Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Would you want to be a learner in your classroom?

This summer I had the pleasure of reading George Couros’s book, The Innovator’s Mindset, and it was wonderful! It was as if the author took my heart and passion for teaching and wrapped it up in his book. It left me inspired and reflective of my teaching practices. As the new school year is beginning, I’m continuing to consider a key question posed in the book:

Would you want to be a learner in your classroom?

This question made me pause to consider my own needs as a learner. Sure, I could sit in just about any classroom and comply by taking notes, completing assignments, and taking tests... but is that what I want for my learning experience? Not really.

As a learner, I value choice, inspiration, laughter, community, tasks with true purpose, and opportunities to express my creativity. I believe that our classrooms should be full of the curiosity and wonder that comes so naturally to children.

Unfortunately, we have lost that somewhere along the way- valuing compliance over curiosity and individuality. Perhaps we hold expectations for our students that we ourselves would dislike and find difficult to meet.

During our very first day of school, I asked my students about their ideal classroom. Their responses are captured in this word art.



Over the past three years I’ve made many changes to my classroom that I would love as a student. I plan to continue implementing these changes and expanding these aspects of my classroom:

Gamification with Classcraft
Avatars, point scoring, leveling up, collaboration, community building, and so much more. Classcraft has helped to transform my classroom community....and it’s so much fun!
Students explore their interests and help to direct their own learning while creating some pretty amazing projects. 
Students spend independent time learning online in connection with small group instruction. 
Students take on quite a bit of responsibility to self-assess and direct their own learning.

As the school year starts, what changes do I need to make in my classroom to ensure the learning experience I value so highly is also available for my learners? From implementing a new curriculum to seating charts and classroom procedures, I’m beginning to consider these decisions from a student’s perspective more than ever to ensure a student-centered classroom.

One area of my classroom that I would dislike as a student is our morning procedure. Of course, procedures help things run more smoothly, but my previous expectation of entering the classroom quietly and starting work right away with little social interaction is something I want to get away from. As an adult, I enjoy greeting my colleagues in the morning and catching up with them briefly. I’m currently searching for new ideas for this part of our day, and I welcome your suggestions!

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Encouraging Change


I have been so encouraged to make so many new friends and grow my professional learning network at technology conferences in the last year. While attending these conferences, I usually ask to join someone for lunch who is sitting alone. I enjoy getting to know other teachers, and I always welcome new perspectives. One teacher I sat with reminded me of the struggle we often face when attempting to implement change. She was feeling both excited about what she had learned so far at the conference, and also concerned about how new teaching practices would be perceived by her colleagues and administrators.

For those of you reading and who feel the same way, I’d like to share a bit of encouragement from our conversation that day. 


Don’t Give Up


The possibility of what education could be excites me! I love dreaming up new ideas and applying them in my classroom. You don’t have to change everything all at once, just take a few steps and eventually you’ll get there. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not easy. It takes time. I can’t use all the same lessons and projects from year to year. But you know what? It’s worth it...so don’t give up. 


Find Your Tribe


There is something to be said about having a group of teachers that have a similar mindset as you. Being part of a community of teachers interested in using technology in new ways inspires me to continue my efforts to redefine what education looks like in my classroom, school, and community.

If you don’t have teachers in your building, find some online. In fact, let’s be friends! I’m serious- be my tribe! You may feel like you are one of only a few teachers with this mindset, but there are more of us than you might think. In his book Innovator's Mindset, George Couros writes, "Sometimes, the most valuable thing you get from the network isn’t an idea, but the inspiration or courage to try something new." Connect. Life is a bit easier and a whole lot more fun with a tribe.

Bring Someone with You


If you are willing to take risks in your classroom, you are a leader. Use your sphere of influence. Share your ideas with a trusted colleague at school. Ask for their advice, share a favorite web tool, include them in your planning, share a favorite blog post or book. By inviting others along with you, you will initiate change in your building. 

