Monday, December 15, 2014

We Are a Community, After All

Today we concluded our Holiday Family Service Project. Altogether, our team of 50 kiddos collected over 1900.00 with which we purchased gifts and gift cards for our holiday family. Kids begin raising money on November 1 every year and we end the drive on December 15 every year. We celebrate, make the project fun for the kids and make sure the kiddos buy in to the idea of service to those who have run into tough times. We never want kids to lose sight of the fact that some people have hit a rough patch and need some help to get out of it. We try to teach our kids that we should all help each other and we should all be able to accept help from others. We are a community, after all.

Our goal was 1500.00 and we smashed it!

Kids with presents for our holiday family

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Hour of Code

Every once in a while, a special project presents itself and we feel that we have to take advantage of it. The Hour of Code is a huge national event that aims to get kids interested in coding. It is essential for as many kids as possible to learn and understand coding because it is the most important language of the future, if not the present. It didn't take long for either Melissa or me to determine that we wanted our kids to participate in the Hour of Code.

We introduced some of the coding tutorials a couple of weeks ago and saw immediate interest by at least 10% of the team. These kiddos would come to school early or stay late to work on the coding sites we had for them. They were making relatively complex designs and gadgets through coding. Some have even changed their 20% Time Projects to ones that involve coding. Neither Melissa nor I know much about coding, but we know enough to point the kids in the right direction and marshal the resources they will need in order to be successful.

What we didn't know about while we were planning our coding day was that an eighth grade team of five teachers was also planning an event. They extended an invitation for us to join them and we jumped at the chance. Our little hour of coding in our classrooms morphed into a four-session, two-hour coding buffet that ranged from robotics to apps to coding sites, all in multi-age groups. Through teacher collaboration, we were able to build this rewarding day for kids. Some kiddos may run with coding and invent all kinds of amazing things and some will not look at it again, but we have always been big proponents of experiencing all different kinds of learning because it enriches us as people. The Hour of Code was one such opportunity for our kids that we could not pass up.

Coding the light patterns of the White House Christmas Tree

Coding a dancing yeti? Yep!

Learning from each other.

How did you do that?

Coding snowflake movements and sound beats.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

A Time for Service

On November 1, we kicked off our Holiday Family service project. Every year during the holidays, each team in our school adopts a family that has fallen on hard times and helps them have a better holiday by taking care of some of their needs and wants. During this time, we talk to the kids a lot about generosity, empathy and service. Many of our kiddos, fortunately, don't know what it's like to be socioeconomically disadvantaged. The concept of not eating for a couple of days or not having a bed to sleep in is alien to them.

Our kids are amazing. We are a team of 50 students and two teachers. The students take ownership of the Holiday Family service project from the get-go. Don't try to tell a 13 year old that they cannot do something! Every year we set a goal of 1500.00 in fundraising in order to help the family take care of needs (heating bill, beds, etc) and wants (clothes, toys, etc). In each of the nine years that Melissa (@melissahellwig4) and I have been teammates, our kids have surpassed that goal. We budget six weeks for collecting, from November 1 through December 15. We don't just passively put it out there that we are collecting; we (both teachers and students) actively create ways to raise money. 

While we are trying to fund raise, we try to make it fun. We have "auctions" where a student (or the student's family that wants to donate) can bid on a prize. The prizes range from a dozen cake pops that have been donated, to a DVD or portable stereo that a student no longer wants, to a high-five. Yes, one year we had a student auction off a high-five. He would give a high-five to the person who donated the most for it. That high-five went for 22.00. It was a bit crazy, but it was a fun way to get another donation.

The funny thing is, kids rarely ask what we'll "get" for our fundraising efforts. In a day and age when everyone seems to only want to give something if they get something in return, these kids are selfless. They conduct bake sales, collect from the people at their churches, go around their neighborhood collecting for the cause and even ask their doctors or dentists for donations when they go in for appointments. We figure that everyone will give if they're asked. Our kids ask. Nearly all of the time, when the kids ask, they are met with a smile and a donation.

Our current service project ends two weeks from tomorrow (on December 15). So far we have raised over 1900.00 so we have surpassed our first goal and have set a new goal of 2000.00. Since these kiddos are so determined, they always reach their goal.

One of the beautiful things about the program is that, while the recipient family remains anonymous, we do get to hear about the delivery of gifts from our counselors. Often one of the parents will write a note to our team, telling the kids about the huge difference they have made in the family's lives. When the kids hear that real people, not a faceless organization, were immediately and positively impacted by their efforts, they gain a sense of their power. Our kids learn both empathy and a sense of what a positive force they can be in the lives of others.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Ferguson: It's Not the Same Mile

What place does a post on the turmoil in Ferguson have on an education blog? Hmm, I think the right question would be, "Why wasn't a post about Ferguson on here sooner?" Last night, the prosecuting attorney released the grand jury decision. As expected, it exonerated the officer in the shooting of Michael Brown. Since then, there have been peaceful protests, violence, vandalism and looting. The news outlets have done a good job covering the most extreme parts of the protest while also calling for "peace" and "healing".

I am no defender of violence, vandalism or cruelty. I think those looting, burning and damaging property in Ferguson and around St. Louis should be arrested and charged. But let's not conflate the issues here. Anytime there is a large protest, there is going to be violence; we are a violent culture. Hell, even when a city wins a sports championship, there are riots in the city. Look at the Giants' World Series win and the aftermath in San Francisco. There is legitimate cause for protest here in Ferguson, violence notwithstanding.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch says, "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view...Until you c limb into his skin and walk around in it." I know that the mile I've walked in this life is vastly different from the miles walked by most of the Ferguson protesters. 

I am a white guy who grew up with all of the advantages of being a white guy. When I am driving and am stopped by police, the only thing I worry about is if I will get a ticket. I don't worry that I'll be harassed or harmed. I don't worry that I'll be stopped simply because I'm white and have three white friends in the car. This is not an anti-police point; it is simply a fact of life for many young black men. Many of my white acquaintances would say, "Well, if they were stopped, they must have been doing something wrong." Why? See, the presumption is that if the person has a black face, there must be some wrongdoing on their part. How did we come to these assumptions? I, a white guy, would not be presumed guilty. A 15 year old black kid is. When we close our eyes and think of what a criminal looks like, what does the face look like? I would bet that most people see a black male's face. Why? Why do we think this? The Ferguson matter is forcing us think of all of these issues.

We all need to change our perceptions of each other. We cannot exist in a world of "us" and "them". There can only be "us", all of us! Things must change so that the advantages that I have as a white male are enjoyed by every person regardless of race or gender. We cannot have a two-track system. We cannot be okay with demanding that a group of people make up a permanent underclass in our society. When a group of people, on a daily basis, is shown that their lives don't matter as much as others, that their opinions are shrugged off as a "special interest", that their dreams are disregarded, I can understand the rage. Sometimes that rage manifests itself in ways that we don't like.

What are the weapons that this community can use against the structure of racism that we have in our society? They do not have tanks, body armor or tear gas. They can work within the system but many feel that the system is rigged against them in the first place. What are the options? Human nature dictates that when you are pushed into a corner and see no other option, you lash out. That is what we're seeing in Ferguson. People are enraged about losing their children in what seem to be preventable situations. Would white parents in Clayton and Ladue be expected to stand down and just accept that their children are being shot to death? No, of course not. Why on earth would we expect black parents from Ferguson and St. Louis to do it?

The lessons of Ferguson are that we must look inside and confront any racist thoughts that we have, and we all do have them. We must strive to see every person that we see as our brother, sister, child or parent. When we change the paradigm and consider others as "our" people instead of "those" people, we will make progress. We must deconstruct and unlearn systemic racism because it exists in our public policy and the way that policy is carried out. We must not get defensive about what we have learned over the course of our lives. Instead, we must think about what we've learned and realize that it is more myth than fact. We must give people the benefit of the doubt and not jump to pernicious conclusions because people are different from us.

