Sunday, December 16, 2012

Prague Unpacked

Those of you who have been following along with my recent Blog posts know how inspired, recharged and excited I am about my recent trip to Prague to attend the Microsoft Partners in Learning Global Forum. It was an amazing, life-changing event for me but the real question is how do I translate what I learned and experienced into worthwhile learning experiences for my students?
Having spent time with educational leaders and policy-makers from over 70 countries I want to  ensure that I strengthen the connections I made and utilize the pool of expertise I was so fortunate enough to swim in. I am so happy that I had the chance to meet and talk with Lisa Neilsen author of the Innovative Educator and seasoned public school educator who has worked for more than a decade in various capacities. Lisa writes for and speaks to audiences across the globe about the future of education and is frequently covered by local and national media for her views on “Passion (not data) Driven Learning,” and "Thinking Outside the Ban" to harness the power of technology for learning, using the power of social media to provide a voice to educators and students. She was kind enough to Skype with my students upon my return and share with them her ideas about how they can expand their Doing Business in Birmingham project with a Facebook page.
After having a Kinect in my classroom for two weeks as part of the free trial Kinect Program I know I have much to learn about how to harness the level of enthusiasm the kids have for this device. The US contingency in Prague included several teachers who have been working with Kinect in the classroom for a while to good effect. I will be sure to be following up with Cheryl Arnett, Joli Barker and Adina Pope to help me learn more about how to add Kinect to my tool belt of successful learning technologies. I am also excited to be currently engaged in conversations with several of the talented educators I met at the forum about how we can connect our students in ways that empower them to become powerful global agents of change.
The tag line of the forum was, “Your ideas matter.” My main priority is ensuring that this message is communicated to my students. I asked my kids how they would like to celebrate their success and instead of a regular party, they saw an opportunity to further awareness about their project. They have organized a forum like event for tomorrow night, recognizing the local businesses that made it on to their Honor Roll, appreciating the students who started the project last year and inviting other local businesses to showcase their sustainable practices. They will be handing out awards and certificates and we are thrilled to have closing comments via Skype from Andrew Ko, Senior Director of Partners in Learning, Microsoft. I have never been prouder of my students. If the three days of instruction I missed while attending the forum can be used to help even one child understand and internalize the notion that their ideas matter and that they themselves matter then they will have been three days well spent.
Given the recent school related tragic events in Connecticut, I have spent much time this weekend wondering if such a celebration is appropriate. But I have come to the conclusion that there is, in fact, no better time for our community to come together to embrace our children, celebrate them, cherish them, love them and let them know that they are safe, that they make a difference and that they matter. Tomorrow will provide us all with the opportunity to remember that the world really is a great place to be.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Unpacking Prague Part 3

Last Saturday I was in Prague Castle for the culminating event of the Microsoft Partners in Learning Global Forum. Entering the Spanish Room with over 500 other educators, school leaders, policy makers and press from around the world I was awe not only of my elaborate surroundings but also of the caliber of the people I was with.
I was one of 20 educators competing for a chance to win one of 18 Global Forum Educator Awards in the following categories: Collaboration, Knowledge Building, Beyond the Classroom, Cutting Edge Use of IT, Teacher as Innovator and Change Agent, and Educators Choice. But it doesn’t really seem like a competition at all. It is more of a gathering of likeminded people to celebrate innovative teaching practices and the work that educators are doing all around the world to effectively integrate technology into learning.
In the preceding days I had the opportunity to connect, learn and collaborate with some of these amazing teachers and I was staggered by the work that they do. Coming from a school were technology is abundant, it was a humbling experience to learn that some teachers around the world have only their own personal digital devices to share with their students. And they are managing to do groundbreaking things that are not only changing kids’ lives but the lives of others within their local communities.
Sarah Freda Adei from Ghana presented a project about child labor, which is prevalent in her community. Students researched the impact labor has on the victims’ well-being first hand and the result was that some of those victims enrolled in school!  The Glimmer of Hope project presented by two teachers from Jordan enabled students to deepen their scientific knowledge by embarking on a mission to spread awareness about early detection screening for breast cancer, thereby saving lives. Ayodele Odeogbola from Nigeria has been working hard with students to address issues such as vandalism, bullying, examination malpractices and drug abuse amongst teenagers. These projects and many more like them that I saw at the forum, highlight for me the need to put technology into the hands of children for it enables them to become powerful agents of change. That’s why the Spark a Child’s Digital Future is such an important initiative and I would urge you all to donate.
Being able to connect and learn from global educators at the forum is an invaluable experience and I will be taking many new ideas and friends back to my classroom. I was also fortunate to be able to spend time strengthening established friendships and building new connections within the US team. Cheryl Arnett and Melany Neton are two of the most wonderful educators and warmest ladies I have had the pleasure to meet and made me laugh non-stop. Julie Hembree led us on an amazing adventure through Prague and our conversations continually pushed my own thinking and learning. June Teisan, Alex Beels, Robin Lowell and Sherry Hann were our booth buddies and taught me so much about how to engage students with unique and diverse needs. Sarah Collins and Jo Spark share my interest in teaching kids to be responsible stewards and I learned much from them about how to help students motivate their peers. Gregg Witkin, Joli Barker, Jennifer Bevill, Jamie Ewing and Todd Lavogue inspired me with their passion for teaching and their zest for life and learning was infectious. Please learn more about what these stellar educators are doing with their students here or in the Partners in Learning Network.
A week later I find myself at home, sitting on my couch and contemplating being named a winner amongst these Olympian educators. I feel the weight of the responsibility heavily. I have the responsibility of living up to the standard of work my peers are producing all around the world. I have to maintain my own commitment to learning and sharing with and from others. I have to let other teachers know that the work they do matters.  I have to keep learning about new technologies and how they can be employed to prepare my students to be productive and successful global citizens. And I will do it all with a recharged spirit and unprecedented enthusiasm thanks to the energy I have absorbed from these wonderful people.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Unpacking Prague Part 2

