Monday, November 30, 2015

How "Real" Is Your Classroom?

"But how will I ever use this in the 'real world'?" I remember questioning my teachers as a student. I didn't always think what they were teaching me was important or useful. However, I was the type of student who wanted to succeed, who trusted my teachers despite those seeds of skepticism and doubt. For me, the assurance that things would be covered on the test or that they would be required to move on to the next stage or course in my education was enough. But I was probably the exception to most students in the late 1990s, and I would certainly be an anomaly today. In the age of Google search, Youtube, and global connections, "because I said so" doesn't cut it.

As a teacher now myself, I want to make sure my students never have to ask me when they'll use what I'm teaching them; I strive to make the relevance of the topic and the connections to their own lives crystal clear. If it's not important to them, then they won't give me the effort (and hopefully the enthusiasm!) I'm seeking. If I can't make Shakespeare, Dickens, and argumentative writing applicable to my 21st learners, then I should find something else to teach. Instead, I use Romeo and Juliet as a catalyst for conversations about teenagers, love, brain development, and decision-making; Great Expectations gets us discussing what character traits are truly important and how much we should be willing to change ourselves for someone else; and argumentative writing helps us defend our favorite athletes, musicians, and movies. Check out my "trailer" for my class below!

School should be the "real world," but our students don't often see it that way. Our students see us create an artificial environment of rules and regulations that have been in place for as long as we can remember, yet they are nothing like the "real world" they experience every day outside our school's walls. If we truly want our students to be successful, happy, life-long learners, here are a few things we can do to help them.

Stop Pretending Cell Phones Don't Exist

Devices exist in the "real world"
I'll admit it; I was guilty of this one my first couple years in the classroom. Our school had a policy against cell phones, and I would confiscate them if I saw them (as the rule stated), even when they weren't in use. Despite my feelings of guilt, I followed along. But if we want to be "real" we need to acknowledge that our students have their cell phones everywhere else. Instead of putting phones on lockdown, we need to teach our students how to handle the distraction they can be and to harness their power for the forces of good. My students and I discuss when appropriate times are for using phones in class--we even role-play some scenarios! We also share times a cell phone could help us with learning or sharing our learning. I have my phone out to snap quick pictures of what we're doing and to share on social media. We share new apps we like and whether or not we can find an equivalent web-based program to use on our Chromebooks. Sure, students sometimes get distracted by their phones or try to use them at inappropriate times, but when they do we talk about it. They are allowed to learn, grow, and make mistakes here like anywhere else, and they can do it with my guidance. Allowing students the freedom to have their phones or other devices out shows them that the classroom doesn't have to be an artificial environment where we have to pretend personal devices don't exist.

Allow For Choice

Teachers, you don't always have to tell students every detail of how to do things. I used to be guilty of this. I had a vision for the content, the process, and the product, and I would clearly outline each step for my students. It's not that I didn't ask for feedback or change up the projects, or even that I didn't sometimes offer what I though of as choice (you can choose option A or option B!) to students. I just never truly allowed for student choice that wasn't initially my choice. It is comfortable that way, both for teachers and for students. But a few years back I taught the same class six times each day for the first time, and I was bored. One of the changes I made was to deliberately allow for student choice. I let them choose books to read or how to make a visual representation of their thoughts with any tool they could access. I let them generate ideas for projects and allowed them to teach each other new web tools. Because in the "real world" they get to make some decisions for themselves. Their interests and strengths matter, and our classrooms should reflect the influence of our students. It can be scary for us; teachers like to be in control. It can also be scary for students who have never been offered the opportunity to choose for their own learning and don't know where to start!

Stop Raising Hands

This has been a tough one for my students, but I asked them to stop raising their hands and simply to discuss with one another. When I inquired if they had to raise their hands anywhere else or if they could recall their parents ever raising their hands, they couldn't come up with any examples from the "real world." So with a few ground rules (only one person talking at a time, respectful conversation, and no one student dominating the discussion) we have tried to eliminate raising our hands and to simply talk to one another. We are about one-third of the way through the school year, and I still often have students begin a discussion with raising their hands. I wave the "come on" signal, though, and the students relax and the conversation flows much more smoothly than any contrived or disjointed discussion of hand raising! Students feel more relaxed and are more willing to participate when they know we're truly having a conversation!

Stop Assigning Mountains of Homework

My first few years in the classroom, I taught French ful time, and I never "assigned" homework. I did ask my students to spend 5-10 minutes a night looking over their words and conjugations, but I never assigned writing compositions or worksheets. My philosophy was that French was new to everyone and that students would do more harm than good to themselves making mistakes that I couldn't help them correct in a timely fashion. I also knew the amount of work other classes were assigning, and I knew they simply didn't have time for it all. But that changed when I started teaching English full time. I felt pressure that first year to assign homework each night; English is a core class, a tested area, after all! But I was miserable, and so were my students. I had more work to do to keep up with their assignments, and I was disappointed when they either didn't do them or didn't do them well. So I changed. I make sure never to assign work over the weekend or a break, and I always give multiple days to complete any assignments that may need to be wrapped up outside of class. Students are happier, and so am I. Test scores didn't sink, and my students could still demonstarte their learning and growth. This is the "real world." How many adults do you know (besides teachers) who worry about their work away from work or take their work home with them?

Don't Make Learning a Secret; Make Students Responsible for It

This has been a game-changer for me. I read Paul Solarz's Learn Like A Pirate this summer, and he shares how he gives students responsibility for ensuring the class is on task by sharing a daily schedule. With the schedule projected on the monitor, students know exactly what should be accomplished during the class, in which order (if necessary), and they hold each other accountable for making sure the schedule is followed. What the class is doing is not a secret that only the teacher is responsible for following, but becomes a collective responsibility. What is more "real world" than that?!

These are just of few of the measures I have taken to make my classroom a more authentic, relevant place for my students, but I'm always looking to adapt, grow and improve! I'd love to hear some amazing ways you've been able to add more "real world" to your class in the comments!

