Monday, December 28, 2015

An Open Letter to Our Leaders

To: Our Principals, Administrators, and Leaders
From: Your creative, caring, energetic, and innovative Educators

On Tuesday, December 22, more than a dozen dedicated teachers got together during the #2PencilChat to discuss what they wanted to make theirs a better job. Teachers exist, of course, where ideology meets execution. We all have ideals, goals, beliefs, and principles, but it’s in the classroom where these things get put into practice. Ideals are wonderful on paper and in our hearts, but it takes great work to make them effective in person.

Those gathered were asked the question, “Your Principal has asked that every teacher submit a wishlist. What's on yours?” I’ve distilled the answers to a handful of big ideas, that I think are important to share. If you’re reading this, you’re probably on board with a lot of the concerns of your teachers. Even so, I think that crucial for leadership. If you keep marching forward without checking on your followers, you may be leading, or you may be walking on your own, far away from your team.
When I started sorting answers from the chat, three realms of thinking were covered by your teachers’ wishes. Each of these involve a price of some kind, and we all understand that. When there are costs, we don’t always get everything we want. If we work together, though, perhaps we can move in directions of betterment.
The first realm that I isolated was one of attitude. The Creative Educator is looking for supportive leadership. She is looking for the opportunity to be innovative. He is looking for positivity in the school environment. These sound inexpensive. Sure, focusing on positivity doesn’t cost money. Being supportive of your teachers’ goals and practices doesn’t come out of your budget. There is a cost, though. There’s a definite fear when you take risks (they wouldn’t be called risks otherwise, right?). What if we screw it up? What if our scores go down? What if our ideas don’t work the way we hoped? As tough as these things can be for a principal to shoulder, they can be terrifying, to young teachers, to new teachers, and to teachers who’ve had the poor chance to be saddled with bad leadership in the past. Support your teachers. Listen to their goals. Help them to implement their ideas, and to reflect on successes and struggles. Without that support, without that net, you aren’t going to have teachers who stretch, who grow, and who surprise everyone with their results. Shout out the positive things that are happening in your school. Your teachers look to you. When they don’t hear from you, they lose confidence. Be your school’s cheerleader, its clarion, make the good news heard, and you will supply your teachers with bravery and feedback to do great things in their classrooms. From there, you will see the innovation grow.
The second area that our Creative Educators had more to do with budget. And listen, we know that’s a tough issue. Your teachers desperately want money for more books, art and writing supplies, iPads and Chromebooks, podcasting and filmmaking supplies, robots, Maker Space supplies, Lego, larger classrooms, furniture for innovative classroom seating, and to attend conferences like FETC and ISTE. They understand that you aren’t rich, and sitting on a big well of money that you’re too greedy to spend, but that doesn’t make these things any less of a priority to the Creative Educator. Maybe your budget is tighter than they can imagine. I’m going to ask you to do something for your teachers. Ask them what they want. Ask them what areas they would feel would be best to spend money. Let them know - you don’t necessarily have any more resources to get those things, but if you’re commonly aware of big goals, you can work together to achieve them. Maybe you can set a grant writing team on your teachers’ wishlists, maybe you can have a team that works to creatively find resources. When I was looking for furniture for alternative seating in my classroom, I used a lot of different resources to help me. Find out what they want, and then work as a team to help them get it. Sure, if your teachers got everything they wanted, you’d be over budget by October. If you attack it as a team, though, with you as leader, everyone can be on the same page. And one of the best things about this, is that this type of transparency is the kind that doesn’t leave your teachers thinking, “Oh, there’s money, Admin just doesn’t wanna spend it.”
I saved the easiest for last. There are some procedural things that drive your teachers nuts. Announcements over the PA get ignored. If you put a student team with a staff advisor on the job of making a news broadcast, attention goes up, and you have great opportunities to put kids on TV and highlight the positive (check out that callback from earlier) in your school. The big thing you can do to make the school experience better, though is meeting focused, and here, I’m going to use words from the chat more directly than I have so far. Meetings for meetings sake are a huge problem in your teachers’ eyes. If you need to disseminate information, emails are much more effective. Use your meetings to give your teachers the types of learning that they feel they need. Listen to them. Dump some meetings, and build in collaborative time for groups of teachers to learn, or hey, to work on challenges that your school is facing. When you do have meetings, make sure that they’re for, as principal Mark French says, “collaborating, learning and sharing.”
So that’s it, it’s not too much is it? Listen, no one gets everything on their wishlist, but if you don’t know what people want, maybe they’d get nothing. These are the things that we wanted, the educators of the #2PencilChat. Doubtless, some of these things will overlap your own teachers’ desires. Talk to them. You are so important in the education of so many people, make sure you know what your team needs.
In the meantime, if you’re a classroom teacher and you’re reading this, you’re your students’ admin. Listen to them. Whoever you are, take into account your populations’ wants and needs, and your team’s successes will stand out!
If you felt that anything here has been useful for your reflection, share it with a principal that you know. Maybe they’re your boss, maybe they’re a colleague at another school. We’re all in this together. Let’s make this a better world.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Global School Play Day, Are You In?

Last year, I saw something about Global School Play Day in my Twitter feed. I don't remember who posted it, but my initial thought was, "This is for me and my kids." I wasn't wrong.

I introduced GSPD to my students this way: "This Wednesday, we're going to have a day for you to play. There are only a couple of rules. First, I'm staying out of it unless someone does something dangerous or hurtful. Secondly, we're not using electronic devices. Other than that it's your day. Think of it like one of those days where Dad's watching you, but he's busy, and doesn't want to be bothered." I answered a few questions as I was telling the kids about it, and by the time we were done, you could see on their faces that I'd blown their minds.

When the day came, I busied myself playing with a project that I wanted to help some other teachers with, and the kids played. They had games, action figures, puppet shows, Lego, and some took apart old electronics that we had in the class for that purpose. Only a few times did students come to my desk. Mostly they came to see what I was doing. I showed them and said politely, "Now I should really get back to work, go play!" One boy had more trouble though. "Tim" was upset because some other boys didn't want to play the way he wanted to play. Later, he didn't like the rules they'd made up. Both times I said to him, "Well, you'll need to figure it out peacefully, or if you can't, you could always find another place to go play." He sat and pouted for a while, and I wanted to go fix things, but I knew that he'd learn more if he figured it out for himself. And he did. There were no other real complications on the day.

Afterward, I had several students write glowing editorials about the day, and realized how much we're missing if play is relegated to one day a year. In October, I was at EdCamp Tampa Bay, in a session led by Bryan Miller, with the topic of play in the classroom. We discussed the reasons for play in school - play decreases stress, & increases social skills and class culture, play is a natural form of learning, play makes our learning memorable - and teachers' reluctance to play in school. At the end, Bryan laid out a challenge - schedule in 10 minutes of play each day. When you see the good that it does for your students, share it with other teachers at your school, share it with your principal, start a movement.

I did just that, and it's been fantastic. I've seen my students creativity come out, and I've learned more about their interests and tastes. It's allowed me to teach to the people I have, rather than trying to mold them to what I want to say. My classroom's climate is better, as well. There is less stress, and less irritability.

The Play train goes on, we discussed it in the #2PencilChat, and went whole hog with Play as learning at Teacher Play Date. So when the notices started up for Global School Play Day, I want to wave the banner from the top of the school. "Return childhood to our children!" I want to yell, "Bring PLAY back to your classrooms!"

