Thursday, December 17, 2015

Harmony Team Collects $2,253.82 for our Holiday Family!

Once again, our Harmony Team kiddos astounded us by collecting $2,253.82 for the family we adopted for the holidays. We were able to provide a wonderful holiday season for our family. The kids were amazing, collecting from friends, family and neighbors. Some kids even did fundraising events. We like to incorporate service into our team culture and this is our big service project for the year. We will also be doing some smaller service projects as the year progresses. Harmony Team is indeed "the little team that could".

This total is not unusual for Team Harmony. In the ten years that Team Harmony has been in existence, we have surpassed $1,500.00 every year. That is our longstanding goal. In the ten years that we have been collecting for Holiday Families, we have raised a total of $20,765.26. Incredible! How does this year's team rank against all of the other Harmony Teams in terms of Holiday Family collections? Below is a chart of all Harmony Team Holiday Family collections including the all-time rank in parentheses. Congratulations to all of the students and families that helped make this possible.

Holiday Family Collections by Year

2015 - 2253.82 (2)
2014 - 2068.68 (5)
2013 - 2243.53 (3)
2012 - 3228.82 (1)
2011 - 1847.03 (7)
2010 - 2197.16 (4)
2009 - 1686.35 (9)
2008 - 1733.24 (8)
2007 - 1996.40 (6)
2006 - 1510.23 (10)

Total - 20765.26

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The Day of Code

For the past two weeks, we have been planning the Day of Code as an extensive iteration of the Hour of Code. Our entire seventh grade floor participated so about 350 kids were involved in coding and coding-related activities for much of the day. Running six 25-minute sessions, kids could choose from thirteen different offerings. Sessions ranged from Fun with a Sphero to Programming a Virtual Robot to Star Wars Coding to Minecraft. The choices were plenty and the kids could have a taste of anything that interested them. The day was set up to be a huge success.

After distributing schedules, the kids were off. My session was Tinkercad and 3D Printing. All year long, kids from other teams in seventh grade expressed interest in 3D printing. Many never had the chance to learn about the tools we use to 3D print. Today was their chance. Most of what I did was give a five minute introduction to Tinkercad and narrate the workflow of our particular 3D printer. It was easy to grasp. After my mini-lesson, kids were able to design on Tinkercad. They loved it. Some used templates, some designed freehand, and some used a combination of shapes that were provided in the program. When the period ended, many of the kids stayed on for another session so that they could design more. During each session, I had between 30-60 students crammed into my room. Many were in chairs but many were on tables, on the floor or anywhere they could find some open space. They came in large numbers and they came to learn.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Our Epic Fail

The kids came to school today knowing that we were going to participate in #stucamp, the first annual national student edcamp. Schools from Iowa, North Carolina, New Jersey, and Missouri were participating. We were going to use an app called Unhangout that leveraged the power of Google Hangouts with a breakout session model. It looked great.

I took a couple of days this week to prep the kids, show them how the app worked and show the #stucamp promo video about why education needs to change. Most of the kids were stoked to participate and some were thinking of sessions that they would lead. The #stucamp would run from 12:00-1:00pm CST. We were ready!

Noon struck and the #stucamp went live. The first 20 minutes were for introductions and proposing sessions. While a few of our kiddos took it upon themselves to be immature in the chat room, most of the kids were awesome! After the first 20 minutes, we were ready to launch our Hangouts and get into those sessions. As we hit the "connect" button......nothing. We could not connect because our filter at school did not allow video calls on the student Chromebooks. A half dozen kids immediately realized the problem. "We can't get on!" they cried.

Once we knew what the problem was, I said, "Okay, let's try to find a fix!" Many of the kids tried their phones, going off the school wifi and using their cell networks. Other kids thought that our school Google Cloud e-mail addresses might be the problem and tried to sign in under their private Gmail accounts. Both worked! As more kids transitioned over to their personal Gmail accounts and switched to their phones to bypass the filter, something happened. Suddenly, without warning, the system crashed. All of our kiddos started getting "504 Error" and "Gateway Time Out" messages. The program, for us, was dead. It was an epic fail.

While it was a disappointment that we could not fully participate in #stucamp, we were able to troubleshoot the problems we faced, up to a point. Many of the kids were intellectually agile in solving the problem. They asked, "Okay, how do I solve this? I'll try this." They tried, failed and tried again. That is the essence of learning. We did not learn what was intended today, but we did learn. If we see every situation as a problem-solving learning opportunity, the kids will too. We have to constantly reinforce that approach and show the kids that we all fail, but we all must try again. Picking ourselves up is one of life's great lessons.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Our Surprise Thanksgiving Feast

Every year, Melissa and I plan a huge surprise Thanksgiving breakfast buffet for the kids on the day before our break. We enlist the help of the kids' parents with a TOP SECRET e-mail at the beginning of November. Parents sign up for items they'll contribute and some make a commitment to come to school and help set up the event. There is a lot of coordination and planning in the few weeks before our feast but most of it is done through e-mail.

On the morning of our Thanksgiving feast, Melissa comes up with an excuse to be absent for the first couple of hours of classes. We get a substitute in her room while she is down in the library organizing parents, cooking and setting up the buffet. Soon, the smell of bacon wafts through the building. Kids are busily working like any other day, unbeknownst to the setup in the library. At the end of second hour, Melissa texts me that everything is ready. It's time for the big guns! Our principal, in a ruse, comes to our team and talks to them sternly about the improper use of cellphones and devices. She notes some statistics that make it clear that the kids are in trouble. She then tells them that we are going to do some emergency digital citizenship lessons in the library so everyone should line up to talk down to the LMC.

When the doors open and the kids wander in, they see many of their parents and tables of food, all prepared for them. They have no earthly clue what is happening. Even after the adults yell "Surprise!" the kids are befuddled. The looks on their faces are priceless. It is awesome! "Are we still in trouble?" "What's going on?" "Are our parents here to punish us about the cell phones?" the kids ask. When we make it clear to them that this is a holiday buffet and that the cell phone issue was just a way to get them to the library without them guessing the truth, they relax, start to laugh, and begin their celebration. "Wow! We really thought we were in trouble!" they say during conversation.

The parents are incredible. They pitch in and help make this an event that the kids will never forget. Year after year, we try our best to keep this event a secret and year after year, we succeed. This success is especially surprising because last year's team is in the eighth grade in our building. They keep mum, I think, because they want our current team to experience the surprise that they got to experience. Even the few kids whose siblings we had years before, keep quiet so that everyone else will be surprised. That is the climate of our team. We look out for each other, we take care of each other, we promote the accomplishments of each other and we always help each other. For that, we are so thankful.

EdCamp Harmony 2.0

Our first student edcamp was such a hit that we decided to do another one. Our kids are learning so many new things every week and edcamp provides a great platform to share that learning. Since our last edcamp, we have gotten a few new technology tools, kids have used new apps for their projects and all have polished skills that they wanted to share. What a great day of learning.

We used the same format as before. We scheduled three 25-minute sessions within the first two periods of our schedule. We were able to use five classrooms for our edcamp and things seemed to go off without a hitch. One thing that kids learned today is that because something is interesting to the presenters does not mean it will be interesting to other kiddos. We did have a few sessions that were unattended. We also think that a tweak for next time might be to shorten the sessions from 25 minutes to 20 minutes. We are always tweaking things to make for a better learning experience for the kids. All in all, today was another great student-led learning experience.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Adventure 15: A Global Connection

A couple of months ago, one of my tweeps, Jason Elsom (@TeacherLike @JasonElsom), tweeted about a day of global connections and cultural exchange called Adventure 15 ( Adventure 15 is a one-day, global event where schools from different parts of the world connect through Google Hangouts, Skype, Twitter, or any other social media that fits their needs. I immediately signed up our team to participate. It sounded like a great opportunity to connect in real-time with a classroom in another country. After all, hundreds of thousands of school kids from around the world were going to participate in this day of learning.

