A New Beginning, a New Mindset

I have been thinking about writing a post for a very long time…it has actually become the thing I know I want to do but I haven’t been able to bring myself to actually do it. I told myself it was writer’s block, or unclear thoughts that I just haven’t been able to get down “on paper.” But I think I can finally admit, it’s been fear. I began my journey into administration in 2014 and haven’t recovered my writing abilities in this blog since. That was three years ago! I can no longer even tell people I blog, because I haven’t done a real post in so long. Today I read George Couros’s post, “Finding Inspiration in Yourself” and today, I found the inspiration in myself to write. Thank you, George Couros.

I think I have been afraid to share my thoughts as a leader. I know that as a school leader, people can interpret the simplest things you say in many different ways, and sometimes those interpretations have adverse effects. But today, I realized, it is even more important for me, as a school leader, to share my thoughts and beliefs with my community. I talk a lot about “walking the talk,” being vulnerable, and taking risks So here goes…

I am so excited for the new school year to begin and part of my excitement stems from our school’s shared summer reading of Neuroteachby Glen Whitman and Ian Kelleher and the conference I attended called the Science of Teaching and Leadership Academy at the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning (CTTL) at St.Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac, Maryland. It was an intense week of learning about utilizing best research practices, specifically regarding mind brain education, into our teaching practice. The first group experience entailed dissecting a sheep’s brain! Although the smell of formaldehyde brought me right back to 7th grade science class, I loved learning about the brain and I now can actually remember what specific parts of the brain do–experiential learning at its’ best! Each day ended with our Translation small group. We reflected and then listened to our group members’ reflections. It was wonderful and much needed after intensive learning throughout the day. Our Translation group leader, Hillary Hall, was incredibly patient, pushed our thinking and led us in beginning to create a question for possible action research in our own community.We continued with two intensive days learning as a group, followed by two more days of “Deep Dives” moving into the teacher track or leadership track.

Dr. Vanessa Rodriguez, Asst. Professor in the Center for Early Childhood Health and Development in the Department of Population Health at the NYU School of Medicine and author of The Teaching Brain, led a full day of learning. Dr. Rodriguez proposes a “Theory of Mind” that states teaching is a process and a natural human act.  She proposes that there are “Five Awarenesses of the Teaching Brain:  Awareness of the Learner, Awareness of Interaction, Awareness of Self as a Teacher, Awareness of Teaching Practice, and Awareness of Context.” (Check out this book review to learn more!)

Dr. Rodriguez explained that in education, we often talk about everything being student-centered but that there is someone else in that mix, the teacher. She certainly doesn’t propose stating your school or your classroom is student-centered is wrong, but when talking about teaching, perhaps we need to include thinking about who the teacher is, what he/she brings to the table, and what his/her perception is of who the learner is and what’s happening in the classroom is also very important. As a teacher, I can attest to feeling the magic that happens when great learning occurred in my classroom. There are so many factors that go into making learning happen that have to do with connection and relationships between students and the teacher! It was validating to hear someone talk about this out loud. As an administrator, I thought about how these five awarenesses could be brought into developing collaborative professional growth plans for teachers, as well as myself as an administrator. Much food for thought in that “Deep Dive!”

The next two “Deep Dives” included David Weston, Founder and Chief Executive of the Teacher Development Trust. His talk was entitled, “Unleashing Greatness in Teachers: What effective professional development looks like.” He shared that great PD is focused, responsive, has a supportive environment, provides expert support, is sustained, and has specific outcomes in mind. His talk helped me to solidify my action research question, “How can we utilize ‘Mind Brain Education Research-Informed Power Strategies for Teachers’ to better engage teachers in faculty meetings and other professional development experiences?” Incorporating best teacher practices into professional development for teachers will hopefully be fun and inspire teachers to incorporate those strategies into their own classrooms! I believe being a school leader doesn’t mean teaching and learning stops for you, it just means your audience is different.