So if you haven't signed up yet, hop over to the Global School Play Day website and sign your classroom up today! Let's do what's right for education, let's do what's right for our kids.


Lastly, I wanted to share a blog post on the subject from one of my students. As you read it, you can see her passion. 

Global School Play Day by Kayla

Hi guys, Kayla here today I’m going to tell you about this AWESOME event it’s called global school play day!.   So what you do is you PLAY ALL DAY!!!  Of course I’m not crazy about the outdoors but you can go outside it’s on February 4th our class is doing it. So I’m really glad I could do this because I’m going on a cruise on February 5th so yeah. I plan on bringing all my monster high / ever after high dolls so I’m super exited.  And this is just another reason my teacher is AWESOME no offence other teachers. So I’m really happy that were able to do this now. Not many other teachers are doing this it’s an AWESOME event so I would really like it if more teachers did this because after working a lot kid deserve to play for a day. So if you see this please convince your teacher to do it. And share the idea because I know it’s going to be AWESOME. But I want to share a few more things I really would recommend it and keep being Awesome students. – KAYLA AT HEART 

Origin Story Part Two - Teacher Play Date 2015

The #2PencilChat started off with a joke. Teacher Play Date started more conventionally - with a couple of Instagram comments at five in the morning, and then a flurry of texts over the next hour.

I was in Orlando for ECET2 Florida. If you haven't heard of it, it's worth looking up, I've enjoyed the ECET2 events almost as much as EdCamps. Anyway, I was there, Friday night, just before bed, thumbing through my Instagram feed. And I see that my pal (the amazing, energetic, and incredibly yes-centric) Jen Williams is in Orlando, too, having dinner with some mutual friends. Well darn! If I'd known, it would've been fun to meet up with them. I commented, and went to sleep soon after. 

Waking up far too early the next morning, I grabbed my phone to check notifications, and see there's a comment on Instagram. Jen had gone home. I replied, and got a text a couple of minutes later:

First: The fact that we are up at
5:30 am on a sat is crazy haha!!!!
Text message 5:29 AM

After a little bit of back and forth about where we were, next came:

We need a fun event before 
FETC!!!! Any thoughts?
Text message 5:32 AM

January is too far away!
Text message 5:32 AM

Um let's create a micro event
that's somewhere in central
Florida in late Nov/early Dec
Text message 5:34 AM

Okay let's do that!!!
Text message 5:34 AM

Perfect idea!
Text message 5:35 AM

Text message 5:35 AM

From there, we texted relentless positivity, each of us tossing out ideas and yesses. Teacher Toy Fair? YES!!! Crayola Experience? YES!!! Teacher Play Date? YES!!! Jen and I kept the ideas coming, and half of the time we were texting the same thing at the same moment. It was a beautiful hour of flow and synchronicity all starting because we'd both woken up at a ridiculous hour. 

By the end of the day, I was tweeting a place holder image online. We'd picked a time and date. Early the next week, Jen had convinced Crayola to lend us space in their cafeteria and free admission for anyone on our guest list and set up the registration on Eventbrite. We both shared the logo I designed, our signup, and our mission relentlessly online. 

The sign ups came FAST. In a very short amount of time, we had a nice guest list, filled with creative educators. More importantly, it was filled with people who know that we all need time to PLAY in our learning process. Teachers need to play to develop the lessons and the systems that keep learning awesome for their students. Students need to play to learn, it's such a sticky, effective way to learn!

The thing about putting this event together is that it seemed so easy, and while I know that it's repeatable, I think the thing about it is that you have two people who love ideas, two yes people, two people with energy and excitement. Whenever Jen would tell me what she'd been doing, I wondered how I got so lucky to work with someone so awesome, but then I'd get texts from her and she was feeling the same excitement and joy.

So my wish to you is that you find collaborators. Hang out with people who are fun. Inspiration comes at some weird times! 


I wanted to share a little about the event itself, this was the story of the origin, but the actual night was so amazing. It was so simple, the teachers present were asked to share something that they did or used to make school more fun. We had robots (Sphero was there, the Ozobots accidentally fell out of the bag at home), Marbotic iPad letters,  a Makey Makey, student crafts, Google Cardboard, Quivervision augmented reality coloring sheets, homemade playdough (colored with spices and food!), text speech Shakespeare (Yolo, Juliet) and more. It was awesome, and the response afterward has been so positive!

Going forward from here, Jen and I want to help others put on Teacher Play Date events in their towns, and hopefully develop a way to help us attend these events and collaborate with the best teachers in the country! In the meantime, we're planning to hold a #TeachPlayFETC meetup, a #TeachPlayStAug event in February, and more!

I'd like to thank everyone who attended. Scroll through the Storify article below. You'll see happy pictures of amazing teachers having fun!

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Origin Story Part One, The #2PencilChat

Saturday, September 19, 2015

My pal Kristin and I left oh so early in the morning to leave for EdCamp Citrus. It was the site of my first EdCamp a year before, and I was excited to return. The thing was, though, I was beat. Between the new school year and a new apartment, I'd been burning candles at all sorts of ends. I unsigned myself up for leading a discussion, and I was just not in good spirits for most of the morning. Lunch helped. Good conversation helped, and by the afternoon, I was my usual happy self.

For me, though, the best part of the day was in the parking lot before leaving. I was chatting with friends about the sheer number of Twitter chats out there. My pal Tammy said, "I mean what's next? The #2PencilChat?" We all laughed. And then it popped in my head, "Tammy, that's genius! It's already got a hashtag." As I wrapped my brain around that sentence, I thought it could be a chat that talks about the tech that we've had for ages.

When you get a bunch of teachers together, especially the connected ones - the bloggers, the Twitterers, the conference goers - you have a lot of talk about digital tech. Gadgets, apps, websites, gamification platforms - the flashy stuff gets a lot of mention. But when we do that we're sending a message that a new app is the way to get that illusive Innovative (or whatever scale point your district uses) on your evaluation. And it's not the apps, it's the teaching, it's the mindset, it's ways that keep your students engaged. And it's not just the digital. Don't get me wrong here. I'm writing this on my laptop, and within my reach, are a ton of digital devices that I love so much. You don't throw your stove away when you buy a microwave, though, and you don't toss out your screwdrivers when you buy a cordless drill. That's what the #2PencilChat could be about.

After that weekend, I talked with people, they seemed to love the idea. I made posters and posted them to Twitter. I picked a date (about a month later), and hustled to get people on board. The first chat happened on October 27, and from that date, the chat has quickly grown to be a weekly meeting of some of the most creative people I know. We've shared ideas about using different materials(Sharpies, cardboard), techniques (sketchnoting), and concepts (play, gratitude).

Since then, Tuesdays have been more special to me! There are so many people that have helped to make it great, but I want to thank a few for specific reasons. Stacey Lindes has archived the chat each week on Storify for us, even when she's not able to make it in time. Amber McCormick and Dianne Doersch have both done a lovely job designing our question cards. And there are so many more people - it would be insulting to just list a few, so I invite you to check out the Archives of the #2PencilChat. In it, you'll see brilliant ideas from so many people!

So that's it, it started with a road trip with one of my favorite people, and a joke from another of my favorite people. What it's spawned, for me, is new friendships and great conversations with a whole new pile of favorite people. If you're at all like me, quit worrying about if it will work, and go out and start something based on a joke. If it doesn't work, you learn and you'll start something better next time. If it does, though, you'll hold magic for a while! And you'll learn, and you'll still go on to start something awesome next time.

