Sunday, December 3, 2017

Google's Technology Curriculum

It's not often that you get a robocall and act immediately on it. A couple of weeks ago, I got a robocall from about a partnership they had with Google. They were trying to entice teachers to try some of the Google Applied Digital Skills curriculum, and if teachers tried it, they would receive a gift code to use on a grant. Well, I took a look at the materials and found that Google has an extensive curriculum that allows kids to learn, through video tutorial and guided practice, many technology skills that they will need later in life. I was sold (as if that was even going to be a question). The next day, we embarked on our journey into Digital Adventure Stories.

The kids wrote adventure stories using Google Slides. They were able to import photos and videos in to enhance their text. They also learned how to link slides so that the reader could choose the pathway of the story. For example, if given two characters to follow, a reader could click on a character's link and just follow that character through the story. Kids learned how to create pathways of slides so that various story lines were possible. It was interesting to watch the kids try to map out the different avenues the stories could take while matching up the link to the appropriate slide. While all of this complex planning and thinking was occurring, the kids still had to create good stories.

On the instruction page of the Google curriculum, it said that this learning should take 2-3 hours. Well, our kids took longer. My kiddos averaged four hours in this activity partly because they were learning some new skills and also because they had to think through all of the possibilities. Some experienced paralysis by analysis.

When kids filled out the accompanying survey, they overwhelmingly said that they liked the unit. They liked using Google Slides and many thought of other uses for the app. Anytime I use technology in class, the kids are overwhelmingly positive about it because they don't get much exposure to technology in school and they value the new skills that they are learning. I constantly stress to them the value of digital literacy. They are learning and I think they are gaining new appreciation for what we are trying to do in class. Not only do they learn to read, write, speak, and think better, but also to do all of those things in a digital environment.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Using Scratch and Google

Once in a while we get a good opportunity to infuse a tech project into our class. We always take that opportunity. When I talk to the kids about it, I tell them that digital literacy is going to be as important to their future as language literacy. Unfortunately, our kiddos get too few opportunities to learn digital literacy, coding, and technology in general. I feel responsible for teaching them as much as I can and giving them opportunities to learn from others as well.

This week, we had an Hour of Code opportunity to use Scratch to design new Google Doodle logos. Kids were given a login to begin the project and they learned how Scratch works. They used the blocks of code to construct components of their logo. I enjoyed watching them struggle a bit with figuring out how it all works and seeing their creativity as they made decisions about how they wanted their logos to look.

Jonas teaching his classmates how to manipulate blocks of code.

So many of our kids want to learn because for them, it's something different and they like technology. We often think of kids as digital natives because their lives revolve around their phones. That is partly true. The kids are comfortable in a digital environment but expecting them to know how something works by looking at it is unfair to the kids. They don't know everything about tech. They are experts at using Snap Chat and posting to Instagram, but I have found that kids are not comfortable using many of the apps and technology that we use in class.

The advantage that kids have over adults is that they are fearless. When I taught computer classes to adults, they were so afraid of pushing buttons because "something might go wrong". Kids will push buttons until something goes right. That is the difference. Kids are comfortable with trial and error. Adults are not. When I put technology in front of kids, I have the fearless early adopters who are very comfortable plucking away and figuring it out themselves. I also have kids who want a step-by-step instruction sheet explaining everything they will do. I try to get them to experiment and discover the technology. When kids are rushing around the room sharing with others something they just learned, I am a happy guy. 

JP showing his classmates how to create a logo on devices.

Why is this type of learning going on in an ELA classroom? It's good for the kids. The more pressing question is why isn't this kind of learning happening in EVERY classroom? Digital literacy is something kids are going to deal with a lot in their future. They have to know how technology works and be able to choose the best tool for each task they will have. We have to prepare kids for their future, not our past. Even my district reading standards are covered in activities like this. Kids have to read carefully and execute the instructions that they read. Designing with code is a great learning experience on so many levels. As a bonus, the kids really like it. We will continue to take these opportunities as the year progresses. If we didn't, I would be doing these kiddos a disservice.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

A few years ago when I was at Hixson Middle School in Webster Groves, MO (before the move to Florida) my teaching partner, Melissa Hellwig, and I discovered It was a new entity that paired those who wanted to donate to public education classrooms with those classrooms in need. Individuals and businesses could donate to a specific classroom and support a particular teacher or classroom program. The benefactor could see exactly where their money was going. Businesses also could set up a funding source and give to classrooms that satisfied certain conditions (like STEM projects, art projects, etc.). During my last 3-4 years at Hixson, we wrote grants for a class set of Chromebooks, a dozen Kindles, a 3D printer, 3D doodle pens, and a trip for our entire school of 700 to see "He Named Me Malala". We wrote nine or ten successful grants. It was amazing.

Since moving to Florida and starting at East Naples Middle School, I have not written any grants through Our district has its own grant system and so I applied for three different grants through our district grant site. None have been funded. Oh well, there is only so much money to go around. But then a week ago, I received an email from telling me that the Dick's Sporting Goods Foundation was fully funding grants for athletics programs in Florida, Texas, and Louisiana. Those were the three states affected by hurricanes this fall and Dick's wanted to help schools in those states rebuild their athletics programs. Well, I don't have to be told twice to apply for a grant that will be fully funded.