Not knowing what to expect, I put this project on the back burner. Last week, I got an e-mail noting the classroom with which we had been paired. We were matched, because of time zones primarily, with an eighth grade class at Emerald Ridge Elementary School in Wind City, Saskatchewan, Canada.  The teacher at Emerald Ridge, Shaun Horsman (@Icogit8) and I exchanged e-mails to make sure that we were all set up. Because of video limitations, we conducted a Twitter chat under the hashtag #eckbrown so that our conversation would all be in one place. We also used the #adventure15 hashtag in our tweets so they wound up in the main, global conversation.

When the kids came to class, I told them that our session was a "go" and that they should find out as much about Emerald Ridge Elementary and White City, Saskatchewan as quickly as possible. They were on it! They used Google Earth to find out what the area looks like, did an image search for the school building (it is a new building, built in 2014) and tried to find out as much as possible about what kids in that area are like. Then, the chat began.

A big Harmony Team "hello" to Emerald Ridge Elementary in White City, Saskatchewan

We fired off a few questions to get started and then, suddenly, an answer popped up. The kids were drawn in at that point and basically ignored the questions we had prepared and just began calling out questions for me to type. I did my best to keep up and throughout the room, those who had Twitter accounts themselves, or those who created Twitter accounts on the spot, started peppering the conversation with questions for the Emerald Ridge kids or answering questions that they posed to us. Of course, the kids asked about food, music, the school schedule, the school year, languages, core and elective courses, and what the Canadian kids thought about Donald Trump. Our kids were asked lots of questions too, like what requirements we have in school, what kind of sports leagues our kids belong to, whether any of our kids play hockey, what our climate is like and if we like Tim Horton's. Our chat lasted about a half hour and every one of our kids was interested and engaged. They were learning from and sharing with kids from a province in Canada that many of them had never even heard of. They discovered that things are the same and different all over the world. What a great experience for these kiddos!

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Gamifying the Classroom

Kids love games. Lately, educators have been trying to find ways to incorporate games into the classroom. Dozens of apps, like Kahoot, have come along and helped get the kids stoked about learning. Broader systems of gamification, like 3DGameLab, have managed to help teachers gamify the entire classroom experience. Kids can choose assignments to complete in order to accumulate a certain number of points in order to achieve a particular grade. Kids can also earn badges, level up and even tailor the gaming experience for the next class by leaving comments that are helpful to the teacher.

Recently, I attended the Illinois Educational Technology Conference (IETC) in Springfield, IL. At the conference, Liz Kolb of the University of Michigan presented a gamification session around a new system developed at the university. It is called GradeCraft. Liz had used 3DGameLab before but switched to GradeCraft because of some features that teachers thought would be an improvement on existing gamification platforms. Indeed, GradeCraft looks very cool. Certain features, like the ability of kids to predict their grade if they completed certain assignments, give the kids a whole new level of autonomy over their work. GradeCraft also insists on mastery of skills and can even include the standards that each assignment fulfills so that kids can get a complete and thorough learning experience.

Kids like to compete. Sometimes they like to compete against each other and sometimes they like to compete against themselves. One of the reasons that video games are so popular is that the games are challenging. If there is an effective way to gamify the classroom, I am all for it. I have used 3DGameLab up until this year but could not do so anymore because we could not spend money on the subscription. I have written to the GradeCraft developers at the University of Michigan to see if a middle school teacher like myself would be able to pilot the system in class. If I get the go-ahead, then I will immerse myself in this new system and use it in class next semester.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Student Guest Post 2: He Named Me Malala

Our school was funded by the Malala Foundation to go see “He Named Me Malala”. The film was a documentary. It told the story of now-18-year-old Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head, at the age of 14 by the Taliban for daring to stand up for female education. Malala was born in Mingora, Pakistan, located in Swat Valley. For the first few years of her life, her hometown was a popular tourist spot, known for its summer festivals. But that all began to change as the Taliban attempted to take over.

The film did a really good job of giving the viewers an inside look at what Malala’s life was like before the shooting, including what it was like when the Taliban started to take control. They also informed the viewers about things that weren’t really looked into by everyone, due mostly to people looking for information only about the shooting.

Malala had attended a school that her father had founded but after the Taliban began to attack schools in her hometown, Malala gave a speech about the rights of girls to get an education. Malala and her father both spoke out to crowds about standing up for rights.  She had already been recognized for prior speeches. She was nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize and had been awarded Pakistan’s National Youth Peace Prize! With a growing public platform for standing for something the Taliban did not approve of, the Taliban’s anger toward Malala grew more and more, and they set out to kill her.
Clips of her speech and also clips of her father speaking were in the film. I think it was important to know that Malala spoke out before her tragedy, and not only her but her father too.
One day when Malala was on her way home from school a man boarded the bus she rode and demanded to know who she was. After she was discovered by the turning of her friends' heads, the man shot her in the left side of her forehead. The bullet ricocheted, hit her arm, and two friends of hers were also injured. The shooting left her in critical condition and it was a long process before Malala was back to her normal self.

This part of her story was shown by complete silence and pictures of the bloody seats of the bus and also a cartoon diagram showing what happened during the attack. They also gave us a view of her during therapy. This was one of the most, if not the most, emotional scene of the film.
After seeing her in therapy, not even having the ability to catch a ball, I realized we should all be grateful for being able to do what we do. We should be grateful for being able to go to school and back home without having to watch for someone trying to harm us. We should also be grateful for being able to even go to school.

After that section of the documentary,  they showed what Malala did with her popularity from the shooting. She didn’t take advantage of it like most teenagers would; she used it to inform more people, including the President of the United States, about ways we can help stand up for young children’s education.

The documentary really emphasized how strong, determined, and courageous Malala was and still is. Malala is a huge inspiration to me. I think everyone should see this film because I believe everyone could take something positive away from Malala’s story.

Friday, October 30, 2015

School for Today

This morning our entire 6-12 teaching staff gathered at the middle school for an introduction to the School for Today Initiative. Our district has been planning on adopting this initiative in the near future and we came together today to discuss how it would look and function. While many initiatives are bandied about and dropped, this one seems to be gaining steam. Even so, a few teachers brought up the question about whether or not this project would be just a two-year deal or if we would really make this our permanent goal.

The initiative has four main themes: democracy, responsive spaces, systemic adaptiveness and community. The goal is to make school less like what it has traditionally been and more like the schools kids will need in the future. What does that look like? Well, more school will take place outside of the building, the rooms inside the building will be redesigned to take into account the different learning styles of the kids, students will have a stake and a say in their learning and kids will also incorporate the concept of service into their learning.

My initial reaction to this plan was, "Yes, please! The sooner the better!" I think that Melissa and I have been working on these concepts for several years. Kids drive their own learning in our classes, we have both overhauled our rooms to make them more kid-centric, we try to make more of the learning occur outside of he building and every year we do at least one big service project. Kids need to see that they have voice, choice and a responsibility to others.

There is always some disconnect between the middle school and the high school. That "rift" came about again during this discussion. The high school teachers are tied to test scores, college readiness and curriculum goals. There is no time for this other kind of learning, even if they wish it so. I think that the high school teachers feel trapped. They are trapped in a system that serves yesterday's kids and yet that system is still in place. Even while colleges are slowly evolving, high schools remain entrenched.

