Friday, December 20, 2013

I Own my Own Brain Again!

I owe the title of this post to Sean Wheeler who wrote this on his Facebook Page. I love blogging, it helps me process and it bothers me that it has been so long since I've written a post. I have started at least ten pieces since October but never been able to complete them and Sean totally nailed why not-I haven’t owned my own brain for months.

I think that is the one notion that non educators often fail to understand or grasp. When you spend all day with kids, kids who you love and encourage to be innovative and creative you lose yourself in the process of helping them find themselves. I am by nature an introvert, I love to read, to write, to watch a good movie and noise distracts me. Yet I spend my days amidst crazy awesome noise and I love it, I encourage it, I wallow in it. I hear stories; sad stories, funny stories, inspiring stories, stories that tell me so much about the lives of my kids and help me better understand and serve them. I hear ideas; ideas about how we can learn, about what we can learn, about how we can change the world together. I hear curiosity, anxiety, enthusiasm, frustration, pride, disappointment, joy, grief, nonsense, genius! I hear questions about…everything. The cacophony batters and sustains me.

When somebody asks me during the day why I haven’t read or responded to an email it’s a clear indication to me that they have no clue what I do. I don’t sit in a quiet office, I don’t meet in a calm conference room with peers, I don’t eat lunch sitting down and I don’t go to the bathroom when the need arises. I swim in a turbulent sea of sound and between the hours of 8 am and 4 pm I am trained and employed to listen to it, hear it, feel it, and respond to it.

I received the most wonderful gift today, a beautiful hand knitted blanket and a message that restores my faith in the fact that some people truly do understand what we do: This blanket represents what you have given our children for the last four years; Love ,Warmth and Kindness.

Tonight the noise has subsided; I can own my own brain for the next two weeks. I’m looking forward to spending time making noise with my own family, snuggling up in my new blanket and relishing in my own thoughts so that I can be rested and prepared to embrace the thoughts of my amazing students in 2014.Happy Holidays everyone!

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Digital Citizenship

As technology becomes ubiquitous in many classrooms, teachers are utilizing their tools to inspire students to become engaged learners and responsible, inspiring citizens. Having access to resources from around the globe, our students can connect, communicate and collaborate with peers, experts and leaders from across the globe. These are indeed exciting times for educators, but with these new opportunities comes the added responsibility of teaching our students about digital citizenship.

As soon as students log in in to the internet, open an email account, download an application, they have become digital citizens and we shouldn't assume that our digital natives have all the necessary skills and knowledge about how to behave online. In order to get the best out of the internet we need to teach our students how to become secure ethical users, capable of making appropriate decisions that empower them to make a positive contribution. Fortunately, there is a growing collection of resources available to guide us.

The Digital Citizen website provides students, parents and teachers with a variety of excellent games, videos and activities to promote online safety. An infographic on the Educational Technology and Mobile Learning site would stimulate a great discussion with students about the components of digital citizenship. For more videos and articles to help kids make the most of social media visit Common Sense Media. Teacher favorites include Brainpop, Edudemic, TeachThought and Edutopia. But I believe the best resources can be found in our own classrooms.

Kids will make mistakes; it’s a fact. No educator ever wants to hear the words, “The Secret Service would like to interview you right now.” I have. Being a resident alien I immediately assumed I had unwittingly committed some awful crime against the state and quaked in my boots as I headed for my interrogation…I mean…interview. Instead, it was in regard to one of my students who had made a poor choice online. As mistakes go, it was truly a doozy. It could have been dealt with surreptitiously, it could have been swept quietly under the carpet but it provided too much of a powerful learning opportunity. By sharing the mistakes they have made with their peers, and the lessons they have subsequently learned, students become the ultimate teachers of digital citizenship.

As educators, students and parents we are all exploring unfamiliar territory. We have new collective responsibilities as we experience the excitement of being a part of a global online community. Teaching digital citizenship is critical. Take the time to talk to your students about their online activities, explore the many resources available to you, and most importantly embrace mistakes and turn them into significant teachable moments.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013


I noticed today that I have a totally involuntary body reaction to a very specific situation. I literally get goose bumps when I am in the presence of somebody who lets their genius out! That happened at least twenty times today during my Sciracy class.

Sciracy class aims to promote scientific literacy, or the knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity. Sciracy is a neologism created by my students because it rhymes with piracy- and they like pirates! Students learn to ask, find, or determine answers to questions derived from curiosity about everyday experiences, and to describe, explain, and articulate their thoughts about the world around them. During Sciracy, I want students to synthesize their learning and challenge them to generate creative solutions to real world problems.

