Sunday, November 20, 2016

I Have Cancer: Telling My Students

After being out for so long, I was
happy to see I made the "Did You Know"
I hadn’t seen my students in nearly two weeks and I wanted to get out of the house. I also knew I had to come clean to them about my surgery.

As I arrived to school, I met briefly with Brian and the school counselor, Laura. I asked them to both join me for morning meeting as I shared the news and to look over the letter I was planning to send to parents. They both said they could be there and that the letter looked good.

The students began trickling in at normal time. I was greeted with hugs and smiles. Carson, whose mother works in the building, was first. He came in to drop off his stuff and saw me. A second later, he ran out of the room to get the other “teacher kids.” When Sophia walked in, her face lit up and she rushed over to me. Many were surprised to see me with a cane, but this surprise would pale in comparison to what was to come.

The late bell rang and the video announcements rolled. Knowing that the transition would not be easy, I started in on morning meeting. I rattled off the normal, mundane things - expressing how happy I was to see them again, thankfully they earned good sub reports, and detailed the daily schedule. I shared that I would be a little slower in my movement but the cane was helpful. Brian and Laura walked in and took a seat. It was go time.

“So I wanted to tell you more about my surgery. The whole reason I had to have surgery is because I have cancer.” Somehow, being on the other side of those words didn’t make it any easier.

Instant tears from some. Bewildered looks from others. Awkward glances from most. I continued.

“The important thing for you to know is that this is curable. I will need chemotherapy, which is a form of medicine that will kill all the cancer. I need to do this so I get better. I don’t know how long I will be out, but you will be taken care of. Mr. Fitzgerald, Mrs. Hoover, the fourth grade team, and all your old teachers will support you. You have each other. I know it is not easy to hear that your teacher has cancer. I want to answer any questions you have.”

Hands shot up. Was I in pain right now? Yes, from my surgery, but not from cancer. How did I know something was wrong? I felt something wrong on my body and went to the doctor. How long will you be out? I don’t know. Will the chemo hurt? It might, but I can handle it. Would my hair fall out? It might, and that would make me sad, but I would survive. (Later, a student came up to stay that if I lost my hair, he would shave his. He has a buzz cut already, but the sentiment was cute.)

Laura reading The Can in Cancer
Many students already had experience with cancer from grandparents and other family members. In most cases, as with my own grandfather, cancer got the best of them. I reassured them that it most likely wouldn’t happen to me. They had their stories; I had mine. Blending stories and the straightforward facts seemed to be the best way to handle this.

A somber silence hung over the class. I gave them a moment to process.

“Right now some of you are angry. Maybe you’re sad or shocked or confused. You might be blocking it out. All of those are ok. When I found out, I went through all of those emotions. I want you to know that I am here for you. If you have questions today, ask. If they come to you tonight, have your parents message me whenever. I will answer questions you have whenever I can.”

A hand went up, “Where is your cancer?”

Crap. I wasn’t prepared for that. “It was in one part of my body and has spread to others.”

“Yeah, but where did it start?”

Brian stepped in to save me. “Some part of this cancer Mr. B wants to keep private. Your parents will be getting more information and can discuss further details with you.”

There were no more questions at that moment. I realized it was a good point to stop and try to transition to Virginia Studies. Operative word being try. We were starting a new unit about Jamestown, Halfheartedly, the students began on a Jamestown HyperDoc. I couldn’t blame them. Who can focus on the reasons for settlement when they just heard that news? After giving it an honest effort, it was time to take them to gym.

After gym class, we happened to have guidance. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Laura had planned to do a lesson on cyberbullying, but switched it to discussing more about cancer. She had brought a book called The Can in Cancer, which was a cute story about a boy who went through cancer. It helped the kids relate, and she then took the students to do something secret for me. (The next day, I’d find out that they had created inspirational posters to cover our classroom walls.)

