Saturday, October 17, 2015

Let's Get Excited (Again)!

If you have read very many of my previous posts, you know about my love for Podstock (if not, read this post about my very first Podstock experience) and the community of passionate educators created by this excellent ESSDACK conference.  This past summer I had the opportunity to attend Podstock for the second time, and once again I heard several speakers whose ideas and quotes have stuck with me.  One quote in particular has been in my mind since July 17th.  It has worked its way into my brain and lived there, gnawing at my consciousness every day - guiding every interaction I have with a student.  During Glenn Wiebe's (@glennw98) closing keynote he said, "Kids start school in kindergarten excited, but they don't usually end school the same way.  We have to change that."

The more I have lived with his quote, the more I realize Mr. Wiebe was absolutely correct.  It made me reflect on my own time as a student.  Do you remember yours?  Or perhaps your child's?  I have never met a kid who is not excited for their very first day of school.  They may be nervous, even a bit scared.  Perhaps they experience some separation anxiety.  However, every child looks forward to starting school - it is a rite of passage, a sign they are growing up - a big kid now.

My mom, like many of yours, took a series of photographs on my first day of kindergarten.  I love the picture below.  It speaks to the hope of a new chapter in life - the anxious excitement of what could become.  That morning I was scared, but I also couldn't wait to get to school.  I was ready to grow up.  My aunt drove a school bus for our district and my older cousin was already in junior high or high school.  I had watched him go to school, play sports, and make friends.  I couldn't wait to be like him!  Plus, I was going to meet my teacher and learn everything I would need to reach my goals: to become a firefighter who was also a three sport star while touring the world playing guitar in a rock band.  Hey, a kid can dream, can't he?  My point is, I started school in the same way you did - the same way your children did.  Full of hope and excitement.

However, somewhere along the way I lost that excitement.  I can even pinpoint when it happened, although I won't out of respect for my teachers and classmates (Don't worry Mrs. Smith, it wasn't kindergarten - I was much older).  If I'm being completely honest with you, by the time I was older, that boy who couldn't wait to start learning absolutely hated school - and I doubt I am alone in this.  Look at the high school graduation rate in the United States.  According to a report last updated in May 2015 from the National Center for Education Statistics, 81% of public high school students in our country graduated on time in 2012.  This number is certainly encouraging when you consider only 73% graduated in 2006, but it still means that 19% of our children did not graduate on time or a all.  

While there are many reasons for these statistical truths, one underlying factor has to be the fact students stop enjoying school.  They simply lose their excitement. This is a problem, isn't it?  Of course it is, but to whom does this problem belong: the students?  I don't think so.  Many students lose their love of learning, and that, my education friends, is on us.  Like Glenn Wiebe said at Podstock, "We have to change that."  How?  Well, I'm not an expert, but I have  a few ideas.

Build relationships.
I read a quote on Twitter from Jeff Charbonneau: "Relationships then content. Both matter. So does the order." I love this.  If you take time to get to know your students and show them they are important to you, it will pay off throughout the year.  We often start the year wanting to jump in and teach. We haven't taught all summer and we are excited to impart words of wisdom and understanding to our students.  While it is great, perhaps even essential, to be excited about our content - if we fail to build relationships first, students will be less likely to enjoy their time in our classrooms.  When your students know you care about their lives, futures, and success, they will work harder for you every time.

Be a human.
Students need to see that we are not infallible, robotic sources of rules and information.  Let your class get to know a bit about who you are, what makes you tick, maybe even why you teach.  More importantly, let them see your mistakes.  Students need to know you are a human being, just like them.  When you let them see this, they feel a connection to you and your instruction.

Create safety.
Kids have all kinds of pressure from the world outside school.  Make school a safe place for them - a place where life is somewhat normal, where they want to go because it is a location in which they can find adults who are willing to listen and help.  Also, our classrooms should be as intellectually safe as they are physically safe.  Create a culture of learning where discussions between students or teachers are open ended, challenging, and supportive.  Show your students that failure is not the end - but often the beginning.  Many students start to hate school because they are not "good" at it - find a way to make them feel success, and they will start to find their excitement all over again.