Many educators feel isolated in the teaching profession, left alone with their students, figuring out new curriculum and new initiatives independently, frequently re-inventing the wheel without the support of other colleagues because of the lack of shared planning time. Classrooms become islands cut off from the mainland school community. I am fortunate to work at Birmingham Covington School, a building that actively supports teaming, collaboration and developing professional learning communities. I work with and learn from amazing colleagues every day and feel very much connected to the wider school population.  After attending the Microsoft Global Forum in Prague however, I realize that even an innovative building like mine can become an island, isolated from other innovative schools with whom we can share and learn and grow.
Covington was selected as a Microsoft Pathfinder School this year and at the forum we were fortunate to connect with school leaders from similar schools around the world. Organized into a smaller global cohort of schools, we were introduced to our mentor school, Botany Downs Secondary College in NewZealand. BDSC has already been through the Pathfinder process and for the next year will serve as our guide as we focus on leading innovation, applying human-centered, design-led innovation strategies and processes to address issues of importance to 21st century leadership and learning.
After building connections within our coaching teams we explored global trends currently shaping education. We discussed the value in asking disruptive questions and possibility thinking, “The impossible-what nobody can do until somebody does.” This was followed by presentations from leading experts on issues such as personalized learning, game-based learning, 1:1 Learning, project-based learning, virtual learning and learning environments and spaces. Over the course of the next few days we had opportunities to sit in small groups with people like Chris Gerry, the designer of New Line Learning and Cornwallis Schools in Kent, Larry Rosenstock founder and CEO of High Tec High , and Donald Brinkman , champion for the Just Press Play Project to name a few. To engage with these leaders on such an intimate level was an honor and provided invaluable opportunities for us to learn about future focused possibilities and how they relate to BCS.
By the end of the week my head was simply spinning with ideas and notions that I had never even previously considered. I was just at the point of overload when Simon Breakspear, an educational researcher, consultant and leader in adaptive leadership, pulled me back from the edge. He identified five key strategies for successful global practice.
 Question in the Pursuit of Better-smart may have all the answers but stupid has all the interesting    questions
 Embrace Permanent Beta Mode-we are always looking to improve, to make things better
 Harness Your Network- connectivity makes it easier to create ideas in conjunction with others
 Develop a Bias Towards Action-just get going, consider the minimal viable product
 Reframe Failure-fail fast, fail forwards
The year ahead is going to be an exciting time to be a part of BCS. Having been afforded this wonderful opportunity I know our school leaders will embrace adaptive mind frames to continue to drive change in our community. As we commit to action, sharing and reflection with our new global colleagues we will be contributing to the new play book for change in disruptive times. How utterly cool is that!

