Monthly Archives: July 2013

It’s not the destination, but the journey

As my family and I get going on our cross country minivan tour to Yellowstone, I am reminded that vacation is a great time to let your brain relax a bit, reflect, and let the creativity shine through.
We are taking this trip with my parents and my brother and his family, and I cannot help but notice the uncanny comparison to teaching.
We are all starting from different places, various parts of Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa, even New York.  We are all going to end up at the same destination…hmmm, sound familiar?
What a great analogy to the differentiated classroom!  I will find out your starting place, and help you find your best route to the learning destination.  Each student will have a different path, which makes the process messy but fun.
How to travel?  That is an individual choice as well.  My parents are flying, we are driving our minivan, and my brother’s family is renting a 15 passenger van.  We are headed west first, then will head north.  Others will head north first, and I am not sure of the flight pattern the airplane will take!  The routes and means of travel mean nothing, all have chosen the best way to arrive at the destination.
There are various stops along the way for my family, but they are different for the other parts of the group.  We all take our own journey, taking care of individual needs whenever necessary.  I couldn’t be happy making all the stops that other pieces of our family are taking, and I am sure they wouldn’t be pleased with all our stops either.  We again must keep the end goal in mind while making the best individual decisions possible.
And when we all finally end up together, we can share our individual travels and reflect upon the journey.  It will be that much sweeter to reminisce together, much like it is for our students once a major learning target has been conquered.
This is something I will definitely share with my students as we get started this year.  What a great analogy of what their year should be like in my class.

Finding passion

This week I attended Staff Development for Educator’s Extraordinary Educator Conference.  It was a wonderful experience where I got to meet some of my educational heroes like Rick Wormeli and Dave Burgess in person.

The conference experience was like many others, you feel such a rush of excitement when your opinions are validated and thinking challenged.  You want to run, no sprint back to your classroom and conquer the world!  You have ignited the fire, and rediscovered your passion for teaching.

The cool thing was that I had a colleague and administrator along for the ride to share my passion with.  We bounced ideas off each other as we travelled to and from the conference each day.  We shared perspective not only from the classroom view, but from an administrative one as well.  We did something fantastic…
(I know you want to know what we did, but I am learning to use some presentational hooks to keep you in anticipation!)

In a session with Dave Burgess, he talked about three ways we find passion as educators.

1. Passion within our content areas – what things can’t you wait to teach in your curriculum?
2. Passion within our profession, but outside our content area – why did you become a teacher?
3. Passion outside our profession – wait, what?  there is life besides teaching?

Later that day, we were reflecting on our experiences and my assistant principal tells me that in her role it is difficult to be a jack of all trades, and that she had, up until now, been passionate about what I was doing in my classroom because I was passionate about it.  She would come into my classes and feel the excitement through me and my students.  I know she trusts me and I am eternally grateful that she encourages me to take risks and try new things in my classroom (she also reminds me to slow down sometimes and smell the roses!).  But after going to this conference, she was able to learn more about why I am so passionate about what I do and the decisions I make.  Then the fantastic thing happened…
(Are you ready for it???)

The three of us ignited our passion together.  We had a brainstorming session on the way home our last day.  A social studies teacher, a Spanish teacher, and an assistant principal giving ideas, making them better, helping each other.  We used our passions from our areas, our reasons for being in the education business, and our interests outside school.  It was a fantastic collaborative learning experience.  One of those unforgettable times when we laughed, figured out some cool stuff, and were inspired by each other all at the same time.  We didn’t want the conversation to end so the discussion will go on via technology as the summer continues.  Our kids are in for quite an experience this school year.

We all found passion that day…how do you find yours?

Jump In!

Today I participated in my first edcamp. I first happened upon the idea of these camps this spring via twitter, and when the opportunity to join one from my home this summer presented itself, I jumped at the chance.

Enter EdcampHome put on by some wonderful people Kelly Kermode, Karl Lindgren-Streicher, David Theriault, and Shawn White.  This was a risk for me, because it would all happen using technology that was new to me.  I had a few short weeks to make sure that I knew enough about Google+ and Google Hangouts to try it, but I wanted in on the fun!