Keep it real.
As great as connecting with kids and making a safe environment for learning can be, we all know that students can love their teacher but hate school.  One huge reason I disliked school was that I became bored.  I can remember more than once complaining at home because I would never need to use what I "learned" that day in life.  I'm willing to bet you often felt the same way.  Rarely do kids run home excited about a worksheet or a required textbook assignment. To me, this is the biggest fix we need to make in order to relight our students' love of learning: create realistic, challenging learning experiences.  Find a way to tie your content to life - show them why learning is important.  Build fun, engaging, authentic learning experiences and just watch the excitement come back.  For inspiration on this, research project-based learning or makerspaces - I've seen first hand the positive impact these innovative teaching styles can make.

Find your passion.
Perhaps some of our students lose their love of learning because we have lost our love of teaching.  I know times can often be trying for educators.  If you find yourself buying into negativity surrounding you, step back - literally or figuratively.  Every once in a while I like to do a quick self-inventory and remind myself exactly what it is I love about teaching.  Then I re-devote myself to that passion.  When students see you are truly passionate about learning, they can't help but get enthused, too.

The task of lighting a fire in students is not always easy.  The task of re-lighting the ashes of a fire gone out is even harder.  It will require work, maybe even a change in our mindset.  However, nothing worth doing is ever easy and we owe our students the best possible experience we can give.  It's on us to make the change and keep our students in love with learning.

What did I miss?  How else can we help students stay excited about school from kindergarten to graduation?  Comment below to get the conversation going, or connect with me on Twitter (@bmcd25).  Thanks, as always, for reading.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

My Three Favorite Words

There are three words I love to hear my students say.  The problem is, usually the only time I hear them is when they don't know I'm listening.  These words can normally only be heard as I walk around the classroom, eavesdropping while students are working to solve a problem.  When I hear these three little words, I just smile and walk away from the group because I know they are on the right track.  I heard them again this week, and instantly any anxiety I had about this year went away.  What are these words?  "We need to..."

I know.  "We need to..." sounds too simple to soothe my worried teacher mind.  They sound like a phrase usually followed up by the words "go" or "hurry up" or "pay our bills."  However, in the classroom, this phrase has become one of the most beautiful things I can hear.  In the classroom, it is usually followed with a student's idea of how to solve a problem or at least look for a solution.

The beauty is not found in the syntax or structure of the statement.  It isn't found in the simplicity of the phrasing, either.  The beauty, or value, of "We need to..." can be discovered by considering who is actually uttering the words - and it is easy to see that when students are voicing the phrase, it is much better.  You see, when I think of the times I have had to say "We need to..." as a teacher, rarely are those times filled with happy memories of children dutifully and gleefully learning.  No, when I have said this phrase it has been followed at times by "use our indoor voices" or "look with our eyes, not our hands" or (twice!) "only use the urinal one at a time."

When I hear students use the phrase, "We need to..." they usually follow it with "search for..." or "try to find..." or (my favorite) "make something."  The difference between adults and students that makes this phrase the happiest one I can hear is how when students speak it they are solving a problem for themselves.  When adults, especially (and unfortunately) teachers, utter these three words, they are usually either creating a problem or solving a problem for someone else.  The more I hear students solving their own problems, the more these three words become music to my ears.  It shows they are engaged, thinking critically, and taking ownership of their own education.

So, how can we make sure our students are solving problems and creating more than us?  This idea is fresh in my mind, but I want to present three different means of helping students to own their learning and say "We need to..." more often.

1.  Model a problem-solving mind set.

Gilbert Highet, a Scottish-American intellectual and professor, is attributed as saying, "A good teacher is a determined person."  As adults, we often forget how much children look to us for guidance on how to navigate the world.  Our worlds, personally and professionally, are filled with problems we must solve on a day-to-day basis, from "What should I do to help a student correct behaviors which are impeding her or his learning?" to "When are my data sheets due?"  It's time we consider how we are solving these problems.  Are we challenging ourselves to research or look up the answers?  Do we ask the right people or sources for advice?  Do we investigate and experiment with solutions or do we give up when we can't find the answer the first time?  We ask our students to be independent.  We get frustrated when they want us to simply give them the answers without trying for themselves.  However, what right do we have to ask them to be independent thinkers, researchers, and problem-solvers if we do not model that thinking for them?

