Times Square to the Waterfall

Beginning to become a connected educator often feels like stepping out the door of your safe and warm house and being transported to Times Square, finding oneself like the Naked Cowboy, strumming your guitar in your underwear. The safety and security of your own space instantly dissolved, and you’re exposed to the rush of noise and lights, strangers all around you. I was helping a fellow teacher get started on building a PLN this week and was reminded of how foreign it can all feel. While we can choose how much of ourselves to make visible, just the act of connecting with other educators on Twitter creates exposure. People I know and complete strangers can find out about me. They can follow me, watch me, keep track of what I am doing, and they can do it with very little effort. I only have to google my name to know that I am seen. I make sure that I am wearing more than the Naked Cowboy’s underpants, but to someone new to global connections, it doesn’t feel like much coverage.

At the beginning of building a PLN, you simply assume that you should apply the old ways of getting to know people  to this new community and in truth, they can make it feel very uncomfortable. When I meet a new teacher at school, face-to-face, there are standard social functions that naturally occur. We learn each other’s names and what subjects we teach; we find out where we went to school or what lessons were are going to teach next. We expect to communicate regularly, to see and be seen by that person. We greet each other as we pass in the hall. We eat lunch together. We all know how to build relationships in face-to-face communities, but the digital world isn’t like that.

We are used to being seen, but at least initially, in the digital world, you actually aren’t. The people who connect with you by following you on Twitter don’t have any expectations or requirements of you. They are merely reaching out to build their own network. They are hoping that you will be someone that adds value to what they learn; they hope that you share new ideas or ask interesting questions. But, and this is key, they don’t pay attention to you enough to know. They pay attention to their personal stream of information. If you show up there a lot, they learn from you, and at that point, personal connections get made. The source of good information become a real person, one you may meet at a conference or simply communicate online. While the sense is that you are the Naked Cowboy, you are in fact invisible until you want to be seen.

After the fear of visibility, the second worry is just the sheer volume of information that seems to be heading towards you like a massive tidal wave, a tsunami of blogs, websites, conferences, ideas. The idea of keeping up with it is enough to make someone new to the conversation feel overwhelmed and unwilling to even venture forward. “Under a Waterfall” was the analogy I use to explain how to handle both the power and the use of social media.

Twitter and all social media that I use for learning and growing are a waterfall that I step into when I have time. Sometimes it is many times a day; other times, it is a specific time that I devote to it. I step in and let all the wisdom and ideas flow over and around me. I grab what I need; I ask questions; I share. It is a rich and full time while I am in it. And then I step out. I simply don’t worry about what is happening when I am not under the waterfall. The ideas and sharing continues, but I am not part of it. Like the water that flows over the waterfall all of the time, it isn’t water that I thinking about. I just take and give what I can whenever I can.

It may start as Times Square but will quickly evolve into a refreshing and renewing waterfall! Take the time to let it happen!


It’s Time to Write!

Yesterday was National Day of Writing. I don’t know who created it or where it came from, but I heard about it on Twitter and decided that it gave me a great opportunity to stop and have my students simply write.  I gave my 6th grade class, a Humanities class, a 40 minute time for an unstructured writing time. I read a passage from the novel that we are reading, Wild Girls by Pat Murphy about writing something that is true. She writes, “A good writer is more than just a clever liar. A good writer tells the truth by telling lies.” We talked about taking something that is true and real for each of them and changing it, allowing it to grow, until it became “a lie,” something totally different and yet connected to, the original idea.

I told them to sit quietly to begin, to just let their thoughts and feelings rumble around inside of them, to start writing when they were ready. At first, it was clearly a scary task.

“What should I write about? I don’t know what to write!”

Then the next question, “Will we be graded on this?” to which the answer, the only possible answer for an assignment like this, was “No, this is a time to explore and have fun.”

“Will you be reading it?”

While I give assignments that I offer to not read if they want it to be private, I decided that I wanted to see what they wrote on this one, so that I could use it to launch more writing assignments. It is early enough in the year that I am still learning their strengths and challenges, and I knew I could learn a lot from this.

