Monday, December 28, 2015

Successes, Challenges, and Resolutions

As 2015 draws to a close, I find myself reflecting on our first semester. I ask myself three questions:

1. What went well?

Merry Christmas from Room 22!
I made some major changes to my classroom this year - most notable being developing a student-led classroom and flipping the classroom for math. Both have been successful for the most part. It is definitely a huge shift in paradigm for the students but they have adapted well.

On the student-led side of things, they pretty much run the classroom. I give them their directions for activities and then they take off from there, leading themselves and each other. We have had discussions and role plays of how to help others make good choices in team work. The students announce and manage transitions and inspect the room for cleanliness and such. Around Thanksgiving, students began leading morning meeting. I post my lesson plans online and they are familiar with the format of morning meeting, so it seemed like a logical progression. It has gone pretty well so far. Another part of the student-led classroom was student-led conferences, which you can read more about here. It is hard to let go of control in the classroom, but it helps to empower the students and teach them how to self-manage. 

Flipping the classroom has also been a great new endeavor. I wrote a piece on how I flip the classroom for Participate Learning, and I will write a longer post dedicated to my reflections on flipping the classroom in early 2016. Overall, parent and student reception has been very positive to it. I can target instruction better based on gauging their understanding from the prior night's video and help challenge or remediate students accordingly. Students actually create videos for each other, so that is another cool part I like about flipping the classroom because I can assess how well they know the material by their ability to teach others.

BreakoutEDU success!
In addition to these two major changes, I have also integrated a lot of new ideas into the classroom, including coding, Google Cardboard, BreakoutEDU, a larger focus on STEM, and other activities. While these don't always fit perfectly into the curriculum, these are the activities the students look forward to and help teach good skills for life.

I have also taken great efforts to maintain a positive mindset, with the #FlyHighFri movement and the Friday Five calls. While not every day is perfectly positive, I have seen a big difference in my attitude this year. 

Finally, my class is fantastic this year. I have been fortunate to have had two pretty great classes the past two years, and this class continues the pattern. They have impressed me with how well they have adapted to each other and the various changes from previous years. As with any class, there are some students who may be more challenging, but I have seen growth in all of them. They truly have lived up to our mantra: "We don't make excuses, we make changes."

2. What challenges did I face?

Coding during the Hour of Code
Despite all the awesomeness going on in Room 22, I have encountered some challenges too. One of them revolves around testing. As I said in the Halloween Rest Stop of EduRoadTrip, most my feelings on testing are not the most positive ones. I think students are overtested, but that could be a separate post by itself. I did find one good moment from testing recently, which I shared on the Christmas episode of EduRoadTrip (check it out around the 6 minute mark.) I've tried to make testing more kid-friendly this year, but allowing the students to choose when to take their tests. (Side note here: we call tests "opportunities" because they are opportunities to show me what they can do. It seems to relieve stress for the students) The first quarter, I said, "All of these need to be done by the end of the quarter, but you can choose when." The majority of the students waited until the last day of the quarter. The second quarter, I gave two week windows, but many would still wait until the end of the windows. It is not a perfect system and still needs tweaking, but I like the idea of putting them in control. 

Along with this, I am struggling with time management this year. I moved over the summer, so I now have a 35 minute commute each way. This isn't terrible, but I've never had to commute more than five minutes in my life to any job. I essentially lose over an hour every day to driving, (although I do enjoy the drives because I listen to podcasts and audiobooks.) However, between time being taken for meetings and other events, I have a hard time keeping up with grading. I used to be really good at turning around grades in a day or two, but now sometimes it takes me a week or more. I use my nights and weekends to develop engaging lesson plans, but the grading time seems to have been slid to the back burner. I am human and I recognize that I need to develop a better system.  

Using Google Cardboard
The final challenge is more internal. I struggle with some of the national, state, and local mandates because I don't see the direct benefit to the students. Often times, I feel conflicted; do I do what I am told or do I do what I think is right for the students? I don't have an answer, nor do I think I will have an answer for a long time. I do spend a lot of time thinking about this, and in nearly all cases I will side with the students.

3. What are my resolutions for 2016?

I have consistently made resolutions for the past 15 or so years, but have a hard time following them. Hopefully by writing them down, whoever is reading this will hold me accountable.
Presenting at VSTE15
  • I will continue to hold my students to high expectations: Sometimes, it is easier to say "good enough." Our second class motto is "Good enough is never good enough." I will continue to push all students to grow, both socially and academically. 
  • I will develop better systems for testing/grading and time management: These are two struggles I identified and they need to be improved. Using before/after school times and planning periods more efficiently will help me with this. I also want to eventually shift to standards based grading and giving feedback versus grades, but that is a long term goal.
  • I will continue to develop professionally and look for new opportunities: This year, I co-founded the EduRoadTrip podcast and the #FlyHighFri positivity movement. I want to continue to create new things (including a major idea for another collaboration with Mari Venturino, but you'll have to wait and hear about that one) and continue to find the best fit for my philosophies and mindsets. I'll continue participating in Twitter chats and conferences to advance my knowledge base. One goal for 2016 Twitter is to have more real conversations on Twitter versus echoing all the fluff. I already have some professional development lined up in January- attending a Residential Weekend at Mt. Vernon and presenting at a #gafesummit!
  • I will take more time for my personal life: This seems like a direct contrast to my previous resolution, but it's possibly the most important. Between school/commuting, EduRoadTrip, #FlyHighFri, Twitter, blogging, and other educational related things, I have been missing out on spending time with my girlfriend, cat, friends, and family. I will intentionally set aside time to strengthen these connections, because without those four, the rest does not matter. I also need to get back into a workout routine and take more time to relax. This also ties into better time management. Nothing will necessarily be eliminated, but more streamlined efficiency is necessary.  
These are my thoughts from 2015. I am looking forward new adventures in 2016 and can't wait to see what it holds. I laid out my successes, challenges, and resolutions for the world to see; hold me accountable.

