Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Power of Appreciation - Reflections from #TCEA15

Sometimes, as teachers, we forget the impact that we have on others.  Sometimes we also forget how much others impact us. And, sometimes we forget to tell people how important they are to us.

Over the past four days at TCEA in Austin Texas, I have been reminded of all three of those facts. As I hurtle through the air at 600 miles per hour 30,000 feet in the air on my way home, I want to take this post to remind those who impacted me so much in the past few days how appreciative I am.

Before I arrived in Texas, I had never met Karen Balbier, Andrea Keller, Joe Meza, or Gina Ruffcorn in person.  Karen, Andrea, Joe, and I have recorded podcasts together along with Dyane Smokorowski and Micah Brown for over a year now, but we had never met face to face. Gina and I had connected our students and talked through social media before, but had never met.  

I somehow won the PLN jackpot.  Sure, like many others, I’ve got an amazing group of thousands of teachers on Twitter, Facebook, and Skype that I learn from every day.  Beyond that, I have been so incredibly blessed in the past 12 months to get to really know so many of them as friends.  I don’t think there is anyone who has a more amazing group of friends who are changing the world than I do. Andrea, Joe, Karen, and Gina, are simply four of the most passionate, amazing educators that I know, and it was amazing to be able to see that in person for a few days.

Presenting a workshop to 90 teachers on global learning with Karen was a great experience.  Like many other sessions I’ve given before though, I was worried afterward that I hadn’t done as great a job helping them as I could have.  I am so passionate about the topics I talk about that sometimes I worry when I don’t see the same level of excitement from every member of my audience.  

I’m not sure if this is a feeling that all teachers get, but I’d imagine that we all face it at times.  Maybe this is one of the downsides to having an incredible PLN.  Being connected to other Top-50 finalists for the Global Teacher Prize, Presidential Award winning math and science teachers, Teachers of the Year, and thousands of others who have no award next to their name but deserve one can be humbling when you see the amazing things they are doing.

“Have I done enough?”
“Did I have the impact that I should have?”
“Would it have been better if I… ?”

These were the thoughts swirling around in my head after our session when I checked my Facebook notifications and saw that Nikki Greene had tagged me in a post. She was thanking me for encouraging her to apply for a grant that she had just received, and for giving her the confidence to pursue the things she is passionate about.  To be perfectly honest, I don’t remember encouraging her. She is a two-time state finalist for the Presidential Math Award, passionate about finding new ways to create great experiences for her students, and an amazing teacher, and I have no doubt that at the time I just told her the truth about herself.  But, her thanking me in that post did just as much for me as I could have ever done for her. It allowed me to see the positives from my session and to feel confident that my enthusiasm made a difference.

Her expression of appreciation allowed me to remember that the most important things we do as teachers often go totally unnoticed by us.  We do good for others because it’s who we are. The lunch money you give to the kid who is worried because Mom didn’t wake up before he left for school, or the smile you give to cheer up the girl who is walking down the hall with her head down are instantly forgotten by you.  But, for the student who can breath easier knowing they can get lunch, or the kid who sees that smile as a sign that someone cares about how they are feeling, those actions mean everything.

Over the next two days I ran into several people in the convention center, got private messages on Twitter, and emails from participants that confirmed that there was a ton of excitement built from our workshop. We generated an excitement in teachers to empower their students and connect with others around the world to provide amazing educational experiences for their students. I have no doubt now that the session was a complete success and that I was being overly hard on myself. 

I learned lots of new tools at TCEA that I am going to share with my colleagues. The one thing that I am most committed to as I travel home isn’t implementing a new tool, though.  I am committed to doing for the teachers around me what Nikki did for me.  I want to show them the unseen impact that they have on those around them. As we enter the time of year when state assessments and preparation can send even the most positive teacher into a funk spiral, I want to help those around me feel the joy that comes from knowing they are making a difference.  

Because they are, and they deserve to know it. 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Maybe I'll Quit Teaching and Try Being a Lawyer

This morning, as I was having my cup of coffee I opened up Tweetdeck like I do every morning. As I was checking my notifications and updates on some of the lists I follow, someone I follow posted this:
"A friend of mine is a lawyer and is thinking of quitting to teach English. Does anyone have any advice for her?"
"Yes." I thought to myself. "Go back to college, spend some time student teaching, and get a teaching degree."