Monday, December 3, 2012

Unpacking Prague

Just over a week ago I was frantically tearing my house apart looking for my Green Card, horrified at the thought that I wouldn’t be able to attend the Microsoft Global Forum in Prague. Today, after an amazing week in the Czech Republic, I find myself unpacking as a Global Forum winner and I realize that this is going to take a really long time. I’m not just unpacking a suitcase; I’m unpacking an event, a life changing event at that. It’s going to be a while before I can truly process my thoughts and feelings about my experiences because I’m utterly overwhelmed by how much I have learned and how much I have grown as a result. So I am going to indulge myself and unpack slowly and publically via this Blog-I apologize in advance. J
My biggest take away from last week is a profound sense of gratitude. Microsoft brought together over 500 of the most innovative teachers, school leaders, education leaders and government officials from 80 countries. Having the opportunity to meet and talk with these people about their work is a once in a lifetime opportunity and I am committed to forging strong and lasting relationships with as many of them as I can. Continuing the dialogue through the PiL network and via social media can only further enrich my journey as an innovative educator and ultimately have a positive impact on my students.
At the forum it was announced that Microsoft has committed to another five years of the Partners in Learning Program, investing $250 million in their vision of  capacity building for educators as they work to transform current education systems. $75 million will be used to help bring digital access to young people and educators in developing nations through initiatives like Spark a Child’s Digital Future. Beginning in Kenya this program will attempt to help children gain access to the tools, experts and resources they need in order to be able to succeed on a global level. I am beyond grateful to be involved with a company who demonstrates such a commitment to improving the lives of children all over the world.
Beyond corporate initiatives I have been moved by the commitment to education on the part of individuals at Microsoft. Anthony Salcito is Vice President for Microsoft Education and he is a prominent figure at the forum. As well as delivering keynote speeches he was frequently available at the forum to answer questions and celebrate alongside teachers, educational experts and government officials. His personal commitment to education is evident through his DailyEdventures Blog and the passion with which he describes his hopes and dreams for the future of education. He has a unique talent for making members of his audience feel like he is talking to them individually and inspires everybody in the room.
Lauren Woodman, General Manager Microsoft Education Program, was a model of grace as she hosted the final awards ceremony. Her appreciation for educators is undeniable and it must have been a particularly proud moment for her to have her own mother be present as part of the US team. I was fortunate to attend the Global forum last year in Washington and was astounded to receive a handwritten thank you  note from Lauren within weeks of returning home.
Sophie Tual, Worldwide Marketing Manager at Microsoft, had obviously worked tirelessly to organize an outstanding event that made everybody there feel like royalty, especially with the culminating awards ceremony at Prague Castle. Sophie seemed ever present despite her work responsibilities, taking time to speak to participants and learn about their projects. She wore a permanent glowing smile which lit up a room and made connections with people that she maintains beyond the event through Facebook and Twitter. Her level of enthusiasm is contagious and her appreciation for educators and students obvious.
Rob Bayuk and Carrie Hoople Hispsher are key players for the US team as they spend months preparing and guiding educators through the forum process .Always ready to answer questions and help  make the experience memorable for everybody they provide unending support and appreciation. I was thrilled when the bus leaving for the airport at 5am on Sunday morning was flagged down by Carrie so she could say goodbye and wish us a safe journey home. She is a wonderful caring lady who I am proud to call my friend.
I will forever feel indebted to Microsoft for inviting me to take part in this event. I urge every educator to join the PiL network as soon as possible and begin learning from amazing educators from around the globe. As a company Microsoft has established an irrefutable dedication to education, the individuals I have mentioned have helped me to remember that teaching is indeed a noble profession. Thank You.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Packing For Prague

After a two hour panic during which I couldn't locate my Green Card, I find myself at 11p.m. still packing to leave for Prague tomorrow, to attend the Microsoft Partners in Learning Global Forum. I don’t mind. I don’t think I will sleep anyway because I so am excited. Excited to be back in Europe, my home continent, for the first time in four years, but mostly excited to be attending the best professional development event of the year!

I am in the enviable position of finding myself attending for the second year in a row, this year in a double capacity. I am representing TeamU.S having achieved first place in the Extended Learning Beyond the Classroom category for a project I conducted with my teaching partner, Rick Joseph. Doing Business in Birmingham evolved as a result of student interest in sustainability in business and has been a wonderful experience. After learning about sustainable practices our students took to the streets of Downtown Birmingham armed with flyers and brochures they had created to educate local small business owners about sustainability. They created an Honor Roll to celebrate businesses that were already sustainable and to encourage those that weren't to adopt some simple steps to set them on the path towards sustainability. Competition from the U.S. team is fierce and I have already learned so much from my team mates so I look forward to seeing and learning about the projects that will presented from all around the globe.

I am also attending to represent my school, Birmingham Covington School, which achieved Pathfinder status this year. Microsoft Innovative Pathfinder Schools are identified as schools that help to transform education in a scalable, replicable way by influencing other schools within their own community, country, and around the world. By becoming a Pathfinder school, we hope to benefit from deeper engagement with similar schools, gain more in-depth access to global experts, and experience mentoring opportunities from education experts. It’s incredibly exciting to be invited to join a community of school leaders from around the world who work closely together to develop a culture of innovation.

