When teachers gather together

giantsI’ve learned that when attending an education conference, it’s a success if I come away with two, maybe three great new ideas to try in my classroom. The conference experience is so overwhelming, both inspirational and exhausting, that it’s easy to get lost in the flood of creativity, innovation and enthusiasm from all those amazing presenters.

I’m not sure how that sage advice applies to a weeklong innovation immersion experience at the heart of America’s own history of innovation: The Henry Ford Museum in Detroit, Michigan. I am one of ten educators enjoying a week of tours, workshops and innovation challenges, and I’m afraid I’ll be so overwhelmed that I won’t remember any of it when it’s over.

But after just 24 hours with the other nine teachers, I can tell you this: put the ten of us in a room together for a week, and the innovation and creativity will fly so fast and furious that we’ll all be renewed and inspired no matter what was outside that room. These are some amazing educators! Like Saba Ghole and her innovative NuVu Studio School in Cambridge, MA. Or Texas teachers Lyle Crossley and Joe Morris, whose high school students have designed, built and raced solar cars in competitions across the country. Or Mark Suter, who has turned his students’ budding interests in technology into an entrepreneurial club that creates film promotions for local businesses in Ohio, generating donations that are reinvested back into their work.

Just give me a couple hours with Hawaii educator Wrayna Fairchild, so I can hear all about her fellowship in New Zealand and her work aboard a research ship. Or an afternoon with Donna Gradel, whose environmental science students from Oklahoma designed, built and tested aquaponics units — sustainable food production systems used to raise fish and cultivate plants — for a remote district in Kenya.

Elementary school teachers Jamie Ewing (Seattle, WA) and Melissa Collins (Memphis, TN) have earned so many awards and recognitions that I feel like I’ve been dropped into the who’s who of Olympic educators. While early elementary teachers are told to focus on raising their students’ reading and math scores, Melissa’s students wear lab coats, answer to the title “junior scientists,” and engage in experiments that turn them into critical thinkers and problem solvers. Jamie has turned the traditional science fair on its ear, moving his students’ projects to a digital science fair space where they can share and view projects from other students around the country.

We even have a preschool teacher among us, and she is leading the pack in pushing back against the academic pressures that have trickled all the way down to our precious toddlers. Linda Reimond’s students thrive in an environment that encourages art, play and exploration, and we know those students move into the K-12 system well prepared for an authentic, productive education.

Yes, the immersion in history and innovation at The Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village is going to be an incredibly powerful experience, both professionally and personally, but the nine extraordinary teachers I’m hanging out with will surely give ol’ Henry a run for his innovative money.

21st century collaboration: put ’em on wheels

After just one day with our new furniture, I experienced one of those “ah-ha” moments that I’m sure resulted in a light bulb photo 1 (1)exploding over my head. OK, maybe no visible light bulb, but certainly there were flashes of light in my eyes. As I had predicted when our new furniture first arrived, my students were most enthusiastic about the chairs on wheels, which not only could be maneuvered around the classroom with a light push of the foot, but which also swiveled in place, making it so easy (and fun) to turn to different areas of the classroom, depending on the task. The rolling chairs also have an attached desktop (that swivels, of course!) allowing students to work wherever their rolling takes them.

But we all know that relying on something trendy and cool, like futuristic furniture, won’t bring any kind of long-term change to education. After all, how much would this new furniture affect my students’ learning if I just lined them up in rows, all students facing front, and taught my class in traditional lecture format (interrupted often with pleas of, “Stop spinning your chairs!”)?

No, if our investment in 21st century learning spaces is going to result in meaningful changes for students, we need to pay attention to how new furniture and its arrangement can shake up our expectations of how students should work and what collaboration looks like.

The ah-ha moment came after I had given my students directions for an essay outline they were going to work on that day. I had them all face (or swivel to) the front, and I went over the directions projected on the screen. After a quick check-in, I told them to get to work, and to collaborate with each other if they wanted to. And then the magic happened.

photo 5I watched as students started rolling into configurations that appealed to them: partners like Cittlaly and Sara, best friends and a predictable pairing; trios like Matt, Carlos and Eddie, all athletes working on sports-themed essays; mixed-gender groups of kids, like one from the leadership class working on social justice pieces; and a few students who chose to slide off for some solo work. After experimenting a little with the rolling, swiveling and grouping, they settled in to their work.

