Friday, December 27, 2013

Content vs. Relationship: Part 1

I'll admit it. I sometimes fall into the content trap. You know the one... that paralyzing feeling that there are not enough minutes in the day to possibly teach all of the content you've been tasked with teaching, much less teach it effectively. You begin to panic. You notice your energy level turns up a notch- and not the good kind of energy level, either. That erratic, no-one-ask-any-questions-or-we'll-never-finish kind of freaky nervous energy. My son calls this "the dark side." I can always tell when I'm dipping my toes in the dark side because my speech begins to speed up, and I realize I'm talking WAY more than my students are. There's no discussion among them. There are no questions from them. There is no processing of information... for there can't be; I'm speaking like an auctioneer on opening day. Sometimes the content we teach (or the amount of content we must teach) gets the better of us.

Don't get me wrong- content is immeasurably important. Our student expectations and objectives (at least, that's what we call them in Texas) drive our instruction. BUT when we focus too much on content we begin to slowly lose sight of something else- the students. More exactly- our relationship with our students.

I know relationships are key. I believe it. I preach it. I do my very best to cultivate them; and yet... and yet- sometimes the content becomes the focus. This is almost always driven by fear. Fear that I'm not teaching every possible piece of information they'll need. Fear they'll show up in 6th grade unprepared. Fear that some skills needed from previous grades aren't as solid for some students as they need to be. Worried about reading fluency and ways to foster comprehension that are engaging and memorable. Need I go on? I'm sure by now you're making your own list of worries and fears that seem to greet us on a regular basis. So- even though I KNOW relationships are key- sometimes I shoot myself in the foot (great example of figurative language, by the way!) by not keeping relationships the focus. 

That being said, this past week I learned first-hand why relationships are key, why they matter most, and how when we focus on our kids- the return is better than awesome data; better than passing standards; better than any award we might ever win. When we focus on our relationships- we change lives. We make impressions that last well beyond the school year in our classrooms. And.. let's be honest... isn't that why we got into this gig called teaching to begin with...??? When we keep our relationships with our kids the focal point- we change lives; in more ways than we will probably ever know.

Part 2 will be published tomorrow.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Sunshine Blog