What are your reflections from 2015? What do you hope to achieve in 2016?

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Student-Leaders Sharing Success

"What power to be able to talk about your own strengths and weaknesses instead of your parents and teachers talking about you behind closed doors."
- Parent of child in my class

Dressed professionally to present
Imagine parent-teacher conferences. You probably envisioned a new set of parents (with no child in sight) entering every fifteen minutes, with the teacher speaking a mile a minute. Later, the parents would go home and either praise or criticize the child for the report they just received. (I'll be honest, every year I heard, "Your teachers said you need to stop talking all the time! But your grades are fine!")

However, our conferences were different this year - I probably spoke about fifteen minutes total all day. The student developed, practiced, and led the entire conference this year.

This year, my classroom is a student-led learning environment, thanks to Learn Like a Pirate and the help of Paul Solarz. While preparing for conferences, I realized that with the students in charge of their learning, it made sense to have them lead the conferences.

On Twitter, I saw two of my close friends, Kayla Delzer and Allison Kerley, had recently completed student-led conferences. I reached out to both of them for advice and they happily obliged. I "borrowed" ideas from both of them. There are many ways to do student-led conferences; this is solely my take. 

First, I introduced the idea to my class. I asked them why they thought we were doing it. They expertly made the connection between student-led learning and the goal of the conferences. They seemed excited; for many of them, this would be the first time they even attended a conference, let alone run it. 

Working on the script
I set up a template (feel free to Make a Copy) and sent it out to them. They were to self-evaluate their strengths and weaknesses in all academic areas and set a goal. I also tasked them with developing a goal for their learning and behavior. The template included an introduction and closing, where I tasked them with formally introducing me to their parents and vice versa. For many of them, it was the first time they had spoken Birckbichler in many months!

After completing their "script," (completed example here) they partnered up and began practicing. One student would play the role of parent and the other would be the student. Part of their closing was to ask their parents for questions, so this was practiced too. I also practiced one-on-one with the students, providing feedback on both their information and presentation.

On the parent side of things, I notified them all that they would be bringing their child to conferences. Using Google Forms (along with Choice Eliminator, FormMule, and AutoCrat) parents selected their times and were sent reminders with time and the fact that the child had to attend, a tip I got from Allison.

The preceding steps spanned about four days. We only had about 30 minutes each day to work on this, which meant some students did not have a lot of practice time. However, the conference day approached.

I re-purposed my Selfie Stick to take pictures during
the conference
On the day of the conference, I asked the students to dress professionally or business casual. Every single student met this requirement, and some have even continued! For each conference, the students sat down on one side of the table with me, and presented their conference to the parents.

They all did a fantastic job! Most everything they said was accurate and reflected what I would have said. In reminder letters to parents, I asked them to ask their child questions and all parents did a great job targeting points I would have fleshed out myself. If a question was directed to me, I tried to give a succinct answer and divert it back to the student. I wanted to stay out of it as much as possible and let the students shine. The students did a tremendous job of thinking on their feet for the responses to questions they may not have had an answer ready for. 

Parents, students, and I were all amazed. I was very impressed with how honest and critical students were of themselves. They were able to examine their own learning, articulate it to their parents, and set realistic goals. Afterwards in class, I also asked students to write reflections, of which I will provide some brief snippets from their much more in-depth responses:
  • I got a chance to tell Mr.B what i feel instead of him telling what he feels about my learning.
  • I think it was a good idea because i could learn how to present things and i got to practice it and share how i felt about my learning.
  • In my conference I liked that my parents were calm and asked questions that I have never thought of.
  • I felt excited and nervous to start and lead the meeting.
  • The advice I would give others is that you should not be nervous it is actually a lot of fun to do.
I also reached out to the parents to get their thoughts:
  • I really enjoyed the flip... It was cute watching him get so nervous and his cheeks get all red. I'm very proud of him and his accomplishments. 
  • I really enjoyed the concept and the change up in the style. I feel it allows them to look at their selves critically in a new and interesting way that they may have not thought of or gotten otherwise.
  • I think it is empowering for any child to be in charge of their learning plan no matter where they are in the learning spectrum and you could tell that he was very proud even if he said it was very scary. Thanks for all you do to make learning easier for my son, the dream would be for schools to be filled with facilitators of learning for children on all levels rather then teacher who try to teach from the front of the class.
What would I do differently in the future? I would have liked for the students to have different samples of work and assessments. They would explain the grades (examining if any low scores were due to testing problems or content knowledge) and how to improve or further challenge themselves. I plan to start the students tracking their own results this quarter with this similar strategy. I would also like to do a second conference; where the students reflect on the goals they originally set and how they have worked toward achieving them. Along with this, I would have them set a more specific goal. I would allot more time to work on this too to give students more time to practice.