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Ideas for Anyone Teaching Vocabulary (so every teacher ever!)

My school set reading comprehension as our academic focus areas this year, and I was tasked with introducing some reading comprehension strategies to my colleagues they might use with their students. I immediately thought of Marzano's vocabulary process as a painless introductory strategy. Nothing is more frustrating than a student's lack of comprehension or success because he or she doesn't understand the question or the prompt. As a former French teacher, I had already amassed an arsenal of fun vocabulary activities, so sharing was easy! Here's the introduction I offered my colleagues, with plenty of digital resources for our 1:1 Chromebooks!

Marzano’s Six-Step Vocabulary Process 

(note--it’s important to do ALL SIX steps!)

1. Provide a description, explanation, or example of the new term.

  • Looking up words in dictionaries is not the most useful way to learn vocab
  • Provide a context for the term
  • Introduce direct experiences that provide examples of the term
  • Tell a story that integrates the term
  • Use video to aid in processing and internalizing meaning
  • Describe your own mental picture of the term
  • Find or create pictures that explain the term

2. Ask students to restate the description, explanation, or example in their own words.

  • Monitor and correct misunderstandings
  • Important that STUDENTS create this understanding rather than copying teacher or book models

3. Ask students to construct a picture, symbol, or graphic representing the word.

  • Model, model, model--even if you're not the best artist!
  • Provide examples of student’s drawings (and your own) that aren't perfect--maybe even attempt to improve upon them!
  • Play “Pictionary”
  • Make a comic, by hand or online with a tool like Pixton or makebeliefscomix
  • We like to do steps 2+3 on our dry erase painted desks! We use our Chromebooks to snap quick pictures of them and compile them on Google Slides presentations.

4. Engage students periodically in activities that help them add to their knowledge of the terms.

  • Highlight prefixes, suffixes, root words to aid in decoding and memory
  • Identify synonyms and antonyms for the term
  • List related/unrelated words 
  • Translate the term into another language for second language students
  • Write incomplete analogies for students to complete
  • Allow students to write (or draw) their own analogies (Connect Two Example)
  • Sort or classify words

5. Periodically ask students to discuss the terms with one another.Think-Pair-Share

  • Yes-No-Why (Example)
  • Compare their descriptions of the term
  • Describe their pictures to one another
  • Students share their own connections or mnemonic devices 
  • Explain to each other any new information they have learned (Aha Moments)
  • Identify areas of disagreement or confusion and seek clarification
  • Allow students to revise their own work
My students love to play Kahoot!

6. Involve students periodically in games to play with, recycle, and review terms.

  • That’s Sketchy (Pictionary)
  • Puzzles
  • Vocabulary Baseball (Teacher predetermines single, double, triple, and home run words, bonus if students actually "run" the bases!)
  • Memory (time students, beat themselves or each other)
  • Jeopardy (vocab words are on the board, players make up a question to define)
  • Charades
  • Vocabulary Battleship
  • Name the Category ($100,000 Pyramid)
  • Password
  • Catch Phrase
  • Bingo (teacher gives definition, students mark the words)
  • Create a skit (assign groups of 3-4 kids 3 vocab words include in a skit)
  • Flyswatter Game (show images representing the words or the words themselves all on 1 image, kids on 2 teams compete to find words first when teacher reads the definition and swat with fly-swatter)
  • Arcade style games
  • Pac Man Game 
  • Kahoot
  • Socrative Space Race
What would you add to the list? I'd love to hear your fun vocabulary games and activities that have proven successful with students! 

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Linking Our Book Reviews to QR Codes to Share with a Wider Audience

In the last three years, two factors led to a major decline in the number of books being checked out from our school's media center: Changing from a block schedule to a traditional, seven-period day schedule and putting a Chromebook in the hands of each student through our 1:1 technology initiative. Honestly, I fully support each of these changes. Teaching on the block schedule held some advantages, but I struggled with forging strong relationships with students when they knew they'd spend just a semester with me. I hated the feeling that they left me, never to return, when I had finally figured out how to best help each of them. I welcomed the traditional schedule for these reasons, and my relationships are stronger and my students are growing more. I also love technology; our Chromebooks have allowed experiences and creations we would never have been able to do without them, like Epic Rap Battles and Digital Text Annotation.

But the traditional, seven-period day made so many of my colleagues feel the need to rush. Even though they had the time, the shortened periods made them feel like they had less time. The first things they cut were projects that required even more time by leaving their classrooms and going to the media center. The media center also used to be a popular place for students during study hall before a Chromebook was available to them 24/7. I would write passes each day for students who wanted to access technology in the media center during their study hall time, for the media center housed the majority of tech in our building. Our Chromebooks enabled them to have even better access without making the extra trip.
Creative Commons photo via Flickr

As a language teacher and lover of books, hearing my colleagues in the media center lament the drastic decline in circulation made me sad. I have so many amazing memories of book talks with my school librarian, participating in summer reading programs and book clubs, and those few teachers who would set aside time in class for us to read books that we had chosen for ourselves. And so I decided to take action rather than remain sad.

If I want my students to read and visit the media center, then reading and going to the media center need to be priorities. I need to take time for class visits and time in class to read our choice books. Even more importantly, I need to talk to students about their books, help them find the right books for their interests and abilities, and help them share their opinions with each other, our school, and the world.

To share with each other and the school, I decided to have students record book reviews, link them to QR codes, and received permission from our media specialist to place the QR codes on the books in the library. This way anyone with a Chromebook (which is everyone in our school) or a smart phone could easily listen to the reviews and get advice about choosing that particular book! Here's the assignment I gave my students!
Creative Commons photo via Flickr

As for sharing with the world, I have asked all of my students to seek parent permission to set up "professional" Twitter accounts using their school email addresses. Through these accounts, I have encouraged them to share photos of their books using #shelfieWednesday and even promoted the Sunday night #Read4fun chat where people (mostly educators) share reviews and recommendations. While not all of my students are there yet, they're slowly getting on board with my love of reading and they love any excuse to use social media!