I got in touch with our Phys Ed teachers and our after-school athletics program coordinator and they put together a list of our needs. Since I already had an up-and-running account, I wrote the grant for our school needs based on their lists. Two days after posting our grant, it was funded. We were all blown away. Amazing! After the grant was funded, I got an email from a staff member at telling me that if we needed more, I should submit another grant proposal. They also said to share the email so that other schools could benefit. I contacted my colleagues and we put together another grant proposal. It's funny, all of my colleagues were worried about "asking for too much". Teachers are trained to ask for nothing and feel guilty when they ask for anything. It's in our DNA. After overcoming our reservations, we submitted another grant for more equipment, things that we need but were too afraid to ask for in the first grant. I just submitted that grant two days ago and we're waiting to hear if it gets approved. We are crossing our fingers. Update: We got the second grant too! is an amazing organization that gives businesses that want to donate to public education a chance to do so the way they want to. Companies don't have to throw money out there hoping that schools will use it for its intended purposes. They can put criteria on the grant and make sure that it is going exactly where they want it to go. When these funding opportunities come up, is great about getting the word out. Savvy teachers all over the country know to act as soon as they are notified. Dick's Sporting Goods Foundation put up 1.5 million dollars to help schools recover from hurricanes (in our case, Irma). That money will positively affect the lives of millions and millions of kiddos. made it all happen.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Experimenting with FlipGrid

Our district is pushing FlipGrid as a tool for kids to use to demonstrate their learning. A few weeks ago, I went to a technology workshop and the app was featured. I saw a lot of potential there. It is something that kids would like, I thought. When I got back to class, I had two of my students, Brandon and CJ, play around with the app and record a "How-To" video showing the other kids how to use the app. It took a couple of days but they became familiar enough with the app that they could make a pretty good video.

On Monday, I introduced the app to the rest of the kiddos. We saw the website, took a look at how it worked, and watched the video that Brandon and CJ made. The kids were hooked. After forming small groups, making sure that each group had a device, I gave the class twenty minutes to play around with the app. I wanted them to make some sort of video even if it was just introducing themselves. For the next twenty minutes, chaos ensued. Kids were experimenting, asking questions, sharing information, discovering tricks and hacks, and having a good time learning. While some kids stuck to the basics, some groups got a little creative. It is that space where kids have some freedom to make learning choices that we often see them shine.

What will we do with FlipGrid? Well, I can see a lot of uses for it in our current classroom configuration. I have also put the word out to the kids that if they see a use for FlipGrid that we can incorporate into our class work, I want to know about it. After all, 24 heads are better than one. The first thing they will do with FlipGrid is create a 60-90 second "How-To" video like the one Brandon and CJ created. The video will be an instructional video demonstrating how to do something at which each student excels. This assignment is a chance for the kids to show some of their expertise and also is a precursor to our Genius Hour program that we will launch in January.

The idea that our class values each child's talent and genius is beginning to sink in for them. They have more choice and voice than they have ever been given before. I know from the past that when kids embrace the idea that they are an active learner, they will initiate learning and problem solving on their own. That is what we want to see. I want kids to find problems to solve and work on the solution. I want kids to make their own reading choices according to what they love. I want kids to see school as a way for their own personal learning goals to be met. After all, what else should our schools be doing if not that?

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Instruction Through Digital Innovation

This week I participated in a professional development program called Instruction Through Digital Innovation. It is a technology program recognizing the good work that teachers were doing with technology in the district while helping teachers learn more, network and brainstorm with other like-minded teachers. The day included the presenters showing some benefits of technology in the classroom, the group of teachers identifying how technology could be integrated effectively in classrooms, classroom visits, and lesson development.

I love workshops like this one. I love learning about new tech. Many times I see immediate applications of the tools in my class but I am always surprised by the ideas of others. I don't know how many times a teacher suggested something and I thought to myself, "Why didn't I think of that?" When you get some creative, tech-savvy teachers in a room, they will astound you with what they know. While we received many handouts, it was the suggestions of teachers during conversation times that I noted. Now, I will go back to my classroom and investigate the ideas of these creative teachers and see how they apply to my own situation. Like any good ideas, I'll tweak them to make them work for me, but the ideas are the important currency.

One of the tools that we used was the TIM chart. It helped the teachers in the room come to agreement on where tech integration fell on the spectrum. For the most part, teachers agreed on more effective and less effective uses of technology. In our own lessons, we are trying to seamlessly use technology to further learning, not just substitute one tool for another. The key to technology is that is should do something that other tools cannot do to enhance learning. 

When it came time to create my lesson for reflection, I chose to have kids make "How-to" videos using FlipGrid. FlipGrid is an app that our district is pushing. It is a short video app with which kids can create video responses. It looks really cool and I can find dozens of uses for it in my room. The problem is that I don't know how to use it. I subscribed to the teacher kit, read enough to get me going, and pulled two kids from class, and had them download the app to their phone. They will be responsible for learning how to use it. They will make an introductory "How-to" video about using FlipGrid which I will show my classes. They will then be the experts in the room. To say that they are excited is an understatement. I am happy because I can leverage the interest of these kids in order to get all of the students using FlipGrid. We are a community of teachers and learners. 