Our current focus in Sciracy is Project Cope, a lofty mission they have embarked on to eradicate poverty in rural Zambia, and boy did they let their genius out today! An untrained eye would see chaos, commotion and tumult if they were to peek into this class. A trained eye would see project based learning in full flow. Students are on iPhones, iTouches desktops, laptops and tablets. Hammers are swinging, debates are raging, kids are on the phone, on tables, on the floor, but most importantly they on task. Having decided to take up the challenge to raise $12,000 for a two wheel tractor, they were on fire today generating ideas for fundraising. Students were making jewelry from used gift cards they have collected from local businesses. Others were calling the organizers of an upcoming local event to secure a table, some were busy writing an E-book they plan to publish and sell. Flyers and brochures were being made, letters calling for sponsorship from local businesses were being written, video interviews were being uploaded to the You Tube Channel the kids created, and genius was spilling out all over the room.

“Can I ask my pen pal in Japan to get her school to do a fundraiser?”

“Can we contact the organizer of the Birmingham Halloween Parade to see if we can join in?”

“Can we research how to make Project Cope tax exempt?”

“Can we set up a Project Cope Instagram account?”

“Can we Tweet about Project Cope?”

“Can I create a Project Cope App?”

And it goes on: Idea after idea after idea. The energy and enthusiasm is exhausting; my head spins and I can barely breathe, let alone keep up. So why do I do it? Because it makes my flesh bump!

While I often think this might just be the class that kills me, it’s also the class the makes me feel most alive. It’s the class that makes me believe I am fulfilling my calling to be a teacher. Project based learning can be hairy and scary. It requires a teacher to relinquish control, to go with the creative flow, to not know all the answers, to become a partner in learning. It’s organic and messy and so worthwhile because it empowers our kids to let their genius out.

 If the thought of embarking on PBL is too daunting, dip your toe in; invite your students to get involved in Project Cope. Ask them how they could contribute, how they would solve this problem, how they can make a difference. Then just sit back and listen and be prepared to get your goosebump on!

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

I'm Grateful

As a teacher mom the first day of school can be cause for much anxiety. Not being able to walk my own children into their classrooms on their first day I worry that I have prepared them well and that they are confident and happy entering school. Being on the other end of that equation for 54 students I worry that they all leave school on the first day feeling confident and happy to return the next day.

Today the mom in me was particularly anxious as my daughter was starting in a new district in a new school knowing absolutely nobody. She has always attended school in my district and the decision to leave and return to home district has been a tortuous one because she has had such a good academic experience there. The tipping point for my 6th grade daughter was ultimately a social one. She has missed out on many after school play dates and forming those close relationships that are so important at this stage in her development. I am so proud of her for being able to articulate her thoughts and feelings and for being courageous enough to make the ultimate leap. It didn't stop me being worried sick about her today! While she put on a brave face I knew she was anxious and our parting this morning included an extra tight and lingering hug.

My little guy was oblivious to my concerns for him until we actually reached school this morning. After an unusually quite drive to school with no bickering due to the absence of his sister he began to realize for the first time that things were going to be different this year. As we approached Kids Club he told me he felt strange and nervous. The lack of big sister’s presence to guide and reassure him suddenly dawned. He didn't know where his new classroom was, he was going to be left alone to face his first day and once again, I was so proud of my child’s ability to deal with change. We checked out his classroom, shared the burden of his school supplies and walked a little slower to his destination. I was somewhat reassured that he was okay when he refused to hug me, but still my heart ached as I left.

Shifting gears into teacher mode didn't distract me as much as it usually does today. As an anxious mom I became acutely aware of the enormity of my role in welcoming and settling in my own students. Every greeting, every direction, every word was given through the lens of my own children’s eyes and anxieties. Seeing both sides of the coin I think is one of the greatest advantages of being a teacher mom.

I couldn't wait to reconnect with my own two kids at the end of the day and was thrilled to be met with bubbling tales of a great day. This evening was spent listening to every detail and, awash with relief, thank you notes were penned to both of their teachers. Tonight I feel so proud that my own two kids are growing independent and strong, and tremendously grateful that they have spent the day with amazing educators who have made them feel welcome and safe and excited to learn. I can only hope that my students are as enthusiastic about day two

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

My Friend, My Mentor.

There is always something special about the first...of anything. Yesterday I was tagged in my first class photo as a teacher, twenty some years ago at St. Anne’s Primary School. I barely recognized myself in the photo but boy, I recognized and could name every kid on the photo, because they were my first students, and as such, they were, and will always remain, special. Being tagged allowed me to connect with some of those students after all this time and the last twenty four hours have been simply wonderful, chatting, catching up and learning that now, their children attend St. Anne’s. As I prepare for my twenty fourth first day of school as a teacher, I have been consumed with thoughts of my first one, all those years ago.