These are the lessons that I try to teach my students, both through my words and actions, every day in my classroom. As a public school teacher, I have had the pleasure of teaching kids from every background imaginable. At the beginning of the year, my paradigm changes and I begin to consider each of those kids my own children. I do not accept anything but the best for every one of my kids. There is no "me" and "them", there is only "us". When we, as a society, can similarly change the paradigm, then we will be making progress toward solving our problems and minimizing our differences.

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Teen Lit Review - Finding Our Voice

As part of our English class, we run the Teen Lit Review (@TeenLitReview), a blog on which the kiddos post some of their YA Lit reviews. We created this blog three years ago and have posted hundreds of reviews. All of the reviews are written by kids, for kids. Over the last few years, the TLR has built quite a nice following. Teachers, public librarians, school librarians, college professors, parents and other students often tweet us about how they use the TLR for book recommendations and insights.

One thing that I stress to the kids is that so many of the YA Lit reviews are written by adults and are done so from an adult perspective. Many of the best reviewed books are ones that the kids will not touch. I sometimes joke that the Newbery Medal is put on books to show the kids which books to avoid. Now, there are some excellent Newbery Medal winning books, but too often, the kids do not share the reviewers' enthusiasm for those books. That is why, I tell the kids, it is so important to get THEIR voices out there. The audience for the review, especially other students, really does want to know what actual teens are reading and liking. There is no more powerful voice than a peer when it comes to good reading material.

Last year, we had a couple authors contact us about reviewing their novels. In one case, the author sent us a link to the publisher's website and an access code so that we could access the novel. One of the kiddos volunteered to read the novel after reading the blurb. She liked it pretty well, reviewed it, and we sent the review link to the author. Pretty cool stuff for seventh graders. This year, while on Twitter, an author asked if the kids would review her companion books to the Divergent Series and Hunger Games series. After sending her the school address, we got a package today.

In fifth hour, I reminded the kids about the conversation we had last week when I told them of the request. When I showed them the books, I had several volunteers to review each book. They are all checked out and we hope to have reviews up by the middle of next week. We should have multiple reviews for each book. I feel that it is imperative that these kids know that others WANT to know what they think, that they have a voice, and that when they create something, others are paying attention. Their work is out there for the world to see, critique and use. I want them to get a sense that their contributions go way beyond the walls of the classroom. When they talk, people really do listen.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

"The Leg Broke Off"

One of the things that we always tell kids is that we want them to experience real-world learning. We have moved to a Project Based Learning environment to allow the kids to create knowledge and learning that are relevant to their lives. We balance what the curriculum says they should be learning with the kids' natural curiosity and desire to learn the things that they want to learn. Sometimes, a real-life learning situation comes up that is not related to our curriculum but we follow that path anyway.

One simple problem occurred Friday in class. One of the table legs broke off. As I walked in to class, a small table, where two boys sit, was balancing books and laptops on its wobbly three legs. One of the boys was trying to hold it steady.

"The leg broke off," one of the kiddos said.

"Well, I guess you guys have to fix it, huh?" I replied.

"Can I do it? I can do it," a boy from across the room said.

"There are tools in the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet in the back, behind Owen's chair. Get what you need and make it happen," I told them.

And so, four boys got to work. They thought about using the hammer but then thought better of it. Pliers were the tools of choice. It was a tricky fix because the screw that holds the leg on to the table is at an angle and is very hard to reach. A couple of the kiddos figured out the best way to approach the problem, took turns wrestling with the screw, and finally restored the leg to its proper place. The table is now functional and all is well again.

Owen, Liam, Kaiden and Musa repairing the table

This is just one of those real-world problems that will occur time and again in these kids' lives. Instead of calling for a maintenance guy, I want the kids to rely on themselves first. I want them to think, "Oh, here's a problem. I've never dealt with anything like this before. Let me think of the best way to tackle this problem." Then, I want them to try until they figure out a way to solve the problem. Were these boys successful on their first attempt? Nope. It took three tries, each time attempting a different fix, before they got it right. They saw it as a puzzle and were motivated to solve it.

This is not an earth-shattering problem like world hunger or world peace that these kids solved. It was a minor inconvenience. However, the kiddos did what we all must learn to do: figure out a solution to the problem and don't give up until it's solved. They showed a lot of cooperation, they talked through the problem, and they never gave up. These are the qualities that I want the kids to show whenever they encounter a problem, no matter how huge or small.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Maslow and Minecraft

For the last five or six weeks, we have been studying the civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt. We have looked at the physical geography, culture, economics, and government. We look at enough content to give the kids a good idea of how things were back then but we don't worry a lot about the finer details that they probably won't remember anyway. I want the kids to grapple with the concept of what it takes to create a self-sustaining civilization and so, we worked on a project called YOUville.

In this project, kids must create a civilization based on Maslow's hierarchy of needs. We dedicated one week to each of the levels (we did not do the self-actualization level) so that kids could develop their civilization in steps. During Week 1, for example, kids located their civilizations in an existing, undeveloped area of the world outside of the United States that could sustain life. The location had to have a water source and the kids had to plan for the acquisition of food. Each week, the kids had to build another layer of their civilization according to the hierarchy.

Not only are we seeing some amazing projects but we are also seeing what the kids feel is important. Some really built up the defenses while others focused on art and culture. Kids could use any tool they wanted in order to build. Some chose paper and some chose digital tools. The two most popular digital tools were Build with Chrome and Minecraft. Now, we don't have Minecraft at school, but the kids do at home and on their phones. Would they be allowed to build their civilization on Minecraft? Of course. Why wouldn't they? Well, the results were astounding. Here are two snippets of one pair's Minecraft civilization.

After finishing their presentation, the two boys were asked how much time they spent creating this civilization. "Oh, we spent a lot of hours working on this at home." BOOM! I loved hearing that. I've always tried to make learning fun for kids so that they would eagerly do some of the learning at home. After all, extending the school day because kids WANT to do the work is a huge win for any teacher. Needless to say, I was pleased. 

The kids are learning what it takes to create a successful civilization and they can now appreciate the ancient civilizations we are studying so much more.

Friday, October 31, 2014

MOREnet Conference Experience

Earlier this week, my teaching partner Melissa (@melissahellwig4) and I attended the MOREnet conference in Columbia, MO. We had been looking forward to this conference for a long time. We knew it would be a good opportunity to learn from some of the area's best educational technology minds. Well, we were not disappointed.

Our time began at the Presenters' Picnic, a time to meet and talk to MOREnet staff and other conference presenters in an informal way. Who knew how many resources MOREnet had? Free professional development sessions? Huh? Yep! Online resources that we can use tomorrow in our classes? Yep! As we listened to what MOREnet offered to teachers throughout the state, we kept thinking, "How come we didn't know about this already?" Well, the secret is out!

On Monday morning, we presented about our 20% Time project. Our presentation title was Harmonized Learning: A 20% Time Learning Environment. We keep a blog that documents everything we do for 20% Time and includes videos, podcasts, photos, blog entries and other resources that we use ( We had a good crowd at our session, many of whom knew what 20% Time is but many who knew nothing about it at all. While we sometimes doubt that anyone wants to hear anything we have to say, we also realize that the philosophy, processes and procedures that we have developed around 20% Time are new and progressive for many. We feel that 20% Time leads to a deep learning experience for kids, but we sometimes have to convince teachers to divest themselves of the traditional way that school operates and take the leap.