Monday, March 11, 2019

How I empowered my students to love learning


Metal detectors, panic alarms, and active school shooter drills are often what comes to mind when the education community first thinks of school safety. However, addressing this issue reaches far beyond the secure doors of our schools, taking into consideration factors such as school and classroom climate, positive discipline measures, and wellness promotion, according to A Framework for Safe and Successful Schools.

When we consider the studies showing the relationship between bullying, personal failure, and anger to school violence, we must pause and reflect on our own schools and classrooms. How can we make education a positive experience for all of our students? So many students who have acted out in violence were angry or bullied. And after violent acts occur, we hear stories about students who didn’t belong and missed that feeling of acceptance, making their school experience more than a little tough.

But what if...

What if they loved learning?


When was the last time you felt excited when you were learning something new? As adults, I think we take for granted this spark for learning. How many of our students feel excited to learn in our schools today? Most days, students walk through our doors and read the texts we have selected, participate in the activities we have planned, and complete the projects we have thought up. They comply and learn, but do they love it? Probably not.

In an effort to ignite a passion for learning, I took inspiration from John Spencer and AJ Juliani and implemented passion projects. Passion projects are akin to genius hour or Google’s 20% time. Essentially, students pursue topics they are interested in and develop their own projects to demonstrate their learning. As a teacher, I facilitate learning and provide just-in-time instruction for my students.

This year, my students chose to research topics including homelessness, modern slavery, home construction, and video game design. Projects ranged from writing songs and developing websites to creating artwork with poetry and coding video games. During these projects, I taught students nonfiction reading comprehension skills like summarizing, synthesizing across texts, and drawing conclusions.

Passion projects allow for a real purpose for learning, freedom for creativity, and opportunities to publish work for a large audience. My students showed a genuine interest in their research, they were invested in their own learning, and they made comments like, “Do we get to read more for our project today?” Toward the end of our unit, more than a few students came to school with huge smiles saying, “I can’t wait to do our project today!”

When students are excited to learn, a positive environment and culture forms. Learning doesn’t have to be boring, and challenges don’t have to lead to anger and frustration. If we can help students to realize their interests and develop their passions, they will want to learn. Empowered students have confidence and believe they can contribute to the school community in positive ways.

What if they loved their classroom community?


Building a positive classroom community where all children are accepted and included can be one of the most challenging aspects of teaching, yet it is essential for students to feel safe. Winning over students who feel compelled to pick on others for control and power is a critical first step. This kind of antisocial behavior hurts the individuals who are harassed and creates an environment where no one feels safe. All students need a sense of belonging, and they want to be accepted by teachers and, even more so, peers.

I initially gamified my classroom with Classcraft to increase engagement and motivation. What I didn’t expect was the impact it would have on our classroom community. Classcraft is a gamification platform that allows me to promote social-emotional learning skills by reinforcing positive and pro-social behaviors like teamwork, communication, kindness, and respecting others. The collaborative nature of Classcraft requires students to work together, thereby fostering relationships that might not have otherwise formed. Students are eager to help teammates with learning tasks, and friends celebrate together as they level up.

Just the other day I saw a student finish her independent learning task and immediately check in with a teammate who struggles with reading. I watched as they sat together, one student reading directions to the other and explaining the task. When they finished they gave one another a high five and then went about the rest of the day. Later on, I asked the early-finisher why she took the initiative to help her teammate and this is what she said, “Well, I know reading is hard for her. She’s really smart, and I want to help her level up. Soon we will be the same level and we can have matching outfits!” Talk about a positive class culture!

Gamifying my classroom has also helped me to build better relationships with my students. I have found that playing together breaks down barriers and builds trust. That trust goes a long way in helping my students to feel that they belong. Our classroom community is thriving, and students know they play a critical role in our success.

What if they loved themselves?


More and more students today are exhibiting signs of stress, anxiety, and depression. As teachers, we know that students often have underlying issues we don’t know about, and emotional outbursts or anger can be a response to multiple contributing factors. Worry about relationships, grades, fitting in, and too much homework are just a few stressors students face at school. Coupled with family expectations, lack of sleep, and even trauma, many of today’s students are struggling to cope with difficult situations and manage their thoughts and emotions.