I thought I had hit the jackpot when I got hired at St. Anne’s, a small, single form entry elementary school in a leafy suburb of Liverpool. I couldn't wait to get into the building and start setting up my classroom. I was greeted by the principal, a formidable force of nature: a spinster, a forty year veteran dedicated educator who commanded respect and frankly, scared the life out of me. As we walked she described upcoming renovation plans and we stopped in a space that was basically a corridor connecting the infant department to the junior department. She explained that this was to be my “classroom” and left me alone to ponder how on earth I was to create a safe, secure learning environment from this strange, desolate place.

And then I met Diane, who very quickly became my first friend, mentor and savior at St. Anne’s. Diane recognized the fact that I was reeling and immediately offered her help and advice. Together we scavenged tables, chairs, bookshelves and resources from around the building. She spent hours with me dragging furniture into one position after another as we tried to craft a classroom. Over the next few days she helped me cover the walls with welcoming displays, stock the shelves with engaging books and transform the space into a “room” that ultimately became the place where I began to learn my chosen profession.

During that first year Diane was my go to person whenever I needed anything and she never let me down. When I needed another pair of hands she volunteered hers, when I needed a sympathetic ear she listened, when I floundered she reassured me, and when I despaired she made me laugh. Oh, she made me laugh. I believe she was one of the most important factors in getting me through that first year intact and over the course of the next ten years I spent there, her role in my life, both professionally and personally only grew in significance. Two years in, my colleagues, despite my objections, decided I was ready to host my first whole school assembly and tried to trick me into being left alone with all of the children. When I caught wind of their scheme in panic I ran to Diane and she locked me in a cupboard to keep me safe! Some of my fondest memories of St. Anne’s stem from weekends we spent away with the kids at an outdoor activity camp. These treasured weekends were only possible because Diane offered to be a chaperone and together with kids we canoed, zip lined, rock climbed, sang our hearts out, built character and made indelible memories.

Diane was the school custodian. She taught me one of the most important lessons I have ever learned, that the education of our children is a community affair. She loved that school and those kids and they loved her. She made sure that every square inch of that school was spotless for them every day, she took pride in her work, and she demonstrated unwavering perseverance, kindness and dedication. She submerged herself in every aspect of school life and was just as much an integral part of educating the students as I was. Indeed, she educated me. She was also one of very few people who ever spoke to our formidable principal candidly and I was in awe of her. She was my hero!

Today I learned that Diane passed away last week.The timing of connecting with my first students yesterday and hearing this sad news about my first friend and mentor today simply must be significant. My advice to first year teachers as they embark on this incredible journey is to know that preparing goes beyond your classroom. Make a determined effort to get out of the room, explore every hallway, office and corridor. Introduce yourself to every member of your learning community and start to build connections with the people who are going to guide and help you through your first year. Be open, ask for help and it will come, you are not alone. Most importantly embrace every second of this, your first year. Learn from mistakes, laugh often and care deeply, because twenty years from now a kid is going to contact you and let you know that you were their favorite teacher ever!

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Caught Between Innovation and Legislation

As I start thinking about the 2013-2014 school year I find myself caught between two powerful forces in education: innovation and legislation.

My passion is providing my students with authentic, rich learning experiences. I have seen how captivating project based learning can be and how technology integration enhances the level of student engagement. I have seen my students grow exponentially when I focus on teaching key 21st Century skills like collaboration, communication, critical and creative thinking. Deeper learning takes place when I team teach with colleagues from different disciplines and when I provide time for my students to follow their curiosity, they go to places on their own learning journeys that I could never have imagined. This kind of teaching is organic and exciting and often messy. Failure and frustration litter the path but are critical components of wisdom acquisition. I find myself wondering how I will combine this style of teaching with the adoption of Common Core Standards and whether or not they are even compatible.

Like many educators, schools and districts I am still grappling with the new standards, trying to figure out how they will impact pedagogy and methodology. The new standards come with great promise of a focus on developing critical thinking skills and collaborative, reflective learning, but with any standardized testing there always lurks the fear that we are fostering standardized students. I am sure that there will be much professional development time devoted to the roll-out of this latest reform wave, aimed at helping teachers serve their students well. But is it possible to teach to a set of mandated, static standards while still fostering a dynamic culture of learning? I guess that’s up to me.

Ultimately, I will do what the only thing I really know how to do. I will focus on learning about my students, their needs, their passions, their learning styles and try to accommodate them as best I can. Despite innovate teaching practices and “new” standards, after 23 years of teaching my charge remains the same: foster meaningful relationships with my students, nurture them, let them know they matter, empower them and try to ensure that every child has a rock star experience every day in my classroom.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Windows 8 and Skylanders

All my 7 year old son wanted for his birthday was the Skylanders portal for his Xbox. He could barely contain himself in the car on the way home from the store. As we pulled onto the driveway I hung back to answer a call and by the time I entered the house the floor was littered with wrappings and paper, leads and wires and various pieces of equipment. Sighing, I settled into to wait for the inevitable call for help but it never came!

