I Love Giving Students Time to Work!

My 7th grade is currently working on a project where they study primary sources from the mid-to-late 14th century. They read Giovanni Boccaccio’s account of when the plague reached Florence. Then they study a variety of woodblocks, including Hans Holbein’s Dance of Death. Their assignment is to write two diary entries of a person living in Europe at the time. Each student decided on an identity from the king to a peasant. They developed a personality, family and connections for their characters, settling them in a village, town or city. The next step was to investigate the woodblocks and the writing and to develop a list of details that they found to help them understand what happened and how people felt about it. The final step was the writing process, including 10-15 facts from their investigation in each of their diary entries.

Rather than have the students write for their homework, I have begun to have that work done in class. I learn a lot about them from watching them work. They spread out around the room, some still sitting in desks, but many sitting on the floor or on the cushions in the Reading Corner. With an incredible level of focus, they started writing and kept on writing. Every now and then, one of them would ask to get a drink, but otherwise they were totally focused on what they were creating. In the quiet of the classroom, they built a world that was facing the plague and then responding to it. They were driving their work; I just gave them a time and space to do it.

I started the second class by handing out 4 Post-It notes to each student and had them stand up. Their task was to go to a different desk, read the diary entry there and leave a comment, constructive suggestions, grammar errors, etc. I did this for two reasons. First, they often help each other identify places where it isn’t as clear as the author thought it was. Second, it allows the weaker students, who struggle with developing their historical imagination, to see some examples of other girls’ work. After reading 4 diary entries, they went back to their desks and read the notes that were left for them. This is always their favorite part! They love having messages left for them.

Then it was back to work! And they went to it! Again, with no hesitation!

When I set a task that holds their interest, provide enough tools to support their learning and work, then it really is time to get out of the way! While some classes need to have more of my “teacher” input, I keep reminding myself that I can be just as valuable when I plan a great lesson and let them go to drive their own learning. Those lessons don’t happen without a lot of work, but when the work is done before the class starts, then what happens in class can feel empowering to the students. It places responsibility with them, rather than with me.

My students often are uncomfortable with being given the power to do their own work. They want me to set the requirements and limits, to tell them when they are done. Once they start, however, the work often sucks them in. They want to master the new skill or create their new understanding. As one student recently wrote on her self-reflection, “Working on this project was much different than any other project because we had a lot of choice in what we wanted to do and basically had to come up with everything ourselves. However, it was really fun!”

Time plus work that engages them! That is the goal!

SmartBlog on Education Article

Here is a link to the article that I wrote for SmartBlogs on incorporating movement into the classroom.

Because a Laptop is Distracting!

Most teachers who work with a 1:1 program know that the benefits come with challenges. Our students are very social creatures, and the internet has given them an amazing tool to connect and be part of one or more communities all of the time. There are stories being told and invitations being issued; there are questions being asked and responses being given. It is a siren call to our students, and we need to help them defend themselves against it during the times they need to be focused on other work. How do we train our students to engage in the world of being a digital learner without losing track of the goal? What tools and tricks can we give them, so that the web will not seduce them when they have academic tasks to accomplish, whether they are in school or at home?

Teacher Strategies

1.Accept that it is part of them being a digital learner! Talk to your students regularly about what they find challenging and how they are managing their time. They know that the distraction is part of what happens when they are on their laptops. Have them develop classroom rules for their behavior. It is important for them to know that you understand the temptation, but that you want them to tackle it.

2. Provide them with time to “check in” at the beginning of class. Let them know that they will have 3 minutes, or however much time you think they need, to check their email and look at their various places to connect: Twitter, Pinterest, wherever they need to go. By providing them with designated time, we can avoid them regularly trying to sneak off to check. It acknowledges that the temptation is real, that the desire to connect is legitimate, but it also establishes that there are appropriate times to do it, provided by the teacher, and there are inappropriate ones. I have started having my students, who are all on MacBooks, do the finger swipe at the end of this time to show other windows that are open and to shut all of them that are not for class work.

3. “45 your laptops!” Have the students set their laptop covers at 45 degrees whenever instruction is happening. When the cover is at this angle, it maintains connection with the wifi, but the screen there less visible and less distracting for the students. Without the visual stimulation of whatever there, it is easier for them to focus on the class conversation. (It also does away with the sense of a barrier between the teacher and students or student and student that happens when all of the laptops are opened.)

