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.