Monday, April 3, 2017

Five Years

In my teaching career, I started out as you do. I was a substitute in a handful of school districts near my parents' home. I worked at a summer day camp with friends from college (thanks, Andrea!), and I was clumsily sending resumes to every school in metro Detroit that even exhaled funny. 

From my first teaching gig at Summit Academy North until now at Palencia Elementary, I've grown so much as an educator. I've had overwhelmingly positive experiences at most of the schools where I've worked. The years that were rough or unpleasant were still filled with wonderful students and teachers from whom I learned so much. Through the years, though, some things have stayed true from the beginning. 

First of all, it's always been (and always will be) about the relationships. Looking back, even at the beginning, it was about building a community. Proficient scores are great, but happy people who learn to try harder mean more to me. 

Another constant has been pushing the boundaries. I work best when I'm given guidelines. I'll see how far I can stretch the parameters, but I do want to be a team player in the long run, I just want to do it in the most novel way that I can. It occurs to me that this doesn't work in every situation. It's why the one school that didn't work out for me was a dead end, boundary pushing wasn't in the plan there. It's okay, though, that led me to working in St. Johns County Schools, and I've experienced so much love, joy, and success here with the amazing students and teachers I've known.

I started at Hastings Elementary on a part time gig, and then moved around to Mill Creek Elementary, Wards Creek Elementary, and finally Palencia Elementary. I've gotten to help open two schools, I've co-founded EdCamp St. Augustine, and I've done as many silly, crazy, and fun things with my students as I could juggle each year. 

In all that time, this twenty year career as a teacher, I've never been in any place for longer than five years. And as my fifth year at Palencia is coming up on it's close, that itch is there again. This time, though, I'm finding myself frustrated with the state of education. It's not the teachers, the students, or the schools. The best people I know go to work each day with the purpose of leading their charges a little farther toward being grown. I love teaching and education so much. When I look at the people driving education policy, though, I feel like they're not looking at the map correctly. 

I suppose that at this point, I should start working toward school administration, but that doesn't call to me, and so I find myself looking to the companies and people pushing the argument in the right direction. This year, I'm keeping my tradition of getting itchy after five, as I head out to work with Buncee, a company that provides a creation and presentation tool for students and educators to create interactive classroom content, allowing learners of all ages to visualize concepts and communicate creatively. When I learned about Buncee, I thought, "That's it!" For goodness sake, their mission reads:

At Buncee, our goal is to provide classrooms with technology that makes learning fun and empowers student voice.

By golly, that's right up my alley! And so I'm Buncee bound. I'm still in St. Augustine. I'll be finishing out my school year with some of the best students (oh gosh, they're so awesome!) and teachers I've worked with. And next year? I'll be free to visit with people who want to play with Buncee for their classrooms, to learn and share ideas, and to further the mission of creation and fun in the classroom. It's time for a new adventure, and I'm excited to be on it. If you wanna check out Buncee, head over to My kids and I sure like creating in Buncee.

Cheers, I love you!

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Sometimes you get lucky!

Luck doesn't usually happen without preparation. In my case, today, luck comes from a year and a half of building a community, from the experience of writing for a chat each week, and from twenty years of teaching.

I was having trouble coming up with a chat topic for the #2PencilChat this week. I had ideas, but then I realized that it was going to be Valentine's Day, and I thought, "I should probably do a love chat." We did one after the Orlando shootings last year. But that was a different type of love chat. That was about using love in the classroom and in your career. Our Valentine's Chat was going to be a letter to the things we love.

It felt kind of hack to me. Like, yeah, duh, easy. But the thing is, the #2PencilChat - even with its somewhat rotating cast list - has consistently been a weekly meeting of big-hearted and creative souls. In a year and a half, I don't think that's wavered. I'm really happy about that. The only credit I can take for this is that I've been able to come up with decent enough questions each week to keep these awesome people interested. Even so, it makes me feel super good each week.