Fascinated, I watched him from a distance while he transferred his limited digital knowledge, failing, persevering and eventually getting the game up and running within twenty minutes. I knew that his motivation to play the game was a powerful driving force, but what I discovered while watching him, was that for him, the “playing” began the moment he opened the box.

My latest “toy” was a Windows 8 tablet that I was asked to pilot at school. Just like my son, I was highly motivated to learn how it worked, but my whole approach was so different. The tablet sat in its box untouched for days while I sent out a request to friends for any useful resources they knew about, and then settled down late at night to watch online tutorials and read up on my new device. When I eventually opened the box the tablet didn’t seem quite so intimidating and I felt confident enough to begin playing. I have to wonder why I didn’t rip open the box like Jack and immerse myself in independently figuring it out.

My best guess would be time. The thought of sitting and “playing” with it seemed like an inefficient use of time to me so I prepared myself in order to avoid unnecessary frustration. After reading the following post by Laurie Barnoski I would assume that many teachers are reluctant to adopt new technologies for the same reason:

I recently emailed a former colleague, a highly respected math teacher, to ask her to list the programs she was supposed to consider implementing in her classroom. Here goes: standards-based grading and instruction; common-core standards; common grading; end-of-course assessment, or EOC; conversation, help, activity, movement, participation, and success, or CHAMPS; creating independence through student-owned strategies, or CRISS; love and logic; pyramid to intervention; response to intervention; learning targets; data walks; teacher-principal evaluation project, or TPEP; school improvement plans, or SIP; academic collaboration time, or ACT; positive behavioral intervention and supports, or PBIS; and a new whisper in the halls, Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and PARCC.

There are so many demands placed upon a teacher’s time that we really are in danger of losing the capacity to play and by extension, our sense of joy in the discovery. My own love for learning is what helped me to make the decision to become a professional educator, hoping that I could instill the same passion in my students. I can’t imagine it happening, but if I were to lose that joy, how can I possibly inspire students to learn?

Initiatives like those employed by Eric Sheninger will undoubtedly help his teachers to maintain their desire to learn. By adopting the 80/20 principle teachers at New Milford High School will now be able to follow their work related passions. "We really want teachers to be innovative and creative," Sheninger said. "For us to make that possible, we need to empower them to really pursue those areas that they're motivated by." When teachers are so empowered, wouldn't it seem natural to empower their students in a similar way?

As for me, I am thankful that yet again, my own child has been able to teach me an invaluable lesson. As we settle down in front of the Xbox together to enable him to begin my first lesson on Skylanders, I am grateful to have a teacher who has reminded me of the power of play.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

What a Journey !

I wrote a thank you note in the dark this morning at 4 a.m. and left it on the bedside table of my friend who had happily let me crash in her hotel room last night before heading home from ISTE. I managed to sneak out without waking her and headed downstairs to catch the shuttle I had ordered for the airport. I didn't fret too much when it didn't show up and instead got in a taxi, confident that few people would be at the airport at 5 a.m. Boy, was I wrong!

The check in line took me thirty minutes to negotiate and the security lines were the length of the terminal. I joined the shortest one and tried to calm the disconcerting idea that I might miss my plane. After forty more minutes I could finally see the screening equipment but was mortified when the guy I had been chatting to noted his disgust at how slowly our line was moving for first class. I apologized for getting in the wrong line and started to head to the back of the terminal when the guy stopped me and assured me it was okay. It would have been very easy for him to be irate with me but he chose not to and truly I was thankful for that.

I was the last person to get on the plane and when I got to my aisle seat it was taken by a mother with a baby and toddler. She explained that her son’s seat was the middle seat two rows away and asked if I minded swapping. Being a firm believer in Karma, I took the middle seat and in thanks the stewardess offered me a much needed coffee. I was feeling pretty good about myself until the lady next to me explained that she too had given up her first class seat for a serviceman. I was still processing how awesome that was when the pilot announced that we had a computer issue that they were working on, estimating a twenty minute delay. 

An hour later we were still sitting there when my generous neighbor asked the stewardess for a glass of wine, explaining that she was becoming increasingly nervous about the flight. When it came, she split it with me and the guy to my left who was also a teacher returning from ISTE. I wouldn't normally drink wine at 8 a.m. but the three of us raised a toast and clashed our plastic glasses in celebration. We were far from celebrating take off, that was still two hours ahead of us, we were celebrating the fact that we were in good spirits, in spite of adversity, and enjoying each other’s company.