I didn't reply to the tweet, though.  I thought better of it, and being snarky rarely leads to any kind of positive outcome on social media. All day, that tweet has bothered me, though.

What on Earth would lead someone to believe that they are qualified to teach when they have done nothing before that qualifies them to teach?  Maybe I'll quit teaching and try being a lawyer for a while.  After all, I've seen lots of episodes of Law and Order and watched Legally Blond 2.

As someone who has dedicated my adult life to my profession, it makes me angry that our job is viewed as something anyone can do.  Having a law degree doesn't make you any more qualified to teach English than it does for you to practice dentistry.

People don't seem to understand that teaching isn't about the content - it's about kids. Think about the best teacher you ever had.  Think about why they were amazing. It wasn't because they knew more about their subject than anyone else, was it?  As Yeats said, "Education is not the filling of a pail, but a lighting of a fire." Amazing teachers know how to light fires.

Great teachers aren't great because they know their content better (As I'm typing this I'm thinking of the Big Bang Theory where Sheldon bombs as a guest lecturer).  Great teachers understand how learning happens.  They understand child development, brain science, and most importantly they understand students.  They know how to inspire, motivate, and bring out the best in each one of their students.  They know when to use formative assessments and what feedback will help students most.

Last I checked, they weren't teaching those skills in law school.  Then again, I haven't really checked lately.  I figure, I won't need to go to law school if I decide to switch careers. There's bound to be a Law and Order marathon coming up on TNT sometime soon.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Easy to Make Fraction Wheels

Fractions are often a difficult concept for students to visualize.  Today I had the pleasure of working with a group of 5th grade students.  In order for them to show their knowledge of fractions, we spent 15 minutes creating fractions wheels. Below is a step-by-step guide on how to do this with your own students.

Materials needed: Cheap white paper plates, marker or crayon, scissors, ruler

First, have students completely color one of the plates.

Next, have them use the ruler to find the center point of both plates. This is a great time to introduce or review vocabulary having to do with circles such as "diameter", "radius", "chord", etc. 

When they have found the center of both plates, have them cut the radius of each plate.  

Finally, place one plate on top of the other and twist them so they interlock where they have been cut.  This will allow students to rotate the plates to create representations of different fractions. We spend a bit of time having them showing different fraction representations and explaining why they believed those representations to be accurate.

After spending some time exploring fraction concepts, students will use their creations to teach those concepts to other students around the world through short videos as part of the Distance Teaching Project

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Global Holiday Song Exchange Skype-a-Thon

The following post is cross posted from the "21st Century Learning at the South Elementary" blog that I also author.  There I post the great learning experiences that we bring to our students.  Unfortunately, with all that is happening lately, I have struggled to keep up with sharing some of those great experiences here.  I am going to try cross-posting some of my favorite activities in both places to see if I can do a better job sharing with you all.

Global Holiday Song Exchange Skype-a-Thon

South Elementary music teacher Jean Shields leads 3rd grade
students in song.
Yesterday the students at the South Elementary got to experience one of the great joys of the holiday season - music from around the world.  Through Skype, our students took part in seven different group calls that allowed them to exchange holiday songs with students from five different continents. The planning of the project over the past 2 weeks was done with the help of a lesson posted on the Skype in the Classroom website.  We asked for classrooms in other locations to contact us if they wished to participate.  Many of our connections were made through that posting.   We wanted to make sure that we had 2 other classrooms connecting with us in each of our time slots.  During our group calls, each class had the opportunity to sing three of their favorite holiday songs for their partner classes.

The first call of the day partnered our 3rd grade students with children in Russia and Poland.  Some of the Russian students dressed up as traditional holiday characters from their country: Papa Frost and his granddaughter who deliver presents to children on New Year's Eve.

Our next session partnered our 3rd graders with students in France and Venezuela.  A French newspaper wrote about the interaction here:  Mende : Jeanne-d’Arc connectée au reste de la planète.  The highlight of this call was when all three schools sang "Jingle Bells" in their own language.  It was a beautiful three-continent, three-language sing along.

 The third group call connected students in Mrs. Spitzer's homeroom with students in Greece and Canada.  Our Greek friends shared a bit about their Christmas traditions and insisted on taking a three-country picture at the end of the call.