I feel it was a very beneficial experience. How often do students get to share their feelings with their parents and teachers in a formal setting? Like the opening quote reflected, many decisions about students are made without them behind closed doors. We expect students to be responsible for their own learning, but then don't include them in the process. It seems backwards to me. The goal of education should be to empower all students to succeed. 

Below you will find a video of two students' conferences. What can you learn from them? How can you do this in your own classroom? Let me know in the comments. 

Saturday, October 17, 2015

I Thrive on the Friday Five

"They may forget what you said but they will never forget how you made them feel."
- Carol Buchner 

We are only nine weeks into the school year and I have already called parents 45 times. I don't think in all of my years of teaching I have ever had to contact parents this much in such a short timeframe. However, all 45 calls have been positive calls. This year, as part of my positive mindset plan, I have incorporated the Friday Five into my schedule. 

I want to make it clear that I did not come up with this idea. I heard about it a while ago, but couldn't remember how or when. When I tried to track down the original idea to give the due credit, I found two different articles here and here. So kudos to those educators for inspiring me!

Here's the quick version of it: Every Friday, I call five parents. While calling them, I share something great about their student from that week. It could be a concept they worked hard to improve, a great peer interaction, or showing respect to me or another teacher. I do this every Friday without fail. I aim for verbal contact with the parent, but if I can't reach them I will leave a voicemail. Yesterday, I was fortunate to connect with all families.

Google Sheet with specific comments and dates
How do I pick the students? Randomly. I have a Google Sheet set up with all the names of the students. I quite literally press my random name generator until I get five names. This way I'm not targeting specific "problematic" kids or the "overachievers."  Under this system, each student gets a call about once a month. I write the date down that I'll be calling them and then use the comments feature to write down what I want to share. I aim to be highly specific. Saying, "On Tuesday, Johnny worked really hard to master decimals" is much more powerful than "Johnny had a good week."

How has this impacted the classroom? In a word: hugely. The parents are very appreciative. Taking a tip from one of the provided articles, I now start each call by asking if they have time to hear something awesome about their students. Before starting this, parents seemed worried or hesitated to listen. You can hear the sound of relief in their voices and they thank me profusely. I have even had parents email me thanking me for the voicemail. 

The students love it too. They are aware that I'll be calling their parents because I tell them that day. On Monday, they normally come in beaming saying, "My mom said you were bragging about me!" This sticks with them for the next few weeks and I rarely have major behavior problems. Relationships matter.

One thing I would like to try is make the calls in class. I saw this idea from David Huber during #FlyHighFri. He posted a video of teachers and him doing this in front of the whole class. I'm sure that moment sticks with the students for a long time. 
I have also benefited from it. While I like to think that I watch over all my students all the time, this  holds me accountable to be looking for specific moments of success and greatness. I've realized that I am now looking for excellence in all kids all the time versus just those five. Using the Track Record idea from Hacking Education by Mark Barnes and Jennifer Gonzalez, I have a Google Form set up where I record both good and bad choices that are made. With the RowCall add on, the Sheet sorts it into each students' individual page for me to review later.

Try it yourself. On Monday, pick five students. They could be random or they could be targeted. Look for something amazing they do during the week. Write it down somewhere. On Friday, surprise both them and their parents by calling them and praising their child. A two minute phone call will pay off in dividends. 

Who's with me? Who's trying it this week? Share your comments and experiences in the comments below. 

Sunday, September 20, 2015

You Must Read These Five Books That Will Totally Transform Your Classroom!

Over the summer, I was gifted four books for my birthday and I purchased one audio book in the beginning of the school year. You won't believe what happened next!

Author's note: This article is  a parody of a Buzzfeed-esque, clickbait article, but does contain real information on how these five books shaped my new year. 

Image from Amazon
He's The Weird Teacher by Doug Robertson

I started He's The Weird Teacher about two hours after I received it and was done by the end of my sister's softball game. I had interacted with Doug numerous times on Twitter and was always intrigued by his insightful, yet inherently funny musings about education. The central idea in this book is that education should be weird (and fun) for students. Seeing as many students describe me this way, it was a match made in heaven. I loved this book for many reasons, but the main reason holds true for all of the following books: It is a book written by a teacher without an abundance of technical jargon and statistics. It is one man's true experiences in his classroom.

I took many ideas from this book and made them my own. At the close of his book, Doug mentions how he thanks his class and they thank him back. It was a small excerpt from the larger narrative, but it stuck with me. I always greet my students in the morning and discuss how their evening was and how their day will be, but never really said good bye. This year, I shake their hands as they leave and have the following exchange:

Mr. B: "Thank you for learning." Student: "Thank you for teaching."