I practiced “hanging out”, followed the video tutorials leading up to the camp, and the day arrived.  I was excited and nervous as the time approached for the experience to begin.  I was ready to see what topics presented themselves and to contribute to a productive conversation.  Many people who had attended edcamps before had mentioned the importance of putting yourself out there to facilitate a session, but that would not be me.  I was new at this, and I needed to watch one before I jumped in.

Or so I thought…

We watched the opening GHO explaining how the day would work, and then it was off to the session board to see what every one’s ideas were.  I looked for a few minutes and then in a moment of courage, I submitted a topic.  There were so many ideas going up on the virtual bulletin board, surely mine wouldn’t be one of the ones chosen, but it was.

No time to be nervous, I jumped in and facilitated a discussion on best practices in grading.  You can find the link to the GHO here.  I cannot say enough about the entire edcamp experience, both facilitating and participating in discussions.  I am very excited for the next opportunity!

Ok, so on to the soap box I go for a moment…

If we are going to model the learning experience for our students, we have to jump in.  We need to take a risk, no matter whether we are nervous or scared.  Learning is a messy process with attempts, failure, redos, and eventually success – which was admirably modeled by our leaders today.  In order to get the most out of the experience, we must contribute.  I did today, and I am better for it.  Thanks EdcampHome!

Leaving the comfort zone

I spend a lot of time forming relationships with my students throughout the school year, and it is one of the most important things I do as an educator.  It helps me reach them and facilitate their learning to the best of my ability.  I try to consider their preferred learning profile and interests as we discover and grow together.

One goal I have for this coming school year is to make sure I push them out of their comfort zone as well.  Sometimes I get too caught up in trying to make sure they are working in their best possible environment that I forget the power of working in a slightly uncomfortable one.  There is so much growth possible for students when pushed just past what is comfortable.  If the visual-spatial intelligence is their strength, have them work in the linguistic area for awhile.  If a student is a very practical thinker, challenge them to be creative. Get the visual learner out of their seat for a kinesthetic experience.  You may get a lot of weird looks and doubtfulness, but remember you are taking a risk along with them…time to model!

Risk taking is such an important part of the educational process, but it is easy to bypass. Why challenge someone to work outside of their comfort zone when they are perfectly happy where they are? I have to push through the push back and help these kids grow.  We are not always able to work in the best environment, and we must know how to handle adversity.  I must show them growth is the goal and failing is just a natural part of the process. All of us are faced with tasks in our lives that can be seen as uncomfortable, difficult, and even boring.

How do we as educators help them? Let’s model the correct behavior. I am honest with my students about how I handle difficult situations (and it’s not always perfect – I’m a learner too!). Lead them to look at life as countless learning opportunities. Remind them that they are in control of their emotions, actions, decisions, and destiny. Experiences that may seem routine, unimportant, or overly challenging can be turned around at the drop of a hat. Empower your students to take control. Let them in on this little secret – they have the power to make each part of their day (school included) awesome.

If we can successfully help our students handle tough situations, they may just jump at the chance to throw caution to the wind when we ask them to take a risk!

Why standards based grading?

Standards based grading is something that has transformed my classroom into a true learning environment. Points have disappeared, as well as grades on formative assessment.  We simply learn, practice, apply, connect, assess, rework, revise, and reassess.

This may sound wonderful, and it is a huge improvement over what I had previously done with grading, but let me be clear…this was not an easy road!

But despite the challenges of writing standards, developing scales, working with (and at times against) our computerized gradebook program there was this excitement.  I felt that this new system would be a game changer for my students, and I was right.

No longer did my students and I discuss points, extra credit, homework, or the value of assignments.  The conversations were centered about learning – where they were in the process, what our goals were, and how to achieve those goals.  We replaced percentages, numbers, and letters with meaningful feedback for growth.

Sometimes my students struggled with the new system, having spent their elementary school years with a traditional grading program.  In the beginning of the year there were a lot of questions and some push back.  But when we got to the end of the year, I read my students reflections and talked with them during the last weeks of school.  Things had changed!  They enjoyed a year without the high stakes of grades infiltrating every assignment and assessment.  They sought learning over grades, with the assurance that once you achieve the former, the latter will follow.