4.Have the students take notes by hand, rather than on the computer. For many of them, this eye-hand coordination will activate the brain, helping them to learn the material as they write. It increases the time that they are focused on individual pieces of information. As I write the notes on the board, I am explaining them in more depth than when slides of information are projected. Also, especially for the quick typers, notetaking on the laptop often opens them up to the other distractions of the Web, while they wait for others to finish. Typing their notes then becomes the homework assignment, creating another time for reviewing and learning the material.

Student Strategies

1.Close out of email and other windows that are their main avenues of connection. When they are not being used for school, they should be closed. While many schools block these sites, it is important to talk about them, as they are a major draw away from work when at home.

2.When not working on their laptops, the students should turn their laptops upside down. The bottom of the laptop is heavier than the top, so if they unintentionally reach out to reconnect with their friends, the weight alone will remind them to stay on task.

3.Have the students use a digital tool, such as iProcrastine, to keep track of the work that they need to accomplish. Set clear goals for when the work will be done.

What strategies have you tried?

Staying Connected

This has been a really busy year for me, and one of the areas where I spent less time was in staying connected with my digital community, whether through Twitter or reading and commenting on blogs. I let myself step back from that world in an attempt to accomplish a variety of other tasks. While it was good work that I was doing, it is only now that I have reconnected with the people in my PLN that I know how much I missed the work and joy of being a connected educator.

In the months that I was simply doing lots of work and not learning and sharing, I didn’t grow in the ways that I do when I am connected. I wasn’t following the latest ideas and learning about new strategies. I was isolated in a world that was made up of my own thoughts. While there is a richness to listening to my own ideas, I was actually too busy to be paying enough attention to them. I was accomplishing tasks, good tasks, but that put me in a place where I wasn’t listening enough.

When I am connected, I learn. That is the bottom line. When I read other people’s blogs, I learn from them. I see my practice differently when I compare it with the work of other educators. When I follow what is happening on Twitter, I can see new trends and investigate whether they are right for me and my students. I am challenged to leave my personal comfort zone and to rethink what I do each day. Plain and simply, I am a better teacher when I don’t try to go it alone, when I listen and share with other passionate teachers around the world.

In a crazy, busy world, it is easy to make excuses for taking time away, for disconnecting, but it is important to know that you are losing something of critical value. It is important to find the time and space to grow and be part of the community.

If you are connected, you are plain and simple busy. There are no lazy connected educators. To be connected, you must make time to learn each and every day. You must push the limits of your pedagogy and take risks for your students. Then you must be transparent, showing the world your mistakes and your successes, letting others learn from and with you.

That is the challenge, but having spent months away, I am now so aware of the value of the conversation. I do not want to simply be a lurker who isn’t taking time to connect. Instead, I want to return to being a participant, reading and commenting, posting and tweeting, being honest about my practice and growing with other educators.

A good goal to energize me for the rest of this school year!

Taking edcamp Rogue! #ASCD13

In the midst of the 10,000 educators who have come to Chicago for the annual ASCD conference, a group of passionate and slightly crazy educators decided to work outside the standard sessions and keynotes and hold an edcamp, an unconference “for teachers, by teachers.”

It started over breakfast. A group of us, Kristen Swanson, https://twitter.com/thenerdyteacher, Steve Anderson and me, who had been asked to come to the conference as Press, were having breakfast in the press room. The opening remarks and keynote were being streamed into the room. Behind us, as one presenter after another stood and spoke, came the words, “We need to stop lecturing!” The conversation exploded around the table. As founders and organizers for edcamps around the country, the irony of a lecturer saying that we need to stop lecturing while lecturing was glaring. We decided to go rogue and create an edcamp in the midst of the larger conference to show how an unconference can avoid the lecturing model. We wanted to show the power of educators working together to learn and share, outside of the model of “experts” and “important people. We had experienced it over and over again through the edcamp model, and we wanted to share it with others.

