Sunday, October 23, 2016

More Bang for the Buck with Kindles

Every teacher tries to stretch a dollar. ELA teachers have it particularly tough because we are constantly building great classroom libraries. A classroom library is essential for kids. They need to see books around them all of the time. Their environment has to be language-rich and accessible. Kids need to be able to immerse themselves in books, pile them on their desks and rummage through them in order to find the perfect books for themselves. I encourage all of this.

Starting at a new school this fall, I had zero books in my classroom library. Through some diligent shopping at thrift shops and used bookstores, I've been able to accumulate a few hundred titles. Kids have been reading many of them ravenously. We have our very popular titles and we have some that I thought would be more popular but are not. Oh well, maybe some kids will discover them later in the year.

Over the past few years, I had built up a Kindle e-book library of over 120 books. These books stay attached to my "school" account so that I can access them anywhere. My "school" Amazon account is a second account that I set up for all of my school purchases. It is not a school e-mail; it is a second Gmail account that I use for school purposes. Anytime I have a Kindle or the Kindle app, I can access any of these e-books by logging in on Amazon. Easy peasy.

Since August, I have been hunting around on Ebay and Amazon for inexpensive Kindles. I've lucked out. I was able to buy ten Kindles for between fifteen and thirty dollars each. Having these ten Kindles in class allows ten kids at a time to access any of those 120+ books that I have. Amazon allows you to register many devices to the same e-mail address (account) and put the same book on up to six devices at the same time. That means that six kids can read the same book simultaneously. Now, I get my Kindle e-books when they are on sale and I never spend more than 2.99 for a title. If you're patient, the books that you want will go on sale at some point. and the Amazon Kindle Daily Deal e-mail are both helpful for me to see what is on sale each day. I subscribe to both. So, for 2.99, and sometimes less, I can have six kids reading the same book. Those books never go away, never get destroyed and never get lost. That's what I call stretching a dollar!

So far this year, the program has been awesome. The kids take good care of the Kindles and always check in to see if one is available. Management is a breeze. I sticker each Kindle with a "Return to Don Eckert, Room 39, East Naples Middle School" label and a sticker identifying which Kindle it is (Spiderman, Star Wars, Hello Kitty, etc). On a part of our whiteboard, I write the Kindle (Spiderman) and the name of the student who has checked it out (Aracely). When Aracely returns the Kindle, I erase her name and check it out to the next kiddo on the waiting list. On and on we go. If a student has kept a Kindle for an inordinate amount of time, I will check in with them to see if they are still reading it or ask for it to be returned.

While most of the kids are excited about the Kindles, many kiddos still prefer the paper books. That is why it is essential for me to keep beefing up our classroom library. The search for great, cheap (or free) YA Lit books goes on. It's kind of fun, like a treasure hunt. I will be happily hunting for the rest of the year! Fun times.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

The Wonder Wall

I've seen a lot of great educators use a Wonder Wall in class. It is a student space to dream, wonder, ponder and question. A dedicated white board is transformed into the musings of the students. It is a way for kiddos to share their questions, see others' thinking and get ideas. Wonder walls are great additions to any classroom. I always liked the idea but never had the space to give over to the students. In my new room this year, I have tons of space. We have a white board that runs the length of the classroom. That board is our student space. Each week or two, I ask a question or put a title on that board. The kids have time to fill in their answers, questions and thoughts. Some kids make a big deal about it and some hang after the bell a few minutes to sneak their comment on the board. Either way, kids are participating. For the most part, the comments remain anonymous.

Kids do have ideas, thoughts and questions. Sometimes we don't spend enough time asking kids their opinions and thoughts, but they're there. I think when kids see that their thoughts are valued, they see themselves differently. They see that they are an integral part of the class. They see that their ideas have an audience. They see that their learning is respected as much as anyone else's.

One of my goals this year is for kids to see themselves differently. I want them to see themselves as serious learners who are in school to develop their talents and ideas. The only thing that my group of kiddos lacks is confidence. I don't know how much their learning, ideas and talents have been valued in the past, but they severely lack confidence as students. One of the things that I've learned over that past few decades is that confident learners will learn more because they will try new things and make attempts in class. They are prepared to be wrong and they don't mind if they are. At least they will try. Students who lack confidence will not try because they fear being wrong. Once these kiddos have more confidence, they will take more shots in class and by doing so, learn more. Our Wonder Wall is a good way for students to begin gaining the confidence they need to further their development as learners.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

We Have to Dream!

School is a place of routines. We establish routines at the beginning of the year, making sure that kids know what they are doing and when they should do it. However, on many occasions spontaneity trumps routine. Thursday in class was one of those times. I had planned to show the kids Google Cardboard and let them experiment a little with the sets. Well, we experimented, and experimented and experimented. The second half of class was unintentionally devoted to finding apps, troubleshooting Google Cardboard and sharing our learning. It was noisy, it was collaborative and it was fun.

Kids get a lot out of their reading and writing in class but we also are responsible for showing kids a lot of the technology that is available. In order to compete with kids in schools all over the country, we have to immerse kids in as much technology use as possible. I take every opportunity to bring in tech, introduce apps, and use different technology elements in class. Already we have ten Kindles up and running, each with access to over 120 e-books that I've purchased over the years. Kids love the Kindles and read voluminously on them. Google Cardboard was another opportunity to show kids what is out there and available to them.

I don't introduce these things to kids just because I want them to be "wow'd". I introduce these things to kids so they can see what is available and maybe see themselves creating the next wave of technology devices. I want kids to dream about one day inventing the next Google Cardboard device. I want them to think creatively and maybe take ideas from several different technology pieces they've been exposed to and come up with an original spin on the existing technology.

We have to dream! The more ideas that kids are exposed to, the more ideas run through their minds. New worlds are opened for them and they have a much more well-rounded base knowledge upon which to draw. At Hixson Middle School, I had a little time each week that I called Creative Genius. During that time, I showed kids products and innovations created and invented by people all over the world. From solar highways to powder puff solar lights, these kids were amazed with the elegance and simplicity of other people's ideas. I believe that kids need to see these kinds of things and also gain the audacity to try their hands at inventing their own ideas. We have to show kids big ideas in order for them to think big. Now, no seventh grader may achieve a transformational invention this year. That is not the expectation. What I want them to do is internalize that big ideas are achievable and they have the supportive environment and resources to take a shot at their own big ideas. Maybe it will happen this year or maybe it will happen in ten years. The important thing is that they see themselves as individuals who have the capacity to dream big and maybe transform those dreams into reality.

School is not just a place to learn skills and content. School is a laboratory of learning. It is a place where kids should be dreaming big everyday, saying to themselves, "One day, I'm going to..." That is the stuff of learning. Who knows what will trigger those dreams in our kiddos? The important thing is to expose kids to enough cool things that they connect with something in a big way. The goals they set, even promises they make to themselves, give purpose and structure to their educational lives. We have to coach that attitude in our kids, nurture their dreams and point them in the right direction. It is amazing to see what kids can do in that kind of environment.

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.