Our media specialist has already noticed a sharp increase in circulation, as well as a decrease in overdue books. Since I paln to do the same or a similar project each quarter of the school year, we should be able to provide many reviews as we reshape our media center's identity!

Monday, September 21, 2015

Ten Reasons Google Drawings Should Be on Your Classroom Radar

Since learning more about Google Drawings at last year's EdTechTeam Indiana Summit featuring Google Apps for Education, I can't stop using them! Google Drawings are a fantastic, highly underutilized tool for classroom use. As I've experimented with them and found even more uses, here are my top ten reasons you should give Google Drawings a try!

1. Interactive Posters
With essentially a blank canvas, students and teachers can create posters with text, photos, and hyperlinks to any number of resources. Even better, since Drawings are collaborative like other Google Apps, groups of people can be working on the same drawing! Check out this characterization poster with text evidence a five student group was able to create in about twenty minutes!

2. Text Annotation/Close Reading
Using a photo of the text on the poster or as the background, students can add arrows, shapes, hyperlinks to videos, websites, or other Google Docs to explain the text. Check out my post on annotating text with Google Drawings for more details!

3. Graphic Organizers
Easily create colorful, custom graphic organizers for students. Since we can type right in the Google Drawing, even on top of the shapes, we can go paperless with these organizers without the hassle of trying to edit PDFs. Here's a plus delta chart I created for students to examine Odysseus's leadership in Part 1 of The Odyssey!

4. Manipulatives
With the ability to drag and re-arrange the pieces of the drawing, students could easily be using virtual manipulatives (and you or an aide wouldn't have all that time invested in cutting out and laminating all the pieces!). Matching terms or labeling a diagram becomes a quick, visual activity. I used this vocabulary matching as a formative assessment midway through our unit!

5. Create a Digital Signature
While this is much easier with a touch screen and a stylus, it can be done with a mouse or on a track pad with a little practice. Just choose the "scribble" option to start writing!

6. Mind Maps
Make organizing, connecting, and hypothesizing about ideas visible through Mind Maps. Quick drafts could be made with shapes, arrows, and connectors!

7. Sketchnoting
With a complete source of options for colors, shapes, fonts, lines, and even freehand with the scribble option, students and teachers could create beautiful sketchnotes to visualize information! With the addition of a hyperlink, the sketchnote could provide access to the inspiration for it with just one click!

8. Timelines
A Colleague teaching Junior English American Literature and I brainstormed an awesome project where students would add to a Google Drawings timeline after covering each literary movement, insert links to literature, videos, and images, and then blog about how the ideas and style of that movement are still impacting our culture today. Students can even link their blog posts to the timeline! The beginnings might look something like this.

9. Storyboard
The ability to link images, your own and others, to the Google Drawing and to use connectors, colors, links, and text make this a natural vehicle for Storyboards to recap media, or better yet to plan student media creations!

10. Create custom backgrounds for Google Slides
First download the Google Drawing as an image. Next, open a Google Slides presentation. Choose "background," then "image," and select your file.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Sharing Files and Folders Across Google Accounts

My sister-in-law started a new job in a new school system just a few weeks before school started, and for the first time she has access to all that Google Apps For Education has to offer. As she discussed how much easier her job is now that she has the collaboration abilities of GAFE, she had some questions about how to make her unique situation easier to manage.

My sister-in-law actually has two Google Apps for Education accounts to use; she was hired as an employee of the public school system as the intervention specialist for the K-8 parochial school whose students eventually attend the public high school. The parochial school has a separate domain, and she has trouble keeping track of where she has saved the files she needs. I suggested sharing all of her files with both accounts so she has access no matter which account she is signed into at any given moment, and I created this short tutorial to help. This could also be helpful if you use a personal Google account and a GAFE account regularly and would like to share files with both. Happy sharing!

Friday, August 28, 2015

Five Ideas for Using Padlet in the Classroom

Padlet is a web tool that works like a collaborative piece of virtual paper, and each paper is called a Padlet Wall. Users can add text, photos, videos, links, or even documents from their devices if they simply have the link to Padlet Wall. With the addition of an ios app this month, Padlet can be accessed on virtually any device.

By default, Padlet Walls are public, but the owner of a Padlet Wall can restrict access to invited collaborators only, add a password to a wall, or simply make it public yet hidden from public searches. For added security in the classroom, Padlet users can turn on the moderation option to require approval for posts before they are added.

With all of these security features and no login required, Padlet is a wonderful tool for the classroom with so many possibilities! Here are a few ways teachers and students might use it:

1. Exit Ticket or Bell Ringer
If you're trying to gather responses from all students quickly at the beginning or end of the class period and want to go paperless, Padlet can be a great option. Simply post the prompt or exercise to the Padlet Wall, share the link with students, and collect all the responses in one spot! If you don't want students to see all the responses already posted, simply turn on the moderation feature. You then can approve all the posts at once when students are done.

2. Virtual Bulletin Board
Even better than a traditional bulletin board, Padlet will allow you to add videos and links to the traditional text and pictures of bulletin boards. You can choose one of Padlet's fun backgrounds or even upload your own background image to make it visually appealing, and you also have options for adding your posts--grid, list, or free form style. For even more fun, you could post the virtual bulletin board to a class website to share with parents too!

3. Content Curation
Whether you're gathering a list of websites and resources for a paper or research project or looking for someplace to house completed student projects, Padlet is a great place to gather information. Teachers could post a list of approved resources for a given project, or students researching the same topic can add links, articles, videos to share with the group, saving time and allowing for true collaboration. Even better, when projects are completed, teachers could create Padlet Walls to showcase the student work, adding links or photos and descriptions of projects that aren't shareable in other ways.