The last “Deep Dive” was led by Julie Wilson, Founder and Executive Director of the Institute for the Future of Learning. She too was AMAZING! She led us in assessing where we are as a school and began helping us think about a plan to get us where we want to be. We thought about co-creating a three to five year professional development plan with our community to lead us into the future. We realized that we get hung up in creating activities instead of systems and this often adds to our community feeling like they are getting “one and done” professional development experiences, which adds to a feeling of being over-initiated. And we do have so many initiatives, but also realize it’s hard to avoid…but avoid we must!

I am thankful for this learning experience. And I must admit, at times, I was overwhelmed, which is hard to do to me because I LOVE all things education! I especially love intense professional development experiences. It was an excellent reminder of how my passion for education can be overwhelming for others at times. Delivery is important but learning also happens when it’s hard. I am ready for the new year to begin, as I grew a new mindset over the summer.

Continuing the Old Factory Model of Education and Expecting 21st Century Results

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I have been frustrated lately in my current new 5th grade position. I have been impatient, and critical, and negative. I am happy to say that most of this has been in my head. However, some of this negativity has been shared with my poor husband in our house, and I am embarrassed to admit, sometimes to my friends and family. February is a notorious month for teachers. There is said to be a slump that occurs with teachers in February. The cold winter months have been particularly harsh this season and the time between winter break and spring break can seem endless!

Anyway, I am searching, searching for ways that I can make an impact in my field. I have been so blessed to have the opportunity to truly practice my craft of teaching at my school. In addition, they have been so incredibly supportive of my efforts to grow and become a better teacher for my students. I have been critical of decisions, or perhaps more specifically, a lack there-of from my administrators. I want more curricular leadership, but I also want to keep my autonomy. I would not want to be in their positions and I am mature enough to realize my own irrational wants. I have been a learner for sure; however, my skill at being an empathetic learner has been lacking. My lack of empathy, I believe, has stemmed from a lack of understanding of what to do next.

While reading Michael Gorman’s post “10Steps for PreSearch Strategies…Digital Literacy Series Part I” I realized a couple of things. In order for 21st century teaching and learning to occur, a great deal of planning (i.e.time) needs to go into it. You cannot just throw Common Core Standards at teachers (which is what public schools in Baltimore are doing at the moment), tell them to teach in a 21st century way (for example, by creating project based learning units), create rubrics, embed all necessary skills, give formative and summative assessments, and at the same time, not adequately train teachers how to do this and not give them the proper amount of time to plan and learn!

It seems to me, we are still treating teachers using the old factory style of education—  Input:  Common Core, no time to learn, not enough training…and expect an output:  Students that are creative, innovative thinkers that pass all state tests. It is a simple recipe, you put crappy ingredients in without enough cooking time, you will not get a tasty dish.

I suppose all of this has led me to understand that I have to be willing to understand that this new road technology has paved for education is new for all of us. Learning happens not only on the part of students and teachers, but also on the part of administrators. I need to speak up and say, “Look! Look what you are expecting! It isn’t a realistic model and you cannot change some parts of this new educational path and not the other. It won’t work, it hasn’t worked and it will never work that way.” Students are not little empty cans waiting to be filled and neither are teachers. This may be where my new next step comes in. I have such a great desire to help reignite passion into teachers loving their incredibly demanding jobs and I also have the desire to help bridge trust and respect back into the administrator-teacher relationship.

I have an idea of where to start and also know I need to put-up or shut-up. It’s certainly exciting to fantasize about where this may lead me!

10 Easy Steps to Teach Writing through Blogging

I have been thinking of writing this post for the past six months. Blogging has done more for my students’ writing than anything I have ever tried. Students are writing so much that it is hard for me to keep up with them! Here is how I began:

1.  Students need to be able to critically read blogs and evaluate others’ writing before they can write themselves. I asked my students what they were interested in reading about. With the help of a couple of colleagues, we created a list of blogs that were safe for them to read using Mentor Mob. Feel free to use it yourself or create one in the same way! 