"Can In Cancer" posters
The physical teaching of the day was ok. I had to teach from a chair for part of the day, which is not my usual style. The kids quickly became attuned to my pain attack face and would rush to grab me a chair. They wanted to help me stand up and bring me things. It’s really cute and awe-inspiring to see how students will look beyond themselves to help others in need.

To put it simply, I knew telling them would suck for both them and me, but I always preach honesty and openness to them. I couldn’t be a hypocrite. Although my students were filled with emotion that day, I was more or less devoid of it. Was I masking it? Maybe for their benefit. Had I still not fully processed this momentous thing had been thrust upon me? Most likely. Despite my uncertainty in my feelings, it was the right thing to do. Paired with my budding desire to become an advocate for under-discussed men’s health issues, I knew I had an opportunity to model open medical discussions for my students.
Maybe none of them would be touched by cancer beyond me, but at least they would have a good example for how to deal with trying times.

In early November 2016, I was diagnosed with Stage IIb Nonseminoma cancer, a form of testicular cancer that has spread to my lymph nodes. I had surgery to remove the original tumor, but it had already spread. Soon, I’ll be undergoing chemotherapy to eradicate the cancer. I am documenting my journey from discovery to being cancer-free on I invite you to join me as I process and move through this. 

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Is Homework Really the Devil?

"I like a teacher who gives you something to take home to think about besides homework." 
-Lily Tomlin

For better or for worse, homework seems to be a highly polarizing issue in education. People seem to think it's either inherently horrible or it's an absolutely necessary element of school, regardless of actual value. Many arguments on Twitter quickly devolve into "Homework is bad and if you assign it, you're a bad teacher!" or "I had homework when I grew up and it taught me responsibility!"

Students demonstrating understanding of
prior night's video.
Yes, we all have heard the studies that "prove" homework is horrible and has little to no effect on achievement nor does it effectively teach responsibility. By and large, a lot of homework is meaningless, developmentally inappropriate, and just perpetuated for the mere sake of "it's part of school." But what if we stopped being so black and white about it and started analyzing how homework can be best leveraged for learning?

We interviewed Connie Hamilton and Starr Sackstein on the EduRoadTrip to discuss their new book Hacking Homework: 10 Strategies That Inspire Learning Outside the Classroom. (As an aside here, I contributed to the book. I'd recommend picking up a copy - page 107 alone is worth it!) The custom of the EduRoadTrip is to ask guests for a bumper sticker - a memorable takeaway from their episode.

Starr spoke up and said, "We're not anti-homework. We're anti-stupid homework."

Homework must be relevant and meaningful. In my classroom, I do assign some homework in reading, math, and reviewing history. I always give a digital and physical choice for each. I keep it to a minimum and allow the students some choice in what they do. 

The value of reading outside of school
Image Source: 
In reading, the students must read at least 25 minutes a night. This could include reading a good book, visiting, or having a parent read aloud to them. I absolutely insist that students are reading every night. Reading will make a difference in life. If students walk out of my classroom not being able to recall who won the battle of Yorktown or how to multiply by hand, there is Google and calculators, respectively. However, if they can't read, they can't use those resources.

What I don't do is force a reading log. I don't understand the value of reading logs.  The main argument is it's "proof" that the students read. It's really just proof that students can write down numbers and parents can initial (or as I often did in my middle and high school years, students can forge their parents' initials.) How about just asking students what they read the prior evening? A rich discussion outweighs a log that gets thrown away.

In math, we do a flipped classroom. Each night, students watch a video to frontload them with the information they are expected to master, according to the state. I create the videos with my iPad and ExplainEverything, so I can tailor it to my students' interests and my teaching strategies. The key benefit to this flipped classroom is that the student can self-individualize. Watch the video once and you got it? Great. Need to watch it three times? That's great too. Viewed it 10 times and still want to keep at it? More power to you, but we can work on it in class more.

Practicing learning how to take notes for a
flipped video
If a student can't or doesn't view a video at home, I give the student a choice; watch it during class or do it at home the next evening. Either one is fine by me, but inevitably students choose to double up and do it at home. Why? They say they rather work in class on stations and they can focus better at home. 