I am really looking forward to what comes next during our time in the IDI program. I feel that I have a lot of growing to do this year. Last year, I integrated some tech into my classroom but not nearly as much as years previous. Part of that problem was because I was in a new situation (new state, district, and school) and part of it was getting a handle on what resources our school had. Now that I am one year in, I feel that I can make better decisions and get these kids up to speed in their use of technology. They need to learn and I need to give them the room, time, and resources so that they can learn.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Hurricane Irma

On September 10, Naples, FL took a direct hit from Hurricane Irma. During the week prior, we saw the weather models that showed how Irma may skirt up the east coast of Florida and avoid the west coast altogether. Three days before Irma hit, those models shifted. Irma was headed directly toward Naples. Our superintendent wisely cancelled school for the two days before the hurricane made landfall. That gave our students and staff a chance to evacuate to safety if they chose. Many of my kiddos' families evacuated. Since Irma was going to tear up the entire state, many of the kids' families fled to Georgia, Tennessee, the Carolinas, and Alabama. Our school district used 29 schools as shelters and thousands and thousands of Naples residents used those shelters. It was going to be ugly.

When Irma hit, she hit hard. Irma made landfall in Naples as a Category 4 hurricane with winds up to 142 miles per hour. The storm lasted for hours with the most intense part of the storm, the eye wall, lasting for 2-3 hours. Since the eye of the storm was passing directly over Naples, many took the opportunity to go outside in the eye of the hurricane. I know I did. How many people can say that they have experienced the eye of a hurricane? Winds and rain pummeled us through the night as Irma made her way up the Florida peninsula.

On the morning of September 11, we woke to see the devastation that Irma left behind. Much of Naples was flooded, streets were impassable, trees and power lines were down, buildings were destroyed, there was no power or cell service and the water system was tainted. People who had prepared to live off the grid for awhile would be fine. Those who did not prepare were in trouble. I learned that the two most important commodities after a hurricane are water and gas. Since no stores or gas stations would open for a few days, the lines for those items, when they became available, were tremendous. Some waited up to seven hours in line for gas.

Now we were ready for recovery. People tried as best they could to check on their loved ones. Orders from the County Sheriff's Department stated that people should not drive the roads until officials could check them out to make sure they were safe. Most people were stranded in their homes with no power or communications. I myself was without power for eleven days. Slowly, over the next couple of weeks, things would get back to normal. School in Collier County was cancelled for the two weeks following Hurricane Irma. There was no way that the schools could open. Most were without power, 29 had been used as shelters, and many of our kids were not even in the state. No, we would have to wait for Naples to recover more before schools could open.

During the two weeks of recovery before schools opened, we all worked on restoring our properties. Residents placed as much debris as possible by the streets so that FEMA trucks could take it away in the next few months. Driving around, there were two sounds that we heard constantly: the hum of generators and the roar of chainsaws. These two things are essential in any disaster. Our power company promised that nearly all power would be restored to residents by September 22, nearly two weeks after the hurricane. On that day, teachers would return to schools. It took a herculean effort to make the schools whole again, but they were.

When we returned, we learned about the massive amount of resources that our school district, in partnership with the business community, had assembled to help the kids and their families. Our school communities are indeed communities. When kids returned to school on Monday, September 25, we were ready. Our counselors gathered information about what kids' families needed and the all-call went out to get those items. All kids would have free breakfast and lunch through the month of October. For some of our kiddos, these are the only meals that they get daily. Kids who needed clothes got clothes. Bags of food went home to families in need. When a community pitches in, there is nothing it can't accomplish.

In class, we debriefed. Kids told their stories about leaving or staying. They talked about the fear of the storm and the difficulty of recovery. Kids who evacuated talked about what they returned to. It will take months for Naples to get back to normal. We see evidence, debris piles, everyday that remind us of Hurricane Irma. These kids are resilient. They returned a bit battered but ready to get back into the routine. The normalcy that school provides is something that they latched onto immediately. There were brighter days ahead.

Irma will be with us all year long. It is a shared experience that will bond many of us. In a few months, we will look back and realize that we got through it together. Irma brought out the best of Naples residents. For a few weeks, people checked in on each other, lent a hand, donated, were kinder, visited, and solidified the community that is Naples. In the couple of weeks that we have been back to school, I see the same thing happening among our kids. They are kinder and a bit more empathetic, maybe because they know that we're all in this together.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Vote With Your Feet Vocabulary

Everyone loves KaHoot! It is an awesome game that helps kids learn and have fun in class. We use KaHoot a lot in class and the kids always want more. The only downside of KaHoot is that kids don't move much during the game. Sometimes, we try to take the principles of KaHoot and use them in a different way so that kids can move around the room more. So this week, we did Vote With Your Feet Vocabulary.

The idea is the same as KaHoot. We review vocabulary (in this case, prefixes) using a question and four answers. Instead of pushing a button to record their answers, the kiddos walked (or ran) to the corner of the room that had the number corresponding to the correct answer. We covered twenty prefixes in about fifteen minutes.

Prep for this activity was easy. I used Google Slides to create a card with a prefix, a couple of sample words, and four answer possibilities. The answer possibilities were numbered 1-4. Before class, I hung numbered signs in each corner and we were ready to go.

As we were playing, I noticed a lot of the kiddos discussing with their neighbors what the prefixes meant. Some kids didn't know the answers so they went back and forth with a friend, trying to figure it out. I like that kind of discourse. I like to see the kids relying on their peers to solve the problem. Most of the kids got most of the answers correct. Sometimes they were confused. That's okay. There is a good chance that they will remember better because they were more involved in solving the problems. That kind of experience sticks.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

I Wish My Teacher Knew...

Last year, a teacher's blog post went viral. She had her students fill in the answer to the following:

I wish my teacher knew...