It's a great way to end the day and helps to reinforce respect and manners in our classroom. Another idea I "borrowed" from his book is his ideas on kindergartners.  Basically, Doug says that kindergartners are his number one thing to terrorize. I inadvertently said something to this effect during a spelling test and the students now expect the tests to include the next chapter in my hunt of kindergartners. If you ever run into one of my students and they say that Mr. B's favorite food is teriyaki-glazed kindergartner, I will deny it. I'm really hoping I don't get the inevitable phone call about these statements. This book definitely has a lot of awesome things to say, and I am looking forward to reading his second one (complete with and autograph and personalized sonnet.) 

Doug, thank you for writing. Thank you for being weird. 

Image from Amazon
Learn Like a Pirate by Paul Solarz

While all books on this list had a profound impact on my life for this year, I would venture to say that Learn Like a Pirate had the biggest effect on my instructional practice and classroom environment. The focal point of this book is that students can and should run the classroom. They are able to do everything from various classroom tasks to leading their own learning to instructing others.

I am currently five weeks into trying this in my room and it is a world of change. I am seeing the students step up as leaders in the classroom and turning to each other to help. To remind the students to consult other students first, I wear a sign all day that says "Ask 3 Before Me." This serves as a visual reminder to seek out help from other students first. I still have a lot of interaction with my students, but it is my goal to get them to be self-sufficient. Students enjoy taking charge and helping others. It's definitely helped them mature faster and I'm glad I made the switch. I get to spend a lot more time watching students become problem solvers rather than me worrying finding solutions for them. It is a not a perfect system yet, but we are smoothing out wrinkles as they arise.

Paul is also an incredible guy. We have interacted numerous times on Twitter and I was lucky enough to have a conversation with him for the EduRoadTrip (I should also mention that Doug is a future guest. Dave, Ron, and Jessica, you are more than welcome too!) In our conversation, I learned even more about a student led classroom and became even more passionate. I asked him a question the other day about how to approach getting other adults on board, and he said to have the students take charge of redirecting. It was an interesting idea and it's still in progress.

Paul, thank you for writing. Thank you for inspiring a student-led room.

Image from Amazon
Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess

#TLAP was one of the first Twitter chats I participated in back when I first joined up on Twitter in February. However, I didn't actually read Teach Like a Pirate until August. I was sent this and Learn Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess himself, under the request of my good friend Dr. Geniene Delahunty. I have an awesome PLN!

This book resonated with me for a number of reasons. First, it reinforced what I already believed: Education should be fun for the students and we shouldn't worry so much about the minutia of things beyond our control. Using the PIRATE acronym, teaching can be enjoyable and meaningful for everyone in the room: both the students and the teacher. Each letter is as important as the next and can transform any classroom.

I especially liked the hooks section. While Dave is a history teacher, they can be applied to any subject area. They are quick and easy ways to open a lesson or take it to the next level. While I like to think that my lessons are engaging, this made me think of more ideas. I often steer clear of arts-and-crafts type activities, but I got a lot of great ideas on how to incorporate them from those hook ideas.

Perhaps the part of the book that I took most to heart was the first days of school section. In past years, I did a very traditional "Here are the rules, here's who I am, here's what we are going to learn" type situation. The book challenged me to think about those first days differently. You only get one chance to make a first impression. Day one of his book involved building something out of Play-Dough and sharing it. I modified it to have them decorate their supply boxes and sharing. Day two in his book presented a desert survival scenario where his students had to choose which people to save. We did a similar concept, but with objects to save rather than people. At no point on the first two days of school did I launch into my rules and about me speech, and the students definitely benefited. I am hoping to soon pick up a copy of P is for Pirate, Dave's second book which is co-authored by his wife, Shelley

 Dave, thank you for writing. Thank you for teaching me to teach like a pirate.

Image from Amazon
Move Your Bus by Ron Clark

Full disclosure, I am a giant Ron Clark fan. There are very few people in the world that I have followed to an almost religious level and Ron is certainly one of them. I have read all of his books, but Move Your Bus is my favorite. 

While his first three books provided a laundry list of awesome instructional and general teaching ideas, Move Your Bus acted as an inspirational read for me. My mission this is year is to funnel energy into positive change, and this book totally reinforced it. To relay the message of the book, there is a bus. On this bus are five groups of people: Drivers (who steer the bus,) Runners (who constantly work hard to improve all,) Joggers (lesser versions of Runners, but still moving in the right direction,) Walkers (not really contributing anything,) and Riders (who ruin the momentum for the rest.) 

After reading this, I honestly had to ponder what I am. I like to think that I am definitely not a Walker, Rider, or Driver. I would say I am a mix of a Runner and a Jogger. I always do want to do my best, but it's not always to improve everyone. As you read the book, think about what you might be.

One message I really enjoyed was that you shouldn't pour your energy into a Rider. Chances are, this energy would be wasted. I have seen this first hand and agreed. Some people just want to bring others down and there's no fixing that. However, it is important to note that this is only true for helping adults. We should never give up on students, regardless if they are Riders.

Ron, thank you for writing. Thank you for being a Runner who became a Driver (and still is a Runner.)  

Image from Amazon
Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey 

The final book on this list was the audiobook. I now have a longer commute and this helped to fill that time for a week. The Gift of Failure has many interesting points and works well as a companion piece to Learn Like a Pirate.