Mental health is becoming a popular topic for discussion in the education community. It’s not uncommon for some schools to practice mindfulness as part of their morning routine. This Boston school has replaced detention with meditation, and England is moving to include mindfulness as part of students’ regular instruction.

Students in my school have access to a student support room, where they can go to calm down and refocus before returning to class. They can do physical activity, sit calmly, talk to an adult, and even swing for sensory purposes. Some of my colleagues are taking a more direct approach by teaching their whole class mindfulness techniques using resources like Mind Yeti and Smiling Mind to guide meditations and support students’ mental health. Spark also has great resources for teachers and parents as they help their children navigate tough situations and build resilience.

Students can experience so many benefits from practicing mindfulness techniques including increasing attention, reducing worries, and regulating emotions. Less stress and better attention lead to more engaged learning, better grades, and confident students. When students learn to accept themselves for who they are, they are left feeling in control of their minds and bodies and are able to make positive choices.

Reimagining the Student Experience


We can empower students to take an active role in their learning, building confidence and ownership. Finding their passions and belonging to a supportive and positive community is a great first step in helping students to have a positive school experience, where bullying and antisocial behaviors are minimized and students are proud of their learning. When we teach students how to manage their emotions and deal with day-to-day stress, we are not only helping them build skills for life, but we are also working to create a safer school environment. The skills they learn related to personal care, collaboration, and taking part in a community will stay with them long after they leave our schools.


Note: This article was also published on eSchool News

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Failure Isn't Final

At the beginning of the school year, I identified four ways to increase personalized learning in my classroom. My overall goal this year is to empower students to take an active role in their learning.

I planned to increase personal learning through:
  1. Geek out blogs
  2. Personalized learning paths
  3. Passion projects
  4. Wonder day
The school year is halfway done, and I’m so excited to celebrate some success. At the same time, some of my plans haven’t worked out so well. I hesitate to call those moments failure because that seems so final, doesn’t it? And if I’ve learned anything in the last few years of my professional growth, it’s the value of continually learning from both positive risks and unfortunate mistakes. Failure doesn't have to be final.

Last Year’s Successes Are Not Guaranteed...

Perhaps my biggest failure so far this year has been expecting my students to excel in the same ways as my class did last year. As teachers, we comment all the time on the stark differences from one class of learners to another, but for some reason I naively expected my students to display the same maturity and skills as my students last year.

This year we have struggled with remaining on-task and displaying a willingness to try to solve one’s own problems. I’ve been disappointed, and sometimes discouraged. My students have also had the tendency to rush through work to be done rather than focusing on producing their best work. For this reason, I put our blogs on hold. I started using a few new accountability measures to encourage on-task behaviors and hard work for this next quarter, and I plan to use student blogs as a place to publish bigger projects so that students realize published work should be a reflection of our best efforts.

...This Year's Successes Are More Than I Anticipated

If I only measured success based on last year's experience, we would have missed out on some amazing learning. Success this year looks different, but it's still great! My students have amazed me with their deep empathy during our passion projects. They chose to research topics including homelessness, animal cruelty, modern slavery, girls' education, PTSD, and brain injuries. Later they created websites, video games, presentations, care packages, videos, websites, and original art to demonstrate their learning. Their work moves me! They see problems in the world and show genuine concern. I've taught them that their voice matters, and they have what it takes to change our world; they have taught me to stop underestimating their possibilities!


Looking Forward

I will begin implementing personalized learning paths for our gamified blended learning in the next few weeks. I’m fairly confident my students will do well with choosing which resources they will need because during the first half of the year, I provided many opportunities for my students to self-assess their learning progress and choose how much/what kind of support they needed to move forward. I’m anticipating that my students will need help tracking their paths, so I will create a paper path tracker so that my students can easily visualize their learning route.


I’ve planned our Wonder Day for the end of this quarter. I’m looking forward to this experience because my students have had such great success with passion projects! I’d like is to have my students help me plan this day. I think allowing student leadership and voice during the planning stage will increase buy-in and motivation.