Our reading coach at the time, Paul Holimon (@holimon_paul), reminded those of us in the English Department that it would be a good exercise for us to do as well. So at the end of last year, I had my kiddos fill out index cards titled, "I wish my teacher knew..." I was astounded by what they wrote. Many of the kids, who had sub-par years, wanted me to know that they were indeed good students. Many wanted me to know that they were good at sports, had talents that I never knew about, had different ideas about class and school that would have been helpful for me to know, and were going through personal tragedies. They gave me valuable information but I was disappointed that I waited so long to do this activity.

This year, I knew I wanted to know more about my kiddos from the first week of school. On Friday, I passed out index cards titled, "I wish my teacher knew..." I told the kiddos that they had the choice of putting their name on their card or keeping it anonymous. About 40% used their names. I don't think I would have gotten so much information if I insisted on the kids putting their names. The information that I got, however, is amazing.

Some of the things that I found out are:

- About 20% of my kids do NOT like to read. I think much of this feeling is because of how they have had to deal with reading in class before. That will change this year; I promise.
- One student is a cancer survivor...twice.
- One student said, "My dad walked out on me."
- Many of my kids love sports (soccer, boxing, wrestling, basketball, football, hockey).
- A few of my kids hate Jake Paul and Team 10.
- One of my kiddos is from the Philippines and speaks Tagalog.
- Some of the kids have experienced terrible things and therefore read books to help them deal with those experiences.
- Many kids bragged about their talents in art, music, dance, math, sports, and technology.
- Some kids' parents are divorced and it is hard on them.
- Some kiddos have experienced recent deaths in the family or their circle of friends.
- One or two kids' pets have recently died.
- Many kids related the school subject in which they are excellent!

It is important for me to know these things so that I have a sense of what this group of kiddos is dealing with. Often we forget that our students are people who have bad days or need some extra help or attention in order to get through the day. School is so much more than disseminating information. A school is a living, breathing organism. We teachers must have the soft skills to accommodate all kids regardless of their strengths and weaknesses, both academic and emotional. We are their parent figure while at school and we must act accordingly, treating these kids as if they were our own.

My mission is to take all of this information into account and make sure that this group of kids has the best school year they have ever had.  I will revisit this activity periodically throughout the year but I hope that I don't have to. I hope that the kids will become comfortable enough that they will freely share with me all of the time. If we get to that point, I'll know I have been successful.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

It's All About the Team

We spend a lot of time during the first few days on team building activities. It is always important to show the kiddos that they can work well with everyone in the class. Kids have a natural inclination to be collaborative and cooperation in class is essential. During the first few days, in addition to talking about expectations, we play some games that demonstrate how crucial teamwork is. When we develop good teamwork at the beginning of the year, that teamwork and collaboration pays off big during the last few months of the school year. Fostering cooperation and collaboration during the first week of school is an investment in the last few months of school.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

That's a Lot of Reading!

When I first introduced the idea of the 40 Book Challenge to the kiddos, they immediately thought, "No way!" Most of these kids have been middle of the road students their entire lives. To attempt to read 40 books in one school year seemed beyond their capabilities, according to them. When I asked how many books they read last year and the year before, I got answers ranging from "none" to "five" with a few exceptions, readers who read over ten books. Their challenge was also my challenge. How could we create an environment where kids would willingly pick up a book and read it for a decent amount of time? How could we get reading to be "cool" for kids? How could we help kids build the reading stamina that they will need in the future?

Since I had just started at East Naples Middle School, I had to stock my bookshelves. Selecting books that kids would want to read is always a challenge, especially because I didn't really know these kids yet. I bought hundreds of books that I thought would appeal to them and, with a fully stocked library at school, the kids had lots of choices. Now, we had to change the culture. I showed book trailer after book trailer, gave book talk after book talk, highlighted books that I saw kids read, and read WITH the kids so that they could see that it is their most important work, not busy work to do while I do other teacher duties. Some kiddos are readers just waiting to blossom. Those kids took to the program instantly. Others took a while to buy in but they did. Slowly, over the course of the year, kids would begin to ask, "I'm finished with the assignment. Can I read?" Music to my ears. Reading became a preferred option for the kids. Often, when kids came to class, they asked if we could forgo the day's work and just read.

My class schedule is three 90 minute blocks. I make sure that 30 of those minutes are dedicated to independent reading. Kids choose their books. We use some textbook stories as our whole class readings so that we have some common points of reference, but nearly all of the other reading time kids spend is on independent reading. I also ask that they read 30 minutes each night before going to bed. Some did but probably most did not. Still, they read in class. They selected their own books and read. Many times, kids would check out the same book and read together. Some groups took an entire series and rotated through it so that they all could read each book. Kids developed reading stamina. The cries of, "How much longer?" faded over the course of the year.

On our classroom wall, we have divisions for our 40 Book Challenge. Each student gets a card with their name. I put a sticker on the card for each book read. Everyone starts on the "0-5 Books" wall. Next is the "6-10 Books" wall, followed by the "11-20 Books" wall, the "21-30 Books" wall, the "30-40 Books" wall and lastly the "40+ Books" wall. Kids would see their card move throughout the year. It is a tangible visual that kids can look to in order to chart their progress. We also celebrate every five books a kiddo reads with a cupcake. When kids reach 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, 30, 35, and 40 books, they get "cupcaked". We celebrate!