The kind of learning represented by the School for Today initiative is learning that will stick with the kids. Because the students have a stake in the learning, they will learn better. Because kids can interact more in their learning space, they will learn more. Because kids will see a new sense of purpose in school, they will see themselves as lifelong learners. When kids see themselves as lifelong learners, they ARE lifelong learners.

Teachers across the country are re-imagining their classrooms, even at the high school level. They have the same testing, curricular and college readiness expectations as our high school teachers, but they evolved and are thriving. Nothing is scarier than change but our more traditional schools must evolve or die. Even our entrenched high school can find ways to incorporate the School for Today initiative. All kids want to learn; learning is in our nature as human beings. Kids may not want to learn what we're trying to teach them, but they do want to learn. We have to find ways to give the kids more autonomy in their learning and support them in their learning. The School for Today initiative is a great start toward this goal.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Student Guest Post: "He Named Me Malala" Reflection

Recently our entire school went to see the documentary film He Named Me Malala due to the generosity of and the Students Stand with Malala Screening Program. One student, Nicole, wrote a reflection to the film that deserves a wider audience than me. Therefore, what follows is her reflection about the documentary film He Named Me Malala.

He Named Her Malala was an amazing and powerful movie. It was about a girl named Malala who spoke out for women's education in Pakistan as a teenager. When she was 15 she was shot on the left side of her head by the Taliban on the bus to school along with two of her friends. I think she is an amazing role model for everyone around the world, especially girls.
I think most kids in America are very ungrateful, mostly about school. No one ever wants to go to school, including me, and I think that’s terrible. I also think it’s not completely our fault. But if you just listen to Malala, you can tell how much she loves learning and wants to go to school. She even went to school on the day she received the Nobel Peace Prize! I think kids that have the privilege to go to school everyday should be grateful. And not just that, but kids that have the privilege to go to school everyday and not be scared that they are going to be shot or kidnapped or that something terrible will happen to them. After watching that movie, I felt very selfish and ungrateful.
Malala is very inspiring to me. Even before she got shot, she spoke about women's education when she was as young as 13! That must have taken a lot of courage considering that the Taliban had pretty much complete control over her town and they were against women going to school.
It must be hard for her. She lives in the UK now and probably has a great life there. She gets to do so much stuff and speak about women's education, but I bet she misses Pakistan. Even if she had a really hard life there, she still probably misses her friends and everything she knew for 15 years. Also, if I were her, I would be really scared all the time because the Taliban wants her dead. I would be looking over my shoulder every minute of the day waiting for someone to kill me.
Another thing that I thought was really powerful was that she said she was never mad at them for shooting her. Malala said she had never even felt a fragment of anger for them. That’s something that I wouldn’t ever be able to do. She said that it’s because Islam practices forgiveness and everything. I also think that the Taliban gives Islam a bad name. Some people think everyone who practices Islam are like the Taliban, which obviously isn’t true considering Malala is nothing like them.
All in all I think that He Named Me Malala was one of the best movies I have ever seen and I think Malala is one of the most amazing people in the world.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Cardboard Genius!

Today as part of our Creative Genius time, I showed the kids three things, all of which we either just received or have been shipped to us. The first was Raspberry Pi, a circuit board device that allows kids to learn some basic programming skills. I then showed the kids Makey Makey, another small board that helps kids program. The last thing I showed the kids was Google Cardboard, the cardboard viewfinders that Google produces in order to work with the Cardboard app. Well, after I showed the kids a short video about how Cardboard worked, they took turns experimenting with the viewfinders. They were "wow'd" to say the least. The viewfinders that we have are ones the Melissa and I purchased after seeing them demonstrated by Bob Deneau at the Missouri Google Summit. We have written a grant for thirty more sets. Hopefully that grant will be funded and we'll be able to use Google Cardboard more extensively. Already, the kids are thinking about ways to use the Cardboard viewers. One student, Nicole, wants to create a Google Cardboard environment for her civilization project. That would be an amazing accomplishment.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

He Named Me Malala

We recently wrote a grant to take our entire school, a population of 750 people, to see the documentary film "He Named Me Malala". The film is about the life, so far, of Malala Yousafzai, the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. The documentary is a nice mix of her tragic shooting at the hands of the Taliban, her campaign for girls' education around globe and her normal teenage interactions with her family. All in all, it was a riveting film.

The kids were very excited. We had prepped them with some information about Malala and her accomplishments. When the theater went dark and the movie started, the kids fell silent. They watched as a girl, who was their age when she was shot, struggled for her life. They watched as she recovered and began to speak out anew for girls' education. They watched as she toured village schools and met with world leaders to advance her cause. They watched...all of it.

We intend that our program at school broadens the kids' horizons, features their learning outside the school walls and calls on them to make a difference in the world. Our 20% Time program gives the kids an opportunity to pursue learning about which they are passionate. We also ask that their project make some mark on the world around them. Knowing how our kids are and seeing the mark this film made on them, I think that many kids will consider social causes in their work going forward this year. Malala is making a huge difference in the world and we try to convince our kids that they can make a difference too. By the end of the year, nearly all of our kids have made an impact on the world.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Google Cardboard

Whenever we see something that we think might further our kids' learning, regardless of if we can immediately find a direct application, we get it. We bet that the kids can figure out some applications for the materials. Two weeks ago, when Melissa and I went to the Missouri Google Summit, we saw Bob Deneau's presentation on new Google Apps. One of the items that he showed us was Google Cardboard. We were sold. There are a ton of things we can use the viewers for and the kids can come up with a ton more. By the end of Bob's session, we had ordered four viewers.

Google Cardboard is a simple viewfinder that works with the Google Street View app in Cardboard mode. When you look through the viewfinder, you see a scene that you've chosen. The scene is all around you. You can look up, down and all around. You will see the entire "world" in which you are immersed; you're in the middle of it. Cardboard is a very cool piece of low-tech tech.

Today I put together one of the viewers and we tried it out. Pretty cool! On Friday, as part of my Creative Genius time, I am going to show the kids our new Google Cardboard viewers. We will circulate the four viewers that we have and watch as kids find a few new things they can do in class. Maybe some will use this low-tech, ultra-cool tool to help design their civilization for social studies or find a way to use it for their 20% Time project. We will have as many uses for the Cardboard viewers as we have students. Google Cardboard is just another way for students to personalize their learning.

Monday, October 12, 2015

EdCamp Harmony, That's a Wrap!

This morning, our student edcamp, EdCamp Harmony, took place. We planned this out pretty well last week, recruiting and encouraging students to conduct learning sessions and getting the schedule ready for today. To see more of the preparation, click this link. Late last week, one of our colleagues, Vinnie Raimondo (@coachraimondo), asked if his kids could also be involved. What? That was awesome! We shared our planning with him so he could present it to his kids and also shared the Google Hangout invitation with him so that his kids could also watch Hadley Ferguson (@hadleyjf), the executive director of the Edcamp Foundation, welcome the kids to the world of edcamps.

Hadley kicked things off beautifully. She talked to the kids about the edcamp movement, why it started and why people want to learn from each other. She also congratulated them on their own quest to learn from each other. After answering a few questions, she wished us well and we were on to our morning of learning.

Kids moved seamlessly to their first session. We had some great session choices and they were all well-attended.

Of course, the topics kids want to teach and learn about are a bit different from the topics that we present in class on a daily basis but that is what makes this learning so relevant. Not one student said, "Oh, I don't want to go to any of the sessions. They don't look very good." All of the kids were excited to go to some sessions and some were torn between two or more sessions at each time slot. Noah taught how to make a YouTube channel, Bryce taught some finer points of drawing while Emma taught kids about an App Store app that helps kids draw on an iPad or iPhone. RJ taught some kids about football and Mason had a session on HTML coding. Celia and Linsey held two sessions on how to use our 3D Printer and Colin showed kids how to work the 3D Doodle Pen. There were plenty of other sessions as well and the kids seemed very excited about this morning of learning. 

