Thursday, December 31, 2015

Reflections of 2015

This past year has been an incredible year of opportunity and first-time experiences. For the first time, I was asked to participate in a BAM Radio #Edchat podcast, present at UCET (a tiny division of ISTE), and was nominated for a BAMMY Award. I didn’t even know what a BAMMY Award was at the time. I was flattered and honored that so many people, that I've never met, would write nice things about me. I also participated in the Global Student Play Day, learned with Google Cardboard, built a Makerspace in my classroom, integrated Genius Hour, and Skyped with several of my eduheroes.  My learning continued as I met some PLN members face to face, spoke in front of the school board, made shifts in a lot of my teaching practices, and continued to connect to inspiring educators around the world. None of those opportunities would have happened without being a connected educator. Perhaps one of the biggest changes that happened was being awarded several large grants so that I could go 1:1 with Chromebooks. I am living my dream! It wouldn’t have happened if my PLN hadn’t responded to a tweet. Although I have many circles of friends on Twitter that I adore, it’s been an incredible year of learning because of my #leadupchat tribe. For this reason, I can’t close the door on 2015 without paying homage to the tribe.
In my quest to learn more about leadership, and to connect with great minds and role models, I actively connected with many principals and change agents. Many of those connections started to weave together when #leadupchat began last March. The chat was mentally invigorating, inspiring, and fun. I looked forward to early Saturday mornings. Shortly after that, I joined the Voxer group, and that has made all the difference in my personal and professional life. Although I was connected on Twitter to many in the Voxer group, I also connected with many people that I didn’t know. Voxer took our connections to a higher level. Within a very short amount of time, the #leadupchat Voxer group felt like family. There was a level of trust and sharing that I’d only experienced with a small group of Edmodo Ambassadors prior. But, even that experience was different. 
 Image from
Under the leadership of Nathan Lang @nalang1 and Jeff Veal @heffrey, thought provoking, reflective discussions happen every day. It’s a place of positivity, inspiration, and motivation to be the best leader possible. We share resources, experiences, pictures, and stories of our personal and professional lives. It’s a place where we share our successes, our mistakes, and our goals. It’s home. Although I’ve never met a single person face to face and am jealous of the leadupmeetups, I know I will some day. I look forward to meeting my family. You can learn more about this incredible group of leaders here

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

One Word 2016- Growth

My great grandfather was a farmer, and although I don’t have any memory of the dairy farm that he sold, I do remember his huge garden. The red soil of Tridell, Utah was in stark contrast to the huge, green plants growing on each row. His garden was well-known through the whole area not only for the fruits and vegetables that it bore but also because of the reputation for being weedless. He was proud of that fact, but he was, even more, proud of the quality of the soil. I never understood how someone could be so proud of “dirt”.

My mother understood. A legacy of my great grandfather is that he taught his granddaughter about the importance of working the land. Quality soil had to be a top priority. As I grew up, my mom (being born with the greenest of thumbs) cultivated beautiful flower and vegetable gardens. She always worked the hardest at building the soil. Why? In short, fertile soil provides anchorage for roots, oxygen, water, temperature modification, and nutrients. The quality of the soil determines how well plants can grow. (Just for the record, I do NOT have a green thumb as I have killed many plants including the silk variation.)

As I reflected about 2015 and pondered my one word for 2016, “Growth” came to my mind and never left. Fitting, that my focus for the upcoming year should take me back to my roots, to the importance of fundamentals, to a place where my focus will be on the “soil”. Here’s my attempt to break down “Growth” into the essential elements that will help me to come closer to reaching my potential.

“Soil” supports plant growth by providing:

 Anchorage: Root systems spread outward/downward through the soil to anchor and stabilize the plant. My anchor for professional growth is my PLN. Some of my roots are deep and fortified by the relationships that I’ve built over an extended time. I’m nourished daily by my interactions with PLN family, friends, and tribe members. Other roots are spreading as I continue to connect and grow my PLN. I’m also anchored by my colleagues who work within my school and district. They keep me “grounded” and inspire me to continue moving forward.

Oxygen: Spaces among soil particles contain air that provides oxygen, which living cells use to break down sugars and release the energy needed to live and grow. Anyone that knows me well knows that I need space to breathe. To grow, I need a degree of autonomy. I need time and space to take risks and try new things. I need to be creative and play with ideas. This year, I will focus more on providing this opportunity for my students. I’m amazed at the talent and gifts of my students and their potential to change the world. I want to help them find their voice. In doing so, they will give me the energy that I need to live and grow.

Temperature Control: Soil insulates roots from drastic hot and cold fluctuations in temperature. Ginny Rometty, CEO of IBM, said, “I learned to always take on things I’d never done before. Growth and Comfort do not coexist.” I’ve never been a stranger to trying new things, but that doesn’t mean that I haven’t been shaking in my shoes with fear. The very fact that I’m blogging is evidence of conquering a fear- a fear so paralyzing that I couldn’t breathe when I clicked on “PUBLISH” for the first time. As I look forward to a new year, I know that I must accept challenges as opportunities for growth. It’s not easy. I can think of at least a dozen recent examples where pushing through the fear or trial made me grow. Having a growth mindset is crucial. The recording of the self-critic and perfectionist in my head sometimes is overwhelmingly loud. I must quiet this voice.

Nutrients:  Soil supplies nutrients to the plant and holds the nutrients that we add in the form of fertilizer. If I were to leave my professional growth to the decision of schools, I would not grow. I’d be stagnant, caught in a trap of mediocrity, and floundering to reach my potential because of the culture of compliance and complacency. Fortunately, I’ve had a love of books and learning all of my life. I’ve kept myself moving forward. But, being connected to other educators has accelerated my learning and motivated me to stretch in ways previously unimaginable. Not only have I read enlightening books to challenge my thinking, but I have also connected and built friendships with many of the authors. I look forward to more edcamps, books, Twitter chats, webinars, and Voxer discussions. I cannot imagine my life without these nutrients.

