It’s Official! I’m an Addict!

I love my work! There is simply no two ways about it! I simply love to dream up ways for students to learn in the most authentic and engaging ways possible. This morning, I started reading Role Reversal: Achieving Uncommonly Excellent Results in the Student Centered Classroom by Mark Barnes, and by lunch time, I knew that I had to throw out my lessons for the week. Almost every word that I read resonated with me and what I believe about learning, and then I thought about the week that I had planned, and the addiction struck!

It just wasn’t good enough, not by a long shot!

I started this year with two PBLs, one for my 7th grade classes and one for my 8th, that I had developed over the summer, to hook my students on the study of history. I wanted them to experience the benefits of Project Based Learning and to tackle questions that interested them. The 7th graders were investigating the question, “Why Should We Study History?” They did lots of interviewing and investigating in order to create their music videos, based on Schoolhouse Rock style videos, to convince others that it was important to study history. The 8th graders’ work was based on a Civics unit, with the driving question being, “How can we get more 18-29 year olds to vote?” They had to learn about the government in order to effectively develop public service announcements to convince people to vote. For both projects, the students were focused and committed to the work, and while I struggled a bit with the amount of content that they learned, overall both projects were a success. The students came to class ready to do the work that they set for themselves, and it was a strong start to the year.

But when it was time to start the next unit, without really thinking about it, I fell back on what I have done before…not bad, but not empowering for my students in the best way possible. I simply pulled out the worksheets that I had used in the past, slotted them into the necessary classes and felt ready for the week. When I read Barnes’ ideas on worksheets, as poor tools for engaged learning, I knew he was right and that I already believed it. I had been lazy. I did what I knew how to do, rather than push myself to do better. Addiction to making it better struck and struck hard! I just couldn’t leave it, knowing that there was a way to make the students’ learning better. I had to change it!

Out came the laptop. I opened up every Google Doc worksheet for the coming week and totally rewrote them. (Fortunately for my colleagues, I remembered to first make a copy of the original, so that they could have a choice of which Rabbit Hole to tumble down.) As I read each one over, I considered how to connect the students with the new unit on the Islamic Empires. I decided to start with questions. I found a fabulous map on the Pew Research site that showed the number of people who are Muslims around the world. Almost a quarter of the world’s population are Muslim, so I am hoping that that will spark conversation and questions. I created a Google Doc that showed the map and then made a wiki for them to write their questions and for us all to add the answers as we find them.

Next I took my worksheets, with their programmed answers that could be found in the textbook, and created vocabulary lists of words that are part of Islam and the life of Muhammad. I am going to give the students the freedom to find and record the words in whatever way they want, with the final goal being that they have a means of sharing their learning with the rest of the class. I want for them to work with a partner or small group to make the process collaborative and to generate some buzz around the learning.

I don’t think that I am unusual in any way with this addiction! It is my experience that every truly good teacher has the same addiction. We are passionate about helping our students to learn. We work and rework our lessons to make them the best that they can be, relentlessly trying to help students unlock their full power to learn and grow!

Lessons reworked! Week planned anew! Can’t wait to see how it unfolds! I love this addiction! It makes me smile!

Educators Care!

This weekend was an amazing experience in many ways! I was in Washington, D.C. for the BAMMY Awards with some truly remarkable educators, people who are deeply passionate about students and their learning. Anytime that I get to spend time with teachers and administrators who love their work, I benefit! It nourishes me to listen and learn from every one with whom I have time.

Saturday afternoon, I organized a time for teachers to get together to talk about the benefits and challenges of being a connected educator. The Library of Congress generously offered us a room in which to meet. Special thanks to Vivian Awumey for giving up her Saturday afternoon to share and spend time with us. The educators who came, making it past the possible bomb scare outside, enacted in person what we often participate in online. We brainstormed and developed our ideas together. We listened carefully and asked questions to clarify our thinking. We built new ideas together. We sought to identify why we want to spend the time that we do together, in person and digitally.