As Melissa, Vinnie and I roamed the rooms, we saw highly engaged students having fun with their learning. The kids were in those sessions because they wanted to be there, not because they had to be there. In the coming days, we will survey the kids to see what their thoughts were. In talking to the kids immediately after the sessions, it was clear that we would be repeating this event in the near future. The kids are hungry for this type of learning and sharing. Finally, some kids were given the platform to show others what really makes them tick. Here are some photos of our student edcamp.

Friday, October 9, 2015

"Thanks, Monte!"

Every year, Melissa and I have the kids write a compliment about each of the kids on our team. After we collect all of the papers, we stash them for a month or so. We then type out a list of each child's qualities that were noted by one of their peers. One day, when the kids have clearly forgotten that they did these "complement sheets", we post each child's list in their locker while they are away at electives. When the kids return to their lockers at the end of the day, they find a list of their qualities staring them in their faces. Some kids try to hide their lists, unsure of exactly what this paper is supposed to be. Some laugh, some read quietly and some immediately share with friends. Each of our kiddos leaves with a smile on their face. Of course, we tell them that a big moose named Monte, who happens to be our mascot, put those sheets in their lockers. This is one of our favorite times of the year. Here are some photos that Melissa snapped.

This gesture is important for our long-range team-building goals. We strive to create a family atmosphere on our team where all of our kids are kind, polite, collaborative learners who are looking out for each other. We want them to value the unique qualities in each other and feel valued about their own qualities. Knowing that others recognize their good points goes a long way toward achieving that goal. These sheets accomplish some of that even though "Thanks, Monte!" is really just a small gesture.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Roadblocks to Reading

Being an English teacher, I've always felt the awesome responsibility to get kids to love reading. I assume that all of my English teacher colleagues have the same goal in mind. We are passionate about reading, books and kids, so why do kids ever leave our rooms hating to read? It does happen, and I have a few ideas on the matter.

We regard reading comprehension as the gold standard of being a good reader, and it is. Reading comprehension is the most essential skill that kids need going forward in their lives. We also look at reading rate and reading habits to figure out if a kid is a "good" reader. Some of the tactics that we employ in class are actually detrimental to developing good readers even though they are long-valued methods. These methods become roadblocks to reading.

The class-wide novel is a killer. There is nothing that will kill a kid's desire to read quicker than assigning a novel that the entire class will read, in parts, and dissect together. Many of us have deemed this the ultimate exercise in reading. Blech! I still remember classes in high school when I had to read Herman Melville's Billy Budd. I ran right for the Cliffs Notes (this was well before the advent of Spark Notes) and satisfied all of my teacher's requirements regarding that dreadful read. I learned nothing except that I didn't like literature very much, if this was literature. That semester, we read and dissected a few other books and I employed the same methods, earning an "A" along the way. That class taught me what I don't like to read.

The required book is another reading killer. When we tell a kid that they have to read a book, they automatically assume that it is a bad book, one that they would not choose to read on their own. After all, if it were so good, the teacher would not have to require everyone to read it; the teacher would just tell everyone about the book and they would flock to it, right? No, we see the slogging through books as a noble task that builds rigor and good habits. Kids may not like these books but reading them is "good for them" no matter how much they hate the books. After all, how will they know how amazing the book is if they don't read it and have the teacher tell them, through traditional literary criticism, how amazing it is?

We also bog kids down with so many reading-related tasks. Keep a book log, write in a journal, stop and discuss with a partner after ten minutes of reading, blog about the themes and characters and write a character analysis. All of these activities, while seemingly meaningful for the teacher, are hellish for the student. If a kiddo finds a book they want to read, the last thing they want to do is stop reading every fifteen minutes to perform another one of the countless chores associated with reading. Nothing is a bigger turn-off. If we went to see a movie and the projectionist stopped the movie every ten minutes to "process the story", how many of us would return to see a movie? None. Yet we do this to kids with their reading. Shameful.

None of these tactics will help develop good readers. Our goal for readers is that they learn to love to read and, over time, pick more challenging books to read. When we pick the books for the kids and force them on the kids, we do them no service. Helping kids love reading is much more nuanced and complex. We must first give kids choice over what they read. We can suggest, show, book-talk and recommend books to kids but we cannot choose their books for them.

Each reader brings their entire collection of life experiences to any book they read. Those life experiences combined with the text of the book become an original reading experience. No two individuals have the same reading experience of a book. It is impossible because we all bring different experiences to the reading. That's why book clubs are so popular; we share our interpretations because our interpretations are different. Because we think a book is a good read for a student means nothing. The student has to think that the book is a worthwhile read.

When kids have the power to choose their own reading material, they are invested. They have chosen a book they consider worthy of the time they will spend reading. Now, we teachers must get out of their way and let them read. We need to minimize the chores we associate with the reading. We don't need much "data" to know if a student is interested in what they are reading. Watch their faces while reading. In two seconds, we can tell who is invested in their book and who is not. When a student is so invested in what they are reading that they cannot wait to share it with others, that is a huge win.

We must give kids time to read in class. Some think, "I don't have time for that. I have more important things to do than let kids read." Well, if we think reading is so important, and it is, why would we shove it to the side as an "extra"? Reading should be the main course, and not the "standard literature" that we consider worthy of schools. Kids need time in class to read their choice of reading material. After all, when a violinist wants to get better at the violin, what do they do? They practice. Yet when we want readers to get better at reading, what do we have them do? Everything except read. Crazy, I know.

When students are given ownership of their reading choices and time to read, something magical happens - they read. Kids learn that there are remarkable stories out there that they cannot put down. They find all kinds of things to read and they develop the habits of good readers. They start making lists of books they want to read, they start comparing books to other books they've read, and they start sharing and talking about books with others. This is exactly what we do as adults. This is exactly the kind of reading behaviors that we want to encourage in our kids.

Last week before we looked at some book trailers, I asked my students how their teachers in previous grades kept track of their reading. They listed reading logs, summaries, notebooks and other chores as ways for teachers to keep track. "Did you like them?" I asked. Well, pretty much all of the kids detested them and thought they hindered their reading. "I want things to be different this year," I told them, "I want you to love reading so much that you cannot wait to get to your book." I have minimal requirements to keep track of their reading because I can tell if kids are reading or not. I allow class time to read and I observe kids reading. I know who has a book they love and who is struggling to find a good book. I know who has raced through three books in a week and who is having trouble keeping up with the story. I watch, I see, I know.

I feel it is my job to get kids to love reading. If they leave me knowing that they have the skills to pick books that they will love, that they will find time to read on their own, and they want to read in their spare time, then I have done my job. I know that helping kids develop into lifelong readers is the best thing I can do for them. It is the best way for them to grow intellectually throughout their lives. It is the best way for them to learn about things that they will never get to truly experience in their own lives. It is the best way to open new worlds to them. I cannot think of a better thing to give my kiddos.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

EdCamp Harmony

Melissa and I went to our first EdCamp, EdCampSTL, two years ago. We loved it. The best part about EdCamp is that we get to learn what we want from the experts among us, our peers. The learning is relevant and immediate and has become the best PD we've had. We always go to EdCampSTL and other EdCamps when we can swing it.

The other day, on a Twitter chat, a teacher asked what our "moonshot idea" for the year was. My response was, "A student EdCamp." Melissa and I had thrown the idea around before but never seriously. But then, I thought, why not? We control our own space and time. Why can't we organize a student learning event modeled after the EdCamp model? After discussing it for a few minutes, EdCamp Harmony was born. Our first EdCamp Harmony will be Monday, October 12 from 8:45-10:15 am.