Since we were in the Press Room, we alerted the ASCD Communications team and chose a space outside the Registration area. We added edcamp Rogue to the official edcamp wiki. We created a Facebook page. And we were off! It was time to tweet it out! Among our tweets was a request for swag from vendors! Immediately Edutopia stepped up and donated their new earbuds, dozens of them, to the cause. A Special Thanks to Edutopia! (If you don’t know their website and resources, investigate it!)

When educators are passionate about sharing together, things start to happen!

At 3:30, we headed down with some big Post-It sheets with Edcamp Rogue written on them and some table cards with #edcamprogue – since every edcamp needs a hashtag! We stationed ourselves by one of the big computer screens and put it on our Twitter feed.

Then a sort of miracle occurred! People began to come! One by one and in pairs, they wandered over, looking around to see if this was actually where they wanted to be. As the four of us welcomed each new teacher and handed out earbuds, the energy began to build. We knew we were disciples for our movement and were eager to welcome any and all to learn more. After 10 minutes, there were around 50 people sitting around in a semi-circle.

The most amazing part was that most of the people who had come had never heard of edcamp. They had never gone to one or even known about it before they stopped. We gave a brief description of what an edcamp is: an unconference where teachers share and learn together; no keynote; no cost. It is a day for learning! We asked the people there who had been to an edcamp to share their experiences. Four teachers talked about the energy of the day and the ease of participating. They shared ideas they had learned, one of them being to use Twitter for professional development. A number of teachers had never considered using Twitter. The conversation then turned to how to connect on Twitter and why to bother. Again, we asked for people to give share.

Conversations began, and the community of learning was created. This was the goal, to create connections among educators. Big conferences have teachers sit in rows, usually in immovable chairs. The presenter presents, and the teachers sit and take notes. There is little to no interaction and little or not true connections made between the participants. At the end of the session, the teachers take away a collection of notes, but little more.

In a world that changes so quickly, we need an army of educators behind each and every one of us. We need the connections that allow us to conquer the challenges before us. While information on teaching is good, connections and relationships with other passionate educators is life-changing! It is the way to provide the very best for our students. Edcamps do that! They make connecting with other teachers not only possible but a key goal of the day.

Edcamp went rogue within ASCD and modeled how to make connections and new friends on the journey that is teaching!

Firing Up Brains! #ASCD

I went to a pre-conference seminar led by Jane Pollock called, “Teaching Thinking; Teaching Innovation.” It was a wonderful session, filled with times of learning, of sharing and of hearing via from teachers who are employing her strategies to advantage in their classrooms. There were a number of ideas that “squared” with me, as Pollock would say. They stuck.

The first is that it is part of our job to keep our students’ frontal lobes firing once they come into our classrooms. When we look at our students in the hallways, before class, they are totally engaged. Their brains are taking in and processing information. They are making decisions and acting on them. They are evaluating evidence and building meaning. They imagining new worlds and telling stories. To be a human being interacting with other human being calls for brain activity in many ways and students are doing that with each other and as they enter our classrooms.

Then they put down their books and settle in with us.

What happens? In too many cases, the teacher takes over, and as Pollock put it, “they retreat to their cerebellums,” the part of the brain that acts on instinct and doesn’t need to make choices. It is the pack animal part of the brain. It is the part of the brain that acts as one of the sheep in a herd or fish in a school. It is the part of the brain, when we are asked, “Where shall we go for dinner,” that responds, “Oh, I don’t care. You decide.”

This part of the brain doesn’t want to make choices, doesn’t want to take the lead, doesn’t want to engage. It wants to follow, so when the teacher takes the lead and makes the choices, the easiest place fot the student is to retreat to the cerebellum. That is not a place of learning; it is a place of following.

To keep our students engaged, Pollock proposed, we need to make sure that they are active and making decisions. When that happens, we will keep their brains firing away. They won’t be able to retreat into passivity. Great goals for every teacher. I want to think more about those first few moments of class. Pollock suggested stating the goals and having the students respond to their level of control over the skills and ideas of the

My second takeaway is that we must actively be involved in the teaching of thinking. We can not assume that students simply know how to do it. If we want them to make comparisons, we need to show them how to go through the steps involved. If we want them building arguments, we must model it and allow them time to practice it before we assess them. The assignment often assumes that they know how to do the thinking required without the teacher actually teaching how to do it. As Pollock outlined the different parts of learning, it made me want to redo many of my lessons to be more intentional about it.