One of the main takeaways for me was that being connected is about being on a journey, and while it is a person journey, it is not a solitary one. The growth and development that has come to each one of us has come from the community with whom we are journeying. Each step that we take, we move together. We challenge each other to keep going, speaking words of encouragement and support. The wonder of the journey for me is the lack of judgment that other teachers give to each other. We all know that it is hard! Each and every day, there are mountains to be climbed. It takes effort to change our practice, to understand and support each student, to accomplish all of the big and little jobs that need to be done. The educators on the Connected Journey know that and are walking the challenging road together. It is a journey that is long, full of moments of joy and moments of exhaustion. It was great fun to talk about the process with a group of committed educators.

And then came the BAMMYs! What a contrast in so many way! While I support the idea of honoring teachers, I find myself after two years, realizing that I don’t believe in competition between teachers. That is for the movie stars, and I don’t want to be a movie star. I want to walk side by side with my colleagues, not push my way to the front. The educators in the hall actually love the “Jonathans,” the comedian’s name the that difficult child. We lay awake at night trying to figure out the ways that we can help him become an engaged learner. We open the door to the parent who is early and stressed. We always are trying to make our classrooms places where all students and parents are safe. That is what makes a great teacher! Being connected means opening the doors to my classroom, sharing my ideas – the good ones and the disasters. I no longer have the closed file cabinet that no one else gets to see. My door is open and anyone is welcome to take whatever will help them make learning happen in their classroom. I don’t want to be “better” than another teacher; I want us together to make learning better across the school and around the world! Awards do not enhance connections; they break them down.

That being said, I am incredibly proud of the award that was given to edcamp. The best part about it was that it was in its own category. We didn’t beat anyone; we simply were recognized for the power of the movement! All of us, however, would say that the true power comes not from us; it comes from educators all around the world who are willing to work to enhance their practice, to share and learn together. We are the cheerleaders from the sidelines, but the growth and power of the edcamp model isn’t us. It is the teachers and administrators who care about kids! It is the power of being connected!

Battling my iPhone! #distractions

Let me start by saying that I love my iPhone! I have since I got my first one. It is sleek and elegant. It feels good in my hand and is comfortable in my pocket. I take it with me everywhere. It connects me to the world that I have created, both family and friends around me but around the globe. It lets me easily stay in touch, providing a strong sense of personal significance in my larger community.

That being said, I have to confess to an increasing addiction to what it offers. I check my phone all the time. Did I miss something? What if someone wants me for something and I don’t respond in time? What if I am needed and don’t know it? The little voice in the back of my head, or more disturbingly the unsolicited impulse, makes me quickly press the button and check. Often, I am largely unaware that I have made the choice to do it. I close my laptop and look at my phone. I walk to my car; check my phone. I go to the bathroom; check my phone. All day long, I do it.

Last weekend, I decided to “unplug,” to try and get as far away from my digital world as I could. I didn’t do it completely, but I decided to start making some significant choices about the times and places when I connected. When I made the decision, it didn’t seem like a Big Deal. I know lots of people who post that they are unplugging, and I didn’t really expect the full-on battle in which I was about to engage. I thought I had control over my use of technology. As someone who believes in its benefits, I considered myself an aware consumer.

Boy, was I in for a surprise!

After checking my email in the morning, and basically clearly out all of the Junk Mail, I closed my laptop and went to pick up my phone before heading out to do some chores around the house. I stopped myself. There was no reason to have my phone on me. I wasn’t going to check it for email until late afternoon. Facebook and Twitter were not going to be part of the day. I was unplugging…remember. So I left it behind, not without a bit of a tug. I was used to it being on me, connecting me.

As the day went on, I had to constantly make choices, far more than I had anticipated. My phone didn’t go between the seats in the car; it stayed in my bag. My phone didn’t come upstairs with me to load the washing machine; it stayed on the counter. It simply stayed put; it didn’t travel to every space in my world. Over and over, I had to consciously make the decision to not pick it up. I was amazed at how often it happened. It took real discipline, especially the first day or two.

The downside of it was that I did miss some emails that I should have answered sooner – one about a conference presentation and one about a collaboration. I wish that I had responded sooner, BUT both were repairable and the lessons that I am learning are worth this.

What is abundantly apparent is just how distracting and compelling being connected is. It isn’t the technology; it is the community. It is feeling like you are part of something that matters and that gives you validation.

