Sunday, September 25, 2016

It's On Again!

For the last several years, my teaching partner, Melissa Hellwig, and I have implemented a pure 20% Time program with our kids in Webster Groves. The program took off and soon we found ourselves immersed in all things 20% Time even to the point of conducting PD sessions and conference presentations. At the end of last year, with my move to Florida and Melissa's new job as an assistant principal, we thought that our journey together was over. Well, not just yet.

In a week or so, I will introduce Genius Hour to my kids at East Naples Middle School in the hopes that they will achieve as much success as the kids in Webster Groves. I have a good feeling that they will. Melissa has agreed to consult on our program. She will help me tweak Genius Hour to my new kids, school and situation. I am ecstatic because I know that so many of the improvements that we have made to the program over the past few years are the result of conversation and "thinking out loud". We have a synergy that really seems to make us better thinkers and idea generators.

When we talk to teachers about the differences between Genius Hour and 20% Time, we note the difference in project time. 20% Time, we say, is a year-long investigative project. Genius Hour projects are usually for a shorter term. This year, my first year at East Naples, we will do Genius Hour projects. I still have not worked out the logistics to make the kind of program that the two of us, working together, we able to carve out in Webster Groves. I am taking our advice by starting small and expanding over time.

The logistics are tricky. This will be a long-distance collaboration and fortunately we are techie enough to make it work. We still plan to tweak the program together, podcast occasionally together and even Skype Melissa in for the high-stakes days (Pitch Day, Idea Showcase, etc). This collaboration will be new for us and interesting as an educational experiment. Needless to say, we are stoked to be working and creating together once again.

I have already tweaked our Genius Hour blog, Harmonized Learning, to reflect some of the changes. Please follow along to see our new journey this year. My kiddos have been gradually accepting the fact that they can make many of their learning decisions. As they grow into more independent learners, I am confident that these kids will buy into the program and showcase their genius in ways that surprise us all. Every year we are "wow'd" by the learning that kids do. I know that this year will be no different.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Encouraging Expectations

Many times we teachers become frustrated by our students. Sure, there is the acting up in class, talking out when they should be quiet, and general nonsense of being a teen or tween. We handle those as the minor events that they are. The real frustration comes not from the misbehavior in class but rather from the expectations that many students have for themselves. Many of my students don't believe that they have talents, gifts, or any kind of genius in them. They have not been able to identify the amazing capabilities that they have. This is both frustrating and maddening for me. What I see in them and what they see in themselves right now are two vastly different things.

I understand that these kiddos are twelve or thirteen years old. It is difficult to figure out what your passion in life is at such a young age. However, many kiddos are showing no signs of interest. School is something that is being done TO them. They do not seem to be active participants. They are simply the passive recipients of schooling. I see so many kids who are incredibly bright, articulate problem-solvers. It just seems like they have not been encouraged to take control of their learning and push their own limits.

My challenge this year is to change that thinking. My goal, over the course of the year, is to develop driven, independent learners. I want the kids to learn with or without me. I want them to spit in the face of low expectations, discover some things about which they are passionate, and pursue those things.

The framework of our class is designed to encourage independent learning. Our reading and writing so far this year have shown kids that they make the bulk of their learning decisions. They will be given even more responsibility for their learning as the year goes on. First, we must unlearn a few things. We must unlearn that the teacher is in charge of their learning. Next, we must unlearn that the expectations of the teacher are always correct. Then, we must learn. We must learn that we can do anything we want if we are passionate about it, set a goal and work toward that goal. We must change our thinking to cast off any self-imposed limitations we might have. When we retrain ourselves to believe that anything is possible, it will be. Only when that mindset is cultivated and nurtured will these kids start showing their amazing talents and gifts.

I have my work cut out for me this year. My group of kids needs a lot of challenge and cheerleading. For the better part of first quarter, the most important thing I can do is identify some gifts in each of my students, talk to them about these gifts and heap mounds of praise on them about their gifts. I have to get kids believing that they ARE how I SEE them. My picture of them must nudge out the picture they have of themselves. So many of my kiddos have been told, at home or at school, that they cannot do things. It is my responsibility to tell them that they CAN. So much of learning is risk-taking that comes from confidence in learning. Right now, my kiddos do not have that confidence.

It has been a whirlwind five weeks at school so far. We have built the framework of our class into one that gives the students a big say in their learning. Most have been unable to handle that kind of responsibility right off the bat. The thought of abandoning this type of environment never crosses my mind. We will stick to our open learning environment. It is just going to take time and a lot of coaching for kids to begin seeing themselves as responsible, self-directed learners. For many of them, this is their first experience with this type of learning environment. I believe that it is the kind of environment that will most help them become independent learners and set them up for success in life.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Writing Prompts and "The Wall"

They say the best ideas are stolen and I am not above stealing good ideas. When I see something that a teacher in my PLN posts on Twitter, I'll incorporate it into my classroom. If I find something one of my colleagues in Webster Groves shared, I'll rip that off too. I expect that whatever I do in class is up for grabs too. That's how teachers get better; we share/steal/borrow. We are better when we involve the collective genius of our peers.

