Wednesday, September 4, 2019

A Beautiful Sight to See

One of the things I love to see is kids discovering something that completely "wows" them. It's one of the reasons I chose education as my profession. Those light bulb moments are what we educators live for sometimes.

The other day, a fourth grade teacher, Karen Dent, brought her class in for some MakerSpace time. They were pretty excited because they had seen the MakerSpace before but I had only put out the Legos, Keva Planks, art supplies, Picasso Tiles and other building materials. I had been waiting for a class or small group to start experimenting with some of the more techy gadgets. Mrs. Dent said that her kids would be that group.

The kiddos came in, sat down, and took a look at two one-minute videos. One showed the Makey Makey and the other showed Bloxels. During the Makey Makey video, the kids were amazed. "What?!" one said. "Whoa!" another responded. It was the same during the Bloxels video. After the videos were over, I told them that neither Mrs. Dent nor myself knew how to use either of these technologies and that it would be up to them to figure them out. We made it clear that we would not help them in any way because we couldn't. Well, to say they were up to the task is an understatement.

Within ten minutes, these kids had organized themselves into groups, unboxed both of the tech packs, and started working. The Makey Makey group plugged the circuit board into an available laptop and started experimenting with the alligator clips. They grabbed some Legos from the table and used them to discover some of the capabilities of the device. Each group member had a different idea for something to use. There was a lot of cooperation and back-and-forth while they devised different ways to experiment with the Makey Makey. It was so cool to watch! These kids were learning without any adult input or interference.

The Bloxel groups were just as excited to figure out how that gadget worked. By the time I left the Makey Makey group, the Bloxel group had already started designing. They were well on their way to creating an interface to use with the iPad app. Because they had a real-life goal and a limited amount of time to achieve that goal, these kids approached the project with a sense of urgency. It was learning disguised as play.

When our time ran out, we agreed that we would reconvene in order to use these gadgets more and advance our learning. My real goal is for these kids to become experts in this technology so that they can teach other students. In a few weeks, I will have a dozen or so experts in Makey Makey and Bloxels and I can have them teach the other kids how to use those items. Then, we bring a few more technology tools out and learn those. By the end of first semester, we will have kids who have mastered all of the technology that we have. We'll just need to get more!

This is the kind of learning I love to see. It is genuine, relevant, authentic learning where the kids are the driving force behind the learning. It is a collaborative project where kids make the decisions, fail, revise, and try again. There is no instruction manual and Mrs. Dent and I made sure that they could not rely on us for answers. They had to be self-sufficient, and they were! It was a beautiful sight to see.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Learning at Lely - Our New Podcast

I think that when you ask people, they will admit that teachers do not get enough positive accolades for the work that they do. You see it in the trashing of public education on a regular basis. Nearly everyone has a gripe and they're not afraid to speak up. However, when you see what educators do in order to teach their kids, you are amazed. Teachers are real heroes. They have to be nearly everything to every kid. It is an impossible job but most are able to pull it off. When visitors come through schools, they stand slack-jawed, amazed at the energy and passion with which most educators approach their profession. Teachers are amazing. I've known hundreds and hundreds over the course of my 30+ years in the profession.

One thing I always wanted to do was highlight the good work that teachers do in the classroom everyday. Some of it is spectacular and unique, and some of it seems mundane but is incredibly effective. The teachers with whom we entrust with our kids are able to pull off miracles everyday. People need to hear these stories, see what is going on in the minds of today's teachers, and witness the creativity and passion that teachers bring to their positions. Periodically on this blog, I will highlight the good works of the teachers around me.

In an effort to profile some of the awesome things teachers are doing everyday, we started a podcast called "Learning at Lely". The podcast is an attempt to shine the spotlight on teachers who are doing great things in their classrooms and also take a peek behind the curtain and see how the ideas came about and how those ideas were effectively implemented. I hope that listeners get a sense of all of the planning and creating that goes on when the kids leave the classroom. The podcast is a tribute to the good works of today's educators, a celebration of their accomplishments. We hope that we can connect with other educators to collaborate on projects and share ideas.

The first podcast is linked below and I will always have the most current podcast available in the side column of this blog. Take a few minutes to listen to a couple of amazing teachers, Caitlyn Carbonell and Katleen Milito, as they talk about generating ideas, creating a healthy, positive environment for their kids, and why they put so much energy into their craft. It is always a privilege to listen to teachers share ideas, and this episode is no exception.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

MakerSpace in the Media Center

MakerSpace is an increasingly popular educational space that schools, libraries, and community centers are incorporating in order to get kids thinking and creating. What is a MakerSpace? Well, a common definition is, "a collaborative work space inside a school, library, or separate public/private facility for making, learning, exploring and sharing that uses high tech to no tech tools." (

I love the idea of a MakerSpace and so I've begun building one inside our library at Lely Elementary School. It is a place, smack dab in the center of our media center space, where kids can come in and use the tools to create and learn. We have building materials, robots, art supplies, circuit boards, and other tech tools with which kids can work. We are still building the space and we hope that by the end of the semester, we have a lot more stuff for kids to use.

