Sunday, December 18, 2016

Our Breakout EDU Kit Came!

For a long time, I have been hearing teachers tell stories about their Breakout EDU experiences. They created games, or used the existing ones, so that their kiddos would have a cool problem-solving challenge. One time last year during our social studies PD day, Chris McGee (@cmcgee200), our coordinator, had us play a game of Breakout. It was fascinating to see how each of us thought through the problem, how we collaborated and worked to solve it and how we treated it as a game instead of a traditional learning experience. We know that gaming in the classroom brings learning to a new level; the kiddos don't even realize that they are learning.

I want that experience for my kiddos. I want my kids to learn through play. I always mix traditional learning with new experiences in class. The kids prefer the new and different experiences and I don't blame them. Trying to create new experiences for them is my challenge. I must admit that I have been relying more on traditional learning experiences than fun learning experiences this year because I was trying to get my bearings in my new school. Now, I feel much more comfortable in my new role, have launched a couple of new projects and even started a Genius Hour program here. It's time to change things up in the regular classroom as well.

I ordered a Breakout EDU kit a few weeks ago. I hoped that I would have enough time to prepare a session with the kiddos before break but alas, we are running out of time. The kit came a few days ago and instead of trying to rush and get a session in, I'll use winter break to really plan a session so that kids have a fun and challenging day when they return to school. If it is well-planned, challenging and fun, kids will want to do it more. I don't want the Breakout EDU session to be a bad one for the kids because of my poor planning. The first time doing something is always the most important time. It is the time that kids assess whether or not they like the activity and whether they will have positive or negative feelings toward it in the future. It's like winning them over all over again.

Over break, I'm going to investigate Breakout EDU more, the website, and the games. I'll find or create a game that I think is great for my kiddos and plan it out. Upon returning to school, we'll start the new semester with a challenge. Hopefully this will set the tone for the rest of the school year.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

"The Tide" Revisited

A few weeks ago, we did a soft launch of The Tide (, @enmtide), our digital literary magazine. During the course of the school year, there are various writing contests. We thought that timing the launch of the magazine with the conclusion of the Creepy Story Contest at school would be smart. We published the top stories that were submitted for that contest. Since then, a few other non-contest stories have come in and we published them as well. Needless to say, the magazine is in its infancy and there will be many tweaks and changes along the way.

Once we launched, there were a few things that my colleague, Brad Basinger (@sitting0vation), and I wanted to change. This is how we work. We publish the first iteration and then think of things that we want to tweak. After tweaking those, we see what else we can do to improve the magazine. I think this is how most people work. Of course, there are the perfectionists who will not put up anything until it is absolutely perfect. I can't abide that. I have to live with something for awhile, getting the feel of it, before realizing what needs tweaking. Having Brad as a second set of eyes is extremely helpful. He has a ton of ideas, most of which I hadn't thought of. Between the two of us, the magazine is shaping up to be a pretty cool venue for showcasing our kiddos' work. I think we are both excited to see how far we can develop this project.

We think it is important for kids to have many places to display their work, both at school and beyond the school walls. There is something very special about the moment a student sees their work published either in print or online. Sure, kids post stuff on social media all of the time but having their work displayed in a literary magazine that others control is something special. 

While this project is just beginning, we predict that it will grow quickly. Brad is making the rounds to all of the English classes over the next couple of weeks to promote our site and get more kids involved. Once they see it, many will want to be a part of it. We are happy that our writers will have a place of their own to showcase their work. 

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Recess and Recreation

Over the last ten years or so, schools have put more emphasis on curricular on-task time, often shortening recess as a result. The idea is that kids will learn more if they spend more time in the classroom and less time on the playground. As I observe my kiddos everyday, I know that the education experts who promote this line of thinking have it exactly wrong. Obviously they do not understand the workings of a school or classroom and make rules based on their ignorance. They THINK something will gain a desired result and don't bother to consult the real experts, the teachers, before codifying these decisions.

When kiddos are deprived of enough time to run and play, their classroom studies suffer. Twenty minutes of recess per day is not nearly enough time to nurture well-rounded kids. With too little time for recreation, kids' focus suffers and they try to have recreational experiences in the classroom. Right now, we hear all kinds of positive stories in the news about education in Finland. It is the hot topic right now. I read about how schools in Finland operate and know one thing to be true - the amount of time that schools there devote to recess and recreation is one reason that the kids perform so well. They seem to understand that when kids run and play for long periods of time several times per day, their focus in the classroom sharpens and they can learn more in less time. Our focus here in the USA has been on quantity of time instead of quality of time.