Water:  The spaces between the soil particles also contain water that moves upward through the plant. Water carries essential nutrients to the plant; helps to maintain cell size so that the leaves don’t wilt, and is a raw material for the process known as photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is using energy from sunlight to chemically change air (carbon dioxide) and water into sugar (food) for the plant. The waste product of photosynthesis is oxygen. Water is essential for life. The minerals and microbes without water will not give life to a plant. What gives me life? Relationships. Faith. Hope. I’m reminded of the quote by Marianne Williamson.  I believe that we are born with divine gifts and talents. My goal is to find my voice and help others find theirs. It’s the 8th Habit according to Stephen R. Covey.

Growth is a small word with a lot of potential impact. This year, I’ll focus on the soil preparation- the Law of the Harvest. Water, fertile soil, time, and consistency will prepare me for the opportunities that lie ahead. Great happenings are yet to come and many doors are waiting to be opened. I feel it inside of myself. It’s frightening and exhilarating at the same time. It’s my destiny.

More about soil can be found here.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Activities Before the Holiday Break

Potential and a Dream

     The following is an excerpt from the story of a little girl with huge dreams. It’s the story of a young girl growing up in situational poverty and overcoming incredible odds because of the love of her teachers. It’s the story of teachers seeing and nurturing the innate gifts and talents given to me. It’s the story of my dreams of being a teacher and making a difference in the world coming true.
    June 2015 marked the 50th anniversary of the Headstart program- a program established to close the learning gap for kids growing up in poverty. I was one of the first kids that attended Headstart in Salt Lake City, Utah.
It was a pilot program, and I vividly remember the summer that I attended. Many of our legislators question the funding for preschool programs and ask if it makes a difference. I want to shout, “Yes! It made a difference to me!”
    With my hand in tow, my young mother walked with me into the classroom. I was scared and excited at the same time. I had never before been to a classroom- so immense in size, colorful, and filled with other kids my age doing all kinds of activities. Kids were painting, playing with toys, and listening to a story on the far-side of the room. Headstart was a magical place!
There were paints, places to play, arts and crafts, field trips, stories, and songs like “The Wheels on the Bus”. We made musical instruments, parade hats, and enthusiastically marched on the sidewalk around the school as parents and onlookers cheered for us. Those artifacts and the vivid memories of my mind are evidence that I was happy! I loved learning and couldn’t seem to quench my thirst for more knowledge! School was a place of wonder, exploration, discovery, and love. I don’t remember any one teacher. But, I do remember many grown-ups helping me and other children make marvelous creations and reading books. Oh, the books! Headstart was the foundation that I needed. I knew that I wanted to grow up and be a teacher. After all, I’d been “playing school” and teaching my cat and my two brothers my whole life! I just didn’t realize how hard it would be to make my dreams come true.
    Elementary school were years filled with more adventure! My elementary school was a new open concept school, and the teachers were team teachers- a revolutionary practice of the time. Consequently, I had many forward-thinking teachers and huge spaces for learning. I have so many good memories like Mrs. Miller teaching me how to read, Mrs. Ramsey singing, “I’m Bringing Home A Baby Bumblebee,” Mr. Petersen doing science experiments, and Miss Ohngren letting me write plays and having my peers perform them. I even have great memories of my principal, Mr. Hansen, teaching a small group of us 4th graders advanced math. Long before all of the buzzwords in educational circles today, my teachers provided me with many opportunities to create, to choose, and to work at my own pace. I loved school!
       School was an escape from the stressors at home. Finances always caused stress.
My mom usually worked two or three jobs plus any additional job that she could grab. My two brothers and I also worked and earned money for the family in any way that we could- babysitting, picking cherries, mowing lawns, selling nightcrawlers, and newspaper routes. We rented and had to move around a lot. Luckily, I didn’t have to change schools. (My brothers have a different story.) Graduating from high school was not a discussion. It was an expectation. But, paying for and graduating from college was another story. My desire was there. I just didn’t see any way for that dream to become a reality.
    There were so many challenges and roadblocks that I faced.  I could have easily given up multiple times. The fact that I didn’t give up is a tribute to my teachers, coaches, neighbors, and family members. You see, it takes a village to raise a child. I was blessed with many positive adult role models in my life. They believed in me and helped me to believe in myself. I distinctly remember an after school conversation with my 5th-grade teacher about how I’d grow up, become a teacher, and make a difference in the lives of many kids. Miss Ohngren’s voice and the voice of other teachers and coaches have played in my mind many times. These eduheroes of mine provided me with many opportunities to grow as a leader, to learn the science and art of teaching, and to pursue my dreams. Those are stories for another day. But, I am grateful that they saw the potential in me. I am honored to have been a student of so many inspiring educators. I hope that I can pass along their legacy. Photo Credit: tek_chick via Compfight cc
  Photo Credit: viyh via Compfight cc

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Oranges for Christmas

Photo Credit: amseaman via Compfight cc

     The sweet citrus smell of fresh oranges permeates the air of Christmas memories. Although I grew up in a family that couldn't afford many luxuries, we always managed to purchase a case of oranges every December. (It was a luxury to us!) My mom would either slice or peel the oranges for easy eating and my two brothers, and I feasted on as many oranges as our stomachs could hold. It's still a tradition to have fresh oranges to eat at Christmas time.

     As I got older, one of my favorite stories to read was Christmas Oranges by Linda Bethers.

 It's the beautiful story of friendship and generosity. It's a story that I enjoy every year at Christmas time.

The Compass

This post was originally written last August. It was a way for me to vent. I'm choosing to publish it now just as a record of my thoughts and feelings throughout the year. I'm also adding in another unpublished post at the end.

Photo Credit: Spock2029 via Compfight cc

During this past week, I've been particularly frustrated with not having enough instructional time to do ALL that I'm expected to do. At the peak of my frustration on Friday, after having given ANOTHER test, I made a decision to say, "Enough is enough!" I'm finished with following the "recommended" calendar for assessments. I'm going to use my professional judgement as my compass to ground me and do what's best for my kids.