Our fourth connection stayed within the United States. Mrs. Gates's second grade class connected with schools in Massachusetts and Delaware.

Session five also stayed within the United States.  Our 4th and 5th grade chorus got the opportunity to share the songs they had been practicing with a Middle School chorus in Virgina and a group of 4th grade students in Utah. There was some fantastic singing going on during this call as you can see in the video below.


The sixth session of the day of the day brought countries in North America together.  Second grade students in Mrs. Gates's and Mrs. Seifert's classes and Mrs. Conklin's Kindergartners sang for and with students in Mexico and Canada.  Since the Mexican students spoke Spanish and the students in Canada were French speaking, there was another multi-language caroling activity at the end of the call.

Our last connection of the day was between Mrs. Flynn's second grade students,  first graders in Colorado, and third graders in Hawaii.  The Colorado students played the xylophone along with their songs.  The Hawaiian students sang a unique version of "The 12 Days of Christmas" that substituted in gifts from Hawaii like coconuts, giant squid, and papaya trees.

In addition to our seven connections during the day, classrooms that could not connect live due to time zone restraints or holiday breaks sent us videos of their students singing.  We received videos from Serbia, India, France, and Kenya.  Those videos can be seen on the Distance Teaching Project website and will be played as part of our morning news broadcast during the next few days. This was an amazing experience for everyone who participated.  We've already had multiple requests to plan another Holiday Song Skype-a-Thon for next year.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Connected Classrooms and the New World of Learning

Yesterday I was blessed with the opportunity to share some of the great work our students have been doing with some of the most passionate do-gooders of the world at the 2014 Social Good Summit in New York City.  The summit was sponsored by Mashable and the United Nations Foundation.  My talk with Wendy Norman from Skype about the power of students connecting globally via videoconferencing to change the world was broadcast to over 160 countries and translated into 7 languages.  This was undoubtedly one of my career highlights.

The video is embedded below.  Wendy speaks for about 7 minutes before introducing me and letting me finish the presentation.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Assigning Optional Homework?

The following post is posted with permission from the author, Scott Bedley.  It originally appeared on his blog, Cutting Edge-ucation, on July 7, 2014. Scott is the 2013 IUSD Teacher of the Year, 2013 High-Tech Innovation Award winner for STEM Education, 2014 Orange County Teacher of the Year, and a 2014 CA State Teacher of the Year Finalist.  He and his brother Tim produce the Bedley Brothers EdChat Show, which can be found on iTunes and YouTube.

Assigning Optional Homework?

So... Should homework be required or eliminated?

A few years back, my district went through an exercise of looking at homework and our policies surrounding it.  Meetings were had, discussions and debates occurred, and in the end... nothing much seemed to have changed.  I understand why... this is a tough issue! Homework, after all, is truly a pillar of education.  So as the debate over homework seems to continue on like Pink Floyd's song "Comfortably Numb" ...looped..., some arguing for it and others against it, all with no solution... I'd like to propose an optional new policy... The Optional Homework Policy.  The optional homework policy states this... "Students, if you or your parents would like you to complete homework, then here are your options."  Yes, giving the decision making power, to have or not have homework, over to the students and their families. Crazy!?  Will Not Work!  Kids' Scores Will Drop!  Before you judge, please think growth mindset... and know that I've actually been testing this out over the past school year with positive results for all parties involved with the homework debate.

There are three basic explanations/reasons why I reconsidered required or no homework:

Grades, Grades, Grades...

As teachers we have the choice to calculate homework into a grade or not.  Most teachers I know have homework as a small percentage of a student's overall performance, yet many of the report card conversations between teachers, parents and students, from my experience and as shared with by many other teachers, revolve around the topic of missing or late homework.  Now I don't believe that something should be changed to avoid a conversation, but these conversations can often become distractors or points of contention between parent and student, student and teacher, and teacher and parent, thus creating problems in partnerships that are vital to real learning. These homework conversations are another draw away from the important conversation about learning, true student needs, and areas of growth.