The takeaway for me is that this is the world that my students have been born into. Of course they move from page to page, screen to screen before, during and after a lesson. The need to belong is even stronger in a middle school student than it is for me. I want to think about ways to acknowledge this in my classroom and help them gain control over the impulses. They will never want to truly disconnect, as it is the vehicle that they have always used to belong, but it might be possible to help them gain more control over when and how they use it.

#ISTE with Students!

I had a totally different experience this year at ISTE, because I took students along to present at the Student Showcase. In the past, ISTE has been a time to learn and share with colleagues. It has been mostly about my own personal development. This year, with students, I experienced the conference in a whole different way. Two girls and one of their mother’s came with me and had a tremendous impact on my thinking.

The topic of the Student Showcase was “Not Your Mother’s Research Paper,” and was about doing research in the day and age of Google. It was based on a PBL that my class did in the winter, where the students learned about the highlights of the Abbasid Empire and created magazines for the 4th grade to show what they had learned. It was an entirely digital project, from research to creation and presentation. (I want to acknowledge that the start that this project would never have been as successful as it was without the help of Kim Sivick, who supported my work and the students at every turn.)

In preparation for going to ISTE, we worked with the girls to create the bulletin board to show the stages of their work. Each of them created a Google Presentation and loaded screen shots into it from the different parts of the process:digital sources, notecards, images, ISSUU. We then printed out many of them to hang when we got to San Antonio.
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The girls were initially nervous about what to say, worried that they needed to develop and memorize speeches. To alleviate that, we talked over the stages of the project. I reminded them about each part and got a lot of. “Oh, yeah!” “I forgot about that.” “Didn’t we then do…”

It all came back to them, which is what I wanted. I just wanted them comfortable with their work, without scripts.

The day of the Showcase, we found our area, hung all of the images and waited! That was when we were all the most nervous! Would anyone come over and talk to the girls?

Then teachers started coming, dozens of them, asking questions and listening attentively to students talking about their work. The girls were amazing – articulate and engaging! They were really proud of what they had done and easily shared their learning. They explained each step of the process and how it helped them develop an understanding of the topic. The teachers wanted to learn from the girls and asked real questions, in no ways patronizing them. Students are fabulous teachers! They knew what they had learned and were ready to share it. It was so far beyond taking a test or writing a paper. It was a powerful example of the product of deep learning! Not only did the girls know about the Abbasids; they knew about their own process of learning, categorizing, prioritizing and creating new meaning!

While the girls and I didn’t know, when they were doing their research, that they would later share it at a conference for educators, their presentation reinforced the PBL focus on having an authentic audience. The work should be done for someone to whom it is significant. The original audience had been the 4th grade class; the final audience turned out to be crowds of educators.

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The highlight of their time presenting was when, unknown to them, the creator of NoodleTools, Debbie Abilock, came to talk to them. The girls shared how they used it to keep track of their project, using the Dashboard to set daily tasks. They explained how they used the notecards to cut and paste and then paraphrase. They shared about creating and labeling Piles to organize their work. She listened attentively, as if she had never heard of the tool and asked them clarifying questions that allowed them to continue sharing how they had used it and why they liked it.

Favorite quotation: “You know how when you have regular index cards, you can drop them and lose them. Well, this way, they are always there.”

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When the girls found out to whom they had talked, it was like meeting a rock star! Three cheers for loving to learn and loving the people who help you!

For two hours, the students shared with teachers and changed how I think about conferences. I wonder what it would be like to always have students as part of the learning that happens at a conference. Teachers, with their students, sharing how learning happens.

And It Comes Together! #PBL

The last couple of weeks have been such an adventure! I have never fully jumped off of the PBL cliff before, doing the majority of my work before the project started and then letting the students drive the work from then on. This is of course not to say that there wasn’t lots of support work to do, but the students and their interest and goals became the focus of each class. They continually amazed me with the commitment to the work and their determination and focus during the class periods where they were establishing the tasks for themselves and their group.

The larger groups, with 8-9 girls in each one, worked well. This was especially true for this because of its size. It meant that no one or two students had to carry the ones who didn’t want to commit to the work of the project. There were a few girls for whom the degree of independence led to distraction and a lack of work. (An area I really need to think about for the next project!) For the majority of the students, the larger group created a rich sense of comaraderie as they worked together to accomplish their work. They took their individual roles seriously, working to accomplish their specific task and to make sure that it connected with the work of their partners. The interior store signs needed to match the exterior; the business cards needed to have the same logo as the advertising. It was great watching them discuss and deliberate over what would best represent what they had learned and what they were creating.



