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.