2.  We then had a discussion about why they liked or disliked particular blogs. Opportunities for digital and information literacy skills are endless! We discussed layout, graphics, advertisements vs. no advertisements, grammar and how it affected their understanding, safety (Some kids used their full names and we decided that was not a good idea.), content (Did the writer do a good job of explaining their topic-why or why not?), and also intended audience (Could they tell who this was intended for?), as well as information literacy skills (Would they consider this writer an expert on the topic? Would it be worthy of using as a resource for research purposes? Was it only intended for entertainment as an opinion piece?)

3.  We copied a style of another writer.  Students are allowed to copy the style of writing another person uses. It is very important to distinguish copying style to copying words. Copying the way a person writes is good practice. Eventually their own voice comes through and they develop their own style through practice. I am reminded of the book, Steal Like an Artist, which I am still thinking about reading to my students!

4.  We then participated in The Student Blogging Challenge through Edublogs. Although we started a little later than the official challenge began, I chose challenges for students to give them some focus. In the past, allowing students to freely write about anything they wanted right from the git-go did not provide the structure they needed. They needed to learn how to write. I was able to structure mini-lessons on opening/topic sentences, writing supporting sentences, and also lessons on specific grammar topics that came up in their own writing. I was able to differentiate instruction based on their own writing style. The challenges I chose also gave enough choice that they felt as though they had some say in what they were writing about! Students had choice and were able to direct their own learning in many ways.

5.  The most influential piece of blogging for my students has been having an authentic audience! I Tweeted their blogs out to my PLN (personal learning network) and they commented on my students’ writing. The creator of Edublogs Student Blogging Challenge, Miss W., commented on my students’ writing! Parents read their children’s writing, invited other family members and friends to comment on their child’s writing. Parents, family and friends began commenting on other student’s writing! This was also great because parents often want to know what their child’s work looks like in comparison to other kids their age. This is also a very difficult and sticky thing to show. As a teacher, you do not necessarily want parents to compare their kid to another, but being a parent, I get it. Blogging allows parents to see all different kinds of writing and how sometimes, topic and purpose affects how well a child writes. Sometimes it is better than others just like it is in real life!

6.  We talk about commenting throughout the whole process. Students critically read other comments and as a result, were able to write better comments themselves! They were so motivated to write because people were reading what they wrote about. Although they still write one-liner comments sometimes with way too many exclamation marks, most of the time, they are thoughtful about their comments. They are fifth graders…a million exclamation marks are fun sometimes!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

7.  Students edit and revise even after I published their work! After a few revisions, and I always struggle with not beating them to death with revising, I publish a student’s work. Because I use Kid Blog, I am the one who pushed the “Publish button.” This is a great feature! What I have found most amazing about using blogging to teach writing skills, is that many times, students go back in after it is published to revise again. What happens is that they read their friends’ work and realize they need to add more detail, or a picture, or a link that will make their piece even better. I think this is so incredible! What more could you ask for as a teacher?!

8.  Students finally move in and out of what we call “Free Blogging” between assigned blogging challenges. I didn’t allow students to begin free blogging about whatever they wanted until I felt they had a good handle on the purpose and intended audience of writing. I know this may sound awful, but I do not believe that all thoughts are worthy of publishing. Students have often asked me why teachers allow students to publish with so many mistakes. Now, of course sometimes it is because of the developmental stage and age of students, but other times, I believe it must be a difference in philosophy. Just like math, and foreign language, and music and sports, writing takes practice. I explained to students that because they began a new sport this year, should they play in a stadium and invite the world to watch them yet? No, of course not, they need practice. Writing is a muscle that also needs practice and it needs to be clear enough for others to read it.  

9.  Students become self-directed learners of writing through blogging. In allowing “free blogging,” students can explore different genres of writing through trying them out on their own. Although I am still struggling with keeping up because it takes me some time to read and then individually respond to students, I still feel that they are motivated to read other students’ writing and write their own posts. The 21st century learner isn’t so different from learners of the past. I think we all innately want to be self-directed learners. However, the 21st century learner has the unique opportunity of being provided the experience to self-direct their learning. They are all researchers of information. Technology has provided us with some really cool tools to help students become better readers, writers, and problem solvers. 