I am sad to be leaving my students behind but I know that I will learn so much and form relationships with amazing educational experts who will help me on my journey as an innovator educator and ultimately have a positive and lasting impact on my students as a result. Talking of my students, I must finish packing so I can be at my best for them tomorrow before heading off to the airport after school!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Picking a New Principal

I love being in my classroom, it’s one of my favorite places to be. When I’m asked to be out of my classroom it has to be for a really good reason and last week I was invited to take part in an interview panel for candidates applying to be the new principal of my school. I consider this an honor so I accepted and explained to my students where I was going and why I felt it was important for me to go. I had no idea that I would learn so much about myself, my school and my community!

This was my first time in this country being involved in an interview where I wasn't the one in the hot seat, so I was very curious about the procedure. The first thing that struck me on arrival was how the entire community was represented on the panel. There were teachers, parents, a student, other principals from the district and representatives from central administration. The first hour together was spent reviewing the process and the norms and I felt totally confident about my roles and responsibilities when the first candidate arrived. After the fifth candidate left my head was buzzing, trying to make sense of all the wonderful responses and I couldn't imagine how we could move forward. I was amazed at the process that followed.

Everybody had an opportunity to share and discuss their observations and this was translated into data, which I didn't think possible. Having data to look at, instead of just personal opinions, patterns became immediately apparent. These patterns were discussed and it was a really smooth and reliable way to identify two candidates to move forward. Last night the two candidates visited with staff, parents and administrators to answer their questions and move one step closer towards the goal of being principal of BCS.

The most amazing part of the process for me was being able to hear all of the different stakeholders in our community speak about the key competencies they are looking for in a new principal and how different they all are. I am so grateful that I work in a district that invites this kind of community input into making such an important decision and that value and balances the many different perspectives. It was a fabulous process to be involved in and I have a much greater appreciation for the fact that we all have different needs and valid opinions. I realize that I am also fortunate to work in a community that is passionate about education and with and for people who care so much about our kids and our school. BCS is a great place to be!

I asked my students to tell me what they would look for in a new principal and this is what they came up with:

Honest, trusting, good communicator, not too strict, patient, sense of humor, caring smart, problem solver, serious, someone who makes student safety a priority, physically fit, entertaining, fun.

Because of the great process that was used to determine their new principal, I am sure that they will not be disappointed!

Friday, November 2, 2012

Political Literacy

I am currently in Washington presenting and learning at the 2012National Forum on Character Education. I’ve attended wonderful breakout sessions, heard amazing keynote speakers, met passionate and committed educators from all over the world and recurring themes seem to be honesty, integrity, and service. With the Capitol building in sight and presidential campaigns reaching their peak, it is refreshing to be reminded of these notions.
As an aspiring citizen I am not yet able to vote, but I have been trying to follow along and learn about the process in the hope that one day I can also participate in the electoral process. After being bombarded for weeks with contradictory T.V advertisements, literature, phone calls and newspaper articles I am beginning to understand what a huge responsibility it truly is. Before casting a vote one must put forth great effort trying to uncover the truth about candidates, proposals, platforms, and policies. I’ve realized that if I want to become a responsible voting citizen, I need to develop a whole new set of skills. I need to take a class on political literacy. It makes me consider the role educators have to play in creating a politically literate society.
My 5th and 6th Grade L.A and Social Studies colleagues at BCS do a phenomenal job of helping students prepare for their civic responsibilities, spending weeks hosting an election simulation. Students are invited to apply for various roles that make up a campaign committee: candidate, campaign manager, publicity manager and speech writer. They are designated a political party which they diligently research, learning about the history of the party, political philosophy and where the party stands on key issues before they launch a full blown campaign.
The student candidate studies and adopts realistic qualities and attributes of the party candidate. The speech writers research major issues, write speeches, and assist on writing media presentations. Publicity managers oversee the development of media presentations such as websites, flyers and posters. The campaign managers organize the schedules, set daily agendas, oversee completion of tasks, and assist in developing all campaign materials. There has been a definite shift in the atmosphere in school in the last few weeks as students have been becoming more involved in the election process. It’s been fun to overhear their conversations in the hallways about the various candidates and their positions. Locker bays have become debating stations and the bathrooms places to lobby. I can only imagine the dinner table conversations that have may have taken place in homes where students were designated to a political party that their parents may not support!
On Election Day students show up in suits and formal wear and it is wonderful to see how seriously they approach the big day. The speeches I have heard student candidates make in the last few days have made more sense to me than any other political ponderings I have been subjected to. Credit must be given to the whole campaign committee and in turn, their teachers for helping these students do something that I have found impossible to do: they have managed to get beyond the massaged facts, the inflated figures, the unsubstantiated contradictory claims and made some sense of a confusing political landscape. I wonder how many adult voters will be able to do the same next Tuesday.
Standing at my hotel window,Washington, D.C.  lies ahead of me and the CEP Conference behind me. I can only hope that what lies ahead shares a similar mission to what lies behind: providing the vision, leadership and resources for schools, families and communities to develop ethical citizens committed to building a just and caring world. I am off to enjoy my last few sessions at the Conference which is appropriately titled, Developing Leaders of Integrity.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

