Monday, March 24, 2014

Community Service: Key in a 21st Century Education

This year has been tremendously challenging and rewarding due in part to my teaching assignment.  For the
first time in my 19 years of teaching, I am teaching all English classes- no electives.  One addition to my schedule is Advanced English 8.  Each day is a challenge because the curriculum is completely new, so I find myself rushing to stay a few steps ahead of my students.  I am also extremely fortunate because my brilliant colleague has gifted me endless files of lessons, tests and projects that she has perfected over the past ten years.  However, like most teachers. I feel compelled to tweak the material to fit my teaching style and philosophy.

One project I was dreading was the Community Service Project.  Each year our department requires 8th grade students to donate six hours of service to the community and then report back to the class on what they did and what they learned.  It isn't that I don't value community service, but as a parent, I know how busy my students and families are and I was worried that I would be bombarded by complaints about lack of time. But my colleague assured me this is a great project that the kids really love to do, so I dove in but kept my expectations low.

The project consists of several parts.  First, students are given a list of ways they can donate their service. The community aspect is very broad and students can donate time to a neighbor or to an organized group. Students are given about a week to think about the project and write a proposal about what they want to do and why.  I think this is an essential part of the project's success because it makes the students think about why they are choosing the project and they have to make time for the service.  The original project was slated for about three weeks, but because I knew many students were busy with winter sports I extended the project giving them about 5 weeks to complete the six hours.  I suspected most students would choose something easy and I was surprised to see the number of students who selected a cause or organization they had never volunteered for before.

The second part the project asks students to reflect on their service they write approximately three pages about where they volunteered, what they did and what they learned as a result.  Reading these reflections highlighted the impact of this project.  Over and over, students reflected on the joy they received from giving their time and talents to someone in need.  Many concluded the project empowered them by shining a light on the impact one person can have on the community.  Volunteering was not a new experience for most of them, but reflecting on the experience was.  This illustrated to me the impact that education can have on service by deepening the experience through self-reflection.

Finally, the students presented their community service to the class in a short presentation.  It was fun hearing the students explain to the class some of the lessons they wrote about in their journals.  It also allowed the students to see the kinds of service each of them had chosen.  While many volunteered to shovel snow, babysit or pack meals for Feed my Starving Children, there were also presentations which showed students' individual passions or interests.  One student collected money to create care packages for, a few avid readers volunteered at the library, two animal lovers volunteered for a rescue shelter and the vet clinic, several athletes donated time to youth tournaments or to coach and two brothers made and served a meal at the Ronald McDonald House.  Listening to the presentations allowed the class to see the multiple ways that they can serve and it is my hope that they have now been inspired to continue this service into the future.

Much has been written about the need for authentic learning experiences in a 21st century curriculum, after experiencing the facets of this Community Service project I would go one step further and advocate that service be integrated into our curriculum as well.  Students need to see their role in the community and how their time and talent can make an impact.  At the end of the project, one parent wrote to thank me for requiring this project stating that they often intend to volunteer, but rarely make the time to do it.  Perhaps one of the greatest gifts we can give to our students and to our community is to make help them make time for service by making it a staple in our lessons and our curriculum.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Let It Go!

If you follow my blog, you know that I am often looking for signs and symbols to guide or inspire me. Perhaps it is the English teacher in me, but it often feels like the universe is working in synchronicity to put me on the right path.

This year I have been working to elevate my transformation as a 21st century teacher by focusing on integrating skills in addition to technology.  It has been a messy process causing my anxiety levels to spike to unknown heights and leaving me with many questions on how to transform the learning in my classes.

This past week the universe started to give me some answers.

The first sign came on Valentine's Day.  My staff had the opportunity to hear Eric Sheninger, principal at New Milford High School and social media guru, speak about how his school is transforming for the 21st Century.

There were several key messages in his keynote and as I look back through my notes three jumped out at me.  Teachers need to change. Our role has to be different in the 21st century, we can't and shouldn't control all the information.  We can't fear failure, in fact failure is where learning happens.  It needs to be embraced and celebrated. And finally we need to give up control and trust students to be partners in the learning process.  These weren't new ideas, but the timing of them seemed to set up my aha moment.