Learning doesn't happen based on a calendar. Some students will learn a concept quickly, and some will learn the concept three weeks from now. For whatever reason, I have a group of kids this year that have a very weak understanding of fractions. Following "my compass", I made the professional decision not to follow the math book and to back up and build a foundation of understanding with manipulatives, and other strategies. It took time. I knew that I'd be "behind". However, I was required to give a district math benchmark test based on some arbitrary date. 

Using technology to individualize math lessons has helped my students to close the gaps in their learning. For the first time, they like math and feel confident. But, taking the test too early deflated them. I watched a physical reaction. The old mindset of "I'm a failure at math" took over. They tried for awhile and gave up. And what did that math benchmark do for me? Nothing. It didn't tell me one thing that I didn't already know. I assess my kids multiple times each day. I know who and what they understand. I know who needs extra support, and I know who needs more enrichment. The only thing that the test did was waste class instructional time. 

I'm choosing to not give the math chapter tests. I'm choosing not to place value on the benchmark tests. At what point is too much too much? We have math, writing, and reading benchmark tests. Science tests are being written. I'm not even mentioning all of the other tests. Enough is enough! They don't help me or drive my instruction more than any other type of formative assessment. I'm choosing not to comply. I welcome a discussion.

I'm not against assessment. It has it's place. I'm just wondering when my professional judgement about when and how to use assessments will have value. 

A few days later:

It's no secret.

Yesterday, I worked with two of my lowest math students on adding and subtracting fractions. They have struggled. I've struggled with trying to meet their needs. But they're not the only ones. I have a room full of students who don't have a basic understanding of fractions. With the exception of four students, the class is well below the average fifth grader on the end of level tests.

The recommended pace of teaching the math lessons is too fast in my opinion. There are too many concepts thrown at the kids too quickly. Sometimes there are 3-4 huge concepts in one lesson. And so...I threw it out! Since the starting of school, I haven't used the adopted math program. I backed up to the 3rd-grade core and still had students struggle.

Finally, the light came on for my two "lowest" students! They physically changed and exuded confidence. I had them teach other students who were also struggling. They were great teachers and explained the concept very well. I saw a new level of respect for these two students from the other class members. Their efforts and persistence to learn were appreciated. Yay! That's what I want!

A Conversation With My New Teacher Self or Thoughts for New Teachers Pt.1

This post was originally written last Fall. I decided to publish some older posts including this one. It's really just for me :)   

 Remember how excited you were the day that you were hired as a certified teacher? You went to the district office to do a "practice interview" and were sent directly to a principal for another interview. She interviewed you and hired you on the spot. As you took the school tour, you could hardly contain those giddy happy feelings inside. The conversation was lighthearted, warm, and welcoming, but you really couldn't focus. Finally, the principal took you to your room. There it was, your very own classroom!

     Later you would find out that you had inherited the "worst classroom" in the school (the old storage room), the oldest furniture, and the "hard" kids, but that didn't matter. You were a hard worker and came during the summer to clean and arrange your room. Of course, you could have left it for the custodian to do, but you couldn't wait! As a result, you built a relationship with the custodian, and that lasted for many years- even as you changed schools and he was promoted through the ranks of the district maintenance department. And since you were in the school before all of the other teachers that summer, you also took the time to build a relationship with the school secretary. The times when you laughed together, the thank-you's, the words of appreciation for her hard work, meant a lot, and she eagerly returned the kindness 100 fold. What goes around comes around. Although you didn't realize it at the time, building relationships are the cornerstone of success. Taking the time to know the support staff of the school goes a long way! The media specialist went out of her way to help you find resources because you taught your kids how to be respectful. The lunch ladies had no problem letting you borrow something because you greeted them every day with a smile and taught your students to say thank-you as they walked through the line. It takes every person in the school to do a quality job for the school to function properly. A thank-you is so simple and yet means so much to the many dedicated professionals who are not teachers and don't often hear words of appreciation. So to my new teacher self, you did a good job!

     You can laugh about it now, but do you remember lugging all of those teacher manuals home to study. They must have weighed 50 lbs. or more! Many parts of the lessons were scripted. The manuals had sample questions, answers, and procedures. At first, you tried to follow the manuals.You wanted to do "what's right". But, you soon found out that it felt unnatural for a reason. It wasn't you! Your passion, your stories, your experiences that your students loved to hear were not coming out through the lessons. Your stories helped to build a relationship between you and your students. Your students were able to connect new content to prior knowledge. Luckily, it didn't take long for you to recognize that you experienced more success when you used your own words, thoughts, and questions. As a result, your students grew to love you, and you grew to love them. Your stories triggered their memories, and you took the time to listen, ask questions, and showed a genuine interest. You quickly learned the power of building positive relationships with your students.

     Many years have passed since that first year. There are many more reflections to share. But as a veteran teacher talking to my new teacher self, I'd still tell you today to take the time to build relationships. Build relationships with your students, your colleagues, and the parents that you serve. Positive relationships are the foundation to all else in education.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Can You Make A Flashlight?

One of my favorite activities to do while teaching electricity is to have kids make a flashlight from "junk". I used to use KitKat bars because they were wrapped in foil and it was a perfect size. I've experimented with a few different candies and gum wrappers over the years. This year, I used Rolos. I used three in each bag, but I'd use six next time. The other things are just odds-n-ends and of no real importance.

Some possible items to use:

 a piece of cloth
 popsicle stick
 rubber band
 a piece of yarn
 rubber bracelet
 *paper clip

*I've tried to avoid using anything metal because I wanted the kids to use the tin foil, but this year I added a paper clip because I wasn't sure if the Rolos would provide enough foil. Next time, I think I'll add in a small paperclip instead of a large one.

Other supplies:

 one D cell battery 
 light bulb
 candy w/foil

**One of the first questions you'll hear is, "Can we eat the candy?" I tell them, "No" because we don't eat in science. Afterward, I let them eat their candy if they want to.