For history, my students have a variety of methods to review: classic study guides, online Jeopardy, or Quizlet flashcards. I use the study to teach study tips because like it or not, studying will be a part of their life later on. I noticed numerous students saying they could "never study the whole study guide" in an evening so I took some time to lead some mini lessons on chunking it down, self-monitoring, and having someone else to check their understanding. 

What you'll notice is there are no worksheets being sent home to be completed. If a student doesn't understand it in school, why would they understand at home? If a student gets it in school, why should they waste time at home practicing what they know?

I want to make homework purposeful, engaging, and in smaller amounts than the norm. I'm a big fan of students using their time at home to be kids with their families (which doesn't include little Johnny sitting playing Call of Duty in the family room while Mom updates her Facebook in the office.) I want families to spend time together, and it's even better if that involves learning together, as I shared in my earlier post Forming Family Foundations. I also know that students these days are incredibly busy, with sports, music, Scouts, and other extracurricular activities. If students spend 7 hours in school, another 2-3 at sports, an hour or two for traveling and eating, when do they get to just have unstructured play time?

I do not have children of my own, so I can't approach this from a father point of view, and I know my outlook will change if I do have children. The fact of the matter is they are kids (yes, even high schoolers) and we need to give them time to be kids at home. It's also important to note that this is what has worked in my classroom and I have modified it to be responsive to family needs along the way. Homework will look vastly different for everyone.

So next time someone starts ranting about homework, engage them in discussion. Shift the conversation from demonizing homework to discussing how the homework experience can be improved. It's not a black and white issue, and it won't be going away. It's not enough to simply not assign homework in your own class.

We can do better by our kids, so how will you make an impact on a larger community?

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Teachers Don't Have All The Answers

With a Breakout EDU game using the box, setup instructions are provided. It gives the lock combinations, printable materials, and the paths the students follow to solve the riddles. You need these in order to facilitate the game. With the Breakout EDU Digital games, none of this is provided - everything is ready to go as soon as you enter the game.

Multiple times a week, we receive emails, tweets, Facebook messages, and other assorted communication from teachers asking for an answer key to the Digital games. When we receive these messages, we provide additional prompts and hints, but refuse to provide answer keys.

Why do we do this? Is it because we are evil and want you to suffer? Absolutely not - this is our contribution to the Breakout EDU mantra. For the bulk of the history of education, teachers have been viewed as the keepers of knowledge or the sage on the stage. In our opinion, this has gone on far too long. With the advent of the digital age, students have access to limitless amounts of information. Our roles as teachers need to change.

The “hidden curriculum” of soft skills is just as critical as the content we are mandated to teach. Words like rigor, growth mindset, resilience, and productive struggle thrown around as skills that students need to be successful in life, yet how often do we model this for our students? By not having access to an answer key, you are provided with a perfect opportunity to experience what a student feels when they first encounter a tough trigonometry problem. You're faced with a choice - put in effort to stretch your abilities to their fullest extent and grow your brain or email us for an answer (which is akin to flipping to the back of the textbook for the key.) Which would you prefer your students to do? Why do we not hold ourselves to that same standard?

You don't have to struggle alone - share your plight with your students. Challenge them to help you complete the puzzles. Students see things differently than adults; something that has stumped us for hours takes a matter of seconds for them. Imagine their moment of glorious success. They solved something their teacher couldn't.

But it's deeper than that. You were vulnerable with them. You shared your struggle. You modeled resiliency and a refuse to give up. You showed them that it's ok to ask for help; that it's ok to admit you don't always have all the answers. This is a bond that can't be forged by playing a video about famous figure who overcame adversity to reach success. They'll be more likely to let down their guard and ask you for help - and you'll understand their feelings even better.

By now you're thinking that this is easy for us to say - we have all the answers to the games. However, we've played other's games and been through this productive struggle.