The next day my family ventured out to see The Lego Movie.  If you've seen it you know, everything about it is awesome.  The story centers around Emmet, an ordinary Lego guy, who works hard to follow the instructions, fit in and be average. Emmet is mistaken as the "Special," who is destined to save the world despite being unremarkable.  Emmet is mentored by several master builders who have the ability to create without instructions.  Through his quest, Emmet and the audience learn that the only thing you need to be special is to believe you are.

But what really moved me was one of the final scenes.  Lord Business, the bad guy, realizes his need to be in control has blinded him to his son's needs and creativity. Light bulb moment!  To me, the entire movie is an analogy for education.  When we have one instruction book for every kid and we force them to follow it, no one is special and no one is innovative.

But giving up control is not easy.  This year alone, I have compiled a list of control issue failures.  The first came when I began the year trying to focus on collaboration, so I broke up my rows and created collaborative clusters.  The result was a lot of distracted students and more disruptive chatting.  My need to control overrode my collaborative goals and I quickly moved my students back to rows claiming they weren't mature enough for this seating arrangement.  In truth, it was I who had failed to create the right learning environment. Simply moving the desks didn't transform the learning process, if I was still doing the majority of the talking and teaching.

Digital Learning Day was perhaps my most epic fail.  I wanted to integrate technology into my lesson, so I decided to backchannel my discussion by using Today's Meet.  I knew this would be giving my student's control of the discussion, so I tried to control the situation by setting up the parameters for the discussion, reviewing the rule for posting and emphasizing digital citizenship.  The result wasn't inappropriate posting, but rather meaningless posting which seemed to derail the discussion.  In fact it was almost a power struggle between a few students and myself to see who could command control of the class.  I ended the lesson by shutting down the discussion and my need for control has stopped me from using this tool again.

Again, I gave the excuse that my students weren't mature enough to use this tool, but the real the problem is that giving up control is messy. I grew up in classrooms that were quiet and neat.  I spent the first half of my teaching career creating a classroom that ran systematically like a well oiled machine.  Embracing chaos does not come naturally, but it can happen.  The signs keep pointing me to the philosophy a 21st century teacher must embrace: Let It Go.

Let go of the need for each lesson to be perfect, let go of the need to control the answers and let go of the fear of failure.  Failure must be embraced.  Each time I try to shift control to the students is a learning opportunity and it may take hundreds of messy moments to find a balance.  This year I will take my lead from Legos.  I will encourage them to create their own instructions.  I will look at every student as special and I will find ways to provide students with the blocks they need to become master builders.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Lessons from a Lab

I am not a dog lover.  I grew up with dog lovers, married a dog lover and have two children who both love dogs.  I tolerate dogs.  So about three years ago when my sister asked if we would consider adopting a black lab who needed a good home, I said I would think about it.  Not because I wanted a dog, but because I love my family and my family loves dogs.

Gus was only going to stay the week, so we could both give each other a "trial run."  I am not a dog lover, but I immediately fell in love with Gus.  Watching my children's faces light up with joy as they chased and cuddled him was all it took to know that Gus belonged with our family.

During the first few months, Gus was on his best behavior.  He had free reign of the house because he was already housebroken and only seemed to have one bad habit: drool.  Gus was a world class drooler.  He drooled when he was hungry, excited and hot.  He left trails of drool on the floor, our legs and even from one lip to the next in a drool necklace.  It was gross, but forgivable since he tolerated being dressed up, followed around and pummeled with love from my kids.

Once he knew he had won us over, Gus started to push his boundaries getting into the garbage, occasionally surfing the counter for a treat and jumping on to furniture, which I later learned was not his fault since he was invited up by my dog loving kids.  Of course, it was too late to get rid of him because he was family and you don't abandon family for bad habits; you love them despite the bad habits.