What should have been a three hour journey became a six hour journey and I can honestly say it was a pleasure. I don’t recall hearing one person complain angrily, moan bitterly or pout childishly; even the children on board were fantastic. Everybody just played the cards they had been dealt and made the most of the situation. I myself thoroughly enjoyed the company of my travelling companions and engaged in some great conversations. It reminded me that the choices we make on our journey, be it from one place to another, or indeed through life, can have a significant impact on those around us.

We are frequently travelling at such speed that we collide into the people around us and the collisions can have positive or negative consequences depending on the choices that we make. If I had been met with an angry response from the guy in the first class line I doubt I would have given up my seat so willingly. I would not have met my two new friends and I wouldn't have been inspired by their generosity and thoughtfulness. If we spent more time looking up, instead of down at our phones , looking out for, and embracing collisions with others there would be a lot less dents in the world and a whole lot more opportunities for connecting in meaningful ways.

Being on the Expo floor at ISTE for the last few days I collided with a lot of people and I’ll be spending the next few days wondering if I made dents or opportunities. I am fortunate to be surrounded by many amazing people and I have the potential to increase the number exponentially if I just take more heed during my journey. Right now, opportunity knocks, and I’m going to collide with my family to make up for time lost.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Sailing Into Summer

Wow! I'm amazed at how long it's been since I've written a post. That is truly a sign of how hectic the last few weeks have been. The pace at school becomes frenetic as I try to wrap up curriculum, conduct field trips, organize end of year celebrations, not to mention end of year testing .My own two children have had several concerts, recitals, sporting commitments and all in all I feel like I've been tossed and tumbled around on a ship in a storm, clinging on for dear life, praying for calmer waters.

Now that summer is finally here I feel like the storm has subsided and I can begin to process and think thoughts that are my own again and blogging has always helped me with that. Picking up where I left off though has been more difficult than I expected. I feel rusty, struggling to find my voice, my words and stringing them together into something that makes sense is taking longer than it should. It's a good reminder for me that over the next few months our children are going to become academically rusty if we don't keep practicing the skills they have worked so hard to acquire during the last school year.

I can see squalls on the horizon when I tell my kids what I have in store for them. My son considers himself somewhat of a math ninja so keeping math skills sharp will be easy. I am going to have to get creative with reading and writing however and somehow figure out how to incorporate Lego and Skylanders. My daughter will write song lyrics all summer and she will pout about math but we will go head to head about reading, which breaks my heart since I am an avid reader. I'm hoping that I have piqued her interest enough by withholding the Hunger Games trilogy and that she will happily sit and devour them on her tablet. We can live in hope right?

I'm looking forward to launching into my own learning journey this summer too. I want to consciously go beyond my comfort zone for my own personal growth, but I'm not sure how yet. I’ll let the notion percolate and see what opportunities arise. I love that about summer, having the flexibility to change tack and go where the wind takes us. I attended and presented at The Learning Conference 2013 this week and it’s always fun to meet and engage in conversations with new people. I am very excited about attending ISTE for the first time next week and sharing some super aspects of Windows 8. I’m hoping that I will be able to absorb much too and get inspiration for next year. An added bonus will be catching up with some of my Partners in Learning network friends. These people serve as my compass and always steer me in the right direction.

Congratulations all my educator friends for completing another school year and making a difference in the lives of your students. Relax, recuperate and regenerate this summer and may the wind fill your sails!

Monday, April 15, 2013


Professional development days often provide opportunities to talk with colleagues we never normally get the time to sit and talk to at length. Last Friday I was fortunate to be able to spend the morning with Gerald Melton, the school art teacher with nearly fifty years of experience under his belt. The conversation began with a celebration of the resurgence of the importance of the arts , highlighted by the STEM to STEAM movement but moved on to Gerry’s observation of a declining skill among a certain population of students that may have a significant impact on the workforce of the future. I am thrilled to introduce Gerry as my first guest blogger and invite you to join our conversation:

With the current proliferation of personal digital devices, boys are becoming increasingly lacking in development of their fine motor skills outside the school art class. During the last half of my 46 years of teaching art to children of all ages, mainly elementary and middle school, I have noticed a marked decline in boys’ choosing activities outside of school which require the practice of fine motor development, or, manual dexterity. Boys, of course, will continue running, biking, and playing on their own and participating in organized sports. However, quiet time activities are tending to be spent more with home computers and hand held electronic devices for entertainment than with tactile, constructive activities.

A major change in boys’ dwindling choices of tactile project pastimes is the disappearing hobby of model building. In the past, building plastic and wooden model planes, cars, ships, etc. was practiced at some time in the life of the majority of boys, along with assembling and painting other kinds of kits like soldiers, or board game pieces. Scratch- building with scraps of wood and junk with a few hand tools have also long been a part of growing up.