The Activity:

Give the kids a bag full of supplies and set the stage. I just make up a story and each year it's been a little different. This year, I made up a story about how Pirates captured my students along with their little brother/sister (neighbor, kindergarten kid) and were holding them in a cave. The Pirates assigned to guard them were a little ways down the hill from the cave entrance. This was their chance to escape! It was soon going to be dark. They needed a flashlight! The Pirates would be returning any time. Can they rescue their little brother or sister? In their pockets, they find a bunch of "stuff." Can they be creative and think of new uses for what they have? (The details of the story are not that important. It's how you tell the story that is more important.) Build up the suspense!

Once you've set the stage, give them a time limit. I play the Mission Impossible music (longer version), and they get two times through the music. Start the music and play it loudly. It builds up the intensity. Part way into the activity, I turn off one of the classroom lights to represent it getting later in the day. Towards the end of the music, I tell them that they can hear voices. The Pirates are returning!

If they figure out how to make the light bulb light up, they must show me but not reveal their secrets to someone else.

I've used this activity as an introduction to electricity and as a formative evaluation towards the end of a unit. This year, we're in the middle of our studies. They had some background information but still had to think and experiment.

I don't know who developed the original idea because I've done this activity for many, many years. I added in the story and music to the set-up. To me, building the suspense, giving the kids a time limit to "survive", and playing music makes the activity much more fun. After the music ends and all classroom lights are off (representing night time), I have the kids that figured it out, give a clue to the other kids. Everyone learns how to make a flashlight (complete circuit) and has success! They also learn that there are several different solutions which is something that I try to reinforce.

If you come up with a great story idea or tweak to the activity, I'd love to hear!

Sunday, December 6, 2015

You Did It!

***Note to Self: Today you turned in the last assignment for this semester. You made it! Remember the frustration, tears, and wanting to quit? You persevered and stuck with it even though you had one of the hardest classes that you've ever taken- school finance. It was a hard semester! But, it's over and you learned more than you thought possible. :)

Going 1:1

This year I'm in a 1:1 setting with Chromebooks. It's been an exciting journey. However, the other day I saw this tweet by @mraspinall, and it inspired me to write about "that" kid in my class this year and the benefits of going 1:1 with your students.

"That" kid is a challenge! I won't go into all of his diagnosed "shortcomings". Suffice it to say, he is the kid in the class that is constantly interrupting, off-task more than on, and distracts other students. He is "that" kid that gets into fights on the playground, throws temper tantrums when his team doesn't use his idea, and loves to scribble--on everything.

But he's also "that" kid that can be loving, thoughtful and kind. He often shows empathy for other students and seeks to understand them better. He laughs, and he's silly. He's "that" kid that has a smile a mile wide when he's happy.

The other day on the bus traveling to our field trip, he was sitting alone. I sat next to him to get to know him a little better. Honestly, I didn't want to at first. I wanted just a few minutes of peace. But something inside my heart told me to take the opportunity to build the relationship--to go 1:1. I did and am glad that I did.

I had a marvelous conversation with "that" kid about Minecraft, Legos, and his family. I learned more about his likes/dislikes. I learned about some of his challenges. I learned one more way that I could get him to write (which he hates and lets me know every day) *Note to self: Let him write the stories that he wanted to tell me about Minecraft. I don't know that much about Minecraft, but maybe I could get him to write and then build something to share his story. Other ideas about how I could better meet his needs popped into my head as he talked.

We had a great day on our field trip! In fact, we've had a few great days one after another. It's the 2 x 10 rule: Spend 2 minutes for 10 days in a row to build a relationship and watch discipline issues disappear.

Sometimes "that" kid just needs someone to listen to him and let him know that he matters. Going 1:1 and making personal connections with students isn't hard or time-consuming. They won't care how much you know until they know how much you care.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Around the World And To The Moon and Back

Virtual Field Trip with Google Expeditions 

Yesterday I took my class on a virtual field trip around the world and to the moon and back- FREE!

Last summer, I just happened to see a tweet from @MsMagiera about her kids participating in the Google Expedition beta program. I was so excited about the possibility of taking my kids on a virtual field trip that I hurried to look up the information. Unfortunately, they had no plans to come to Utah. It was a huge disappointment, but not a surprise. I decided to request a visit anyway. It never hurts to ask. And then, about two weeks ago, I received an email telling me that they'd be in the area for a few weeks. I was soooo excited! I quickly scheduled a date and sent in the information. I didn't know how the Google cardboard viewers worked, but just went with my gut feeling that it was going to be awesome.

My colleagues deserve a huge shout out. We had to scramble at the last minute and switch a lot of schedules. No one complained. They trusted that I was bringing an amazing opportunity to our kids. They weren't disappointed! Many stepped way out of their comfort zones and risked using technology for a lesson. For some, it was the first time to take this step. I couldn't be prouder!

The first kids to try them out were a lot of my kids from last year. I knew that they would be good "guinea pigs" and would help with any trouble shooting. I can't even express how much it made me smile to hear so many oohs and ahhs. They were so excited and engaged in their learning! Each class that came was filled with the same excitement and energy. The teachers responded to their enthusiasm. It was a huge confidence builder for them!

Finally, at the end of the day, I was able to take my class. We traveled around the United States to look at landmarks, monuments, battlefields, land forms, the Grand Canyon, etc. All of it tied into the curriculum. One of their favorite places was the ocean where there were all kinds of sharks. Then, because we could, I took them to see the 7 Wonders of the World so that they could see what they'd study in 6th grade. Our final destination was the moon and beyond. Wow! This was a field trip that they'll never forget. Google Cardboard became an instant Christmas list item.

I had so much fun watching my kids interact with the virtual reality environment. It energized me to see them so excited and engaged. The whole time I couldn't help but think that this is what learning is all about- FUN! I won't step on my soap box, but the whole day validated my beliefs about what school should provide our kids.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Virtual LEGOs

The other day on Twitter, I saw a tweet about virtual LEGOs. Perfect! I'd been thinking about purchasing some from my own pocket in order to build up my classroom makerspace materials. (But I don't really have the budget to do this.) I'm the only one in my school implementing makerspace. I'm starting small. I have some Makey Makey kits, some Sphero balls, and some tubs of donated "junk" and art supplies. It works! I had my kids be guinea pigs and try out the LEGOs. They had a blast!