I've always enjoyed reading the Sunshine Blogs and have always associated them with "real bloggers" so I was quite excited to learn I was nominated! I began blogging this past summer after encouragement from my Twitter friend, Rafranz Davis; and while I am not always the most consistent, I do enjoy the process of blogging.... however, my favorite is to read others' blogs. I learn so much from so many talented educators through their blog, so hopefully I can give back the love and share a little about me! 
Here is how it works:
  1. Acknowledge the nominating blogger.
  2. Share 11 random facts about yourself.
  3. Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger has created for you.
  4. List 11 bloggers. They should be bloggers you believe deserve some recognition and a little blogging love!
  5. Post 11 questions for the bloggers you nominate to answer and let all the bloggers know they have been nominated. (You cannot nominate the blogger who nominated you.)
My Nominating Blogger
My nominating blogger is Dana Ariss. I came to know Dana through the collaborative Global Read Aloud project both of our classes were participating in. Since then, I have followed her on Twitter and followed her blog. To me, she is the definition of passionate educator. Her zest for life is evident in every post, every email, every Tweet. Another attribute I greatly admire about Dana is her patience. She is always quick to give an encouraging word, a reassuring comment, and just has an easiness about her you don't often find in many educators (self included). 
11 Random Facts About Me
1. I read magazines starting at the back and work my way forward. Not sure why I do this, but the thought of reading a magazine front to end seems kind of boring.
2. I’m an introvert. Large social crowds where I know many of the people make me anxious; large social crowds where I don't know a soul make me happy, I think because I don't feel that there is any expectations of me and can happily people watch. Small social gatherings are when I'm at my happiest- socially speaking.
3. I visited Russia during the coldest winter on record, even to this day.
4. I could eat chips and salsa and/or french fries all day and think they are the best foods available!
5. I hate talking on the phone, and prefer to text. I know there are many that frown upon this- but I've always hated talking on the phone (except for my teen years when "No, you hang up first..." was popular). Texting allows me to visit with people throughout the day.
6. I'm hands-down the best procrastinator I know. I get the most done in the hour before the deadline. 
7. My newest daily must-have drink is Diet Mountain Dew. (Switched from Diet Dr Pepper.)
8. I taught for five years, then quit to take a job as Director of Christmas Education and then moved into the position of Youth Director for four years before returning to the classroom. 
9. This is my 11th year to teach. Sometimes I feel just as green as the first day I taught; other days I feel like a seasoned teacher. 
10. My favorite thing to buy is new pajamas. My family tells me I have too many as it is. 
11. I love eating frozen grapes.
11 Questions For Me
1. Why teaching?
I always knew I wanted to be a teacher. For me, there was no lightbulb moment. Being a teacher is just what I always knew I was to be. I find that I'm at my happiest visiting with students about their lives, hobbies, etc. and sharing new things with them. This year, I have the joy of seeing both of my children at school each day. It's awesome to see my own kids in my favorite place. 
2. Who or what is your greatest inspiration?
I'd have to say all of the excellent educators and agents of change I've met/follow on Twitter. I always value what Tom Whitby posts as a veteran educator who speaks his mind but is open to change. His ability to question practices we see in education, throw his own beliefs out there for discussion, and listening to others is huge in today's dichotomy of I'm right/You're wrong beliefs.
3. What is one new thing you have tried this year?
Combining Skype and Today's Meet= AWESOME collaboration and a highlight for kids (Thanks, Dana!!)
4. What would your ideal day look like?
This is a tough one, usually the day in my head and the actual events that transpire are wildly different. But, ideally speaking, everyone would show up in a good mood after a healthy breakfast with their family; no materials would be misplaced or hard to find during a rockstar lesson; everyone would work well together in collaborative groups; students would go home professing all of the new knowledge they learned during the day; I would happily go running or some other type of exercise; and go to bed early. 
Now... let's be honest. My day typically looks NOTHING like this... and actually I am quite thankful. If my days went as ideally as I'd like them to, I wouldn't appreciate the small victories in a student's progress, nor the effort and flexibility it takes to make the calling of teaching a fulfilling career. And I most likely wouldn't be the connected educator I strive to be because my students NEED all that I can possibly bring them during the school year. 
5. Who was the best teacher you ever had and why?
Miss Rebecca Cook, third grade. I remember her class the most with the fondest memories. I remember the fuzzy feeling of being loved and cared for as a student. She was young, and with no children we were her babies. She was always patient and optimistic. Even when we didn't do well- she would cheer us on and encourage us to do better. She recently won the REAUD Award for Excellence in Teaching- a very prestigious award in my area.
6. If you could live anywhere in the world other than where you currently live, where would it be?
Tennessee or South Tahoe- pretty landscapes, nice weather, and many visible fireflies at night.
7.  What is something you are looking forward to in 2014?
Warmer weather- spring is my favorite time of year both in school and out. 
8.  Are you an early bird or a night owl?
Depends on what I've left to do until the last minute. :) (Read Random Fact #6) Usually I like to be ready for bed by 9 and then read through blogs and flip through recommended websites till bedtime. With no alarm, I'm usually up for my first cup of coffee around 7AM. For me, that's early.
9.  What is your favourite band or music artist?
Tie between Van Morrison (I like old-school), Coldplay, and the David Crowder Band (although they are no longer touring together).
10. Why Twitter? 
This is an easy one!-- because it is the best at-your-fingertips PD and idea generator we have available. The cherish and value my Tweeps ideas and opinions on education, even when I don't 100% agree with them. I've learned through Twitter to connect more, to think big, and challenged to help my kids see beyond our four walls.
11. Mac or PC? Android or iPhone?
Currently have a PC but would love a Macbook. Just haven't made the leap. And hands-down iPhone. Couldn't do without it. I'm too accustomed to having the world at my fingertips.
11 Bloggers I’m Nominating
10. TJ Adams
11. Janamac
11 Questions For The Nominees
1. Biggest challenge you see facing today's educators?
2. If you could trade the grade level you teach for only a day, what grade would you choose (other than the one you currently teach or previously have taught) and why?
3. Best technology integration your students enjoy the most?
4. How many years have you been an educator?
5. What does your typical day look like as far as scheduling?
6. If you could take only one item on a trip for a week, what item would you take and why?
7.  Biggest love?
8.  What's your favorite food/ best place to eat?
9.  If you were/are an administrator, what is one thing you would want your teachers to know?
10. Why Twitter?
11. If you could live during any era, which era would you enjoy and why?

