Connected Educator

“I’d like to thank the Academy…” a.k.a. What do teachers need?

Did you see the new thank-you ticker crawling across the screen at this year’s Oscars? The long list of names reminded me that whether we are actors or teachers, directors or principals, we didn’t get where we are without the help of a lot of people. I was reminded of all the people who have contributed to my own, albeit less glamorous, career in education.

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I was reminded that I have not become the teacher I am today without the help, encouragement, mentoring, and resources of others. And I was reminded that too many teachers don’t get what they need to support their growth as effective educators.

Teaching can be an isolating profession: we spend most of our time with students and have few opportunities to work with and learn from our peers. Social media has changed that in big ways, but when I started teaching, the internet was barely a blip on the paper in my typewriter. So who helped me develop my teaching skills? Who made a difference in my growth as an educator? Which names would run across my thank-you ticker?

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Photo credit: Chloe Bradley

Maybe a better question is: what do teachers need if they are to become great teachers? After 25 years in the classroom, I’ve got a longer-than-Oscar-speech ticker of gratitude, starting with:

Effective master teachers: prior to student teaching, I observed a couple master teachers in action: Joan Price and Mary Jackson welcomed me into their high school classrooms, allowed me to work with their students, and gave me valuable insights that got me started on my teacher training. When I was placed in two classrooms for my student teaching, I struck gold with junior high master teacher Carol Treu and high school master teacher Ana Byerly. Learning at the feet of these excellent teachers told me that I really had no excuse for not becoming a great teacher! But as outstanding as they were, I needed more help once I took charge of my very own classroom as a full time teacher. Then I needed:

Supportive administrators: once again, I struck gold when I landed my first job at Altimira Middle School under the leadership of Dr. Marilyn Kelly. Typical of most new teachers, I couldn’t even imagine all that I didn’t know. As enthusiastic and educated as I was, and even as successful I’d been in my student teaching, I was woefully unprepared for the demands of full time teaching in a middle school classroom.

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Fortunately for me, my boss saw my panic as well as my potential, and she made time to meet with me, coach me, and further the training that all teachers need when they first enter a classroom. I shudder to think what would have become of me (and my students) without Marilyn’s support. But years later, after I developed some good strategies and felt pretty confident about my work, I wanted to keep growing and learning and strengthening my skills, so I needed:

Ongoing support and effective professional development: just because we become effective teachers doesn’t mean we no longer need our administrators’ support. In fact, that support can be the difference between a teacher stagnating or even declining in effectiveness vs. growing into a teacher who impacts not just his/her students but also other teachers and the profession. Even after I left Altimira and Marilyn retired, she continued to be a mentor to me, encouraging me to pursue powerful professional development, such as National Board Certification and a master’s degree. When I finally carved out the time to do both, I benefited from the support of principals Dave Rose and Emily Dunnagan, who assisted me in the process, excused me from meetings when I had classes, honored my commitment to my growth, and celebrated with me when I finished.

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I can still see Dave, following me around my classroom with a video camera, taking time out of his busy schedule to film my students for my National Board portfolio. And Emily contributed to my video application for Google Teacher Academy, another example of the kind of paradigm-changing professional development that has greatly impacted my work. Dr. Jessica Parker, my advisor in my M.A. program, has been a significant mentor whose work has had a tremendous influence on my classroom.

Other valuable professional development I have had include the Bay Area Writing Project Summer Institute (thank you, Greta Vollmer!) and conferences such as CUE, ISTE and NCTE. I have been lucky to have administrators who support my need to choose the professional development that benefits my teaching the most. Quality professional development and support from administration is critical, but teachers also need:

Autonomy to choose, revise, and deliver curriculum: after just one year of teaching, I read Nancie Atwell‘s groundbreaking book In the Middle, which introduced me to the writing workshop model. I met with Marilyn (my principal at the time) to ask if I could try this approach in the fall. There I was, a brand-new-sometimes-still-struggling teacher, asking to experiment with a pretty radical method for writing instruction. And Marilyn said yes. But more than that, she asked about the details: how would I handle assessment? accountability? parent concerns? And then she checked in with me throughout the year to see how it was going. She let me take charge of my classroom, but she didn’t walk away.

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I’ve been the lucky recipient of this kind of admin. support in recent years, too. I still remember that September day in 2011 when I sat down with my then-principal, Emily Dunnagan, to propose that my 8th graders participate in NaNoWriMo, which meant I would be challenging them to write a novel in a month. She didn’t even hesitate; I still remember her exact words: “I love it! They would be writing every day! This is great!” And then, when we dove into NaNoWriMo for the first time, Emily joined my students on the journey. She brought her laptop to my classroom and wrote with the students; she competed with them in word counts on the Young Writers Program website; and she threw a pizza celebration for all the winners when it was all over.

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Emily can take a great deal of credit for my students’ enthusiastic participation in NaNoWriMo and their resulting growth in writing skills. But my students would not have loved writing their novels if they didn’t have laptops, which means teachers need:

Resources: when I decided that my students needed laptops in our classroom (instead of trying to book our school’s one, shared computer lab), I turned to Petaluma Educational Foundation, a local non-profit that has been raising money for our schools since 1982. They awarded us with a $15,000 grant, which gave my students a half-set of laptops for classroom use. That was enough to get my students off and running with their novels, and the following year, PEF granted us another $15,000 to complete our classroom set. Those laptops brought about the single, most significant change in my curriculum and teaching, a change that only came about because of the resources available from PEF.