2.  Ask questions, but don't answer them.
image credit: blickpixel at

Better yet, ask difficult, thought-provoking questions.  Even better, ask questions that don't have clear answers.  Challenge your students with open-ended questions they can't answer by simply re-typing them into Google.  Make your guiding questions for research or PBLs authentic, questions whose answers might just change the world.  For example, instead of asking your class what countries have the highest number of high school graduates, ask instead "Should every child receive a free K-12 education?  My colleagues, Jackie Pickett (who blogs at Diary of a Crafty Teacher), Carey Armstrong, and I posed this same question to our 3rd and 4th graders last year.  It led to one of my boys asking how we could help a school in Swaziland, Africa, which further led to our classrooms organizing a school-wide supply drive.  Students researched, planned, and collected the supplies, ranging from crayons to binders.  They even figured out how to pay for shipping them to our contact at Give Hope, Fight Poverty in Springfield, Illinois by hosting a school-wide hat day in which students paid one dollar to wear a hat at school.  The results were astounding.  We shipped eight full boxes of school supplies and our students positively affected the lives of kids halfway around the world.

Throughout this process, we were constantly questioning, but never providing answers.  Students could ask us questions, but we would usually answer their question with, "How do you think we can solve that problem?" or something similar.  Their response?  You guessed it - "We need to..."  Now you are really starting to see why I love that phrase, aren't you?

3.  Put students in groups.

It sounds simple, but maybe the best way to develop this spirit of problem solving and release as much of the learning as possible to students is to put the "we" in "We need to..." by having students work collaboratively.  Experts often tell us the jobs our students will have in the future are impossible for us to understand.  What we do know, according to education gurus, is these jobs will involve creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration - which have been called the four "C"s of 21st century learning.  Students can possibly develop the skills of creativity/innovation and critical thinking on their own.  However, the last two "C"s are impossible to obtain without interacting with other humans.  Educators can help students build their communication skills through collaborative experiences.  Give your class a chance to solve authentic problems in teams.  Let them go through the creative process together - bounce ideas off each other and make something the world hasn't seen - whether it is a film, fundraiser, new invention, or some other kind of product.

Let your students figure out what they need for themselves.

How do you help your students own their learning?  Leave a comment below.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

"Making" a Dream Happen

A few years ago, I was fortunate to be one of the teachers selected to receive a 2:1 classroom set of iPads from our district. While I was elated when I found out I was one of the chosen classrooms, I soon went from excited to nervous. I was like the proverbial dog chasing cars. I caught one, now what was I supposed to do with it? This led to a small moment of panic. So I turned to my favorite research tool, Twitter, to find out how innovative educators were using mobile technology in their classrooms.

Once there I read about flipped classrooms, problem-based and inquiry-based learning, and genius hour. One day, I read an article about what I immediately considered to be the end-all, be-all of innovative education: classroom makerspaces. A makerspace is just what it sounds like: a place to make or create. In a classroom makerspace, students are encouraged to be creative and design original content using anything from film production and the arts to household "repurposed" items to engineering and coding skills. Students also have the chance to research about and create around their passions.

I will admit it: when I read about makerspaces in the classroom, I thought it was amazing but unobtainable. I viewed the idea as simply a dream: something I wanted but couldn't have. "My students might be too young for a makerspace. Even if they aren't, I couldn't pull it off - I'm not as innovative and creative as these awesome people," I thought. Looking back I was wrong about one of those thoughts: my students are not too young for a makerspace. I was trying to fit into the boxes of thought that I saw - but a makerspace doesn't have to only be for older students; 3rd and 4th graders are capable of creating and making on their level, too!

The other thought wasn't necessarily incorrect, I still am sure I'm not as innovative and creative as some of the amazing educators I see on Twitter. However, I was not thinking about it in the right way. These teachers are not posting their ideas to brag and show off, they are posting them because they want to share. They want other students across the world to have the same experiences as their own students because they have seen the power of innovation in their classrooms. This is the beauty of Twitter and education: it is a place to learn and become more creative through the inspiration of others. So, I kept following them and working on ideas of my own - trying to think of a way to fit a makerspace into my own little corner of the world.

Implementing a makerspace has been a process, or a journey if you prefer. I didn't realize this until reflecting recently, but this journey started way back on a snow day in February of 2013 when the application for our district's iPad grant arrived in my email inbox. It has traveled through learning how to use an iPad as a transformational tool instead of an expensive worksheet to film production with 3rd and 4th graders to flipping my classroom to PBLs. Looking back, I view those strategies as building blocks. Each one taught me something about trying new ideas and perseverance. Now I am able to add the final piece: my Innovation Station. (I know, cutesy, but it's what we are calling our makerspace.)