I see the kids' pent-up energy in my own classroom. While we try to include lots of activities in which kids can move and use their social skills, class time is no substitute for recess. Kids need play time and lots of it. A school day in which kids have thirty minutes of recess three times per day would be ideal. We would see kids learning when they should be learning and playing when they should be playing. Now, we often see kids playing when they should be learning because there is so little time to play. Play is an essential part of being a kid. Kids need unstructured play time. It fosters their imaginations, helps build social skills and gives them a chance to exercise their bodies.

In our "more is better" culture, we miss an essential point. We mistake quantity for quality. If we want kids learning more then they need to play more. We have to build pockets of time into the day during which kids can burn off some of their energy and be kids. When kids have those times, several times per day, then they will focus more in class and learn more. It is not rocket science. It is what the best school systems in the world are doing.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

We Learn in Stories

This past week, we wrote essays in class. Not very glamorous, I know. The purpose was to take what the kids had learned in their civics classes and shape that knowledge into basic essays. The topic was the Articles of Confederation and how the US Constitution improved on them. It was a challenge. Many kids came with varying degrees of knowledge about the topic. Some knew the difference between the Articles and Constitution and some had no idea. It really is a challenging topic that most adults could not explain. Our amazing civics teachers, who are subject to a hellish pacing guide, set the kids up with enough information for the kids to perform. The materials they use have all of the necessary facts about the Articles of Confederation and the US Constitution. But there is no story.

Human beings learn in stories. We need context and narrative in order to learn. Kids came to seventh grade not knowing anything about this topic. They didn't know who James Madison was. They did not know about the system of checks and balances and shared power among the branches of government. They finished this unit not knowing much more than they knew when they started it. There was no story. The kids could not weave the new information into their existing knowledge base. New knowledge is like half of a zipper. As we learn it, it connects with what we already know, like one side of a zipper connects with the other side. If we don't access kids' existing knowledge, there is no connection.

Florida is doing itself no favors by insisting on such a massive amount of information to be "taught" to our seventh graders. No teacher can properly tell the story of our government in such a short period of time. No student is going to fully understand our rich history of revolution and democracy from packets full of facts. They need action. They need color. They need drama and tension. They need the story. We have to give our teachers the time and space to create for kids living, breathing civics classes in Florida classrooms. We have to give teachers the ability to create an environment where kids can see the context in what happened then and what happens now.

All teachers feel pressure to "cover" the material but "covering" is not "teaching". The state almost guarantees that kids will only memorize what they need in order to pass the EOC. They will not learn it. The shallow glance at our rich history that teachers are forced to rush through leaves kids confused and ignorant. Unfortunately, what has happened in Florida has also happened around the country. States keep introducing curriculum standards that require more and more while teachers have less and less time to devote to topics that need more time. Kids are not computers. We can't just enter data into their brains. We have to master the art of connecting new knowledge with their existing knowledge base. Only then will kids really learn the stories we want to teach them.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Tide: A Digital Literary Magazine

One of the ideas that I had been kicking around for a while is launching a digital literary magazine at school. We have a school newspaper but there is no place for kids to showcase their literary works. Since we are in the digital age, it only makes sense that our magazine be digital as well. A few weeks ago, I created a template in Wix for a literary magazine website. It is really just a very attractive blog template. In collaboration with our creative writing club sponsor and my other ELA department colleagues, we hammered out the details. Now, as soon as our initial content is polished, we will launch. I will post in this space about our launch.

Why is this important? Well, kids have a chance to showcase their talents in school. We have athletic events, academic events and extracurricular events. We don't really have "literary events" so there is room for something like this. Those kids who are amazing writers should have an audience beyond their classroom teachers. We should celebrate and showcase their work. We should live the message that there is value to their talent and we want to show it to the world. We know that kids will "up their game" when they know that they will have an authentic audience for their work. They will put more time and effort, more care, into their work when they know that all eyes will see it. They will also walk a little taller when they see their work published. We experience this with the Teen Lit Review. Kids write reviews not only for points in their English class, but also because they want to be able to show others their published work. There is a sense of pride there that many kids don't get anywhere else.

The Tide will be a way for another segment of our school population to display their talents. It is really important that every student in school has some outlet for their talents. School is not just a place to complete work given to them by the teacher. It is a place to grow both as a student and person. It is a place to develop their best talents. It is a place to make attempts at great things, fail, and attempt again. It is a place where kids can see their value, see that they are an important part of the community, and know that there is an outlet for their contributions. The Tide will be one of those outlets.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Introducing GAFE to ENMS

For the past few months, we have been trying to figure out a way to use Google Apps for Education in our classroom. Our district does not support GAFE but there is some autonomy in the schools. Through a lot of brainstorming with my administration and coordinators, I think we've come up with a way. Soon, the kids will have access to the suite of applications that make education so much more efficient and easy. Soon the kids will have some amazing creation tools in their hands.