But again, list your favorite this, list your favorite that, it felt hacky to me. But the crew came through, as ALWAYS. By the end of the evening, it was very clear that we had a valuable resource. The people we love (Q1)? What a great resource for WHO to follow on Twitter. My favorite peoples' favorite people? Amazing. And the same happened with other questions. We have the best companies for teachers to engage, the best project ideas, the best quotes, the best sources of inspiration, it was an amazing night.

I was gonna compile it, but one of my favorite resources makes it so I don't have to. Participate has a great tool for creating chat transcripts, and it's embed-able.

Check it out, just click on the Questions and Answers tab to get to the meat of the chat:

Saturday, November 12, 2016

I'll write my way out...

I’m weak. I’m starting off today saying that because I let stuff knock me down. On the reg, almost as habit, I let stuff take me off of the path. Admitting that isn’t fun, intellectually, I believe that vulnerability is a strength. So often, though, I find it emotionally painful.


In September, I started finding a good rhythm. I was writing each week, I felt like I was getting a good response to my blogs. I was Hamiltoning - writing like I’m running out of time. Then, as I was getting ready to attend EdCamp Tampa Bay, a big stupid hurricane set its sights on my town. It was a weekend of stress, of worry, of tears. A lot of my town was under water. My street was under water, and although my apartment is a second floor in an old house with no real downstairs, I had no idea what I’d be going back to. Amazingly, wonderfully, I got out without a lick of damage. So many others weren’t so fortunate. When Hamilton’s island was devastated by a hurricane, he wrote his way out. Me? Nope. There was a little bit of helping out in the community, a lot of going about the business of getting back to normal life.

Did that involve writing? Nope! I started getting out on the road for more long bike rides. And of course, like anything that takes work and thought, when bicycling got in the way of my traditional writing time, I put off the writing. “I’ll try to get it in later,” I thought. Later never came, though. Week after week, I overpacked and overscheduled my life and didn’t find time to write.

The lead up to election day didn’t help. My feelings about it all shoved so much out of the spotlight of my attention, and I didn’t write. I know that just like it was for Hamilton, writing is a way for me to save myself. I find that mixing equal parts of laughing with friends, exercise, creation and writing seem to keep me on the evenest keel. The exercise was there, and the laughter, but man, did I let myself get distracted. It’s funny when you know that something’s good for you, often it’s something you really enjoy and value, and yet still, you don’t touch it.

And that leads us to this week. The election, which I thought was going to all be a horrible memory in the rearview mirror yielded results that have, again, knocked me down. I’m honestly horrified. I had somebody say to me, “You haven’t seen what he’s done yet, give him a chance…” Yeah, uh huh. Pretty much the same script as in 2008, but with the roles changed. It’s not that I don’t want to see a Trump presidency because of all of the things he’s been accused of, or that he’s had attributed to him. I mean, those don’t make me happy, but that’s just gravy. For me, it starts with the platform that he ran on, even more worrying now that he’s proposed his first hundred days goals. I’ve generally been happy with what the president has accomplished in the face of an obstructionist congress. Mr. Trump’s intention of overturning progress that matters to me is very upsetting. I’m upset with his views on immigration, I’m upset with his picking a running mate that believes that “societal collapse was always brought about following an advent of the deterioration of marriage and family.” I’m upset with the fact that the things he says are embarrassing to me as an educator and as an American.

But here’s the thing, although there’s a solidly political paragraph in the middle of this post, that’s not what this is about. This is about the fact that another thing has knocked me down. I don’t want to respond to “something not going my way” (thanks, Facebook people...) with despair and inaction. I don’t like conflict. I don’t like arguing or disagreeing with someone when I have strong feelings, and yet, I wanna be the person who takes action. I want to be the person who handles disappointment, fear, and despair with bravery, grace, and kindness. I want to be the person who stands up against things that are wrong, stands up for the maligned and marginalized. I want to be the person who does something productive to help. And so, I realize at times like this, what I need to do is write.