You can find out more here  It's FREE and easy for kids to use especially if your school is a GAFE school.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Junior Achievement City aka Biz Town!

To Learn About JA Biz Town go here. Here's a short summary of the program from the website.

JA Biz Town – 5th Grade Program

The JA City 5th grade program combines in-class learning with a day-long visit to this fully-interactive simulated town facility. The program helps students connect the dots between what they learn in school and the real world. Through daily lessons, hands-on activities and active participation in running the City, students develop a strong understanding of the relationship between what they learn in school and their successful participation in a worldwide economy. During their day at JA City, students work as employees in various businesses (facilitated by volunteer educators and business professionals), they are paid for their labor and they manage personal checking accounts. Throughout the day, students also learn about time and money management skills as they work, bank and shop as consumers.  JA City helps prepare students for a lifetime of learning and academic achievement.

Reflections from the kids and the pictures will tell part of the story. This is the culminating activity from a month of preparation (not counting the many integrated skills). I'm choosing to publish the unedited version of the kids' writing. Yes, we have a lot of work to do! :) We had a blast today! This is what kids need to do- learn from hands-on, relevant, highly engaging activities. #kidsdeserveit

These kids earned the top requested job- engineers!

Lunch break was a busy time!
Getting ready to go on TV!

Workers from Questar Gas
CEO of First Security Bank giving a speech

Big Business
Loan Officer
Parents make Biz Town Successful- Love Dad Power !

Mayor presenting Citizenship Awards
Lucky to have Superintendent Johnson (middle) stop by for a visit with business partners

Pay Day!

Closing Meeting

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Lean Out A Little Farther!


The climb to the top of the cliff had been exhilarating. I ascended without fear. As long as I looked up, with my site on the goal, I knew that I could make it up to the landing. Going down was another story. I couldn’t go back down the way that I’d climbed. I’d have to rappel. I had my safety gear on, and I had instructors that I trusted. I felt reasonably safe considering that I was standing on a cliff. But walking closer to the edge made my heart pound! I listened intently to my instructor. My safety gear was checked once more and then I walked backward to the ledge. My life flashed before me. “On rappel!” I shouted.

“Lean out!” I heard my instructor say. I looked down with trepidation and leaned out farther. “Lean out a little farther!” he repeated.  I took a deep breath and leaned out a bit more.

I took my first step over the ledge and pulled my right hand up to brake. One step led to another step. It was awkward at first, but I kept going. My confidence grew as I took each successive step down the rock face. Words of encouragement motivated me to keep going. Before I knew it, I was at the bottom being congratulated by others in my group. I was excited by the thrill of this personal victory. I had conquered a fear!
“Lean out! Lean out a little farther!” often echoes in my mind. Take a risk! Challenge yourself! Raise the bar!
But trying something new is scary. Feelings of being vulnerable, inadequate, and incapable are common. You no longer feel safe. The human body responds physically by initiating the “flight or fight response” that causes the heart to beat faster, breathing to quicken, and palms to sweat among other things. Stepping out of your comfort zone is a risk. 

The choice isn’t between success and failure; it’s between choosing risk and striving for greatness, or risking nothing and being certain of mediocrity.
Keith Farazzis

In the quiet white space of self-reflection over the years, I’ve asked, “What can I do to improve my practice?” And I’ve heard the words, “Lean out a little farther!”
One of the best pieces of advice that I ever received as a new teacher was to model lifelong learning by consistently acquiring new knowledge, but more specifically, to learn new skills. The difference between gaining knowledge and learning a skill is that learning a skill requires practice.
Name a skill that you’ve started to develop within the past month. Are you learning to play a musical instrument? Paint? Skateboard? Knit? Ski? Speak another language? Maybe you’re finding yourself in an all too familiar state of continually learning new information, but not necessarily new skills. Reading a book, attending a professional development class, conference, or even an edcamp facilitates gaining knowledge, but it doesn’t require practicing new skills. We ask our students to learn multiple skills every day. How long has it been since you have walked in their shoes?
In your mind’s eye, take a moment to envision yourself learning a new skill. How did you choose to learn? (book, video, teacher) Describe your level of success on your first attempt? Do you need to be shown how to do this skill more than once? Twice? What kind of feedback helps you learn best? How often do you need feedback? What motivates you to struggle, learn, practice, and improve? How important is growth mindset? How does “coaching” help you? What would make the learning of this new skill easier for you to learn? Describe the “zone” where you feel challenged but not frustrated.
Reflecting on teaching practices from the perspective of a learner opens the mind to possibilities. It cultivates empathy and compassion. Questions such as, “How will the reflections about my own learning impact or change my instructional practices?” brings metacognitive thinking to the next level. The reflection in the mirror may not be the most flattering. Do you need more patience? A change of tone? An ability to break down a skill into smaller parts? To be more encouraging? To give specific feedback? Being humble and owning what we know we need to improve is sometimes the most difficult. It requires action and accountability.
 The mediocre teacher or administrator will use any number of excuses like lack of time to avoid this step. But excellence takes effort! Great educators rise above the excuses, make an action plan, and have others (such as a PLN) hold them accountable. The status quo is not acceptable. If there’s room for improvement, the great educators welcome the challenge. They embrace the fear of being vulnerable with a positive attitude and courageously move forward.
So, I challenge you to “Lean out a little farther!” Get completely out of your comfort zone! Learn a new skill during the next few weeks. Put yourself in the position of a learner. Start a blog, record video of your attempts, or keep a journal of your progress. Share your mistakes, your learning, and your reflections. Let those that you lead see you as a beginner with all of the mistakes you’re bound to make. Lean into the discomfort.
Are you truly a life long learner? Will you walk the talk? Maslow said, “You will either step forward into growth or back into safety.” Will you accept this challenge as an opportunity to stretch, risk, and grow? You have a choice. Greatness or Mediocrity.

You’re on the edge.

“Lean out a little farther!”