First things first. This point is written as a hybrid of a parenting and teaching book. While it seems posed more of a parenting book, I still got a lot out of it as a teacher. The overall theme is that we should not coddle students so much. I have seen this in my classroom and in my own personal life. Children are capable of great things, we need to let them show us.

Jessica advocates for leading students to success without doing it for them. Allow them to learn from their mistakes. The best way to effect change is a natural consequence. Children will understand the why so much better if they experience it for themselves.

My parents are incredible people. However, I think I would have benefited if they read the book when I was younger. For example, Jessica taught her children to do the laundry when they were in their early teens. I didn't learn until I was in college (and still struggle with it at 24. I don't understand why you have to separate the colors!) However, my parents did instill a lot of responsibility in me, such as managing my own life and teaching me to cook. Thanks Mom and Dad (not sure if they read my blog, but should cover myself to be safe!) 

This book is unique because it is not explicitly a teaching book. You will have to take the lessons and apply them to your own educational classroom. There is a lot of merit to this book for both parents and teachers.

Jessica, thank you for writing. Thank you for giving me the gift of failure. 

All of these books are great reads. Many are quick reads, and feature very few statistics and studies. Try them out for yourself. Let me know what you think in the comments below. 

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Fly High Friday

"Once you replace negative thoughts with positive ones, you'll start having positive results."
- Willie Nelson

Teaching is the definition of a labor of love. Low pay, over-emphasis on tests, long (and often unpaid) hours, and questionable district/state/federal mandates can drive many teachers to a place of negativity. However, we must make sure we are making profound efforts to rise above this.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I want this year to be different. I want it to be different for the students, but I also want it to be different for my colleagues and me. Last year, we were told we were in danger of losing accreditation. This took a large toll on all parties involved, and morale was way down. I would joke last year that I loved my job from 8-3, but hated it outside of those hours. There was certainly an element of truth to that, but I don't want to do that again this year.

Our class motto is "We don't make excuses, we make changes." We say it every morning to close our morning meeting. I would be a hypocrite if I didn't live it myself. In talking with my friend and EduRoadTrip podcast co-host, Mari Venturino, we developed the concept of Fly High Friday. 

What is Fly High Friday? The vision was to bring together the staffs of our schools to celebrate success and positivity from our week. This would be an optional event so it wasn't forced and fake. I partnered with my school counselor on it and we sent out the email inviting all to come. 

We decided to meet before school on a Friday for fifteen minutes. The first week went really well and I was happy we were off to a good start. Each week, we have had fluctuating amounts of people, but seem to have a strong core group. We have a website set up for those who can't make it to the morning session and have a TodaysMeet chat room set up so the conversation can last all day.  

It is very refreshing to start off my final day of the week on a positive note. I get to hear great things that other teachers are doing and can share my students' successes in my own room. Other teachers reflect the same feelings. It's amazing what a shift in mindset can do. 

You can join in the sharing too! On Fridays, tweet out your own positive messages about your week using #flyhighfri. I would encourage you to start a face-to-face meeting in your own school as well! Pick a day that works for you: Mindfulness Monday, Thinking Positive Thursday, or anything else you can think of. Let's end our weeks strong and on a high note!

Monday, August 17, 2015

It's the Start of Something New

"What is the most important thing one learns in school? 
Self-esteem, support, and friendship." 
- Terry Tempest Williams

My new classroom set up
Originally, I was searching for an opening quote for this blogpost related to new starts and fresh beginnings. However, I happened upon this quote and decided it worked perfectly. This shall be my mantra for this year. I will not be focusing on the tests. I will not be focusing on data. I will be focusing on creating lifelong learners and strong relationships with my students.

Today was the first day of school. While I am exhausted, I am inspired and exhilarated. I read many wonderful books this summer, including Learn Like A Pirate, Teach Like a Pirate, He's the Weird Teacher, and Move Your Bus. I'm going to dedicate an entire post to the lessons learned from these four books in the future, but they made me look at my classroom differently*.

Inspiration from Learn Like a Pirate
First and foremost, I hit the ground running. I sent out a welcome video and information to parents a week before school started. The video introduced me (and my cat and superhero obsessions) and gave some insight into the coming year. I also called all of my students and spoke to them or left voicemail. This laid the groundwork for building strong relationships.

I also rearranged my classroom. I threw out all desks (including my own) and replaced them all with tables. This opened up and created a new look for my room. Time will tell how this works out.

Other changes include the environment and instruction. On the environment side of thing, I am going to give more responsibility to the students. This is largely due in part to the lessons in Learn Like a Pirate. We will also be flipping math class. Today, we discussed the concept of flipping, why we're doing it ("we can learn at home and work in school" - their summary,) and practiced taking notes from a video I recorded. I am excited for this new endeavor and will wrote a more extensive post later on this*. In addition to this, I just raised enough funds on DonorsChoose to get 12 more Chromebooks for my classroom. I am looking forward to being almost fully 1:1 and the possibilities it brings!

So there is a lot that is changing in my room, but a lot will stay the same. Relationships first has always been my goal. I focus on growth, both academic and individual. My standardized test scores may not be outstanding (nor are they terrible) but that doesn't matter to me. I will continually strive to make sure all 24 of my new students feel that they are a valued and critical part of this classroom. I said to them that we would become a family, and I intend to keep true to my word. 