Friday, December 20, 2013

Stay Calm and Stay & Play On

Some ideas begin small. Others are epic with huge obstacles known upfront. Still, others roll upon us from the unexpected. I would describe the idea of Stay & Play as a mixture of the above. 

I began hearing about Stay & Play, a local effort to build a playground for our school, last year when funding for Stage 1 was reached, but-- and I cringe when I say this-- it didn't hold the same meaning for me as it does today. At the time, I didn't have the same awareness of students with severe physical needs as I do today. This school year, my class participated in a collaborative online project called Global Read Aloud. (Many of you are tired of me blogging about it, but I honestly cannot say enough goodness about this project... and the book we read as part of it.) Our class, along with thousands, upon thousands across the globe, all read the same book and met online through several venues to collaborate for #GRA13. The thing that made this project THE best project I've ever been a part of was the book we read- Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper. Not only did the main character, Melody who is severe disabled with CP, touch me- she touched my students, as well. We became more aware of those with needs. We started to get a glimpse of what it means to have such severe disabilities... for the individual, for his/her family, for his/her school. In trying to involve my students in real-world problem solving and use what we can for the betterment of community, Stay & Play became the perfect project for us to be a part of. After taking part in Global Read Aloud, we have a new appreciation for what's needed. Some may say a child seeing the sunshine on a daily basis is a basic right; for some, that's easier said than done when you have no where to go for play.

Stay & Play is a local effort being spearheaded by our school nurse, Kelly Meadows. It involves building a play ground on our school grounds in various stages with each stage being built after we receive funding for it.

Sounds simple. Right?... The unique detail of this project, and the reason I love it so, is that it isn't your typical school playground. Stay & Play will be a playground for students with disabilities. You see, our school sits on a huge (from our perspective), flat piece of land with a barren (but rather large) field area in the front that our students use as a "playground." While it isn't the best and most ideal, it works for us. We are able to stretch our legs, chase a friend or two, throw a ball as far as we can (if we haven't gotten in trouble with it already), and soak up some sunshine. While our field doesn't have the latest equipment as some schools have... or any equipment for that matter, we enjoy being outdoors. Our friends with severe disabilities do not have that pleasure. For them, the field is cumbersome, poses several risks, and doesn't fit their needs at all. So while we are outside enjoying the sunshine, they typically stay indoors. How fun can that be...??? 

Hence, the idea of Stay & Play was born. This state of the art playground has been set up to be built in stages. The first stage was underway last school year with the ceremonious ground breaking! We are still waiting to hear the results from several grants that have been submitted to see if funding for our next stage has been met. If so, we will be able to move to the next phase of building.

Innovative are the visionaries that see a simple piece of ground with a fence and picnic table as the revolutionary playground for special needs students; one that not only meets their physical needs, but there emotional and mental needs as well. Holistic play at its finest- and inclusive for all to play at its finest.

I'm excited to be a part of this effort to raise awareness within my community, but also raise awareness within my various circles I'm a part of... because having a place to play shouldn't be so complicated. 

So how do you include your students with severe needs within your school community, as well as those not in your school, but in your extended community? Share the ideas of love, awareness, and acceptance for all.


Sunday, November 10, 2013

GRA#13OOMM: A Melody-Inspired Day

image via Edutopia
It was messy. Our neighbors probably said it was loud. To an uninvited guest, it would have seemed chaotic. But for my students- it was pure bliss!

As most of you know, we have been participating in The Global Read Aloud Project. We have made some awesome connections with friends from all over the globe, as well as one another, and have had many great conversations surrounding Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper....but we wanted more.

Much can be said about a group of school children bonding over a character and her story. By reading the fictional story of Melody and her special needs, my students started to think about our own friends here at our own school who also deal with special needs on a daily basis, just as Melody and her family do. This set into motion a plan. Originally we discussed performing a play, but due to some limitations, we knew a play wouldn't work, so we gathered as a class to decide what we could do for them. This evolved into a student-created, student-delegated "day of fun" as they called it for the students of our Life Skills class at our school. I sat amazed at the computer, ready to take notes as students, one by one, volunteered to be in charge of various activities and join up with other groups already being formed. When everyone finished scurrying around and spouting ideas and what they'd like to help with, we had four committees, each with a chairman and members. There would be a skit, a puppet show, an art activity, and a games area. 