MakerSpaces are important because they allow the kids to illustrate their ideas, build their schematics, express their creativity. Kids spend a lot of time in classrooms learning how to do things a certain way, and rightfully so. We need to teach kids literacy in language, numbers, and technology. There are certain things that kids should learn and we do a good job of teaching them. However, a MakerSpace is a place where there are no instructions, no "recipes" for making something.

A good MakerSpace, in my view, would resemble Edison's lab, or DaVinci's studio, or Bell's work space, or Tesla's area. It would be a place where tools and materials are abundant, but the child would have to put those tools and materials together to fashion something completely unique. These spaces give us a peek into how a child thinks, what processes they go through in their decision-making, and how closely they realize their visions.

There are lots of ways to run a MakerSpace. Some have "lessons" that the kids can complete, some have "recipes" or step-by-step instructions for the kids, and some no instructions or lessons. Ours is the latter, and for good reason. Kids experience the lessons in the classroom. If we provide for them step-by-step instructions in the MakerSpace, we don't get a chance to see their original thinking. They will be simply learning how to do what someone else wants them to do. Edison had no instructions. DaVinci had no instructions. They simply used the tools at their disposal, failed a lot, and eventually came up with something amazing. Do I think all of our kids will come up with something amazing in the MakerSpace? Nope. But I would like to see what they do come up with and also see their minds open up to the possibilities around them. I would like to see them get some practice in original thinking and creating.

We often see the best from students when they come up with something on their own. Our MakerSpace is an attempt to give our kids that forum. Kids will get time to learn and play according to what interests them, what motivates them. Our kids may discover things they like and areas where they excel. It is discovery-learning at its best. This is the value of MakerSpace and it is the best reason for every school to incorporate a MakerSpace into their program. Kids love a place where they can tinker, wonder, revise, ponder, imagine, and create. Our kids will be better off for having a MakerSpace, and so will our schools.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

First Day at My New School

Today was the first day of school, which is always an exciting time of year. This year, it's even more exciting for me. I've transitioned from Middle School ELA teacher to Elementary School Media Specialist. I've wanted to be a media specialist for a long time. Heck, I've been getting kids to love reading for 30+ years so it's only logical that I'd want to extend my reach to the entire school.

Today was special. A lot of teachers brought their classes down so I could meet them and nearly all of the kids checked out books. It was gratifying to see them browsing and asking questions of us and of their classmates. I got a kick out of seeing their faces light up when they saw a book they'd been wanting to read and immediately grabbed for it.

Our space is a good one, but it needs a refresh. I have ideas and plans about how to revise the space in the media center to make it more kid-friendly and improve the learning experience for all of the students. It will take a lot of hard work, input from our stakeholders, a collaborative effort from our staff, and a little magic. I'm confident that the space at the end of the year will be quite different from what it is now. It has been a good media center, but I want to look forward and renovate it with the next ten years in mind.

Sitting here now reflecting on the first day of school, I feel like we are on the right track. We will be able to accomplish great things this year, both in design and execution of a great library program. Our kids' needs are great, but I'm confident that we can help all of our kids realize their personal and academic goals. With the talent and experience of the teachers and staff at Lely Elementary, there is nothing but great times ahead. I am grateful to be starting the year at such an excellent place. I look forward to what this year will bring.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

The Gator Gazette

This year I am teaching Journalism. The class includes running the student newspaper at East Naples Middle School, the Gator Gazette (, and creating the yearbook. While the yearbook is still in its preliminary planning stages, the newspaper has taken off. 

Over the past month of school, the kids have really come around. I remember that during our first couple of Monday story-planning sessions, a time when we brainstorm story ideas, they resembled quiet time rather than a brainstorming period. The kids didn't know what we should be reporting on and were very hesitant to offer suggestions. It took some time to coach kids into realizing that many things that are going on around them are newsworthy. That awesome project kids are doing in Civics class? That's a story! The roller coasters kids are building in science classes? That's a story! New teachers to the building? Definitely stories! 

We have decided not only to report on the usual happenings of our middle school, but also to feature as many kids and their accomplishments as possible. We look for stories about kids who are doing amazing things outside the classroom. We have musicians, artists, athletes, and scholars who are involved in programs in the evenings and on the weekends. We try to find out about those and feature those stories in the paper as well. It is our mission to feature our students, as many as possible, so that the community can see the awesome things going on in our school. Some parts of the paper, particularly the Features section, are more publicity than "news". That's okay because our human interest stories are the things that bring in readership.

Our newspaper is online-only. Because it is online, we can be more nimble. We update the paper every other day. There is a constant stream of new stories and the kids are now identifying things they can write about. They are now making suggestions without me having to ask. Many kids drop by to borrow the cameras so they can take pics in their classes or after-school activities. I even made press passes for the kids to wear so that teachers can identify them and allow them to take pics. 