And it's not just us who feel this way. For every few requests for answers, there’s one praising this dedication to doing something differently. We'll close with our favorite, which comes from Dr. Donovan DeBoer, superintendent of Parker School District in South Dakota:

One of my “mantras” has always been:  “The one that does the doing, does the learning.”  So when I was ever so close to our first teacher in-service days, and [Breakout EDU Digital] was one of the items I wanted to show my staff, I was very torn when I sent that dreaded, “I need help email.”  However, in true educator fashion, [Justin and Mari] did not oblige my begging of “cheats” to complete the task.  Instead, I was sent a very subtle hint and encouragement to complete the task.  

It was a great lesson for me as a leader of young people, and adults. It helped solidify my belief that if you want to learn, you have to do. 
Dr. DeBoer's faculty and students

It also proved to me how important collaboration is for our students.  I needed help, I didn’t necessarily want the answers, but I needed another brain (or 32). As I introduced the activity to my staff, I was short one lock code.  In the essence of time, we worked in groups on the digital breakout “Stranded on the Island.”  As time passed I witnessed adults, veteran teachers, cheer with excitement when they found a new clue, or figured out a code, and hide their answers to allow for others to feel the same thing when they found things on their own.   

Few more hours went by, in-service over, but I was still plugging away. I had to complete this thing.  That’s when the magic happened - one of my football coaches sent me a text. He had solicited a friend from hours away, that started working on it as well, and we finally cracked the mystery lock.   

The power of collaboration is real.  Shared suffering in the task, and then the jubilation we share in the accomplishment.  Two heads are better than one, and three better than two. Students need that time together, to share, to bounce ideas off one another, to enjoy the struggle together.   

More importantly, we have to have the patience to let learners learn.  They need to make mistakes, they need to learn from them, they need to talk it out with other people to learn the other side of communication not talked about “listening” to one another.  Then the “magic,” can happen.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Going Fourth Into a New Adventure

"Knowledge is an unending adventure at the edge of uncertainty."
-Jacob Bronowski

Just as I like to close each year with a reflection, I like to begin each year with goal setting. These posts are more for me to get my goals out on paper and to hold me accountable to a larger audience. So, if you’re reading this, check in with me on Twitter or email and ask me how I’m doing.

In addition to starting my fourth new school year, I am also starting at a new school in a new district (still in fourth grade!) Over the summer, I left my old district for a variety of reasons and joined my new one. After two weeks of teacher days, I am even more confident that I made the right choice. Stafford County Public Schools embraces the 4C skills (while also adding Citizenship and Wellness for a C5W framework,) promotes innovation, and supports a holistic and realistic view of teaching beyond testing. I got a chance to meet my new class during Open House this past week and I’m thrilled to spend the next year prepping my Agents of SHIELD for their future.

Without further ado, here are my goals for 2016-17:

  1. Student-led learning - Last year, my primary goal was to develop a student-led classroom, based on Learn Like a PIRATE by Paul Solarz. On the whole, it was a success, but I might have started too strong too fast. It did force the students to step up and take ownership of their learning at an accelerated rate, but more scaffolding may have been necessary. At the end of the year, I worked more purposely with groups and students worked independently with each other. I want to refine this so we hit the group running and keep up with it. I have a very different population of students this year and I already know they will do a fantastic job with it.
  2. 20Time - As I shared in a prior post, I have been constantly tweaking and adjusting Genius Hour in my classroom. This year, I want to do a major pivot. I want to have the students focus on one problem and develop a solution. I have completed reading The 20Time Project by Kevin Brookhouser and want to scale his ideas to elementary. To be perfectly honest, I am not sure exactly what this will look like. My schedule has larger chunks of time in it that will allow for uninterrupted time, but I do not know when it will be. Will it be a set day or will it be fluid? I want to start with the Bad Idea Factory and then move into brainstorming from there. I want to empower my students to be change agents from an early age.
  3. Instruction/Assessment Practices - I want to explore more purposeful usage of flipped classroom. Last year, I flipped my classroom for math and saw dramatic gains in students’ academic growth. (Side note - I really need to write a reflection post on my flipped classroom experiences.) I want to continue this, but it may look different. Some students may do the in class flip depending on their access and home, but I want to use the information I gather from observing flipping in a more intentional way. In general, I want to use small groups in both reading and math more purposefully. After three years of doing small group, I am finally coming to terms that I don’t need to meet with every differentiated group the same amount of time. I can meet with some groups more than others; as long as I am meeting each student’s individual needs. To further this, I want to refine my assessment practices. I am currently reading The Truth About Testing by James Popham and it has an interesting idea on pre/post testing. I am still trying to wrap my head around it, but I think it will allow me to be more purposeful in my instruction and quantifying growth.
  4. Growth Mindset - Although this has a tendency to be a buzzword when not used correctly, I am still including it as a goal. Our staff read Mindset by Carol Dweck this summer. My principal says that “it’s not a theme; it’s a practice.” I dabbled into growth mindset last year after taking an online course through Stanford and witnessed incredible things from my students. That was only for half the year and I was amazed. This year, I am starting with growth mindset on Day 1 and will continue all year. We’ll make an anchor chart and reinforce it, but I know it will make a difference.
  5. Vlogging - This goal is more for me than within the classroom walls. I did some vlogging during my Google Innovator experience and enjoyed it. This year, I want to vlog weekly as a powerful reflection tool. I’m not entirely sure what it will look like, but my general idea is a one video per week. This would include video snippets from the day, daily reflections, and other thoughts. These would all be strung together and posted on YouTube. I started a site ( to post all of these, but as I said, I’m not sure what it’ll look like or anything else. It’ll be brand new and I am looking forward to it.

As you may have noticed, I am not looking to redefine or implement a lot of new things this year. I think you can be good at many things or great at a few things. If I had to choose one word to define this next year, it would be REFINE. I want to refine my teaching and provide the best for my students. As the year goes on, I’m sure I’ll discover new ideas and I’ll add those in, but these five goals will be my guiding light for the year. I’m looking forward to a brand new fresh start and cannot wait to see what my students achieve this year.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Get Ready for Year Two of #FlyHighFri

Author's Note: This #FlyHighFri blog post is cross-posted on Justin Birckbichler’s and Mari Venturino’s blogs.

Welcome to #FlyHighFri, year 2. In July 2015, we began FlyHighFri as a way to emphasize the positives in our schools and classrooms in an effort to combat negatives we were observing. Read more about our initial set-up on Justin’s blog and Mari’s blog.

We have crafted a mission statement to guide our journey with FlyHighFri:

FlyHighFri is a place for educators to gather to share their successes and positive moments from the week with a supportive community.

It is our hope that this community grows organically together, and spreads throughout schools, both through social media and with face-to-face meetings.

In order to continue the positive momentum with FlyHighFri, we have established some community guidelines:

1. Positivity Rules
Celebrate the great things going on in our classrooms, schools, and districts.
First and foremost, FlyHighFri is about being intentionally positive. Building the habit of finding the positives within your day and week helps all of us persevere through the tough days. We want to celebrate all the wonderful things going on in schools across the world!

2. Share Real Successes
Share great stories from this week, big or small, that made a positive impact.
We make a sincere effort to read the the tweets each week. We love seeing the actual stories from the classrooms and schools. Have a student meet a goal? Great! Share it out. Staff member go above and beyond? Recognize them and share why they are important. Took a risk and it paid off? Tell us about it. Be intentional and specific about your tweets - there is a time and place for encouraging phrases but let's make this community about sharing successes and positive moments.

3. Keep it School-Centered
Focus on students and teachers, and let them be the stars.
No matter your role in education, the learners always come first. There are other avenues on social media to promote products, books, blogs, and the like. Our goal is for FlyHighFri to specifically be about great things happening in our classrooms and schools, not about self-promotion or promotion of a product. Of course, if you’ve written a post or a certain app or product has directly made a positive impact in your school during your week, we want you to share that!