Speaking of next time, soon, I'll share the origin of Teacher Playdate!
In the meantime, visit the #2PencilChat website, or tune in on Twitter, every Tuesday at 7pm est!

Thursday, July 23, 2015

SMN - Student Media Network - Trailer

This afternoon in a comfy corporate coffee shop, I threw together this trailer to excite my students about our Media Empire. Because this year? We're going to build a media empire.


Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Oh Goodness!

I've mentioned in the past that I overpack the last few weeks of my year so we don't get complacent. This year, I'm wondering if it may be too much. My conscientious kids are getting overwhelmed, and the kids who need a push are finding too many reasons to get off task.

We have so much pulling at us right now. We're working on a book that needs photographing, podcasting, blogging, catching up on math skills and reading goals to prep for fourth grade, and working through new science and social studies skills. In addition to this, we're adding in one fun event for every day of #CrayCrayMay.

While all of this is on our communal plate, as a teacher, I've got my trip to EdCamp USA coming up next week, and I'm also looking at my super-stuffed classroom with fear as I think about the end of the year pack up.

Tomorrow, my plan is to begin the day by putting together a chart with students so they can have a list of what they need to do so they can use their workshop time more wisely. Students who are all caught up need things to do while others are making sure that they have all of their required bases covered. I also need to make sure that we have play time worked in! The last 15 minutes of every well worked hour should be fun! It's important to me that I work over this process with my students. I want them to not only see how the proverbial sausage is made, I want them to make it with me. When students know the work of planning, and take part in it, they have more buy-in on making sure it works.

Monday, May 18, 2015


What did I eat last night, what caused the problem? I don't know who the culprit was, but my stomach decided that it was the wrong thing to eat. Okay, that's it, no more details, but the middle of my night was spent organizing a sub, and getting sub plans together.

And that's how getting really sick brought me to a bout of early morning #CelebrateMonday... In past years, doing sub plans has been a nightmare that means being working for hours. Gathering books, making copies, organizing my desk, it was always awful. How often I've said (and heard others say), "Getting ready for a sub is more trouble than it's worth. I'd rather just go to school sick." That's not always possible, and what makes me so happy today is how easy it was to get ready.

My class has become very workshop based this year. My students have several tasks to work on each day, and choice as to how they complete them. Now, with some students, that does require a lot of hand holding, they're not always used to much freedom, but in general, my kids have returned my trust with trustworthy behavior. And let me tell you, it's made writing sub plans a lot easier - math - students should know what they're working on. Reading? Here are the three different tasks students should be choosing from. Again, it's not always perfect, but we're getting closer.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Awesome Classcast!

Hey Everybody, I've been listening to podcasts for years and years. For the uninitiated, a podcast is basically a downloadable internet radio show. There are comedy shows, talk shows, information shows, it's like on demand cable for radio. You're no longer confined to NPR, morning drive, talk radio, and music that's being pushed out by record companies. It's awesome.

A long time ago, I thought it would be fun to make one with students, but I've never had the confidence in my ability to herd kittens well enough to put out a consistent podcast. Well, despite the fact that my students move around my classroom like kittens with random missions, I've realized that the best way to do something is to try, fail, and tweak your process. There's so much to be learned by doing things that way with your students! So I did some research, ordered a Blue Microphones Yeti USB Mic, and decided to give it a try!

At the start of this week, we had Superhero Day. Some students dressed like superheroes, and we talked about what heroes mean to us. I decided to make this the topic for our first episode. I told the kids, instead of writing a blog post this week, they could write a blog length essay, story, or something about superheroes, and we'd record it to include in the Awesome ClassCast. We brainstormed topics for the week. We had If I Was a Superhero, My Favorite Superhero, writing a fictional story about a superhero, and Real Life Superheroes.

As the week went on, stories were going up, and I got a few recorded, but ended up spending a great deal of Friday afternoon recording my students. In a room that was fairly noisy, very little excess noise made it through on the mic. I love the Yeti! The kids and I had so much fun recording their stories, and fixing minor mistakes using Audacity.

The recording process was a revelation for young writers. One girl realized why revision is so important as she tried to make sense of her writing. Another student realized that when you dash off a quick piece of writing, it doesn't matter how charming your words are, if you don't write enough, you don't get through the door. One of my boys learned about staying on topic better than he ever had from a whole class assignment in the past. Other kids really found their voice for this. Addison's performance sold her writing better than she would have just on paper.

While we were working on that, I had students working on reading and writing goals, and other students working on an outdated machine with an old music program, Super Duper Music Looper. I was impressed with the song Ian came up with on his first time out, and made that our theme song for episode 001.

Unfortunately, our time management skills were good enough to get everyone recorded, but not to get every aspect of production done. While my goal is to have student fingerprints on every stage of the process, that's not always possible, and on our first go-round, I decided it was okay to just get it done. Episode 002 will have student artwork, and a student announcer. This time, I had to settle for the adorable, and not very dulcet tones of my little pal, Rudy.

I chose Podomatic to host our podcast because it's free! We aren't going to be recording long episodes, so the 500 MB/month of hosting, and 50 GB/month of downloads should cover us. I still haven't figured out the feed address to use with my pod catcher, and I haven't gotten us registered on iTunes yet, but again, it's up, and that's a good start. If we need more service in the future, we'll just have to look into funding options.

So today, instead of having a blog to follow, I'm going to be a little selfish, and ask you to check out and follow our podcast. It's just shy of ten minutes, and you can run it in the background.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

On Behalf of Teachers

If you talk teaching for very long, you're going to end up on teacher pay. We're looking at a career that is characterized by an increasing number of hoops to jump through and fewer and fewer sugar cubes and carrots. We're political footballs, we're the firewall between the children and harmful testing scenarios, we're... I could go on and on and on and on. And on. It wouldn't be constructive. I'm not going to make the case that teachers should make more money. They should.

Instead, my beef is that the forces of boring have made school dull. School used to be fun. When I was a kid, we made dioramas and put on plays, we spent a whole week singing songs to practice for a Mother's Day show. And I don't know about you, but the stuff that bores the students? It bores the heck out of me, too! I'm novelty driven and big hearted. I want to do stuff with my kids that's exciting, inspiring, and awesome. And if I can't, I'm done. Seriously. There are things we have to do, sure, and we'll do it because we love working with kids, but once we're done doing what we have to do, let's start doing cool stuff. If we teach with fun and projects, the kids will actually remember the stuff we're trying to cram in their head. I remember childhood projects 30-something years later. I don't remember any of my worksheets.

Make your classroom a fun place to be. Do work that you're excited to tell people about. Make the world more amazing with your work. Use your position to share the awesome things of the world with your students. Help them find their passions, help them find their voices, help them elevate their voices and change the world. It won't raise your pay (not immediately anyway), and it won't take away the noise of politicians who don't know what they're talking about. What it will do is electrify your career.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

EdCamp Reflection

Hey there! I haven't posted in several days because of EdCamp St. Augustine. On Saturday, we put on what is possibly the best day of my career so far.

I keep trying to write an account of our EdCamp, but I can't. Every time I try to do it justice, I'm beaten. There are too many people who made the day happen with their greatness. From the people on our team, to the amazing sponsors, to the people who showed up early just to help, to the people who drove hours and hours, it was an amazing day on every front.