But it wasn’t long before some students started rolling again. Cittlaly swiveled around to slide next to Ellie to ask for help on her outline, then she rolled back to Sara. The leadership kids, chatting longer than the others, started to pull away from their big group to make smaller collaborative groupings. Aaron, working alone in the corner, looked up to find Carlos rolling toward him. Heads together for a few minutes, they exchanged ideas on their essays, and then Carlos slid back over to his group.

And this is when the lightbulb went off: we’ve been doing collaboration all wrong! All these years, school-style collaboration has gone something like this:

“You four students sitting in these four chairs around this table will collaborate on this particular project from now until the due date. And then you will be done collaborating.”

But how much of our adult-world collaboration looks like that? When I collaborate with
colleagues, it looks more like this:

Scrolling through my Twitter feed one evening, I find a new app, strategy or project that I’d like to try with my students. I might start by collaborating online with someone on Twitter or Edutopia. Then I’ll probably try it out with my students on my own (that’s the Lone Ranger in me). At some point I’ll bring the idea to a department meeting, where we might collaborate as a group to fine tune it. Or I might talk with just one colleague who has expertise in a certain area.  Often I will work with my grade-level teachers in our PLN on a project for all 8th grade students.

In other words, real-world collaboration means that we go to the people we know are the right fit for a particular issue we are facing. And sometimes we work alone. And then we find someone or some people who can help us past the next phase of the project. And we aren’t bound by artificial parameters like space or time or numbers of people. And we can work alone when it works for us to work alone.

Since my students are piloting a variety of furniture types, we also have tables and chairs in the classroom, which are grouped in sets of four. I watched those students stay in their groups and collaborate with one another, talking easily around photo 4their tables; or some working alone, eyes down, possibly avoiding eye contact with their table peers. Their chairs don’t have wheels, which seemed to mean that they weren’t allowed to move from their table group to work with other students. While this worked fine for four friends who happened to grab a table together, there was less collaboration going on at the missed-out-on-the-wheelie-chairs and too-late-to-sit-with-friends groups.

Those students at the tables missed out on the real-world fluidity of collaboration. If the students in their group weren’t a good match for what they were working on, they worked alone. They watched with envy as their classmates rolled over to work with a variety of students, and it didn’t even occur to them to ask me if they could get up out of their stationary chairs and work outside of their table group. You can bet they are counting down the days to their turn to pilot the rolling chairs!

So this past week I have come face-to-face with the pseudo-collaboration that I have been foisting on my students all these years. And it makes me wonder: how can we give our students real-world collaboration opportunities? While the rolling chairs are a huge step in that direction, there’s got to be other ways to create the kind of fluid, collaboration-friendly environment for our students that so many of us have in our adult work places. How do you inspire and provide for meaningful collaboration opportunities for your students?

(Originally posted on Edutopia.)

It’s not enough to #teach

Share #yourEdustory, week 2: Inspired by MLK: how will you make the world a better place?

It’s too easy to assume that because I’m a teacher, I make the world a better place. Everyone from Einstein to Steinbeck, Aristotle to Andy Rooney, Lee Iacocca to Steve Jobs to Bill Gates to Dr. Seuss has given us reason to believe that simply by being teachers, we are affecting the future, making the world a better place.

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But how much do I improve the world if I just teach my students to pass tests? Train my students to write formulaic essays? Motivate my students to read core curriculum books? Even instilling a love of learning isn’t enough to genuinely make the world a better place, is it? No, the world needs more than educated people. The world needs educated people who are passionate about how they can use their talents, skills and education to make the world a better place.

Prior to reading Steinbeck’s The Pearl, my students write about how their lives might change if they win the lottery. I push them to be thoughtful in this assignment, to consider honestly the pros and cons of great wealth, and how they and the people around them would change as a result of instant riches. Many students write that never having to get a job would be the best part of winning the lottery.  That prediction becomes part of a class discussion.

“Why do we work?” I ask them. “What is the value of a job, a vocation, a career?”  Most students respond with the obvious: money. They’ve heard the message their entire (relatively short) lives: get an education so you can get a good job, so you can buy nice things, so you can support yourself and your family. It’s a rare 8th grader who recognizes that our work can give us much more than financial security or luxury. Once in a great while, I read responses like these:

“Life would get so boring because I wouldn’t have to work for my money.”