Going Forward

We have high hopes for our FlyHighFri community for the 2016-2017 school year. We’d love to see the positivity message spread throughout schools and districts, but we also don’t want it to be forced. Be the invitation to your colleagues to share their positive moments. Mari often finds her principal at some point on Fridays and asks him, “What’s your FlyHighFri from this week?” It’s an easy 30 second conversation, that often turns into a longer discussion. We both also hold weekly get togethers for our teachers to join and share.

This year, we'll be managing FlyHighFri through the official Twitter page. We'll be quoting tweets that really stand out to us and want to highlight. We're not concerned about it trending on Twitter. If it does, great. If not, that's great, too. We value the individual contributions of each person, and prefer quality over quantity. Share successes with each other and use their ideas in your own schools. Challenge each other to continue growing as educators and positive people.

How can I spread #FlyHighFri?

- Connect with others in the FlyHighFri social media community using #FlyHighFri.
- Create an on-campus teacher group. Buy or make coffee to share with teachers and invite them to join you before school. Meet together for lunch. Consider extending this to your classroom or with parents and families!
- Go asynchronous to share online with a group of teachers through an online tool such as TodaysMeet or Google Hangouts Chat.

We look forward to a school year filled with positivity!

Thursday, August 4, 2016

How May We #GAFEhelp You?

How May We GAFEhelp You?

Do you use Google Apps for Education (GAFE)? Are you a connected educator on Twitter? Have you ever had a question about GAFE and so you Tweet it out only for it to get lost in the abyss of Twitter and never get a response? Or if you do get a response, it is completely random and really doesn’t help?
Well, we hope this will be a solution to that dilemma. We would like to introduce to you a new Twitter account, @GAFEhelp.
Eight GAFE using educators connected on Twitter and have teamed up to manage this new handle. Our goal is to be a resource to other GAFE using teachers and help provide a quick answer to any type of GAFE related question you may need help with.
In addition to this new Twitter account, we will be using the hashtag #GAFEhelp to also facilitate communication of any questions that may be out there.
We don’t see ourselves as experts, but just a group knowledgeable teachers wanting to help provide answers to your questions. If we don’t know an answer, we will try to help you research a solution and provide resources to help you get going in the right direction.
So if you need help with Google Apps, just tweet us @GAFEhelp and/or use the hashtag #GAFEhelp. So, How may we GAFEhelp you?
Meet the GAFEhelp Team:
Justin Birckbichler (@Mr_B_Teacher) - 4th grade teacher in Virginia. Teaches with 1:1 Chromebooks. Google for Education Certified Innovator and Trainer.
Ben Cogswell (@cogswell_ben) - TK-6th Educational Technology TOSA in Salinas, CA. Google Educator Level 1 and 2. 1:1 iPads & Dell Venues implementing GAFE in 12 schools with 380+ teachers.
Sean Fahey (@SEANJFAHEY) - 4th grade teacher in Indiana at a Google Apps for Education School. Teaches with 1:1 ChromeBooks.
Ari Flewelling (@EdTechAri) - Staff Development Specialist (Technology Integration and 1:1 Support), Google Certified Trainer & Innovator, CUE Affiliate President
Kelly Martin (@kmartintahoe) - K-8 Educational Technology and Curriculum Coordinator in South Lake Tahoe, California. Google Educator Level 1 and 2. Supports 60+ teachers in a 1:1 chromebook environment in grades 3-12.
Karly Moura (@KarlyMoura) - Instructional Coach & Educational Technology Support Teacher in California. Supports educators in a Google Apps for Education school teaching with chromebooks and ipads.

Mari Venturino (@MsVenturino) - Middle school science and AVID teacher in California. Teaches with 1:1 iPads. Google for Education Certified Trainer & Innovator.

Joe Young (@jyoung1219) - Math & STEAM Instructional Coach in Palo Alto, California. Taught 1st, 2nd, and 5th grades in a GAFE district, 1:1 iPads, 1:1 Chromebooks, and served as a tech lead teacher.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Genius Hour: An Update

"We've managed to screw up the world, but the minds that will fix this are sitting in our classrooms"
- James Sanders

This past year was my second year exploring genius hour. Because I was able to start it from the beginning of the year, I was able to fit two rounds of genius hour into our year. The first round ran much like the set up from year one; students independently researched something they were passionate about and presented their projects to the class.