I'm going to write in vague terms because as I approach the story, I feel like I'm trying to describe an elephant two inches at a time. I've attended three EdCamps before, and I've always felt engaged and electric before, but this was something new for me. When it's the event that you've worked to put on, the happy faces of teachers in the room feel like something you can take ownership of, and it's amazing. There wasn't a single time when I asked someone about the session they'd been in that their description wasn't overwhelmingly positive.

There are so many people that I'm proud of. There are so many people I'm thankful for. There are so many people that I'm glad to have met! I feel completely incompetent as I try to begin. So much of the day was a blur! I can say that our team was amazing. Kristin Harrington, Katrina Worthington, Jillian Palmatier, Julie Haden, Katie Kusiak, Katrina Davis, Sabrina Delatorre, Sarah Edwards, and Kelly Dueker make up a powerful team! Need people to show up and help solely because they're awesome? Tammy Neil, Dustin Robinson, and Jerry Blumengarten are fantastic people to know. They have energy, they have know how, and they get things done. Food? I'm not going to mention everybody that I met because there were so many great new people. I'm better at seeing and recognizing! But you know what? Some people drove a long way to get here. Dustin Robinson, Chuck Maddox, Anne Manalo-Hussein, Maria Mayer, and Pam Hubler all drove more than 3 hours to get here! I participated in four sessions. They were so much fun. I heard so much good about the others! I overheard Katie Kusiak saying, "This is so awesome, I can't wait to go back to work on Monday!"

I'm flummoxed. As I read over the gushing above, I feel like I'm not expressing how much I love EdCamp St. Augustine. I can't wait until next year! I'm not adding any new blogs to follow today, but I am linking to the Storify coverage of the event. You would be smart to follow the people who tweeted. They're pretty great!

Tuesday, May 5, 2015


For those of us who find the jamming together of hashtag words annoying, this is not a blog about teachin' GIs. It's a blog about what teaching is.

And you could define teaching in the way that Michelangelo talked about sculpting David. He said he chipped away at everything that didn't look like David. Michelangelo was a smart-alec.

Teaching (at least to me) is not getting kids to all produce the same outcomes. It's not everybody reading the same things, doing the same math problems, and writing nearly identical 5 paragraph essays, complete with a grabber, supporting evidence, and support for your support. Teaching is not creating compliance, and mindless rule following. Teaching is not dictating with fear or prizes. These things belong to Teaching's less interesting cousin, Training. Training gets students ready for specific jobs. Training leads to people who aren't necessarily good citizens, and who can't keep up a good conversation at a party. Teaching gets students ready for life.

Teaching says that you're learning skills to apply them to new problems. Teaching recognizes that identifying a need, choosing a solution, and applying a plan are more important than being able to recite knowledge. Teaching recognizes that we all have different gifts and areas of interest. It says that we do our best when we work together so the artistic hearted person pairs up with the scientist to create reports that reflect truth and beauty at the same time. Teaching is about exploration - boundless learning, based in both need and inherent interest. Teaching is about creation, to solve problems, to share our learning, and to express what is in our heart, clawing to get out. Teaching is about collaboration, both because we can't all be good at everything, and because the synergy of a team effort is often amazing.

And that's what #teachingis to me, Charlie Brown.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Things this Teacher Appreciates...

During teacher appreciation week, I wonder what it would be like if the point of the week was to highlight things that teachers appreciate.

First of all, I appreciate the active parents. Every year, there are a handful of parents who get it. They get how hard we work, they get how much we care about (and how much we mean to) the children. They get that sometimes just a little thoughtfulness could make our day. My room mom this year is amazing. She keeps up with everything I need her to, does a little more here and there, remembers things that I forgot, and apologizes that she's not doing enough. She's fantastic, and I'm so thankful!
Another thing I appreciate is having independently minded students. I ask my students to do a lot of creation, and they don't always do things the way I envisioned. Often, I'm annoyed at first - "But it was supposed to look like ....." I want to complain. Just as often, though, their headstrong ways end up amusing me, changing my opinion, and wowing me with student ingenuity.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Hey Everybody! It's Teacher Appreciation Week!

And because of that, I appreciate you!

You're taking the time to read a teaching blog. From this, we can assume that you have some interest in education, and also that you are likely a teacher. From this, we can also assume that you care about the state of education, and do things in your own time to reflect on your practice. You are quite likely a connected educator with teacher friends that you've never met in person. You rock!

I appreciate my coworkers - I know how late they stay. I have an idea of how early they get to school (I'm not one of those hour early teachers, so I'm just guessing!). I know how they go to bat for kids, how they agonize of students' struggles, and get excited when students show progress. I see how they deal with so many different parents, some helicopter, some indifferent, and manage, somehow, to be polite to them. My coworkers are amazing people.

I appreciate the teachers in the schools with unpleasant working conditions. Maybe the kids are coming to school completely unprepared, maybe they're lucky to be at school at all. Some of them are only there because it's the only real food they get during the day. It might be that the building is old, the supplies outdated, or you've got too many kids packed in the room. It may just be a small minded and dictatorial principal, the kind who can destroy a culture. Those teachers are still there, and one of the things they do is to show their students that there's more out there, that there are opportunities for them. These teachers broaden children's horizons. They make the world a better place.

I appreciate the teachers who work in idealized conditions. One part of growing up is realizing that even the people who "have it easy" have their own set of problems that are no fun to deal with. One of the best things these teachers can do is to show the kids who have everything going for them that others don't have it so easy. These teachers have opportunities to teach empathy, and they make our world a kinder place when they do. They are fantastic.

I appreciate the parents who teach their kids to the best of their ability. They may not do everything right, but when they take the time with their children, it makes learning so much easier.

This week, many teachers around the country will be getting little gifts (some big), free coffee, and flowers. I love working with my kids so much - even when they annoy the heck out of me! - that a thank you isn't necessary, but it is nice.

So thank you.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

When We Talk About School Reform

There's a lot to be complained about at school! Everyone has an opinion on it. At every level there are things to gripe about. Whether it's kids, parents, politicians, or teachers, there's a lot we can point to. Pay, testing, grading, evaluations, bonuses, hours, calendar, there are so many things that need attention.

The thing is, I feel like the most ignored opinion in education is the one it has the most impact on - the students. And I know, we're talking about people who have to be goaded into doing what's right for them, people who often don't have good long term planning skills. Sure, but if you talk to the average adult, those weaknesses often don't go away just because you're grown up. If they did, diets, bankruptcies, and lawyers would not play so large in our society.

I do frequently hear the phrase, "What's best for the kids?" and I know that kids don't always know the answer to that. I feel, though, that to get more kid buy-in on learning, to make things memorable, and positive in their educational career, you have to bring them into the conversation. In the classroom, even in elementary school, that means training your students to be leaders. Children - much like other, grown, humans -like to be trusted, and enjoy when they're afforded some autonomy. So if we put some power in their hands, they can learn about the stakes in the game. Having a student not only understanding, but helping to set their educational goals is such a powerful motivator in setting the purpose for learning. When your class has their goals at heart, cutting them in on how to run the class makes sense.