“…even if I had everything in the world, I would still get bored and become unhappy.”

“Even with my wealth, I would need something in my life to keep me going. Without a job, I would have no reason to get out of my bed in the morning and no incentive to do anything.”

My students are a little young to understand the psychological benefits that come from finding our passions, using our skills to help others, and persevering through hard work. And that’s where I have the opportunity (the responsibility, even) to point them in the direction of finding the causes that will motivate them, the role models that will inspire them, and the gifts and abilities that will empower them to improve the world.

The quality of my teaching is reflected not in how highly educated my students become, nor how wealthy, but in whether or not they find their passions and pursue solutions to problems they see in their world. So that’s my challenge and my hope: to pass the torch of world-improvement on to my students, empowering them to tackle what will fulfill their lives more than what the world tells them they need.

#oneword for 2015

Share #yourEdustory, week 1: What is your #oneword for 2015?

In spite of the ongoing attacks on public schools and teachers; in spite of too many students in my room; in spite of too many papers to grade; in spite of never enough time or resources, my one word for 2015 is this:


There are so many factors beyond my control that affect my work as a middle school teacher, that it is easy to whine, complain and be negative. But what good would that do? I’m not a Pollyanna, but I do know that each morning when I walk into my classroom, I have the choice to focus on what makes me smile or I can dwell on what makes my job difficult. And here’s the thing: if I am smiling and finding the joy in my days, there is a better chance that my students will also smile and find their joy, and that translates into a POSITIVE classroom environment, which means more fun and learning for all of us.

Screen Shot 2015-01-10 at 11.34.36 AMMy #1 reason for staying POSITIVE in 2015 is my students: they are 8th graders, full of all that 8th grade brings, which means mood swings, enthusiasm, questioning authority, goofy giddiness and deep compassion. They can be hooked into a lesson by a silly grammar video just as easily as by one that exposes life’s tragic injustices. They wear their hearts on their sleeves and they need my POSITIVITY every day.

So how will I stay POSITIVE this year? One area of challenge for me is including lots of POSITIVE Screen Shot 2015-01-10 at 11.35.00 AMfeedback on my students’ writing. With 160 students who need to do a lot of writing and who need lots of help strengthening their writing, it’s easy to fall into the habit of marking what needs improvement and ignoring what was done well. This year I aim to amp up my POSITIVE comments on my students’ work, building their confidence and boosting their self-esteem by honoring their successes, even those as seemingly tiny as one excellent word or brilliant sentence in an essay.

How do you stay POSITIVE in the classroom? What aspect of teaching challenges you the most to stay POSITIVE? Share below and let’s make 2015 a year of POSITIVITY!

Give your students a New Year reboot

The start of a new semester can feel a lot like a do-over, like a chance to start fresh, with the wisdom of the first semester to inform us. But after two long weeks away from the classroom, my students need time to reflect on the previous semester, revisit what they learned, and recharge their academic batteries. Here are some welcome-back, New Year strategies that have worked with my 8th graders:


New year = New Year’s resolutions, right? But after a long vacation, few students will be able to put a finger on what went well (or wrong) a few months ago and how they can improve in the new semester. If we give our students guidance in identifying their successes and struggles, along with prompts for writing specific, attainable resolutions for the coming semester, they can start their new year with a clear focus on success. One way I facilitate this is instead of sending my students’ graded work folders home in December, I hold on to them until January. Once the holiday distractions are behind us, I give them time to review their work, identify their strengths and weaknesses, and plan for improvement. They keep these written reflections + resolutions in their notebooks as reminders for the new semester.


My students work hard in the fall semester learning to annotate and write thoughtfully about what they read, but I know they will need to continue to practice and hone these skills for the rest of the year. To get them back in the swing of literary analysis, I try to spark their interest with some unusually engaging reading. Maybe it will be news articles about local events (like the torrential rain and flooding we experienced that resulted in two days of school being cancelled); or maybe a short story that will surprise DSCN9418them with its relevance (like Ray Bradbury’s “All Summer in a Day” – after they thought they had experienced non-stop rain!). If I need to keep them engaged in academic reading, compelling text is a great way to hook them as they revisit the analysis skills they worked on last semester.