When I write, I understand my feelings better, I focus better, and I find my way forward. And that’s what I need to do. So, back on track, kid. Get there, stay there. Share your voice, share your successes, share your struggles. We are not alone when we struggle, there are so many of us. You may be weak, but we all are. The real strength is in getting back up without losing who you are. Keep your head up and get writing.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

I Have Magic Powers (and So Do You)

Several years ago, maybe before I started using the Internet Nom de Clique MagicPantsJones, I was teaching two summer camps at my school. Fortunately, for my procrastinatory butt, it was in my classroom, a couple of weeks after school got out. This meant that I didn't have to pack everything up as quickly as normal. One of the camps involved taking things apart and making imaginary robots. It was fun and silly and very, very messy. There were screws, wires, and circuit boards everywhere. The day before camp got out, another teacher walked by my room, wide eyed, and said, "You're never getting out of here." "I'll be out on time," I answered, "I have magic powers." What happened in the next day wasn't some sort of Harry Potter spell, or even some mystical hokum. It was will. I'd declared something, and I did it. With the help of my campers, we took responsibility for the glorious devastation we'd created, and we made quick work of it in a short time on our last day. This, all to the surprise of my friend, who said, "I never thought you'd make it, but you did!"

Since that day, I've used the line again, and it works each time. If I just go about as normal, the results are normal, too. But there's something special about declaring extraordinary ability before taking on an extraordinary task. You could (should, even?) argue that what I'm talking about here is psychological, not magic. And as a mature education professional, my response to that is, "Yeah, so?" The definition of magic is influencing events by using supernatural or mysterious forces. Let's toss supernatural into someone else's bin for now. I don't want to dabble in that. But mysterious, that's a pretty broad word, especially when you consider psychology. For what we know of the brain, of personality, of how a lump of fat, water, and nerve cells seems to be the cockpit of our humanity, I think that mysterious is a pretty appropriate word. If you then extend that to talk about actions, emotions, and personal practices that yield irregular and extraordinary results, I think we can argue that we are certainly talking about a kind of magic. Most of us use this magic every day.

The Underpants Gnomes had been stealing peoples' underpants. Now if they could
only figure out the middle step, they'd profit.
I want to explore the nature of this. Some things that we do yield extraordinary results, but we understand why, they're totally explainable. But some things, we can only explain in abstract terms. Love, Music, and Humor, for example, are golden in my book. We can talk about, write about, and analyze them, but they act in life like a multiplier does in a video game. You level up faster, you last longer, you earn more points when these powers are engaged. We've all got them, and we only partially know why they work. For the greater part, when people write about them, they're writing about the response to them, or the construction. But what's the middle part? That's the magic. It's the thing that we don't fully understand, the mysterious forces, that yields extraordinary results. It's the question mark in this diagram above from South Park.

In upcoming posts, I'll explore how different Magic Powers work in the classroom. Maybe if we can all harness a little more of our Magic, we can do more amazing things with our students. In the meantime, feel free to add Magic that you think of below, or maybe argue with me and tell me that I'm a naive doofus!

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Dumb Things Are Important


I think you're pretty neat. Thank you for stopping by.

So dumb things... If you wanna take the title as a complaint, you'll have a lot of ammunition to prove your point. In the education world, there are a lot of dumb rules and contradictory policies from the classroom level all the way up to the education policy makers. The problem, for me with this line of thinking is it's not what I do well. I mean, yeah, I can complain, and I can point fingers, but I'm not good at railing against things effectively. I'm much better at talking about the things that make me happy. When I start focusing on the negatives too much, I tend to swerve headfirst into them, and then I miss all of the good stuff. This doesn't stop me from cursing things that are terrible, it's just that I don't know how to fix the bad, so I focus on making the good.

And for me, just as much as the things that we all know are good, I believe that there's a lot of really great Dumb stuff that makes life so much better. Because this is my space to go all, "Blah blah blah," about education, this is about how important it is to do Dumb stuff in the classroom.

To keep everyone together, I'm using Dumb to describe things that seem pointless, are often silly, sometimes distracting, and occasionally a waste of time. A lot of people can certainly get behind silly, but pointless doesn't usually have buyers in the education marketplace. Distractions and wastes of time are things that we're supposed to minimize and ferret out.