In my last school, we had a 1:1 laptop program and we were completely open and using GAFE. It was amazing what the kids could do without using a single sheet of paper. Indeed, we were a paperless classroom for at least three years. Our kids used all of the apps: Docs, Sheets, Slides, YouTube, Blogger and more. We were able to share and collaborate efficiently and the kids got more out of their education than if they did not have access to the apps. This is the environment that I want to bring to the kids at East Naples Middle School.

For other teachers who are in similar situations, where the district does not support GAFE, here is what we are doing. First, we are buying a domain, probably Then, we will designate it an educational domain with Google, allowing us to use GAFE. I sent home permission slips so that the kids' parents sign off on the use of GAFE and I will assign each of my kids an email address to be used in our Google cloud. Once each of the kiddos is equipped with their e-mail address, they will have access to everything and we can start using all of the apps. For the meantime, we will keep our accounts within our school domain using the privacy settings but later on, we may be able to open them up.

We are an experimental classroom charting the way for our school and district. When we troubleshoot the problems and get things running smoothly, we foresee other teachers bringing their classes into the fold. In our book, Cultivating Genius, I talked about "The Lone Wolf" and "The Second Person". In this instance, I am acting as The Lone Wolf because I am trying something that most others don't want to try. One day soon, I expect to find my Second Person, the one who will buy into the program with me and validate what I am doing. Slowly, we will build critical mass and most of the school will adopt GAFE for classroom use. Maybe even one day, the district will also incorporate GAFE into the educational program here. That's the way things usually work. We have to show that things work before most will try. That's okay. We only need a few of us who will take the chance to create something cool for the kids.

One big difference between my previous school, Hixson Middle School, and my current school is that our kids at East Naples Middle School are not in a 1:1 laptop program. We do have a BYOD program and about 60-70% of the kids have devices. We do have 3-4 classroom computers to use but access may be an issue. My next step will be to write a few technology grants to get more devices into my classroom. We must start small and grow the program. There will be bumps and potholes along the way, but we will get there, learning together.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

PBS Day!

Schools across the nation do a lot of things to encourage good behavior and learning habits in kids. We institute program after program to make a difference. A lot of time, these programs fall under their own weight because we don't constantly work at them to keep them going and improve them. I have been in many situations where we had a PBS (Positive Behavior Support) or PBIS (Positive Behavior Intervention and Support) program that didn't work because the application of the program was uneven. Some teachers and administrators in the school pushed it hard and others did nothing to support the program. They were destined for failure.

At East Naples Middle School, we have an impressive PBS program. Kids are encouraged everyday to do their best. Behavior expectations are taught explicitly, we celebrate achievement and we reward positive behaviors. Once a month, we have a grade-level awards assembly to celebrate the kiddos who achieved great things during the previous month. This regular recognition system allows kids to see tangible recognition for their hard work. Roughly every six weeks, we also have a PBS day. Our PBS day is a half day when kids can choose their activity and go play for that half day. It is based on criteria determined beforehand and kids are aware of the expectation.

Tomorrow is our second PBS day of the year. In the afternoon, kids will go outside to play soccer, basketball, and run track while other kiddos will be in the computer labs playing games or working on projects. The kids get to choose. There will also be snacks, common student areas and other bonuses for kids. It is a really cool day for the students.

This program is applied evenly and consistently. Our principal laid out the expectation and all teachers are on board. We organize the activities each time and set things in motion. This is a team effort and it pays off in a good school climate, happy kids and happy teachers. The way the PBS program at East Naples Middle School is done is a good model for other schools.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

More Bang for the Buck with Kindles

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 15, 2016

The Wonder Wall

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

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

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

Sunday, October 2, 2016

We Have to Dream!

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 25, 2016

It's On Again!

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Encouraging Expectations

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Writing Prompts and "The Wall"

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 4, 2016


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

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Establishing a Culture of Reading

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

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

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

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

From Kelly Gallagher's Readicide

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Every Kid Every Day

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 8, 2016

Hello East Naples Middle School

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

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

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Goodbye Hixson. Goodbye Webster.

I don't think that many people can say that they loved going to work everyday. I can. Every day that I have spent at Hixson Middle School in the Webster Groves School District has been a pleasure. I love the kids, my colleagues, the climate of the district and the growth I've experienced. Webster has always been a district that encouraged teachers to take risks in the classroom and try new things if we think they will help kids learn. In that kind of environment, teacher autonomy is nurtured. It is empowering, meaningful, authentic work. It is the same work that we ask our kids to do. While it is time to move on, I cannot help but think that I am the teacher and person that I am today because of my time in Webster Groves. For this, I am eternally grateful.