The downside to being digital-only is that we must advertise to get readership. We created fliers with our URL and a QR code and hung them around our building. One challenge is that our school frowns on cellphone use so kids cannot immediately scan the code or input the URL. We will occasionally publish a feature story on paper as a sort of sample story, hoping that it will drive more readers to our site. Getting kids to realize that our newspaper exists is a big goal for us during first quarter. We think that once kids see what we are doing, they will be regular visitors to our site. When they see pics of themselves and their friends, they will be hooked!

Sunday, September 9, 2018

The Seating Challenge

Every year I try to learn as much about my kids as possible. I want to know what makes them tick, what they like to read, what they do in their leisure time, what their family situations are, what their passions are, and what their personalities are like. One way to learn a lot about the kids in a short amount of time is to plan activities that show personality traits that I would otherwise not discover during regular classroom routines. One great idea I came across was the Seating Challenge. I read about the Seating Challenge in an article by Sandy Merz in Education Week (link here). In the article, Merz described five different scenarios that the kids had to fulfill in order to begin class. I loved the idea and incorporated all five. 

Right off the bat, I was able to see who instantly took a leadership role. Sadly, there were not many. Unfortunately, our kids are taught to comply from the moment they get to school in Kindergarten and that compliance can have a very negative effect. It seemed like every student was waiting for me, the teacher, to tell them what to do. It was as if they were afraid of doing something without me telling them to do it. That is so dangerous because these kids are going to have to make their own decisions very soon, and if they are constantly looking for someone else to make those decisions, then they are ill-equipped to enter high school, college, or the "real world". Every year, my goal is to make my kids more independent, able to think for themselves and problem-solve. 

Once the kids read the challenge on the board, I waited. Most kids looked at me with a "What now?" look on their faces. I just stood there and smiled. Eventually, sometimes after a torturous six or seven minutes of this, a student finally started moving kids around to satisfy the challenge. After fifteen minutes or so, the challenge was complete. Three of my four classes solved the challenge each day. My sixth hour journalism, full of excellent students, only solved three of five. I had a feeling that this would happen because the class is full of great students, not independent thinkers. Since these kids have learned to play the "school game", they excel at school. When they need skills like independent thinking and problem solving that are not in demand in our typical classroom, they flounder.

During our debrief, I talked to the kids about leadership, following, compliance, and collaboration. Together, they could solve any problem I threw at them. They noted the lack of leadership and also noted the kids who finally did step up and lead. After the first day, kids stepped up to lead quicker than on the first day, but it seemed like it was always the same three or four kids. The others had replaced me giving directions with another student. I'm not sure how much progress that shows. 

In a typical school year for me, the kids start out mousy and meek. Over the course of the year, as they come out of their shells and participate more in the classroom adventure, they learn that they have skills that have not been highlighted in school before. They find that their social or personal skills are important. They find out that leadership and problem solving are things in which they excel. By the end of the year, these kids are much less compliant and more likely to take on projects of their own invention or substitute a project for one I have assigned. These kids find their voice and use it well. Sometimes it is hard to manage. Twenty three kids want to go in twenty three different directions. I get frustrated but step back and realize that the bigger picture is a good one. While these kids could barely function on their own in August, they are taking control of their learning by April. That is how I define success. 

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Ready, Set, Go!

Like all teachers, toward the end of the summer, I begin to get jazzed up about the coming school year. This summer, it happened a bit earlier than in previous years, but I think that is because my schedule was changing, and I like change. This year, I moved grade levels (from seventh to eighth) for ELA and picked up a couple of journalism classes. I'm pretty stoked about my course load. I find journalism to be an intriguing class and have always been interested in the subject. In fact, I went to the University of Missouri specifically to go into journalism, since it is the best journalism school in the nation. Go Tigers! Of course, I switched to education because I get to work with kiddos.

Moving to eighth grade has many benefits. I know several students that I have in class; I had them last year. We can build on the community and learning from last year and I can help them develop further, both as learners and as people. They will prepare for high school, and life, by setting high goals and working all year to achieve them. I am fortunate to have kids who are energetic, smart, and happy. I know that many of my kids have life circumstances that cause them worry, but while they are in class, we make sure that we have a positive, productive, fun environment where they can problem-solve and build confidence to tackle problems in other aspects of their lives. We are a community and together we can accomplish so much.

While our ELA classes will practice their independent reading and build on reading and writing skills using the teaching philosophies of Nancie Atwell, Lucy Calkins, Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, and Donalyn Miller, our journalism classes will be immersed in year-long projects as we learn about the various forms of journalism. We are responsible for the Gator Gazette (our student newspaper), our yearbook, the ENM Tide (our literary magazine), and the Teen Lit Review. As the year goes on, we may launch more publications so that we can feature more students and events from East Naples Middle School. The kids are full of ideas and we have a LOT of kids enrolled in journalism (over 60) so the sky really is the limit. These kids are full of energy and ideas and it is my mission to harness that energy and direct it into productive and engaging projects.

After only a few days of classes, I am full of hope and energy. I want to do right by these kids and give them an experience that they will not soon forget.