But maybe they're not?

Every day, when I take attendance, I play a game with the student names. I pick something (this is not a specific rule or plan, it's always spontaneous) to modify their names. Initially, this was something I did to amuse myself while doing a dull, daily task, but the kids enjoy it, too. Some days I rename them as animals (or vegetables, fruits, cars, countries) with the same first letter as their name. I've flipped the gender of their names, called them out like a basketball announcer, used bad foreign accents to pronounce their names, pronounced their names backward, given them royal titles, I try to vary this a lot so it doesn't get boring. When I'm having trouble thinking of something, I call them out by their middle names.

As a practice, you could say that there's a purpose here - it's creating fun, it's making the kids laugh, it's creating a positive mood, but other than that, there's nothing. And that's the beautiful thing about being deliberately Dumb - it clears the palate. It's game playing that stretches out our brains while acting as a release valve from all of the super important stuff we're supposed to be doing.

Steven Universe
I recently bought an afro wig - not as a practice of cultutral appropriation, that's tacky and insensitive - but because I was looking into putting together a Steven Universe Halloween costume. Unfortunately, when I tried it on, it looked stupid on me. So of course, I did the only thing you should do with such an item. No, I didn't take it back to Target, I stuffed it with old t-shirts, and used zip ties to close it up. A little hot glue, some googly eyes, and now we have a classroom friend named Reynaldo who hides in a different spot each day. I'm sure that I could have my students write stories about Reynaldo (where does he come from, what does he do when we're not there, what does he eat (fingers! stay away from his mouth!)), there's no real point. He's fun. It's a dumb game to play. Where's Reynaldo today? Did anyone find Reynaldo yet?

Andrew wrote about Reynaldo on his Seesaw Journal
Okay, again, maybe there is a purpose here. Shared experiences create culture. Building memories together - especially silly ones - creates bonds between people that last a lifetime. We look back at the times in life when we laughed. Mapping out your life and relationships with memories of laughter is a powerful and positive way to reflect. Okay, so maybe I'm helping my students with that, and maybe I'm even showing them how to create those parts in their own lives. But seriously, we're just being Dumb!

Another thing that Dumb play does for kids is to free them to be more open, more confident that they're in a safe space. On Friday, when we clicked 'Today's Event,' in Classcraft, it said that the player (student) with the lowest XP got to choose a song  for the Gamemaster (me) to sing. This had some really cool aspects to it. First of all, the student with the lowest number of Experience Points is the kid who's struggling to play the game of our classroom the most. Maybe it's someone who doesn't have a good record of taking up opportunity, maybe it's someone who's always a little behind. Either way, it's a cool way of drawing in a student who could be doing better. Next, having a kid pick the song is great because our music overlap isn't strong. I'm in my early forties, they're eight. Chances are that it's gonna be a song I've never heard before. The song that got picked was Fight Song (which I'd heard enough watching the Democratic Convention this summer). That led to the best part of all - Fight Song, an anthem of empowerment - doesn't fit with my voice at all. I'm not a very skillful singer to begin with, but I knew I couldn't nail it without being a buffoon. Opportunities for buffoonery are important for teachers. They humanize you. They teach your kids that respect works better when it comes from liking and caring about someone than when it's just fulfilling an expectation based on hierarchy. They teach students that it's okay to look silly if you're all in on the joke. Also - they give the kids a chance to laugh their butts off, and that's really important.

The last thing I want to share is Stupid Homework. On Friday afternoons, we brainstorm until we come up with something that sounds really stupid. That Really Stupid Thing becomes their homework. We've only done it twice, but so far, we've had a good time. The first one happened organically. I was joking around with them at dismissal, and said that we had homework for the weekend (Awwwwww). I wanted them to do something stupid that wasn't dangerous and wouldn't get them in trouble. That day's brainstorming session came up with: Put whipped cream or shaving cream around your mouth and run around yelling, "I have rabies!" Do that and send me a video, and I'll give you a ton of gold in Classcraft, I told them. We only got a couple, but it cracked everyone up on Monday. This weekend's stupidity is pretty simple - wear an outfit of mom or dad's clothes and take a picture. It's nothing too extravagant or ridiculous, but it's something that'll make the kids (and hopefully their parents) laugh, and make them excited to come back to school on Monday.