Hobby shops have almost disappeared along with their plastic models - a ubiquitous product once regularly found in drugstores, hardware stores, and even grocery stores. In my art room I have a list of free choice activities for students to do at lunchtime or between assignments.   Along with free painting, scrap work, and other crafts, the direction to “Bring and construct a plastic model…” results in the question, “What’s that?”  Only one boy has assembled a plastic model kit in my art room during the last twelve years.
The closest things to the traditional hobby shop are large stores like Lobby Hobby, Michael’s and Jo-ann’s. The clientele is mostly female because areas of male interests cover a relatively small niche in these stores which sell fabric, scrapbooking, flower arranging supplies, and such.

Girls, thankfully, continue to be interested in and practice fine motor skills with personal activities like hair braiding, nail painting, and makeup application, as well as with hobbies like drawing, painting, beading, and decorating almost any surface.

With so much emphasis on attaining academic excellence on standardized tests and the growing use of electronic media in most subjects, opportunities for students to develop fine motor, eye-hand coordination by manipulating craft materials outside the art room are  becoming fewer as teachers of other subjects are pressed for time.    Additionally, lack of art supply money and/ or the avoidance of messes made are other factors.

Will it become just a girl thing to practice small motor skills tasks in their formative years so that the majority of American students who exit high school with capable manual dexterity in the future will be predominately females? If so, then surgery, electrical work, and baiting a hook will be mostly “girlie” activities.   Will Nano engineers and Nano technicians become job categories for females only?   How about female dentists only?
something to think about.
gerald melton,
art teacher.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Auras in the Classroom

My students have been creating a game to address some areas of school culture that give them cause for concern. Code Cobra challenges students to become top agents by completing missions that are designed to help students develop a greater understanding and appreciation for each other, the environment and education.

I am really impressed with the level of commitment shown by my core team of designers and I’m really excited about their product. Always their own greatest critics they wanted a bit more pizazz for their game, something that would get other students really excited. That’s when we discovered Aurasma, which overlays video onto any image. My students have plans to take photos all over the building then hide missions in them using the Aurasma application. This will add a whole new level of mystery to the game and hopefully ensure a higher level of engagement from the wider school population. 

But I am discovering that this app has so many more possibilities. In science class my students made their own body system books with third and fourth graders as their target audience. In the event that some students may struggle with the reading or the language, we used Aurasma to overlay them with movies explaining how each of the body systems work.

The display boards in my classroom can now spring to life as students can add commentaries to their own work, I can add directions or explanations to enhance informational displays and we can engage a wider audience by adding auras to hallway pin boards and exhibits. I am planning to utilize this app at different centers in my classroom for group work. I can overlay any page or worksheet with specific instructions, making the students more independent and enabling me to work more closely with individuals or teams.

To get a better idea of how Aurasma works I invite you to open an account and follow me at pr05bps. Hover over the image below and you should be able to enjoy a movie of my students sharing their favorite inspirational Dr. Seuss quotes.

How would you add auras to your classroom?

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

A Basketball Full of Character

Teaching in a school of third thru eight graders, we rarely have presenters who can catch the attention of every age group. Yesterday we were lucky enough to have a guest speaker who held all 660 students and every member of staff in the palm of one hand while spinning a basketball in the other!
I have never seen Jim Basketball Jones present before so I was a little unsure of what to expect but what a treat. As nearly 700 people streamed into the gym from every possible direction, far from being intimidated Jim immediately took command, organizing the seating the way he wanted and teaching us about his audience expectations .He asked for us to be patient listeners, responding carefully and thoughtfully to his words and to bring forth our best efforts to participate with purpose. The ground rules established, he began to juggle and spin several basketballs and I can honestly say my jaw dropped! His skills were mesmerizing and our students were enthralled as he pulled up volunteers to spin basketballs on their fingers, their faces, on top of pens they were holding…it was a joy to behold. But this was not just an amazing spectacle, it was an hour loaded with character education.
In between tricks and stunts Jim told stories, evocative stories about children and adults he had encountered in the past who had taught him much about life and how to live it. His first tale was about a teacher at a previous presentation who had volunteered to take a shot at the hoop in the hopes of winning a basketball. She wanted to win so that she could be remembered at the school, but the consequence for missing was to do ten push-ups. When she did in fact miss, and it was obvious she was unable to complete the consequence, he asked for the other teachers to volunteer in her place. When nobody offered, the hand of a kindergartener popped up and a little boy gladly offered to take her place because he wanted to be there for his teacher, just as she was always there for him. The little boy had cerebral palsy and to everybody’s amazement the child completed the task. From that point on he was always known as “Champ” by his peers and teachers.
One tale after another conveyed moving messages about kindness, perseverance, honesty and integrity. It was thrilling to see the entire audience turn to their neighbor and declare that they were each important, that they mattered, that nothing would stand in the way of their goals. Even a game of Simple Simon provided an opportunity to demonstrate key concepts such as leadership, striving for excellence and supporting and helping each other. Jim’s concluding tale about his personal struggle with learning disabilities and eventual success left much for us to ponder and there were several misty eyes in the room.
This was a fantastic assembly for our whole school to enjoy upon our return from mid-winter break. For me, it was a compelling reminder of the power of a story well told. As a child, teachers asked Jim why he spent so much time and effort learning how to spin basketballs as it served no real purpose. His response: because it makes me happy. Maybe the most effective way to teach character education is to simply support and encourage our students to pursue their passions with courage, determination, and dedication.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Epic Fail