The important question to ask oneself about homework grades is why is it being given?  The typical answer would be work completion, practice of concepts or responsibility at primary levels, and preparation at the higher levels.  Most don't say that the primary or important factor in homework is as a diagnostic tool to report to parents on a students ability or performance. There's too many variables that impact homework to use it as a diagnostic for student learning or as a tool to help guide future lessons and instruction. When homework becomes optional though, the feedback, and not the grade, become more important to the learner.  Feedback is how we learn.  I've seen the focus shift and become about the quality rather than the completion. So rather than giving grades based on completion of work, grades can continue to move towards being about reporting levels of learning growth.

Help or lack of it

It's a "Goldie Locks" deal... some get too much, some not enough and others just the right amount. While parents and teachers are often on one side or the other in this debate, the optional homework policy pleases all. Ideally the parents who may offer too much help to a child, thus taking away their chance to feel the success that builds confidence, find that their help (which is at times aimed at grades) becomes obsolete and the focus shifts to supporting a child's learning.  Fewer conflicts occur between child and parent and student and teacher.  On the other hand, the student that always struggles with homework, and comes to our learning environments already with a feeling of failure, now is far more open to learning.

Real Impact?

On a study my teaching partners and I did in 2007, surrounding homework's true impact, we found that through a comparison based in data, the students who received less homework (in the subject area of math for our study) had three key factors surface.  First, parents reported better relationships with these children. Next, students positive attitudes and feelings towards learning and school showed a measurable increase as well as in-class focus and participation based on surveys and observable evidence by two outside teachers watching the three groups in class for engagement and effort. Finally, the group who received the least amount of homework, actually showed the highest percentage of gains from pre-assessment to post assessment on the math concepts.  Again, with the number of variables, I can't say beyond doubt that homework or lack of it, was the factor that truly made the difference, but it did play a key factor.

Still not convinced... Me either

My main hope is to "get you up on the fence" about this topic so you can look down on both sides and clearly evaluate homework requirement practices and why they are in place.  One quote that sticks with me came from some of the additional video content from the movie Race to Nowhere.

"Homework may be the greatest single extinguisher of children's curiosity that we have yet invented..."

So, where do our fears as educators and in education lie with letting go of homework? Are we giving homework because it's always been done or because it makes a positive impact?  If you believe it makes a positive impact, what real concrete proof do you have that it's the homework providing this improvement?

I write this blog only to encourage you to question things that have always been... I hope you'll question some norms... maybe even check out my previous post titled "Subversive Education Unconference Style"

My Steps and Results

So what did I do to make homework optional? Well... when I change things I don't only consider the implementation I will make, but I consider "will others be able to do this too?"  Confession... This isn't for everyone. Baiscally I took the assignments I would normally assign and said... "This is optional..."  after all, I have no foundational research to show homework was actually beneficial, so how could I justify continuing a required practice that no one could prove even worked after decades and decades of research and debate.  So rather than stop giving it, or continuing to require it... I made it optional leaving the decision to the parents and students.

How has my experiment gone? First, please know I wouldn't have tested this without the data from the study we did in 2007 and a great deal of research... but it's been great!  One of the most positive outcomes I've seen is that it's pushed me as an educator to continue create in-class assignments that drive kids to want to continue their learning on their own at home, intrinsically, by choice. It's so rewarding to have my students have the desire to learn more about a subject I'm teaching, because it's one of the main reasons I went into teaching... to inspire my students to learn.  In addition, many students who have wilted under "required homework" policies have started to blossom and come to life as learners in my subject areas.  I can't say beyond a doubt that The Optional Homework Policy has alone created the success and desire to learn I've seen, as I'm always trying new ways to inspire my students to learn, but I do feel confident it's been a key contributing factor to success for both my students and myself.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on the issue.

Are you going to try The Optional Homework Policy? Tweet at me or comment to let me know.  My next action step... student choice self-assigned homework. I'll let you know how it goes...

Additional reading on the homework debate that's gone on since the early 1900's ACSD's look at Homework through the 20th and 21st Centuries

Thanks so much for reading!  With my best hopes for you and your students!

Monday, June 9, 2014

Edcamp USA at the US Department of Education

Let me start out this post with an apology. I should have shared more in the past few months. There have been many blog worthy events and topics that have presented themselves. Unfortunately, there have been so many of those opportunities that I've been too busy to write about them. As time went on, I felt like I had so many blog posts to write that I was a bit overwhelmed to even start catching up. And, so I didn't write.