After the initial restlessness and worry died down, and the room became quiet, it was like watching a gentle wave of energy roll across the room. One by one, they picked up their pens and began to write. Their focus shifted from each other and their worry to the page in front of them. An invisible curtain began to surround each one, separating her from the student beside her. She went to her own space in her imagination and began to record what she found. It was no longer about the assignment or the classroom; it wasn’t about me or her peers. It was simply about what she had found when she was still and listened.

For 40 minutes, they wrote and wrote, barely taking time to look up. They wrote, and I watched them. I watched one puzzle over the next thought and then almost frantically rush to write the words on the page. Another student just kept slowly shaking her head back and forth as she wrote one word after another. Another needed to shift her body every few seconds, changing her position after each sentence. Yet another hunched down, closing her arms around her composition book. They showed so much of themselves as they went through the process of finding and recording their ideas.

Writing, taking the time to investigate and record your thoughts, is such an important process. There is obviously much more to it than this time that I gave my students, all of the honing and rewriting, editing and improving, but this first step is so important. Especially in a world where we are all rushing and easily distracted, it is critical to learn how to be still and listen to our own thoughts and to then take the time to record them.


Just Not the Same!

Last year, I did an activity with my class to help them think about building categories to help them understand empires. I wrote about it here. I created cards that had aspects of each category, so for Clear Boundaries, there were cards for Deserts, Strong Military, Rivers, etc. Each category was on a different color paper.

Last year, it was a beautiful day, so I held class outdoors. I spread the cards all over the fields and the students had to run around, finding the different cards, placing them in groups and then working together to figure out what the larger category was. It was a wild and fun class, full of energy and enthusiasm, as they ran around, trying to locate each card and add it to their collection. They eagerly shouted to each other and were completely engaged in the work of figuring out the puzzle of the categories.

This year, however, it was raining, so we couldn’t do it outside. I decided to try it inside instead, hoping that it would work as well within the four walls of the school. I spread the cards around my classroom and the immediate hallway outside the door, a space I use all of the time for extra room. I explained the task to the students and divided them into pairs. I told them to record what they found as they explored around the space.

They started, and I immediately wished that I had waited for a Dry Day! Instead of the wonderfully fun energy that came from running around in the sunshine to collect evidence, there was a decidedly calm and very methodic circulation around the classroom. That was the best way to find all of the cards, so that was what they did. One card after another, each within reach of the one they had just written. Because there simply wasn’t enough space to make it a wild and energy-filled quest, it simply became a task of collecting the evidence. Without the running around, it was more of a classroom task than an adventure. The excitement was gone, as they knew that they simply needed to move slowly around the classroom and record what each card said.

While the process still had them up and out of their desks, which is a regular goal of mine, it lacked the momentum and enthusiasm that last year’s quest had had. As my colleague, Betty Ann Fish, @bafish10, is always saying, exercise and learning go together. This lesson reminded me to keep working to combine them more often. There really is no better way to create a strong and lasting memory! And fresh air isn’t bad either.

It clearly wasn’t a waste of a lesson, as there was a level of curiosity generated by the collection process, and the students didn’t have last year’s class with which to compare it. They simply had this class, and it made them wonder what it was that they were building with each collection of cards. When I called them back together and had them work in small groups to identify the possible categories, there was lots of energy and excitement in the room. It was a puzzle that they wanted to figure out. So this year, the ending of the lesson was stronger than the initial activity, whereas last year, it was the other way around.

As always, it is an adventure!


Grapefruits and Maps

This gallery contains 13 photos.

My 7th grade is studying map projections, learning about how and why it is hard to make an accurate map and the influences on cartographers that affect the maps that they make. I read online at Education World about an … Continue reading

Primary Sources – Week 1

After reading a suggestion on the Library of Congress’ blog for teachers, I decided to use primary sources connected with myself to start my 8th grade US history course. The blog had suggested including a picture of yourself as a child. Thanks to the work of my daughter in scanning hundreds of family photographs, I had lots of images from which to chose. I started with a school picture of myself as a 4th grade student that seemed like it might be a fun one with which to start.