Last week I was reading a blog post ( by a Webster teacher, Katie Kraushaar (@MsKraushaar). She decided to open each class period with ten minutes of writing time. Each day she would put a different prompt on the board but kids were not tied to the prompt. If there was something else they'd like to write about, they could do so. I do a lot of writing in class but have never kicked off each class period with writing time. I thought it was an idea I'd like to try. It also seemed like one of those "good procedure" activities because kids could be working for the first ten minutes of class (I have a 90 minute block) and begin as soon as they walk into the room. We started our ten minutes of writing this week.

There is a learning curve for kids anytime we do something new. During our first day with the writing prompt, kids had the usual questions: How long should this be? What if I don't want to write to the prompt? Is ten minutes over yet? As with anything, once we build this time into our class culture, kids will flourish. Many kiddos took to it like fish to water but some struggled. That's okay. Many kids have never had this experience before and need time to develop the stamina to write for ten minutes. I am not worried; kids continue to amaze me everyday.

The idea of giving kids thought-provoking prompts is exciting to me. I don't think that we give kids enough time to explore their thoughts about things that challenge even us adults. Kids have opinions that are based on their life experiences and reflection. They are every bit as important as our thoughts. Our prompts will challenge kids to think deeper and write more. For instance, I took one of the images that goes around Twitter and Facebook and used it as our first prompt. It allows for great conversation.

Another idea that I stole was "The Wall". In my classroom, I have one wall that has a huge white board on it. We have not used it much so far this year. While I was on Facebook the other day, I saw a post from Chris McGee (@cmcgee200), a former coordinator in my old district and now Assistant Principal in the Rockwood School District. In his new school, kids and teachers created a wall, "What Inspires You?" An accompanying video showed the kids writing all kinds of things on the wall. Kids were inspired by dozens of things and the board took on a life of its own. I thought it was a great idea and, since we have a ton of board space in class, decided that we would replicate the Rockwood board. Now, ours is nowhere near as beautiful as the Rockwood board (I am no artist) but the kids had a great time filling up that board last week.

It was great to see all of the things that inspire our kids, from siblings and parents to graphic design and music. I think that the kids appreciated the opportunity to share with the group. Even the very quiet kids picked up dry erase markers and contributed to the wall. It is a neat idea and we will continue to use our wall. In fact, this week our school is focusing on goal setting. To dovetail with the school, our question this week will be "What is one of your goals this year?" and we'll see how it turns out.

Sunday, September 4, 2016


With all of the competition for kids' time and attention, you would think that kids would never pick up a book to read. Well, they do. If they have access to books that they love, they will read those books. We dedicate some class time each day to reading. After all, kids take their cue from us. If we really value something, we have them do it in class. If we don't value something, we send the signal that it is not important enough for class time. We Gators know that reading is essential to our growth as learners and so we read. Once in a while, I snap a pic of a kiddo reading and tweet it out under the hashtag #gatorsread.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Establishing a Culture of Reading

In my Twitter profile, one of my self-descriptors is "reading evangelist". In my view, the most important skill for kids to master is reading. Reading is the foundation for most learning. Reading also feeds the mind and the soul. So how do we get kids reading in a world where the competition for time and attention is so stiff? After all, kids have access to so much technology these days. Middle school kids especially are social beings and reading is a mostly solitary venture. How do we nurture a culture of reading in our classrooms, schools, and homes?

Kids have to see reading as "cool". Kids have to experience reading books that they love. If our students choose books, read them and love them, then they will be more inclined to pick up another book. Once they are hooked, we've done our job. I feel that I have done the most I can for a student if I've gotten them to love reading. I've set them up with a crucial, lifelong habit.

In our class, we are constantly talking about books. We don't talk about them in the traditional "school-y" way. We talk about the stories, the building excitement of the plot, the kookiness of the characters, and the surprises in the story. We talk about books the way we talk about movies. "Oh, man, that was so good! I loved the part when..." We have to harness this natural excitement and curiosity about books and use it to spur kids to read more.

Kelly Gallagher, a reading and educational researcher, talks about kids' reading in his book Readicide. One of the most staggering points that he makes is that volume of reading is one of the most important things for kids. The number of words read per year has a direct effect on kids' learning and even on their standardized test performance. I take his research to heart.