Painted pumpkins
Students had two days to plan. Groups immediately began to buzz around the room asking for different supplies. Our Publications Committee began creating invitations and a program. The Skit Committee began drafting a script. The Welcome Committee/Art Committee chairperson began delegating jobs to different people in her group. Before long, each student in a class of 21 were all working on something...with no direction from me... no lengthy dialogue from the teacher... no limits or your project "must haves"... and IT. WAS. AMAZING!

I was truly beside myself as I watched for two days as they prepped, designed, borrowed supplies, brought supplies from home they'd created, re-designed because something wasn't just right, hot glued, glittered, and rehearsed. The bottom line was- they were doing something special for someone else, and they were excited that they could give back to students at our own school for the simple reason that a book inspired them to think differently about students with special needs. 

At 8:00 when I called, "It's time! Places everyone!" there was a hushed silence as everyone got into place. As the Welcoming Committee greeted the small group of their peers- students from another class, that many had only seen but never spoken to- I could not have been prouder as a teacher. 

The puppet show was first; a creative puppet play where one puppet mysteriously (and wittingly) is turned into a Longhorn overnight by a vengeful ghost puppet. Next, was the art center. Members of this committee brought all of their supplies from home: small pumpkins to decorate, paint, brushes, stickers... they even brought a disposable table cloth so we wouldn't stain the computer table. (Oh! and glitter... LOTS of glitter!) After making art, the students rotated to games. Members of this committee had set up small bowling pins made out of empty water bottles that had been painted, and used the white board as a backdrop for "The Sticky Throw" with small, sticky gooey eye balls (pun intended). 

One student even painstakingly cut out a cardboard pumpkin, painted it, decorated the background with mini-lights for a homemade "Pin the Stem on the Pumpkin." After this, the skit was the final act. A thoughtful tale of not being too quick to judge others based on assumption or fear. When it was time to say goodbye, some looked glum. Many said they were sad our time with them was over. We began the daunting chore of cleaning up the stations they worked so hard to create and sweeping the endless amounts of glitter from the floor. (Did I mention there was A LOT of glitter?!!!?) 

Cleaning up the Art Center

In talking about this day, many of my students ask when we can do it again. They have an urge to not only create and design with no boundaries, but they have a deep desire to be a part of something bigger than themselves; to do good for others for no reason other than because they read a book about a girl who was different and suddenly they realize in many ways--- we all are. 

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Tearing the Walls Down with Global Read Aloud

caption from icanread
This summer when I stumbled upon the Global Read Aloud project, I wasn't sure how I would incorporate it into our daily routine, and I definitely wasn't sure how I would connect with others using tech since I never really had before. However, I knew I HAD to try it out. It sounded fun and exciting- two adjectives that I sometimes felt I was missing in my classroom lately. I knew if it piqued my curiosity and made me excited, it definitely would interest my kids. I registered and joined the wiki, and we were on our way!

Unsure what all this was about or what it would entail, I felt obligated to find another #GRA newbie and make a connection. I met Phillip Jones via email. He, too, was a Global Read Aloud newbie and just as unsure as I was as far as what we were supposed to do or what this would even look like with our kids. We both quickly learned it was okay to have more than one connection and more than one way to connect. 
Today's Meet feed
We are currently in our fifth week of the project, and to say it has been amazing is an understatement. Our class has had Twitter discussions with other classes also reading the book, watched a live Twitter chat about the week's assigned chapters, created a shared Google Doc for ideas and notes as we read, which other schools have also added to and extended the dialogue; and most recently we had our favorite day ever. 
Through our class Twitter account, we saw another class was also reading Out of My Mind and they, too, had the mascot of a bear. Because they had the same mascot as us- my kids automatically decided to "follow" this class. (They MUST be cool if they, too, are the Bears! ....right?!?!!!) Their teacher, Dana Ariss (@gr34Bears), and I exchanged a few emails and Tweets and decided on a date for a Skype session. Dana and her class live in a tiny village in northern Alberta, Canada. She and I had a quick Google Hangout session the weekend before just to touch base and make sure all of our details were ironed out. For our Skype session, she would read half a chapter and I would read the remaining half via Skype. Our students would have access to a back channel using Today's Meet where they could post their ideas and discussions as they listened. Periodically she and I would also pause to ask a question or have our students reflect on something. To see my students ask thoughtful questions and engage in meaningful dialogue with others was phenomenal. After our chapter, we were able to have a short Q & A about their area and visa versa. The session ended with a promise to connect again soon....And my students have already hounded me on when... 
My third class was able to connect for a read aloud session for GRA with Craig Yen (@craigyen). I know Craig through Twitter and asked if he and his class could make a connection with us. To say I gave him short notice is an understatement. We attempted using GHO but had connectivity issues, so we switched to Skype. Our students also used Today's Meet for this session as well. When we read with Craig's class, he would read a few paragraphs and then I would pick up where he left off. He also had several Guest Readers, as well. In addition, several students from his class also asked our class questions and posed some of the reflection questions as we read. Due to the limited amount of computers, he had his students rotating for the back channel discussion. 