One lesson where I know that I have a beginnings of this is one on how to write a paragraph in history. The students learn and memorize 12 steps to follow to create an effective argument to answer a question. All of my questions ask the students to prove an argument. They have to make a decision from the facts and defend it.

I realized, as I compared it to what Pollock was saying, that I needed a few more steps to help them figure out strategies for building arguments. That is always the part where they struggle. They gather and organize the facts. They think of their point of view and identify it in the topic sentence, but they struggle to use the evidence to prove their point. I want to add a lesson that focuses of this.

The most important aspect is that students’ brains need to be alive, firing and lighting up! What are we doing to make that happen every day?

Design Thinking at IKEA

With two other teachers, I took a group of students to IKEA today to learn about their process for developing new products and for organizing and displaying them in the store. The field trip was part of a class in Entrepreneurship. We have been defining “entrepreneurship” as the process of taking an idea and making it a reality. It doesn’t have to be a business idea; it can be any idea that brings an inspiration to reality. We have been using Stanford’s Design Process, teaching the students to develop their plans through interviewing, prototyping and testing. The trip to IKEA was to help trigger their thinking around their specific challenge which is to design and create the ideal Middle School locker.

IKEA was a wonderful destination for a field trip. They don’t get many groups, but they were incredibly accommodating. One of their designers, Scott, met with us and explained the variety within their designs. He had a collection of trays and used them to illustrate how the price point, the function and the overall theme impacted how each of the different trays was developed. For an inexpensive tray, the materials and ability to easily manufacture it were key. They search for ways to make each piece as inexpensively as possible, finding plants that can make individual pieces for them. One of the ways they save money is that they are manufacture everything that they sell. They aren’t buying from anyone else. Scott also explained how they began to use flat boxing and home assembly to reduce the price as well.

Once the pricing and manufacturing decisions were made, Scott told how each tray could be changed to connect with the different, major themes that IKEA has. For example, a modern tray might get polka dots in bright and bold colors. A classically themed one could have Victorian roses. Scott held up examples of the trays, which quickly and easily illustrated how the simple change of paper underneath the laminate created a totally different product. He showed the most expensive tray, one that had a very modern and simple design, but was made with two different materials, wood and plastic. The students got to compare the different trays and recognize both their function and possible appeal to different customers.

Scott then took us on a tour of the second floor. We looked at a number of “rooms,” discussing how each was arranged, identifying the themes and functions associated with them. Scott told us that each room is created with a specific user in mind: a young single, a family with young children; parents and teens. While they could be used by other groups, when designing them, IKEA kept their focus on their specific user group. This was a great lesson for the students, to help them understand that none of this design should happen just based on their own impulses. Each design must meet the needs of a specific client.

The girls got to examine a variety of rooms, some arranged by price point and some by size: an apartment for $370 compared to one for $1,000; an apartment built to fit into 350 square feet compared to one with 750 square feet. With each comparison the girls identified what was similar and what was different? What was added or subtracted depending on the price or size? It presented them with interesting questions to consider and pushed them to think about how to solve problems, whether financial or based on space.

We then sent them off to explore the rest of the second floor, reminding them of their Locker Challenge. We encouraged them to explore how storage and space were handled. Because IKEA is arranged to have the customers actually open the drawers and sit in the chairs, it is a perfect place for this kind of investigation. We didn’t have to worry that the students were mishandling the furniture. They were free to open drawers and closets, peek behind and under beds, to find how IKEA had solved some of the problems of space. Because IKEA has clearly taken on the challenge of creating unique solutions to the challenges of decoration, storage and living, as they explored, they were continually excited by some new . As they wandered and explored, the students were so excited by the variety of solutions to different problems they found.

After about 30 minutes of exploring, we had them choose one object on which they wanted to focus. They made a detailed sketch and then described its function. We had them consider other uses for the product and to think about ways that it might be improved or used for another purpose. They all had a favorite piece from their exploration, so they quickly returned to it and began to sketch.

It was a very successful day, full of energy and excitement, as well as many lessons on how to think about design. It is definitely a field trip that I would recommend! A special Thank You to IKEA and to Scott for our visit!

