so that I can enjoy family, friends and food. You know-the really good stuff (32)

Happy Holidays Everyone!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Teacher's Obituary

Am I the only person who has ever Googled their own name for fun and found obituaries? It certainly takes the fun out of it but it also provides some great food for thought! When I did this a few years ago some of my namesakes had made very meaningful impressions on the people in their lives, and I couldn't help but wonder what my own obituary would say.

My family would say nice things, I'm sure there's some sort of law about that sort of thing. And my friends, well they're friends for a reason right? Then I thought about the people I have spent most of my waking hours with while on the planet, my students. What would they have to say about me?

Mrs. Roberts, the teacher who taught me how to add fractions.

Mrs. Roberts, the teacher who helped me learn the flowering parts of a plant.

Mrs. Roberts, the teacher who ruined my life with homework assignments!

The possibilities I considered kind of went downhill from there. Realizing this was way too important to leave to the hands of fate, I decided to work backwards. What would I like my students to say about me? Something that started out as a bit of fun, soon became a serious activity that took hours of contemplation. It took a few days but I eventually decided upon:

Mrs. Roberts, the teacher who taught me that I'm brave, I'm smart and that I can make a difference.

Feeling smug that I could finally articulate what I would like my legacy to be, I kicked back and rolled the sound of it around in my mind as if I was at a wine tasting event. Then I realized-it's one thing to write your own obituary but living up to it is another matter!

I decided to make a conscious effort every day to push kids beyond their comfort zone. I put a sign outside my classroom door that said "Come to learn." I wanted my students to know before they walked through the door that they would be challenged , made to think, try new things and be expected to achieve what they never thought they could. Their learning path may be a rocky one, they may fall, they may get lost along the way, they may find parts of the journey scary, but we would be in it together, and we would help and guide each other along the way.

I put a sign on the inside of my door that said, "Leave to lead." We talked a lot about what that meant but one student demonstrated it beautifully when she voiced her concern about the student body's lack of diligence with peanut allergy rules. Having a severe peanut allergy herself she was frustrated by students who didn't realize how their careless actions could have such negative consequences. The class brainstormed possible solutions and she, uncomfortably, but bravely, led a mini campaign to heighten awareness by speaking to students, making posters and announcements and sharing her story. She made a real difference not only in terms of making students think about the consequences of their actions but also in making them realize that they could, in fact, make a difference.

By accepting the invitation to lead this student modeled for others the potential each individual has to evoke change. A floodgate opened and classroom meetings became a forum for identifying problems and brainstorming solutions. Within two years my students placed second in the national Siemens We Can Change the World challenge with their Trash Free Friday Campaign and the signs "Come to learn" and "Leave to lead" took on a life of their own. Learning in the classroom was no longer sufficient for my students. Exploring and discovering was just the beginning of their journey, doing something with the knowledge they acquired and taking action became the focus.

We now regularly look for opportunities to participate in hands on problem solving activities that require students to explore their roles and responsibilities as global citizens. Today we Skyped with one of our partner schools in the Challenge 20/20 project to share what we have learned about climate change over the last few weeks. We've been working with schools in Columbia, Bahrain and the United States to examine global warming. Once students pooled their collective wisdom today, they began to identify possible solutions. It was fascinating to watch the kids bounce around ideas and from a tiny seed of an idea develop a whole campaign to "Half the Light". Students will now be challenging their school communities to see how much energy can be saved by turning on just half of the classroom lights.

As an adult learner I am excited to have the opportunity to participate in a similar collaboration with teachers from around the globe. As part of the Microsoft Partners in Learning Forum in Washington last month, I was introduced to four other teachers from Mauritius, Egypt, Canada and Thailand. Over the last few weeks I have been putting together a series of lessons to support the theme for Shout 2012: Water Matters. Shout connects educators with rich content, tools and expertise that get students to take action on global issues. The work on this project took on even greater significance for me after watching Academy Award nominated film producer Elise Pearlstein present Last Call at the Oasis, a documentary about the global water crisis. It's a must see call to action and will be distributed to U.S. theaters in 2012.

I'm not dead yet, though I do have to check twice on Monday mornings, and some may say that thinking about one's own obituary is a bit morbid. However, this exercise has served as a compass for me and the direction I have wanted my teaching to take over the last few years. If one kid feels that they are brave and smart and that they can make a difference after being in my class I'll feel proud. If they all do, I'll know that I will have lived a life of consequence.

What will your teacher obituary say?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Thinking Big