Using five learning spaces (four classrooms and the tech room), and ninety minutes of our core time (8:45-10:15) we can run an EdCamp featuring five sessions running concurrently in each of the three 25-minute time slots (8:45-9:10, 9:15-9:40, 9:45-10:10) for a total of fifteen sessions. Kids will be able to attend three sessions in the ninety minute block of time. Kiddos will be able to teach a class (or three) or just attend classes that other students will teach. This event is strictly student-driven. Teachers will not be presenting or teaching any of the sessions; this is an all-kid event. Melissa and I will organize the day but after that, it's all up to the kids. 

I introduced the concept of EdCamp Harmony to the kids today. They were stoked! "Can I teach Minecraft?" one student asked. "I know how to work the 3D printer. Can I do that?" another asked. "What if we want to teach two sessions?" a third student asked. "What if we don't want to teach anything?" another kiddo asked. And finally, "Does it have to be school-related?" on student asked. Needless to say, the kids were ready for this kind of learning. I told them that I was happy to see them so excited and if this one went well, we would repeat this model a couple more times this year. 

Next week, we will post the blank time slots so that kids can fill in those slots with their session topics. We will get a good idea at that time of the kinds of sessions that will be offered. Kids will then be able to put together their schedules and have those schedules in hand on Monday morning. We are opting for efficiency here over spontaneity. This pre-planning does deviate from the EdCamp model a bit but we think it will be good for our kids to do it this way for our first EdCamp. It will also allow the presenters to plan their session a little better by knowing how many kids will be attending their sessions.  

This kind of learning is important for kids. They need to see each other as experts, teachers and students. Our kiddos have to understand that everyone has genius within them and everyone is an integral part of the whole. We believe this is going to be a great learning experience for all of us and eagerly await October 12.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Our Voices Matter

Once in a while, we are able to directly connect our kids' learning and voice to the global community. Recently, we were active on our Teen Lit Review Twitter page when a tweet came in. An author, K. J. McPike, asked if one of our reviewers would give her book, Xodus, a review. We immediately agreed and she sent us a copy. The book was only available for pre-order on Amazon since its official release date was the next week.

The kids were stoked. A published author was asking them to review her book? Well, that awesome! When I presented the opportunity to the kids, a half dozen hands immediately shot up. They wanted to read and review the book.

The day the book came to school, I opened the package in class and gave the book to the first student in the queue, Emily. She has reviewed books in the past and has done a great job. Her reviews are funny, clever and well-written. Her reviewer pseudonym is E. M. Wolf.

Today, E. M. Wolf shared her review of Xodus. I posted the review to the Teen Lit Review immediately, tweeted out the link to our followers and, within ninety minutes, we had 45 page views of that review. Certainly this event is evidence that our kids have a voice and others want to hear their thoughts and opinions. When a published author solicits our kids' opinions, it really boosts their self-image.

Those who want to see some great thinking by teens about YA Lit should subscribe to the Teen Lit Review and follow them on Twitter (@teenlitreview).

Friday, September 18, 2015

Creative Genius

Several years back, I started using a little block of time on Fridays for something I called Creative Genius. My intention was to feature some big ideas that would get kids thinking about project ideas for school and also things they might want to pursue for the rest of their lives. I think it is crucial for us to get kids thinking about their strengths, passions and intentions for a fulfilling life. So far, we have seen ideas about Nike making shoes for a 16 yo boy with cerebral palsy (here), seen an Elon Musk transportation idea called Hyperloop (here), watched the Abbot and Costello routine "Who's on First" (here), seen a video about the potential of solar highways (here), watched an artist convert computer circuit boards into artwork (here), watched a video about "Shoes that Grow" (here), seen a fire extinguisher that puts out fire using sound waves (here) and watched a short video about a designer who created the Solar Puff Lamp for those who have no access to electricity (here).

Why is it important to expose kids to these kinds of ideas? Well, we know that kids will be doing jobs that don't even exist yet and we have to prepare them for those opportunities as best we can. I want kids to think of the seemingly impossible, to stretch their imaginations and know that just because something has not been done yet does not mean that they cannot do it. Instead of relying on others to create the next wave of great inventions, they can see themselves as capable of inventing those next great things. All kids need is an imagination and an unshakable belief in themselves.

The time we spend on Creative Genius is time well-spent. Sure, it takes a bit of time away from the regular class period activities, but I think it is so essential that I am glad to dedicate time to these fascinating ideas. I want kids to see that genius has many manifestations and that each of them has genius within them. I want them to take risks, try to translate their imaginations into something tangible and show them that their own ideas are worthwhile and valuable. I want kids to learn out loud and be fearless in their learning. If they fail, so what! Those who invented the things we show in our Creative Genius time failed many times and look where that failure lead them. The kids are starting to get it. Many of them are already starting to think of ideas they can do for projects and even their 20% Time projects that they will do later in the year. If I can get them thinking creatively, then I consider that a huge win.

Friday, September 11, 2015


Today was a milestone for our team. We finally got our very own Harmony Team Instagram account. I have been using Twitter for a couple of years to highlight students' work and help move their learning outside of the school walls. "We're not on Twitter" the kids would say. Twitter is huge for teachers and educators. There are education chats, communities of learning and other opportunities for teachers to develop professionally. The kids are not on Twitter though, at least middle school kids. The kids are on Instagram. So, in order to better represent the kids, we created an Instagram account. I decided it was time to practice what I preach. If I want to have a student-centered class, why are we not where all of the kids are? That made no sense. Now our Instagram account,, is up and running. Stay tuned!

My Role is to Inspire

Over the past few days, I've been explaining to the kids how most of their work will be published online for a real, worldwide audience. I introduced the Teen Lit Review and our accompanying Twitter handle (@teenlitreview) so that kids can see examples of students' work online. I told them about TLR Radio, our weekly podcast about YA Lit (available on iTunes). During our talk about the importance of getting their work outside of the school walls, they took over the conversation. "What about a magazine?" "Do we have a team theme song?" "I could write a soap opera!" "A line of clothes!" "We could do animation." Kids shouted all kinds of ideas that came to mind. It was awesome! All it took was a little push, or "permission" to think of expanding our footprint, and they were off to the races. They were pumped!

I didn't have to do anything. They bounced ideas off of each other and built one idea on top of another. The magazine idea evolved into an online magazine using Flipboard. The show idea became a segment on the school's "This Week at Hixson" Friday morning show. The kids who wanted to do animation will contribute to the Flipboard magazine and also have a stop-motion animation channel on YouTube.

We'll see how these ideas evolve. Some will probably succeed and some will probably fail. There is a greater chance of the kids following through because they were the kids' ideas and they are very excited about them. We know from doing so much personalized learning in class that the fuel for the follow-through has to be ownership of the idea. The kids do indeed own these ideas. I will encourage them but I cannot push them too hard. The execution has to be on them. I can cheerlead, guide, help and match kids to resources, but I cannot take over the idea. My role is to inspire.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Experiential Learning Sticks!

After spending a few weeks learning about prehistory, archaeology and forensics, it was time to assess the kiddos. Anyone who knows me knows that I am not a fan of content-laden tests. In fact, I don't give tests. I would rather assess what the kids really have learned instead of what they've crammed from the study guide in order to regurgitate it on a nearly-identical test paper. To me, that kind of "assessment" is not learning, it is merely playing the game of school.

We did not fill our time with talk of the Stone Age or the Copper Age. Those are good to know about but not essential. The kids can Google facts about those ages if they want. No, what I am more interested in the kids learning is the problem-solving that goes into acquiring new knowledge even if there are no accompanying written documents. Our overarching question for the unit has been "How do we know what we know?"