Colton uses our Class Twitter account to archive events.
Although we had two different experiences, they were both amazing! It showed me that 1. I don't have to have all of the answers or "know how" as far as jumping in to try it out. Dana knew it was my classes first Skype session and was eager to help and guide. And 2. even though connecting may look different each time, the details work themselves out. The end result is what matters; and the fact that I had engaged students having thoughtful and meaningful conversations with others was a #eduwin! 
Next we will be sharing a voice communication device similar to what the main character in our book uses with Mrs. Crain's Class (@CrainsClass). Again- this connection was sparked by a class Tweet.  My students are excited they have something to share with other students.

These connections have ignited a passion in my students to connect with others, to share what they know, and to learn more out of curiosity. One look at my students' blog responses tells me they are engaged and soaking up numerous reading skills (as well as digital citizenship and technology tidbits) far more than if I were simply reading a book aloud with no other way to reflect or engage. Simply stated, tearing down the walls with connections in various forms has allowed us to go beyond just a read aloud. We truly have a desire to make it global!

**Note- And not all global connections must be tech-infused. Case in point...

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Google Helps Students w/Reading Disabilities

As a Reading teacher, and also a mom who deals with reading struggles in my own kids, finding a way for my students and children to learn online content without someone having to continually assist with unknown words or becoming totally frustrated has been important. Working diligently to address and close the gaps in a student's reading deficits are always a top priority, but what happens when that child wants to learn more on a subject he is interested in? Or when she needs to do online research for an upcoming project in social studies? The fact is, when you have a reading disability, it affects not only your reading class, but your entire life.
This past summer, after downloading Google Drive, I discovered the app, "Read&Write forGoogle" in the Chrome Store. The tagline caught my eye, " help individuals struggling with reading and writing, those with learning disabilities such as Dyslexia, or English Language Learners." I knew immediately I must try it!

Once downloaded, the small green icon sits just below your Favorites tool bar. 

Once you click on the green icon, you have the choice of having the selected selection read aloud or hover speech. 

Other settings include how fast/slow the text is read and voice/expression (man's voice or woman's). After setting the features at a comfortable pace, we began to play with numerous websites and Google documents. 

It is nice to see a student successful. It is even better to see a student when he/she FEELS successful. Watching Read&Write for Google in action did just that. For some of the students I was using it with, it allowed them for the first time ever to explore a website without needing someone sitting over their shoulder to help with harder text; no one was needed to chunk the mutli-syllabic words apart... having a reading disability suddenly didn't matter as much. 

While we will continue to diligently work on becoming better readers, Read&Write for Google will continue to equip students with one more way they can take charge of their online learning. Knowledge is power; being able to do your own research and learning independently is fierce!

**Note: The makers of Read&Write for Google also have an iPad app for students called "Reading Champion." I haven't downloaded it yet, but am planning on it. I like the fact that students can read the text, listen to the text read aloud, and then record THEMSELVES reading the text, as well as note any words that were difficult for the student while reading. Once I download the app, and we have time to play a bit, I will write a review. If any of you are familiar with this app, or any other add-ons/apps to foster reading, please let us know in the reply section!

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Dot Day Celebrations 2013

Recently I posted about our Dot Day Celebrations and explained what The Dot is all about. You can read that post HERE if you miss it.

For our Dot Day Celebrations, we started with reading The Dot by Peter Reynolds and discussed its theme. Students were encouraged to think about what they are passionate about. Many had never considered this. Some even asked ME what the right answer was.... So we talked about what being passionate about something meant and what goals they had for themselves in life. Because we listed our goals for the school year the first week of school, I at least had SOMETHING to pull from in pushing students to think of themselves in the future tense. 