From Kelly Gallagher's Readicide

I know that the most important thing I can do for kids is get great books for them and give them time to read those books. However, I have never, in 29 years, told a child that they had to read a particular book. When we teachers assign a book for kids to read, we have already tarnished that book for the kiddo. No one, child or adult, wants to be told that they have to read something. When we are told that we have to read something, we immediately think that it won't be very good because if it were so good, then no one would have to force us to read it.

What I do is recommend books to kids, talk up books for kids and leverage the kids' peer groups to recommend great books. I get a stack of 10-15 books that I think a student might like and I let the student browse through those books. The student chooses and that is the key. I can recommend, but the student has the final say. When we give that power of choice to the students, we do two things. We allow the students to see themselves as responsible for their own learning and we help them become more independent readers.

When kids choose their own books, they become excited about reading. In class, we show book trailers and give book talks. Kids see the cool stories inside these books and they want to read them. It's really that simple. All we have to do is let them. So everyday in class, we read for thirty minutes. That is our one non-negotiable in class. Their homework is to read for thirty minutes as well. Each student should be reading for at least one hour per day. All of that practice reading, in addition to the common activities that we do in class each day, gives kids the volume of reading that they will need to be successful at the next level and in life.

We keep track of kids' reading in their response journals. These are simple spiral notebooks that have three sections: reading log, reading journal, "to read next" list. Kids always have their "to read next" list out when we watch book trailers or listen to book talks. They become excited about the books and write down the titles that interest them so that they never have to say, "I don't know what to read." Now, all of the kids in class are excitedly talking about books. This kind of talk is crucial for our reading culture. Suddenly, reading is "cool" because everyone is reading, sharing titles and talking about the books they have read and the books that they want to read. Even our reluctant readers are jumping on board. They see everyone else in class talking about reading in a way they have never heard before and they want to be part of that conversation. Once this culture is established, it snowballs. The kids should continue to grow as readers and see themselves as independent learners. I push that snowball a little here and there but for the most part, the kids take over and continue to build that culture for the remainder of the year.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Every Kid Every Day

Getting used to a new school and its culture is never easy. We have to learn new procedures, new rules, new building geography, new personnel and new kiddos. Frankly, we have to learn new everything. It was quite a change for me, moving from Webster Groves, a small (4100 students) suburban St. Louis school district, to Collier County School District, a massive (45000 students), incredibly diverse district. I wondered how different things would be in my new environment. After all, I was in Webster Groves for 24 years and knew the lay of the land pretty well. Here in Naples, I knew nothing and no one.

Working with the kiddos for the past week, our first week in session, has reinforced something I've known and preached all along. Kids are kids. It doesn't matter where you go, what role you have, or what grade level you teach, kids are kids. Their wants and needs, expectations and goals, are universal.

Kids want to know that we care about them.
Kids want to know that we value them.
Kids want to know that we have their best interests at heart.
Kids want to know that our environment will value their differences.
Kids want to know that they are safe, both physically and emotionally.
Kids want to know that we will push them to be their best.
Kids want to know that we want what's best for them.
Kids want to know that WE are there for THEM.

All of my kiddos in Webster Groves wanted these things. All of my kiddos in Naples also want these things. In order to get the best out of our students, we have to give them our best. Every kiddo. Every day. When we are able to create the culture and climate that values each child as an individual and intelligent learner, they will respond in kind. They will start seeing themselves as unique individuals who are intelligent learners, even if they didn't view themselves that way before. 

Teachers rightly note that we have so many students and so little time with them. While this is true, we must carve out pockets of time to visit with each student daily to make sure that they have many positive interactions. We have to use our influence to show students that they are bright, hard-working kids with talents and skills. Many kiddos have not been told about their strengths and talents. We have to. We have to make sure their self-image is boosted, helping them gain the confidence they will need as they move on through school and life. That happens in our classrooms. Every kid. Every day.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Hello East Naples Middle School

Two months after walking out of Hixson Middle School for the last time, I walked into East Naples Middle School for the first time. I have always held that you can tell the vibe of a building within the first thirty seconds of entering it. Well, East Naples Middle has a great vibe. Each staff member that I met seemed to enjoy being here and everyone was incredibly helpful. There is a clear sense of mission among the teachers and top-notch leadership at the administrative level. The building itself shines. There are wide hallways and lots of natural light. While this is not a new building, it is extremely pleasant and very functional. If my first few days at East Naples Middle School are any indication of how this year will go, then I know that this will be a great fit for me.

Next week, the kids come to school. No matter how much time we have to prepare, we are never truly prepared for that first day of school. My new group of kids may be different from my old group of kiddos, both in background and geography, but at the end of the day, kids are kids. I cannot wait to dive in and get started. I will spend the rest of this week getting our learning environment ready for my new group of kiddos. I get the sense that it is going to be a great year!