It occurred to me that it might be even more fun to use a larger collection of images of my family that I had gathered for the Playing with History corner of my room. All of the other images, of my great-grandparents, grandparents, mother and father, as well as pictures of my children and grandchildren would make the investigation that much richer and allow for lots more opportunities for asking questions and gathering information.

On the first day of classes, as a way of engaging the students from the first moment, I put a number, an index card and a picture on each desk. On the board, I wrote: “Arrange yourselves in alphabetical order by first name. Then the first girl in the line sits in the desk with the #1 on it.  Follow the numbers around the room. Using the primary source on the desk, what can you learn about the study of American history this year?” I use the initial activity to begin to see how the students work together. Were there natural leaders? Who hung back and let others take the initiative? It also has them moving around the room to start, rather than simply moving from sitting in one class to sitting in another.

Once the students were seated, I reviewed with them what a primary source was. A number of them remembered from last year, so we talked a bit about primary sources that they had used in the past and what they had learned from them. I told them that they were going to have 15 seconds with each primary source in the room, getting up and moving to the next desk at the end of the time. I told them to record anything that they noticed in the photograph that might help them understand either the photograph or the collection of images. When they looked confused, clearly a bit confused by an investigation with no Right Answer, I encouraged them to make their best guesses and to engage in the work of being an historian. I told them that this was not a “graded” activity; it was simply an initial investigation to discover something about their study of American history this year. More than a few of them shrugged their shoulders; “There goes crazy Mrs.Ferguson again” seemed to be the general consensus. That was fine with me. I just wanted them willing to go outside what they are used to and try on what it meant to be a student in my class.

We began the rotations. I asked them to be silent during this part of the activity, hoping to encourage each one to think for herself. Sometimes a girl began frantically start writing down details; other times, she held the photograph up to the light to see it more clearly. They often pointed between one and another, recognizing similarities. With each time they moved from one desk to the next, they all looked back at the photographs they had already seen and ahead to where they were going. They were clearly building a sense of the overall collection.

When they had moved around and seen every image, I asked them what they had learned about their upcoming study of American history. The answers and their curiosity were wonderful. They had no idea that it was my family, but many of them had begun to think that it might in fact be one family. They recognized that clothing was an important clue to the changing time periods, especially glasses. The ones worn by my grandfather were nothing like mine in the 70’s or today.  One student suggested making an exhibit of glasses around the tops of the whiteboards in my classroom, as a sign of the study of history through primary sources. Bobby socks worn by multiple generations caught their eye.

Another noticed that the background for the pictures was important. They made their best guesses as to what the function of the buildings were, making connection to the clothing and expressions of the people.

What was actually a house became a school or perhaps a modern church.

The best moment, however, and the one that gave me away, was when one student mentioned, holding up the original picture of me in 4th grade, that it looked like a school picture. She went on to say that it probably was back around the time when girls were first allowed to go to school, as it was clearly so old. I burst out laughing, but then I caught myself and realized that I didn’t want her thinking that I was laughing at her. I said I was laughing at myself. At that point, she held up the photograph and with a puzzled look, asked if it was me.

I allowed as how the solution to the investigation into what they could learn about American history from the photographs was that we would be using lots of primary sources and that it would be taught by me. It was a great hook! Thanks, Library of Congress for the idea!


First Sunday Morning

What an amazing week it has been, getting back into the school routine! No matter how much I try to prepare for the start of the school year, it always catches me by surprise just how much is required to do this job that I love. From every direction and in every direction, there is an onslaught of information and questions. I seem to walk for miles, up and down the hallways, finding what I need or more often than not, retrieving what I forgot. I managed to lock my keys in my closet three times this week. Clearly one of the skills that I put aside over the summer was effective multi-tasking.

So this morning, I decided to just sit quietly. I poured a cup of coffee and went into the living room, away from my computer and my papers, and simply sat. I looked out the window at the yard and thought about the hours spent in the vegetable garden this summer. I took quiet, slow breathes, focusing on nothing more than enjoying the moment. It made me realize that I need to create a new routine for early Sundays. I need to claim some quiet and calm where I simply relax and enjoy a moment of peacefulness.