During the rest of our time there, we saw many cool tips and tricks, learned about several technologies, talked to very knowledgeable people and made connections that will help us in the future. The attendees all seemed to be there to learn, help, collaborate and share. In that kind of environment, one of support and learning, you can't help but flourish. Now we take that learning back to the classroom and implement as much as we can as soon as possible.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

What About the Other Kids?

Last weekend I attended a great conference put on by EdSurge and several leading connected educators in the St. Louis area. It was a day full of immense possibilities. Each edtech company represented had a great product and the representatives were brimming with ideas on how to implement the tools into class. Amazing. My head was spinning from all of the new things that I was learning as I walked around the room talking to company reps, inventors, teachers and innovators.

During lunch there was a student panel that answered questions from teachers about classroom climate, teaching and learning, and what modern-day education should look like. I love listening to kids talking about their school environment and their learning because we can always learn from them. The students were bright and articulate and talked about a range of issues from the classroom comfort to the relationships that teachers build with students.

I assume that all of these kids excel at school. They all talked about their success in school in one form or another. As they were talking, I wondered, "What would the kids who are NOT successful at school say if they had the chance to address teachers?" Now, we probably will never know at an event like the EdSurge conference because they probably would not give up a Saturday to come in to a place where they feel so unsuccessful. Still, I wondered, "What about the other kids?"

Would the other kids feel that having couches in the classrooms would make a big difference in their learning? The schedule or the courses offered? I doubt it. Kids who are borderline (not successful, considering dropping out) probably would care if there was a couch in the room much less than if there was an advocate for them in the room. I'm not exactly sure what they would say but I do THINK they would say that they don't see an adult in the building who has their back, who has built a solid relationship with them and champions their learning above all else. Is it fair to expect these kids to care about school when it has been demonstrated to them time and again that school does not care about them? A couple of the kids on stage at EdSurge hit the nail on the head: it all comes back to relationships.

Kids MUST have adults in the building who consider the students their very own kids. What parent is going to want less-than-the-best for their own child? If we change the paradigm to think of our students as our own children, then we will not accept less-than-the-best for them either. Then, those students who are borderline, at-risk and considering dropping out, will have an adult to champion THEM and finally, they will be able to find success at school.

Schools must personalize the learning for each student. We must identify the kids' strengths and work to develop those strengths. After all, those strengths represent the areas in which those kids will be working for the rest of their lives. If we can find out what drives kids, treat them like our own children and always be there to help them succeed, then ALL kids will be able to succeed in school.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

My Take on Amendment 3 in Missouri

Every once in a while, the state legislature does something that is bad for education. Believe me, in Missouri we educators have had no shortage of handcuffs put on us as we try to do our job. Districts struggle with funding rules, programs are invented and pushed onto schools and, of course, there is always the testing element. Nothing so far has been as damaging as Amendment 3 could be. It is so damaging, in fact, that the legislature never even proposed it. Nope! Some wealthy billionaire who thinks he knows best has paid to have this amendment put on the ballot in November. Rarely have I been moved to write a letter to the editor. I probably should more, but I don't. Until now. This is a letter to the editor that I sent in to be published. I'm not sure if it has made its way into any papers but it sums up my thoughts about the matter.

To the Editor,

I have had the good fortune of teaching in the Webster Groves School District for the last 22 years. I love every day that I walk into school and try to make a difference in my students’ lives. Webster Groves is blessed with an excellent school system that has been supported by the community time and time again. Webster residents are proud of their schools and with good reason. We are at the forefront of innovative teaching and learning, foster a climate of caring and collaboration, and graduate some of the best-prepared student in the nation.

Webster residents should vote NO on Amendment 3 this fall. The Amendment may have its good intentions but it goes about things in exactly the wrong way. The amendment takes local control away from school districts. I have worked closely with our central office administration and Board of Education over the past 15 years and I know that they are knowledgeable and caring advocates for our students. Our locally-elected Board members know our community and our students and those are the people we want making educational decision for our district, not politicians in Jefferson City. The more local the control of a school district, the better off that school district remains.

Another reason to vote NO on Amendment 3 is the “testing on steroids” provision. Webster residents know that students already experience a degree of standardized testing fatigue but the amendment will require many, many more “one-size-fits-all” standardized tests over the course of a student’s career. Teachers will become test proctors. Many more days of the school year will be dedicated to standardized testing instead of learning. We know that student attendance days should be spent learning, creating, problem-solving and thinking. Only a couple of those days should be spent on mandatory standardized testing.

The amendment requires each local district to spend its own resources developing standardized tests that must be approved by a central governing agency in order to be implemented. The money that each district must spend developing those tests must come from each district’s general budget. Because of the amendment, those precious few dollars that every district relies on to educate children will shrink in order to fulfill a mandate from Jefferson City. What happens if a district rightfully decides that these requirements are not in the best interest of children and decides not to implement them? Not only will the district lose its state education money but the state will also take the district’s local education money as well. Effectively, the district will be out of business.

Can improvements be made to our education system? Of course the education system can be improved just as the health care system, legal system, manufacturing industry and service industry can be improved. Are teachers, administrators and board members working on improving the education system every day? Yes we are. Amendment 3 may be well-intentioned, but it is the wrong way to go.

We teachers, administrators and board members are working every day with all of our energy to provide every child with a first-rate education that not only prepares them for the next step in their educational careers, but also for their lives. We are innovating in classrooms, teaching kids how to think and create and problem-solve. We are accessing and using technology to prepare kids for the careers of the future, not the jobs of the past. We are focused on the most important aspect of school - the kids. Amendment 3 hinders each school district’s ability to provide the best education for the children it serves. It is my most sincere hope that everyone votes NO on Amendment 3 this November.

Don Eckert

Monday, October 6, 2014

Google Summit: They Can Take it from There

On Saturday, I attended the Missouri Google Summit at Maplewood-Richmond Heights High School. It was a homecoming of sorts since I started teaching in the M-RH School District in 1989. The renovated high school building was spectacular, just beautiful. The learning during the day was equally spectacular.

I got to meet or attend the sessions of several educators that I follow on Twitter which was a kick in itself. The first session I attended was Bob Deneau's (@itechbob) "Beyond the Apps: More Google and Connected Tools for the Classroom". Bob showed us several tools, many of which I knew I had to show the kids as soon as possible. The various creation tools (Powtoon, Google Cultural Institute and Tour Builder) that Bob talked about would go beautifully with the YOUville project we're doing in social studies.

The second session was called "Building Digital Citizens" by Bill Bass (@billbass). Melissa (@melissahellwig4) and I have talked about using Discovery time this year to talk about digital citizenship. Bill showed us the Google Digital Citizenship Curriculum ( and the Common Sense Media materials ( Just learning about those two resources made this a killer session but Bill talked a lot more about how to show kids their digital footprint and ways to manage their online content.

I have found blogging to be a good way to document some of the things we do at school and also a good way to reflect. Justin Tarte (@justintarte) is someone I've followed on Twitter for a while and I like his take on learning. We attended his session "Let's Get Blogging with Blogger". It was both motivating and validating at the same time. He talked about consistency and relating experiences and reflections in our blogs.

Julie Szaj (@shyj) moderates the New Teachers to Twitter (#NT2T) chat every Saturday morning at 8am. I try to attend every week and always learn a few things from her. I had a feeling that her talk, "Here an App, There an App, Everywhere an App App" would be really informative. Well, it was more than that. She had a load of apps and tools that our standing-room-only crowd appreciated seeing. Some I was familiar with and some I had never seen before. I especially liked "Build with Chrome" and some of the photo-editing tools that she showed us and will be showing them to the kids this week.

Between sessions, we also had a chance to stop by the Google Sandbox. Patrick Dempsey (@midschoolsci), a fellow Hixson Middle School teacher and Google guru, was featuring all kinds of cool tools from a 3D printer to music apps and gaming apps. Very cool stuff.