I Like Teachers That Love to Learn

I have to thank Mr. James Cowper from Ontario Canada for the inspiration for this blog post, which seems strange as I’ve never met him. It was this tweet from him that inspired me:

I’ve been struggling this year with the amount of time that I am scheduled to be out of the classroom for professional development. Being in the classroom with my students is my passion and my joy and I honestly do have a hard time leaving them behind. The reasons for this are partly egotistical: I like to believe that nobody can teach my lessons the way I would . A greater part is frustration: sometimes the mandated sessions that I am required to attend are not relevant or challenging and sometimes, since the guest teacher system was privatized, I have to leave my wonderful students in the hands of a random guest teacher who I have never met. Recently, I had to radically alter my prepared lesson plans at the last minute when a delightful little elderly lady showed up and told me she couldn’t even read my lesson plans as the font was so small. Technology integration was obviously going to be a stretch!
But professional development is a necessary part of my job. Part of the safety demonstration on a plane states that if you are travelling with children you must put on your own oxygen mask first in order to help the children. The same principal applies in the classroom-in order to educate our students we must first educate ourselves. Teachers often arrive in their classrooms to find that new technology has been delivered overnight: interactive whiteboards, iPads, clicker response systems to name a few. We also have a huge shift in curriculum delivery to contend with following the adoption of the Common Core Standards. It sometimes feels like waking up to find a Boeing 747 parked on the driveway with a note saying figure out how to fly this, you’ll be transporting 300 hundred passengers tomorrow!
So I accept that I have to attend professional development and I embrace the fact that I need to learn and grow as a teacher in order to do the best job that I can for my students, they deserve nothing less. I attend district meetings to make connections with other teachers who I can share and learn with, keep up with district developments and represent my school’s unique perspective. I attend conferences to become inspired by the experiences of other teachers and bring back to my students innovative and engaging ways to learn. I attend classes to maintain my professional certification and stay in touch with current pedagogy and best practice.
So how do I minimize the impact my absence has on my students? I try to ensure that I secure the services of a competent and reliable guest teacher in my absence, one who has an established relationship with both me and my students. I leave detailed lesson plans and work hard to institute routines that encourage my students to be independent thinkers and learners. In the event of problems I make myself available to my guest teacher, parents and students via email and Skype. I take advantage of the expertise of my colleagues and try to incorporate team teaching activities at best and offer them up as support at least.
What can I do better? I think I need to communicate more to my parents and students about where I am going and how attending professional development sessions have a direct and positive impact on my classroom. I need to work on finding balance, and enlist the help of my administrators in determining what is necessary, preferred and superfluous. I also need to breathe and realize that I can’t learn and implement everything immediately, despite the fact I want to because I want to be the best teacher that I can be.
This also applies to my role as a mom. On Saturday morning I was watching a presentation live from Edscape 2012, and my son told me that for Christmas he just wants me to not logon on to my computer for a whole day. I am a teacher that loves to learn and I hope that my occasional absence  from both my classroom and from my family inspires  my students and my own children to mirror my love of learning, and embark  on their own unique lifelong learning journeys.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Purpose of Education