I was running errands at the weekend with my kids when, from the back seat, my daughter asked, “Mom, do you believe in aliens?” With my head bulging with grocery lists, holiday shopping and dreaded laundry requirements, it would have been easy to say no. Instead, I asked why. “Well, we’ve been learning about space and how every star is a sun.There’s so many stars, doesn’t it make sense that at least one of them has a solar system like ours?Shouldn’t there be at least one other planet with some kind of life?” Not bad for a nine year old!
A rich and interesting conversation followed and when we got home we set about Erin’s homework. It was a sheet of basic math facts.It was like watching an elastic band that had been stretched to it’s limit snap back to its original shape.Don’t get me wrong, I’m a math teacher and I too demand that my students know their basic facts, but I was reminded of my favorite education quote:
"Education Is Not the Filling of a Pail, But the Lighting of a Fire" William Butler Yeats (Poet, 1865-1939).
I had to wonder how many times as a teacher, I’ve filled buckets so that my students can fill in bubbles on a multiple choice test.Content, curriculum and standardized tests are all important, but isn’t it also important for teachers to stretch the minds of students above and beyond the curriculum?
At the Microsoft Partners in Learning Global Forum in Washington last month, David Christian presented Big History, a project he’s developed collaboratively with Bill Gates.With great passion, David explained that the goals of this project are to foster a love of learning amongst students and to highlight for them the many links between scientific disciplines and the humanities.Course themes include origin stories embracing 14 billion years of history, interdisciplinary knowledge from astronomy, geology, biology and history, and understanding differing scales in time and space from atoms to galaxies.Being online, this class will allow 9th graders from all around the world to engage in conversations about life, the universe, our reason for being. Now that’s thinking big!!
The questions is, how do we get students thinking big before 9th grade? I’m not suggesting we start asking fifth graders about the meaning of life but we can challenge them beyond core content, can’t we? I recently learned about an activity that one of my colleagues, Leon Braisted, does with seventh graders.After studying great leaders,and covering required content in depth, the students are asked to go one step further by answering the question : “Whose face should be the fifth to be placed on Mount Rushmore?”
Working in collaborative groups students wrestle to find the “correct” answer, citing all of the knowledge they have acquired about great leaders and employing 21st century learning skills such as creativity, effective communication and flexible thinking.Check out the whole project by clicking on the photo-a product of the activity!
Mount Rushmore
I look at my students just a little differently now.What exactly are they capable of thinking about and consequentially achieving?Which one of them will find the cure for cancer?Which one of their faces will be the fifth on Mount Rushmore? Which one of them will find the other life sustaining planet that my daughter is so convinced exists and more importantly, what’s my role in helping them get there?
How do you help your students to Think Big? I can’t wait to find out.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

A Reluctant Adult Learner

We are living in a time of educational revolution. I read that on Twitter so it must be true! Being an educator it certainly is an exciting time, with so many opportunities to incorporate technology in innovative ways and to make meaningful global connections. I wasn’t always so excited though. My transition from reluctant, to enthusiastic, adult learner has been a slow one.

I was born and raised in the North of England, the home of the industrial revolution, so being part Luddite is in my genetic make-up. I was sad when digital cameras arrived. Going to the photo shop to pick up prints and eagerly ripping open the packet to see whether or not you had at least one good picture was all part of the experience for me. I resisted buying a cell phone for the longest time-until my car broke down on a cold and rainy night slap bang in the middle of nowhere. So introducing technology into my classroom was not on the top of my priority list.

Five years ago I found myself teaching the inaugural Engage class at Birmingham Covington School (BCS).Engage was developed as BCS sought to reinvent itself to keep up with the real world demands placed upon our students when they exit the school system. The overarching goal of Engage was to engage students in problem-based and project-based activities that integrated elements of science, educational technology, technology education, and language arts as well as the four main elements of the enGauge 21st Century Skills: Digital Age Literacy, Inventive Thinking, Effective Communication, and High Productivity.

I was thrilled to be involved in developing fourteen day projects until I was told that Engage was not intended to be a vehicle for curriculum delivery and that the projects had to be designed in the spirit of Lifelong Kindergarten. What I heard was: Stop teaching for two weeks and have fun with the kids!! I know innovative teaching involves taking risks but in an era of high stakes testing, this approach seemed plain irresponsible. Jordy Whitmer, a patient colleague and mentor, persevered with my constant questioning and misgivings and sold me on the lifelong Kindergarten approach by sharing many readings, podcasts and videos about Mitch Resnick’s philosophy. I figured two weeks out of the curriculum wouldn’t do eternal damage and we set about designing the first unit: Digital Story Telling.

The Luddite part of me became fully engaged. I was digitally illiterate and couldn’t fathom how I could possibly “teach” this unit. On day one my greatest fear came true- a student asked me how to do something and I didn’t have the answer. That was a pivotal moment for me. It was the precise moment that my stranglehold on a traditional classroom environment was relinquished forever. My reply was, “I don’t know, does anybody else in here have an answer to this question?” Hands flew up all around the room and in seconds the moment had passed, the kids moved on and the tone and style of my teaching was forever changed. I learned that I was not expected to be the font of all knowledge and that I didn’t have to know how to manipulate technology tools. My responsibility as a teacher was to provide opportunities for my kids to figure out how to use the tools, and to embrace my students as partners in learning.

Teaching this class has allowed me to witness levels of student engagement I have never seen before. Students are motivated, curious, flexible, prepared to take risks, comfortable with failure and they are also having fun. Aside from learning global competencies they are also covering the curriculum on a deeper, more meaningful level. The big difference is that they are the drivers on their learning journey and they decide in which direction it will go. Being involved in the design and evolution of this class has been the best professional development I have ever had. I now attempt to “engagify” all of my math and science lessons and I know that I am winning when the students ask if they are in Engage or science. Upon reflection, being told to focus less on curriculum delivery, and more on teaching kids to learn while having fun was indeed a gift.

Five years later I found myself representing the BCS Engage team at Microsoft’s Partners in Learning Global Forum in Washington last month. Seven hundred educators from around the globe were gathered to celebrate innovative teaching, to collaborate, to share and to learn from one another. Spending time with such passionate, creative and talented people has ignited in me an even greater desire to not only be prepared for the educational revolution, but to play an active role in it. My journey from reluctant, to enthusiastic adult learner is complete. My journey as an innovative educator has only just begun.