Days like Saturday really motivate me to learn more and do more with my students. I get such a charge out of learning all of these new things. It's no different for the kids at school. If kids find things that they want to learn about then they will learn. The trick for me is to figure out what those things are and make sure that I include them with some of the things I have to teach the kiddos. Right now we're creating civilizations based on Maslow's hierarchy of human needs as part of our Ancient Civilizations unit. I saw at least six tools on Saturday that kids could use this week for their projects. Today, I showed them three. Tomorrow, I will show them another three. The kids are already exploring those tools and using them in their civilization project.

I try to implement new things in my classroom as soon as I learn them, even if I have not yet mastered them. For example, I learned about "Build with Chrome" on Saturday and played around with it for about two minutes, long enough to show the kids what it is. By the end of the period today, several kids had already constructed buildings to be part of their civilization. Amazing! I don't have to master everything, I just need to know enough to be dangerous and show the kids. They can take it from there.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

A Little Sharing

Friday afternoon, Melissa and I hosted a little Google Classroom sharing session. About a half dozen teachers and administrators came to share what they knew about Classroom. For a Friday afternoon, that was a great turnout!

One thing I like about our sharing session is that everyone offered up things they had figured out and ways that they are using Classroom in class. I had figured out a few things either by experimentation or by reading about it online, but on Friday I learned way more than I shared. That's the thing; when you get a group of talented, creative individuals in the same room, they can't help but learn from each other. Sometimes the best PD is just a group of teachers sitting around sharing experiences about a the topic at hand.

We are hoping that we can host more sessions like this one. Since we have gone 1:1 in the seventh grade this year, there is so much that we are discovering. If we can come together occasionally to share what we've learned, we will all learn at a much faster rate than we would otherwise. Good things happen when teachers teach teachers.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Kindles and Books! Kindles and Books!

Last week, we put a grant on for five Kindles. We have a classroom Kindle program and wanted to increase the number of devices available for kids to check out. They are very popular. Well, on Friday, mostly through the generosity of our kids' families, our grant was funded. We are extremely appreciative.

The last donation to our grant was from the Rise Up Foundation in Orange County, CA. With the donation came a note saying that the organization, in honor of National Literacy Month, was sending us books for our classroom. Today, those books came. Wow, that was quick! Now we have eight new books for kiddos to read and five brand new Kindles on the way. It was a good week for our Harmony Team reading program!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

A Sense of Belonging

Over the years, Melissa and I have worked hard at building our team culture. It is important for us to have a connection with each of the kiddos. We believe that when students know that the most important part of school for us is them, then they will trust us, buy into the program and learn more than they would have otherwise. To that end, we encourage kids to contribute ideas for helping develop the culture of Team Harmony.

One thing we've always done to foster a sense of belonging is have team t-shirts made. Most teams and schools do this. It is nothing outstanding or unique. However, we have long since gone beyond team t-shirts to an  entire line of Harmony Gear. Several years ago, kids started asking if we could have hoodies. Then they asked about pants. Then shorts. You get the picture. Kids wanted choices. They wanted different colors, styles and designs. We took their wishes seriously and found a company that offered an entire line of goods that the kids could choose. Now, our Harmony Team logo is attached to t-shirts, sweatshirts, hoodies, cinch sacs, flannel pajama pants, basketball shorts and other miscellaneous items. Each of the choices comes in various colors and styles. The kids can show their individuality while still maintaining a sense of team. All of this came from ideas that the kids have had over the years.

Often we are visited by former students. They come back from the high school to tell us how their year is going. Many times they will tell us of a conversation they struck up with a younger or older high school student because they were wearing their Harmony Gear. There was instant recognition and so they started talking. Those are the stories we like to hear because we try to cultivate a family atmosphere on team. The kids show a sense of pride that they were on this team and it shows because, even in high school, they are still wearing their team gear. We are just as proud of them.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Ken Robinson: Do Schools Ignore Talents?

When we narrow the focus of education to that which exists on a standardized test, we are doing our students and our society a huge disservice. Our schools should be as varied as the talents that walk through those school doors and we teachers should be encouraging the development of those talents, whether or not they fit on a standardized test. It is our responsibility to our students.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Our First Week Using Google Classroom

When we got word this summer that Google Classroom would debut in the fall, we, like others, were excited at the opportunity to use a learning management system that would be integrated into the suite of Google apps. Many teachers in my building applied to be early adopters, wanting to get their hands on the beta version to see how we could use this tool in class. Would it be as good as Edmodo? Would the learning curve be big? Will it actually be a good tool, allowing us to work without it getting in the way? Well, we started using Classroom on Monday after kids got their Chromebooks last Friday (we just went 1:1). Here are some observations.

The interface is clean and easy to navigate. Adding classes was a breeze and having kids join my classes was a snap as well. We chose to do it by having the kids join a class with the class code. It took about ten minutes to get all of the kids in class up to speed.

The navigation for creating assignments and loading files and links into the assignment for the kids to use is also very intuitive. Click a button, load an assignment or link, and you're done. From the kids' perspective, they see all of their classes with the assignments for each of those classes in the little class box. They get a snapshot view of upcoming assignments. When they click on the assignment, they can get right to work; everything is right there for them.

Some things were tricky. We learned this week that students can create docs, presentations and spreadsheets right inside the assignment and, when they do, the assignment is named for them (their name and the name of the assignment appears at the top as the file name) and I, the teacher, automatically have permission to view the doc. One problem we ran into was that sometimes I had a student create a file in Drive and, since it was not created in Classroom, it was not automatically giving me permission to view. Only the files created IN classroom (Docs, Presentations, etc) automatically give the teacher accessibility. Otherwise, we must change permission on the file or link, just like before. This was an inconvenience but an easy fix.

A view of Google Classroom from inside one of my classes.

The way I decided to use the grading scale is as follows: if a kid has turned in the assignment, I put a 1/1 as the score. That tells them to go to the grade book (we use SIS) and see what their grade is. If a 0/1 appears as their score, it means that they have not turned it in or I could not open the file. This system saves me time by only having to enter grades in one place. Some kids had a problem finding, within the assignment box, where the 1/1 or 0/1 was. I looked around on my computer and didn't see it. As the impatience grew and a bit of whining ensued, I said, "Instead of waiting for me to figure it out, let's see which one of you can figure it out first!" Immediately, Claire's hand shot into the air. "I know how," she said. "Okay, everyone. Claire knows how. Claire, come up here and show everyone where to look." She took over the media stand (where my old compute sits attached to a projector and speakers) and proceeded to show the kiddos where to look. Then, she worked her way around the room pointing it out individually. As soon as she showed one kiddo, that student had to get up and show another student, etc. It went on like that for about five minutes until everyone knew.

We decided at the beginning of the week that Google Classroom is going to be the tool that we use. It's just too well-integrated and easy-to-use not to. We also decided, as classes, that there will be glitches along the way and that we would, as a group, solve them. I no longer am the answer-guy in class. I may be the one that directs the show, but that direction usually means matching kids up to learn together or, as in Claire's case, asking the kids to solve our real-life problems and then having them teach the others. It's a way of learning that is sometimes noisy and sometimes frustrating but always effective because the kids are actually figuring out relevant problems themselves or in collaboration with others. That's just how we roll!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Our Digital Environment

Since our kids have received their Chromebooks for our 1:1 Laptop Program, we have been immersing them in a digital environment. Over the last couple of days, we've begun using Google Classroom, discovering new tips and tricks along the way. Kids have discovered shortcuts to attach files (docs can be created IN Google Classroom rather than being attached from Drive), I learned that the same assignment can be assigned in multiple classes, and kids have discovered how to link work from outside Google into their Classroom assignment.