Can it go higher? At what point in the decision making process do we cut out student voice? Teachers are often left out of the decision making process at the legislative level. On so many teacher Facebook pages, you'll see memes about how the people making decisions about school should have classroom experience. I don't disagree, but why stop there? I know the logistics would be tricky, but I want to see students cut into the process.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Duck on a Bike

This week, another teacher told me that I was the duck from David Shannon's book, Duck on a Bike. I had no idea what she meant - I'd never read the book before. She described the book, and I knew it was a compliment, but it felt mostly like it was just because I let things roll off my back.
The next day, she loaned me a copy of the book, and I read it to my students. I said, "Mrs. Holmes told me that this book reminded her of me. Let's see if we can find out why." As I read it, I was honored and flattered - it's about a duck decides to go for a bike ride (like I needed to tell you that, it's in the title...). As he rides around the barnyard, he's faced with the usual sorts of comments that you get when you do something differently. There are naysayers, some are jealous, and some think it's pretty cool. In the long run, when the opportunity comes, (SPOILER ALERT) all the farm animals are riding bikes around the barnyard, too. My kids totally got the connection! Our classroom has been a very different class this year, with alternative seating, a lot of student freedom, and a very differentiated program. And while I've heard way more positive than negative opinions about our class, I can definitely identify with Duck. Even more so, I felt so honored by my colleague making the comparison.

But what's the takeaway? I feel like I just wrote a long paragraph to toot my own horn. I guess it's that if you put yourself out there, like duck, and try something cool, don't be afraid. You're not the only one who wants to do the cool stuff! Be big hearted, full of sharing, and brave. As long as you are, as long as you're kind hearted, as long as you reflect honestly on your mistakes as well as your successes, you're doing the right thing. And when you've done it, you'll be Duck, too. Not all leadership is loud and pushy. The best rarely is. If you lead by doing the right thing, the best thing, the awesome thing, the best people will follow.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Magic of Teaching

Today's #AprilBlogADay question was about how much transparency there should be in education. And I guess that my follow up question would be, "For whom?"

Students - My students are my team. I work with them every day. I want them to know why I'm doing what I'm doing, and I want them to know why I make the decisions that I do. When I share my reasoning and decision making, I'm modeling problem solving and leadership skills. I'm inviting them in to the process, and I'm bringing them on board. There are things we need to obscure from our students. When I want stir up student wonder, I may keep things close to the vest to drive their curiosity, but that's more about showmanship than about intentions. The only other things I feel I need to keep from my students are privacy based and safety based issues. Otherwise, I'm a fairly open book with my students.

Parents - Parents are in a different category. They don't get to spend nearly the time with me that their children do. They're not on my immediate team, but aside from my students, they are the largest stakeholders in our mission. On top of that, they're trusting me with their child's development, safety, and future on a daily basis. There is very little (aside from privacy issues) that I wouldn't be willing to share with, or explain to, my students' parents. Some of it comes home via email, some comes home via blogs, and chatting with their child, but it's generally fair game. If parents want more insight into what I'm doing, I'm available most easily by email, and then in person.

Teachers and Administrators - I love sharing. I want everybody to see what I do, and I relentlessly invite people in. They don't come as much as I ask, but I feel like we all do better by sharing. I don't plan well with others, but I share what I've got, and I'm good at stealing your good ideas when they work for me and my students.

Maybe it comes from liking Penn and Teller when I was young. I always thought that magic was cooler when you knew what they were doing, but it still seemed amazing. If I don't know how your illusion works, it's pretty cool, but if I do know, then I'm impressed by the artistry. I think that's how I approach my teaching.

To that end, if you're a teacher who's gonna be in northeast Florida, drop me a line. My students and I would love to have you visit.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

5 Things We Need to Stop Pretending in Schools

1. We can get everything done in the time we're given.
If you add up the minutes for everything we're supposed to do each day, our students are going to need to start staying late. If you look at the amount of time textbook publishers say you should be spending on lessons, they're completely unrealistic.
We need to stop beating ourselves up over this. Find what works for you, and do it. If you can't find what works, settle on a schedule, and get as close to getting it to work as you can. Ask supportive friends for help and advice. We all feel inadequate sometimes. Find someone you trust, and learn from them.

2. A worksheet is adequate practice.
Before I say anything else, we know that for every rule, there are exceptions. I'm talking about the normal busy work type sheets. How often did anyone say, I did the most amazing worksheet today? Now to be fair to worksheets, there are times that they can be helpful for practice, but there are so many more engaging ways to practice. I'm not gonna list a bunch of things, I'm just going to say that worksheets are what I use when I'm tired, I have a sub that I don't know, or I'm stressed out and a little lazy.

3. "After all I've done for you..."
I've heard this phrase over the years. A teacher who has put forth an amazing effort for her students is angry to find that her students had no interest in what they were doing. They played, they messed it up, and they ruined her plans. And that's when she says it. "I worked so hard on this, and this is how you repay me?" Until we start asking our students what they want, until we start building student choice into our classrooms, we're not going to have super engaged students.

4. Everyone doing the same thing is going to work. Ever.
At the start of the year, my students' reading levels ranged from 2.5 to 5.8. Some of my kids could do most of the 3rd grade math curriculum, some would balk at a 2nd grade test. If I try to keep all of my students on the same story or the same math lesson, I'm doing a disservice to everybody. The 'ahead' kids are now bored, the 'behind' kids are sad and confused. One or more of those kids are gonna start disrupting things from either a benign or a malicious point of view, and now the 'middle' kids are distracted and off task. Differentiate, baby, and you reach more of them!

5. We can teach reading.
Reading is like running, cycling, weightlifting, or bowling. If you do it a lot, you'll get good at it. Run every day, at your pace, and what do ya get faster. You can't spend a half hour a day talking about running and expect to get better. I don't think that you can talk your way into better reading either. Try targeted reading activities with small reading passages, and you're gonna kill reading. I've found that if I can get my students to read on their own level each day, their reading level 'magically' grows. My lowest students sometimes need coaching to help them understand reading strategies (athletes use coaching, too...), but you can use student friendly books and small groups to work on this!

Here're two more.

6. Kids shouldn't know what level everyone's at, we have to protect them.
Too bad! They already do. Seriously, when we make leveled groupings, we give them polite names so no one is ashamed of their status. It doesn't matter what the names are. The kids know that the Cardinals are the smart kids, they know that the Robins are the dumb kids, and the Blue Jays are everyone else.
Or.... you could be honest with the kids. You could share that everyone is good at some stuff, and everyone stinks at something. You could let kids know who the experts are so they can get help. You can make groupings fluid based on achievement and understanding. Kids are sharper than we give them credit for.

7. There's an US/THEM dichotomy, aka teachers/students.
Students are the people that we spend the most time with each day. They are human beings. They are not some kind of other. If you treat them like coworkers for whom you happen to be a project manager, you're going to get better results out of them. You don't have firing power. But you do have this: What if you take the kid any teacher would want to fire, find who they really are, and get some results of her/him? You're gonna look like an amazing teacher. And to that kid, that's exactly who you are.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Class of 2133

Today's #AprilBlogADay topic led off with this Mennonite Axiom: We must raise the next generation 100 years before it's born. So what does that mean for us as educators?

My students this year were born in 2005-2006. As I look out at my kids working on wireless laptops working on their blog posts, I think back to my childhood in the 80's. Watching Inspector Gadget, I thought Penny's computer book was totally cool, but I remember thinking that it was unrealistic, totally implausible.

Of course, now in 2015, not only does it look feasible, it looks a little primitive. But when you consider that that's a prediction that's 32 years old, it seems pretty on the nose! Even so, when you look at predictions of the future from 100 years ago, they got some of it right, but so much was different than what we're doing today.