Ten years ago, Melissa Hellwig and I started our journey together. We were a half team at Hixson and we became fast friends and work mates. We complemented each other well. My strengths were her weaknesses and her strengths were my weaknesses. Together we created a climate that was second to none for our kids at school. We think alike: kids come first, treat everyone well, advocate for what is best for all. I could not have asked for a better teaching partner and friend. She is the reason that I flung open my classroom door and shared more of what I, and we, did. She made me a better teacher and a better person. I owe a lot of my growth as an educator to her and I appreciate her as a teacher, colleague and friend. Our kids were so lucky to have had Melissa as their teacher. She is amazing.

Melissa is symbolic of the incredible talent in Webster Groves. Webster teachers are amazing. Going the extra mile for kids is the rule, not the exception. They are talented, caring, intelligent and compassionate people. When you work in an environment with teachers like that, you take on the best qualities of those people. It made me better.

Now I am moving on. I take with me the values of Webster Groves. I will continue my mission for children in the Collier County School District at East Naples Middle School. While I will never have another teaching partner and friend like Melissa, I know that because of my time in Webster I am better prepared for the challenges that lie ahead. Thank you, Hixson. Thank you, Webster.

Monday, May 23, 2016

A Gratifying Teacher Moment

During our 20% Time program, kids come up with amazing project ideas. Sometimes they want to build, sometimes create, sometimes innovate and sometimes fulfill a lifelong goal. One student from last year, Rosalie Garzia, decided last year that, as part of her 20% Time project, she would write a novel. She'd always wanted to write a novel and now she had the chance. She worked on her book all of last year and when it came time for Student TED Talks, the culminating learning event of the year, she talked about how she made a lot of progress but was not ready to publish yet. That was the last we'd heard.

Well, earlier this year, Rosalie did indeed publish. She worked all summer and fall and published her book this spring. So, on April 7, 2016, The Island by Rosalie Garzia hit Amazon! We are immensely proud of her and the work she put in even after 20% Time was officially over for her. The other day, she came up and gave Melissa and me our own copies of her book. She signed them for us and we also discovered that she dedicated the book to us. What an amazing feeling to know that we opened up a door for Rosalie that had previously been closed to her. We were blown away.

The Cardboard Boat Regatta

Sometimes we come up with a learning experience that is so engaging to students that we can just step back and let the kids go. The Cardboard Boat Regatta was one of those experiences. In science class, kids were charged with the task of building a boat out of cardboard that could be raced in the city pool with students in them. Kids could have between one and three students in each boat. They had about one week to build a prototype, draw a pattern for their boat and construct the vessel out of the cardboard that we had been collecting for the last two months. It was on!

Kids LOVED this experience. They were talking about weight, buoyancy, water distribution, and a host of other principles of shipbuilding and science. The boats took many forms and the kids had a day to decorate and give their ship a theme. Needless to say, these groups of kiddos worked during the allotted class periods, before school, during lunch and after school for about a week. This morning, we walked to the city pool to have our races. The following are pictures and videos of the entire experience. Enjoy!

Here is some footage taken by Mr. Rambach (@rrambach) with his drone.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Track Day 2016

Every year in May, the Phys Ed department puts on a track and field day for the kiddos. Kids run events, participate in field events and also take part in crazy, fun events. It is a great time for the kids to run, jump, cheer on their friends and have a great time! Below are some pictures from Track Day 2016.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Student EdCamp 3

Today we ran our third student EdCamp of the year. Since we had been through the process a couple of times before, the kids were ready to spring into action once we announced that we were doing a third EdCamp. Some kids chose to preview their 20% Time projects in an EdCamp session. Others chose to share some of their learning outside of school in a session. As usual, there were many technology sessions but there were also other sessions like Cupcake Decorating and Dance. Even with a few small glitches, this morning went very well. Here are some photos from today's EdCamp.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Ideas From Everywhere

Each year in May, our school puts on a track day. Kids sign up to run various track events and participate in some field events, some crazy events and some team-building events. It is a fun half-day of school and the kids really get into it. They come to school sporting their team colors and wearing their team regalia. This year, for the first time ever, a couple of our students had an idea to create Harmony Team Track Day 2016 shirts. It was a great idea that Celia and Ian had.

One day in class last week, I heard talk of t-shirts for track day. I paid it no mind, thinking that the kids were talking about wearing their team t-shirts for track day as we normally do. Nope. They were creating full-blown special event t-shirts. When the kids asked if they could do this, I said, "Sure." I didn't know if the idea would come to fruition or not but I thought the attempt was worthwhile and the energy they were showing was amazing. They immediately got to work designing the shirt. When they were happy with the design, they created a flier and order form. One of the student's parents would coordinate with the t-shirt company and handle money. We were off!

My only part of this was to publicize the shirts and give a form to any student who asked for one. Well, nearly half of the team bought a Harmony Team Track Day 2016 shirt. I was pleasantly surprised. After all, this was a completely student-driven, student-created project that occurred for no particular reason but that it was a good idea.