Really, this is very challenging for me. Once the school year starts and I have students to plan for, my brain seems to always be engaged. I don’t think that I am unusual in this at all. Most teachers I know rarely have their classrooms and their students far from their minds. We are constantly tweaking what we did last year to make it serve the actual students that we teach this year. We are reading and investigating, trying to learn new ways of presenting our content to more fully engage our classes. When I am driving or walking the dog, ideas are constantly percolating. I always have my phone with me, so that I can record them. It is simply how my mind works from September until June.

While all of that is true and good for my practice in the classroom, there is real value in holding onto the calm of summer for some time each week. So early Sunday morning is going to become that time, to rest and to be still, to not think about curriculum or students or plans at all. A time to breathe slowly and deeply! A calm in the midst of the storm that I love! Fingers crossed that I can be disciplined and maintain it!

Brain Flashes

Somewhere in the middle of August, I always begin to worry. The beginning of the school year is coming and all I see are the dozens of balls that I have carefully let drop to the floor over the summer. I always work during the summer: attending conferences, reading new books, talking with fellow educators, teaching seminars. The difference is that it is all at my own pace. I can sleep in, which simply means past 6:00 AM, or I can go for a walk. I can market or curl up and read. I get to choose what happens and when it happens. That is the mark of summer for me.

It is with real anxiety that I travel through August. There are so many balls to get back in the air, so many jobs that I know will have to get done. So many students to think about and so much WORK to do. It feels overwhelming when viewed from the midst of summer. I know that I have done it before, so I cling to the thought that I will be able to do it again. However, it just feels impossible. My thoughts seem sluggish and uninspired. My energy feels low and in need of those wonderful Summer Afternoon Naps.

Then it starts! Last week was spent in meetings, talking about the students and the new challenges of the year. It was time to reconnect with colleagues and set up my classroom. There was planning for the first day and week of school to be done. New textbooks to unpack and bulletin boards to create! I started it with heavy feet. There was so much to do!

I didn’t even notice it starting, but the brain flashes began. With each new conversation or box unpacked, I couldn’t keep myself from starting to think about my students. New ideas and plans started to percolate up through the calm of my summer mind. I suddenly wanted to write a lesson or plan an introductory activity. My husband kept asking me, “Are you alright?” because it was clear that I was distracted. And I was! The energy was starting to flow. I kept thinking about that first day. What would make it better? How could I capture my students imagination and energy? What could I do to make them want to come back to the classroom?

I realized that some of my initial plans were flatter than I wanted. They didn’t have any hook for the students. Just thinking about it reconnected me with the educator inside of me. I felt the passion and the energy flowed. I am ready! Ready to give my best for the students in my room! Ready to dream as big as I can! Ready to take risks and do all that I can to make learning as engaging and powerful as it can be!

Welcome! Time to start the year!

Play and Primary Sources

As I have been thinking about changes that I want to make in the new school year, I decided that I want to make a section of the room that is devoted to play, simply fun and engaging investigations and challenges. I have a wonderful but very large desk that I am going to repurpose it in order to create more space. I have taken out all of the supplies and papers and put them into a filing cabinet in my closet. I turned it to face the wall, so it is now a table, rather than a desk, so that it can become the heart of my new Play Space. I want to start with primary sources as the tools for the space. I won’t limit it to them, but I want to use them to trigger the imaginations of my students.

First I am going to print and laminate a collection of photographs. There is so much to think about with a good photograph. I want this space to be a place where there is no direct connection to grades and “work.” I want it to truly be for the kind of fun that can come from investigation and exploration, from trying and testing. I recently saw a really effective use of photographs by Stuart Chandler on the Olympics through time.  I want to create prompts, like the ones that he uses: What appears to stay the same over time? What appears to change? Can you find any connections? What is similar? What is different? I am going to put them on the bulletin board above the table/desk. I don’t want them to be seen as tasks but to serve as unconscious prompts. My current plan is to change the photographs and prompts throughout the year. There are lots in the photographs to trigger the imagination and curiosity from the Library of Congress’ Prints and Photographs collection. The Primary Source sets on the Teachers Page at the Library of Congress also are a wonderful resource. Some of them will be connected to work that we are doing in the classroom, but most of them won’t be.