Some of the highlights included a girl who researched Guilds and created a game of “Guildopoly,” complete with a board and figures, to represent the tasks of becoming an apprentice, journeyman and master.

Another student created a parachute lamp to represent Leonardo da Vinci’s inventions. There was a 3D model of the Duomo in Florence.


One girl decided to make chocolate bars that include Renaissance ideas on the wrapper and then had trading cards inside.

Some created clothing or jewelry. The focus on these was on quotations of the person they studied. In these, Elizabeth I and Margaret Cavendish.


One girl made placemats.

It was an amazing day, watching them create their stores out of all of the pieces that they had been making over the last two weeks. The final step is the Grand Opening this afternoon. Students, teachers and administrators have been invited to visit the shops. The girls will be talking to people, using the sales speeches that they wrote, trying to convince people to choose their item and their shop. I have strips of 6 stickers that the “shoppers” will use to identify which items they would like to “purchase.”

The shop with the most stickers will be declared the Winner!

“Craziest History Class Ever!” #PBL

On Friday, my students met in their two Museum Shop groups to begin the conversation on what items they would create to best represent an exhibit on Europe from 1400-1600. (Introduction of this PBL project)They had already gone to the Museum of Modern Art’s online gift shop and explored the kinds of items that they had for their exhibits. They loved it and found it totally amazing and energizing, as I had hoped they would.

I created roles and tasks for each member of the group, to clearly divide the work and to be able to identify who was responsible for each part.

1. Store Manager
Daily Check-in with each member of the team on her progress
General oversight and encouragement of the team
Final oversight of creation of the store with the architect

2. Architect
Leading discussion of the parts of the store.
Creating a floor plan for the space with each area clearly laid out
Final oversight of creation of the store with the manager

3. 2 or 3 Area Managers – Areas to be decided after items decided upon, such as Children’s section, History Materials, Audio-Visual
Leading discussion of the arrangement and organization of the section
Working with other area managers and architect to create a well-organized store

4. 2 Advertising Managers
Leading discussion to identify the theme and slogan for the campaign
Creating a color sheet and choosing font for campaign
Daily oversight of the store sign, advertising campaign, store signs and business cards

5. Business Scout
Investigation of competitive stores
Research into museum store websites for new ideas

6. Store Maintenance
Organization of daily clean-up of material and storage
Supervision of breakdown of store after final exhibit
(I am the least satisfied with this role, but I ran out of ideas. Any suggestions are welcome!)

For this conversation, I had the Store Managers run the first part of the conversation, leading a conversation that discussed what each member of the group had researched and why that person or event was significant. Then the Architect in each of the two groups had each student discuss what item she wanted to create and why it was a good way to communicate the facts she had learned. The other students were encouraged to help each other by providing support and new ideas. Together they looked at the items and decided what categories the items fell into and then what areas they wanted for the store – the reason why the Architect was leading the discussion.

There were focused and thoughtful conversations in both groups, that I mainly sat back and watched. Not from behind my desk, having already learned that lesson, but on a desk in between the two groups. I threw out a question now and then or made a suggestion, but for the most part, it was student-led.

Then came the “Craziness”! It was time for the Advertising Managers to take over. It was their job to lead a conversation that led to each store having a store name, store colors for the campaign and a slogan. I reminded that that they wanted to develop an umbrella idea under which all of their ideas could fit. I told them to first quietly brainstorm for 5 minutes to allow each student individually to develop some ideas; then I turned it over to the Advertising Managers.

The energy and sheer joy in creation was electric. The Advertising Managers did a great job of helping each student to be heard, but they had so much to share. They are experts when it comes to being consumers of advertising. They know good campaigns when they see them, and each group was determined to develop the most catchy slogan around and to have the most interesting name that would draw customers to their store.

One group named their store The Story, since Europe from 1400-1600 is full of stories of change. Their slogan was “New Ideas from the Past; But our Treasures: Make Them Last!” They were working on a logo that would connect the past and the present.