I am so very happy and proud that our kids think this way. They don't wait to be told what to do. They have an idea and they run with it. We support the kids as much as we can but the idea, the learning, is theirs. We provide the opportunities for learning and the kids, most of the time, take advantage of those opportunities. They launch projects that are relevant and interesting to them. We support where we can and watch the awesomeness that is student-driven learning.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Spontaneous Team Writing

Every once in a while, we get tired of the routine in class and feel the need for a little spontaneity. Last week, we were feeling like we needed to shake things up. At the beginning of class, I moved kids into groups of four. I told them that they would be writing a group story and would have to have it ready for reading ten minutes before the end of the class period. Kids had about 35 minutes to work and then we used the last ten minutes to read these creations. "You can write about anything you want, but your story must include some form of treachery!" "Ooooooh," many of the kids yelled. They were ON it.

Immediately they got to work talking about different situations that would work for their story, brainstorming various degrees of treachery and adding details to the ideas to really punch them up. As I roamed the room, I saw some groups using one student as a scribe and others using a shared Google doc to which all could contribute. They were energized and excited. This was just what we needed last week! As the class period went on, I noticed that the level of engagement increased. As the plot lines got more complex, the kids became more and more involved in the creation. Good ideas were built from other good ideas. This learning was interesting and relevant to the kids.

It is amazing what motivated kids can accomplish in a half hour. The stories were creative, complex, well written, littered with details and well thought-out. The kids were a great audience when it came time to read the stories because the stories were so good. It was at that moment that I decided to use this as a weekly writing activity in class. Each week, we will have another topic/theme around which the kids will write. Part of the challenge is to weave the theme or topic into the story the kids want to write. It is through this limitation that such creativity is born. By stumbling upon this cool activity, we struck gold.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Crayon Art

A couple of weeks ago, the kids were all asking to use the hot glue gun. Of course, the materials and equipment in the room are theirs to use so I said, "Sure." When I checked in on them, they were not gluing anything. Apparently, they were creating art from melting crayons against the hot tip of the gun. We have a bucket of crayons in the room and, holding the glue gun over paper, the kids pressed a crayon of a particular color against the hot tip and created art from the drippings.

One of the things that I like about this type of activity is that it was totally driven by students. They discovered it, they shared what they discovered and they began creating their art. I had nothing to do with it; I just provided the materials and watched the magic happen. To this day, kids are using the glue gun and crayons to put their own spin on crayon art. Below is a video of Ian creating with crayons.

Here is a picture of Ian's finished product.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Next Level of Classroom Collaboration

Recently, I had the opportunity to have an exchange with Ameir Abouelela about the role of collaboration in learning. I have always been a big believer in collaboration in classrooms and additional time for students to reflect, alone, on the fruits of that collaborative process. Often times, the act of bouncing ideas off of each other can generate lots of ideas but it is the quiet time afterwards that allows the students to process and use the results of the collaboration. The entire piece can be found at this link: The Next Level of Classroom Collaboration.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Excuse Notes

Kids are great at making excuses. They make excuses about why they were late, why they didn't do their work and why they got in trouble. They are experts at coming up with excuses. About this time every year, we harness this power to write "excuse notes" as a writing assignment. On Monday, we talked about all of the excuses kids have made in the past to their teachers and parents. We get a good laugh out of many of them and the kids appreciate the creativity of each excuse that is described in the conversation. Then, I tell them about our new assignment: the excuse note. I ask the kids to write a few paragraphs about why they couldn't do something or why they were late somewhere or why they didn't turn in something. While the kids get a charge out of the assignment idea, we talk a bit about the elements of a good story. I tell the kids that they can use something that actually happened to them or make up something completely fictional. After all, there are elements of truth in even the best fiction.

I ask kids to write a 2-3 paragraph excuse note. The note can be from them, a letter from their parents or any other manifestation of an excuse they'd like to create. We go over some of the finer points of good, descriptive writing and talk about believability. I stress to the kids that the best excuse notes are ones that can pass as truthful, whether they are or not. We want readers to ask at the end, "Hmm, I wonder if that really happened." I ask for no aliens, monsters, etc. I want real drama from the kids.

As an added challenge, I told the kids that they would get some bonus points if they wrote the entire excuse note without using the letter "o". I was surprised at the number of kids who decided to try the challenge. There are always the kids who want to push themselves harder to see if they can achieve something. We have many of those kids on team this year.