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I’ve since received a grant for a weather system on our campus that allows our students to use real-time weather data from our site as well as sites across the country to learn about the science of weather (thank you, PEF); a smaller grant for a 3D printer for our Maker Space (thank you, Donors Choose); and two more grants for technology upgrades for our KTV broadcast media program (thank you, PEF and Educator Innovator). Grant writing is time-consuming and difficult, but well worth the efforts when one discovers the wealth of resources available to teachers. But we can still find ourselves alone in our classroom, facing the day-to-day demands of teaching on our own. How can we take advantage of the wisdom, expertise, and support of our colleagues? Teachers also need:

Collaboration time: a teacher’s day is jam-picked with in-my-face-need-it-now demands. There is never an opportunity to close my door, put my head down on my desk, and ask my non-existent secretary to cancel my afternoon appointments so I can meet with another teacher. The kids are there, every day, and I need to be with them. But sometimes our best resources are the teachers right next door to us, doing amazing things in their classrooms, yet the traditional school schedule doesn’t give us opportunities to collaborate with them. It wasn’t until I was asked to partner with colleague Isaac Raya on our school’s daily news show that I discovered the power of ongoing collaboration. Isaac and I didn’t teach together and we didn’t have much time to collaborate, but we started meeting each morning in our TV studio (along with five or six students) to broadcast our live news show. That 20 minute collaboration before school every day continued for three years, and we nurtured our little news show into a pretty professional student-run production. This year our KTV club has become an official class: two sections of broadcast media where students produce all the content and work every job of a professional news show, and we’ve added a third teacher to our digital media collaboration.

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Kenilworth teachers Neil Radke, Laura Bradley and Isaac Raya share a classroom and collaborate on their digital media program.

Isaac and I continue to collaborate on our KTV program, although without the daily face-to-face time. Much of our collaboration takes place via email, Twitter, and our class website. And our program is better because of our collaboration. How much better would all of our classes be if we had more opportunities to collaborate?

I’ve already broken the rule to keep-blog-posts-short-and-pithy, but maybe that makes my point: for teachers to be successful, we need a lot from the people in our schools, as well as from the greater community around us. It is a big and complex job to support teachers and give them resources to be successful. But if we want our students to succeed, shouldn’t we be investing all we can in their teachers?

What names would run across the screen during your Oscar speech? How did you become the teacher you are today?

 

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Student voices across the curriculum

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I am braving the cold of Minnesota to deliver a follow-up report to the National Writing Project on the $20,000 No Bells, No Walls Innovation LRNG Challenge grant that has helped fund our KTV Broadcast Media program at my middle school. The grant has contributed to the creation of our new media classroom after we moved our student-produced TV show from a before-school club (of about a dozen students) to a dedicated elective classroom. Now we have 64 students participating in the production of a daily, multi-media news show that is broadcast across our campus and archived on YouTube for the community to enjoy.

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Fourteen different teacher-teams were awarded a $20,000 LRNG grant, and thirteen of them shared their work today in roundtable sessions at NWP‘s annual meeting. The room was abuzz with stories of innovative, exciting work that is engaging students across the country: from STEM labs to action research; maker rings to passion projects; game design to digital storytelling. As the conversations moved from one table to another, a common theme emerged: one of the most powerful ways we are engaging our students in meaningful learning is by giving them a chance to find their voices, to follow what interests them, and produce new work that comes from their own passions.

As an English and Digital Media teacher, I think it’s pretty easy to give my students opportunities to find their voices: they choose what to write about; they choose what digital projects to pursue; they plan, film and produce their own movie projects. But what about other subject areas? The one that stumps me the most is math. How do math teachers ignite passionate learning and help students find their voices in math class? I would love to hear from any teachers out there who are actively trying to give students unique opportunities to find their passions and voices within their academic work.

Also: now’s the time to apply for the next round of $20,000 grants! Check it out here.

Our best ideas = your best lessons

What’s the #1 complaint from teachers when attending a conference, workshop, training, or professional development session? Besides not enough chocolate, near the top of my pet peeve list is presenters who are not classroom teachers. Even trainers who were once in the classroom lose a bit of their credibility when I find out they’ve been out of the classroom for a few years. Today’s classroom is an ever-changing place!

The same holds true for books and curriculum: I need teacher-authors to write those books so that I know I am getting tried-and-refined curriculum and strategies that will succeed in today’s classroom. And that’s why I’m excited to be part of the launch of a new series of books for teachers, The Best Lesson Series, which is the brain-and-heart-child of Brian Sztabnik, high school English teacher and Talks with Teachers podcaster.

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Brian reached out to English teachers across the country, asking if they would contribute one chapter on one really great literature lesson that has been successful with their students. I was happy to share one of my lessons that helps my students develop their literary analysis skills, but even better is having access to 14 more lessons that have been developed, tested, and refined by boots-on-the-ground, face-to-face-with-students, innovative classrooms teachers.image1

The timing is perfect to check out the first book in the Best Lesson Series, try a chapter for free, and then grab a copy for yourself. You just might find the lesson you need to get you and your students through the holiday craze, another brilliant strategy to welcome them back in January, and 13 more that will energize your teaching for months to come.

Thanks to Brian for putting this all together, and to Todd Finley, Dave Stuart, Jr., Susan Barber, Jori Krulder, Dan Ryder, Heather, Wolpert-Gawron, Josh Stock, Joy Kirr, Amy Rasmussen, Shanna Peeples, Brianna Crowley, Gerard Dawson, and Ruth Arseneault for sharing their best literature lessons.

Now get out there and do what resourceful teachers have always done: steal other teachers’ best lessons!

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 delivered aquaponics units — sustainable food production systems used to raise fish and cultivate plants — to 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.

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:

POSITIVE

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!

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!

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[also posted on Edutopia.org]