4. Virtual Posterboard
Instead of finding someplace in the classrooms to display posterboards for each student project, combine the advantages of #2 and #3. A Padlet Wall could become the posterboard with great backgrounds and links and videos, plus another Wall could house all of the student projects! With the ability to upload your own background image and add free form posts, the background image could even become interactive and explained through the posts!

5. Seating Chart
This is one of my favorite activities for the first day of school! Our student management system does not allow us to create those fancy seating charts where we can re-arrange the student photos as needed; we're stuck with an alphabetical list of names and faces in pre-set rows. To make one anyway, I ask students to title the post with their names, take a selfie, and add two things about themselves on Day 1. This way I have their current photo with the name (they never look like the pictures from last year!), and the free form option allows me to rearrange the Wall into my crazy seating configuration when they're done!

How have you used Padlet in the classroom? I'd love to hear your ideas!

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Make the Metamorphosis Happen!

I woke up this morning with a plan--I was taking my boys to preschool and spending the day working in my classroom. After all, school begins in just one week! I have lesson plans to make, Google classrooms to set up, and a bulletin board I intend to change before my students arrive! As I reached into my jewelry box and pulled out this butterfly necklace, I was overcome with emotion as I recalled the story of my husband giving me this gift!

We had been trying to conceive for over two years, complete with all the frustration, medical testing, and experimenting that goes with that territory. We were trying something new that month, hopeful we would be celebrating in a couple of weeks. I was also wrapping up my fourth year of teaching, and I had an amazing group of French 4 students. These students had grown in their language skills as I had grown as a teacher, and we had all made amazing progress on our journey together! Five years later, I still get Facebook messages and emails from them; we're that close! While my students did not know I was carrying this burden, they did know I had been more stressed than usual and had expressed concern. One student (who had spent ten days in France with us on a school trip) even approached my husband after a school event  to ask if I was ok!

Mother's Day happened to fall in this time frame of waiting, wondering, and stress as well. It would be just a few more days until we knew if this latest trial resulted in a pregnancy, and my husband surprised me with a present that Sunday. As I opened the little box to find this necklace, he explained that a butterfly was the perfect pendant for me. Whether we were pregnant at that moment or not, he continued, he knew I would be a great mom. I had chosen a career where I took on new "kids" each year, nurtured them, helped them, and taught them.  They made me laugh, cry, lose sleep, and feel proud of all they accomplished as they progressed. I was always worried about them and if I could do more to help them learn and grow. If I'm able to take my "caterpillars" and turn them into "butterflies" with just fifty minutes each weekday in a classroom, he finished, he knew I would do wonders for our children. Needless to say, I was a blubbering mess as he helped me fasten the chain around my neck (and I was pregnant!). The perfect necklace as I get back in the routine of school and the mindset of the new academic year!

So, if you're back in the classroom already or still preparing like I am, I challenge you to remember that we are planning, guiding, and aiding in a metamorphosis for each student who walks through our doors this year. They're all at different stages, and some of them are stubborn and would stay caterpillars if we allowed it. Some have more support for the transformation at home than others do. Some will already have their wings, and it's our job to help them fly farther, faster, and longer. As teachers, we have the gift of helping this metamorphosis for not only our own children but also all the "kids" we take on this journey each year. Remember that it IS a process and support it all you can as you watch them build their cocoons and unfurl their wings!

Sunday, August 9, 2015

We're All a Model to Someone

I took my sons, four-year-old Ryan and two-year-old Liam, shopping for new tennis shoes this week. We're fortunate to live near a shoe store that measures their feet and offers a 13 week guaranteed fit (which I have taken advantage of!). Ryan spoke up to be measured and try on shoes first when the salesman approached. Like a pro, he held still for the measurement, waited patiently as the salesman collected several pairs his size, and returned. After selecting two green pairs, he settled on his favorite.

And then it was Liam's turn. He wiggled around for the measurement, so it took twice as long as it should have. Worse, he then had to wait for the salesman to return while his brother was already wearing new shoes! As he began to tear up, his big brother put his arm around him and told him to be a big boy and not to worry; "that man will be right back with cool shoes!"

The salesman returned, and opened a box to reveal red tennis shoes. Liam squealed with delight and clutched them to his chest. The second box held a pair of blue shoes, which received oohs and aahs, but the red shoes remained clutched in his little hands. The third box contained a pair of green shoes (which looked a lot like big brother's!), and my little guy immediately cast the red shoes aside and had his mind made up, without ever putting them on his feet! Naturally, we left with two pairs of green tennis shoes on two pairs of little feet!

One of the final chapters of What Connected Educators Do Differently by Todd Whitaker, Jimmy Casas, and Jeffrey Zoul on modeling the way for other educators ends with "what we model is what we get," a sentiment that rings true for all ages and stages, as my sons reminded me this week. Ryan modeled appropriate behavior and reassured his younger brother at the shoe store; and, as he has his whole two years of life, Liam looked to his older brother as an example to match (hence the green shoes).

As I prepare to formally begin the new school year with my fellow teachers in one week and to greet my students in a week and a half, I'm reminded of the power of modeling. Often, we forget we have chosen a life as an example to others by choosing a career in education. Our fellow educators are looking to us to model new ideas, out-of-the-box thinking, connecting, risk-taking, and a positive attitude. We can be a major factor in the attitude of our fellow educators by modeling the behavior we wish to see in others. We often discuss the state of morale in a building or the school climate and culture, but what are we doing to change it? Are we modeling the way?

Likewise, we are always a model to our students, so we must be mindful of how we approach teaching and learning. Is it a job or a passion? Are the skills and standards we teach important enough to master, or do they exist solely for the test? Do we place our importance on students or on data? Are students going to sit in compliance on the first day of school or will they create and learn? Students know the difference between an educator "putting in her time" and an educator who puts her time into teaching! Which one will you be this year?

Will educators and students look to you as someone they want to be like this year? Will they want green shoes too? How will you model what you want to see?