A few years ago I discovered the hilarious satirical reviews written for products on Amazon. Rave reviews for the banana slicer were the first to catch my eye:

“What can I say about the 571B Banana Slicer that hasn’t already been said about the wheel, penicillin, or the iPhone…. this is one of the greatest inventions of all time. My husband and I would argue constantly over who had to cut the day’s banana slices. It’s one of those chores NO ONE wants to do!… The Banana Slicer saved our marriage!”

Not only would these clever reviews help my students learn to recognize satire, but I was pretty confident they would inspire them to try writing satire themselves. So after reading through some of the best banana slicer testimonials, we identified the elements of satire and watched some infomercials for equally ridiculous products (remember the Hawaii chair? or the Flowbee haircutting system?). My students wrote with glee, eagerly sharing their satirical wit with their classmates. They posted them on our own Banana Blog, commented on each other’s posts, and got swept right back into reading, writing and learning while laughing and having fun. They may not have been thrilled to come back to school after their winter break, but the Banana Blog gave them the recharge they needed to get focused and on track again. And maybe they will become such savvy satirists that they won’t fall victim to sites like The Onion.

How do you kick off the new year with your students? Please share your best reboot strategies below!

(Originally published on Edutopia.org.)

Macbeth & Musical Chairs: The Power of Teachers Connecting

Balanced Teaching musical chairsI have read some great posts this month about the benefits of being a connected educator: Tom Whitby’s on collaboration, another from Tom featuring six educators’ journeys to connectedness, and Edutopia’s valuable set of resources to help educators become more connected. As I pondered my own journey to being a connected educator, I couldn’t think of much I could add to the discussion. And then I had a day when I saw so clearly the power of connected educating. So instead of a list of the benefits, I thought I’d share just one lovely illustration of how we all (students included) can benefit from connecting with other educators.

On Saturday I read Brian Sztabnik’s post about how he uses a musical chairs activity to introduce his high school juniors to Shakespeare’s Macbeth. I saw right away how Brian’s activity could help ease my 8th graders into Steinbeck’s The Pearl. I tucked the idea in my “gotta use this strategy!” file and then shared it on Facebook. Connecting with Brian, a high school teacher on the East Coast, was going to benefit my California middle-schoolers in a big way come second semester.

On Tuesday, I saw that my friend Debbie, who teaches 7th grade world history in Idaho, had grabbed Brian’s musical chairs activity and put 1798616_10100161664051264_7377945748914770431_nit into practice the very next day. She posted a picture of how she set it up in her classroom, and said, “Musical chairs for deciphering history documents…. giggling, happy, engaged students means they learn hard stuff … despite themselves… I even asked my administrator to come watch!” In just a few days, one educator’s clever idea bounced from his blog on the East Coast to a teacher in California, then to students in Idaho, and will come back to California for more students in January.

And that, my friends, is why I love being a connected educator: no longer isolated in my classroom, trying to come up with yet another clever lesson to hook my students, I can now, with a few mouse clicks, find and share a wealth of resources from clever educators all over the planet. What a GREAT time it is to be a teacher!

What are some ways that being connected has benefited you or your students? Any great ideas that we can start pinging back and forth across the country?  Please share in the comments below!

connected ed map

[also posted on Edutopia.org]

Student agency: voice, choice and making

In anticipation of the new Common Core Smarter Balanced Assessments, which students will take online, teachers are being asked to help students prepare by giving them more time on computers. After all, if the testing environment is all online, students need to be familiar with and comfortable using basic computer commands and options, as well as keyboarding and computation.

But as with any significant shift in classroom practices, there has been some push-back, as parents and educators alike ask about the potential downsides of too much “screen time” for kids. New technologies offer a wealth of opportunities for students to discover their own agency: to take control of their learning, to make choices in their education, to find their unique voice. But will students become passive learners, sitting in front of a screen and consuming, instead of actively  interacting with and producing new content?

Yesterday I participated in a webinar with the National Writing Project and Educator Innovator on how we can create opportunities, space, and time for all youth to be agents in their own learning. Kicking off Connected Educator Month, we take inspiration from the Maker Movement as well as Connected Learning principles to support the sharing of ideas and strategies related to this notion of youth agency throughout October and beyond.

As my students prepare for NaNoWriMo, they find their own voices honored as they choose all aspects of the novel they will create. How do you give your kids opportunities to find their voices and claim agency in your classroom? Please share in the comments below!

(Also published here on Edutopia.)