*After proofing this post, I realized I alluded to
numerous future posts. Sorry! 
I will also continue to support the families of my students. I recently completed my Masters of Science in Curriculum and Instruction, and my research was all based on parental involvement. I investigated a first-hand look into the parent perspective of involvement. I am not a parent of humans (only a cat) and this helped me to understand their needs. I will use this to help meet their needs, through my continued HSCNs and providing the Flipped Videos. I also revamped my classroom website to maximize its efficiency and "user-friendly-ness" and created a Facebook (first time since 2011) to help meet the parents where they currently are. This support for parent will begin right away, with me holding a "Back-to-School Night" all about what to expect in fourth grade on Thursday. 

Positivity is my goal for this year. I want to make sure my students, the parents, my co-workers, and I am happy. Fly High Fridays are something I'll write about more later*, but essentially they are meetings to celebrate successes in our school. I'll be doing the Friday Five where I call five parents to share something great their child did. Too much of education is about data and tests and negativity and fixing run-on sentences (maybe I need a refresher.) 

I want this year to be different; hold me to it. 

What are your goals for the year? How will you celebrate success and build relationships?

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Teaching the Big People

"Technology is supposed to make our lives easier, allowing us to do things more quickly and efficiently. But too often it seems to make things harder, leaving us with fifty-button remote controls, digital cameras with hundreds of mysterious features and book-length manuals, and cars with dashboard systems worthy of the space shuttle."
- James Surowiecki
Presenting on green screens in the classroom at LFCC
This will be the only picture today, sorry!

The above quote illustrates how I perceive some teachers view technology. While technology can simplify and improve one's life, it can also be very overwhelming. Without the proper guidance and support, one can become frustrated and shut down. I don't think that any good teacher wakes up in the morning and says, "I am going to refuse to learn this new tech tool because I don't want to." I think it has more to do with the fact that change can be hard if it is just thrown at someone without any real sort of support.

I consider myself a teacher in all facets of life. I don't limit my teaching to only students. I also made a conscious effort to help empower teachers in their effective technology integration. I do this in a number of ways, including informal support and holding professional development/presenting at conferences.

I've found that often teachers will have a great idea that they want to do, but aren't completely sure of what to do. Rather than just directing them to a place where they can find answers, I actually create the materials with them and assist in implementation in their classrooms. For example, another teacher wanted help setting up assessments in Google Classroom. After school, we worked on templates and then I came into her room to help her and her students with the Chromebooks and getting set up. Admittedly, this isn't the easiest thing to do while also having my own class to watch, but I felt that I was reaching the largest amount of students this way. I made it work, and now that teacher is more empowered to help her class.

Additionally, I have also presented at local technology conferences, including Googlepalooza, Google Mini, Lord Fairfax Community College Google Consortium, and others. Another way I have presented is through after-school professional development. Either way, I try to make it to be hands-on and interactive for the teachers who are attending. I want the time to be meaningful and helpful to them. I know when I attend conferences, I completely tune out to an hour of lecture. I don't want to do the same to my teacher-students.

I presented at Google Mini 2015 yesterday on using Google Draw for assessments. The night before, I was on TechEducator's 100th episode. Josh Gauthier and Jeff Bradbury had been discussing that at CUE Rockstar conferences, the lecturer cannot lecture for more than 15% of the total time they are allotted. I decided to try that for myself at Google Mini. I talked for 10 minutes of the hour I was given and gave the rest of the time for the teachers to work on the Draw templates. When I polled them at the end, I found that they enjoyed this format:
"I also appreciated that you treated us like we were adults and did not read every slide to us. You used your time well and were able to explain what to do as well as give us the opportunity to work with the information."
The oft repeated quote is that "teachers make the worst students." Is this truly the case? Or are teachers the worst teachers for other teachers? Think about your own classroom. Are you doing a lot of lecturing or are they actively working? Are your students they talking to each other, seemingly unfocused, or are they engaged in their work? Now apply this to technology conferences (or really any conference for that matter.) How many times are conferences just people talking rather than having their audience being active members of a conversation? We don't force our students to sit and listen for hours on end, why should we do this to adults?

That's not to say I am a perfect technology integration guru at all. I am formally trained in elementary education; technology integration is something I have taught myself. This past year, I volunteered for making parent feedback surveys on Google Forms rather than just doing them on paper how it had always been done. I told my principal I would design them and get all the teachers set up on this. I had committed, but didn't really think how I would do this. I decided on using my lunch and planning times to work with the 6 grade levels. Some grade levels were awesome. They worked with me on it and asked quality questions. They clearly saw the value and appreciated my efforts.

Other grade levels... not so much. One grade level was against the idea from the start, simply because they wouldn't see the value in doing it this way. Another grade level talked amongst themselves the entire time I was helping them get set up, and then bombarded me with questions afterwards. After that experience, I was very frustrated and decided to reflect upon the shortcomings.