I asked a friend of mine who lives in Canada how his six year old daughter Brooke was settling in to the new school year. She is a delightful little pixie of a child who finds joy in everything so I was shocked when he told me she is utterly miserable. She comes home crying every night, she is having trouble sleeping and eating and getting her to school every day has become a trauma for all involved. Apparently she is part of an experiment that the Principal is conducting. He has taken four students from each of his two Kindergarten classes, two boys and two girls, and placed them in the other class for first grade. All four of the kids are struggling because they don’t know the other kids in the class and are not being accepted and included by their peers. When dad went to explain this to the principal and ask for her to be placed back in her old class he was given short shrift, told nothing would change and given no rationale for the decision to boot!
The sad part about this is that it is such a recurring theme in education. New initiatives are often dreamt up and put into place by district administration, by principals, by teachers and all, I’m sure, with great intent. The tricky part however seems being able to figure out when an idea isn’t working. More often than not the success of a new educational initiative is measured numerically through assessment data. Brooke will be tested in the next few weeks in her Canadian classroom and I’m sure the data will show that she is not progressing, not learning and it’s not difficult to figure out why-she isn’t happy!  Children can only be open to learning when they feel safe and secure and happy in the learning environment. Do we need data to figure that out or to determine next steps, or could the issue be resolved through open and honest dialogue between the student, parent, teacher and principal?
Teaching Engage, a class specifically designed to help kids acquire key 21st century skills, I constantly see students struggling with listening and flexibility. Being able to listen attentively to others ideas, ask questions, offer ideas, and encourage others input, then carefully and respectfully consider all ideas, seek to synthesize, and compromise are apparently skills that many adults have problems with too. New initiatives are a necessary part of education as we constantly hone and improve the service we provide but all stakeholders need to start actively listening to each other and remembering the true purpose of education.
I was recently asked what the purpose of education is and I had a surprisingly hard time formulating a response. I eventually came up with this:
The purpose of education is to light a fire in students, to help them develop a love of learning and learn strategies to become lifelong learners. Education should serve to open students’ eyes to the world around them. They should learn to not merely observe, but to think about what they see and wonder about how they can make a positive impact. They should leave the education system with a clear sense of their own significance, their own potential to make a positive contribution as global citizens and a thorough knowledge and understanding of the tools that will enable them to successfully make that contribution: creative thinking, productivity, digital literacy, communication skills, integrity, responsibility, reliability, and accountability.
But I’m beginning to think it really is much simpler than that. The purpose of education is to help and children learn and grow and this isn’t going to happen if a child is unhappy, teachers can’t create safe and happy classrooms if they don’t feel heard and respected, principals can’t create innovative environments if they are not encouraged to take risks and school districts will not be able to attain the assessment success they seek unless administration carefully and respectfully consider all ideas, or seek to synthesize and compromise when needed.
Maybe we should look to successful corporate models for inspiration. Check out this Blog post by Richard Branson, founder of Virgin, a dynamic and thriving group of diverse companies: Have fun, do good, success will come. Aside from the title, which I think would be a wonderful mantra for the world of education to adopt, the most striking thing about this post for me is how Branson is actively engaged in listening. His success speaks for itself and I’m sure it is in no small part because of his ability to listen, his ability to recognize failure and his ability to adapt and move forward. Maybe I’ll send Branson’s Blog post to Brooke’s principal in Canada. 

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Six Word Saturday

My six year old joined Cub Scouts on Wednesday and we have spent today preparing for his first camp next weekend. It took some time hunting out tents and stuff as we turned to the dark side of camping several years ago when we bought a trailer! We’ve had so much fun pitching tents, reminiscing about past adventures and watching Jack’s excitement build.
 It occurred to me that so much of a child’s education takes place beyond the classroom thanks to the dedication, commitment and talent of many wonderful individuals who strive to make a positive difference in the lives of children. My first ever attempt at six word Saturday is for them. For the all the Boy and Girl Scout leaders, for the karate trainers, sports coaches, music tutors, chess club wizards, library volunteers, Science Olympians, dance and drama instructors and many more, here are my six words:

Thanks for enriching my childrens' lives.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The First Two Weeks of School