Investing a little time in being Dumb with your students is powerful. It builds culture. It scrubs stress from your classroom. It aids creative thinking. Really, being Dumb intentionally is a game. The rules don't always make sense, but that's okay because the points aren't important. It's not about winning or losing, it's about laughing. And THAT is why Dumb things are important.

Now go be Dumb in your space!

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Genius Hour Is Back for the New Year!

After two successful years of cool Genius Hour projects, I let a lot of factors drag me down last year. Sadly, I was never able to get any sort of Genius Hour off the ground. This year, I've returned to being way more active about building a positive, love-based culture in my classroom, and making Genius Hour a priority in that culture is important to me.

On Wednesday, we spent some time thinking about what we care about to kick-start our personal passion projects for the year. Some of my students had done Genius Hour in previous classes. When they saw it on our day's agenda, some were excited. One boy told me he wasn't sure what his project would be, and already had anxiety over it. At this point, I was Captain "Slow Down!" I don't want you even thinking about projects yet, I told them. My big worry if kids are starting with a project is that they'll get bogged down with ideas of what's possible, what's doable, and what's "easy enough" or "too hard." 

We sat down, I told them that I wanted them to sit quietly on the floor for a few minutes. "While you're here," I told them, "I want you to think about the things that totally make you come alive, (don't shout it out!), the things get you so charged that you shut out the world when you thinking about/seeing/learning about them.*" I waited a minute and it was the quietest moment of the week. "Once you've found something, and thought about your feelings for a while, please go to your seat and write or draw on the first page of your Genius Hour notebook about the thing that excites you." A few kids got up. It wasn't a mad rush like it usually is in a third grade classroom. It was still quiet. Kids slowly migrated to their seats. Occasionally, someone piped up with a, "Can I....?" to which the answer was always, "Yes!"

When we reassembled on the carpet, the sharing was a lot of fun, and showed a range of thinking styles. Some of the kids talked about ideas, some of them talked about things, and some talked about people. I don't even want to begin talking about work yet, but you could see the zygotes of some projects already forming. Three moments really stood out to me. The first was a boy who said that Lego excites him. I've had that before, but when he broke down the reasons why Lego is important to him, it was clear that the statement, "Lego excites me," was a thesis that he'd written an alternative paper on, full to the brim with diagrams and support. The second moment was personal, and me putting it down here is absolutely self serving. My shyest girl, the one who I'm always afraid that I'll break her because my outward personality is so big in class, and hers seems so delicate, wrote a list of things that give her life. The third thing was, "and more than anything, my teacher makes me feel alive and excited, my class, too." That bowled me over for a moment, and reminded me how important the trust she's placed in me is. The final one that stuck with me was a sweet, friendly boy who clearly lacks confidence in his voice. He said he didn't want to read it, he was too embarrassed. I asked if I could look at it. He handed it to me, and I was in love. It was too good, I asked if I could please read it. He squirmed, I said, "K, this is too good, can I please read the first sentence? Can I summarize it?" He finally agreed, and I told the kids that he wanted to help schools and kids that don't have as much as ours does. One of the girls gasped and said, "Oh my gosh!" in a tone that put it perfectly, as if to say how can you be shy about such a nice thing? He still was a bit sheepish, but he's gonna come around. A heart that big needs to be fed and encouraged. It's exactly what we need. 

I can't wait to see what the kids learn as they explore ideas, as they learn. I can't wait to see what projects they do. I'm so excited to not only water their gardens, but to show them how to water their own gardens of love and excitement for learning this year.

I modified this introduction from Angela Maiers' fantastic book, Liberating Genius. You could use this book as a fantastic road map if you've never (or never successfully) done Genius Hour with your students. While I don't need it for that, I'll definitely keep it in the glove box as a guidebook.  