One thing I immediately realized was that I may have been asking too much in too short of a time. My lunch is 25 minutes and sometimes I would try to fit 2 grade levels in there. However, since I am a classroom teacher and not a tech coach, that was the time I had to work with. Additionally, some teachers just have a very fixed mindset and won't try anything new. I can do all I can to assist them, but at the end of the day, change comes from within and I cannot force that.

What I could have changed was how I presented the information. I should have led with why we were doing this and how it would save time in the end. I had presented that "why" to the team leaders, but neglected to do it to each team. I also could have slowed down a little. I talk a mile a minute (my Voxer friends and listeners of the EduRoadTrip podcast can attest to this) and it only speeds up when I am excited about something. I also have a tendency to just do it for people rather than show them when I get frustrated. After becoming aware of the shortcomings, I worked to adjust future trainings. Slowing down may take more time but is more effective in the long run.

Looking forward, I applied to become a Google Certified Trainer. I have the new Google Certified Educator: Level 1 and 2 certificates, so this was the next logical step. I have also submitted a proposal for using green screens in the classroom for VSTE this year. I used to have aspirations of being a technology coach, but now I am not so sure. I know I would miss working with kids a whole heck of a lot. I would love to continue as an informal tech coach and maybe build to an actual title. No matter if I do it officially or unofficially, I will always keep the focus on providing individualized, hands-on instruction in my sessions.

I left a lot of reflection questions in an earlier paragraph, so I have just one for you at the end: What do you look for as you attend/present at technology professional development/conferences?

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Summer: For PD or not for PD?

"Summer is the annual permission slip to be lazy. To do nothing and have it count for something. To lie in the grass and count the stars. To sit on a branch and study the clouds."
- Regina Brett

Trip to the Governor's Palace in Williamsburg
Check out my awesome hat
When I was a kid (admittedly not too long ago) the above quote held true. I'd spend my days lounging around the house, catching fireflies, going to campfires, and sleeping until noon. In high school and college, I worked as a camp counselor, but that was essentially time paid to play on a playground. Summer was a magic time where responsibilities were short and the days were long.

And then I graduated college and earned my teaching position. Suddenly, summers took a hard right turn into another time to complete responsibilities. Today, I'll examine how summers are used by educators and my thoughts on the topic.

I'd like to start with clearing up a common misconception I have heard. Many people say that teachers "get the summers off." As will become evident in this post, I find this to be false. Many good educators will use their summer for professional and personal growth rather than a three month vacation. Obviously, there will always be exceptions to the rule, but by and large the norm is that educators use summer to hone their craft.

Presenting on Google Sites at Googlepaloooza
You don't have to take my word for it. Take a look at the numbers. ISTE is one of the biggest edtech conferences of the year and it takes place smack dab in the middle of summer. According to their statistics, over 21,000 various educators attended this conference from 76 nations. Although I sadly wasn't one of them, this is an incredible feat. This goes to prove that summer is spent learning by a large number of teachers, and this doesn't even include the #notatiste2015 crowd (which I was a part of!)

I personally have spent my summer learning and growing. Twitter has been hugely instrumental in this and providing a source of PD on my time. I attended and presented at Googlepalooza 2015 in Middletown, VA where I learned a number of wonderful technology tools. I'll be attending and presenting at some other professional development throughout the summer as well, which will serve as an entirely separate post later in the summer. I also recently attained the new Google Educator level 1 and level 2 certifications, which I found very applicable for the classroom. I'm also working on my Google Certified Trainer application, which will further my technology instructional and training practices. 

Using KidBlog in Summer School
I also spend my summer teaching summer school. I find this to be a highly rewarding experience and enjoy using the summer school class for piloting new ideas. This past week alone, we have tried KidBlog and TheAnswerPad, which I plan to use during my regular school year.

This summer and the last, I also have been working on completing my Masters of Science in Curriculum and Instruction through Western Governors University online. It is a flexible and self-paced program which I chose to accelerate. I am currently leading a research project based on parental involvement (a clear passion of mine) and the effect on reading and math achievement. This has taken up a large chunk of my past two summers, but it will be worth it when I finish at the end of this summer. 

My summer break is 58 days. Summer school runs for 25 of these days. Leading/attending professional development counts for about 5 days. I probably have spent about 7 full days working on various things for grad school. I often spend 4-5 days getting my classroom ready. When all is said and done, I have about 16 days left that are not filled with commitments for education.

Protecting my campsite
*the horse nor myself were not harmed*
So what do I do on these days that are solely for me? First and foremost, I relax. I grill and sit outside and just read for pleasure. That is one of the greatest joys for me in summer. I am a bit of a workaholic and have a hard time not working on something for teaching in my free time.

I also try to fit in vacation when I can. Last year, my girlfriend and I went to Gettysburg and Chincoteague. This year, we went to Williamsburg with my family and camping on Assateague National Seashore. Camping was a disaster that included high winds which collapsed our canopy, charcoal refusing to start, seagulls eating our food, and a severe thunderstorm that forces us to vacate our site a day early. I also enjoy hiking when I can. My girlfriend and I are moving in together for the first time, so that's another new and exciting adventure. Another big summer project is the new EduRoadTrip podcast that I have started with Mari Venturino and Greg Bagby. No matter what I'm doing, it's bound to be an adventure!