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Tapping Into Parent Power- A Not So Scary Tale for Halloween

     I distinctly remember as a new teacher a phone call that I received one night. I had wanted to provide my parents and students access to me and had given them my personal phone number so that they could call me at anytime with questions or concerns. On this particular evening, my brother and I were relaxing and enjoying a great conversation together. The phone rang. I answered it and it was the father of one of my students. He immediately went into “attack-dog-mode” and called me every name in the book and some names that I hadn’t even heard before. Paralyzed with not knowing what to do, I listened as this parent berated me for something that I had not done. Tears streamed down my cheek. I couldn’t speak. My brother watched intently at my expression, paralyzed state, and tried to make sense of the yelling voice on the other end of the line. I managed to say, “I’m sorry!” before the angry parent hung up the phone. Luckily, he did hang up because my brother was about to grab the phone from me and say a few of his own feelings about how this person had treated me. That would have been a disaster!
     Needless to say, my relationship with parents after that experience was somewhat of a love/semi-intimidated relationship. For some kids, I looked forward to conferences. But for most, I didn’t. Although conferences usually came and went without incident, I always felt a little nervous talking with parents. Overall, for much of my career, parents came to the school for holiday parties, field trips, fundraisers, programs, and conferences. They also came to help prepare lesson materials, read with kids, or other tasks that I “deemed as something a parent could do.” But, it didn’t take long for the regular visits to fizzle out. No wonder, because I certainly didn’t go out of my way to engage them in classroom happenings. Honestly, there were times when I didn’t want anything to do with parents. It was more work to have them come into the classroom than it was worth. I only went along with “the PR game” because that’s what teachers were supposed to do. And then, I’d get frustrated when they didn’t show and blame them for being “unreliable”. Shame on me! It’s an attitude that I’m not proud of having but all too common. I even feel more ashamed because I have always been blessed with good parents that genuinely wanted the best for their kids. Many parents of my former students are my personal friends. They supported me, but I failed to tap into their power.
     My relationship with parents is changing in large part to the inspiration of my PLN. I can’t think of a time when I didn’t say, “Parents are my partners in educating their child. They are the first and most influential teacher.” It's easy to talk and say that parents are vital to their child's education. However, I feel like my relationships are changing and moving to a different level. This change has happened mostly during the last two years. It’s one of the many changes since being connected via Twitter.
      Last Spring as people were nominating colleagues for the Bammy Awards, I saw a tweet by Dr. Jim Detweiler @jimdetweiler1 about the lack of nomination for parents. It was something to the effect of, “Educators, can’t we do a better job of recognizing our parents?” It hit me like a rock in the head! “Yes,” I thought. “Here is a chance for you to recognize one of the amazing parents that have helped you this year.” I quickly wrote a nomination. Sadly, there weren’t very many nominations. But for me, it was great because this wonderful parent volunteer made it to the final five. I can’t even begin to tell you the positive reactions and the ripple effect that this had in our school community. It was just the tip of the iceberg.
     I have been greatly blessed this year with a whole group of forward thinking parents. I don’t have a single parent who has not been onboard with me to risk and try some new things in the classroom. My relationship with each parent has only strengthened as the year progresses.
     A couple of weeks ago, our fifth grade went to Hogle Zoo as part of our science studies about animal adaptations. I had 17 of my 30 parents spend the whole day with us! It was a bonding experience to be in an atmosphere outside of school, but watching the kids interact and apply their learning. Immediately following our trip to the zoo were two days of conferences. Students led their conference and showed their data that they were tracking, their progress, and their goals. It was honestly two of the best days of conferences that I’ve ever had during my whole career. I felt like the parents were truly my partners in education with actions and not just words. My students were empowered by discussing their progress. It was a celebration! Our focus was on growth instead of grades. It was an amazing experience! Student-led conferences are not new to me, but conferences without a focus on grades are new. I loved it! My students enjoyed the experience, and the parents appreciated seeing their child take ownership of their learning.
     Yesterday, for some unknown reason, the Halloween parade ended about 45 minutes early at 9:15 am.  I had over a dozen parent volunteers come to my classroom after the parade, but the one parent in charge of the party was not there. She had planned on coming shortly before 10:00 am to set-up the activities. I had activities that I could have done, but it was sunny outside. A dad volunteered to supervise and play with the kids outside while the rest of us did a few things to get ready for the Halloween party. For those 45 minutes, we had an incredible discussion about school culture, preparing kids for the future, testing, risk-taking, and the things that I was trying to implement in the classroom. (Last year the school boundaries changed. Our school now includes three different communities.) We talked about the blending of three communities and how the various schools and teachers compared. I can’t even express in words how the affirmations of the parents strengthened me as their child’s teacher. It was almost a testimony meeting as each parent expressed to me their love of me and how they saw incredible growth in their child/children already. (I have two sets of twins.) They expressed their thankfulness for truly feeling like they were making a difference the classroom. I’ve had them work with small groups with specific learning targets. They’ve helped me to track data and to better meet individual student needs. In turn, I was able to express my gratitude for their trust in me and my trust in them to help me teach these incredible kids. There were a lot of hugs and even some tears. In that moment, we became a true team with a common vision and mission. They totally support my integration of technology, creating a student-led classroom, less emphasis on grades, and many other facets of the curriculum. I am blessed and grateful! Working on my Masters/Admin degree is one of the most difficult challenges that I’ve faced- not because of the classes, but because I expend so much energy during the day with my kids. It’s nice to know that I have a whole team of parents that have my back. I’m finally tapping into their talents and expertise on a daily basis, and it’s making an impact!
     Truly engaging parents in the education of their children is a process. It’s not perfect in my classroom. I’m tweaking all of the time. I’m trying to make sure that parents know how valuable they are to me. It hasn’t happened overnight. Many of the parents that I’m working with this year are parents of my former students. The relationships that I’ve taken the time to build are paying off. Parents are still a largely untapped resource that I hope more teachers will embrace.
Specifically, I’m trying to improve two-way communication. It’s a never-ending challenge, but I’m committed. My PLN inspires me and holds me accountable. I’m a work in progress. I’m looking forward to looking back on this year- to reflect on the growth of my kids due to parents being more involved, engaged, and hopefully more empowered (at least for what happened in our classroom). This is the blog post that I can’t wait to write.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Measuring up!