The cool thing, and the kinda scary thing, is that when you look at the whole of human history, a switch got flipped somewhere in the nineteenth century, and growth got seriously exponential! This is, of course, my long winded way of getting to the idea that we have so little idea of what 2133 will really look like. We don't know what technology or job prospects will be. Where we do make predictions, many of them will likely be laughable.

The thing then, is to turn to essential, broad, human skills. When I was a kid, school meant sitting in rows and learning to follow orders. Getting a job at a factory was also a viable career choice. It sure isn't now. We need leaders, communicators, and problem solvers. We need to drive our culture into a direction that works collaboratively for the greatest net benefit.

We need to be explorers. We must seek out connections, inspiration, and solutions to new problems. We need to be creators. Problems are opportunities - by finding interesting and intriguing solutions - we can lead in large ways and small. And lastly, we need to be collaborators. We have to work together, and put divisiveness behind us.

Or maybe not...maybe we'll just have to learn to bow down to our robot overlords. "We took it too far!" we'll think, as we feed the machine.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Doing the Right Thing is an Act of Leadership

In the United States, we are asked to do things in the name of education that may not always be what's best for kids. We test the heck out of kids, but to what end? We aren't handed standardized kids, so what do high stakes standardized tests do to us? If we use them as benchmarks to make sure we're progressing at an appropriate rate that's one thing. But when we tie school funding, teacher jobs, and student retention to tests, I think we're doing children a disservice. Distilling a child's year down to 320 minutes in April is not an accurate check of progress. And to the students who trip, fumble, or make any misstep on their tests, the emotional damage may be manageable, but it's not fair.

But what to do? I don't write the laws, and I feel like there's too much money in the testing game for it to go away quietly. So I take the most important step that I can take. And from my point of view, it's a small on. I tell my students, I teach them, I show them that they are more than a test. I give them opportunities to learn who they are and what matters to them. I help them find their voices, and teach them to share their truth. I encourage them to do their best on every test, but I tell them there isn't any test that can define whether or not they're a good person, or tell them that they're dumb. I tell them that the smartest student can do badly on any test, and that the struggling student can learn strategies to be just as (if not more) effective as anybody else.

These are small efforts on my part, but to my students, they are so important, and when I share my voice, my actions grow. I am a teacher, and that means it's my job to lead.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Power of My PLN

As a teacher, I always used to be the type of guy who got ideas from conferences, and trying to brainstorm how to get through the curriculum in the least boring way possible. When I wasn't at work, I wasn't thinking about education much, and other than begging to go to FETC each year, there wasn't a lot of interacting about teaching on my docket.

As I've said before, getting online changed so much for me. Reading so many good ideas from other teachers helped me re-frame my focus. Sharing my ideas helped me to learn which ones had power.

Growing my network expanded my conference. It broadened my thinking. I started taking more chances in favor of making my classroom into a place that I wanted to be, and that my students would want to be.

The opportunity to meet friends from my Twitter PLN led me to EdCamp Citrus last fall. Suddenly, I wanted to share ideas all the time. I invited coworkers to my classroom for lemonade, cookies, and a share session called Snack 'n' Share.

As the sharing grew, I made more and more connections - online, and at work. The ideas grew in my classroom. My students were blogging, MAKEing, Genius Hour-ing. We were Tweeting, Instagramming, sharing, sharing, sharing. We use hashtags in class like #YouMatter, #ClassJoy, #100ServiceActs. We've been Skyping with classrooms around the country. And it's been a phenomenal ride for my students and me.

There have been more EdCamps, Orange, Branford.... We're planning EdCamp St. Augustine. In May, I'm headed to EdCampUSA in Washington DC. And as all of this stuff is happening, opportunities and accolades have been snowballing. I don't know where it's all leading, but I'm doing some of the best teaching of my life, and I am so excited.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015


Like so many teachers who are active on Twitter, I used to think it was for something else. Most people I talk to thought it was a place for self serving celebrities. I liked reading jokes that comedians would throw out. It was like getting little tiny doses of standup for free each day.

Then, at FETC in Orlando, Florida last year, I found out that if I tweeted about things at the conference, I could win things.

Teachers love winning things. Our pay does not match well with our desire to provide cool opportunities for our students. Free is good, and we all want it when we're at conferences.

So I tweeted. And people responded. Weird. A favorite, a retweet, they're better than a like on Facebook, so ding, I tweeted more. I didn't want JUST ads for products to be in my history, so I tweeted things about FETC. More responses. I followed, people followed back.

And in that, I was suddenly realizing how much good there is in the teaching world of Twitter. It's almost like a its own thing. Later last year, I found out about all of the educational chats on Twitter, and I started joining in.

And my teaching world changed.

On a personal level, I grew so much from the reflecting and communication about my craft. My confidence in my ideas skyrocketed. When I thought something might be good to try, I had enthusiastic pals in my PLN (Professional Learning Network) with whom I was bouncing around the best ideas of my career.

Because of my connectedness online, I've made a classroom that has gotten me attention, praise, and a happy group of 3rd graders. I've had the backup I need to put more and more power into my students' hands. I've discovered one of the best ideas I've seen in my career, using Genius Hour (or Passion Time) to give students the power to take charge of their learning. And recently, through hashtags that have been introduced by pals like Rosy Burke, my students and I have been doing cool things like sharing our #classjoy and #100serviceacts. We're writing about how #YouMatter, we're taking time to #Read4Fun. We're Tweeting out student blogs and Instagramming pictures of fun things we're doing in class. We're Skyping with other classes.

On Twitter, I learned about EdCamp, a teaching phenomena that's growing and growing, I've made face to face connections with some amazing teachers, people like Tammy Neil from Branford, FL. I've attended EdCamp Citrus, Orange and Branford, and had some of the best professional development and educational conversations of my career. With some friends from my school, and help from Tammy, we're putting on EdCamp St. Augustine on May 9, and I'm headed to EdCamp USA on May 29.

I've made friends with the people behind the Superior Tech for Teachers Conference, and am planning to speak and present this June.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Why I Teach

I had no clue what I wanted to do with my life.

Well, I had a clue, but it was wrong. I liked math, I liked art, and I thought that architecture might be for me. As I hit some walls in my early years at Michigan State University, I decided against the path that I'd thought might be for me. I was gonna take a year off, but my dad said that if I stopped, I might never go back. He advised me to give his alma mater a try. I enrolled at Oakland University in Rochester, MI, with a big, "Huh?!?" in my mind.

It took me a little bit, but brainstorming my interests, I remembered that I'd always liked working with kids, as a teen. I visited with my friend Amanda's mom, Jane Schade, and spent some time in her class. That was it.

Blah blah blah, fast forward, cue the time shift sound effects. We're not looking at a life story here, let's get to the why.

That's the title, right? I don't think I really knew the why for ages. For more than ten years of my teaching, I never really understood it. I did it, I resented the pay, I liked the kids, I tried to keep my head down and have fun.

Over time, though, I'm starting to see the patterns in my life. I'm reflecting more. I'm paying attention. And here it is. I like novelty. I like potential. I like working to make cool things happen. As I type it, it's not the most heart-warming or lofty view, but that's what it is.

What if I take a group full of kids, kids who are "just normal." Some are bright, some struggle a bit, but we're talking eightteen average kids. What are they gonna do with their lives? Some will go to college, some to the military, some will peter out young, and some will have fairly successful lives. Statistically, a couple of them may do something remarkable, but they'll be regular, everyday people as they grow up.