Mark French visiting and learning about their problems
I learned something new from each of their presentations and began getting ready to implement another round of the same thing. I then had a thought - why do more of the same? Genius hour is about helping students grow into passionate and voracious learners and I wanted to try something different. 

The students were paired up and presented with a challenge: investigate a problem in the world and develop a solution. I asked them to think big - I didn't want problems like "they don't serve ice cream in the cafeteria" or "I don't have a PS4." The rose to the occasion, choosing topics including bullying, littering, world hunger, homelessness, truancy, endangered species, epidemic diseases, and smoking. Not a short order to research and solve, especially for fourth graders. 

To be honest, I was a little apprehensive. Some of these topics could become very controversial, but there wasn't a single time this became an issue. The students honed in on their chosen problems and I saw many shocked faces when they learned something new. To help them provide some structure, I suggested a basic framework: research facts about the problem to consolidate into an easily understood summary, propose a meaningful solution, and provide a step-by-step framework to implement this solution.

Many of them found a number of good and interesting facts, and some found some conflicting facts. Occasionally, we found it was a simple mistake on the students' parts (typing billion instead of million,) but sometimes different websites gave different information. We would discuss how to choose the best information, including providing a range of data.

A presentation on endangered species
One thing I noticed was that their slide design skills sometimes need work. Some students were spot on: good amount of slides, limited words, compelling pictures (some students found the magic of gifs,) and even some text animation. Other presentations were too long or overcrowded with text. This is a skill that adults struggle with (myself included,) but it's such a valuable skill for life. In the future, we'll take more time to discuss what makes good slide design and develop general guidelines to follow, in addition to continued work on public speaking and presenting.

Many of their solutions revolved around raising awareness or money for their problems. The littering group wanted to put up more signs and recycling bins, the smoking group wanted to teach others how to stand up against smoking, the disease groups suggested more research and funding for vaccines, and many groups wanted to raise money to donate to help endangered species, the homeless, or other groups. While none of these ideas could be designated as moonshot solutions, they were mostly realistic and could be brought to fruition by the students (with help from adults.) You can check out their projects in these videos: Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3.

Brookhouser sharing about problem solving
Going forward, I want to build upon this idea. I do not want to begin with a round of studying something they are passionate about; I want to jump right into problem solving. After getting a second chance to learn from one of my Google Certified Innovator coaches Kevin Brookhouser at the North Carolina GAFE Summit, I want to shift genius hour into 20time. As he describes it, his students investigate a "wicked problem" for an entire year to understand and overcome it. I want my students' 20time projects to last an entire year (rather than a few weeks) and to solve their "wicked problems." I love the idea of a bad idea factory, which sometimes good ideas can stem from. I also want a concrete item or event to come out of this project, rather than just ideas for change. I want students to feel empowered and to be change agents, even in fourth grade. Kevin's got a great book called The 20Time Project, which I am extremely excited to dive into, and you can check it out here.

Is this too much to expect from fourth graders? Some may say so, but I don't agree. I believe if students are held to high standards, they will rise to meet them. They will obviously need support from parents and me, but I know they can do it. You can expect updates on this project throughout the year and I am extremely excited for what the students create to solve their "wicked problems!"

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Digging A Hole, Building The Bridge, and Making Changes

“You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone's soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows that they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift.” 
- Erin Morgenstern

Classroom discussions at morning meeting
Storytelling shapes my teaching. I teach metric conversions through telling a story about my cousin Meg (plot twist - her name isn't even Meg) calling my great grandmother, Millie ("Meg, Call Millie"), explain the purpose of an anemometer by regaling my class with my mom's reaction to my various speeding tickets commendations for excellence in high speed driving and, and countless other tales. But each of these are more or less a one-off story. It teaches the concept, we refer to it to help establish retention, and then we move on.