We've also started using 3DGameLab, a site that allows teachers to create learning quests for the students to complete. Each student has an account within our group and, upon completing a quest, earns points. Kids earn points and badges that allow them to level up. The kids, so far, have enjoyed the game lab. I find that it satisfies their desire to be online in a game-like environment while also completing their work and learning new skills. After all, kids who see learning as fun tend to learn more, in my view.

These boys are completing a quest using 3DGameLab and Google Apps

Saturday, September 13, 2014

A One-to-One Classroom - Let's Figure It Out!

Our seventh grade class is kicking off a Chromebook 1:1 Program this year. The students on our team, Harmony Team, received their Chromebooks on Friday. Of course, there was all kinds of jubilation and excitement; the kiddos were stoked. Each class spent one period learning how to navigate the school wifi, signing in with their school cloud accounts, and troubleshooting any issues they might have had. Later in the day, we got the kids signed in to, and familiar with, Google Classroom. This coming week, we will work more with the kids, helping them learn Symbaloo, Google Classroom, Khan Academy, BrainPop, and a few other essential "creating" apps that we'll be heavily using this year.

Working in a 1:1 classroom environment is both easier and more difficult for teachers. It is easier because we no longer need to run copies, haul bags of paper assignments back and forth from school to home, chase down missing paper assignments, and spend much of the hour delivering presentations before differentiating for the students. A 1:1 environment is more difficult because the work for the teacher is front-loaded. It takes a lot more preparation up front to run an effective 1:1 classroom. We need to find or create the learning resources that we'll use in class or that kids can use on their laptop at home. Many of us will flip instruction from time to time so not only must we prepare for the classroom instruction but also instruction that occurs beyond classroom walls. Teachers will also spend less time delivering whole-class instruction because that instruction can be created and delivered individually in class or out of class. Instead, we will spend more time differentiating in class, conferencing with kids to make sure they are understanding the concepts we are trying to teach them.

The shift to a 1:1 classroom is ripe with possibilities. We can transform the learning so that students get even more individual help, collaborate with their peers, create, have the learning personalized for them and use the technology to learn at their own pace. Students will have an amazing tool in their hands that will allow them to go as far with the learning as they can, even beyond what the teachers intended for them. Our role as teachers continues to change in the classroom, especially in a 1:1 classroom. We have to take on the role of Lead Learner. We have to stress to the kids that the way that class works nowadays, we don't have all of the answers anymore and that we must be a learning community that will problem-solve, create and learn together. I expect that the most used words in our classroom this year will be, "Let's figure it out!"

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Climatology of Harmony

At the beginning of the year, Melissa and I spend a lot of time building relationships and creating a meaningful community on team. We nurture those relationships and that climate throughout the year. Most years, it snowballs into a wonderful year for all of the kids. Former students come back years later and talk about how seventh grade was their best school year ever. We love hearing that because it validates what we are trying to build each year.

One of the digital tools that we are using this year to help with community-building is Tagboard. The tool is designed to collect all references to a particular hashtag online and deliver it to one stream that can be embedded in a blog, on a website, etc. We have embedded our Tagboard stream on all of our blogs including our team blog, the place where parents and students go for assignments, updates and information about our team and school. By glancing through our Tagboard stream, we can see all kinds of cool things that are going on.

We are now encouraging parents and students to contribute to our Tagboard. The idea is that if a kid is doing something cool outside of school, we'd like to know about it. Those activities in the past have ranged from baseball leagues, ice skating competitions, Irish dancing in Ireland, volleyball tournaments, community plays, writing awards, Indian dance classes, etc. There are so many things these kids are involved in that we never hear about and Tagboard can help us keep up with all of them. Our hope is that parents (and students) will Tweet (or whatever social media tool they use) some of their kids' community events using the team hashtag so that all of us can see the variety of cool things that our students and classmates are doing. We think it will go a long way toward getting to know the kids better and building an even stronger community.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Learning Showcase #1

We've been back at school for a few weeks now and it's finally time for our first assessment in social studies. Because of the change in the way we do things, we will not have a test with bunches of questions, multiple-choice or otherwise, for the kids to sweat. I'm not interested in "gotcha" test questions; I'm interested in what the kiddos have learned during the last few weeks. There is a big difference.

During the past three weeks, we've talked about archaeology, prehistory, Otzi the Iceman, forensic science and how we gather knowledge and clues to figure out the solution to a problem. One of our activities was an archaeological dig of our own. Students brought in five artifacts to share with the class. The artifacts had to pertain to an aspect of their interests and personalities. Then, students had to fill shoe boxes with five related (the relationship could not be too obvious though) artifacts hidden in layers of dirt. We assigned random show boxes and had the kids carefully dig through to uncover the hidden artifacts. Once the artifacts were uncovered, they had to try to match the boxes with the owners. Most kids were able to match the box with its owner but some were not.

I constantly talked to the kids about the thinking that was going into these decisions. After all, it is the logic, problem-solving, reasoning skills I want these kids to have so when we talked about the assessment in class yesterday, that is what I stressed. I told them, "I'm just going to give you a big question like 'How do we know what we know?' and based on what you've seen and done during the last few weeks, you'll answer it. What skills did you learn what you learned? Isn't that what archaeologists do? If you talk about that and explain your processes, you'll do great. I want to know what you know; this is a chance to showcase your learning." One student commented that this will be hard for her because she is more used to a sheet of questions with definitive answers.

On Monday, the kiddos will have one class period to write all they can about their learning experience and answer the questions "How do we know what we know?" We also talked about options in case a kid's strength was not writing. "You can draw a series of pictures over the weekend and caption them in class on Monday. You can create a presentation and fill in the writing part here in class on Monday. You can take a recording device into the hall for ten minutes on Monday and talk out your answer. You can stay after school and we can discuss the learning together. Whatever it takes for you to demonstrate to me that you have a handle on what we've learned over the past few weeks."

I am eager to see what the kiddos come up with on Monday. I know some will flounder for a few minutes and I may have to support them a bit but I think that once the kids see that we're talking a great deal about their personal learning experience, they will eventually take the lead and flourish in this environment.

Sifting through layers of dirt to find artifacts.

The artifacts found sometimes raised more questions than they answered.

Learning by doing!

Friday, August 29, 2014

Brag Books!

Good team climate is essential for a good learning experience for all of our students. We work tirelessly with the kids at the beginning of the year to instill in kids a sense of belonging, respect for others, collaboration and compassion. After all, these are the 50 other kids that they will be learning with this year.

One of our first "assignments" is to pay one compliment, in writing, to each student on the team. I pass out a class list and kids are to write one good thing about each person. Some have known each other for years and have a long history from which to draw. Others are meeting for the first time this year. In either case, kids try to come up with one positive statement about every other kid. 

I take all of the sheets home and create a page for each student on team with a list of the best compliments that the students gave that student. At the end of the process, we have one sheet full of compliments and positive statements. While the kids are in electives, we tape them to the insides of their lockers so that when these kids open their lockers at the end of the day, a sheet of positive statements is staring them in the face. 

We love watching the moment when the lockers start opening. At first the kids are a bit startled that something is out of the ordinary but then they read "This is what your teammates are saying about you" and they begin to read all of the good things that their peers know or have noticed about them, and they stand stock still reading the page. Some ask, "Who did this?" and Melissa and I just smile to each other. Watching 50 kids read good things about themselves, smiles lighting up their faces, is a moment we wish we could record on video. Some kids take the paper home to show parents, some leave them hanging inside their lockers, and some take it out and place it on the outside of their locker for all the world to see. This is one of our favorite moments of the year!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Oh, What a Night!