Well, the kiddos did a great job on their notes. Many of the kids had elaborate scenarios as to why they were late to class, didn't turn in work or failed badly in a different situation. I read all of the notes to the class and the kids listened intently to each note, trying to guess which student wrote each note. It was a fun assignment that brought out some creativity in the students and stressed the importance of clear writing.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Cultivating Genius: The Book

When Melissa Hellwig and I give presentations and professional development sessions about 20% Time, Genius Hour and Project/Problem Based Learning, we usually have a curious and receptive crowd. We try to be thorough about WHY schools need to change to incorporate personalized learning and also show the template of our own program. Toward the end of our talk, we get questions about incorporating this philosophy into other situations and a call for more information on the subject. Most of the school districts where these teachers work do not provide any PD on 20% Time or PBL so these teachers are on their own to find relevant information. Teachers often want to be secure in what they are doing before taking that first step.

Because of the constant call for more information, I wrote Cultivating Genius: The Why and How of Creating a 20% Time Learning Environment. Last summer, I assembled all of the material that Melissa and I created and wrote the book in two parts. The first part is the "why" of 20% Time. It explores what schools have traditionally been and why we need to change education. The second part of the book is the "how" of 20% Time. It represents a step-by-step template of our own program that teachers can use as a model. I included the forms that we created and use and I also explained how everything works during the course of the year. Melissa contributed to the book as well. I included a powerful blog post that she wrote and she also created many of the documents that appear in the book. It is our hope that this book can be a springboard for more teachers to embrace the 20% Time model and ignite the passion for learning in their students. You can find the book here.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Student Ingenuity and Project Based Learning

Every once in a while, a student will do something that makes you shake your head while at the same time remind you about why things must change in classrooms. Recently one our our teachers sent an e-mail to the rest of our social studies department. It read:

Just a heads up some one named bigchuck_427 created a quizlet with our answers on our study guides. Another student name (name deleted) used it as well.

This e-mail was instructive to me for many reasons. First, like most study guides, if you fill it out correctly, it comprises the actual test. Second, the student mentioned in the e-mail, though it is not what we may want from our kids from an honesty perspective, displayed ingenuity by using technology to allow others to access the completed study guide. Third, the traditional assessment model lends itself to this cat-and-mouse game that prizes information over problem-solving and creativity.

Since assessments are information-based, then there is a "body" of information that is regarded as important. It is this valued information that kids must write on a test in order to be judged proficient. Of course, when so much value is placed on a body of information, then some students will do whatever it takes to make sure they have the right information, even filling out a study guide and making it available on an app that all of the kids can access.

In our PBL classrooms, our assessments look different. They are not paper/pencil affairs that value certain information. These assessments, if done correctly, demand that the kids use the information that they have learned to solve a problem, take a stand, or make a judgment. The kids have a great deal of latitude in the project assessment because they create it in order to satisfy the learning goals. For example, our assessment for the Greek section of our social studies class was comprised of one question: We have looked at many aspects of Classical Greece: art/architecture, government, warfare, philosophy, and culture. Your charge is to decide which of these things was the most important one that we have taken from Greece and incorporated into our own American society. You must analyze what you have learned, research more information about your chosen topic, and create a presentation (paper, video, slideshow, etc) that demonstrates that your decision is the correct one.

For a project like this, there is no study guide. Each project will be different. Each child will have a different judgment and will have to build a case in order to back up their judgment. A project like this incorporates research, analyzing information and building a creative way to communicate the ideas. It is a qualitatively higher-level assessment that includes various secondary skills that a paper-pencil, information-based assessment does not. Let's face it, kids are going to have careers that are based on problem-solving. The more problem-solving experience and training we can give them, the better we prepare them for the future.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Student-Led Conferences

Each spring, our parent conferences take the form of student-led conferences. As kids get more and more used to taking responsibility for their own learning, student-led conferences become a natural extension of that responsibility. Kids are in charge of their learning and now have an opportunity to share that learning with their parents. The structure of student-led conferences is vastly different than traditional parent-teacher conferences and the preparation for students is much greater as well.

At the beginning of second semester, just after winter break, we introduce the subject of student-led conferences. Kids are now looking for learning artifacts and performance events that they'd like to share with their parents. In the middle of February, we begin building the kids' portfolios, which make up the bulk of the discussion during the conference. This year, we decided to create websites as portfolios. Most of the kids used and some used Google Sites. A few even used As kids built their sites, we asked them to create pages for English, social studies, math, science, 20% Time and "forms". Each page will have two projects linked. One of the projects must be one that the teacher required and the other project can be one that the student feels shows their best work. The "forms" page houses all of the forms we ask the kids to fill out, from "My Goals for Second Semester" to "How I See Myself as a Learner". The folder of forms is linked here. The week before conferences begin, we make sure that each student has their website created with all of the appropriate pages, links and materials.

