Thursday, July 31, 2014

Summer "Unschooled"

One of the greatest benefits of being a teacher is having the summer months to spend with my family. As mother who is a teacher, I am very aware that summer holds many amazing opportunities for learning.

Last summer, I sought to extend the classroom into our summer by organizing and mandating some very structured learning.  Both my kids began last summer with reading and math goals and required amounts of time to spend on both.  At the end of the summer this structured learning became a painful battle for all of us and I vowed to do things different this summer.  The whole magic of summer is that it is unschooled.  There is no early start time or bell schedule or homework.  And yet there are still millions of ways and opportunities to learn.

Here are some of the Wallaces Most Valuable "Unschooled Adventures."

The Family Read Aloud- As an English teacher, I used to have the kids set reading goals because I
wanted them to become readers and see the value of reading.  Great in theory, but the reality is my 11-year-old daughter loves to read.  She reads for hours, rereads books and reads without prompting.  She could are less about a reading goal.  My son, who is nine, would rather do anything else than read.  He whines about reading, he stares and the book and barely finishes a chapter.  The reading goal hasn't made him a reader; it only makes him dread reading.

So this summer, I thought it may be fun to read a book out loud.  I remembered loving listening to my mom read Winnie the Pooh as a kid, but I worried maybe my kids were too old for a read aloud.. However, when I came upon the book Bad Unicorn at the book fair this spring I thought maybe it would work.  I mean what kids wouldn't want to hear the story of a Unicorn Princess who eats humans. But even I was amazed at the results, both my kids love the story and beg for me to read it each night. The are visibly sad when the chapter comes to an end and it has prompted conversation between all three of us about the book.  There is something magical about each of us discovering a story at the same time.  This is a tradition I hope to continue each summer and something I want to do more of in my classroom as well.

Running Club- I have been running pretty regularly for the past three summers.  This summer my daughter suggested maybe she could join me on a run.  Our first time out was a disaster.  I thought we would just run for about 20 minutes, but 4 minutes in she had a side stitch and had to sit down.  We were both frustrated and disappointed, so I decided maybe we needed a little guidance.  We downloaded the Couch to 5k app and started with walking and running intervals.  Soon my son decided to join in and following the apps plan we began running together 3 times a week.  It has been so interesting to see how each of them approaches a challenge and what motivates them.  The difference in their learning styles and motivation has made me adapt my training approach for each and is good reminder of the need for that kind of adaptability and differentiation in my classroom.  We are about five weeks into the program and both kids are nervous and excited about the opportunity to complete in a 5K this fall.

Shared Responsibility- Neither of my kids get an allowance or really have a list of chores that they need to accomplish each day or week.  They clean their rooms, put away laundry and clear the table, but never on a schedule.  This summer my husband decided to teach them to mow the lawn.  It began as a necessity.  He is doing a major remodel in our bedroom and didn't have time to mow, so he showed the kids how to mow and told them this is their new job.  A few weeks later, after a long day of meetings at work, my husband announced that he has trained the kids for two new jobs- Mackenzie is now in charge or dishes and Will is in charge of laundry.  I was a little suspicious of how this would work, but sure enough all I had to do was ask and each went off to do their job.  My husband explained
that because they were older they need to share some of the household tasks and responsibilities.  I was always of the camp that they might mess it up, it would take too much supervision or too much nagging.  I am amazed how sharing these tasks has reduced my stress and created more time for spontaneous activities.  Plus they are learning and honing important skills for the future.

Traveling- Last summer we traveled to South Dakota, Wyoming and Yellowstone and I was struck by the incredible learning opportunities that present themselves through travel. This summer we embarked in a week long adventure to visit family in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan by way of Wisconsin and Canada.  My husband and I joke that any ETA needs to be doubled when we hit the road because we love to stop along the way.  This trip was filled with many mini-lessons about geography, science, history and culture. Our textbooks were the roadside signs, travel apps and Google.  Travel is one of the number one reasons I love summer vacation.  It forces us to see more of the world, which ultimately makes us more educated and compassionate.