I also am going to take some of the photographs and create puzzles out of them by cutting them into pieces. I will have some that are simply cut into quarters, but I also want to have some that will require some careful observation to put together correctly.

Another part of the Play area is going to be a big box of Lego – the leftovers of having three sons. I want to have pictures of historic buildings and challenge the students to recreate the buildings in Lego. I am currently thinking that I might tie this activity more directly to the time periods we are studying – an amphitheater for the Roman Empire study; a log cabin or tepee for early US. I will definitely take out some books on architecture from the library to have as part of the area, so if they want to choose a different building or time period, that will be possible.

I also want to have some resources on new technology through time. I am going to talk to our Science and Engineering teachers to see if I could get some gears and pulleys to have with the Lego. It would be such fun if someone decided to make a printing press or a water wheel.

I have some card games and history flash cards that I have collected through the years that I will put out as other resources or inspirations.

The two main challenges that I can see right now are time and effort! Where will I carve out time for the students to play? If I don’t give it time, then it won’t happen or be seen as having value. I already have games on my class website that they can play when they finish an assignment. They love those, especially when I let the whole class stop whatever we are doing and just play together. Then they share ideas and solutions. It is a definite favorite! I will need to make some time like that for the Play Corner. Perhaps when we are rotating through activity centers, I will make a stop at the Play Corner, one of the tasks.

The other challenge is for me to maintain my energy in finding new photographs and activities to make the corner interesting. If I don’t change what is there, then it will become commonplace and not a place of interest. When school is in session, there are so many demands on time, I know that I will have to really keep this as a priority. Perhaps though, if it generates interest, the students will participate in keeping it interesting, looking for new pictures and games to include.

Any thoughts, ideas or suggestions are welcome! I am looking forward to the energy and excitement that I imagine this can bring to the classroom!

Part of a Wagon Train

Ever since I wrote my last post about the endless horizon for educators and the constant need for us to be moving forward with our own learning and thinking, I have had this image from my childhood of a wagon train moving across the Great Plains.  I was allowed to watch a half hour of television a day, and I always chose the Westerns. I would sit in front of our black and white television and imagine the world of the Wild West. So, for this blog post, my apologies to the historians! This is not based on the actual history of the period, but simply the world of a child’s imagination, that turned black and white into color.

The journey on a wagon train was one of adventure. A group of people made a radical decision to leave behind the world that they knew and head into the unknown together, hoping for a better life. While they might not have known each other well when the journey started, they were forced to work together and support each other in order to survive the challenges with which they were confronted.

As teachers, many of us are on a similar journey. This is so much the way that I feel about my life as a teacher now. Together with other passionate educators, we are moving away from what is know and taking on whatever challenges appear in our path. We don’t know where the journey will end, or even if there is an end at all. We only know that we want to move forward, away from a place of established answers and towards what we hope will be better.

We have packed our wagons with the best of what we know, our best practices for reaching our students and for connecting with other passionate educators. We have evaluated what we must take with us and what we can leave behind. The ideas and strategies that once seemed so significant that we now know we can live without. Letting go of some of them is hard and we often look back and reconsider. What is the role of memorization in the classroom? Should I still teach reading the way I did before? Is this skill necessary or not? Luckily for us, we do not actually leave it all behind. If we need to reach back, we can grab our old lessons and apply it to future needs.

The idea is important, however, because we need to open up space in our thinking, so that we will investigate and take on new ways of working with our students. If we try to carry all that we have into the future, we will be trapped under the burden of doing it All! There simply are not enough hours in a day to teach the way we did before and the way we might when we grow and learn more. Something must be left behind.

Thankfully, there are scouts who travel with this wagon train, people who are already taking the risks and reporting on their successes and their failures. They are showing us the paths to take and the ones to avoid. We need to make sure that we connected with people who are taking chances and who are pushing their own thinking. Who are you listening to? From whom are you learning? Have you built a challenging PLN that is forcing you to move or are you sitting comfortably where you were last year and the year before? When you look at your Twitter feed, are you reading articles that make you think or simply nod in agreement? If we are going to grow, we must find the people who open our eyes to new ways of thinking. We don’t have to agree with them, but we need to be listening and assessing.