We used a page from the ColAR apps website that was created with FableVision to create our own original dots. Students were asked to use many colors and designs to create a dot that reflects their personal personality. What students DIDN'T realize, is once they were completed, I was able to show them the mind-blowing beauty of Augmented Reality with the dot they created from FableVision and the ColARapp. I used their pictures with their Augmented Reality dots as just another metaphor of the potential they have inside themselves- little jewels of talents and gifts that other people notice when even they, themselves  may not. 

Next, we used folded manila paper and cardboard doll cutouts as templates to create "All About Me" paper dolls. The paper doll chains included 4 dolls (boys had boy cut outs and girls had girl cutouts) and each paper doll represented something different. The first doll included words that the students felt described them. The second doll had their name and birthday (the day they began truly making their mark on this world!), the third doll was to be drawn as the profession they felt they were interested in possibly one day becoming, and on the fourth doll, students were asked to have 3-4 classmates write an affirmation about them. The "All About Me" dolls turned out really great! Students enjoyed sharing with one another. 

My plan is to use the Dot Day pages (the one that works with the ColARapp) at Open House so parents can also experience the awesomeness of this real-life metaphor for originality being in us- even when we can't see it ourselves. I also plan to use the "All About Me" paper dolls to make a display of a visual map of the various global connections we are making this year through not only Dot Day but also Global Read Aloud

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Making Your Mark- What Dot Day is All About

Despite great intentions and ahead of scheduled planning, our efforts to experience all things that are The Dot got off to what was most assuredly- a rocky start. For those of you unfamiliar with The Dot, it is a charming tale of a young girl, Vashti, who feels frustrated she is unable to draw during art class one day. With the simple solution of her teacher, "Make a mark and see where it takes you," Vashti quickly realizes she CAN create art- and quite well. The Dot by Peter H. Reynolds is a reminder that we all have talents and abilities- even when those talents and abilities seem hidden and dormant. 

The morning we were to read The Dot, I arrived to school with frenzied excitement. Over the course of the night, I had played out the lesson in my mind, along with all of the wisdom I would impart on my young learners. I was downright giddy when the bell rang and the first class began filing in. 

Then reality hit.

My VGA cord to connect the iPad to our projector was acting up so the fact that I'd downloaded the book (actually I'd downloaded the entire Creatrilogy Boxed Set by Peter H. Reynolds at yes! It's that good.) to my Kindle app on the iPad did not matter. The entire story was sideways despite numerous attempts to fix it. I'm sure there is some easy and logical explanation/fix... but at that moment I was in a panic. On top of which, two students declared they hated each other, one came in not feeling well, and another moaned that he'd rather use this "reading time" to read a "real book." 

Not exactly what I had in mind. At all. What to do?

I quickly realized that THIS is what The Dot is all about! It's the reality that we are all called to do something in this world we may not feel equipped to do. And that's okay! Things (Life) may seem to have gone awry somewhere along the way, our cords don't work right, we're upset with our friends, we need someone to comfort us and help us to feel better- what ever it may be- sometimes things just don't go as planned, and we tend to take a stab at it feeling frustrated and weary. But then, when the circumstances are framed just right, we realize it's okay. We find the courage and strength to move forward and continue to make the best of what we have, using our never-before-used skills we sometimes keep hidden away because we aren't too sure we know what to do with them... and we end up inspiring others. 

So after a quick reminder about what true friendship is all about, a snack to take the edge off of an upset stomach from not eating breakfast, and an agreement that if The Dot isn't hands-down a favorite after reading, we never have to use "reading time" for un-real (?!?) books ever again---- we read The Dot. (And it actually came up the right way once I plugged in the cord a billionth time; so we weren't looking at it sideways this time!) 

Needless to say- Vashti is now one of our favorite characters. We have referenced her several times in random discussions. My students have even gotten to know the enormously-talented, Peter H. Reynolds a bit through our class Twitter account. 

So, I leave you with this: today may be somewhat of an "off" day (maybe if you're like me it sometimes feels like an "off" week) and you may not feel like you have much to contribute, but don't doubt your abilities, your talents. Just make a mark... and see where it takes you! You never know when you'll inspire others doing it! 

*Be sure to read the next blog post on our #dotday activities! Students enjoyed setting goals and thinking about how they will make their mark on this world! 