But maybe, somewhere inside of each of them, there's a seed. And this seed, if you nurture it, it's the seed of greatness, or at least interesting. Maybe it's the seed of a big-hearted world changer. I teach because helping children nurture the magic seed inside will unlock a better future. Can I help to empower a group of people every year to be magnanimous and kind, to be innovative, to believe in themselves, and to take action to make the world around them a little more amazing? I know I can. It's what I do.

That's my why. What about you?

Friday, April 10, 2015

Reflections of a Novelty Driven Teacher

The question of the day is what have I not tried this year that I want to?

And that's a funny question this year. Most years, I get wrapped up in trying to keep up with all of the reading basal's directions. "It says I can do this all in five days, but HOW?" I always ended up wondering.

This year was different. This year was about creation, sharing, student voice, student goals, it wasn't about everybody keep up with everybody else. Between starting Genius Hour, working in a sometime Makerspace, and implementing an environment that's designed for creation and sharing, I've dumped a lot of the old, "Now let's all turn to page 238," claptrap.

And the results have been exciting. Our Genius Hour projects have led to some amazing student work, some great charity efforts, and students finding their voices and passions. When my students create response blogs, videos, and posters when they encounter new material, they're collaborating and remembering important information as it's needed. In taking apart old electronics, and (soon) adding a 3D Printer into the mix, my students' imaginations have been tickled in fantastic ways. And lastly, by focusing on students spending time reading the majority of time instead of reading instruction, my kids understand their reading goals, and are showing progress that matches and/or exceeds the district progression line.

This is the year that I've discovered EdCamps, and all of the success I've found in audacity has given me confidence here as well. After attending two EdCamps (I'm talking to you, EdCamp Citrus and EdCamp Orange), I put together a team, and we're going to put on EdCamp St. Augustine on May 9. So with all of this, this isn't the year that I'm going to look back with the regret of, "I wish I'd tried..." That said, there's always more I want to do, and I want to grow as well. As a personal goal, I want to get writing. In class, though, and I've wanted to do this for years, but get overwhelmed when I think of planning, I need to get my kids podcasting. I listen to so many podcasts in my personal time. There are a couple of ed podcasts, and so many comedy/interview shows. I think podcasting is such a powerful medium because the speaker is often jacked right into your brain through your earbuds. If my soapbox is empowering student voices, then putting out a class podcast is approaching quickly on my horizon.

Get ready!

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Wait, but wasn't 1999 like, a year or two ago?

Today's April Blog-a-Day topic is, "What would you say to your beginning teacher-self?" The thing is, and tell me if this isn't true for you, too, time is moving faster every year for me. I'm sure it's a problem of perception, the last ten years are less than a quarter of my life. So does that mean that ten years back for me feels like two years back for a third grader? It sure feels that way.

Anyway, I've been in the classroom for 16ish years now. I say ish because I started mid-year at a charter school when one of their teachers left at the Christmas break. I had been subbing for a couple years before that, but January 1999 is really the beginning of when I was teaching teaching.

When I started out as a little baby teacher, the world was so different, and yet, it was very much the same for me. I was teaching at Summit Academy in southeast Michigan, and the setup was brand new to me. We had two teachers, two parapros, and 47 kids in one 4th/5th grade classroom. We had a bank of fourteen computers and a decent internet connection.

I knew nothing at the time. I was the math and social studies teacher in our classroom, and while we had lists of standards, we were all new, and I was making a lot of it up as I went along. The thing is, though, sometimes I think I'm closer to where I started than I've been in an awfully long time.

I've heard people say that when you throw your first pot on a pottery wheel, it's common for people to do surprisingly well. Once people start learning, though, it gets much harder before it ever goes that easily again. The term beginner's luck comes to mind.

I think there's a sort of freedom that comes from having absolutely no idea what you're doing. You can try daring things because you don't know better, and during those first years at Summit Academy, we did some incredibly cool stuff. If I met someone today doing the things I was doing then, I'd think, "What an awesome teacher." I'm sure I left a lot of things out, but overall, there was a lot of good. There was also a lot of inventing the wheel each day.

Then what happens? You learn what you're supposed to do. Conscientiousness slips in. You worry about what your co-workers are doing, are you doing enough? Your - at least my - teaching gets a lot less cool in the process. And that killed me inside. It's discouraging to know what you can do, and not doing it.

So if 2015 me met 1999 me today, what would I tell him? The number one thing would be to try and hang on the awesome things. Yes, you're going to be working on serious things, yes, you've been doing some things wrong. Dirty secret? There are some things you'll always do wrong. Forever. Don't beat yourself up for it, and don't let it take away from setting up experiences and opportunities for your students to be great.

If I met a 2015 doppelganger of young me, my advice would be a little different. This year, the power of my PLN has radically changed my teaching. By being a connected teacher on Twitter, and through EdCamps, I've gained so much confidence to let my ideas grow, to try, to take risks, and to trust my instincts. Twitter and EdCamps have both been around for a while, but I'm in this year, and it has made all the difference. So young me's of today? Get connected. Connect yourself, connect your class, get global. You'll grow so much faster because of it!

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Because We Don't Need $500 Worksheets

If you're reading this, and you're a teacher, you've probably done some of the same things I have. I can't count the number of times I've looked back on something I've done teaching and thought, "Oh, that was bad teaching." Heck, I've said it in the middle of a lesson, "Girls and boys, this is bad teaching. I'm bored. You're bored. You don't care, and I don't think you're learning a thing." Often, a polite student will pipe up, "I'm not bored." But they're saying it a little too nicely, aren't they?
One thing I've really worked to get rid of in my teaching, though, is using my tech as a worksheet. We have these awesome laptops in our room. My students can research, watch videos, read blogs from all over, write, make art, and share globally. If I'm using them in the same way as a stack of photo copies, I'm wasting my students' time, I'm wasting district money, and I'm not doing good teaching.
When my students respond to their learning. When they write about it, when they create artwork and videos to share what they've learned, they're making connections to the content that will stick.
Here's the cool thing, though, when I 'fall back' on worksheets, it's often because I need to kill some time. Maybe I have some paperwork or emails of my own to catch up on, maybe I need to organized for a sub. You don't need to go there, though, you don't. Schedule time for your students to work on their response videos, infographics, and blogs, and two things will happen. When you do need that time to catch up, there it is. When you don't, you can consult with your creative team, and help them to beef up their skills, and make products worth sharing.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

What If? Wednesdays

I was in the middle of a Twitter Chat, I don’t remember which one when Paul Solarz (follow him, he's fantastic!) wrote that he enjoys What If? Wednesday with his students. If I was a more diligent man, I would probably have asked him what that entailed. I’m not. I’m impulsive, novelty driven, and given to puzzle things out to create fantastic experiences with my kids.

So what did I do? I took the name. What If? Wednesday. It’s great! It has potential, and it can be anything. It can be an experience that creates great blogging opportunities, art opportunities, and who knows what else? Service projects? Why not? Or maybe it could lead to silliness. Silliness is beautiful. It creates fantastic community bonds in your classroom.
And silliness was in the offing today. Today’s (inaugural) What If? Wednesday question was, “What if you could choose your name, and it could be anything?” As we went through students’ choices, we got some ridiculous names, and a couple of “I wish this was my name” names.

We laughed so much, and really enjoyed each other, despite all the test stress we’re experiencing with the Florida State Assessment approaching. The kids loved correcting me as I misspoke their new names. Students inevitably asked if they could keep their names. Absolutely.