Another group decided to call their store Explore the Old; Find the New, which is more like a slogan than a store name, so they will probably have to work on that. Their slogan was “Europe’s Exploration through the World of Innovation.” They were clearly working on combining ideas that were rich and engaging.

The energy and the learning continued!

Scaffolding – Supporting Student PBL Work

After starting the PBL last week, this week was the week for researching, a time for the girls to build their initial understanding of their individual topics. What independence they showed as they searched for facts about the topics that they had chosen! Most of them moved easily between books and digital resources, recording their information and creating new research questions.

At times, they became frustrated with the complexity of the information, but there was a deep commitment to reaching understanding and mastery. I worked on sending them to less complex sources for the initial work and then to return to the more difficult ones. When they needed a break, they took a short walk to help them refocus, a strategy that I have them use regularly in my class, or they shifted their work to the memorization piece of the project.

As part of the scaffolding for the project, I had given them a list of 25 people from Europe from 1400-1600 to memorize. As I explained to them that these were people with whom any well-educated person would be familiar. Their job was simply to learn why each person was significant in 5-7 words. The list ranged from Martin Luther to Michelangelo to Prince Henry the Navigator. I had two reasons for having them memorize this list. The first was simply to broaden their understanding of the time period and provide a bridge to some of the other topics about which they weren’t personally studying. I also wanted to give my students who struggle with the challenges that independent research presented a single task over which most of them have control. They have learned through the course of the year the strategies that work for them when they need to memorize information. It gave them a sense of being capable and in control as they worked on their research, which was more difficult.

While they worked with almost total independence this week, I simply wandered the room, available to answer questions and make suggestions when needed, but largely an observer. They were the ones at work, setting goals for themselves each day and tackling each with an amazing amount of focus.

One thing I noticed right away, however, was that they needed me present. While I wasn’t standing at the front of the class, writing an outline or posing questions, I was still very definitely setting the tone of the room. I quickly learned that if I went to check my email or do some other work, the mood in the room changed. My lack of focus on their work meant they could shift their focus, and it was challenging for them after that happened to get back to the same degree of commitment that they had had before. I had given them a completely wrong message by shifting away from their work. They needed me to honor their effort with my attention. After learning that lesson the painful way, I set about staying in the moment with them. I wandered between the desks, asked questions when I saw something of interest. I gave suggestions when I had them and learned new facts as they identified them. It was easy to make it clear to the students that they were becoming the experts, and I wanted to learn from them.

When I provided the support, they did the learning! It was their project and their work, and they wanted to do it!

Building Curiosity – PBL Week 1

After having the investigation of museum items that I wrote about in my last post, I gave the students time to explore in a variety of sources to see what happened during the time period about which they are learning, Europe from 1400-1600. They looked through both textbooks and online sources. This step was initially very hard for them. They wanted me to tell them what was important and on what they should focus. I resisted the impulse to jump in and name my favorite artists, thinkers and explorers. I just let them wander through the sources for awhile, getting their own initial impression of the time.

“Wow! A lot happened!”

“Didn’t the Muslims do this before? Didn’t we learn about that earlier?”

“I wonder where he got the idea for that?”

I told them to just skim over the information, looking for patterns and topics that might interest them. I suggested that they think about people and activities that interest them in general. Do they like to ride horses or paint? Do they want to be an architect or politician? I suggested that they let those interests guide their search. For the students who continued to struggle with the breadth of the investigation, I had created a list of 40 or so important people and places. I quietly gave it to the students who had gotten stuck, simply unable to enjoy the process or to connect with any of the aspects of the time period. For them, it provided a scaffold that they needed.

The next step was to have the school librarian come in and give a lesson on how to develop effective research questions. She taught them about “inch, foot and yard” questions, as a way of identifying if they had a broad enough topic for their research. Inch questions are ones that can be answered with a single fact and usually can be found in a single source. Foot questions require more investigation and are answered with a combination of facts. Yard questions require the gathering of facts and then synthesizing them to develop an deeper understanding. They practiced labeling questions and then developing their own.