When I talked to other moms about their summers, I started to feel a little guilty that neither of my kids have kept a journal this summer, completed a reading workbook or flipped a single flashcard.  But then I reflect on all the learning that they are doing and I remind myself that learning is everywhere not just in structured schooled situations.  As my kids get older and are involved in more and more activities, it started to feel as if every minute we have is scheduled, so I am going to continue to embrace the freedom and flexibility of summer and keep our lives unschooled.

Monday, June 30, 2014

It's Ok, I am #NOTATISTE14

This week everyone who is anyone connected to technology, innovation and education have gathered together in Atlanta for ISTE 2014.  I am NOT in Atlanta, I am Mound, MN.  I am NOT surrounded by inspirational educators and cutting edge technology, I surrounded by laundry and to do lists. Fortunately, NOT being at ISTE has given me time to reflect on 21st century professional development and my role.

The first discovery I made over the past few days is I am NOT alone. In fact, there are hundreds of innovative and techy educators who, for a myriad of reasons, are also #notatiste14.  They are so innovative that they have used their techy superpowers to tap into this community and are making it cool to seek out professional development from the comfort of their homes.  I stumbled upon the #notatiste14 hashtag while trying to glean some ISTE insight from afar and discovered a community full of PLN treasures.  Spearheaded by Jennifer Wagner who created the Google+ community and Twitter account, this group of NOTS has everything that ISTE participants do giveaways, social events, tons of resources and even badges.  With all the creative use of technology, a teacher could be just as inspired, connected and informed for free and never leaving the couch.

The only problem is that most of the people who are #notatiste14 are not on the couch.  We are still submerged in our own life "IGNITE" sessions and it is hard to find time for real PD.  One of the benefits of attending a conference is you get to escape the day to day tasks that pull you away from fully developing your teaching philosophies and practices.  Attending a conference, especially out of town, allows you time to immerse yourself in the what if.

While ISTE maybe the Disney World of professional development, I know that there are a lot of other conferences closer to home that also have the power to inspire.  In recent years, I have gained knowledge, motivation and connections from the MN and Midwest Google Summits, The Minnetonka Institute for Leadership and the TIES Education Technology Conference.  Each has its own unique identity and each serves a different purpose, but in general they are all based on a similar "sit and get" structure.  Some would argue this style of conference is out dated and that it can be a be a hit or miss for the attendees based on the quality of the presenters.  I have also started to question if these conferences are the best use of my time and money, so I decided to explore another option.

The new trend in professional development is the EdCamp model.  I have followed this trend on Twitter over the past year and finally attended my first EdCamp on last week.  The idea is that there is no set schedule, so the educators who attend drive the conferences by creating a schedule based on their needs.  The idea is certainly on board with the personalization movement in education and asks teachers to be more active participants in their own professional development.  But the model is not perfect.  I think its success depends on having a mix of both experts and newbies in the room.  The EdCamp I attended was small and while the topics were unique, the sessions I attended were more about having conversations than learning from an expert and gaining resources.  But perhaps that is the value of an EdCamp, the ability to have authentic face to face conversations vs. being a sponge absorbing the information you can.

In the end, I think there is a place for all of these types of professional development.  We need online resources and communities like #NOTATISTE14 to fit our busy schedules and make professional development accessible for everyone not just the elite.  We need traditional conferences, whether big like ISTE or small like my district's Westonka Tech Academy, to allow us to immerse ourselves in professional development and to connect us with experts and innovators who can inspire us to be more. We also need innovative "unconferences" like EdCamp that personalize professional development and mirror the kind of problem solving, collaborating and communicating we are expecting from our students.

In the end, every educator needs to seek out professional development opportunities whether it is your first year or your twenty-fifth and the good news is they are easier to find and more accessible then ever.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Why Recitals?

This month I had the opportunity to attend my children's piano recital.  As I sat in our local church listening to students in their 1st year of lessons to their 10th year, I realized the educational importance of the recital.

Each musician demonstrated their learning in front of their peers and their families.  As a parent, I had tangible evidence of my child's learning.  I heard how my daughter's musicality increased over the past year and saw how my son had mastered the use of both bass and treble clef.