These kiddos read. Five students reached 40+ Books but so many others read more than they ever thought they would. Kids are in the process of completing a class survey and some of the questions deal with their reading this year. When I look at the number of books read last year as compared to this year, I am blown away. The majority of our kids read over 15 books this year. That is a book every couple of weeks. To make things interesting, I joined the challenge. I didn't get to 40+ Books either but it was fun to keep track with the kids. They also saw me as a real reader who was reading what they were reading. They could trust that my book recommendations were probably pretty good. After all, we were a reading community. We share. 

So many of the kids were surprised by the number of books that they read this year. For some kids, it was ten times what they had read in years past. The key was book choice. Several students reported that they only read one or two books last year and those were the class novels that they read together. This year, we did no class novels. Kids had to take on the responsibility of being a real reader, looking for books they might like and developing their taste in reading. It is what real readers do. While the kiddos were surprised about how much they read, they also reveled in the accomplishment. This year is something they can always look back on with pride. They accomplished so much more than they thought they could. Many of them developed a love of reading that will last their lifetime. That love of reading is gold. I believe that if kids leave me with a love of reading, then I have done the best thing possible for them. Only time will tell.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Looking Down the Road

Last week, we took a field trip to Florida Gulf Coast University. Every seventh grader in our school participated. It is like a rite of passage. It is one of the two seventh grade field trips every year. I think the district is trying to expose the kids to the idea of college. Many have it in their minds that they are going to college after high school but many others do not. This trip shows our kiddos that the option is there for them if they want it.

I am a big proponent of kids going to college. I know it is not necessary to become the best person one can be, but for the experience of it (moving far from home, being on your own for the first time in your life, meeting a variety of people from around the globe), it can't be beat. I want my kiddos open to the idea that college may be an option for them. Many don't even consider it an option. Whether it is cost, grades, or not thinking that they are "college material", a lot of my students don't even think about college. I have been working all year to change that.

I have begun many sentences this year with "When you get to college", or "After high school, when you get to make your own schedule in college". It is important that we talk about college as if it is a given, that they will have that option to take or leave. I want the expectation that they will go to school after high school, be it college, junior college or tech school. We know that these days a high school diploma is not enough for the average kiddo to get a good-paying job. It takes more.

On our tour of FGCU, we saw a dorm room, Alico Arena (where the FGCU basketball team plays), an engineering classroom, the student commons, the library, and several gathering spots around campus. FGCU is a new school, celebrating its twentieth year of operation this year. The campus has newer buildings and a fresh look. It is an attractive place for kids to consider going to school. It is also relatively inexpensive. During the tour, I overheard several kids saying, "I'm going here!" I smiled at that. Others said, "I'm not. I'm going to Florida (the University of Florida)!" I smiled at that as well. Kids were talking about going to college as if it were in the cards now. Some of those same kiddos didn't see the possibility last week. Now they do. The more our tour guide talked about the opportunities, the more kids began to see things differently. 

I tell kids all of the time, "You want to be in the position where you get to make decisions, not have decisions made for you." That means that kids have to achieve enough that they can choose from a selection of things for which they qualify. They are making the decision. If they only qualify for one thing, the decision is made for them. That is why I push college so hard. I know that if they achieve enough to be accepted by a handful of colleges, they will be the decision-maker. They can decide which school to attend or not to attend at all. Regardless, the decision is theirs. 

As we loaded back onto the bus at the end of the day, kids were reminiscing about what they saw on campus. Some were comparing this campus to others that they have seen. I suggested to my kiddos that anytime they have a chance to see a college campus, they should take the opportunity. I look back with fond memories at all of the times I have spent on the campuses of the colleges I've attended. These kids are excitedly looking forward to the experience they will have. College is not out of reach for them. They know that now.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Taking Grading Home

Sometimes I overhear teachers talking about the papers they take home to grade. The workload is crushing, I know, and many times teaches will work outside of school hours. It is a big problem for teachers and one of the reasons why so many teachers leave the profession after only a few years. Teachers are being worked to death.

One of the things I've tried to do in the last several years is cut down on the graded assignments. I may give one or two assignments per week that are graded. The rest of the work we do is strictly for learning. Kids often say, "If you don't give us the assignment, then you won't have to grade it." Well, that's logical. We can also work together through the assignment, learn it, and then use a different form of assessment to make sure that we are all on board. We work together discussing, debating, demonstrating, and there is no need for a graded assignment. I know where each kiddo is in terms of what they have learned.

Many times, what we do in class for several days will lead up to a performance event. None of the practice work is graded, only the performance event is. How well the student performs on the event is the only thing that is assessed. Last year, in my school's 80/20 grading system, this was expected. All of the practice work before the performance event comprised 20% of the grade and the performance event was 80% of the grade. One teacher in my building described it as like sports. You practice all week but game day is Sunday. The only assessment that you receive for the practice is how well you perform on game day. That is the only thing assessed.

This year our grading system is a more standard points system but the number of assignments on which kids are graded is low. Still, I aim to make sure everything I want to assess is done at school. I made a promise to myself that the only school work I would do at home is research new resources to use in class and plan the lessons for the week. No grading. I use my planning minutes at school and a little bit of time before and after school to take care of any grading/assessing that I have to do.

I remember when I first started teaching. I would bring home bags of papers to be graded on the weekend. It was no fun walking out of school on Friday afternoon because I knew I had stacks of papers that would occupy almost every moment of my weekend. That was nothing to look forward to. Now, I am a firm believer in balance and quality of life. Teachers can change how we do things in class to cut down drastically on grading so that it is more meaningful for them and the kids. Cutting down on grading also helps restore some balance in our lives during the school year.