Thursday, July 23, 2015

PLN: Sharing, Giving, and Taking

I've been participating in a summer book study of What Connected Educators Do Differently by Todd Whitaker, Jeff Zoul, and Jimmy Casas through the Indiana Department of Education. Many educators in this group are brand new to Twitter, PLNs, and the idea of being connected. Over the weeks, I have seen my fellow teachers gain comfort and confidence in navigating Twitter, and they are building their connections and beginning to share ideas. Here are my thoughts on the idea of giving and taking with your PLN. 

Public Domain image via Pixabay

It's easier and safer to be a "taker" when we're new to things, teaching in general, a specific grade level, or Twitter. However, being connected means we become more comfortable and willing to begin "giving." It's important to realize that EVERYONE (yes, you!) has something valuable and important to share in the education conversation, and to share those ideas and gifts we all have to improve education! I know many teachers who feel they couldn't possibly know enough, be expert enough, or be a good enough/speaker/writer to share with the world--and nothing could be farther from the truth! If you are willing to participate in a summer book study, you are exactly the type of educator who SHOULD be sharing! It can be scary at first, but it is well worth it!

I have become much more connected in the last year, thanks mostly to Twitter! Yes, it does take time, but I am a better teacher and will eventually be a better administrator because I have fellow educators across the state, the country, and the world who will help me if I'm investigating something new, will help me tweak an idea, and, most importantly, encourage, support, and stretch me to be the best educator I can be!

I "steal" great ideas from my PLN all the time, but I credit to whoever gave me the idea in a Tweet or a blog post to support that person if it's an an original idea. I also try to give a Tweet or a mention to anyone who shared an idea with me and ask if I can reuse it. Crowdsourcing ideas, adapting them to fit the needs of our schools and students truly gives us power to grow and make positive changes! If I only had my own ideas, or even the ideas from the teachers in my own building, I wouldn't have half of my good ideas or be half the teacher I am because of my PLN!

I give much more now that I am comfortable with social media and have established connections. I share ideas on several Twitter chats a week, tweet pictures of projects in my classroom, and I try to blog regularly about my ideas for education. I know that this way I am giving my PLN some ideas to work with, and giving back to them for all of their sharing!

Thank you to all of my PLN colleagues and friends for your support!

Monday, July 13, 2015



I read Dave Burgess's Teach Like a Pirate last August, shortly before the start of our school year, and I have been singing its praises ever since. I even wrote my first ever blog post about it! I've had one of my best years yet in the classroom, and I attribute the success of this year to a renewed passion for my students and my growing connections on social media.

In January I started participating in a Twitter Teacher Book Club (#TBookC) which reads one book each month and discusses it over the first three Thursdays of the month (9 PM EDT; this month's read is Deborah Schoeberlein's Mindful Teaching & Teaching Mindfulness). The insights, connections, and meaningful changes to my teaching through participating in this book club are too enormous to count!  After leading many professional development sessions for my colleagues this year both during our weekly collaboration time and through hosting voluntary Tech Tuesdays, I started thinking about how I could pull off a book study for our staff.

At our high school, it wouldn't be easy. I was thinking about starting this after spring break, in those busy weeks where we all feel the pressure of the end of the school year, the preparation for standardized testing, and the weather warming up enough we don't want to be cooped up in the building any longer than possible! Add to that the many teachers coaching spring sports and/or with their own children involved in playing spring sports and a school musical, and I knew we would be lacking on both motivation and time to complete a book study! I needed to get creative if I wanted this to happen!

First, I needed to motivate my fellow teachers to participate. Many of them had heard me talk about how much I LOVE the #tlap philosophy and how much reading it has motivated me to reclaim making teaching fun for me and my students, so they were pretty familiar with the idea. I also cleared offering Professional Growth Points for participation with my principal, but I knew many older teachers in my building with lifetime licenses would not be motivated by that offer. Fortunately, Dave Burgess was announced as the keynote speaker for the summer technology conference our district is co-hosting this year, which generated more enthusiasm. Add to that my principal's offer to buy the books for us, and I knew I could convince a crew to embark on this book study with me!

Next, I needed to address our varied commitments and hectic schedules. Adding a weekly meeting to everyone's schedule wouldn't work out, so we needed to be able to connect online and after hours. I decided on two formats to interact, Blogger and Twitter. Blogger is so user friendly, and I knew my colleagues would have little trouble commenting on an initial post and responding to each other. Twitter, however, was another story. Only one of the teachers who signd up was experienced at using Twitte rto chat and make connections, so I decided to offere a voluntary Tech Tuesday session to help teachers create accounts, lose the eggs, and practice tweeting in a safe, supportive environment. I also offered to host the chat right after school the first few times and offer teachers the chance for face-to-face support in my classroom. During the first chat, all but the experienced user came to my classroom; by our last chat, only three teachers cme to my room, and they could handle Twitter by themselves but felt more comfortable in my room, just in case!

To wrap our study, I asked Dave Burgess to Google Hangout with our group, which he kindly agreed to do (Thank you, Dave!)! My colleagues were so inspired and impressed with Dave's passion and enthusiasm that they ALL signed up to attend our July conference to hear him keynote the event!

PhotoOverall, I'm counting our first EVER voluntary book study a success! Teachers ended the school year on an uplifting, inspirational note and were excitedly discussing how to incorporate "hooks" into their lessons, bith in the last few weeks of school and for the next school yeartechnology conference will take place next week (July 21 #IntegratED), so I'm hoping the PIRATE energy will be rekindled just in time for our back-to-school planning! I look forward to discussing hooks and #tlap as the year begins and to collecting evidence of our group putting the PIRATE philosophy in action, connecting with each other and our students as we make a difference! I'm hoping to lead at least one book study next year as well!

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Year in Review: Our Class in Three Words

With less than a week of school remaining, the 2014-2015 school year is winding down. And, it has been one of my favorite years of teaching yet! From Epic Rap Battles to choose-your-own-adventure stories, from Dickensian tea parties to Socratic smackdowns, my students have made amazing progress in their learning, and we've had so much fun!