The evening of conferences usually runs quite smoothly. We schedule four student-led conferences simultaneously and each conference lasts a half hour. In our four-hour conference period each evening, we can get 32 conferences done. We coach the kids on proper etiquette and have a script of bullet points taped to each conference table in case the kids get lost during the conference. The script just highlights things the kids should talk about. At some point during the conference, Melissa and I visit each conference to see if there are any questions that the parents have for us. For the most part, the parents have had all of their questions answered by their child. We have an exit sheet for each of the parents to rate how their child performed during the conference and we ask each parent to write their child a note telling them some positives about their conference. All in all, it is a great experience that allows the kids to present themselves as learners in charge of their education and allows the parents to see their children in that light.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The "Tough Love" Question

This morning in one of my favorite Twitter edchats, #sunchat, the topic was "Tough Love". Now, we all seem to have a different definition of "tough love", especially when it comes to dealing with students. Some of the comments read something like "When kids miss deadlines, they don't get to turn the work in late. Maybe they'll learn to meet deadlines next time." I know that this seems to be a natural consequence and we're all about natural consequences, but I don't agree with this type of "tough love".

Our objective is for the kids to learn. We want them to learn good habits and behaviors in addition to the skills and content that we try to teach them. However, punishing bad habits does not further learning. We have to separate the learning from the behavior. Do we want the kids to learn the material? If we do, then telling a student they cannot learn it and turn the work in late for a grade does not further learning. Ideally, we want the kids to learn the material and the good habits. Unfortunately, kids sometimes only get one or the other. One clear example of our mindset is whether or not we allow redos. If we do, then we are furthering the learning. We are also teaching kids that learning is not a one-shot deal. That's okay because in most places in the "real world", learning is NOT a one-shot deal. If I hold a child accountable for the habit and do not allow late work or a redo, how can that child be held accountable for the learning? Either we want the kids to learn the material or we want to punish the kids for bad habits. The latter, it seems, is "tough love".

In our minds, we think that if we penalize a child for a bad habit (not turning in work on time, bad test-taking, etc) then they will feel the urgency to perform better next time. Never mind that they didn't have a chance to repair their learning this time and now will skip that learning to move with the class to the next topic. For a few kids, this penalty may motivate them for next time. For the majority of kids, it does not. Instead, we teach them that the work they didn't do, or didn't do well, really wasn't all that important anyway. If it were important, we would make sure they did the assignment for a grade, even if it came in late. Since we don't, the learning must not have been that important after all. This is the message that kids are learning from us. This is what "tough love" teaches kids.

"Too bad. Should have turned it in. Maybe next time." We think this type of statement is motivational for the students but, in reality, it turns them off. They realize that the teacher really doesn't care about them and the assignment didn't really matter except as a number in the grade book. If the learning is so easily skipped, why do it at all? As adults, when someone says something like "Too bad. Maybe next time" to us, we usually think, "Fine! See ya!" Kids feel the same way. They know that the teacher is not out for them. They know that they are just a number in the grade book. They know that the teacher is really not there to help.

As frustrating as it is sometimes, I give as many chances as kids need in order to learn something. I know that I have as many different learning styles as there are kids in the room. I know that some will get things quickly and some will struggle. I know that kids need different kinds of help. I also know that all kids want to succeed. I can choose to be the barrier to their learning by exercising some "tough love" or I can be helpful in their learning by giving them the support that they need. I choose the latter.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

EdCampSTL, the Granddaddy of Them All

The EdCamp movement is global. These PD days are popping up all over the world. EdCamp is a relatively new way of delivering relevant, quality educational professional development. While there is a national EdCamp organization,, each individual EdCamp is a grassroots effort put on by a group of committed educators.

In St. Louis, EdCampSTL started five years ago. A few area educators, including Chris McGee @cmcgee200, Bob Dillon @ideaguy42, Rob Lamb @lambchop1998, and Patrick Dempsey @midscoolsci started building this PD organization into the largest EdCamp in the world. Literally. I attended EdCampSTL a few years ago for the first time. I was blown away by how many teachers were invested in their own professional development. These were teachers who gave up their Saturday to learn and become better teachers. These were the kind of teachers I wanted to be around. Immediately, my teaching partner, Melissa Hellwig @melissahellwig4, and I asked to join the EdCampSTL planning committee. We wanted to do anything we could to help make this event even better.

This year, EdCampSTL was the best edcamp I've ever been to. Hadley Fegruson @hadleyjf, the head of the National EdCamp Foundation, even came! There were over 600 educators who came on Saturday to learn and share. These were educators who were not there to complain about their situation, their students or their school. They were there to learn, find solutions and share their learning. These teachers were all about growth and are the kind of educators who will continue to learn, grow and succeed. Melissa and I presented about our 20% Time program, but otherwise, we were there to help fellow teachers find sessions, solve logistic problems, make sure everyone was having a productive PD experience and networking to make sure that teachers who needed to see or learn from certain teachers, connected with those certain teachers. So many new professional relationships sprang from EdCampSTL yesterday and those relationships will be fostered during the rest of the school year and beyond.