Larger Lessons

As an educator, I’ve come to realize the value in all types of lessons. I don’t want to miss the opportunity to teach my students how to embrace failure as an opportunity to learn and grow. It’s what happens sometimes when we take risks. My own failures are great opportunities for me to learn; they are also a chance to model the mindset of perseverance. I took a few minutes at the start of the semester to talk with my students about my failures and what I was going to do about it. I guided them to reflect on their own progress so that they can make changes, set goals, and move forward. I want them to learn that failure isn’t final.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

I gamified my classroom and students are soaring


An average child today will have played 10,000 hours of video games before the age of 21. If playing games is part of our culture, even part of our identities, then it stands to reason that students can be highly motivated by game-based learning opportunities. So what if we make classrooms the game?

Gamification means using game design principles such as cooperation, competition, character development, and point scoring in a non-gaming context. In the classroom, it can be as straightforward as transforming learning activities into games or a more subtle application of game design principles to learning tasks.

Gamifying your classroom can be as simple or as complex as you choose to make it. Some teachers choose to make their own game for their classroom in order to customize features including backstory, characters, rules, and objectives. At the same time, there are many user-friendly apps that teachers use to simplify those features.

As a classroom teacher, I gamified my classroom because I needed an engaging way to deliver the online lessons I created for students during reading and math workshop. I was able to turn my online lessons into an adventure with a storyline, obstacles, and learning challenges. I had read research about the benefits of gamification, but I was still surprised to see such a remarkable transformation in my classroom. In just a few months I saw amazing benefits!

Social-Emotional Growth

I’ve spent that last few years implementing different vocabulary and integrating specific read alouds to help my students develop a growth mindset. In particular, I wanted my students to develop grit and perseverance- a mindset that welcomes challenges and does not give up easily. When I gamified my classroom I realized that the nature of gameplay promotes positive challenge and helps my students practice and apply a growth mindset.

One of the most amazing shifts I noticed in my classroom was my students’ response to failure. Rather than feeling defeated when failing at a task in our game, my students have returned to the task with renewed determination, rising to the challenge with a positive attitude. In the past, a poor grade usually resulted in the negative feelings associated with failure. Within our game environment, however, mistakes are seen as an opportunity to try again and do better. Students are more willing to listen to and apply the feedback I give them because they are determined to master skills and level up.

Engagement and Motivation

Not of all students are motivated by the grades they earn, but most are willing to spend hours working to beat a challenging level in their favorite video game. Pairing student motivation related to game playing along with learning tasks has great potential to increase student engagement. My students are excited to work online every day, even asking me for extra work so that they can earn points to level up. With students asking for additional work and persevering through tough learning challenges, it’s no wonder that my learners have shown so much academic success.

One of my students last year struggled to complete school work and would avoid working at home also. After we gamified our learning tasks, he eagerly showed his parents his work, asked for help at home, and showed new focus at school. I was so encouraged to see this young man become excited to learn.

Positive Relationships and Community

Playing with my students broke down social barriers that usually take a significant amount of time to overcome. I have been able to build trust with my students quickly, and that has allowed me to challenge my students in new ways. Building a positive community within a competitive gaming situation is critical. Friendly competition is great, but what’s even better is a collective community that is genuinely interested in the learning of everyone involved. One way that we build our community is through collaborative battles within our game. When the class is counting on every student to work hard and be prepared, students are motivated to invest in their peers.

My Tool of Choice

I began gamifying my classroom by using Classcraft, a gamification platform in which students work both collaboratively and independently. Each player customizes their own avatar that they work to develop by earning points, and teams work together to support one another's learning and development. Students and teams can earn points a variety of ways that are fully customizable, allowing teachers to reinforce the learning and community behaviors their students need.

There are so many different apps available to help teachers with gamification. Some have specific focuses like behavior management or academic progress. What I like about Classcraft is that it reinforces so many aspects of my classroom: positive social interaction, collaborative learning, behavior management, personalized academic lessons, and of course fun. Classcraft’s quest feature allows me to turn my online lessons into an adventure with a storyline, obstacles, and learning challenges. My class works together during formative review challenges to defeat a fictional character. As students earn points and level up, they unlock rewards such as choosing a new seat in class, obtaining extra time on an assignment, or upgrading armor and pets for their avatar.