Before I give you my new class list, I want to endorse silliness in the classroom. You build creativity, you build community, and you help your students build a sense of self. Go be silly!

And now: my new kids –

Fluffy Pink Unicorns, Dancing on Rainbows
Sponge King
Cute VPK Dude
Guinea Pig Lightning
Pretty Pretty Pegasus
Princess Glitter
Fluffy Wuffy
Olaf, King of Cinnamon Buns

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Idea Lab - It's All About Sharing

I'm promising myself that I'm not doing this: "Well, the tests will be over, it'll be time to get down to real teaching!" or "Now that we're done with the test, we can start doing fun stuff!" We joke about that every year, but this year, I've tried to teach in engaging ways that mattered to my students. Some of it has worked better than others. I definitely have a lot to grow on, but I feel like I'm on to good things. When you put creativity in the hands of your students, when you have them respond to the real world and to their learning with writing, art, and creation, I think you're touching what education should be.

All year long, I've been trying to focus my skills and my students' skills on sharing their voice whenever possible. We're going to continue to do that in the final quarter of the year, but we're going to grow it. Not because the test is through, but because as ideas come to me, I want to make them happen. I'm here to help kids have opportunities to find their voice, and to help them put their voices on stage as globally as possible.

So, what are they going to be doing to share their voices? They're going to be logging so many experiences, and growing so many ideas. All along the way, they'll have three (or more?) ways to share what they've done. First, we are going to continue to be doing a lot of blogging. As we get more used to churning out writing, I find that my students' voices are starting to grow. Secondly, students may choose to do a poster, or infographic about their learning. Finally, I'm putting cameras into my students hands. I want to help my students develop their voices by vlogging their ideas, their findings, and their feelings.

And so here we are. This week, I'll be introducing (and updating) the following concepts to my students. As I do, I'll also be sharing our ideas and my thinking here.
100 Acts of Service, brought to my attention by my Twitter pal, @rosy_burke
A book and movie based on the You Matter Manifesto by Angela Maiers. If you haven't seen our short You Matter Video, it's hosted below.
Kicking Maker Club into the creation level - We've taken apart our electronics, it's time to make robots!
A new round of Genius Hour titled the future. Students will still be able to work on projects that touch their souls, but I want them to focus forward.
And last night, @PaulSolarz, author of the upcoming Learn Like a Pirate, shared the idea of What If? Wednesday. I didn't ask him a lot about it (I plan to), but I thought if nothing else, it could be a discussion help us energize about new ideas each week.

As always, keep your eyes out for new blogs from my students at, and keep checking this site to see what's growing inside The Idea Lab!

Saturday, February 28, 2015

You Matter

We started working on a window design yesterday. Our old window design was called What Makes Us Happy? I loved it, it included students' drawings of the things that gasp make them happy. But you know how it is when artwork doesn't change for a long time - it becomes part of the landscape and no one pays attention to it.

Initially I had thought of a photo project with pictures of kids holding signs saying things like, "I want to be valued," and "I have a voice." I love classroom photo projects. My pal Katie (@mrskusiak on Twitter) always has cool photos in her window. The more I thought about it though, that wasn't the thing. Saying, "I have a voice," empowers me. Saying,"You have a voice," empowers both of us. By giving you value, I create value in myself. Everybody grows. That's where Angela Maiers' ( @AngelaMaiers on Twitter) amazing You Matter Manifesto ( came in.

On Friday morning, as I talked with students about the project, student voice joined in. Ben said, "In videos where people hold cards, the people never smile." He was so right! We agreed to look serious, as we were sharing an important message. As we were taking photos and sharing them, the idea came to have our last cardholder smile. After all that seriousness, doesn't the message, "YOU MATTER," merit a smile after all?

As we took the photos, we tweeted them out on our class accounts (@mrfarnumsclass on Twitter and on Instagram). The last one went out during recess, so I thought I should share them with the kids afterward. As we looked at the photos, the students started asking, "Can we make a slideshow?" Yes!

With the kids watching, so they could see how it works, I popped the pictures into Movie Maker, explaining the process as I went. Next came time to add music. I showed them - a website where you can download (for free!) music that creators share solely for credit given. We worked our way through several instrumental samples. We talked about how some songs wouldn't work - the songs were too slow, too sad. If we combined them with the solemn faces in our photos, it'd be depressing. Some were too upbeat, too lighthearted. We settled on Goodbye War, Hello Peace by an artist named teru. The kids and I agreed that it felt like music that was sharing a hopeful and positive feeling. As we wrapped up the video, we credited the kids alphabetically - I don't like to put a name under a face online. We credited teru - because you don't use other peoples' work without permission, and without giving them credit.

Then we pipped the video up on YouTube, and started sharing. I'm really pleased with the way it turned out, and I'm very proud of my students and their role in our project.

Our goal is still to print the photos, and hang them in our window as a message to other students in our school. I'm so happy that on our way, we were able to make something worth sharing with everybody, because if you're reading this, You Matter.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Our First (Good) Maker Club Wednesday

After several weeks of NOT doing maker club, we've finally had a blast taking things apart! Let's rewind.

At the start of every year, I start collecting students' and friends' old electronics with the sole purpose of taking things apart. You could talk about all of the things that students learn from taking apart electronics, from the elements of design and engineering, to teamwork, to tool use, but I don't want to sully the experience by talking about such things. Taking things apart is cool. Playing with screwdrivers is fun, and there are lots of neat things inside. The circuit boards look like cities!

Anyway, it takes a while, but by mid-year, we usually have a computer or two, some VCRs, a toaster, or a TV. Maybe more, maybe less. I keep my eye out on trash day, too. It's better if things don't work anymore, because they sure aren't when we get done with them! This year, I got all high minded. I made a cool booklet, My Robot Journal, that had a spot for kids to write before they did anything. It had spots that covered several modes of writing. I was so proud of my work. There was only one problem with it. It was teacher designed based on teacher desires. And it killed it. The kids who like to write were gonna get to have fun, and the ones who are overwhelmed by writing were going to be frustrated. That's not what I wanted this lesson to be like.

So today, I decided to take down the pay wall, and put the trust in the hands of my students. I told them they should still hang on to the robot journal. I'd left them with lots of valuable tools that they could use in constructing blog posts and stories from this project. Then I told them, the journals are YOURS, use them how you like. I distributed a limited number of screwdrivers, and said they would need to share with their partners, or bring some in from home. And then magic happened.

The kids were - no surprise here - totally engaged in their work. I had boys taking apart a refrigerator, girls dismantling a VCR, kids taking apart phones, computers, and peripherals. It was awesome! They were cooperative, they were working safely, and they were thrumming with excitement. As I circled around the room, I heard kids saying things like, "I'm gonna use this wire for hair", "These will be cool eyes!", and "Oh good, there's a fan in here for each of us!"

When it was time to clean up, they were disappointed but cooperative. I asked them as we were on our way to lunch, "You had a good time, right?" Yeses, smiles, and nods. "Is it fair to ask you to make it worth my time by writing some great blog posts about taking apart your tech?" More smiling nods. "Do you think you can come up with 200 words based on what you did today?" More affirmatives! On future Wednesdays, we'll be designing robots with our tech parts, we'll assemble them, photograph them, 'shop them into pictures, and write stories about them. I love doing this project with my students, but I have to say, even if it was just today, it was worth it to have the kids taking things apart to find out what's inside.