Two days later, I attended my daughter's 5th grade band concert, in essence another recital.  Her band directors realize that this concert is a true assessment of learning.  In fact, the concert program listed which skills each song was targeting.  As the audience, we not only saw that this concert was five times longer than their first in the fall.  The budding musicians' learning was evident in less accidental squawking and more recognizable melodies.

These two concerts made me realize that every classroom could benefit from a recital.  A public demonstration of learning, which is also a celebration.  And I made a conscious choice to bring some elements of the recital into my own classroom this spring.

This year my 8th graders' final assessment was a magazine project.  Over the course of 4 weeks, students
served as the editors of their own magazines by managing a budget, soliciting articles from various writers and working to meet deadlines.  It is an intense project, but over the course of it each student grows tremendously.  I wanted to celebrate that growth.   So in addition to displaying their magazines in the media center, we also ended the year with an award ceremony.  This embraced part of the recital-feel, as they shared their work with their peers, but I didn't showcase their growth to the world.  So next year, I want to find a way to showcase this work for their parents as well as the community.

In my English 9 classes, one of our semester long projects was developing a collaborative blog.  This month the challenge for students was to increase the traffic to their blog by using social media to promote what they had created over the past few months.  I also invited parents to visit the blogs and provide students with
feedback.  On the last day of class, students had an opportunity to read each other's blogs and read the comments that had been posted over the course of the month.  Similar to my 8th grade classes, I wanted there to be a feeling of celebration, so I recognized the most popular blogs, but also those who had improved the most over the course of the semester.
In many ways their blogs have served as a portfolio of their writing and interests.  Looking from their first post to their last you can see the growth in their writing in the same way I could hear growth at both the piano recital and the band concert.

Students need opportunities not just to see their growth as learners, but to share it.  That is why recitals are an important component of the learning process and will be a new component of my classroom in the years ahead.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

40 Day Facebook Fast

Each year during Lent, I select something to fast from or give up.  As a child, candy was always the ultimate sacrifice.  I remember diving into my Easter basket devouring chocolate as if I hadn't eaten for weeks.  As I grew older, my lenten fast became slightly more sophisticated.   Diet coke, desserts and beer replaced candy, but the idea of taking a break from something I loved remained the same.

This year I decided to "give up" Facebook for the 40 days of Lent.  The idea for this Facebook fast began with the fact that I love "Facebooking."  I am an information junkie, so I love knowing as much as I can about people.  I also have some social anxiety, so Facebook allows me to make connections while minimizing risk.  Finally, my busy schedule often prohibits me from seeing friends and family, so Facebook helps me stay in touch with what is happening in their lives.

However, I also know that social media can have a dark side.  Earlier this year my students read a few articles about FOMO or "fear of missing out" which is often generated by social media.  One argument raised was that social media
often creates false relationships or perceived happiness.  I began to wonder if my Facebook connections were a substitute for real relationships, so I decided Lent was the perfect opportunity for a bit of a social media cleanse.

When I first took myself offline, I decided to substitute my FB time with more authentic relationship builders like sending letters, phone calls and more face to face interactions.  It was a great idea in theory, but in practice I realized I didn't have time or affinity for these types of communication.  So instead of the fear or missing out, I was ACTUALLY missing out!  During the 40 days, I forgot
birthdays, missed impromptu gatherings, didn't know about engagements, promotions and even deaths. I was fasting from Facebook, but the rest of the world kept on posting.  I ended up feeling empty and disconnected.

I also thought taking Facebook off my devices would help me to be more present.  Often I find myself checking Facebook when I have down time.  I wanted to use this time to interact more with my family. This did happen to some extent, but I also cheated and replaced my FB cravings for connections by checking Twitter and Instagram.

Today when I ended my Facebook fast, I went on an information binge frantically trying to read every status update and post I had missed.  And I realized that the world did not end during Lent, but it did feel a whole lot bigger.

This fast taught me how important it is to honor the way students communicate using technology. Perhaps there is a new normal and a new authentic when it comes to how and when we communicate. We need to understand why the phone call or letter maybe extinct for the next generation and help them to communicate effectively despite this evolution.

This doesn't mean we should never disconnect or take ourselves offline.  I think this kind of exercise can provide perspective and insight into how and why we use technology.  I may just stick to a 24 hour fast instead of forty days.

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.