Other teachers in my school are beginning to use Classcraft as well, and the new Engagement Management System gives our teachers and administrators real-time feedback to track and improve academic success as well as social-emotional behavior. With this information, teachers like me are equipped to make informed decisions.

In all, I’m so pleased with the impact gamification has had on my students, from building a positive class community to strengthening social skills and increasing engagement. My students are shining, and of course, we are having so much fun along the way!


Note: This article was also published on eSchool News.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Student Skills for Successful Blended Learning


I’ve been using a blended learning model in my classroom for a while now. I’ve found that using this model is extremely effective in providing personalized learning for my students. Moreover, allowing students to learn online for part of our instructional day enables me to teach small groups of students, often forgoing whole-group instruction. I’ve essentially created my own digital co-teacher because my students who are working independently learn online with lessons that I’ve created for them. 

My experiences last year helped me to realize that students need to be taught how to learn online. When beginning this school year, I had an outline of skills that I wanted to teach my students before they began learning online independently.

Media Interaction


Watching a video to learn something at school is a whole lot different than watching Netflix at home. Watching at home is a passive activity with the purpose of entertainment. In fact, many people “watch” TV while also playing on a tablet or phone, dividing their attention. These are not behaviors that will aid learning. For this reason, I take time to model appropriate ways to interact with learning media. We practice these skills as a whole class anytime we use a video, infographic, or image for our whole group learning. 

I encourage my students to pause videos to think and replay parts when needed. I also teach my students to take notes, draw diagrams, write questions, and solve problems while learning online. 



Digital Citizenship


A few of the most important digital citizenship lessons that I teach focus on creating a positive online community. Taking time to reinforce these skills early in the year goes a long way!
When learning online, my students have the opportunity to publish their work online, provide comments for their peers, participate in discussion boards, post video reflections, and topic discussions, and work collaboratively through the G suite.

To make the most of these experiences, I explicitly teach my students how to create valuable comments and how to receive suggestions from their peers. I have found that using student blogs is a great way to teach and reinforce these skills throughout the year. My students use their blogs to publish class work, reflect on their learning, and communicate with their peers. Last year I used a series of hyperdocs to create a blogging network for my class, and this year we are trying Google Sites. So far, I’m happy with blogs being authentic websites because my students have the added opportunity this year to work on designing their website.


Self Monitoring


Learning online takes quite a bit of self-monitoring. It’s one thing to work through an online lesson and complete all the required tasks. What’s better though, is teaching students to reflect on their learning and make choices based on their needs. If students realize they need more help with a skill they have a few options: redo the online lesson, ask a neighbor for help, or request a meeting with me to practice the skill together.

As much as possible, I want my students making decisions based on their learning needs. Of course, I still make most of the intervention decisions for my fourth graders, but they are capable of taking part too.

Troubleshooting


It’s very important to me that my students troubleshoot technical issues with as little of my support as possible. I simply cannot teach a small group of students if I’m continually refreshing websites, helping students log in, and reminding them to read the directions.

At the beginning of the year, I take a considerable amount of time waiting for students to troubleshoot their issues rather than rushing in and “fixing it” for them. To encourage student confidence, I make time for students to explore new apps before I model using them. I also ask students to demonstrate using apps for the class so that their peers know who to ask for help with certain apps if they are stuck.

My students this year seem to be a bit impatient when they run into issues. I still have students approach me with their Chromebooks during my small group instruction. For this reason, I created this quick chart to remind students of different ways to problem solve. I usually just point to the chart when I see a student coming my way so that I can avoid disruptions. 



Finally, I also designate a few reliable students as “tech support.” These students are my last line of defense before my intervention is needed. If a student has tried multiple strategies to solve their problem and a tech support peer can’t help them, then they can ask for my help.