This summer, I was able to attend Podstock for the second time. If you haven't read it, check out my post from last year about how inspirational this conference is. I attended with maker education in mind, knowing I wouldn't be disappointed - and I wasn't. While there I went to an excellent session, led by Paul Carver (@mrpscarver). Mr. Carver shared with the room his method of running a classroom makerspace and allowed us to participate in a Hot Wheels Challenge so we could experience for ourselves what it is like to participate in a maker ed activity. Not only did this challenge speak to my inner child (I mean, come on, HOT WHEELS!), but I was also able to see the power of planning, revising, and collaborating while creating something new. Our team's track was not stellar (see below), but it challenged us to justify our thinking and prove that we had met the requirements of the challenge.

After participating in the session, I was convinced I had made the right decision in adding an Innovation Station to my classroom. I was also convinced my students were going to love this Hot Wheels Challenge. Thankfully, Mr. Carver shared his lesson with us so we could take it back to our districts. Honestly, I can not thank him enough for the inspiration and sharing of ideas. I designed a lesson based on his, and yesterday, on the first Friday of the new school year, my maker-dreams started happening.

All summer I collected repurpose-able items: cardboard from my home and other teachers, PVC pipe scraps, Styrofoam, egg cartons from my parents (I'm so glad they eat eggs every morning.), and anything else I saw that I thought might be usable this coming year. When I showed my class the tools and materials they had to work with, I was surprised at how excited they were. I knew I was thrilled, but they could hardly calm down enough for me to tell them what we were doing. It turns out students have a natural desire to be creators of content instead of consumers. I know - who knew? (It also turns out kids really like toy cars. Not that I blame them...)

Over the hour during which students created their tracks I witnessed team-building, measurement, design and engineering, angle identification, justification of ideas, and (most importantly) excitement. One team attempted to make a jump from one ramp to another ramp, which would return the car to where it started. Another team worked on a secret passageway made of egg cartons, duct tape, and hope. All four teams were able to make a usable track. The best moment occurred when one team's ramp worked for the first time: the whole team jumped up, cheering and high-fiving. If a Gatorade bucket had been available, they would have dumped it on someone.

The hour was messy, fun, educational, and over too soon. Afterwards, curiously, I asked the class what they learned. Answers ranged, thankfully, from mathematical principles such as measurement and geometry to working together. I learned from their answers, too. I knew what they were supposed to be learning and I even had an objective posted on the board. However, I was nervous they would think they were simply playing. They didn't. They knew they were learning while creating and building - and that is the realization of a dream.

Friday, August 14, 2015

An Open Letter to my Former Self

As I enter my tenth year of teaching, I have spent a lot of time reflecting back to my first year.  Perhaps it is because we have several first year teachers in our building this year or maybe it is because I co-presented some information at our district's new teacher training last week.  No matter the cause, for some reason I keep thinking about what I know now and what I didn't know nine years ago.  I thought about writing a letter to all first year teachers, but that seemed too presumptuous - who am I to give them advice when I don't really know them.  Instead, I've composed a letter to the twenty-three year old version of myself containing the advice I would want to give him if I could go back in time.  Here it goes:

Dear Brian,

     It's me.  Or you.  Or both of us, I guess.  Let me start by telling you that million dollar heated toilet seat idea you had was already invented.  Sorry, man, I know how proud you were of that one.  This letter isn't really about your failed inventions, though.  It is about that career you've chosen - the journey on which you are so scared to embark in a few days.  I'm about to start my tenth year in education and I have some advice for you (Or is it me?  Still not sure how to address you...) that might just make it better.  The following list is a result of nine years of mistakes, triumphs, and experience.  I hope you take it to heart.

Be yourself.

     The first piece of advice is the most important and the biggest section of this letter.  It also encompasses a lot of areas, since I know how you like to cover a lot of ground with one small idea.  As a teacher, you have to be yourself in all situations.  The most important place to be you is in your classroom.  Those students need to see that you are a human being.  I know right now you feel like you need to come across as a no non-sense authority figure because you are so young.  Don't!  That is not you.  Show them your personality, it is okay.  Make mistakes - they will learn from them.  Most importantly, don't forget to laugh with your class.  Not only will they feel more comfortable, but they will remember those funny moments for years to come.