We watched the fascinating film about Otzi the Iceman. The kids were amazed by the archaeological discoveries made through observation, testing, forensics and developing and testing dozens of hypotheses. We saw some video from the Discovery Channel about a cold case death and the forensics involved in that event as well. The kids also did their own archaeological dig so that they could experience first-hand the thinking and hypothesis testing that goes into discovery learning. Through all of our learning activities, we kept in mind the "hows" and "whys" behind the learning. The kids experienced as much as possible in the time frame that we had.

In today's assessment, the kids wrote for a class period to the question "How do we know what we know?" They were able to use their archaeological dig experience, the film they saw, the puzzles they worked, the games they played and the texts they read in order to expound on what they knew about the subject. I expect that the writing pieces will be of good quality because they have written about things they've seen and done themselves. They experienced the learning. Experiential learning sticks!

Here are some scenes from our archaeological dig.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Put It Back

One of the things that Melissa and I try to do is stress good digital citizenship. We use a combination of resources from Google and Common Sense Media. Sometimes we just want to make a point and use a metaphor in order to do so. Today was one of those days.

During Discovery class, we gave each group of three kids a small tube of toothpaste. "Squirt some out onto your tables. Go ahead, we'll clean it up later," I said. When all of the groups had finished squirting toothpaste onto the tables, I said, "Okay, now put it back in the tube." Confused looks crossed many kids' faces while others immediately began attempting to pick up the toothpaste on their fingers and push it back into the tube. No group met with success. "What's the point?" I asked. Several students correctly told me that there was no way to get the toothpaste back into the tube.

I asked them to relate this exercise with their online behavior. "How does this demonstration apply to your life online?" I asked. "Once it's out there, you can't get it back," one kiddo declared. "Exactly!" I told him. We took the next twenty minutes to share stories of cyberbullying, putting too much information online and bad habits in the digital world. We talked about why digital citizenship is the same as citizenship in person; we should behave the same online as we do in person. The kids recognized that "online" no longer means that they can be shielded from the consequences of their actions.

Kids these days live part of their lives online. When schools recognize this point and take steps to guide and teach students how to behave in that realm, we do them a much better service than blocking every social networking site available to them. We must give them the tools and guidance and then trust them to make the right decisions. This teaching is what we do for their academic lives and it is what we should do for the digital aspect of their lives too.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Kids Come First

After a busy and restful summer, it's time to get back into the swing of things. There is a point during each summer that I start to feel eager for the new school year to begin. This year, that feeling came a bit later in the summer, but it came nonetheless. When I came into school last week to start setting up my room, it was easy to understand why teachers get so excited about the beginning of the new school year. Everything is fresh and clean in the school building, we get to arrange our rooms for a new group of kids, we try to add as many features to the physical environment as possible so that the kids will love being here, and we let our minds race with new ideas for teaching and learning during the upcoming year. Indeed, the couple of weeks before school starts is the time when all is possible.

Today at school, there was a little bit of student traffic. Some were coming in to take a tour of the building, some were getting a jump start on decorating their lockers, and some were here to meet their teachers. Their excited faces are why we strive so hard to kick off the year well. These kids are excited about coming to school and we do whatever it takes to maintain that excitement throughout the school year. Such promise is not to be wasted.

I know that I will spend my first day learning the kids' names. That's all I really try to do that first day. I want the kids to understand that finding out about them and building relationships is the most important part of the first week of school. Later we will go over the logistics and procedures of the class but that is secondary to getting to know these kids. Later in the week, we will do some team-building activities and introduce the kids to all of the cool things they will be doing this year. Those are secondary for me because for now, and for always, the kids come first.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Summer Learning, Having a Blast!

After clawing our way to the end of the year, through the crush of last-minute activities and grades, we suddenly realize that we don't have to wake up early to get to school. It is a bit unnerving at first. We have been going 100 mph for nearly 200 days and now we can go 0 mph if we choose. It takes a few days to get our bearings because we are so used to the school schedule. But after a few days, our summer schedule emerges.

Getting away from school-related work is essential for balance. We have been so immersed in school for the past ten months that we are out of balance at the end of the year. We have to center ourselves and find other things that fulfill us. I constantly tell teachers that as soon as the school year is over, take a week of vacation or "stay"cation and do nothing school-related. We must put some distance between ourselves and our work for a while. That distance is essential for regeneration and recharging. The more time we stay away from school work, the more recharged we are when we return to school.

For many of us, there are books we've put off reading, places in town we've delayed visiting and vacations we have not taken. Summer is the time to do all of those things. Summer is the time to do a different kind of learning. The danger of not separating from school is real. I remember during my first two years teaching in my current district, I also taught summer school. The schedule gave me two weeks of summer vacation at best. I entered the new year beaten down, fatigued and listless. Those were difficult years. I did not benefit from that experience and my students paid the price because I was not at my best during those years.

I realize now that the time away from school is as important as the time in school. I still learn and experience new things during the summer, and those things eventually make it back to my classroom, but the learning is for personal fulfillment. After all, you cannot take care of others unless you take care of yourself. Summer is the time to take care of yourself, to relax and recharge, to dream and wonder, to have those "a-ha" moments while reading in the yard and to watch the ocean and realize the magnitude of the world in which we live. Summer fulfills our spirit and allows us to approach the new year invigorated, motivated and more driven than ever.

So many times during the summer, I've come across an idea that seems unrelated to school but winds up in class the next year. All learning is essential and all experiences shape who we are. I want to be a well-rounded role model for my kiddos. I want them to see that there is joy and learning everywhere. It will shape who they are as it shapes who we are as teachers. There is so much learning that occurs outside of school and we owe it to ourselves to use our summers to experience that learning.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Time Capsules

As one of the last projects of the year, we have our seventh graders put together time capsules. Each of the kiddos brings in a shoe box and fills it with pictures, notes and other items that represent their interests and accomplishments. We have a few papers for them to fill out like "The Best of Harmony Team" or a "Most Likely To..." sheet so that they can remember how they felt about each other when they finally open up the capsule. One item that is required to be in the box is a letter from their parents. We ask that the letters be sealed in an envelope and that the parents do NOT allow the kids to see the letter. When all of the shoe boxes are packed and taped, we put them all in a refrigerator box and store them away.

When the kids are seniors in high school, we ask them to come back the week before graduation to open up the time capsules. Earlier this week, about thirty high school seniors streamed through our doors to visit, looked for their time capsule and visited with friends who they may not have seen in five years. It is a beautiful sight to see. These kids, on the brink of adulthood, reminisce about their time as early adolescents. They talk, they laugh and they appreciate how quickly time has flown by. Some kids go right for the parent letter and some put it aside to read later at home. Often when the kids read the letter from their parents, the tears begin to flow.

The time capsule project is one of the most rewarding projects that we do. It is one of the things that really solidifies the bonds between all of us. It is a shared experience and it is a good one.

Some of the seniors who returned for their time capsules.

A few of the kiddos paging through time capsule items.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Collaboration not Competition

We often hear those in politics and the media talk about education in business terms. They talk about the virtues of competition making schools, teachers and students better. Competition, after all, is market-driven and the market solves everything.

Never has anything been more wrongheaded. Schools are not businesses. Schools do not thrive on competition. Schools thrive on collaboration. Teachers and students thrive on collaboration. Through collaboration, everyone gets better. We must do our best to reject the intellectually bankrupt idea that schools will be successful if we make them "competitive" and reward financially only those schools who perform well according to arbitrary criteria that we create.