Eventually, some of my students slip back into bad habits. When that happens, I usually buddy them up with another student for a few online lessons to reinforce positive online learning behaviors. Pre-teaching these skills is great, but I still make time throughout the year to reteach and further develop these skills.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The Maker Movement: More than Cardboard and Duct Tape

I remember overhearing a teacher at a conference say, “What’s the deal with all the cardboard and duct tape? Are we really wanting to prepare students to make low-budget items? Where is the learning?” 



Sometimes, as teachers, it’s easy to hear “makerspace” and “STEM” and simply associate those terms with bins of materials. We see the projects students make and wonder how on earth a teacher has connected a cardboard prototype with the everyday math and reading standards outlined in our curriculum maps.

Consider this idea presented by Richard Riley, Former Secretary of Education, “The top 10 in-demand jobs in the future don’t exist today. We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist, using technologies that haven’t been invented, in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet.”

How can we possibly prepare students for a future like this? 

More than Making a Product

As educators, we must teach students more than content- we must teach them how to think and design. Between attending conferences and tackling my reading list, I’ve come to a better understanding of design thinking and the benefits it can afford our students.

From my learning, the maker movement isn’t so much about the end product that students create, although that’s what we typically think of. Instead, it is about the thinking process they are applying. Students are learning how to be critical thinkers and problem solvers. They have meaningful tasks to collaborate on, and they practice the skills to become effective communicators. They also realize they have what it takes to solve real-world problems.

Children are Makers

Cardboard creations and rainy-day forts are part of so many of our childhood memories, and children today have the same natural drive to create in this way. Expressing creativity through building and making is such a great way for our students to learn by doing.

Have you heard about Caine’s Arcade? Take a few minutes to watch his story and consider all the different thinking processes and content areas he used while making his creation. If you were his teacher, how could you have used his arcade with your content standards?


Where to Begin

I didn’t begin with a designated STEM curriculum, a fancy makerspace, pre-made lessons purchased online, or even a weekly time set aside for these activities. Instead, I began by looking for units in my district curriculum map that would lend themselves to this type of thinking.

For example, each year we investigate the forces related to flight by creating a glider. This year, we created and flew gliders from a provided template. Then used what we learned to design our own gliders. We began with researching other aircraft, followed by a few rounds of rapid prototyping. Finally, we created our own models, tested them, and made revisions. Rather than just using a pre-made design, we critiqued it and tried to improve upon it. My students became the creators, not just procedure-followers. Isn't that what we want our students to be able to do in the workforce?



This semester, my class is beginning to use the Launch Cycle to investigate issues they are passionate about. John Spencer and A.J. Juliani’s book, LAUNCH outlines a student-friendly approach to design thinking. In this process, students learn about a topic or process, ask questions, research to understand and navigate ideas, create a product, revise, and share with the world. Our first project focused on the topic of homelessness. After that, we studied animal cruelty, how deployment affects families, making video games, and how to build a house. 

Curriculum Connection

Rather than thinking, “How can this connect to the curriculum?” I want to challenge you with this thought: STEM, Makerspace and design thinking are just a structure and approach for teaching- not the actual curriculum.

Here is a practical example of teaching content standards while designing and creating:

To begin, my students were able to choose the topic they researched while participating in the design thinking process. Through this process, I also taught my students critical reading skills including summarizing, drawing conclusions, and synthesizing information across tests. My reading lessons followed the gradual-release of responsibility model just like they have in years past, but our learning took on greater meaning. Final projects ranged from presentations and websites to video games and physical prototypes. My students worked with me to determine how they would demonstrate the reading skills they applied throughout their research.

My Next Steps

In the near future, I don't have plans to create a designated Makerspace or accumulate bins of stem materials (although I really like the potential for using Bloxels as it can connect to our gamified classroom). I like the way my students and I are making projects directly related to our coursework. My next step is simply continuing to integrate design thinking opportunities throughout our curriculum. After this school year, I will have a better grasp of designing and making as it relates to our fourth-grade curriculum.

I'd love to hear about your take on Makerspace and STEM. Tell me about what it looks like in your classroom.