I think dogs have special ability to seek out dog tolerators and try to win them over.  No matter how much my daughter would coax and bribe Gus, it was me he followed from room to room.  It was me he would lie next to on the couch.  And it was my lap he would cover with his drooly snout.  But as much as he tried to win my affection, Gus drove me crazy!

He went from occasional counter surfing to brazenly snatching food from dinner plates to acrobatically climbing shelves to raid the pantry.  During shedding season, his hair gathered in piles in corners, on the stairs and under beds requiring daily vacuuming.  He had the teeth and breath of a dog twice his age, he had selective hearing when he was called and his frequent and potent gas was room clearing. There were days he was the bane of my existence.  I complained about him nearly every chance I got, but I loved him with all my heart.

This blog is about teaching and learning and I believe loving Gus has provided our family with some valuable lessons.  Gus taught our family to love generously.  He taught us to forgive quickly.  With Gus as part of our family, we learned to have a sense of humor, to be patient and to relax.  And today, when we had to make the painful decision to put him to sleep, he left our family with a few final lessons about bravery, loss and grief.  I am not sure I will ever be a dog lover, but know I will always love Gus.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Benefits of Blogging

Tomorrow morning, I am presenting at the TIES 2013 Education Technology Conference about blogging in the classroom and about teaching. As I was preparing my presentation this evening, it seemed like the perfect time to reflect on the benefits of blogging and the impact becoming a blogger has had on both my teaching and my classroom.

Three years ago, I began to blog about my journey to becoming a 21st century learner.  At the time, I was comfortable with technology, but did little to integrate it into my teaching, curriculum or assessments.  Throughout the years my blog has really evolved and now encompasses my thoughts about education and teaching as a whole.  The evolution itself is symbolic of my journey into 21st century teaching as well as the development of blogging in my class.

Blogging hasn't made me more of a tech savvy teacher, but it has held me accountable to my goal of becoming proficient in 21st century tools and skills.  The deadlines I have set to post my blog are fairly fluid and the number of people holding me accountable ranges from 20-200, but knowing I have made a public commitment to embrace change and work toward transformation brings me back to Blogger each month determined to post my story.

Blogging also helps or, more accurately, forces me to reflect on my teaching.  Self reflection is key to the development of any skill. Writing about my successes and my challenges helps me to sort out what works and what doesn't, but more importantly it asks me to reflect on why.  Teaching isn't a job; teaching is a craft and as any craftsman will tell you skills are forged over a life time.  It is easy to be swept up in the business of teaching (attendance, meetings, budgets, data), but blogging forces me to slow down my pace, reflect on my practice and hone my craft.

The biggest impact of blogging has been in classroom.  Writing my own blog gave me the confidence to integrate blogging into my classroom. This process has evolved along the SAMR model over the past two years.  My students first blogs were just a straight Substitution for journaling, but as I gave them more freedom and ownership of their blogs they grew.  They have moved beyond the tool and are now focusing on communication, creation and most recently collaboration.  Blogging has allowed my students to develop as writers, thinkers and learning.

It is has not been easy, but writing
is hard whether is it on paper or online.  The difference is the students are writing for a real audience and about topics which inspire them.  It doesn't matter if their passion is politics, snowboarding or Disney, they all have something to say when it is a subject they choose.  As I look to the future, we are working toward Redefinition and my hope is students will be blogging with other students in other schools by this time next year.

Three years ago, I was reflecting on my journey to becoming a 21st century learner in an attempt to be a 21st century teacher, but as I reflect on my blogging excursion I realize my mission has changed.  I have become both a 21st century learner and teacher and I am now attempting to redefine education for my students today and in the future.  It's a lofty goal, but I know I am up to the challenge and I know I can strive to achieve it if I continue to write on!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Avoid Being a Technology Don't

I spent the greater part of my teens, twenties and even thirties falling victim to the latest fashion trends. In the eighties, it was jelly shoes, pinned pants and lacy Madonna bows in my permed, teased hair. In college, I strolled through campus in my grunge uniform, an oversized flannel, leggings, boots and gender neutral buzz cut.  Through the years I've purchased overalls, jumpers, blazers, ponchos, scarfs, boots, wedges and maxi and mini dresses all in an attempt to stay trendy. The problem is not every trend flatters a 5'2" frame, so more often than not I became a fashion don't.