      You also need to be yourself with parents.  You're younger than all of them right now (although you won't be in a few years) and I know how that makes you feel.  You feel like you don't have a right to give them advice.  Those parents may notice you are young, but they don't view that as a negative.  They still look to you for guidance in academic situations.  You are the expert in those areas when it comes to their child.  You have the training and you have worked with their student.  Don't shy away from parent communication because you are so nervous.  In fact, parent communication might just be the key to success for many of your kids.

     One more area of your career will benefit greatly just by you being you:  interaction with your colleagues.  Not unlike your students, those colleagues need to know you are human.  They want to see your personality.  It makes the school a better place to be when everyone understands and respects each other not just as an educator, but as a person.  Which leads me to this:  don't be such a follower!  Sure, other people have great ideas, but that doesn't mean your ideas are awful.  Just because you are young, you feel like you shouldn't share your thoughts from time to time.  While you definitely want to learn from all those veteran teachers and their years of experience, don't just sit there quietly.  Interact.  Ask questions.  Humbly give suggestions.  Let your colleagues get to know you personally and professionally early in your career.

     As the kids say these days, "You do you, bro."  (Sorry, you aren't hip or cool at 32 either.)

Classroom management is important.

     That's an understatement, actually.  Nothing will make you a better teacher than getting a handle on classroom management early in your career.  I know you think you have a plan, but it isn't a good one.  Trust me...I've seen your first few years of teaching already.  Right now you are placing all your trust in a system.  I think it's the good old card-pulling system.  Later it will be tokens and then a clip-chart.  Here's the thing, though:  classroom management is not really a system.  Classroom management is how you interact with your students when they are on-task as well as off-task.

     Do us a favor, ditch the systems - set up your class as community with a set of beliefs.  Don't give your kids "rules".  Have them help you come up with a list of beliefs about school everyone (teachers included!) should be expected to demonstrate at all times.  Then, when a student fails to show they live by those beliefs, give them a gentle warning.  I promise, that is all they need nine times out of ten.  If that student is having a rough day and keeps having behavior issues, then give them time to process what is happening.  Talk with them, not at them, and figure out how to fix it together.  A classroom community following an accepted set of beliefs is much more easy to manage.

Build relationships with your students.

     Recently I was thinking back to those few days before you and I started teaching and I remembered some advice you received from several, well-meaning people.  It was always worded a little differently, but it usually went something like, "Your students have enough friends.  They don't need you to be their friend.  That isn't why you are there."  You are taking that advice seriously...and I'm sorry.  Students will not learn as well from some cold, distant android in the front of the class.  That probably is not how people meant for you to take this advice, but that is how you are interpreting it.  Listen, you and I both know how much you care about the education and life of every single student you are about to meet.  They don't know that.  You have to show them.

      When I say to be their friend and develop relationships with students, I don't mean you are going to hang out at Buffalo Wild Wings and watch the Royals make a World Series run (believe!).  You aren't going to go to movies and concerts together.  I mean you need to be their friend in that you have to be there for them.  Show them you are interested in them.  Laugh at their jokes, listen to their stories, and let them vent about school or life with you.  You have to be there for each one of your students and they have to know you care about them.  For some of them, you may be the only one who does.


     I remember how worried you are right now.  In a few days you are about to meet about 25 kids, each of whom's parents are trusting you with an entire year of their child's life.  You are responsible for their safety, self-confidence, and education.  You are more frightened now than you have been since your sister let you watch It and ruined clowns forever.  To this I say three things:  1) It's good to be a little afraid - it means you care.  2) Relax!  You made the right choice.  3) Your fear of clowns is totally rational - they're still creepy in 2015.

     I'm serious, though - you are going to love teaching.  There will be ups and downs, of course, but several years from now you will look back and know there is nothing you would rather be doing.  I may be biased, but I now strongly believe education is the most important profession and perhaps the one with the greatest chance of making our world a better place.  This career you are starting is going to become your passion.  Some of the colleagues you will soon work with will become your closest friends and mentors.

     Most importantly, the hundreds of kids you are about to meet will change who you are; challenge you daily to be better not for your sake, but for theirs.  Oh, don't think I forgot who you are right now.  You are closed off.  Your insecurities have led to a fear of interacting with others (It makes one wonder why you chose this profession).  Let's face it, you are kind of self-centered.  In a few days, though, you are going to become a teacher; and those young lives you are about to influence are going to force you to become compassionate, confident, and even a little bit nurturing.  You didn't think you had it in you, did you?