My daughter and I are learning to cook together. My mother’s most essential cooking utensil was a can opener so it’s an area in which I am lacking key skills, but my daughter has a creative streak with food so we are trying to figure it out together.
We trawl through online recipes, choose one that seems most appealing and challenging, shop for it and do our best to follow the instructions.  Many of our cooking adventures result in epic fails but we enjoy the process of experimenting, tweaking, adjusting and ultimately learning. Failure holds no fear for us, indeed it spurs us on to do better, and it occurs to me that I need to fail epically more often in the classroom .
My students brainstorming skills are improving. They are at the point in the year where they have established trusting relationships, and they more familiar with the routine of trying to generate 100 ideas in ten minutes with no holds barred. It is moving from ideas to action that seems to pose the greatest problem. As soon as they begin to consider their ideas they can generate just as many, if not more reasons why their ideas won’t work. They reach an impasse quickly and will tend to descend into a dulled state of defeat and inaction. Rather than attempting a challenging solution and learning from their mistakes they prefer to choose not to try at all.
The question is, how do I help my students attempt to solve a problem with the same fearless enthusiasm that my daughter attempts a new recipe? I need to make my classroom more like my kitchen; a fun place for messy experimentation, a safe place to make mistakes and a place to celebrate success. I can make a start by modeling failure more often.
Instead of being just a coach and guide I am going to try and become more of an active participant. When I ask students to solve challenging math problems I am going to attempt solve some myself. When I ask them to build something, I will build too. When I ask them to play a game, I will play too. Being an active participant will enable me to demonstrate what it looks like to take risks, to dive in, evaluate, consider alternatives, rethink and try again. It will also provide opportunities for open and purposeful conversation about failure, about redefining success and about character traits like grit, determination and perseverance.
As educators we constantly hear that it’s not about the tool, (the iPad, the interactive whiteboard…the can opener) it’s what you do with it. Well my new learning tool is going to be failure, maybe my plan will fail fantastically, but the process will be epic.


Wednesday, February 13, 2013

A Tale of Two Classrooms

I have been feeling quite unbalanced for the last few weeks because my math and science classes have been so diametrically opposite.
The mid-year assessment window in my district is coming to a close and my math students have faced a battery of assessments. During the last two weeks they have taken end of unit tests, NWEA online tests,  mid-year tests, basic fact tests and the Orleans-Hanna algebra prognosis test. The classroom has been filled with silence broken only by coughing, sneezing, sighing, pencil pushing and head scratching. The usual fun banter has been banished, collaboration has been banned, engaging debate driven out, and I have been…bored! My role has been that of a spectator, watching from the sidelines. I’ve been watching the introverts happily and quietly calculating away to their hearts content, watching the extroverts struggling to contain themselves, watching kids become agitated, frustrated, anxious, weary, sick. It’s such an alien environment and I’m eager to get back into the mathematical fray.
In stark contrast my science classes have been fun filled and high energy. We have been participating in the Gravity Cruiser Challenge from the award winning A World in Motion Program. Working in collaborative teams of three, the students have been designing and constructing a vehicle that is powered by gravity. The basic model is comprised of a weighted lever, connected to an axle by string, which rotates on its fulcrum; as the weight descends it causes the axle attached to the string to rotate, propelling the cruiser forward. Once the students have the basic model they play around with variables to make the cruiser travel as far as possible. Concepts explored include potential and kinetic energy, friction, inertia, momentum, diameter, circumference, measurement, and graphing.
It’s been exciting to watch the kids struggle with this challenge, posing theories, testing hypotheses, thinking outside the box. Science, technology, engineering and math have burst into life as my kids are crawling on the floor, under tables, over tables, up the hallway, down the hallway trying to outdo their personal best distance. We’ve also been fortunate to have visiting experts join us to share their wisdom. Relatives with engineering experience have spent their afternoons with us, getting down on their knees and offering help with the process. It’s been wonderful to team teach with dads, uncles, and cousins and watch them struggle to maintain a supporting role and not just tell the kids how to solve the problem. One parent went home and built his very own cruiser which he eagerly shared with the class, demonstrating beautifully how engineers love the challenge of solving a problem. The conversation and learning that is taking place is exhilarating.
Tomorrow all 220 fifth and sixth grade students will celebrate Valentine’s Day with a cruise off! All the gravity cruisers will be put to the test to find the winning design and I can’t think of a better way to celebrate not only the holiday, but also the end of the testing window and the wonderful learning that takes place when the whole community comes together to work and explore together.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