I think this tendency to follow every trend is also a pitfall of today's techie teacher.  Over the past few years I have been so obsessed with the latest tool or device that I have lost my identity and some times my sanity trying to follow the latest trend in the technology.

This became obvious to me this week when I was converting a test into Schoology that was once in a Google Form and before that a Google Doc and before that a Word doc and before that mimeographed. Perhaps this is just the evolution of technology, but it made me ponder how many tools become hot and then not and how many stick around as staples in my teaching closet.

Social media is perhaps the best example of how quickly something can go out of fashion in technology.  While most 40 somethings consider Facebook to be trendy, it has become like mom jeans to most teens.  So those in the know, joined Twitter and became proficient tweeters.  Others desperately clung to the trend by trying to attach hashtags to everything #thisdoesn'tmakemelame.  But no sooner had we figured out how to be profound in 140 character or less, then the next new trend became hot.

Tis year at the Midwest Google Summit, trying to get  #mwgs to trend on Twitter seemed so "last year" and was replaced by Google +.  So I spent the Summit trying to add to my circle and +1ing posts instead of tweeting.  But this isn't even what's really hot.  The truly fashion forward, the teens, are all about Vine. I'll admit I have downloaded and tried Instagram, Snap Chat, Google+ and Vine all in an effort to try to stay hip. But much like fashion, trying to follow every trend can make you a slave to technology. It is kind of like me wearing cropped shirts, jests and ankle boots; some trends are best left for teens.

I am not advocating that educators ignore the trends in technology, I think we have an obligation to our students to be aware of them and to understand how we might leverage them to improve engagement and communication, increase productivity and collaboration, and transform curriculum and assessment. However, there is a difference between being aware of the trends and following all of the trends.

I liken it to my fashion journey.  One of the best parts of turning 40 is I finally know what looks good on me.  I can choose which trends to follow and which ones (skinny jeans) to ignore.  This fashion maturity has actually made me more stylish because I am in control and choose the trends that make sense for me.

I think we need to follow the same advice with technology; find your staples and mix in a few new trends, but avoid trying to use every device, tool or app that's hot this season.  And you'll be sure to avoid being labeled a technology don't

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Confessions of a Grade Stalking Mom

My daughter, Mackenzie, started middle school this fall.  The transition to a new school has meant many changes for her and for me.  In middle school, Mackenzie has a locker with a combination to remember, she switches classes multiple times and for the first time she is receiving grades.

Like many districts our school uses Skyward, an online grade book to post student progress.  In theory, the online grade book allows for improved communication between school and home. Parents and students can check their progress in a course on a regular basis.  They can monitor which classes and assignments students mastered and which they found a struggle.  But in reality, instant access to the grade book can cause parents and students to become obsessed with grades and lose focus of the learning.  Monitoring a child's progress can quite quickly turn into an addiction and many parents find themselves stalking the grade book.  I know how easily this can become an addiction, because it happened to me.

It started innocently enough.  About two weeks into the school year, my neighbor, who also has a daughter starting middle school, commented on how great it was to check her daughters grades on her phone.  I scoffed at her thinking out loud what kind of "grades" could the girls possibly have only 8 days into the school year? And I warned her of the dangers of consistently checking; the least of which was the teachers could see the number of times parents check.  These grade book stalkers have been the topic de-jour at many a faculty lunch.

However, later that night, my curiosity got the best of me and I checked my daughter's grade book. I was pleasantly surprised to see she was getting mostly A's and A-, except for math which was a B.  I was able to see online that she had done poorly on a quiz, but could do test corrections.  I went to my daughter immediately to discuss her math.  She worked on the test corrections and two days later her grade bounced up to a B+.  Score one for the grade book; it was both a communication tool and parenting resource.