I love my PLN! I've connected to the most amazing educators in the world and that's the truth! I'm genuinely happy about all of their successes. Without all of the doom/gloom and writing a depressing blog post, I can't help but wonder if I can ever measure up to them. I'm feeling way out of my league! Just a question- I'm not fishing for compliments! I'm honestly wondering what I have to offer. ??????

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Great Expectations

As a preservice teacher, I had the assignment to watch the movie, The Marva Collin's Story.  It had a powerful impact on me, and I watch it every year as part of my "Back to School" ritual. I was deeply saddened to hear of her passing last June. Her story will forever inspire and motivate me to "do whatever it takes" for kids.

One of the most powerful lessons that I learned was to have high expectations for my students. I truly believe that ALL students can learn and that it's my responsibility as an educator to "draw out" their excellence. Michaelangelo once said, "Inside is an angel trying to get out" about a piece of marble he was ready to sculpt. I feel the same way about my students. No matter how tough on the outside, there is a child inside that wants to be loved, accepted, challenged, and to succeed.

Sometimes I'm criticized for having high standards for my students. I don't accept average for myself. Why would I ever accept average for my students? Not to my surprise, every year my students reach and surpass even MY high standards of behavior and academic achievement. But, I don't just raise the bar and expect the kids to get there on their own. It takes a lot of WORK to get them there!

Creating a culture of caring and trust in the classroom is essential. Many teachers, pressured by testing deadlines, skimp on the time that it takes to build authentic relationships with their students. This is a mistake! Every year I have to fight the "urgency to cover the curriculum". Taking the time to know my kids is a priority! They need to know that they are loved, accepted and that they can learn and be successful. They need to know that their effort is valued. They need to know that I challenge them because I want them to have the best life possible, and education is the key. I take the time because they are "my kids"! I would never shortchange them. It takes extra time and effort to build trust. Simple notes of appreciation, greetings, high-fives and positive phone calls home build lasting relationships long beyond the school year. It also takes time for the students to build trusting relationships with each other. Team building is crucial to classroom success. Everyone is a teacher. Everyone is a leader. We practice the skills. We practice procedures. We practice listening, sharing, and appreciating each others' effort and achievements.

When I earn the respect and trust of my students, then and only then can I become an effective teacher.

Average is easy. Many teachers settle for mediocrity and being comfortable. They care about their students but are afraid to challenge them, make them think, and let them struggle through a problem. They teach to the middle, fail to challenge the high, and lose hope for the low. My philosophy is to teach to the high and do what it takes to pull the other students up to that level. 

Effective teachers can challenge their students to higher academic and behavioral standards because students trust them. They know that their teacher will give them honest feedback to help them grow. The bar might be high, but the student knows that their teacher will help them get there with incremental steps. As they struggle through a challenge, they are motivated by the little successes along the way and by their progress. Mistakes are learning opportunities and effort to try new skills and grow is appreciated. At first it takes a lot of courage to share mistakes with peers. It takes a lot of courage to speak in front of a class. It takes courage to try new things. Risk-taking is rewarded.

One of the first challenges that we do as a class is memorize and say the poem, "The Man Who Thinks He Can" by Walter D. Wintle. We say it often. "I can't" or "I don't know"* are not phrases we say in our classroom.

I  believe that teachers must have a vision of what their students can become. They must believe with their heart, mind, and soul that they can make a difference in the child's life. As John Hattie would say, "Know your impact!" Armed with high expectations and a vision that can be realized, teachers will do whatever it takes to make a difference.

If I treat you as what you are capable of becoming, 
I help you become that.

 A banner hanging in my room says, "The difference between ordinary and extraordinary is the little extra." Students follow what they see modeled by their teacher. I'm far from perfect! But, I do know that students recognize and appreciate the extra efforts to make lessons and learning come to life. (Sometimes it's years later.) I know that they appreciate my attempts to give them timely and specific feedback about how to improve. I know that the balance between the press and showing I care is crucial. I know that THEY work!

I'm a passionate educator! I believe that we can have higher expectations for our students. I believe we can do better. I can do better! Excuses are not acceptable. Are we having the conversations about our teaching that we need to be having? Do we agree on what 'high expectations' look like? Are we holding each other accountable for student learning? Can we be even more effective than we are? How will we know? As I read, study and reflect, I know that I have a lot of room for improvement. I will make mistakes. This is a journey.

We are what we are because of others before us that had high expectations and challenged us. We owe our students the same.

*We say, "I don't know yet because ....." 
"I need more information."
"I'm unsure about this part."
"I'm thinking."

Monday, September 7, 2015

Dollar Bill Paycheck

I've always joked about how a teacher's paycheck often comes years down the road when former students come back to visit or bump into you in a public place. Fifth graders rarely appreciate the hard work a teacher requires. You may be "their favorite teacher" for the year, but it's much farther down the road when the payoffs come- especially for an elementary teacher.

Every year, I tell my kids that they are part of my retirement plan, and that's why we need to work so hard. I totally expect discounts or free services when they become working adults. :) As part of my retirement plan, I tell them about my desire to go on a vacation to Hawaii. If every student remembered to give me just $1 when they graduated from High School, I could afford to go on my dream vacation. Students eagerly promise to remember to send me the dollar. I started telling my students my plan when I was a new teacher, and now I'm close to retirement. Do I have enough money for that Hawaiian vacation? No, but I've received a lot wonderful "paychecks" over the years and more so recently.

Once I was pleasantly surprised when a former student came into my classroom with a framed $2 bill. One dollar was for graduating from High School, and one was for graduating from college. She'd become an engineer and had landed a high paying job and came to celebrate with me. Ahh...this was an extra paycheck because one of my girls went into a science field. I've always been an advocate for girls going into STEM fields although it wasn't called STEM back then.