Building a PBL Magazine

My students have spent the last couple of weeks working on a PBL project. The Driving Question was “How can we create a digital magazine for the 4th grade to help them understand the accomplishments of the Islamic Empires?” The 4th grade was going to be our audience. We had finished a fairly textbook-driven study of the first part of the Muslim Empires, the Umayyads, practicing identifying significant information in the text and organizing facts. I wanted to open up the next part of the study and make it more student-driven. They read a chapter that had an overview of the Abbasid accomplishments, from art to medicine to mathematics, and each one chose the topic that interested her the most.

I set up a Project in NoodleTools, which the students had used before. I love how it is organized to allow them to first have a Direct Quotation. In a day of Cut and Paste, it is crazy to think that they aren’t going to do use that to gather information. NoodleTools is set up for that, and then with the necessary Paraphrase, directing under the Direct Quotation. The organization of the page at least encourages students to recognize that when they cut and paste, it is different than when they put it into their own words.

The library provided a cart of books, and I put together a collection of websites. I gave them a day to research, and then I reviewed their notecards, leaving comments for them. The most common mistake was having too much information on a card. They want to cut and paste a paragraph and struggle to limit themselves to only 1-2 facts per card. That really means no more than a sentence, sometimes less than a complete sentence. If they did this, however, it was much easier to reorganize what they found into their own words and ideas.

I went to the Lower School library and got a collection of books and magazines that were appropriate for 4th graders. For the next class, I spread them out on the desks, each pair of students having one. I gave them index cards and had them record what they noticed about the book or magazine. How was it set up? What was interesting or different about it? How did it capture and hold the reader’s interest? I gave them 3 minutes and then had them stand up and rotate to the next set of desks.

“Can’t we just pass the books?”


“But why not? I’m tired. I didn’t get to sleep until late last night.”

“And there is the answer to why you are getting up and moving. Time to get the blood flowing to that brain of yours.”

As they rotated around, they get more and more excited about what they were finding.

“Look at this cool font!”

“There are amazing colors on this page! Can we use colors like these?”

“This one has an ‘About the Author’ page. I want to have one of those!”

After they had had a chance to look at 5-6 of the books and magazines, we made a list on the board of what they had found. The process of looking at actual books for 4th graders made the project come alive in a new way. They saw that published work looked like, and they want to make their own. So it was time to create.

After gathering 20-30 facts, they built their magazine in Pages, combining text with images. They played around with fonts and colors, adding pages of puzzles and vocabulary words. They used what they had learned to effectively create something that was 4th grade friendly. They searched for images that  would enhance what they had written. It was challenging for some of them to find appropriate ones that matched the time period, but they diligently searched. When they found one they liked, they used bitly.com to shrink the URLs. They then put the shrunken URL under each image to identify where they had found them. Then, with the help of our fabulous Educational Technologist, Kim Sivick, the Pages were uploaded to ISSUU to become magazines. (The actual page is not available to the public, because the students are in middle school, and it is through the school’s account.)

The results were amazing! If you haven’t tried it before, you should! The pages turn and create a wonderful sense of having made a real magazine. The students were really proud of how their hard work had turned into something that looked so impressive. While they liked the research pages, their favorites were their classmates, “About the Author” pages! Ah, middle school!

I’ve Missed This!

It has been a crazy year so far with lots of new things in my life: new work at school, new family member, new exercise routines. There have been all sorts of new balls to keep flying successfully in the air. Without realizing it at first, I let my writing slide to the side. I didn’t keep it as a priority, letting other jobs work their way to the forefront. There was a new meeting to add to the schedule or a baby to cuddle or a yoga class to attend. Each was immediate and of clear importance. None of the new activities were frivolous or insignificant, and they gradually took over my writing space.

What I have come to realize, however, is that they took over more than my writing. Without the requirement that I had put on myself to write on a regular basis, I slowly lost the intensity of my vision on my practice. When I knew that I had to write at least once a week, I looked at my teaching and my time in school in a different way. I was reflective every day, seeking for the  moments when I was learning, when I saw my students and my practice in new ways. Every day was a time for growth, a time to become better at what I was doing. As I let other jobs take the place of writing here, I slowly lost that focus on my practice. I became less reflective, because I simply didn’t need to be. I did my job each day and let it go, quickly moving on to whatever was the next responsibility.