Open House at school occurred tonight. My teaching partner, Melissa (@melissahellwig4), and I love this night because we get to meet the proud parents of our amazing kids and share with them our philosophy of learning, our team climate and our hopes for their children this year. It's a chance for parents to see the shiny promise of a new year and understand that their kids have adults at school who really care about them and want the best for them.

While we always go over some nuts and bolts information, the evening is spent talking more about learning and climate than rules, supplies and content. We assume that parents know that their kids will learn math, science, social studies and English during the year. What we want them to take away from the night is that we are committed to personalizing learning for each of their kids, that we honor each child's learning style and creativity, and that we will treat them with as much care as if they were our own kids.

During our talk, we stress that we will be doing things a little differently this year. Most of their work will be project-based where kids can use their natural talents to demonstrate their mastery of content and skills. They will have the freedom to choose project types and presentation modes that are as unique as they are.

We stress that cultivating a positive culture is essential to our mission this year. We try to create a lot of hoopla around our team from having a mascot, team colors, shirts, shorts, hoodies, pencils, etc. We have team banners, creatively-designed and visually-stimulating rooms, and a lot of team-specific online tools. We devote the first couple of weeks to team-building and we work hard to establish a positive feeling on team.

Well, so far it is working out pretty well. Parents were very receptive to our talk and looked visually relieved at times. They laughed and smiled at our corny jokes and hopefully saw two caring adults in the front of the room who want to go the extra mile to do right by their kids. Parents were extremely complimentary about our program and the climate we are creating. They talked about how much their kids like school this year and how eager they are to come each morning. The parents, and the kids, seem hungry for the type of learning we are doing on team this year. We believe that personalized, creative, problem-solving, project-based learning is the future of schools. Tonight, we found out that nearly all of our students' parents feel the same way. It was a great night!

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Learning Classroom Culture

Classroom culture is absolutely the most important element for a successful school year. Everything else stems from a good classroom culture: learning, positive interactions, values and developing lifelong learning skills. I want the culture of our classroom to be one of collaboration, learning and fun. My goal is for kids to learn how they learn best, how to be independent and how to problem-solve. If they make progress in these areas during the time they are with me, then we will have had a successful year.

"Ours will be a class unlike any you've ever had," I say on the second day of school (on the first day, all we do is learn each others' names). They are already sitting in furniture not usually associated with school classrooms, so they know something is up from the start. "There is a difference between learning and testing. We will do learning in here," I tell them. "And so, I have some bad news for you. This year, we will have no tests." At this point their mouths drop. Some cheer subtly at their seats. Others just flat out don't believe me. The conditioning in schools is that we learn information then spill it back out on a test. That's how schools work, right? I've never been a fan of tests for a variety of reasons. If I ask my kiddos to think outside the box, why can't I do the same? Can I find other ways to see if they are making progress in class? Sure I can. "Oh, and by the way, we won't have any assigned written homework either." Well, by this time, they think either I'm not really a teacher in the building or I have clearly lost my mind. I talk to them a little more about why those things don't equal learning and after a little while, they begin to see that I'm serious.

Most of the time, the kids leave my room thinking either "This is gonna be fun!" or "This is gonna be easy!" Good! I want them to think that. I want them to know that they are going to learn a ton this year but that learning will be relevant to their lives and driven by themselves and so it won't feel like the learning that they are used to. I won't be handing them papers to fill out so I can grade them. Nope! Together, we will learn. Together, we will problem-solve. The most frequently used words in our classroom this year are going to be, "Let's find out!"

I tell the kiddos from the start that they will not have to worry about tests or mountains of homework because I want them to relax and focus on the learning. I want them to let their natural curiosity take over and drive their learning. I want them to see some of the really cool content that we cover in class and be motivated to investigate further or create something new based on what they learned.  

As an adult, I learn about things in which I'm interested. I get on tangents and learn everything I can about a topic. I create little projects for myself in order to learn more. I am relaxed when I learn best and I allow my natural curiosity to take over and lead me on my learning journey. I think this is how all adults learn and so I wonder, why do we make kids learn differently? In our classroom, our kids are relaxed, curious, collaborative, investigative and learning. We are trying to develop intellectually nimble kids who can look at a problem, develop an approach for tackling the problem, and be persistent in finding a creative solution. We don't know what these kids will be doing in ten years. Some will be in college, some will be working and some will be doing other things. One thing I do know is that if we're successful in what we're doing in class this year, these kids will be better prepared to make a difference in the world. 

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Amazing Race

In an effort to get to know the kiddos as soon as possible, Melissa (@melissahellwig4) and I do a variety of team-building activities, introduce the kids to the team culture we've built, and make sure that the kids know that their seventh grade school year, if done right, will be different from any year they've ever had in school. It's a tall order but we want them thinking about school differently. When they walk into our rooms, we want them to feel a completely different vibe than they were expecting. We love seeing the looks on their faces when they walk through our doors and take it all in.

The very first project that we do in social studies is our version of The Amazing Race. Each group of kids (we only have tables in class - no desks) becomes a team that will compete in the race. Every group is given one envelope and two resources (atlas and textbook). Inside each envelope is a list of clues and puzzles that, when solved, will take the kids to different places in the world. Kids find out quickly that they must do the tasks in order; being in the correct place after Question 1 is imperative because that location serves as the starting point for Question 2. Each group races around the world as quickly as they can, making sure that, as a group, they solve each puzzle or task correctly.

One reason I like to do this activity early on is that the kiddos are forced into a collaborative situation right off the bat. They learn cooperation and the interdependence of good group collaboration. They cannot be shy with each other anymore after spending three days thinking and solving together in a fun and competitive environment.

I wondered how our new Dry Erase table tops would be used during this activity. The Amazing Race is a paper/pencil activity and I didn't say anything about the table tops. As I walked around the room asking clarifying questions and making sure the kids were deciphering the tasks correctly, I noticed that nearly every group was using their table as a place to jot down thoughts, page numbers, pictures of where something might be geographically and random doodles. Kids were finding their own way to use the tabletops to help in their learning. They needed no instruction from me.

Having Dry Erase tabletops has been eye-opening for me. I watch the kids use them constantly (not always for learning, of course). I also see adults come into my room and after a few seconds, grab a marker and begin to doodle, express some of their ideas or otherwise use the space. I think this is one of those "If you build it, they will come" cases where having the tool there for everyday use encourages its everyday use. Kids and adults don't have to stop what they're doing and get out a tool to show their table mates something; they just grab a marker and go for it. It's been an interesting first few days in our learning space and I'm interested to see how learning evolves over the course of the year with all of the tools we'll have available to the kiddos. Here's to the promise of a new year!

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Kiddos, Start Your Engines!

On Friday I finished preparing the room for the first day of school. Everything I could think of is where it should be. Of course, after a couple of weeks with the kiddos, things will change because of the unique preferences and needs of this group. I wanted to make sure that our classroom was movable, collaborative and interesting for the kids. I want them to feel at home and at ease in our environment. We'll see how it goes.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Designing Collaborative Spaces

In the days leading up to the opening of a new school year, I began redesigning my classroom to allow for more collaboration among my kiddos. I have always been a fan of kids working together when they want and finding a quiet space to work alone when they want. It is the particular learning experience that drives a student to make that choice. I like open spaces in class, lots of tables, use of floor space, nooks and crannies in which kids can hunker down, and a free-flowing climate where the approach to learning is fluid.