Why standards based grading?  I believe it is imperative for the future of our children.  It teaches them perseverance, responsibility, and to focus on learning.  We are in this business to create lifelong learners, right?  Then the time is now, we cannot wait.  Our students deserve more than just a letter or a number.

My 5 words

If you had to choose five words to describe your class, what would they be? -Dave Burgess

This question was posed the other evening during planning for our World Languages Teach Like a Pirate chat, and it intrigued me.  How could I possibly narrow down my class to five words?  It was not easy, but I focused on what I would like my students to take away at the end of the year.  Here we go…

Respectful
I respect the learners in my classroom for who they are.  I get to know them, meet them where they are, and show them how to improve.  Respectful tasks, honest feedback, and reflection will be a part of each day.  Everyone will have a voice in the classroom.

Student-owned
Everyone is in charge of their learning.  When I give the ownership of learning to the students, they exceed my expectations.  I have to set the stage for learning, and let them go!   Students must learn to make decisions, even if it means making a few poor ones (opportunities to learn) along the way.  I will model learning, but not dictate the process.
Passionate
We will express our passions this year through genius hour.  I am passionate about Spanish and student centered learning.  I will help my students find their passion, look at it through the lens of Spanish, and then figure out how their passion can change the world. 
Positive
As Starr Sackstein wrote in her blog, we must manifest positivity.  There is too much negativity in our world, especially concerning schools and education.  I will be a positive influence everyday for my students.  I will show them what happens when your life’s work is not just a job, but a passionate profession.  Enthusiasm is contagious, and I am ready to share it.
Shared
My students must know that we share the experience.  We are all learners, traveling together.  I like to see it as a messy trip with lots of stops, and frequent questions that lead us all to new learning. There is no guided tour with a prescribed script, just some destinations with multiple ways to arrive.

What are your five words?

Get out of the pressure cooker!

“It hurts students to accept sloppy or incomplete work, so give it back and release yourself from the pressure of deadlines.” Power of ICU – Dr. Jayson Nave and Danny Hill

Guadalupe’s story

On the first day of school last year I had a quiet, shy girl approach me.  Guadalupe (her chosen Spanish name) was in one of my sections of Spanish 2 and she asked if we could talk.  She let me know that she didn’t feel she could ‘hack it’ at level 2 and wanted to move down.  This is a frequent occurrence during the first week of school as I have high school freshmen and many get overwhelmed rapidly.  As I normally do, I asked her to stay for two weeks, let me really see where her readiness level was, and to relax!  Beginning high school is a daunting task, and many times after a few weeks things calm down.

Over the next two weeks, I informally assessed her level of proficiency with the activities we did in class.  She was appropriately placed, but definitely lacked confidence.  I spoke with her and let her know I felt she could do the work and that she should stay.  By that time, Guadalupe had made a few friends in the class and reluctantly agreed.

Things got better for Guadalupe, she was practicing her skills in Spanish and found that her readiness was very similar to other students in the class.  She was growing, improving, and gaining confidence.

BUT THEN

We had an assessment to complete – students had to record themselves speaking in Spanish, an assignment that generally evokes fear in the language classroom.  She had practiced in class, so I gave her the iPod to record herself and off she went.  I was roaming the classroom while she recorded, helping other students and giving feedback…when I saw it.  Guadalupe was staring down at her palm where obviously she had written what she wanted to say.

I had a decision to make – do I react to this, get upset with her, and dole out some harsh consequence, or do I take a deep breath, walk over there, and talk with her about it.  It may sound like an easy decision, but if you teach you know how hard it is not to be upset when you see a student cheating.  You are disappointed, angry, and hurt.  You feel like the trust between you and that student is broken.  I had to decide who was going to be in the pressure cooker, me or her.  Was it I or she who needed to learn from this?  Turns out it was both.