There will always be more tasks and activities in my life than I can easily do in a day or a week. There will always be more people with whom to interact and for whom to care. I have a rich and full life that fills all of the spaces that are there to be filled, and when I let it, can squeeze out the moments that I need for myself and for my practice. But I need this! I need to stop, claim time for myself, for my own growth and learning. I need to think about who I am as a person and as an educator. I have chosen to spend my life in a place of learning, and if I don’t make the time to learn and grow myself, then I will never be the educator that I want to be.

Learning takes time and space. It takes slowly down to look and to listen. It takes time to identify what went well and what needs changing. None of that, for me anyway, can happen if I don’t slow down, if I don’t require myself to make the time to write. Writing forces me to look and take ownership. I know that I see my students and myself as a teacher better when I am writing, because I stay present in the moment in a deeper way. I take more time to reflect on what has happened. I change my practice and begin to grow into a new person, a new teacher. I don’t expect tomorrow to look like today, because I am going to learn.

So it is back to blogging for me! My apologies to those who follow this blog for the silence. I have learned a lot from it. Of most importance, that I need to avoid it in the future!

Preparing for the Monday After

No matter how much we would like to turn back the clock to last Thursday and erase the events of Friday, we can not. We must go into school tomorrow with a different reality. As I have been thinking about this, three ideas became guideposts for my thinking in how to find a way to rebuild and recreate the security of being in school. The children who return to our classrooms need to be cared for, but how do we do it?

The first guidepost is that it is our job to create as much security and calm around our students and throughout our schools as we can. We need to think back to September and remember how we established routines and created a culture of learning at school.  Our students need desperately to feel safe, and the established daily routines can provide that. Take attendance, collect homework, introduce lessons in the same ways that we have been doing it since the beginning of the year. Each of these routines is a security blanket of normalcy in a world, especially the world of school, that has gotten out of kilter. Each activity that they do that follows the pattern, one that they can do without thinking, helps to rebuild their school world. Each one brings back some of what was lost, because it reclaims what was theirs.

Another way to help our students gain a sense of stability is by providing them with a way to take some action to help, even a small one. For those who want to, they can write to the elementary school, sending a picture and writing a poem, anything that allows them to reach and and share their support.

Sandy Hook Elementary School, 12 Dickenson Drive, Newtown, CT 06482

The second guidepost for me is to remember that we are not experts in this crisis. We are teachers. It is our job to be open to conversations that may arise, whether in the classroom or in the halls. There will be students who need to talk, who need to ask questions and wrestle with what has happened with an adult. This can be tricky, because some students are going to have lots of information and others will have been sheltered from it. It is important that we give them chances to talk, but it is equally important to not pretend to be the experts. As we have all found, more misinformation comes out each hour than valid facts. Judgments are being built on the latest news flash.

It is not our job to be reporters or news anchors, pretending to know it all. We must avoid trying to be scholars of a situation for which there are no answers to the “Why?” or even many of the “How” questions. As we listen, with the heart of a teacher, to their thinking and hear their questions , our goal must be to rebuild each student’s sense of safety. Before we respond, we must ask ourselves if we are accomplishing that goal. Are we becoming caught up in an exchange of “What do you know?” or are we helping our students? There is nothing wrong in listening and not having an answer. To much of what they will share, a simple “I know,” is all that is needed. These are hard times without easy solutions.

The third guidepost is to remember that fear and pain do not disappear in a day. We tend, in America, to want to push our tragedies quickly behind us, acting as if the impact did not travel deep into our hearts and souls. This one will affect us and our students for the rest of this school year and into the future. We should expect that and stay alert for signs of distress that may take weeks or months to manifest themselves. Just as we will have these events flash into our minds, so will the students. We need to watch for that and then allow them the freedom and safety to talk, whenever they need to do so.

We are teachers, and while we do not have all of the answers, our hearts are with our students. We spend our lives working for them. Tomorrow and in the days that follow we will seek to serve them with all that we have. I am in awe of being part of a profession where among the dead were educators who gave all that they had to guard the children in their care. We will carry on, for them and for the children!