Saturday, September 10, 2016

In which I jump feet first into Classcraft

Over the summer I attended EdCamp Magic in Orlando, FL. During the door prize section of the day, my pal Amber (@edtechamber - follow her, she's full of good) won a Premium Subscription to Classcraft, a service that she didn't need in her position. So quickly, I adopted the not-as-subtle-as-it-thinks-it-is "share the treats, please?" pose that my dog gets when I open the cupboard. When she asked me if I wanted it, I was all yes.

Classcraft is kind of like Class Dojo meets Dungeons and Dragons. It has more of a story to it, and more of a collaborative feel, as students work together in teams. 

As this school year has started to pick up, my kids and I are really enjoying it so far. Rather than writing in order, and getting all organize-y, I'm just gonna throw out some things that pop into my head as I think about how things have worked in class:
  • One of the things I like is that like Class Dojo, we've been able to tailor consequences and rewards to our class needs. The kids brainstormed what they wanted to count to make class run smoothly. Student voice works nicely with Classcraft
  • The team structure allows encourages students to help each other. They gain experience points for being helpful. Additionally, when you get into trouble, a student on your team can help you out of trouble. This gets you back on track, builds strong team bonds, and gives experience points to your helpful teammate (so they can level up faster). 
  • Another compulsion to be helpful: If one of your teammates causes enough problems to lose all of their hit points, they "fall in battle." The offending teammate has to complete a task to refresh their hit points, but additionally, everyone on the team loses ten hit points. 
  • One of the add ons that I've used with Classcraft is in the consequence section. When you fall in battle, you may have to memorize and recite a poem for the class, you may be asked to bring a treat in (I stress that singing, dancing, or joke telling count as treats just as much as cookies or candy), or you may be asked to copy a text. If the student has to copy a text, they get our school's mission statement to copy. It's not terribly long, and there's choice here: I allow students to choose how many times to recopy it. I award ten refreshed hit points for each time the student has recopied the mission. 
  • Random Events: One thing in the game that kids love (and love to hate!) is the presence of random events. If I tell them it's time for a random event, some get all happy, while others moan, "Noooooooo!" I press the button, and we learn that all healers just got 200 experience points (a cheer goes up!), or all the warriors just lost 20 hit points (sad faces and moans!). Every time, some kids ask for another, and others, again, say, "No, no, no!" The engagement is awesome.
  • One piece of classroom management I've always had trouble with is noise. I'm pretty easy going most of the time, but when it gets too noisy and I need it quiet for a moment, I have difficulty reining it in. With Classcraft, I've added in some outside sound effects and danger to warn them of noise. I found a dungeon soundboard online (shoutout, Tabletop Audio!). When it gets a little too noisy, I hit the Growl button (volume on LOUD), my eyes get really big, and I say, "Oh no, I think we're traveling past some Orcs (or dragons, or some other beasties)!" and the kids quiet down. If that doesn't work, I hit the Roar button on the soundboard, and then the Random Team button on Classcraft, "Oh no, the Magical Mountains just got attacked by a band of Orcs!" I roll a die and add on that they each took that much damage. It works, and it's fun, even when we get hit.
  • My kids love getting their work done early. "Can I go on Classcraft?" they like to see how close they are to leveling up, or to using class earned gold to buy new armor. 
  • Because we have the Premium version, I'm able to create Quests to review content, and then we can go on the quest as a class by battling a creature. One thing I'd like to see, though, is the ability to assign the quest to individuals. Wouldn't it be cool to use the quests as online quizzes? Fingers crossed that I just don't understand that function, or that it's coming...
  • There's also a Classroom Content Library that you can add readings to, but I haven't played with that yet. 
I'm sure there's much more I could go on about, but my brain is dwindling from a lack of movement. Clearly, we're loving Classcraft. (My AP said, "My only question, who's having more fun, you or the kids" I smiled and said, "Yes," because we're all enjoying the heck out of it so far!)  Now, if you have cool Classcraft ideas, share them below! If you have questions, share them in comments.