Our classroom is visually stimulating - some would say TOO visually stimulating. Dozens of posters adorn the walls, country flags hang from the ceiling, street signs are strewn about and all kinds of funky decorations can be found in the room. There is one whiteboard in the front of the room, but that's about it for accessible, collaborative space. Since my mission is to get kids learning more through collaboration, I knew I had to do something to make the classroom more conducive to group learning. So...I painted the table tops with Dry Erase paint (whiteboard paint). I bought one kit at Home Depot for about $20.00. Now, each table will have a tray of Dry Erase markers and an eraser in the center. Kids will be able to articulate their ideas right there at their table and can work together to design and execute, show their thinking and demonstrate their knowledge. At the end of the class period, it can all be erased.

The first table turned out pretty well (I painted four tables so far and one Dry Erase kit was enough to paint all four table tops). Now the kids, sitting in their office chairs around the tables, can use the space to enhance their learning. I am eager to see how the kids use these table tops to teach, learn and work with each other.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Becoming a Google Educator

My name is Don and I'm slightly addicted to Twitter chats. I have to say that I get really pumped up talking to educators from all over the globe about ideas to implement in the classroom. I try to attend at least 2-3 Twitter chats per week. One of my favorites is #sunchat. It is on Sunday morning at 8am CMT. I'm usually awake and on the porch with coffee, lots of coffee. During the #sunchat this morning, the topic of Google Certification came up and was of interest to many in the chat. I touched on the certification process in my last blog post "Summer Learning, Having a Blast" (sung to the tune of "Summer Lovin'") but there were a lot of questions still so I thought I would go through the process here for anyone who wants to know more.

The most helpful resource that I found was the Google Training Center site found here: I completed the basic training and took the basic exam. No problem. We've been using Google Apps at school for a little over a year so I knew the basics pretty well. Then, it was on to the Advanced Level. This is the level upon which certification is based. I had to pass exams (with at least an 80%) on Docs & Drive, Calendar, Sites, Gmail, and one elective which, in my case, was Chrome Web Browser (because I thought it was the most useful for me).

Each exam is $15 to purchase, so the entire outlay was $75. I took my time going through the materials for each exam, starting with Calendar. It took about a day and a half to read through the materials and prepare to test. After taking the test, and passing (phew), I moved on to Docs & Drive. Same process. Then, on to Sites, Gmail and Chrome Web Browser. The time investment for each exam was different based on the apps with which I had the most experience. We use Docs & Drive all of the time at school so it took less time for me to master that one. Calendar, on the other hand, took longer. All in all, about 9-10 days was what it took for me to go through the site and master the material. The results of the tests are instantaneous. Click the "Finish" button and your score pops up. It is a nerve-racking two seconds :)

When you've passed all of the tests, you get one of these certificates:

I feel a great sense of accomplishment. The week and a half of immersion into the Google Apps will pay big dividends for myself and my students. The biggest surprise for me was Google Calendar. I had no idea that I could do so much with Calendar and use it for so many things in class. If you undertake the certification process, you'll see what I mean. One of the great things about learning all of the nuances of Google Apps is that I can take seemingly unrelated things from one App and apply them in unique ways to solve challenges in class. A little creativity and a little knowledge makes me a little dangerous! Uh oh, look out!

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Summer Learning, Having a Blast!

As we all do, I set some learning goals for myself this summer. I wanted to become a better-prepared teacher for my kids this coming year, especially when constructing a collaborative, student-driven, PBL classroom environment. To that end, I have been faithfully attending a few Twitter edchats each week, and read Drive by Daniel Pink (@DanielPink) and Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess (@burgessdave). Both were extremely motivational and validating. I know that, now more than ever, building a classroom in which the students' natural curiosity and intrinsic motivation are nurtured will allow them the autonomy they need to pursue their own creativity and learning. My push to transform my classroom into a PBL environment is in hyper-drive thanks to all of those from whom I've learned this summer.

A second learning goal I had for this summer was to become a Google Educator. In order to do this, one must learn the four base Google for Education Apps (Drive, Sites, Calendar and Gmail) and one "elective" App, in my case Chrome Web Browser. There was a test over each App and I had to score an 80% or above to become certified in that App. I had to pass all five to become a Google Educator. I was able to accomplish that about two weeks ago. Phew!

Now it is time to finish mapping out the first couple months of the year, continuing to develop a blog that will serve as the main communication device for our team parents, immerse myself in Google Classroom (we will be using that as our LMS this year) and putting the finishing touches on other technology odds and ends. The fact that we are moving to a 1:1 Chromebook environment has increased my urgency because I want to give my kiddos the best classroom experience that they've had to date. To do this, I have to know the technology well, map out a logical plan that allows for individual learning and growth and make sure the kids have a fun and rewarding experience this year. With three and a half weeks left of summer break, I am beginning to feel ready for the new school year to begin. 

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Project-Based Learning (PBL)

I came across this short video that introduces what Project-Based Learning encompasses. I will show this to my kiddos at the beginning of the year and together we will explore the subject of experiential learning. I hope to fire up their curiosity about PBL at the beginning of the year.

The Move To PBL

This summer, one of my goals is to complete the transformation of my classroom to a student-driven, project-based learning environment. To that end, I'm immersing myself in PBL resources in the hope of creating something for my classroom that is based on the successes and failures of others who have walked this path before me. I am currently reading Philip Cummings' blog (@Philip_Cummings) which details his PBL process and it has been extremely helpful. I'm also going to look into PBL University (@PBLUniversity) and work through some of the courses on that site in order to better prepare myself for a PBL learning environment. Oh, there is so much to learn.

One of the things that excites me about moving to a PBL environment is the increased student voice. Kiddos will have more of a say in what they learn, how they learn it and how they will demonstrate their learning. One thing I must keep in mind is that kiddos will need an authentic audience so early on, I will have to teach them how to create a Google Site and use it as a portfolio of their learning this year and a showcase for their learning as well. In fact, a Google Site should allow them to have a page for each content area and also a link to their 20% Time Project Blog (Harmonized Learning). Since we have gone paperless on our team (Team Harmony - myself and Melissa Hellwig @melissahellwig4), we have used Google Docs to share, collaborate and turn in assignments. The Google Sites will also allow publication and portfolio creation as well. Indeed, the Google Apps for Education will be integrated more fully this year into our program.

From my reading, I have learned that it is more important to create the learning environment than it is to create the learning outcomes. If I am able to create an environment in which kids feel empowered, know that their natural curiosities will be supported and feel that their creativity will be nurtured, then real, authentic learning will take place.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

How Schools Kill Creativity

I just watched Sir Ken Robinson's TED Talk called "How Schools Kill Creativity". I could not agree more with his premise - traditional schooling normss out much of our creativity in favor of conformity. Our values as a society are reflected in our public schools and those values seem to be attention to task and conformity.

While attention to task is important, if the task is not worthwhile to the person performing that task, then what good is it? So often, trying to get kids to learn in a traditional setting is like beating our heads against a wall. Those settings do not honor the talents and abilities of the kids. In schools where students' talents and abilities are honored, those same students perform well within their own creativity/talent spectrum.

The traditional school model may show some kids to be a failure at school but those same kids may turn out to be huge successes once they are removed from the school environment. We must do a better job at helping kids discover their talents, nurturing their creativity, and personalizing their learning to develop their strengths. Once schools do these things, our student population will be much more successful.

Here is the TED Talk by Sir Ken Robinson

Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Responsibility of Learning

We took our Medieval district assessment on Thursday (more on the results of that test in a later post) and reviewed the study guide the day before. During that review, I noticed some interesting things. Now, kids always want a list of the questions from the test with a list of the corresponding answers to those questions. That, in their minds, constitutes a "study guide". Well, the study guide they received was a list of topic areas with blank spaces for them to fill in what they knew about said topic. Many of the kiddos were not pleased. However, they had a week to fill out the study guide in preparation for the review.