As one culminating activity for the year, I wanted to use one of the new Google Doc add-ons I learned about on this week's #gafechat over Chrome Extensions and Drive Add-ons, Tag Cloud Generator. I asked my students to use three words to describe our class, which they plugged into this Google Form I made to keep things anonymous. (The best part--unlink the form and delete all responses each class period to keep re-using the same Form!) I copied the results to a Google Doc, chose "Add-ons" and "Get add-ons" to find Tag Cloud Generator and add, then clicked "Add-ons" again to choose "Tag Cloud Generator" to use it!

Tag Cloud Generator created a beautiful word cloud right in my Doc of all the words used!

It is important to note that students should use single words when possible. If they used phrases to describe our class, I asked the to link the words by using hyphens to connect them; that way, they showed up together in the word cloud! It took fewer than five minutes, and I shared a screenshot of the wrod cloud with the whole class on Google Classroom!

Monday, May 25, 2015

Leadership Lessons from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Raphael in my kitchen!

My two little boys are obsessed with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. So obsessed, in fact, that my four-year-old's wardrobe consists almost entirely of Turtle attire, from underwear and socks to sweatshirts and hats. They play dress up as the Turtles and practice "saving" me from the Shredder. When they watch TV, they choose to watch the Turtles almost without fail. Since I grew up watching the original animated Turtles and live-action movies, I enjoy nostalgically watching these with them, and the newest animated series has a surprisingly well-written story line! As an adult, an educator, and a leader, I have been surprised by how many great leadership lessons are embedded in this children's show. 

While Leonardo is the official leader of the Turtles, he has an amazing mentor in his sensei and "father," Master Splinter. This is a lesson, in and of itself! Even those in leadership positions must have mentors, people they can trust for counsel, leaders whose experiences can inform their own. Splinter offers his advice to the Turtles in nearly every episode and incarnation of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, even when he is separated from them physically and/or near death. Here are a few of my favorites!

"We choose what holds us back and what moves us forward."

Wise advice from Master Splinter! Too often, in education and in life, we get bogged down by the things we can't control--the government mandates, the standardized tests, teacher evaluations, student home life--that we forget to focus on the things we CAN control. We can control our attitudes toward teaching and toward our students. If we approach each day with the positive attitude that we intend to perform our best and that all students can learn, we are half way to making these things a reality from the start. We can control the environment we create in our classrooms. If we create a safe environment and encourage our students to take positive risks, we can make it easier for students to give us their best effort. We can also control our message to those around us. Too often, educators fear bragging too much about the amazing things they are doing in their classrooms and their schools. And sometimes, we feel there just isn't enough time to tell our stories. But we can choose to let the negative messages of education from media and politics hold us back, or we can choose to tell our stories, to make time for them, so that we can move the discussion of education forward in a positive direction.

"There is no place for excuses when you are the leader!"

In other words, be the model you want others to follow! Live and breathe the type of person you want all those who follow you to become; encourage them and guide them through example. If school climate is cloudy, what are you doing to bring in a ray of sunshine? If that new technology isn't be utilized, how are you modeling its use and integration? What training and support are you providing? If student attendance is abysmal. what are you doing to encourage students to WANT to be at school, and how are you encouraging others to do the same? Being a leader means that you are aware of issues and working proactively to solve them, not making excuses for why things aren't working.

"Leadership is not about being appreciated, it's about responsibility. It doesn't matter that the burden is heavy, it matters that you carry it."

This is key. Being a leader isn't easy. If you want to be a leader for the glory and the power, you're going about it all wrong--and you won't last. Being a leader is about the responsibility you have to those you lead and serve. In education, this is our students, teachers, and communities. Being an educational leader is hard work, because we do our best to alleviate the burdens of those we serve so that they can focus on the teaching and learning that is true purpose. If we are willing to take on the burden of leadership, and to truly serve and support those we lead, then we have the unique opportunity to make an enormous impact on those around us!

Donatello is always ready to read and learn!

Where have you been surprised to find leadership lessons? And how do you apply them to being an educational leader? I'd love to hear your ideas! 

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Independent Reads vs. Whole Class Reads

As #slowchatela looks at teaching whole novels this week, the first question Jay Nickerson posed was "What's your current approach to teaching novels? How's that goin' for ya?" This made me pause...How is it going for me? More importantly, what do I hope to get out of teaching whole novels? Then, Christina Luce asked me to consider my goals for whole class and independent reading. After pondering, here are my thoughts!
Books stacked on either side of table, three open in middle of stacks
CC Photo: Abhi Sharma via Flickr

Independent Reads vs. Whole Class Reads

Sometimes, I want students to be able to choose what they want to read because
  • the autonomy leads to ownership
    • No Brainer:  We are all more invested in a task if we have chosen it for ourselves! Students are more likely to actually read the novel if they are given a voice in which novel they are reading. 
  • exploring different genres is important to help them find something they enjoy reading
    • Reading shouldn't feel like a burden; it should be an adventure! Students need the freedom to try different types of texts until they find one that fits them. Some students may even prefer non-fiction! 
  • they will likely choose something outside the "canon"
    • Contemporary works and Yong Adult fiction have much to offer, but they are too often neglected in classrooms. My students generally read the same whole class literature their parents read as freshmen and sophomores! 
But other times, I want them all to read the same, whole class read because
  • the shared experience can help build community
    • Common experiences, shared goals, teamwork, and collaboration build relationships and increase trust among students and between students and the teacher. While this can be accomplished without reading a novel, tackling a big project like reading a novel together can lay a foundation of community.
  • they give us common samples and examples to practice reading and analysis strategies together
    • Working on particular close reading strategies and examining specific literary devices and features is easier if we all use the same text. After some whole class practice with these skills, students can hopefully transfer their application to anything else they choose to read!
  • some classic literature and allusions are important to make them well-rounded and well-educated 
    • Star-crossed lovers, George and Lennie references, Big Brother, chasing a white whale, ...I could go on forever! These allusions are part of our culture, and I want my students to be familiar with some of them!
At this time, I mostly teach whole class novels. Partly, this is because it's what we have--sets of whole class novels rather than well-stocked classroom libraries. We do have a school media center, and I probably need to take better advantage of using it with my class. Another factor is time. It seems to take so long to read a novel in a regular English class that I don't often feel like I have time to offer more choices (and my students don't have time to read something else).