     I could go on, but, being a teacher, I've decided to let you learn the rest on your own.  You see, the most powerful learning happens when one discovers instead of when one is told.  Don't worry, though, you will be fine.  All those other educators in your building, district, and one day the world (thanks to something called Twitter, invest now!) are there for you, too.  Now, get out there and make a difference!

Your friend,

Monday, July 27, 2015

What Educators can Learn from Netflix

Summer break is almost over and if you are like me, you spent a lot of that free time binge-watching a television series you missed during the school year.  Actually, if you are like me you spent the free time binge-watching a television series you missed in high school and college because you didn't have cable.  If you are highly, and tragically, similar to me you also spent a good amount of time thinking how you could apply your binge-watching addiction to your career to make yourself feel better about watching one more episode of The Sopranos.  In other words, this post was inspired by Tony Soprano and Paulie Walnuts.

Photo credit:  mojzagrebinfo on
As I was watching the seventy-ninth (sadly not joking) episode of The Sopranos, I realized I had spent every single hour of free time since May 20th following a fictional mob family's every move.  While the show is admittedly amazing and I regret nothing, binge-watching video on demand services is definitely an addiction.  A quick Google news search reveals I am not alone in my addiction.  We all do it, the question is:  why?  While a sociology expert I am not, I am fairly certain the main reason we spend hours upon hours watching our favorite shows is...wait for it...we like them.  I know - groundbreaking discovery, right?  

This leads me to my main point:  What can we as educators learn from video demand services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, HBO Now, etc.?  How can we get our students as addicted to learning as they (and we) are to clicking on the next episode?  I've come up with a few ideas, but I'm sure I am merely scratching the surface.  Note:  I used Netflix as the title only because it is the most popular VOD service.  These apply to all similar services, insert your favorite video on demand site here...

Know your Demographic
Perhaps the most disturbingly useful aspect of Netflix and similar services is their ability to provide you with a seemingly infinite number of sometimes creepily specific genres.  Some are obvious:  drama, comedy, action, etc.  However, the genres I'm talking about are those seeming to be specific to you - "recommended for Brian".  My current favorite suggestion:  Critically-acclaimed Cerebral Independent Dramas.  How do they do this?  They base it off what you have already watched.

It seems simple, right?  Yet, how many times do we fail to invest this same effort with our students?  It doesn't take much to capitalize upon students' interests.  I have found the best way to learn my classroom demographics is not by reading their education stats and scores or having them fill out a "getting to know you" worksheet.  No, the best way to find out about your students is to simply talk to them.  Take time and find out about each individual kid - I promise it doesn't take long.  

Once you know your students' interests you gain capital in many ways, most importantly you have shown interest in them and built relationships.  In addition, though, you now can weave those interests into your lesson plans and suggest topics of learning that will grab their attention and make them interested in your class.

Self Direction
a.k.a. "Yes, I'm still watching House of Cards, stop judging me Netflix!"
I have not purchased a DVD in months.  Maybe even years.  There is no need to buy DVDs when I can rent or buy them online and watch my favorite show whenever and wherever I want to.  I have choices - novel idea, isn't it?

Obviously if adults enjoy choices, students must as well.  Why don't we give them what they want?  While it can be frightening to give up some control in your classroom, releasing ownership of learning to your students will cultivate critical thinking skills, encourage inquisitive students, and increase engagement.  You can start small with giving your class more than one way to complete an assignment.  For example, instead of just writing a report let them choose between options:  make a movie, design a "billboard" advertisement, make a brochure, create a review, write a newspaper article.  There are other options, be creative, you can't go wrong with any real-world inspired activity.  

Think you are ready to move up a level?  Try using Genius Hour - give your students a portion of your class time to research their passions.  My goal for the year is to create a classroom makerspace, which I'm going to call our "Innovation Station" because, you know, rhyming.  A makerspace allows students to create for themselves and, even better, the world around them; and it is all based on what they want to do.  Allowing for student self direction isn't just a good idea; it is, in my opinion, one thing we must do to prepare students for the future.