The first two weeks of school are so important. During this time students have to learn about their new classmates, new teachers, new routines and expectations. Teachers have to learn about their new students, new parents, new colleagues, new technologies and new curriculum initiatives. A new community has to be built, team spirit established and a sense of excitement and anticipation for the year of learning ahead. If not carefully managed and orchestrated it can be a stressful and overwhelming time for all involved. I find myself today, at the end of my first two weeks of school, happy, hoarse, exhausted and enthused about the year ahead.
My teaching partner, Rick Joseph, and I share 54 kids and together we make the “Joberts56”. Having both 5th and 6th graders, each year we lose half of our class as they move up a grade and gain 27 new students. A priority for us at the start of each year is to help the class bond and form their own unique identity. We launched this process by showing the students Blindsight. This is a documentary detailing the journey of six blind Tibetan students as they climb a mountain in the shadow of Everest. We encouraged the kids to write down their thoughts as they watched the movie and during a follow up debrief the Joberts56 of 2012-2013 was born! Our students were able to clearly articulate what was important to them as a group and the mindset that will guide them throughout the year. It didn’t take them long to graphically represent those notions and by day 2 we had a class T-shirt design.
The big eye on the front of the shirt signifies my students’ determination to not just be observers in life but to really see the world around them, think about what it means and wonder how they can make a positive and significant impact on it. The logo “Climb Your Own Everest” on the back reminds them that they need to take risks, overcome their fears and face challenges head on in order to achieve their true potential. Pretty cool, huh?
On day 3 Rick and I shared our progress with parents during Welcome Back Night and attempted to express our individual philosophies and aspirations for the year. It was an opportunity for parents to put names to faces and be assured that we will love and nurture their children as well as guide them academically. A parent volunteered to get the class T-shirt organized and printed and by some wonderful miracle she had all 56 shirts ready for our three day camp during week 2 of school. Getting 216 students, sixty some volunteers and eight teachers to camp on the seventh day of school has been a labor of love for several months. Nancy B, school secretary, and Cindy B, Community Service Officer, did a tremendous job of preparing this trip, getting all the necessary transportation, medication and documentation together. They organized parent volunteers, accommodation, travel groups and without their dedication it simply could not have happened.
So on the seventh day of school I found myself 125 miles away from home at Camp Michindoh, watching a group of my students try their hands at archery. I wasn’t participating because I’d never done it before and didn’t want to look incompetent in front of both new parents and students. One of my sixth graders invited me to join in and when I declined she said, “We are the Joberts56 Mrs R, we don’t just observe, we go beyond our comfort zone and get involved. Climb your own Everest.” Astounded and inspired how could I not get my Catniss on and step up? The next few days were spent canoeing, building shelters, making fires, climbing rock walls and handling a variety of snakes, frogs , spiders and cockroaches. The mantra “Climb Your Own Everest” was used repeatedly to encourage and challenge all of us, students and teachers  alike to achieve what we never thought possible. It even began to impact our fabulous parent volunteers as they too stretched themselves and found themselves beyond their comfort zones during their three day marathon event as chaperones. Their commitment, leaving behind work and families, was another major factor in making camp happen. It also provided us with the opportunity to begin to get to know each other and form relationships that will be crucial to the success of this school year.  By day 10 of school, the Joberts56 community was born!
Did the first two weeks go off without a hitch? No. The schedule changed after distribution of over two hundred paper copies, our T-shirts were not  quite what we originally designed and a student spent three days at camp with only the clothes he was standing up in because his bag was left on the bus. Instead of whining and complaining everybody demonstrated solidarity, flexibility and understanding which enabled us to sail over these small bumps in the road. I’m secure in the knowledge that we will overcome future obstacles on our journey together because of the people I travel with: amazing students, supportive parents, dedicated office staff and passionate educators.
During the next two weeks of school my students will face a battery of district mandated assessments. I know these will provide me with a snapshot of their academic abilities but the knowledge gleaned from these tests cannot possibly compare to what we have learned about ourselves and each other during the first two weeks of school.



Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Character Education

I was invited to speak to the newly hired teachers in my district on the subject of Character Education yesterday. I know those of you who know me well must be wondering if I was asked to present on how to be a character but my role was to demonstrate how character education can be incorporated into the curriculum.
I have served on my school’s character committee for the last six years. At the time of joining the committee the different grade level teams at my school participated in several community service projects such as Gleaners Community Food Bank, Care Packaging for the Troops, and Forgotten Harvest. We would come together as a whole school community to respond to natural disasters both nationally and globally and while these projects were successful, there was a certain level of frustration amongst both staff and parents that they were scattered, overlapping and lacking in long term significance. We decided to make a concerted effort to integrate service learning into the curriculum.
Service learning is an experiential teaching strategy that intentionally combines academic learning and relevant community service. Key components of service learning include:
-          Research/Investigation
-          Project has purpose or meaning
-          Reflection
-          Sharing or demonstration of knowledge gained

There are similarities between service learning and community service. They both foster civic responsibility and an individual’s growth personally and ethically. Both create strong community connections and meet real needs, but there are some significant differences.

 I shared with my new colleagues a service learning project that my teaching partner and I collaborated on. We share 54 students, I teach math and science, while he teaches Language Arts and Social Studies and the result was our River Rouge Watershed wiki. Yesterday I asked the teachers to peruse the wiki and try to identify possible learning objectives and character traits that students may have learned about during the course of its creation. I was thrilled with their responses and how much they saw in it but I was also struck by how much unintentional learning took place. It became crystal clear to me that when it comes to the education of a child we cannot separate heart and mind.

At risk of giving away my age, when I was at school students were empty pails waiting to be filled with information, facts and knowledge. I am so fortunate to work in an environment where the teaching of core subjects is seamlessly interwoven with character education and key 21st Century skills. The result of that is that I get to work every day with highly engaged, passionate kids who are teachers and learners and influential global citizens.