In the Presence of Greatness

I attended a beautiful memorial service at the weekend. I didn’t know the person we were honoring very well, but by the time the service was over, I really wish I had.
Colleagues gathered to impart their reflections about their shared professional lives and described a man who was dedicated to his role as provost of the College of Creative Studies. A man with a vision who led with courage and conviction, whose love for his work motivated and enriched the lives of those around him. He was an innovator, an agent of change, a trailblazer. Students told tales about how he had inspired them, pushed them, challenged them to dream big and aim higher. Friends from all over the globe arrived to share the stories of their friendships, nurtured over decades and continents. I learned about a loving and loyal friend, a risk taker, an adventurer, a traveler. Family members described a fun, exuberant man who they longed to be around. His children painted a portrait of a father who enjoyed nothing better than to be with them, guiding them, sharing with them, learning from them and loving them. His own artwork revealed even more about his talents and his passions and I was overwhelmed with a sense of enormous loss.
We’d met on only a few occasions but I couldn’t help but feel sad about the fact that I missed an opportunity to know a great man. I think about all the other people whose worlds collide with mine on a daily basis and wonder how many similar opportunities I have missed. What about the people I spend the majority of my time with, my students?
Children are masterful at showing you exactly who they want you to see: the quiet studious child, the boisterous child who likes to make everybody laugh, the follower, the leader, the helper, the lost. But how well do I really know them? How much time do I take to get behind the fa├žade they allow me to see and figure out who they really are? What hidden talents, gifts, strengths and passions lurk within them that I have yet to uncover?
At the memorial service speaker after speaker lamented the fact that they had been denied more cups of coffee, more bike rides, more barbecues, more time. I have been blessed with a reminder that the time we have to share with the people in our lives, our friends, our colleagues, our families, our students, is short. We need to  be vigilant while we are with them, we need to listen, we need to learn from them, we need to be appreciative of the fact that we just might be in the presence of greatness.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Google, Copy, Paste!

I love the State Farm TV commercial about the French model. A young lady believes everything she reads on the Internet to be true and ends up meeting a dubious guy claiming to be a model. I like this commercial because it highlights a real problem that our students face every day. Never before has knowledge been so easily available and our kids are bombarded every day with gigabytes of information. How do we as teachers help our students to become discerning consumers of information?
As an educator I have found the best way to deal with this issue is Project Based Learning. Project Based Learning engages student interest and motivation by designing activities around a real world question or problem. A well-designed project provokes students to encounter, and struggle with, opportunities to conduct meaningful, independent research. When research has to be undertaken online, I ask my students to use a simplified version of the CARS Checklist (Credibility, Accuracy, Reasonableness, and Support). Even using this checklist however, the temptation for students to Google, copy and paste is great and when this is the path they choose they can often end up with a mashed together product that  provides a distorted truth.
I read a classic example of this kind of fragmented writing yesterday in the New York Post. In this article Lisa Nielsen, author of the Innovative Educator Blog, is heralded as a class clown. By copying a little piece of information from here, reproducing a snippet from over there, and topping it off with an image borrowed from somewhere else the author has created a misleading version of Lisa. I had the pleasure of meeting Lisa at the Microsoft Global Forum in Prague last November. She is a passionate advocate for students and for transparency. She has a mind that is open to new ideas and innovation and she invites examination and debate through her Blog and various Facebook pages. Far from using social media to encourage readers to flout policy, she uses them to inform her readers about policy and about their options.
Applying the CARS checklist to this article I find the author to be lacking in credibility, with no apparent expertise in the field of education. In terms of accuracy I consider the intended audience and question the hidden agenda. It also concerns me that there is no invitation to comment, to respond, to present an opposing view, therefore is it a reasonable , fair and balanced portrayal? With no corroborating websites or links, or any evidence of having communicating directly with Lisa herself , I would hope that a discerning reader could deem this piece as lacking the key criteria required for a source of quality information.
The Internet is an incredibly powerful tool but we need to help our students learn how to avoid the class clowns and the French models that lurk within it. My favorite kind of PBL includes research that is done first hand, when my students engage with local community experts personally and work alongside them to help uncover their own truths. By connecting our students with professionals they can learn the skills and methodologies employed in the real world and gain a deeper understanding of what meaningful learning looks like.