There are many teaches who aspire for a gradeless classroom. Wouldn't that be amazing!? I am not there yet but every year I get a little closer. The kids have trouble with it because they are so trained to work for grades. It would take a fundamental shift to do away with grades altogether. In my room, we have tried to reduced the importance of grades while at the same time help kids understand that learning is the most important thing they do at school. It takes a while to get student buy-in. Slowly, it does happen.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Our Civic Duty

When I first arrived at East Naples Middle School, I learned that the school required kids to take Civics classes. I had never been in a school before that required Civics as a class. As the year has gone on, I have seen these kiddos learn about the US government, the Constitution, Federalism and a host of other ideas unique to our country. Our kids were learning how our government works. It seems like such a fundamental idea but so many schools don't even offer a Civics class. Some kids get a basic understanding of the Constitution in social studies or history classes but our Civics classes span the entire year and are required of all students.

I cannot help but to think that these classes will pay off in the long run. Our kids will learn the system and how to access it. While we read in the newspapers each day about problems with our government, so many Americans don't even know how the government works and therefore cannot even understand the problems that we have. We see over and over when a late night comedy star does "man on the street" interviews. The people who are asked basic questions about our government have no idea how the system even works. If they don't know how it works, how do they expect to participate in it? If people don't understand government, they are less likely to vote. That is the ultimate shame.

Our kids are not rich white students. Our kiddos are middle and working class minority kids. It is even more important for them to learn the system, learn their rights, vote, and participate in government. In ten years, when our kids our out of college and maybe thinking about running for local or statewide office, the foundation they learned in our Civics classes will benefit them immensely. Our students are the people who are underrepresented in government. They will need to be more active when they get older. They need to understand the importance of voting. They need to see that change will only come when they are working for change.

The foundation of the kids' political aptitude is being taught right down the hall from me in our Civics classes. For many of our kids, these classes will be the most important classes they take in their school careers. People stay ignorant of how our government works at their own peril. Ignorance leads to inaction. Inaction leads to others making decisions for us. Our kids' voices are important ones that will be heard because our kiddos will be armed with the knowledge to intelligently participate in their own futures.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Author Polly Holyoke Visits ENMS

On Friday, YA Lit author Polly Holyoke (@pollyholyoke) visited our school to talk to the kiddos. It is not every day that kids get a chance to talk to the authors of the books they read so I am glad that we had this opportunity. Polly Holyoke wrote The Neptune Project, a Sunshine State Young Readers Award Book nominee. It is one of fifteen books that will compete for that prize.

Polly talked to the kids about her own life of adventure: climbing mountains, swimming with dolphins, and being bitten by a rattlesnake. To say that the kids were interested would be an understatement. Polly also talked about her writing process, the publishing process, and how she comes up with here ideas. She said, "Most people tell you to write what you know," but in her dystopian underwater novels, she instead wrote what she could imagine. 

Since The Neptune Project and the follow-up, The Neptune Challenge, are underwater adventures, Polly brought in some of her SCUBA gear to show the kiddos. She talked a little bit about snorkeling, diving, and spear fishing. Since we live right on the Gulf of Mexico, the kids could relate. Many had done these activities themselves. Polly told the kids that while her writing process is unique to her, there are some similarities among authors' processes. Almost all authors read a lot, write everyday, unplug from technology to clear their minds, and daydream. She talked about the lost art of daydreaming and how daydreaming is often the time when people are most creative. She encouraged the kids to develop their own storytelling abilities. "There will always be jobs for storytellers," she said. 

The time that Polly Holyoke spent with us was awesome. Kids need to see that they can do what they love for personal fulfillment, learning, and career opportunities. In the audience were many budding writers. Seeing a successful published author and being able to interact with her will only help push these kids in that direction. This was one of those essential learning opportunities that we try to get for our kiddos. It is a meaningful experience that kids won't forget anytime soon.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Experimenting with

One of the things I tell the kids all of the time is that we are in class to learn to read better, write better, and use technology better. My kiddos have not had great exposure to educational technology and so I feature as many new apps, sites, and programs as possible. The kids take to the technology quite well even though some put up an initial resistance because they are a bit afraid to try something new. I reiterate to them that their futures will include a lot of technology both in college and in their careers. I do not want my kiddos to be at a competitive disadvantage because they are not as technology savvy as other kids in middle schools across the nation.

This week we experimented with infographics. When kiddos create infographics, they have to think a bit differently than when they write text. They have to visualize the organization of their topic graphically and then create that vision. There can be a whole lot of thinking involved. I introduced to the kids. It is a great infographic creation site. Kids can start from scratch or use one of dozens of templates. Most kids sifted through the templates, trying to find the one that would best fit their needs. Some started with the blank option and created from scratch.

Over the course of our class period, kids discovered different things about the program. Could they use their own photos in their infographic? Yes. When a student learned the work flow for that task, they became the expert in class, teaching the other kids. How do we download the infographic to turn in online? After a minute, another student figured out that work flow and shared it with the class. There were dozens of decisions that the kiddos had to make in order to produce their infographic and there were numerous problems that they had to troubleshoot. That is how we learn.