So what was I trying to convey in this post? Summer is a time for learning, but it is important to take some time for yourself. The vast majority of my summer is spent tweaking and perfecting different things for my classroom and growing as an educator. Even my vacations to Gettysburg and Williamsburg have delved into preparing for my social studies curriculum. Summer is a time when you can explore different ideas you wanted to, but couldn't find the time for in the regular school year. It's also a time for reflection. While I dropped down to a every other week format for my blog, it's really helped me to reflect on my practice. 

That being said, take some time off. 

Unplug. Unwind. Relax. Read for pleasure. See a movie. Go to the beach

As educators, it's hard to fully let go and do "nothing." You owe it to yourself. You've worked hard, reward yourself. 

Then jump back into it, refreshed and ready to go!

What do you think summer should be used for? How do you exemplify this?

Monday, July 6, 2015

Connecting Beyond the Curriculum

"I have no desire to see these kids as anything but my students. I don't want to go to their birthday parties, soccer games, or anything. I want to teach them and go home."

Winggirl and Mr. B
Her end of year quote: "You flew the whole way with me"
Shocking quote right? This was not something that came from my lips; it was a statement that a fellow
teacher made to me the other day. I highly respect and like this fellow educator, but was very taken aback by this statement. Between this quote and last week's #TMchat, I feel that a post on connecting with each student individually was timely.

I do not currently have children. Well, that's not true. I have 48 kids. None of them are biologically related to me, but I think of my past two years' classes as my own kids. Students often ask me who my favorite student is. I always respond, "You are." Their eyes light up as they exclaim, "Really?!" to which I respond, "You are absolutely one of my 48 favorite students of all time!"

Let's be honest, as teachers, we are inclined to have some students who may be seen as our "favorites" because they do the work, are well mannered, and not academically behind. I'll admit that sometimes I've fallen into wishing all my students were like that. Just as immediately, I regret thinking that. All students are unique and we have a responsibility to love and support them equally.

Working with Jack after school.
Notice his beaming smile.
Allow me to share the story of Jack (all names in this article will be changed.) He was actually removed from one fourth grade class and put into mine because the other teacher couldn't stand his "disrespect." Jack lives down the street from me. Last year, he switched schools and witnessed his five-year-old cousin pass away in a car accident. However, I never saw an ounce of disrespect from him. Did he complete his work in a timely manner? No. But do you blame him? School is a place where he was supposed to feel safe, and his teacher constantly sent him into the hall for "disrespect" (which I later found out was just refusal to do worksheets.) When I volunteered to take him in, I told my principal that my goal for him was not going to be academic; I wanted him to come to school with a smile and learn to love learning.

In my classroom, he thrived. No, he did not become a model student and did require some discipline. His background made him rough around the edges, but I never gave up on him. By the end of the year, you would always find him smiling and a book in his hand. At home, I'd see him coming down the street and run inside to grab a whiteboard. We'd spend an hour on my porch together working on math. His only complaint was when I would have to go back inside. That's success to me.

I pretend I don't like hugs
from Fiona
I work hard to instill this individual attention with each student. Every morning, each student in my class is greeted with a handshake. I welcome them into my classroom and ask how their weekend or night was. I also insist that they ask me how mine was. Not for some egotistical desire, but for them to develop good interpersonal skills. Some students asked for hugs instead of handshakes, and I generally would aquest to their request. Former students came in this year expecting the handshakes to continue. Other former students write letters back and forth to me. These are the long lasting bonds that make teaching worth it. 

Nicknames are a big deal in my classroom too. Some are as simple as their last name, but others get more complicated and involved as "Fern," "Winggirl," "Nissan," or "The Great and Powerful Polkasaurus Rex." Each nickname stems from a personal connection I have with the student. The other students may not know the reasoning behind the names, but they love their own nicknames and each other's. By the end of the year, you would be hard pressed to find peers referring to each other by their given name. I was even assigned two nicknames by the students: "Big Dog" and "King B." I'm not complaining about either one!

Each student also has a classroom job. This serves a dual purpose; it allows me to escape banal tasks and makes each student feel responsible for the well-being of the class. Each job, no matter how trivial it may seem, it's vital to the smooth running of the class.

Laser tag for Branden's birthday
Often times, I spend my weekends going to sporting events to support my students. I try to make it to as many as I can and it is totally worth it. The students seem to appreciate every time I come. I also try to attend birthday parties when I am invited. Just last week I went to a laser tag birthday party. You would have thought I was One Direction walking in there. The student was so excited and I got to just have fun with him and all the other students. I've gone to campfires, birthday parties, movies, and even taken students to historical reenactments with me (and even run into some at battlefields!) Seeing students outside of school can paint them in a different light, and form a bond that just can't be formed in the school building.

Pre-campfire selfie with Natasha 
I implore you; don't have the mindset of the teacher who said the above quote. We have to connect with our students. Education is changing, for better and for worse. One thing that needs to stay constant is the compassion teachers can provide. Some students don't have strong support systems at home. We may be the only positive interaction they may have. Imagine the difference you can have if you connect with the students if you connect beyond the curriculum.

What's your story? How have you connected with students? How do you plan to in this upcoming year?