I took a deep breath and walked over to her.  I got down on her level and spoke quietly.  I asked her what she had done to practice and why she didn’t come talk with me about feeling unprepared.  I reminded her that learning was more important than a due date.  She was embarrassed, sad, and expecting punishment.  I am sure by her reaction to me that behavior similar to this was punished with zeroes in the past.  I told her to go home, practice, and let me know when she was ready to reassess.  I explained I didn’t have any evidence of learning until she did this.  She was shocked, thanked me, and left for the day.  I exhaled.

The next week, Guadalupe came in and recorded her speaking.  I eagerly listened to it and discovered she had really worked hard to improve and feel ready.  We had done it!  We had taken a bad situation and turned it into a learning experience.  This was pivotal for me as a teacher and for her as a student.  Over the rest of the year she worked very diligently in my classroom in part because of the relationship we had built.

I learned so much from this experience… I will never put myself in the pressure cooker again about accepting inadequate or incomplete student work.  It is their responsibility to show me proficiency, and mine to seek the evidence.

The struggle to reach them all

My battle to effectively facilitate the learning of a second (or third for some of my students) language is waged each and every day in my classroom.  But the battle always starts with a greeting and a smile.  It is so important for students to feel safe and welcomed in my learning environment, so I wait at the door for each of them, greet them by name and try to make them feel at home.  This greeting always seems to give me an insight into their day thus far.  They communicate so much to me in the way they respond and their body language.  Every piece of information helps as I figure out how to proceed with the next 45 minute class period.  A sincere greeting also communicates to my students that the battle to learn is shared amongst us, not something that divides us.  

We do a variety of different activities in class, but more important than what we do is why we do it.  I need to plan for and think about each of my classes a little differently.  Even though I teach several sections of the same class, so many things can change my instruction.  Class size, learning preferences, interests, time of day, etc. all affect our students and our ability to connect with them and facilitate learning.  I need to be able to explain why I chose each activity we did in class to my students, my parents, and my administration.  And because it is an activity mandated by a curriculum guide, or it was fun last year, or it is in the textbook are not acceptable answers.  This experience is about learning and the kids.  It is not about me.  It is not about what I like or what is easy.  It is not about making sure each kid gets the exact same thing.  It is about getting each individual what they need.

This is a battle that I never fully feel I win, but that is fine with me.  If I ever feel like there is nothing more to pursue and find out about my students to better their learning, I have lost.  It is about the struggle to learn after all, not about winning or losing.  At times this struggle is very tiresome, messy, and unnerving but when you connect with a student, elicit a smile when they are having a bad day, or watch the light bulb turn on at last, you know it was worth it.