Thursday, August 9, 2012


It’s been a week since I returned from the Microsoft Partners in Learning Forum in Redmond and I’m still recovering from a PiLUS hangover: Recovering from the jetlag, from the time difference, from the shock of winning, from over indulgence in innovation, camaraderie, and inspiration!
My teaching partner and I were fortunate to gain first place in the Extended Learning Beyond the Classroom category with our project Doing Businessin Birmingham. I say fortunate because the caliber of the projects presented was astounding. The judges, including winners from the 2011 Global Forum Lou Zulli and Doug Bergman, must have spent hours wrestling over their decisions. Rick and I are truly humbled by the honor and look forward to participating in this year’s global forum in Prague, along with the other US winners.

It’s difficult to explain the impact this experience has on teachers and convey how truly uplifting it is. To be surrounded by teachers who are taking risks and pushing the boundaries in their classrooms every day is like being plugged into the ultimate energy source. While the forum is technically a competition it is so much more than that. It’s an opportunity to connect with other educators, share ideas and build relationships that last well beyond the forum itself. It’s a place where teachers get to meet and learn from educational leaders like Alan November, Vicki Davis and Kari Stubbs. It’s a showcase for new technology tools and a cradle of creative thinking. For the most part it is a celebration and appreciation of pioneering teaching and learning practices.

Lou Zulli asked us all to “pay it forward” and I know won’t be alone in sharing my learning with my peers, encouraging them to take risks and to get more connected with other innovative educators .My first advice will be to have them join the Partners in Learning Network , where they can become involved in  a global community of educators, driven by passion and committed to providing a quality education for all students.
I met many amazing teachers in Redmond who were recovering themselves: Recovering bankers, recovering lawyers, and recovering fashion designers who have chosen to enter the world of education to recapture a sense of significance and to make a positive difference in the world. That they certainly do! I am thankful for my PiLUS hangover. Because of it, I am more acutely aware of my responsibilities, I am inspired to do better and I am reminded that teaching is indeed a noble profession.Thank you Microsoft!

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Revving Up For Redmond!

The first month of summer has been heavenly. We had family visit from England, we’ve been to the beach, hung out at the pool, even managed a trip to Disney! Now, however, it’s time to swap flip flops for heels, shorts for skirts and get my game face on. I’m heading out to Redmond, Seattle on Monday to attend Microsoft’s Partners in Learning 2012 US Forum.
For those of you who have not heard about the forum, Microsoft has invited 102 educators to Redmond from 25 states to showcase the innovative ways they are using technology in and beyond the classroom. The Partners in Learning US Forum is an annual event that connects and celebrates educators for the outstanding and innovative work they are doing with technology to creatively engage students. Educators compete for a chance to go on to represent the United States at Microsoft’s global forum this fall in Athens, Greece.
I am so fortunate to be attending for the second time with my teaching partner Rick Joseph to present “Doing Business in Birmingham”, a sustainability project imagined and created by our 54 students. Curiosity about sustainability in business led our students to organize their own research field trips to various businesses in Detroit. Travelling in small groups and driven by parent volunteers our students visited places such as Ford Field, the Fox theater, the Ford Sustainability lab, the Renaissance Center, and Detroit Mercy Hospital , eager to learn what they were doing to be sustainable. They compiled their collective knowledge to create Downtown Detroit, but learning about sustainability wasn’t enough. They wanted to do something with their knowledge, and turned their attention to the local downtown area. Armed with informational flyers and brochures they had created themselves they took to the streets of Birmingham and visited over 100 businesses to educate and inform the owners about sustainability. They recorded the trip with Photosynths and Cliplets and created an Honor Roll for businesses that provided evidence of sustainable practices through follow up calls and emails.

I’m revving up for the forum not so much to compete but to make sure that I effectively represent my students and the wonderful work that they do. Their insatiable curiosity led them to wonder how sustainable other business communities are and the final page of their wiki includes all of their resources and an invitation to other students and teachers to replicate their project. I’m psyched to attend the forum to share their invitation and if I can get at least one other educator to give it a try I will have done them justice. I’m also eager to learn about the other amazing learning opportunities taking place around the country and the possibility of making connections with other classrooms for my students to collaborate with in the future.
I wish you could all kick off your flip flops and join me for this incredible celebration, for a celebration is what it truly is: A celebration of teachers and students working and learning together. Fortunately you can still get involved by following the event on Twitter #PiLUS, or the Partners in Learning Facebook page, by reading about the projects on TeachTec Blog , or better still, by joining the conversation and sharing your own innovative practices on the Partners in Learning Network, one of the world’s largest global professional networks for educators. I know its still summer but get revved up, get ready to learn, get involved!