As someone who preaches to others the importance of telling the positive stories in education, I am sorry that I didn't share some of the incredible things I see teachers and students doing around me.  Here are a few brief descriptions with links to catch you up on some of them:
There are other amazing things going on at school, but that list gives you some idea of the things we've been doing. Because of those projects, Skype in the Classroom took notice of our school and asked me to represent them at a media event in New York City last week, and at the Social Innovation Summit, which is hosted by the United Nations. Being able to share stories of the amazing things our students and teachers are doing in front of thousands of the most innovative problem solvers and do-gooders from around the world in New York is definitely one of my career highlights so far.

Edcampers gather for a group picture after #EdcampUSA
So, that brings me to Friday.  The US Department of Education and the Edcamp Foundation collaborated to bring teachers from around the country and policy makers from the Department together in an unconference format to improve education for the first time. There was overwhelming demand among teachers to get a free ticket to the event, and I was fortunate enough to get selected in the lottery. I am also grateful that my district agreed to allow me to take a professional day to attend.

Anyone who follows this blog or knows me understands that I have not always agreed with policy decisions coming out of the Department of Education.  I can honestly say that I did not have high expectations that USDOEd would put much weight into the ideas that teachers shared at this event, and I was a bit worried that they would use it as a publicity event instead of an opportunity to really hear what teachers are saying.  Reflecting back on the day, I believe that the Department was very interested in hearing what we had to say.  I know that policy changes slowly.  I'm not expecting RttT to end tomorrow due to our discussions, but I think this was a positive step forward.  Welcoming teacher input and inviting teachers into the building to have discussions with policy makers was a positive.

I was pleasantly surprised at the feedback I heard from those in the Department. Emily Davis, a Teacher Ambassador Fellow at the Department is amazing.  She spent the day attending sessions, providing input, and taking notes to pass along to others in DOEd. We need teachers like her in higher policy positions.  I know she is looking forward to getting back in a classroom, but voices like hers are needed in rooms where education policy is being decided.

Right before lunch, Ruthanne Buck, a Senior Adviser to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (who made a brief appearance in the morning) sat in on a session in which digital leadership was being discussed. She seemed very impressed with the quality of the ideas being discussed and debated.  I had the opportunity to talk with her over lunch about educator-led professional development like edcamps, the need for teacher voice to be heard by those in senior policy positions, and the need for our best teachers to have avenues into those top policy positions.  She was genuinely interested in finding ways to give teachers more influence, which was a pleasant surprise for me.

The discussions at this edcamp were excellent.  Unlike many of the other edcamps I have attended, the sessions were more geared toward bigger issues and action rather than classroom pedagogy and tools.  There's nothing wrong with the latter topics, but this venue called for deeper and larger thinking, and those in attendance definitely recognized that.  The first session I attended, entitled "We're here. Now What?" was a great discussion about taking action to improve education.  Another session on building digital leadership also talked about actions we can take to help develop leaders who will take risks, push back against poor policies, and share success stories.  Both of these sessions made me realize that I have been shirking my responsibility to blog about the good things happening in my small corner of the educational world. In addition to continuing to share the positive stories I encounter at speaking engagements, I committed to doing a better job of documenting those stories here on this blog.

At the end of the day I accomplished another goal of mine for the visit.  As part of the grant I mentioned above, I would like to do some professional development for teachers in the Kibera Slum of Nairobi (more about that in a future post), and work with the Kenyan Education Ministry to put on a STEM summit in which teachers from Kenya have the opportunity to share their best practices with me, and I, as a PAEMST awardee, get to share some of the best practices I've seen in the US in return.  Emily was kind enough to take me upstairs in the Department to the International Affairs Office (I'm not sure if that's the official title) to make a connection who will help me coordinate those activities.

At the end of the day we were asked to commit to blogging about the day and committing to action going forward on the things we discussed.  Here are my committments:
  • I commit to blogging more often about the good I see around me in education
  • I commit to developing the potential leaders around me to be voices for student-centered, learning-focused educational policy through graduate course offerings, professional development opportunities, encouragement, support, and by sharing their success stories with the media.
  • I commit to fostering the connections I have made at the Department of Education, United Nations, National Science Foundation, the corporate world, and non-profit organizations doing social good to promote positive changes in education policy here in the United States, and internationally.