Another student came to visit me last Spring right after graduation. She told me how school had always been so easy for her until she came to my class. I challenged her, didn't accept her mediocre work, and gave her opportunities to lead. I don't really remember, but she did. She told me how our simulation for the Civil War changed her because she was the captain of her company. She realized for the first time that she could be a leader. Another paycheck! She graduated with all kinds of honors, a full scholarship, a name for herself in the theater (we participated in a lot of drama activities), and was a confident young woman.

One of my biggest paychecks ever came about 10 years ago. My entire class of former 6th graders came into my room the last week of school after their graduation practice. Only three students were not there, and they came on a different day. Those kids will never know how much they touched my heart! Most of us had spent two years together because I had changed from 5th grade to 6th grade. We grew so much in those two years! It was heartwarming that they all thought of me at graduation time. But equally touching was that all of my kids were graduating. They had big dreams and were on their way. Two of them were leaving within a couple of weeks to serve our country. Some were already making more money than I was as a teacher. And now, a decade later, those same kids contact me and keep in touch. Did they remember that $1 bill? No, not even them. But money cannot replace the "teacher's paycheck" of knowing that you made a difference in someone's life.

Other students have contacted me by email and even Twitter to my delight. Every student has a story! I've laughed! I've cried! I am so proud of my kids! The little girl who wrote me poems sent me one of her published books. A mom sent me letters from her two sons who are both doctors and had their mom find me to give me their letters. Two more of my kids came back just last week to visit and tell me about their successes and future plans. One of my former students recently contacted me and told me that he'd found me and had read this blog. :) I'm so touched!

You see, it all comes down to building relationships. The kids don't remember the facts, the test scores, and all of those great units of study I prepared. They remember the American Revolution and the Civil War simulations and how emotionally invested they were. They remember playing catch with a football after school. They remember the talks, the laughing, the silly awards I gave, the science experiments, writing and sharing stories, reading great books, and the high fives. Kids remember the musical programs, the service projects, and how we learned together. They remember the good feelings. I took the time to build team spirit and camaraderie. I loved and love them! I did everything in my power to provide them with the educational experiences that I'd want for my own kids. They are my kiddos! (quite literally since I don't have kids of my own) I never wanted to shortchange them.

Once again, I'm feeling the pressure to cover the curriculum, assess with more benchmarks, track the data, and make sure that the kids are ready for the year-end tests. Those things have their place. But, for me, my goal is to make sure my students prepare for life and are good citizens of a great country. So, I'm a rebel of sorts. My focus is on continuing to build relationships in my classroom, and the test scores will take care of themselves.

After all, it's the small things that you do that bring the greatest rewards.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Peahens and Frilled Lizards- How Tech Made A Difference!

I'm experimenting and trying to figure out how best to use our Chromebooks, class time, nontech activities, and all that we need to do in a jam-packed schedule. Plus, I have to work with kids coming and going all of the time for speech, resource, counseling, etc. It's a juggling act! Here's what I've done for the past two days.

I moved desks AGAIN. (Using student feedback, I'm trying to find the best seating arrangement for our class activities.) Now I have three large "tables" and two smaller ones. Each "table" is a learning center. The two small groups of desks make one center. The kids rotate to each center with their Chromebook so that they always have it available to them.

Today, one table was my reading group. Another was a math center where kids worked on Tenmarks math lessons and ixl for extra practice with fractions. They chose what to work on for ixl although I gave them some guidelines. The third table was was for working on Quill (grammar, keyboarding, spelling) and TypingAgent (keyboarding). The fourth center was using Edmodo to watch a StudyJams science video, read an article from Wonderopolis, and to work on their StoryboardThat project. In between each rotation, the kids chose a Gonoodle activity. Yesterday a center was independent reading and the kids hung out on the couch, yoga balls, and other comfortable seating. I also used SpellingVocabCity to practice our science words, and another center was for practicing handwriting, (something we really need to practice).

The rotations went beautifully, and I was lucky to have a parent help to moderate the centers for a whole hour today. Although, I must say that the kids were pretty awesome on their own. I didn't have any behavior issues, and kids helped each other with their accounts and other questions. It was quiet. My reading group didn't bother anyone because the other students had on their headphones and were engaged in their other lessons.

The BIG DIFFERENCE was that in my reading groups, the kids had Internet access at their fingertips! We read a book about animal adaptations. I started with my lowest readers first which is a whole group of boys. I started with them first because they are the kids that leave throughout the day for other classes and I needed to spend more time with them reading. The word peahen came up, and no one knew what the animal was and so we Googled it and looked at some pictures. They were able to discover quite a few facts just by looking at pictures and reading the captions. When we turned the page and saw a big picture of an Australian Frilled Lizard, the boys got excited! After talking about some keywords and text features, the kids read the page. While they read, I was quickly able to find a Youtube clip and added it to Edmodo. After reading the page, kids went to Edmodo and watched the clip and got very excited to learn more. We read the page again, this time as a whole group. Our whole discussion about animal adaptations took on a new enthusiasm. They boys wanted to read more! They wanted to find more details! And...because the rest of the class was busy, we took a few minutes to find some answers to their questions. I'm sure that at least one of the boys will choose to do his Genius Hour report about the lizards.

Each reading group was a little different. One group was interested in aardvarks eating termites and another was more interested in migrating butterflies. But, I had TIME to better meet their needs. We had the tech in front of us to help us find information together. I wasn't the source of knowledge. The learning was timely and relevant.

To have 30 kiddos in one class is a lot of responsibility- a lot of individual needs to meet. The system wasn't perfect yesterday or today. It was a lot of screen time to me. (The kids disagree with me and told me that they had plenty of rest in between each learning center block of 25ish minutes.) They loved it! They chose the activity in each center to work on first, and who they sat by for each center. In their eyes, learning with their own Chromebook, moving around to different places, and having choices was great learning. I agree, and it can only get better! This is another baby step towards making learning more differentiated and individualized. I still have a lot to figure out and tweak. I'd love to know your thoughts- especially if you have experience being 1:1 Chromebooks. Any suggestions?