10.  Students are reminded that learning to write happens through making mistakes and most importantly, through reflection! Throughout the year, no matter what we learn about, students are reminded that perfection is not necessary and would make life boring. I would also be out of a job if everything they did and wrote about was perfect. Their uniqueness in all that they are and all that they do, including writing, is what makes our community so much fun and so interesting. The next step I will take with my students is to list ways in which students’ writing can improve…a sort of brainstorming list. We will then look at the writing of a peer and share three things that person has improved in with their writing since we first began to blog.  I hope to have students then evaluate their own progress and even blog about it if they are brave enough!

Lastly, I must add that students have been so excited to blog, that other fifth grade students who do not have me as a teacher, have come to me to ask if they too could learn how to blog. As a result, I created a blogging site for them to blog as well. Feel free to visit all three of our sites and comment! Friends of the Fifth Dimension , Ms. Hutch’s Marvelous Math Students , and Kids Who Just Wanna Blog.

 

     

 

Why Blogging Needs to Be in My Curriculum and Why My Students Need It!

The day before yesterday, I brought my students to our computer lab to blog again. It was so wonderful to see them so excited about writing! 

It has taken me a few years to develop a system of how to teach students to blog. It has also taken me a few years to effectively incorporate writing skills I usually taught in other ways into a blogging curriculum. And, I hesitate to even use the word curriculum because I think it is only the beginnings of one. I have also not done this alone. With the help of fabulous technology teachers, Andy Hanes and Jennifer Robinson, we really are starting to make it come together for kids, and ourselves!

We began the year with showing students what blogs were: what was the difference between an article and a blog? I then asked my students to make a list of what they would like to read about. My colleagues and I responded by making a Mentor Mob list of blogs that fit their criteria and were safe for them to read. After giving students about two 1/2 hour periods in the computer lab to simply browse and read, we began to have discussions about questions they had regarding the blogs. Some questions were: How can we tell if the information is coming from a reputable source? What do we do when information is really mixed in with opinion? Can we use blogs as sources for research? Why do some blogs have pop up ads or ads on the screen and some don’t? What formats do we prefer…the writing on the right side of the page? The left? Do we like pictures on the page at the top? Is the page too busy for us or too boring? They commented on being annoyed when someone didn’t capitalize the word “I” or put too many exclamation points. They loved it when someone was able to tell a clear story and put lots of details in. 

We are taking part in the Student Blogging Challenge on Edublogs, but using KidBlog to blog. As a teacher, the ability to check my students’ writing before they post, as well as approve comments before they are posted, is extremely important to me. For the challenge, students needed to first write an introduction of themselves so we checked out a couple of examples and talked about which one we liked best and why.

This brings me to our class we had two days ago. Students were so excited to write and read other classmates’ blogs! During class, I was able to individually conference with students who had finished and submitted their blogs for review. It was differentiation at its’ best! I could help students with their specific writing difficulties and build on their strengths. Some students needed to understand how to appropriately use colons, some needed help with organization and learned how to cut sentences out and move them to a different place so that it made more sense, some students just wanted reassurance and praise. Yes, there was time to individually praise students! We are learning about compound subjects and predicates and next time we blog, I can have them copy and paste a favorite sentence into a Word Doc, or better yet, something collaborative, like Pirate Pad. We can then highlight subjects and predicates using their own writing. We can also take that opportunity to share why they love that particular sentence they wrote the best!
When my colleague, Jennifer, who was working with me at the time, asked students why they loved blogging, their responses said it all:

Because it’s fun!
Because real people are going to see it that aren’t us!
Because when I make mistakes, it makes more sense when I have to fix it!
Because we get to learn more about our classmates and people we
don’t know!
Because it isn’t made up, it’s real.

My students need this kind of writing. They need it because it means something to them, it motivates them to learn and be better readers and writers. They need it because it builds on their interests, taps into their creativity, invites them to be collaborative, and begs them to think critically. What more could you want as a teacher?