My journey of change

You must be the change you wish to see in the world. – Mahatma Gandhi
When I started teaching, I was taught that you do a bell ringer, check in homework, take attendance, go over the homework, teach the lesson via a lecture, do a whole class guided practice, and then assign homework for the next day. Repeat 170ish times (to account for exams and such) and that equalled successful teaching.  This way all students stayed in their seats (in nice clean rows of course), kept quiet, stayed at the exact right point in the curriculum (which was basically prescribed per day), etc.  The textbook dictated the curriculum, so that we could all teach the exact same vocabulary and grammatical constructions and turn out little Spanish language robots.
Robots for so many reasons.  I didn’t know who these kids were.  I never fully found out, either.  I knew little about their previous experiences.  I didn’t know much about what they were involved with at school or outside of those walls.  I didn’t know them as learners.  And quite frankly, I was never taught or shown that this was important information whatsoever.  It was safe…much safer than getting to know those 150 kids who graced my presence.  Much safer than discovering the hardships that so many of them bring to school each day.  Much safer than knowing how my kids were truly gifted and when they needed more from me as their instructor.  Robots because the curriculum was predetermined and I never challenged it.  Everything was set, easy (although beginning teaching is never really easy), and safe.  
I did this and received good, even great evaluations of my teaching.  Things were going swimmingly!  Or so I thought…
About 5 years ago, my teaching world was turned upside down.  I had been feeling restless lately, why?  I was a tenured teacher, doing what I was supposed to be doing, following all the preset plans and assessments, and getting good results on them.  I had been evaluated time and time again with the same stellar results.  What could be wrong?
I felt like there was a huge hole in my teaching.  There were so many reasons that I chose teaching as my profession, but what were they again?  Oh yeah, I wanted kids to become lifelong learners.  I wanted kids to go out and be productive citizens.  I wanted the kids that moved on to post secondary education to be prepared and succeed in their endeavors.  Was I doing any of this anymore?  Was presenting the prescribed teacher centered lessons on the right day and keeping my kids in strict seating assignments teaching them anything about the real world or encouraging sustained lifelong learning?  Nope.  I was missing it in a big way.  It was my midlife teaching crisis, time for a change.
Luckily for me, I had an administrator in my district that was always looking for what we could be doing better, a true instructional leader.  He gave me the opportunity of my educational lifetime, even if I didn’t recognize it at the moment.
I am not going to say that the workshop I attended was so mind blowing or wonderful, it was good.  What was life changing was the fact that it challenged the way I was doing things, the way that had been previously celebrated and promoted.  It made me think.  It was a spark in my teaching world.
I was challenged to get to know my students on all levels.  To plan my lessons for them instead of the curriculum pacing guides and quarterly assessments.  To RESPECT them.  That was my biggest revelation.  Over the first few years of my teaching career I had unknowingly disrespected my students.  I had disrespected their individuality, their interests, their backgrounds, and most importantly their ability to contribute to my classroom.
From that point on, I vowed to make changes in my teaching.  I knew it would be difficult, chaotic, and that I would make many mistakes along the way.  However, I also knew that my students deserved better.  Here began my adventures into differentiated instruction, formative and summative assessments, a student centered classroom, standards based learning and grading, and technology integration.  It has been a crazy ride so far, but if I could go back I wouldn’t change a thing…well, I wouldn’t change much.
It has been (thus far) a journey of extreme highs and lows, of success and failure, of support and collaboration along with distrust and solitude.  I have taken this journey with my students, their parents, my administration, my colleagues, and even my family at home.  But to this day it has been worth it, and I will continue to look for new, better ways to reach my students.  I will be the lead learner in my classroom, constantly growing with my students.

A true professional learning experience

Mind blown…period.  I have just experienced what professional learning is all about.  I am motivated, inspired, and excited to try something new in my classroom.

A couple of weeks ago, I participated in a #patue (Pedagogy and Technology) chat about something called augmented reality.  I had no idea what it was, had only heard about it sporadically via Twitter.  But, I wanted to figure out what it was so I joined the conversation.  From that chat, I made some connections, found some resources, and set out on my journey.
For anyone who is unfamiliar with the idea of augmented reality, the easiest way for me to understand the idea is the yellow line on the football field during television broadcasts.  Obviously, the field is real, but the line is not.  Augmented reality allows us to overlay a video on an image of an object using an app.
I spent some time over the next few days reading more about augmented reality and watching some videos.  I downloaded an app, Aurasma, and tried to look at some auras that were already made.  I tried to make my first one, but I wasn’t ready yet…it failed.
So, back to reading a little bit more and thinking a bit more about classroom application.  Then, I tried again, and guess what? IT WORKED! It was very cool to run the camera over my computer and then my face popped up and gave the Spanish equivalent, la computadora.  This is the most basic of uses for augmented reality, but at this point, I just wanted it to work!
I then went to my kids, age 7 and 9, and showed them.  They of course wanted to make one.  So, they shot a quick video of one of them saying this is my iPod, and then did the overlay with the image…and presto!  My kids were so enthused, I can only imagine how my high schoolers will react.
So, we come up on the present day…yet another #patue chat with wonderful gurus on the topic of augmented reality.  This time, I had formed some ideas and was ready to share.  I actively participated in the discussion and got even more wonderful examples about how to use augmented reality in my classroom next year.  What I would really like to do is have my students write about themselves in Spanish and then record themselves in English for the video.  Their parents could use the app to see the video of their child at curriculum night.
Research, attempts, failure, more research, more attempts, success…I am definitely going to share this experience with my students in the fall to show them that I am always learning along with them, trying, failing, trying again, and eventually succeeding.

This is the learning process, and it is wonderful.