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Character Gifting and Creativity

A recent assignment seemed to foster creativity and autonomy and surprisingly, was a big hit! Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli was our first read aloud of the year. We usually use this novel as a springboard for many other skills including introducing character development and story elements. Growing tired of the usual when reading this novel and toying with the idea to encourage students to "make their mark" and tap into their passions, I wanted something different. Thinking about an earlier discussion we had on passions and talents, I thought it would be neat if students could somehow tie their passions to a character from our book. Hence, the "Character Gifting" assignment was born.

It was simple:  

"If you had to give a pretend gift to one of the characters from Maniac Magee, what would you give and to whom? Choose one character from Maniac Magee. Think about that character’s personality and character traits.

Next, think about what you are passionate about. Video games? What is a video game you would give to Maniac and why? Are you interested in designing clothes? Design a dress for Amanda based on her sassy personality and explain your design.

This can be anything you are interested in and you may “give” it to any character in the story.

Your final product only needs to contain what gift you would give to which character and why; although you can turn in drawings or anything else you choose to create. Be as creative as you can be!"

I'm not quite sure what I expected to see, to be honest. I wasn't even sure the assignment explanation did an adequate job capturing what I could envision in my mind, but I was optimistic.  And pleasantly surprised.

What trickled in were drawings, homemade miniatures, various hand-crafted objects based on student talent or hobby. I was impressed to say the least.

A party invitation so Amanda Beale can get out of the house and have some real fun!

A home-made tiny dictionary so Amanda can carry it in her pocket and not have to lug it around in her suitcase.

A fashionable book tote made from paper. 

Homemade books for the fashionable book tote because... Amanda loves books!

A home-made book shelf made from scrap lumber in the garage.

A tiny miniature bunk-bed since Amanda, Hester, and Lester all have to share a room when Maniac comes to stay with the Beale Family. 
A passion for creating items made of Duck Tape, turned into a book satchel for Amanda.

 It wasn't just the creative ideas that students came up with that impressed me, but the attention to details and the thought process most students really put into thinking through the assignment. And as the creative products trickled in, the more students became inspired by their peers. "Can I have my drawing back? I just thought of something else I could add that Maniac would really appreciate." I heard this statement several times throughout the week. Once all of the character gifts were turned in, we displayed them on a long computer table in the back. Students have enjoyed sharing and seeing one another's ideas and products. They've complimented one another, asked for details on how things were made in awe, and sparked some excitement and confidence in bringing our passions into our educational arena. After all, what good is education if it doesn't encourage curiosity and creativity? 

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Same... Only... Different

I've read those articles in the magazines before where people realize they have unhealthy habits and suddenly one day "it's as if a light bulb goes off and change is a must." Whether it's eating better, adding exercise to their schedule, making more time for personal interests, whatever the case may be- one day they just wake up and things seem to click differently for them.

Then there's me.

I will never be one of those people. I know myself well enough to know that when things pile up and the to-do list seems every looming, I become like an Olympian swimmer. The kind with tunnel vision and goggles on; who only comes up for a gasp of air here and there. I start to lose sight of noble ideas and creative thoughts that once seemed so grand in my mind. Because I know these things to be true about myself, I knew that while my summer was without a doubt the best ever, and I would begin the school year feeling more confident and excited than ever thanks to meeting new people, new ideas, and new resources (hello, PLN!)- I knew the real test would come the first week of school. 

That was 3 weeks ago. And yes... I'm just coming up for air.

My motto at the beginning of the summer was, "Be the change." Inspired by new ideologies, an idea to hack traditional education, and a rebel-yell for something different, new, exciting- I wasn't sure what that would really look like once school began; I only knew it must happen. So when a friend asked in passing yesterday how things were going and if I had, indeed, made changes- I found myself saying they were kind of the same...only...different.

So what *exactly* does that mean? It means I still struggle with ways to teach certain content material in a creative and innovative way. I still tussle with where to integrate technology to ensure I am integrating for the right reasons and not because it's! I still panic when I think of ALL of the ideas out there and the fact that I am probably only harnessing a few to teach specific skills. But then there are some things that are different, too. Like having people available to bounce ideas off of. Like teaching kids they matter and are cherished each day they choose to walk into my class. Like not worrying when I haven't posted a blog in almost a month because instead I am spending time with my kids and family.  I'm learning it's ok not to have the house clean all the time. It's ok to miss a Twitter chat here and there; those same great friends will still be available when I come back the next week.