The review was not a question-and-answer session. I explained to the kids that we will have a conversation, based on what the kids know about each topic, to review for the test. They are welcome to write down some of the ideas from our conversation as they apply to their study guide. "It will not be," I said to them, "a time when we look at the question and I tell you the words to put in the blank space. We'll converse and you'll write down what strikes you as important." The talk was going to go in one of two ways: a huge bomb or a pleasant surprise.

It was a pleasant surprise. For the first time that I can remember, someone in the room, other than me, was able to address each of the topics on the study guide. Many of the kids came across a lot of the ideas and information during their searches the past few weeks as we worked through the goals and standards for the Middle Ages Unit. Some of the kids even did their Inquiry Projects on the very topics that we were reviewing for the test and those kids talked with expertise about those topics. I told them many times, "You know more than you know you know."

In the past, I've always tried to use film, fun activities, interesting readings and robust online resources to teach the material for social studies. The kids would half-listen to me blather on about such-and-such topic and when the test came around, complain that they'd never even heard of the topics we'd been covering. Now, by putting the responsibility of learning on them, with me acting as a resource in class, kids actively learned, mustering all the skills they had and learning some new ones. This active learning was apparent during the review.

During the unit of study, I showed the kids the standards and goals, gave them a Google Doc of good resources (video, digital, book, etc) and left it up to them to determine how best they would learn. Now that they had a stake in their learning, they appear to have learned more than if I'd done things the old way. They chose how they would learn, making dozens of decisions along the way. They also chose their Inquiry Project question, assuring that it was of interest to them. Putting the responsibility of learning on the students was the key. They learned the material and some vital learning skills along the way.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Testing the Test

Yesterday we talked about the Medieval Assessment and what the kids should expect. I used the presentation linked here to make points about what learning should be taking place in class. We talked about content questions and thinking questions. We talked about why, on a test, kids are being asked random facts about history when most have a device in front of them with which they can find those answers in ten seconds. It makes no sense.

On the Medieval Assessment, we are going to "test the test". Using Google Forms, we will take the test online. If the test question is a content question and the kids can look up the answer online, they may do so. If the test question is a thinking question, then they will not be able to look it up. Our tests should focus on thinking questions, not content questions.

After each question on this assessment is a survey question. The survey question simply asks if the students searched online for the answer or if they reasoned out the answer. That data will be used when we tweak our assessments this summer. Hopefully after some tweaking, significant in some cases, the assessments will focus on thinking questions rather than random historical facts. 

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Twitter Power!

I have had a Twitter account for about four years. It was dormant for a long time but then my teaching partner, Melissa Hellwig, and I presented our 20% Time Project Classrooms at EdCampSTL in February and that's where my Twitter love affair began. Nearly every teacher in attendance at EdCampSTL was a techie and immersed in Twitter. We quickly got Melissa on Twitter and started connecting with other educators at the conference. Later I discovered Twitter Education Chats, and it was over!

When I got into my first Twitter EdChat, I was amazed by the number of teachers who were doing online professional development, usually in the evening. This was on their own time, after a long day at school. What they were sharing was wonderful. These educators were sharing the stories of their classrooms, the technology tools they were using to advance the learning of their students, the stumbles that they made along the way and the successes they had every day in class. This was amazing to me. There were teachers, student teachers, principals, superintendents and board members from across the country, and the world, in these chats. It really was mind-blowing.

How had I missed this entire subculture of online learning and sharing? How did I not even know that it existed? Fortunately I just happened to stumble on a chat and from that stumble, I learned that there is an entire online learning community that uses Twitter as a personal learning network (PLN). Incredibly, I have to admit that I have learned more about teaching, learning and technology in the last six months on Twitter than I have in my entire 26 years of district-offered professional development opportunities.

The thing that makes Twitter PD so good is that it is immediately relevant to my classroom. If I am doing something new, I can find dozens of teachers across the country who have tried the same thing and instantly access their experience. If I want to find out about a particular topic, I can attend an online chat and "lurk" (just read what the other teachers are saying in order to learn from their experiences). All of this PD is immediately relevant to me. Some of the most intellectually nimble and imaginative teachers are in these Twitter chats.

One of the most important things about these chats is that I get to share what we (Melissa and I) are doing in our classrooms. Twitter has metaphorically allowed me to fling open the classroom door and share with others what is going on in class. Now, I have always been one of those, "Let's close the door, do some really cool things, and not worry about getting into trouble" kind of teachers. I know that many things that I do in  class are not "traditional". However, seeing all of the like-minded teachers on Twitter, I realize that there are a lot more teachers like me out there and that has given me even more confidence and faith that what I am doing is right for kids. A solid, progressive, forward-thinking, technology-laden education is what I've always tried to give my kiddos and now I see that there are thousands of others out there with the same values.

There is an audience for what we are doing in our classes but what we have found is that audience is more outside our school than inside our school. We have so many talented teachers on our staff who are doing their own thing with little time to see what others are doing, but by sharing on Twitter, we have found support systems, like-minded teachers, and cheerleaders who want to replicate in their classrooms what we are doing in ours. That is validating and it is awesome!

Now, at least three times per week, I find myself starting conversations at school with, "Last night on Twitter, I saw this really cool...". Sometimes people may get sick of hearing about all of my learning on Twitter but my students are the primary beneficiaries of it. I try to get into as many EdChats per week as I can because I get a charge out of the learning, sharing and validation by teachers for teachers. Twitter gives teachers the power to access professional development from some of the leading minds in education today. It is an amazing tool.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

#Harmony - Our First E-Book

English - This morning we published our first e-book (found in the right hand column of this blog). I know that plenty of schools around the country have published e-books before and it's nothing revolutionary or cutting edge, but for us, it's a big deal. For years our kids have written incredible stories, poems, essays and plays. In the past we have tried to get authentic readership for those pieces but it was always difficult. Because we use a Writers' Workshop model, we know that publication is the best end product for our writing. Whether it is publishing for a readership inside of class or inside of school, we have always tried to have kids write for a real audience. In the past, we have even had school-wide writing contests where kids could submit some of their best work to be judged by a panel of teachers. All of these are great opportunities for kids to publish their work.

There is something about putting out a book, though, that is especially satisfying. From start to finish, kids were instrumental in creating this book. They wrote the material, they designed cover art and voted on their favorite, and they created the title, #Harmony. Now these kids can look at their work online, download it to their device, read it on a computer, and share it with a worldwide audience. They now can see that the little ideas that they had for writing projects have turned into polished, published pieces. They do not know how many people will read their stories and love them. They don't know who will read their poetry and be moved by it. All they know is that their writing is out there for anyone to pick up, read and enjoy. They are now real published authors.

This morning when I put up the QR code with the URL to their e-book, a dozen kids immediately got out their phones to get the book, many of whom didn't even contribute to the book. Many kids looked to see who contributed and what they wrote. When I told John, a particularly good writer, that one of his stories led off the book, he said, smiling, "Whaaaaaat?" Cool, indeed. I posted the QR code for our book throughout the school so that parents, students, teachers and staff can download it. It is on Google+, Twitter, our blogs and websites. The next step is trying to get it into the Google Play Store and on Amazon. We'll see about that.

The e-book is one example of exactly what Melissa (my teaching partner) and I have been trying to do with the kids all year. We are trying to have kids connect their learning to their lives. We want them to create things that have real applications to the world in which they live. When we make this connection between the kids' learning and the kids' world, we are making the learning so much more relevant than otherwise. Our 20% Time Project blog,, documents our journey with those projects, and each of those projects is absolutely relevant to the kids' lives. The e-book demonstrates the same thing, that their work is for a real audience and relevant to their world.

Today and for many days in the future, we will have students walking around with a bit more spring in their step and their heads held a bit higher because they can point with pride to a physical manifestation of some of their best work. It is out there in the real world and available for anyone to read. They should be very proud of that!