Make Yourself Rewindable
How many times have you missed a line of dialogue or wanted to scan that last Game of Thrones scene for clues to Jon Snow's parentage?  We do it all the time, don't we?  The beauty of technological advances in television is we can pause or rewind our favorite shows for any reason.  I often find myself wishing I could do the same with real life, mainly because I have a tendency to stop listening to conversations after a while.  While I work that social issue out in therapy, take some time to consider how you could make this work in a classroom:  flip yourself!

Last year, I flipped my math classroom.  You flip your classroom by recording videos of yourself teaching.  Then you send those videos out to your students.  They watch them at home or in your room before or after school.  Your lessons occur before your class starts, freeing up time to implement self-directed projects, problem-based learning, or many other engaging learning experiences.  Instructional freedom was the main reason I flipped my class, but another unexpected advantage presented itself as the year went on:  my students discovered they could re-watch the videos if they didn't understand a concept the first time.  Many parents told me they loved the video lessons because their children could rewind something I said or did and watch it over and over until they understood.  

Extend the Experience
After you finish your new favorite series, what does Netflix do?  That's right, they suck you into another new favorite series - one so amazing you can't believe you've never heard of it.  Learning shouldn't be held strictly from 8:30am to 3:30 pm Monday through Friday.  Extend students' learning beyond the end of the day.  Take learning outside your classroom walls.  Maybe even make it global!  In the past, we have used Kidblog, Skype, Twitter, and Facebook to connect our learning with parents, the community, and even students around the world.  When you take time to learn about your students and create learning experiences suited to their needs and interests, an amazing thing happens.  They want to share what they know - with their friends, their families, even their world!  

My colleague, Jackie Pickett, and I started an after school film club for our 3rd and 4th graders this year.  60 elementary students created 15 different films and had a showcase for their friends and families at the end of the year.  One day this summer I ran into a parent in the grocery store.  He told me his son has been making films all summer and even asked for a tripod so he could make better movies.  Helping students find something about which they can be passionate and explore beyond the school day (or year!) is what it's all about.  When you extend the experience, the learning never truly ends.

I know there are probably many more things we can learn from Netflix and similar services.  If you think of more to share, please comment below and keep our learning going!

Now then, I hear Archer is a hilarious, binge-worthy show...

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Homer Simpson Inspired me this Morning

Image credit:  OpenClips on Pixabay
The first week is in the books. I'm completely exhausted, but not in a bad way. It's that exhausted feeling that comes from knowing you have worked diligently toward a greater good. The feeling that you get when even though 90% of your waking hours have been physically, emotionally, and mentally committed to your career, it's okay because your career is your passion. In other words, I'm feeling that "good tired". 

So, how am I spending my first Saturday morning of the school year? Watching cartoons, of course! Not just any cartoon, mind you, but only the greatest cartoon ever made - The Simpsons. I woke up early and tuned in for FXX's Every Simpsons Ever Made marathon. Not only could this be the greatest 12 days of television in my life, it also has made me think about my class and the upcoming school year. This occurred during one of the commercials FXX aired advertising the Simpsons marathon (during the marathon - it's like a mirror reflecting a mirror reflecting get the point). The ad contained one of my all time favorite Homerisms, "If there's one thing I don't like being taught, it's a lesson!"

I know, it takes a special kind of education nerd to be inspired by a quote from Homer Simpson. Laugh if you must. However, I was inspired by a quote from Homer Simpson. I mean, how can you not see the deeper meaning in these words? "If there's one thing I don't like being taught, it's a lesson!" How many of us felt the same way as students? How many of our students feel the same way today? This quote perfectly wrapped up my summer learning. All the research, reading, conferences, professional development and Twitter chats have led to this:  My students don't want to be taught a lesson, they want to experience learning.

Which leads to a bigger question - how do I make this happen? Unfortunately, in all his infinite wisdom, Homer made me think without giving me the answer. Wait a minute, did you catch that?  Homer made me think without giving me the answer. You've done it again, Mr. Simpson, because therein lies the solution to my problem. If I want my students to experience learning instead just teaching them the lesson, my lesson plans need to pose questions which require students to make connections, explore their surroundings, investigate, and ask questions of their own. Even more importantly, I have to release them to learn on their own and not rely on me. The answers to questions, mine or their own, must be discovered by my students. I must resist the temptation to swoop in and save the struggling learner immediately. If teachers give students the answers, or even too many hints, the learning will not be as personal and it will not become cemented in the learners' minds.