Now it was time to identify what areas they were interested in investigating for their research. Each student identified three topics on which they wanted to focus. They then wrote 3-5 sentences about why each topic was of interest to her. Then she wrote three research questions for each topic. I told them to present a clear argument for why she should be given a specific topic to investigate. I wanted to try and build their connections with the topics. Luckily, they had all found different aspects of Europe from 1400-1600 that were of interest to them, and I was able to give each one their first choice by dividing up some of the most popular topics, such as I split da Vinci into his scientific work and his art.

I divided them into groups of 8 or 9, larger than I have ever done before, to create the final museum store together. I wanted to have them work on larger collaboration skills. I had created a group in Edmodo, and divided it into two sections, one for each group. Since they were doing independent work for the first part of the project, researching their topics, I wanted to begin to build a sense of connection between them, sharing interesting facts and their ideas about the project. For their first post, I had them blog about why they were interested in their topic and the research questions that were of interest to them. I created a schedule for commenting, so that each student received a comment for each post. I then went through and left comments after the students commented.

At this point, it felt like we were truly launched! The students were engaged and excited. They felt in control of their work and ready to start their research. Since they had already done two research projects this year, they simply created a new project in NoodleTools and began their investigations. They were off!

How I Spent My Weekend!

The end of the year is rushing at us, and I have a lot of content that still needs to be tackled in my 7th grade World History course. I decided to try to accomplish the work by doing a project. It wasn’t going to be a full Project-Based Learning project, because I just didn’t think that I had the time. I wanted, however, to add in some elements. I decided to have the students create a museum exhibit around a topic of their choice that answered the question: How did Europe in the 15th-17th centuries influence the development of the modern world? It was a very teacher-style question, but it covered the material over which I needed them to gain some familiarity: Renaissance to the Age of Exploration. I didn’t want to beat it into them with lots of textbook reading and notes on the board, but I also needed them to cover a lot of material.

I wanted to have them start by simply exploring, using textbooks, the library resources and digital ones as well, recording people, places and events that interested them. I was hoping that with some unstructured time to investigate a variety of resources, they would come up with a focus for their work. The goal was to have them research for 4-5 days after they made their choice and then build an exhibit. They were going to give an oral presentation of the information that they found. I knew I had some of the aspects of PBL as laid out by the Buck institute, such as Voice and Choice and Oral Presentation, but I knew I was missing a lot.

Saturday morning, I decided to take what I had built so far and go to the Buck Institute’s website and see how it measured up. I went to their Project Planner and started to fill it in. Suffice it to say, mine was a mess! I was simply pretending that this qualified as project-based learning. It didn’t. It might be a decent project for the students, and they might have learned from it, but it wasn’t PBL. It was time to decide to stick with what I knew or jump into something more.

So I jumped!

I basically started over. First I realized that I needed to think of a way for this to be a collaborative, rather than an individual project. PBL doesn’t happen outside of group work. I usually work in groups of 3-4, but I knew from my training that often the groups are often larger than that in PBL. I decided to make groups of 8 who would create a museum exhibit together, with each of them responsible for a specific aspect of it. I tried to think of who the Authentic Audience could be, perhaps local museum staff or AP European students. The more that I thought about teenagers and museums, the more it seemed like a typical class project that didn’t have a Hook that would engage them. I had to find a way to grab their interest!

Then it hit me, from all of my visits to museums with students and my own children! What was their favorite part of the museum? Always, always, always – the Museum Gift Shop!

And I knew I had it! The Driving Question became: How does a museum gift store capture the importance of the museum’s collection and sell items that are of interest to the public?

It will require them to do significant research to understand the time period and whomever they chose to focus on. They will need to collaborate and learn together. They will make decisions and create items for their shop. 5th and 6th graders, AP Euro students and History teachers will be given Renaissance “money” to place by items that they find worthy of purchase.

With an idea born, I spent the weekend running back to my laptop, typing up a new document to build the scaffolding that the project needed. After every drive to the market or time in the garden, I was back typing up each new idea. It is what teachers do! We dream and build for our students!

Monday morning’s Entry Event involved items that could be found in a museum gift shop, spread all around the classroom. Time for investigation! What were they? What did they have in common? Where might they have come from? Their curiosity was definitely peaked, and the project, a real PBL project, was launched.

More on how it progresses in later posts!

SmartBlog Article on Ungraded Class

Here is a link to the article that I wrote on my ungraded 7th grade class.