When students do "individual reads," I would prefer if they could work in literature circles or at least have a partner. Having another person's support makes us all more accountable. Think about how much easier it is for us to stick to a diet or workout plan if we have a support system; that's why weight-loss groups have weigh-ins and meetings and why personal trainers are so popular. Sure, I can provide some of this support as the teacher, but I fear the "carrot" of the grade at the end is completely unmotivating to some students. I also don't want to encourage the idea that we only read because we are "forced" into it.
CC Photo: Erin Kelly via Flickr

Ideally, I want my students to develop a love of reading and a multitude of strategies that help them examine and analyze their reading, make connections to their prior knowledge and experiences, and discuss their understanding intelligently. I don't think it can happen without some whole class reads, but I also don't think limiting their choices will make this a reality. I need to find some balance here, and make individual reads an easier reality in my classroom.

How do you approach teaching novels? Do you do more whole class reads or more individual reads? What have been your best teaching strategies for both? I'd love to hear your ideas!

Monday, May 18, 2015

Make your Google Slides Presentations Interactive with the Nearpod-ize this! Chrome Extension

I was first introduced to Nearpod about a year ago, and I immediately thought of my many colleagues who could use it to up the ante on their technology integration with little extra work or planning. I know numerous colleagues rely on PowerPoints and Google Slides presentations to deliver content to students, so Nearpod would be a safe and easy step in the right direction with our new 1:1 Chromebook and GAFE initiative. I even modeled Nearpod by delivering a professional development session with it which kicked off our new Response to Intervention initiative this year! However, without any follow-up training, no one went farther than creating an account.

Nearpod, a web-based tool that works with any device, allows teachers to add formative assessment questions to PowerPoint or Google Slides presentations. Then, teachers deliver their presentations through Nearpod, asking students to join the "live session" with an access code. The teacher controls the delivery in a live session, and student screens only advance when the teacher advances the presentation.

Signing up for an account is a simple process; all you need to do is enter your email address and a password, or you can sign up with your Google account. If you can get five colleagues to sign up for Nearpod accounts, you can earn an upgraded account with more options for question types.

The Nearpod-ize this! Chrome extension makes creating Neapods even easier! Simply open your Google Slides presentation, click the extension, and your presentation is automatically converted to a Nearpod. Simply create a few assessment questions, insert them where you would like them, and click publish--Voila, Nearpod created!

My hope is this extension and little tutorial might urge some of my fellow teachers, and teachers everywhere who regularly teach with Google Slides, to try something new. Take a minute to view the tutorial, sign up for your account, and have fun creating some Nearpods from what you've already been using!

Have you used Nearpod in the classroom? What have been your experiences?

Sunday, May 17, 2015

#slowchatela Wrap Up: Does Grammar Have a Place in the 21st Century Classroom?

The discussion on #slowchatela this week shows we all know one thing--"The Way We've Always Done It" is not good enough for our students today. Most of us grew up with grammar "for grammar sake" and completed countless grammar worksheets, but we aren't seeing those practices helping our students in our classrooms today. In fact, endless grammar worksheets with little to know context usually frustrate students and end up doing more harm than good.

Language teachers can even be frustrated by grammar themselves. Teachers shared that grammar rules can seem contradictory depending upon sources consulted and that the rules and explanations are often written in what appears to be a foreign language. If teachers find these discrepancies annoying and instructions difficult to decipher, how can we pass them on to our students in good faith?

We all seem to agree that knowledge of grammar rules in and of themselves is not a reason to study grammar; rather the purpose of grammar study should be to ensure our students speak and write in an educated manner.

Pressure to teach "old-school" grammar lessons, worksheets and all, can come from colleagues, administrators, and even parents. Grammar and worksheets are "familiar," and each of these groups, therefore, can find value and comfort in this direct approach to grammar instruction. It's important we understand and address these feelings and that we have courage to have the tough discussions about when to embrace some of the old and when newer visions and means of instruction should replace the old.

AS for the future of grammar instruction, several teachers mentioned the tool No Red Ink, which allows for diagnostic grammar checks and then provides explanation and practice based upon the errors. Teachers are also a fan of the Penny Kittle method of grammar instruction, which involves providing high-quality sentence models fro students to emulate.

Hopefully, these suggestions plus the careful planning of English teachers to incorporate direct instruction as needed mean that grammar will find its niche in our classrooms of today and the future. We know our students need it, but we can't do what we've always done because it's easy and familiar. As always, we must keep what's best for our students at the center of our decisions in the classroom, not the pressure of outside forces or our aversion to change.

View the Storify of this week-long chat for full details!

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Google Slides Is More than a PowerPoint!

After our in-house Edcamp on presentation tools, things went well for a while. Teachers were trying out the new presentation formats, asking questions, and, even more importantly, asking students to try some new formats. But as time  went on, they all reverted to the tools they find most comfortable--PowerPoint and Google Slides!

Since we're a GAFE and 1:1 Chromebook school, I have been urging teachers to convert their PowerPoints to Google Slides and to create their new presentations using Google Slides. Most of them have been, so I started thinking about all the things you can easily do with Google Slides that you can't (or maybe can't as easily) accomplish with a PowerPoint...and so a Tech Tuesday presentation was born!