This type of learning is not quiet learning. When a student figures out the solution to a problem, they often yell out, "I figured it out!" At that point, I tell the rest of the class that we have an expert at this solution. As more and more problems are solved, the kids keep teaching one another how the program works until all kids have a working understanding of the site. This is how we learn in class. I give the kids a task and allow them the time to explore, tinker, and learn. Once they discover how to work the technology, they teach each other. I manage the environment. This is the best kind of learning because it is immediate, relevant, and student-centered. This is the learning that sticks.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Learning Outside the Classroom

I've long been a proponent of learning beyond the classroom walls. The more learning kids can do outside of school and outside of the curriculum, the better off they will be. Certainly the curriculum is important, but often kids do not find their way in life because of something they learned in the school curriculum. It is the experiences that they have or the innovative ideas that they see that pull them in the direction that they are supposed to go in life. Field trips are essential to learning and give kids the one thing they remember most...the experience. Experiences matter more for kids in school than anything else. They may not remember an eighth grade math worksheet as life-changing, but a trip to the symphony, a college campus, a medical school laboratory, a repertory theater company, or a nature preserve may just give kids an idea of what they want to do in life. Sometimes when you cannot take the kids to the learning, you have to bring the learning in to the kids.

This week at school, we did not go on a field trip. Instead, our administration brought in a guest-speaker, Collier County Judge Janeice Martin. She spoke and answered the kids' questions for over an hour. She talked about her experience as a lawyer and a judge, spinning interesting stories about her career. The kids were interested because her talk had direct application to their lives. She grew up in the very neighborhoods where our kiddos live. Martin talked about what it takes to become a lawyer and the ability of someone in her position to help people. She also talked about her most difficult cases, both professionally and emotionally. The overarching message that came through to our kiddos is that she loves her career. That is inspirational to everyone. When you talk to someone who clearly loves what they do, you are inspired.

Many of the kids in the audience have never given a second thought to becoming a lawyer, judge, or any part of the justice system. After the assembly, many of them will. The important thing is exposure. We have to expose kids to many things and give them countless experiences so that they can see the numerous choices they have in their lives. When kids only see a few pathways in their lives, then those few choices become their world. It is up to us as educators to expand what the kids see. They must see that they can do anything with their lives. The worst thing is for a young adult to go into a field, based on limited exposure, and hate it, only to find out fifteen years later that there was a better career for them.

One of the reasons I have my little Creative Genius segment in class each week is because I want kids to see futuristic ideas and products, many of which are still in development. I always end the segment by telling them, "Some of you may end up working at these companies or coming up with an even better idea." Kids need to see a variety of pathways for themselves in the arts, math and science, journalism, publishing, athletics, construction and many other fields. If we don't show them that these careers exist, they may never know. It is these very ideas that kids latch on to and think to themselves, "I want to do that when I'm older." Anytime we get kids thinking like that, we can chalk up a win.

Is giving up class time for field trips, assemblies, Creative Genius and other segments of exposure worth it? Absolutely. I would argue that it is probably the most important part of the kids' week. It is the time that kids can wonder, explore, be awed, and see themselves in these positions later in life. It is the experiences we give them that they remember. We must make those experiences numerous and worthwhile for the kids. Their lives often depend on it.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Article of the Week - Newsela

When I read Kelly Gallagher's Readicide, I saw the value of the Article of the Week. Kids read a news article and reflect on the content. It is a way to build background knowledge while practicing writing skills. Since I read the book, I have adopted an Article of the Week into our classroom. Kids have read about circuses, presidents, sports, technology and lots of current events. The kids become better-informed and can also construct an argumentative paragraph or essay about the article.

I have used Junior Scholastic in the past for our news articles but this year, I have gravitated toward Newsela. Newsela is an easy-to-use news source that has many great features. One big win for kids is that Newsela allows students to adjust the reading level of the article. Press a button and the article becomes easier or more difficult to read (lexile levels range from 1120+ to 540). This is especially helpful with students whose first language is not English. Newsela is free to use and teachers can set up classes, share the class code with students, and assign articles. Within the Newsela site, teachers can assign quizzes and other reading checks. I prefer to have my kiddos read the articles and then write about them. Too many times I have seen kids look at the questions and then search for the answers in the text. When they write, they have to finish the article to get the information and form their opinions.

One of the great features of Newsela is the ease with which teachers can assign articles. We can assign within the Newsela site itself or share out to Google Classroom, email, Twitter and a few other venues. The ease with which teachers and students can access the news articles is astounding. The ease with which we teachers can use free, current, relevant news articles to build kids' background knowledge is a win for all of us. The Article of the Week is a bedrock element of our class. It serves the purpose of introducing kids to nonfiction articles and gives us more material about which to write. Using Newsela as our current events source is free and easy.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Blogging to Reflect

Most teachers know that reflection is a key element of learning. We practice reflection in many ways. We blog, we engage on Twitter, we converse with other teachers, we read, we think and we wonder. We try to analyze what is going well and what needs adjustment. We try to figure out why something succeeded or failed and map out ways to do better next time. Reflection may very well be where most of the learning occurs. We teachers know that reflection is essential to developing a deep understanding of material and how we ourselves learn best.

Sometimes we overlook the reflection piece with our students. We are busy generating assignments so that they can perform and sometimes we don't allow enough time for kids to do their own analysis about their learning. Now, surely kiddos are not experts at reflection. They may not even know why reflection is important. "This is dumb. Can't we just do something else?" is a common refrain. Why would kids be so opposed to reflection? Well, for one thing, kids often don't know how to reflect. The way many schools work usually does not allow time for deep thinking about learning. We have material to cover. We cannot take time to think about what we are doing. Because of this rushed curriculum, kids are never given the opportunity to develop their reflective selves.