So after taking stock in the first 3 weeks, what have I learned so far?...Good ideas are being tweaked so that they work best, bad ideas provide a learning opportunity (First Attempt ILearning... right??), and- when allowed- students will surprise you by their creativity. 

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

My One Request

If I could make one request for my child's teacher it would be- know my child. Know my child as well as you know your own. Be familiar with his background; where we've been and where we've worked so hard to get to. When his file is dropped in your mailbox and his name appears on your roster, don't write him off as a student with special needs or see the task ahead of you as insurmountable. But instead be confident in his strengths, as well as your abilities as an outstanding teacher. Keep track of skills he has mastered- true tangible evidence of the progress he is making; I like to celebrate the milestones of mastered goals as well! When you see opportunities to let him know he is doing something good- tell him because when you're a kid with different abilities, it's easy to feel like you're left behind by your friends in certain skill areas...not that it's their fault. Know that little things that worry him may seem insignificant and petty to an adult with "real" problems. Some days may be difficult, but ultimately the good will far out weigh the rough and in the end, he will be your biggest cheerleader and advocate for how great you are as a teacher in all that you've taught him. My one request is know him, and when you think about it- it is no different than the request of any parent and nothing short of what we would expect of any good teacher. That's why my request is so special to me this year, in particular. It was only a few days ago that my child asked, "Who will you see me as this year?" 

Unsure what he meant, I asked for him to clarify, "What do mean?" 

His reply has stuck with me and truly made me think... "Will you see me as a student? or your son?"

As a teacher and as a parent, my two worlds will collide this school year. My child will be in the grade level I teach, and while I will not teach him directly, my colleagues will. But this conversation between he and I has made me think about how we as an education community view the students who come to us with files packed, numerous acceleration plans needed, and multiple labels announcing who they are. In reality, as a mom, I want my children to grow up not being defined by their limits, but taught that they have something to offer to the world around them. JFK once said, "Let us think of education as the means of developing our greatest abilities, because in each of us there is a private hope and dream which, fulfilled, can be translated into benefit for everyone and greater strength for our nation." I say, "Know my child."

Monday, August 5, 2013

Everyone Starts Out Somewhere

Ever wonder how you fit in to the large world which is education? Feel like a little fish swimming in a big pond?

You may notice the two pictures above look very similar. They remind me of the picture puzzles where you have two pictures and find as many mistakes on one as you can (my favorite part of my daughter's Highlight magazine each month)... but that is not what this is. This is my visual representation of my place... and yours... in the world of education; and in particular- technology in education... because in our day and age that is where education is. Not to say that great teaching doesn't happen without technology- it does, in many classes all over the world. But the reality is, technology is where we are as a society, and it is most definitely where are students are as a generation. I can't count the number of times I have heard, "Meet your students where they are." Well... this is it. 

With that said, it seems there is much to be learned these days about PLNs, Twitter, and connecting with others by flattening walls through global means. There are so many tools and resources out there to enhance your students learning it can make your head swim. 

And be very intimidating. 

One scroll through a "All-Stars of Twitter" list and it can be overwhelming. It becomes easy to think what you're doing with your students isn't good enough; the things you see some of these people doing is utterly amazing... and frightening. Suddenly you feel like you don't measure up, you don't have too much to offer, and you aren't even sure if "Drive" is some code word for the coolest car on the market now or some program. It's easy to feel like a small fish in a big enormous pond ocean. 

But don't.

If you remember nothing else, remember this: Everyone starts out somewhere. Take what you are comfortable with and set some goals to expand your knowledge. Jot down ideas and programs/apps when you hear about them to investigate later. Explore and play. It's totally ok not to have all of the answers or know all of the tools and resources out there- because someone somewhere does. If you're in education- we're in this together. Ask someone on your campus or in your district you know has a passion for technology. If they don't know how to help you, I can promise you someone in their PLN does.  

Don't sell yourself short of the awesome potential for not only yourself as an educator in the 21st century, but also your students to grow as learners and expand their knowledge and experience with others beyond what you dreamed was possible. There will always be people out there that know more- that make you dizzy with their knowledge and that's ok. We learn from them. And as we learn, grow, and develop- we help others in their quest... because, after all, everyone starts out somewhere!

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