I've been offering Tech Tuesday professional development opportunities for around ten weeks now as a Tech Mentor. Basically, I ask/survey teachers about what technology topics they would like help with, and then I develop a one-hour workshop on each topic. Here's our most recent Tech Tuesday--Google Slides is more than a PowerPoint. I pulled much inspiration from this great post by Matt Miller at Ditch That Textbook--10 Google Slides Activities to Add Awesome to Classes

What creative ways have you come up with to take advantage of all Google Slides has to offer? Please share them with a comment!

Presentation Tools, Edcamp Style!

In January, I had the opportunity to plan a half-day technology professional development in-service for my fellow teachers. After using a Google Form to assess what they most wanted to learn, I wasn't surprised when presentation tools prevailed as the requested topic. After all, we share our knowledge with our students through presentations, and we often ask them to prepare presentations to share what they've learned as well!

I decided that the best plan of attack would be an Edcamp style day, with expert teachers sharing, modeling, and guiding groups who wanted to learn a particular presentation tool. With just a half-day, I wanted to have enough options that teachers could learn more than one tool, but not so many that they didn't have time to play with the tools they learned and actually create lessons they planned to use. I recruited 3 teachers to lead sessions with me, so we taught four presentation tools.

Deb presented PowToon: Create animated presentations and explainer videos! It's engaging and as easy to use as PowerPoint. Templates are available, or you can design your own. She even blogged about using PowToon for IDOE's Web 2.0 Challenge! Free, with upgrades available for a fee.

Leslie presented Thing Link: Add links to all sorts of media--videos, music, web pages, notes, presentations, assignments--to an image of your choice to make an interactive presentation! Browse the gallery for publicly shared ThingLinks on a variety of topics. Free, with upgrades available for a fee.

Ashley presented Emaze: Fluid, 3D templates allow the viewer to glide through these presentations with ease! Multiple templates to choose from, and users can customize. Users can also explore the 2 million+ Emazes already created.

I presented Blendspace: Create lessons with digital content in five minutes! Blendspace allows teachers to collect and curate web content, add their own content, and present lessons, complete with assessments if desired, in one spot. With a gallery of teacher-created content to browse, users can build from a publically shared blendspace or start from scratch. Here's my Blendspace presentation:

Most teachers had time to learn about and experiment with two different presentation tools, and I know they started using them based on the number of questions they were asking me about them afterward. Even better, when I asked students if they were seeing or using any of these presentation tools in their classroom, they could respond affirmatively! However, several months later, teachers and students agreed that most of us had reverted to the tools we are most familiar with--PowerPoint and Google Slides. With this in mind, I gave a friendly reminder of our Edcamp tools, and then designed a Google Slides Tech Tuesday to explore some possibilities of this go-to tool that teachers may not have considered. I'll share my Google Slides Is More than a PowerPoint presentation tomorrow!

What are your favorite presentation tools to use for lessons? Which are your favorites for students to use? Please share!

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Differentiating Instruction through Student Choice

I was fortunate to do my student teaching with an amazing mentor, supervisor, and friend, Deb Blaz. As I student taught, she was writing Differentiated Instruction: A Guide for Foreign Language Teachers, and I was completing some action research and writing my Ball State Honors College undergrad thesis on the same topic. She helped me take the theories of differentiation I learned as a student myself and turn them into real lessons that produced results. One of the most intriguing ideas was that student choice could sometimes shift the decision making in differentiation to the students, allowing them a voice and some autonomy while meeting their needs.

One means of offering differentiation through choice is as easy as offering a Tic Tac Toe grid of options for the learning process. The teacher simply offers nine learning activities, mixes them up by interests, learning styles, and/or readiness, and allows the students to choose any 3 activities he would like to complete to make a Tic Tac Toe on the grid. This differentiates the process of learning and practicing the skills, and the student is free to make the choices.

Ch 1 Vocabulary Tic Tac Toe
Write a poem of at least 16 lines that uses all 10 vocab words
Create a comic strip of at least 6 panels that uses all 10 vocab words
Create a Frayer Model organizer for each vocab word
Create a crossword puzzle for all 10 vocab words, using the definitions as clues. Turn in a clean copy and a copy a classmate has completed!
Complete all of the activities for this chapter in your vocab book
Write a short story, at least 1 page long, that uses all 10 vocab words
Write a context-clue rich, juicy sentence for each vocab word
Find examples from the “real world” for at least 6 of this week’s vocab words
Draw a picture to represent each vocab word

Another way is to offer review activities at a unit's end which cover the variety of skills and ideas included in the unit; this may look and feel like learning centers. Students would have to choose which activities to complete (always offer more than they could finish, to ensure everyone is learning the whole time), thereby differentiating the content of the lesson for themselves based upon their own unique needs and interests.

But perhaps my favorite idea for allowing students to differentiate instruction through choice is on assessment, where my student teaching mentor would build an assessment worth more points than she truly intended (usually 5-10% of total test). She would then give the assessment to students that way, allowing them to "skip" the number of points she didn't need. This is tricky, and it takes some time to train the students how to do it correctly. Since some questions or sections of the test may be worth more points than others, teachers have to keep the students focused on the number of points rather than the number of questions. Also, students are never allowed to use all of their "skip points" to skip an entire section of the test, so they have to attempt at least one of every type of question or skill. Finally, it's best to have the students write "skip" in place of the questions answer, so the teacher has no question on the student's intent (did you leave it blank or want to skip?). Even for Scantron/bubble sheet users, students can write skip to the left of the number! Finally, if students choose not to use their skip points, it's not bonus; the number they get wrong is simply subtracted from the total points intended on the test. This teaches them to be purposeful in deciding which questions to complete and which to "skip."

While some content is non-negotiable and we certainly can't provide "skip points" on standardized tests, allowing students to choose in the classroom leads to more relevant, targeted, differentiated learning. In fact, it can teach students to differentiate for themselves and develop more ownership of the learning process. Just because it's not allowed on the five days of testing doesn't mean we shouldn't try it the other one hundred seventy-five days we have our students!

How do you allow for student choice in your lessons? Do you have any creative ideas for differentiating through choice? I'd love it if you would share!