Kids have to learn to reflect on their learning just as we teachers did. We have to give them time and scaffold some activities for them so that they get the hang of it. With practice, they will develop the ability to analyze their work for the purpose of improving their learning. We have to give them time. One way we English teachers have been coaching reflection with kids is reader response. Kids spend time analyzing the books they are reading and also reflecting on their own reading skills and preferences. They take a long look at what they are doing for the purpose of improving their learning. That is the kind of reflection we want for our kids in all of their learning.

Our Genius Hour blogs are perfect for developing reflection skills in our students. They are in charge of their learning, making almost all of the decisions about their projects. Once a week, I ask them to write a blog post about their learning. What have they accomplished during the past week? What is the next step in their project? Is the project going the way they thought it would? Have they been surprised by the results of the decisions that they have made? Are they on track to complete their project? Given the work that they have done so far, what materials or resources do they need for the next step? All of these questions bounce around their brains. They have to take a long look at their learning. They have to reflect.

Our kids are making dozens of decisions about their projects each week. With each decision they make, a handful of new decisions appears on the horizon. They are figuring out that learning is a continuous process and that we are never really "finished" learning. One door leads to another and another. What we hope to accomplish with our blogs is to have kids take the first steps toward figuring out their talents and gifts and maybe take a look down the road to see how they can use these talents and gifts in their lives and in their work. We hope that they start planning some long-range goals. Some kids will discover new talents during our Genius Hour projects. That's what our projects are all about. We are learning a bit about a topic but we are learning a great deal about ourselves.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Our Reading Culture

Getting middle school kiddos to read is often difficult. Early grade children usually love reading and story time but as kids get older, they lose the love of reading. At the beginning of the year, I hear "I hate reading" and "I don't read" often...too often. Inevitably, every year, I am tasked with getting my kiddos to love reading and for that, we normally need a shift in culture.

Many kids come to me with a love of reading. Those are not the kids who shout out in class. The kids with negative feelings about reading usually shout it out and many others join in. It is as if the tone is set once the first student speaks. Kids who love reading don't want to speak up and look "uncool". So how do we make reading cool? How do we make even the most anti-reading, book-hating kids want to read? Well, it isn't easy.

From the beginning of the year, I talk about books, show book trailers, model reading, help kids choose books, and give kids time to read in class. Giving kids reading time in class is the most important thing that I do. I also read along with them, modeling as best I can. We all read. This is not busy work that I have the kids do while I grade papers and prepare for classes. I value reading and so I read with them. I also tell them that the minutes that they reading during the day are the most important minutes of their day.

As the year goes on, kids discover books that they love. They begin to talk about those books and share them. After a month or so, roughly 75% of the kids are happily reading. We have reached critical mass. The others see most of the kids reading during our class time, talking about books, eagerly copying titles on to their "To Read Next" lists and generally loving reading. More join in the fun because of peer pressure. Peer pressure works both ways and so I work at changing the conditions so that I can get peer pressure to work for me.

Since I have all of my kids doing the 40-Book Challenge, I have a classroom wall dedicated to our reading experience. Each child has a large index card with a sticker representing each book they have read so far this year. Every Thursday, I check in with the kids to see how many books they've completed since the last time we spoke. I read their reader response journals every Friday. Some of our reluctant readers have only read four books so far this year and some of our avid readers have read over forty books already. When I ask, nearly all of the kids say that they have read far more this year than any other year in their school lives.

There is no magic to creating a culture of reading. It is constant and hard work. The essential element of a robust reading culture is choice. We cannot assign books for kids to read and expect them to be joyous about them. We have to give kids a chance to exercise their choice and voice by picking their own books. That is why I have stocked my room with books, get kids to the library multiple times a week, show book trailers every other week or so, and continue to devote class time to reading. Kids will read and kids will love reading. It all comes down to how we as teachers build our reading culture.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Our First Breakout!

For a couple of years, I have been hearing great things about Breakout EDU. During a Breakout, kids have to solve puzzles in order to open locks and discover what is inside the Breakout box. This kind of classroom gamification seemed like a great way to get kids to think critically, work together and have some fun. It's funny how kids will eagerly do the work we want them to do if it comes in the form of a game. Breakout EDU has capitalized on this human tendency to solve puzzles.

The game I chose was "Commander in Mis-Chief" created by Joe Welch, a social studies teacher. The premise was that a newly-elected president was trying to destroy all primary source documents and rewrite history with his own version. Kids had to solve several puzzles to get inside the box and find the one thing that could stop the president. They had 45 minutes to do so. During this time, I saw many positive learning traits. Some kids took leadership roles and other kids were helpful followers. At some points during this exercise, those followers became leaders for a bit and the leaders became followers. The kids collaborated, conversed, debated and tried over and over again to solve the problem.

Each of my classes solved the puzzle. Since it was our first Breakout, I nudged and hinted a bit in order to keep them working toward their goal. Some of my kids lack persistence and grit, and things like Breakout will help them develop those traits. I made sure that they were engaged during the entire process so that they would feel the success of solving the puzzle.

This year has been one of discovery. Kids are discovering many things about themselves from our work in class, our Genius Hour projects (see more at and activities like Breakout EDU. I am confident that, at the end of the year, they will move on to eighth grade as more confident and tenacious learners who see themselves differently and aspire to do great things. We still have a semester to help them recast themselves in this light and we will be working hard to do so. Breakout EDU is one tool that we will use again and again to achieve this goal.