Of course, the solution to my question leads to more questions. What kinds of learning experiences lead to this student-driven form of education? What must I do to make sure my students don't feel like they are being taught a lesson?  This is what my blog is going to be about in the coming months. I have big plans. Plans which scare me. Plans I'm not sure I'm capable of accomplishing. However, these plans are what I believe to be best for children, motivating me to push past those fears I always have and do everything I can to improve my craft.  They include, but are not limited to, problem based learning, flipping my classroom, using the "un-conference" model I learned about this summer as a pattern for my centers and student learning, and incorporating Genius Hour with 4th graders.

This revolution may not be televised, but it will be blogged. I hope you continue to read and keep up to date with the successes and failures of my journey to making learning an experience. I also hope you will comment along the way with suggestions on what I can do better as I go. Join me as I stop teaching lessons and start creating experiences.

Friday, August 15, 2014

One thing I'm really excited about this year...

I'm taking the @MOedchat blog challenge today and, as such, I need to write about one thing I'm excited for this year.  Of course, narrowing it down to one thing is almost impossible, but I will do my best.  Here we go...

The one thing I am most excited for this year is to work with my students to build on the success they had last year.  This year, for the first time in my career I am teaching a grade that is not 3rd.  I was given the opportunity to "loop" with my class from 3rd grade last year to 4th this year.  For those unfamiliar with the term, "looping" means a group of students stays together with their teacher from one school year to the next. It is a concept I believe has the power to change education in the future and one I have always wanted to try.  So, to say I was excited when my principal, Mrs. Herrera, offered me the chance to loop is a bit of an understatement.  I couldn't wait to tell my class - I felt like a child going to bed the night before his birthday party.

Part of this excitement came from the fact I have an outstanding group of students.  The sense of  classroom community with this group is incredible.  They truly care about each other and the world around them.  Every day last year I saw something from at least one of my 3rd graders that would move me or inspire me to be a better teacher - even a better person.  When the day finally came for me to reveal to our class we had been given the chance to stay together for another year, I was filled with an anxious excitement.  I knew I wanted to loop with them, but what if they didn't like me enough to go with me?  How would parents react?

Fortunately, the announcement was the launch of what has become the best season of my career.  I told my students the good news on the first day of our week of spring student-led conferences.  To my surprise and joy, there were actual cheers when I told them Mrs. Herrera is letting us loop to 4th grade together.  I'm not one to show emotions easily, and it was all I could do to choke back tears as I watched kids look at each other, realize what I had announced, and celebrate the chance to stay together as a class.  Let me be clear, they were celebrating that they get to remain together as a class, not to have me as a teacher again.  It's not about me - it's all about that community feeling I mentioned earlier.  As the week continued I heard every night at conferences stories of excited 3rd graders running in the house to tell their parents they get to stay with their classmates one more year.  Even now, months later, I am experiencing the benefits of this opportunity.  Meet the Teacher Night was Wednesday, August 13th.  I wasn't sure anyone would come.  After all, we had met.  Then, as parents and students trickled through the door, Meet the Teacher Night became more like a family reunion.  We all caught up, shared stories from our summer, and discussed the year ahead.

But wait - it gets even better!  Not only am I excited to work with this amazing group of kids, I also get to add two new students to our learning community.  Their minds will bring us more perspectives and experiences and will certainly make our classroom an even better place to learn.  I am excited to move forward with friends old and new as a 4th grade teacher for the first time.  In addition, all this excitement reminds me of the responsibility I have.  I was not just excited when Mrs. Herrera broke the news about looping, I was also humbled.  Many of the parents I am working with are now entrusting me with not just one, but two years of their child's education.  The students in my room are expecting to grow and enjoy new experiences whether they had me last year or not.  My over-arching goal (consisting of several smaller goals, of course) for the year is to give all of these students and their families what they deserve:  my best effort, every minute of every day.

Along with excitement and a heightened feeling of responsibility, this year also brings with it a certain amount of fear.  I have mentioned on this blog before that I struggle with the fear of failure - so much that it has at times hurt me professionally.  Am I intimidated by learning a brand new curriculum?  Yes.  Do I worry about fitting in with a new team of teachers for the first time in 9 years?  Every night.  Is there a hint of anxiety about failing to help my students grow as much in 4th grade as they did in 3rd? fact, more than just a hint.  However, my fears can't even come close to outweighing the enthusiasm I get from thinking about how much growth we can make this year.  Here's to a new year and new challenges!