Teachers know that we are better when we work together toward a common goal. We know that students benefit from the best of all of us, not the best of one or two of us. There are teachers in my building who do many things way better than I do. Why would I NOT enlist their expertise when a kid needs it? Should I be competitive and say, "No, you cannot access that teacher's expertise. You are MY student!" Lord, no! I do not want to limit my kids' learning because of my own shortcomings as a teacher or person. I want the kiddos to be able to access the best of everyone in the building.

Often we write grants for technology and materials. We are fortunate to have a supportive community that helps fund our grants. When we get something new, the first thing that we do is tell everyone else, "This is ours, all of ours. If you need it, use it." I know that in some places, teachers hoard new things that they get for their classrooms, preserving it only for THEIR students. But really, aren't all of the kids in the school THEIR students? Of course they are.

The 3D printer that we got on a grant three months ago has been a hit. Since we got a case of filament cartridges last week on another grant, we are in good shape. Lately, kids from other teams in the school have been coming down to use the printer. Our kids use it too, but we don't limit the use to only our team kids. After all, we feel that every student in the school is one of OUR students.

A couple of weeks ago, a teacher from a district elementary school asked to use the 3D printer for some of his kids' projects. We replied, "As soon as our new filament comes in, bring those kids over!" This coming week, those elementary kids are coming over to use the 3D printer. It will be a lot of fun watching those kids as their ideas are brought to life in all of their 3D glory. We could have hoarded the supplies and technology for our classrooms only, but that is not what teachers and schools are all about. We are about collaboration and cooperation and the learning of ALL children. Maybe business should take a lesson from US!

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Dangerous Reading

Sometimes reading can be a dangerous thing. It is always best to be prepared!

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Tomorrow is Today!

Last night, I saw Michio Kaku at the St. Louis Speakers Series, which is a lecture series open to subscribers in St. Louis. Kaku is a theoretical physicist and futurist. He has an amazing way of taking complex ideas and communicating them in ways that regular people like myself can understand.

During the talk, Kaku talked about cancer treatments that are so advanced, they consist of molecules that individually attack cancer cells, leaving healthy cells intact. He talked about smart transportation, smart paper, digitized education, prosthetic technology, and "smart wallpaper" that has Star Trek-like capabilities. The point he was making was that these technologies exist today. Some are advanced and some are still in their infancy.

The lecture made me wonder how our schools are preparing kids to work in fields that develop this technology with a forward-thinking mindset. How do we prepare a student to work on a team developing "smart wallpaper" that, when touched, can launch a "Robo-Doc" and find the most accurate medical information for someone having chest pains in their living room? How do kids learn, in schools, the skills they will need to develop "digital paper" that unfolds, is used as a keyboard and CPU, records ideas and folds back neatly to be pocketed? How is what we are doing with kids in schools relevant to this new frontier of advancements? No longer are these ideas futuristic. Tomorrow is today!

We must bring these ideas into the schools. I don't mean we should be working on developing digital paper (though I'm not against it), but we should at least be exposing kids to as many of these ideas as possible. If we are constantly showing kids ideas that are in development, then they may begin to see past limitations that they (or we) have put on themselves.  Maybe by seeing the "smart wallpaper" idea, the kids will apply that idea to something else they can create. Maybe kids can take a futuristic medical idea and apply it to a field outside medicine. Isn't that innovation? How can kids dream big if we keep their world small? 

Amazing things will happen when we combine exposure of futuristic ideas with the space and time for kids to work on their own learning. Kids can see all of these great ideas but we have to follow up with personalized learning opportunities so that kids can explore the ideas that resonate with them. Maybe a student really does want to look into "smart prosthetics" and pursue a project in that kind of technology. Maybe a student sees the "digital paper" idea and imagines all kinds of possibilities that no one else does. How will we harness the genius in each of our kids if we don't give them opportunities in school to imagine and work? We must provide the right learning environment so that kids can follow their dreams in school.

A few years ago, I used to take half of a class period every Friday and show examples of innovations. I called it "Creative Genius" because the things I showed them were genius, in my opinion. I remember showing kids a video about the first iPhone. They were amazed. The examples ranged from technology to creative solutions to environmental problems. Anything that was creative, innovative, interesting and cool made the cut. The kids loved it and I think it opened a lot of their minds to so many possibilities. Isn't that why we're here in the first place?

I stopped doing "Creative Genius" a little while ago and now I regret the decision. I think it is more important than ever to expose these kids to the futuristic ideas and ingenious solutions to problems that they may have never seen before. I want the kiddos to THINK. So, I will be restarting "Creative Genius" this week. Michio Kaku's website looks like a good place to start.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Kids Before Standards

Often I talk about the class period as a time for discovery and learning. I sometimes find myself in conflict with others when talking about learning standards and goals. When I mention veering off on to an unexpected topic in class, I am told, "That's okay as long as you bring it back to the learning goal." Hmmm. I don't believe that. Sometimes when the natural evolution of class goes away from the learning goal, it is often better to follow that learning than to try to bring it back to the day's goal. If kids are excited about something that naturally comes up in class, why would we NOT pursue it? It is good learning whether or not it fits the standard or the learning goal. After all, why sacrifice the natural curiosity of the kids just to get back to something that can be learned later. I take those learning opportunities seriously and pursue them with zest. I put the kids before the standards. Today was a case in point.

A week ago, we put a grant on for a 3D Doodle Pen. We had a grant for a 3D Printer funded two months ago and some kids wanted the doodle pen to freehand some 3D artifacts for their learning. Today, we finally took the wraps off of it. One student, Ben, began playing with it to get a feel for how it works and its potential for his project. Within minutes, Ben had a group of four or five other kids who were learning with him. Now, learning to use a 3D doodle pen was not the learning goal for the day, nor was it a standard for our English class. What it was, though, was good, relevant, immediate, enthusiastic learning. The kids were very excited, deciding who would use the pen next and talking about what they would try to create.

Should I have pulled the plug on that group and shooed them back to work on their daily learning goal? Not on your life! These kids were experiencing authentic learning driven by their own curiosity. This type of learning is exactly what real learning is; it is how we as adults learn.

When I talk to others who are insistent that classroom learning must always come back to the learning goals and standards, I will remember our class today and know that learning happens all of the time in so many ways. We have to expand our idea of learning, not reduce it to the "approved" learning goals and standards. Are standards important? Of course they are but they are not as important as the kids.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

"What Makes Me Irate..."

This is another excerpt from the book that Melissa and I are writing. We started our state testing last week at school. Every time we begin our state testing, I reflect on the intellectual corruption of the testing process specifically and the state-mandated curriculum in general. The entire testing apparatus runs counter to what we know about real learning.

What makes me irate is the following scenario. Let’s say we have a student named Tommy. Tommy is a gifted writer. He is able to write stories that are more imaginative and beautifully crafted than anyone in his class. He loves to write and he loves to read. He does not love math. In fact, he hates math and it has always been his greatest weakness in school. When Tommy gets his report card, he gets As in English, social studies and science but an F or a D in math. Because of Tommy’s weakness in math, Tommy gives up an elective class in order to take a remedial math course. After all, Tommy must learn math so that he can get his grades up and be prepared for the next level of math.

My blood boils when I see this happen, and I see this happen every year. Tommy will spend hundreds of hours trying to get his math skills from “totally sucks” to “doesn’t suck so much”. Tommy will still be a below-average math student. I will bet that Tommy’s future does not have math in it. Yet we sacrifice hundreds of hours punishing Tommy for being bad at math. Maybe his brain just doesn’t work that way. Maybe Tommy doesn’t want to learn math. That doesn’t matter. The school says, “Tommy needs to bring up his grades in math so we’ll give him more math.”