However, there are three parables I constantly refer to, especially during morning meeting, in one on one conversations, or in small group work. They shape the dynamic of the classroom and help bolster the students with senses of support, independence, and resiliency. 

"How Are You Going to Get Yourself Out of the Hole?"

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This story involves a lot of body movement in it. I pantomime digging a hole. "If you dig down to your ankles, you can easily step out. If you get to your waist, it's a little harder, but it's still doable. You get to your shoulders, well... you'll be climbing. If you get in over your head, hopefully someone is there to help."

The students enjoy seeing me act all of this out. Then I reveal - "Think about this in terms of school. If you choose not to work on something in class, you may need to finish it at home. If you don't do it then, you may have to try to do it during class. It can build up." The metaphor soon turns real. I ask them to apply it to how concepts over time will only get worse if they don't work to become better. Being up to your waist at the end of fourth grade can quickly become over your head at the beginning of fifth if the hole isn't filled in over the summer.

In education nowadays, we have a tendency to not let students fail or experience struggle. Jess Lahey wrote an excellent book about this called The Gift of Failure, which I reviewed in a post last year. We need to let the students struggle and see that things can build up. Give them a shovel and ownership of their hole. They will figure it out.

But make sure they know you will always be there at the top of the hole, reaching down to help them. Kids are not perfect (nor are adults) and they need modeling and guidance. I am always very open and honest with my students when I have dug myself into a hole and how I am working to get out of it. Students will still need to work to get to reach your hand from the side of the hole and to fill in their hole, but they need to know their support system is there to help.

"You Can Only Build a Bridge Halfway"

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To begin this, I asked the students to think of our classroom as a series of islands. 

Me: "How do you get from one island from another?" 
Class: "You can swim or sail a boat!" 
Me: "True, but you're ruining my metaphor here. You can also build a bridge."

I then go on to say that to build a bridge, each side much build half and meet in the middle or else it will collapse. (To be completely transparent here, I started this story without really knowing if it's true. After a little research, I found out that the arch of the Sydney Harbor Bridge was built from both sides. It may be done for the reason I said, but I'm not an engineer!) 

The moral here is that education needs to be a two way street (or bridge.) Many teachers do a fantastic job of teaching students in an engaging, interactive, and differentiated way, but the students need to have the same level of effort in their desire to learn and work ethic. We need to be equal partners in education or it will all fall apart. Students need to be taught what this means to have strong work ethic and building a bridge. Mini lessons on character and resiliency are a must and we need to be models for this with our students, colleagues, and parents. Furthermore, students should build bridges with each other, whether it be in academics or social skills. It needs to be an equal partnership. What would a classroom community of interconnected islands look like for you?

"We Don't Make Excuses, We Make Changes"

My keynote - note the title
The final story is perhaps the most important one to me. Not only is this our classroom motto, this is my mantra for life. (Even to the extent that I titled my keynote based on this phrase.) After my second year of teaching, I was full of excuses and complaints. I was highly negative and blamed others. I realized this was a waste of time. What could I change to make it better?

This is a message that I feel my students (and many adults) can benefit from. What changes can you make to improve a situation? In the classroom, I constantly challenged my students with this. Rather than saying what another student had done, what could they have done differently?

Role playing, modeling, and concrete examples in read alouds help to reinforce this concept. I often share examples from my own life, especially the time I put off getting my car inspected because "I didn't have time" but then had to get it out of impound for more time and money. Obviously, some situations and circumstances didn't fit this mantra perfectly, but often times I could help the students take ownership of their life and learning by reminding them of our class motto.

All of the stories figured largely into my classroom. Not a single day went by where we didn't mention digging a hole, building a bridge, or making changes. We ended our morning meeting every day by repeating our class motto (video below). Students are our partners in education and need to be held accountable. They are literally our future and need to learn how to be a good person, in addition to all the academic content we're mandated to teach. We need to support them in this character building process, and by living these virtues and mantras, my students became capable, dynamic, and independent young citizens.