Watching her grade go up sparked my addiction.  It was like a secret portal into her classroom.  Logically, I knew I shouldn't keep checking, but emotionally I couldn't stop. Soon I went from checking her grades each week, to checking every couple days to checking every day.  The checking the grade book itself wasn't so bad; it was the rush I got from seeing the grades rise and the panic I felt each time a grade went down that became unhealthy.  I started to obsess about the grades and I lost focus on the learning.

This is the same kind of obsession I see in some of my high school students.  They check their grades 6 or 7 times a day. Several have even confessed to not being able to sleep until they are sure they have all A's.  Perhaps this constant grade checking is really an extension of our society's constant need for information.  The fear of missing out, or FOMO, has been identified as one of the dangers for smart technology and social media.

In my own life, I realized my constant grade checking was really a way to affirm my parenting skills and confirm that I wasn't missing something.  Step one of curing my addiction was admitting I had a problem.  The big problem is if this is the only tool parents use to help students academically, they are completely missing something.  They are missing the opportunity talk with their child, not just about an assignment or a test but, about the learning.

As a 5th grader, my daughter's grades are a reflection of her learning but they don't tell the whole story - she does.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The New F Word in Education

The big buzz word in our district over the past five years has been the F word!  Formative, the time where all stages of learning is taking place, but prior to mastering a skill.  This can be a time of discovery and enlightenment, but it is more often a time of frustration and confusion.  One of the goals of our 1:1 initiative is to personalize instruction through formative assessments, so this has also been my goal.

Formative assessment isn't a new concept for me.  In fact, I spent two years in a cohort that focused on transforming classrooms from assessment of learning to assessment for learning.  Central to this professional development were formative assessments.  And while I believe fully in this philosophy, I still haven't found a one size fits all method of effectively implementing formative assessments into my classroom.

The 1:1 initiative helped to push formative assessments back into the forefront of my classroom.  And this fall, I decided to use formative assessments for my 8th grade grammar unit.  I put a lot of thought into how I could use these assessments to prepare student for the summative assessment.

I knew I wanted to structure the assessments so they measured students knowledge and skills, but I also wanted to focus on the formative aspect, so I wanted to give student multiple opportunities to succeed.  This is a look at my vision and then more importantly my reality.

My Formative Dream
My plan was to present students with a different part of speech each day.  Through direct instruction and both collaborative and individual activities, my students would apply the content and skills.  The following day,  I would give a formative quiz. Students had the option to retake this quiz at any time throughout the unit, but to discourage retake without study they had to take the retake score.  

I offered a second retake opportunity (3rd test), but before they could take this test they needed to complete a retake review.  This was extra practice that I believed would prepare them for the assessment.  If students still didn't master the assessment, they could take the test a fourth time, but they had to meet with me one to one to review their tests and learn the concept.

The plan was brilliant.  It held students accountable, it was personalized and it was formative.  Ah, the F word- it was also frustrating, frantic, and fraught with unexpected pitfalls.

My Formative Reality
First, I didn't anticipate that my students would be such careless risk takers.  This meant I had many students
retake the assessment hoping to magically improve, but actually doing much worse. The result meant I was
carving out minutes I didn't have each day to retest students and to write test and review activities for all 8 parts of speech.  Over an exhausting two week span, I created nearly 30 different tests and review activities. 
Next, I over estimated my "advanced" students study skills.  I believed with the right resources they would be able to study the materials and they could master the parts of speech, but in reality many didn't know how to study and others need more guided activities during the formative process.

There are also fantastic and fabulous moments in my formative tale. There were many students who kept practicing, retesting, studying and finally found true satisfaction when they reached mastery.  The fourth test gave me an opportunity to work one on one with students who were really struggling with certain concepts.  This was pure teaching and learning.  And throughout the unit technology proved to provide me and my students with specific feedback. I created all my assessments in Schoology, which gave both me and my students immediate feedback.  It also saved me countless hour of time correcting.

Formative assessments allow students to make mistakes, struggle toward understanding and develop persistence as learners, which is why despite the fact there were days I cursed my plan with a different F-word I will continue to place formative assessments at the forefront of my classroom.