The real human-intellectual loss here is that if Tommy spent those hundreds of hours practicing his writing craft instead of trying to “not suck” at math, school would have done him a huge favor. The hypocrisy of our educational system is that we accept strengths and weaknesses in adults but we will not accept strengths and weaknesses in students. We will only accept strengths. How unreasonable is that? Students must score “proficient” in all subjects tested every year or they are a “failure”. Really? How many adults would be able to score “proficient” on all of those tests? Not many. Adults have figured out where their strengths lie and pursue careers that cater to those strengths. Adults pursue careers where they find personal fulfillment. Why can we not begin that process earlier in the game? Why can’t we introduce that personalization element into schools? Why can’t we help kids realize their gifts, develop their strengths and help make their learning meaningful? Let’s figure out what each student is passionate about and leverage that drive to help kids learn and succeed.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Adjust the Learning to the Child, Not the Child to the Learning

Yesterday, our Assistant Superintendent John Simpson, share this video with the teachers in our district. It is must-see viewing for everyone who teaches or works with children in any capacity. The very first line, "School sucks!" may offend some people initially but when you see the rest of the video, you see that he offers many examples of how kids are not being properly served by schools. You quickly realize that for those kids, he is right; school sucks. In many cases, things are getting worse for kids. As many districts morph into a culture of "testing on steroids", more and more kids are LEFT OUT of learning. The testing culture is the wrong road to go down and yet many blindly speed down that road without thinking through the repercussions of their actions. It is shameful.

The boy in this video talks about every child's genius. Melissa and I talk daily about the genius in every kid. Our challenge as teachers is to unearth that genius and nurture it until it grows strong and sturdy. Kids are good at so many things and their confidence grows exponentially when we find that expertise and develop it. So much of the kids' expertise is not related to what we do in schools but IS RELATED to what they will do with their lives. The school is disconnected, not the child. The child will find a place in the world, based on their genius and expertise, regardless of their schooling. The challenge for us is how to re-engineer schools to allow the kids to identify and develop that expertise in school.

If schools become more and more irrelevant to students' lives, there will be less and less need for traditional schools. We will see different kinds of schools pop up, ones that are engineered to nurture the gifts of each child. We must find out what motivates a child (and ALL children are motivated) and move that child down that path. For example, if a child's real passion is architecture, then we should tailor that child's schooling around that passion. Indeed, this child will find meaning in his/her life working in architecture. Why wouldn't we want to help make that happen? 

Schools have standards. We talk about "teaching the standards" all of the time. We have developed those standards over time and feel that they are the essential things that kids need to master. Are they? Must a child whose passion is architecture really master the standard:   7.4 Analyze how a drama's or poem's form or structure (e.g., soliloquy, sonnet) contributes to its meaning. Why don't we build standards that are more relevant to this child's passion and have them work toward those standards? No child is standard. We must honor this diversity of genius and adjust learning to the child, not the child to the learning.

We say that every child is unique but we don't necessarily treat every child as unique. The learning is standard and the testing is standard. It is up to us all to remedy this disconnect so that real, meaningful learning can occur for every child. Only then will every child discover their own genius.

Friday, March 27, 2015

What the Heck. Let's Just Do It!

Last night, we had our first district Twitter education chat, #wgsdchat. It just so happened to run concurrently to our iDEA (district PD) committee meeting. The confluence of these two events made for a rich and robust online PD experience. The iDEA folks joined our edchat from their meeting and continued to meet after the chat ended. This being our first district Twitter chat, we intended to chat for only a half hour but as the time went by, it was obvious that enough people had joined in and had so much to share that we were going to go overtime. The educators involved included teachers from all levels, principals, our superintendent, assistant superintendent and technology specialists. When this many educators with these different backgrounds get together to share, only great things can come from it.

Melissa (@melissahellwig4) and I had discussed launching a Twitter edchat for our district a while ago. We were busy with other things at the time and let the idea go with the intention of revisiting it later. About a month ago, Jason (@thetechspec) and I were in a Twitter edchat (#sunchat) and threw the idea back and forth a few times until we finally decided that the three of us would launch this baby. We figured, "What the heck. Let's just do it!" That Monday, Jason, Melissa and I planned out the details, brainstormed the first three week's worth of questions, and publicized the chat.

We had immediate buy-in. John (@jdsnwg), our assistant superintendent, was pumped from the beginning. He saw it as another way for teachers to share and learn together. We all did. With a good number of us talking it up, we had some Twitter newbies in the chat as well as some Twitter veterans. Our focus for this first chat was "getting to know you" but the conversation quickly escalated into what amazing things teachers are doing in their classrooms, how we can support each other, and the beginnings of some collaborative projects both between schools and grade levels. In just forty five minutes in a Twitter chat, some formed new educational partnerships, we cemented an online venue for sharing, and we have created a weekly sharing session for district educators. I would say that we accomplished our goals!

I feel very fortunate to work in a district where this kind of thinking and initiative is supported and encouraged. We will continue to create, innovate and risk because we have such a great network of support both from our colleagues and from our administration. We could not ask for a better environment in which to grow as educators and as people.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Imagineering Schools

The Walt Disney Company has a job title called Imagineer. In fact, there is an entire Imagineering department and you can actually get hired as an Imagineer. The job responsibilities include "Creating the never before seen". How awesome is that? People get to work all day toward dreaming up the perfect entertainment for a changing culture. They get to tweak and streamline what already exists and dream up new ideas out of thin air.

What if we had Imagineers for Education? What if we took a hard look at how we do things and how our structures are set up and changed them with the idea of providing the perfect education for kids in a changing culture? What if we put learning, real learning, ahead of convenience for the adults in the school, quantifiable data collection, and an homage to the way things have always been done. What if we really did put kids first?

I often ask other teachers, "If you were to dream up a brand new way for kids to learn, how much would it resemble the current school structure?" Nearly everyone has replied, "Not at all." In fact, most teachers would throw out the entire system and start from scratch. Yet we are stuck. We are entrenched in a system that seems too big, too immobile, too archaic. We think, " I am only one teacher. How much change can I really make?"

The trick is to start small. We all have nearly total control of our own classrooms. Why can't we start there? Why can't we do things dramatically differently and focus on the kiddos? The big secret in education is that we really can affect change even if it is only at the micro-local level of our own classrooms. Don't like the textbooks? Throw them out and find better resources. Don't like the reading materials you're using? Chuck 'em and find something else. Don't like the structure of time at school? Use the time you have differently. Don't like the isolation of being a classroom teacher? Blow the door off of that classroom, collaborate with others inside and outside of the school, and watch things change for the better. Tired of seeing drone-like automatons scratching out answers on a worksheet? Burn those worksheets and collaborate with the KIDS to come up with better things to do to reach those learning goals.

Many teachers who have been in the system for a while have lost their ability to dream. Not kids. They dream all the time. Sometimes they are having a glassy-eyed daydream while we are trying to explain what we are doing in class that day. How did we lose our ability to dream? Of course, we are overloaded with work, have too little time to plan anything and have meetings out the wazoo. But the most important thing any teacher can do is dream. Dream about the way kids should learn. Dream about the way teachers should teach. Dream about the ideal collaborative and learning space. Just dream. Soon enough, those dreams will start to turn into reality. At first it will start with a little different furniture in class and then a few cool learning activities. Then it may morph into including kids in the planning process. Who knows? It may even turn out that we have classes of kids teaching each other as we roam the room, facilitating and providing some expertise here and there. 

Dreaming is restorative. It fuels us, excites us, drives us to become better and better. Our kids desperately need us to be better and better each day. We have to trust that we can be the people who design better learning experiences for our kiddos. With our determination and creativity, we can become the Imagineers that our schools so desperately need.