The name of EdCampSTL's parent company, called Connected Learning STL, says it all. We are all connected and should be learning from each other all of the time. The hard work of those in this organization often goes underappreciated by the education community at large but for anyone who has attended one of these first-rate events, they know what quality professional development should and does look like. Hats off to Connected Learning STL and EdCampSTL, the granddaddy of them all.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Chrome Camp - A Great PD Experience

Connected Learning is an education professional development organization here in St. Louis. It was created by a few progressive educators and built into a real force in the region. The goal of Connected Learning is to disrupt and hack PD so that educators can lead and get the PD that they want and need, not what others deem "appropriate" for them. The motto I hear from the organizers is "Be greedy in your PD. Get what you need." It is a great rule to live by.

Yesterday, Connected Learning put on an event called Chrome Camp (#ChromeCamp). It was a morning of professional development centered on technology, Google and learning. It was run "edcamp" style. After an introduction, teachers signed up for sessions they wanted to talk about or had questions about. From those sign-ups, a schedule was made and teachers were off to the sessions they wanted to attend. Simple and smart, this is a great way to share the expertise of everyone in the room. There are no "presentations". Rather, teachers meet and share. They get to have conversations about teaching and learning while also discovering dozens of tools and tricks that they may not have known before.

I went to three sessions during Chrome Camp. During each session, the conversation was easy and natural. It was very much like when teachers congregate in a room during their planning period. The conversation might start with one question but within fifteen minutes, a half dozen technology solutions, some new ideas for classroom design, a raft of new apps and three or four ideas about how to acquire materials are all thrown into the discussion. It is unreal how much ground a group of teachers can cover when they are left alone to learn and share together with no rigid agenda. Teachers are naturally curious about their art and always want to improve. Connected Learning gives teachers the opportunity to find others who can help them do just that and trusts that these teachers will aspire to become better. After all, if teachers didn't want to get better at what they do, they would not have shown up to Chrome Camp.

The mission of Connected Learning is one that everyone should embrace. Educators are the experts on education. Through sharing, teachers can solve the problems in their classrooms and make the learning experiences better for all of their students. There is no longer a need for pre-planned, canned, top-down PD for teachers. The real learning occurs when we empower each other and draw on the expertise of all. When all PD is run like Chrome Camp or EdCamp, then education professional development will be more relevant, more immediate and more effective.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Student-Led Conferences

In most aspects of our teaching, we have tried to give more control of the learning over to the kids. We want them to be more autonomous, more driven by passion and more in control of their own learning. Most of the projects that we do in class has various elements of choice and autonomy built in and some even have an element of student creation and planning in them. We feel that this is the best way for kids to learn. When they make the decisions, hit the roadblocks, solve the problems and emerge a more well-rounded learner, then we have all succeeded.

One of the areas where we have fallen short of student-involvement is the traditional parent-teacher conference. We enjoy meeting the parents during the fall and learning all about the kids from the parents' points of view. These sessions are incredibly valuable for us because we learn so much about the kids in such a short period of time. The kids are always welcome to come to the conferences but very few do. It is a night reserved for conversation between the parents and teachers.

During our spring conference schedule, we are changing things around. We will be conducting student-led conferences for our kids during our spring conference in March. We want the kids talking to the parents about their learning. We want the parents to see the awesomeness that the kids show us everyday in class. We want the kids to see themselves as autonomous, intelligent, creative, problem-solving learners. All of these goals are accomplished during student-led conferences.

Our planning for these conferences begins now. We have chosen Google Sites as our vehicle for students to create their learning portfolios. Over the next two months, they will be beefing up their sites, choosing projects, papers and other learning activities to display on their sites. We have worked a bit with Google Sites this year so kids have enough skill to navigate the app and learn it even better. They will add some math, social studies, science and English work that they want to showcase and they must be able to talk to their parents about their learning during these assignments. They should also be able to talk about goals for the rest of the year and how they see themselves as learners. 

We will ask parents to give authentic feedback to the kids, both on the content of the conference and on the process as well. The kids learn the entire conference process from greeting their parents at the door to seating them to introducing the conference to thanking them for coming. The kids learn the etiquette that goes into having a productive meeting and showing their learning portfolios. 

During the course of our preparation, we give the kids several handouts (actually we make them available online). They get the step-by-step instructions and the framework for the conferences. We note specific projects or learning experiences that we want them to showcase and also give them the opportunity to choose some of their own projects to include. By the time we are ready to conference, they have gone over much of their learning and decided which things to showcase and also produced a slick, eye-catching digital portfolio of their work.

Student-led conferences provide a great way for kids to be in charge of their learning. It helps them hone some of the soft skills that they will need to succeed in life. Often, it also helps them see themselves in a different light, as productive, intelligent, confident learners.