We also must make sure that we serve as scouts for the teachers around us. We can’t be part of the wagon train of old that left the East and never returned. We have to continually combine moving forward ourselves with encouraging the next group join the movement. It can not be about some elite, exclusive group who makes it to some Promised Land, leaving the less fortunate behind. For the sake of the children, we must help each and every teacher to learn and grow. It is our imperative! When we discover a new way of supporting our students or a new means of connecting with other educators, it is our duty to share it. We need to point to an easier path or a more fruitful valley. We can no longer exist in isolation; we must walk together. In this wagon train, there are many scouts for each stage of the journey. We must find the ones who will lead us and challenge us to move forward, and we must in turn share what we knew to guide others forward as well. We must ask ourselves if we are moving forward and if we have invited others along on our journey or are we heading out alone?

That is how we will build a community that travels together and survives the hurdles that we constantly have before us. We must surround ourselves with people who will help clear away the branches or ford the streams. Life, especially one that is spent pushing the boundaries and moving into the unknown, is never going to be a straight and clear highway. It is one that we must travel together!

No Graduation Factor

Last week, I had the privilege to present at the #140edu conference in New York City on a panel with Mary Beth Hertz, @mbteach, and Mike Ritzius, @mritzius, on “A New Species of Educator.” (Thanks to Jeff Pulver, @jeffpulver) for organizing these wonderful times of learning and sharing!) We were talking about what makes connected educators different and whether or not we are so different that we are in fact a new species. One aspect of the shift in connected educators that I spoke about was the fact that they accepted that there were no longer clear goal posts that marked graduation and an end of the learning process. The achievement of a new degree or certificate simply marks movement on the journey, rather than any final accomplishment.

When most of us decided to become teachers, it was after completing 12-16 or more years in a system that they had come to understand. We had started in elementary and proceeded through college, learning the rules and effectively playing the game of school. When we graduated, we headed back into what we thought was that same system, one of encouraging and supporting the learning of the next generation. Many times, as was the case with me, it was even in the same building from which I had graduated.

The system was one based on a model from the 19th and 20th centuries that created a standardized work force to run the factories of the country. Literate and capable workers to keep an effective economy running! From the McGuffey Readers to No Child Left Behind, the goal has been clear with identifiable benchmarks through which each child needed pass in order to successfully graduate. When it came time for graduation, from high school and even more so from college, the assumption was that the major skills of life had been acquired, and each young adult was ready for Life. The system was based on a world where the attributes of being a knowledgeable person were identifiable and quantifiable.

Then the 21st century hit! The speed of change and innovation shattered the goal posts that had marked the end of the time of learning for everyone. Educators can no longer assume that their degrees, for which they worked so hard, are all that is necessary, because they no longer are. The clear, established system no longer exists. While there are aspects of the system that are still critical for students to learn: reading and writing, math and research, there are many, many more that were not being taught when most teachers got their training.

So the first goal posts that have to move are the teachers’. We need to look up and see that what is before us is a limitless horizon for our own learning. We have to put ourselves on a learning journey that happens every day. It doesn’t need to take hours of each day, but it must happen with a regularity that supports ongoing growth in our practice.

The most important aspect of growing our practice in this ever-changing world is to become part of Connected Educator world. There are lots of ways to do that, but it is only through building that network of other committed educators that teachers can dive into the quickly moving stream that is the world of education today. By learning and growing with other educators, you don’t have to do it all by yourself. You don’t have to read all the articles and attend all of the conferences. You just have to share and talk with your partners on the journey.

Then we have to teach our students that learning will not end with graduation, that it truly is about lifelong growth. We need to be modeling how we are tackling new challenges and asking new questions, so that they will see that that is the norm. They need to watch the adults around them develop and change, moving beyond what we first thought and becoming better at what we do. And, most importantly, we need to include them in the journey, walking with us into the future, sharing their strengths and enhancing all that we do together. We need to all get off of the sidelines and move forward!