PLSMBaltimore

Yesterday, we held the first ever Project Learning Swap Meet 2013 Baltimore! For the last month and a half, I planned and planned and with the help of Bianca and Lee Hewes, the originators of this beautiful unconference, my husband Andy Hanes, my two incredibly supportive colleagues, Frannie Morrissey and Jennifer Robinson, I wouldn’t have been able to pull it off! The day began with a video message from Bianca and Jim. Their enthusiasm about PBL and mission was inspiring to say the least. 

Although we had a small number of participants (only 12), we had a great conversation about what we thought PBL was and what we knew it wasn’t. Everyone at the Meet were pretty new to PBL, but enthusiastic to learn more about it. After a short break, we gathered in a classroom to Skype with Suzie Boss! Suzie had just returned from a trip to Turkey at 2 am in the morning, Portland time. She generously woke up early in the morning just to Skype with us. This was such an incredible part of the day! Participants were able to ask her questions and get ideas, a lot of ideas, to use directly in their own classrooms. It was like a personal tutoring session about PBL from an expert! So, so cool!

Although some participants weren’t able to stay, we gave resources and offered our Edmodo group again as a space to share our PBL journey and also, most importantly, get and offer support. After that, we ate lunch and chatted about what we thought we wanted out of the rest of our day. We then helped participants form driving questions for their projects and plan a bit. I loved watching new connections happen between people and also watching new enthusiasm about PBL grow. 

A few of us have talked about doing a second PLSM14 in February or March but holding it on a weekday so that more people can attend. I look forward to sharing and growing from our new PLSM13 Baltimore community on Edmodo and hope it continues to grow and grow!

Too Much to “Due”, So Little Time!

Well, the school year has begun and I am beginning to get panicked about how much I want to do. I certainly do not have to do all of the things on my list, but I really want to do them! #1 on my list right now (besides teaching my students, of course) is Project Learning Swap Meet 2013 Baltimore. I suppose I should explain how the whole thing came about.

After attending PBL World in Napa Valley, California this past June, I was completely inspired to spread the PBL love to everyone and anyone who was willing to learn and listen. I facilitated a little information session this summer I called “PBL and Summer Sangria” at my school and had a decent turnout. However, I really wanted to do something on a larger scale and perhaps connect with people on a regular basis who were into supporting each other through this PBL journey. I thought of doing an EdCamp but wasn’t excited about getting sponsors and quite frankly, didn’t know if I could do an EdCamp only about PBL. So, I was Tweeting away one night when I came upon Bianca Hewes Tweet which requested people to sign up for #PLSM2013. Lucky for me, I met Bianca in Napa at PBL World in June! I clicked the link, read about it and wanted to go right away. Bianca and her husband, Lee, also a teacher, described Project Learning Swap Meet as a DIY event to exchange ideas and resources about project based learning and the participants would then set the activities of the day based on what the participants wanted. Hopefully, there would be time to begin planning or revamping an existing PBL with help from the group! It was an unconference about PBL! So very cool! The problem was I lived in Baltimore and PLSM2013 was in Sydney, Australia. I decided to Tweet Bianca and Lee and ask them if I could borrow their idea and try it here in Baltimore. They said yes and the rest is history!

So, here I am, trying to get 40 participants for #PLSM2013Baltimore on October 5th. I asked Suzie Boss to speak to participants and she agreed. She spoke at Bianca and Lee’s first meet last January and they said she was incredible! Thank you Suzie Boss! I also need to finish my list of resources to send to participants prior to the event. This blog was on my list, so at least I am finishing this!! LOL

Now, I just need to finish planning two PBL units I begin in about a week and a half (one on Creativity and the other using the novel, The One and Only Ivan), finish my submission to present at Global EdCon in November, revamp my World Class 4 Kids project on Skype so that three classes will be able to choose and connect with each other on a spread sheet, finish signing my kids up for Kid Blog and Biblionasium, and figure out what and how I will teach my first Mathalicious unit! Piece of cake! Is it happy hour yet? Lol