Being Strong Sometimes Means Being Vulnerable

I spent November like a lot of people on social media – making a mindful and purposeful post every day reflecting on something I was grateful for. It’s pretty well documented how having a grateful outlook helps generate more fulfillment from life, and you’re happier overall.

This has been a whirlwind of a year for me personally. Professionally, I have hit my stride really well, working on some big projects designed to support strong, student-centered technology integration for our district. It’s been a long and somewhat tedious process, but I have learned a lot, and the opportunity to shape what technology integration and professional development around integrated technology and curricula is really awesome.

Personally, life hasn’t been so great. It’s amazing when I reflect back even a few months ago and so much in my life was different. Working with so many different people and personalities, it can be tricky to navigate when it’s appropriate to share things and when you keep them to yourself. Not everyone I work with is my best friend or even someone I could consider an acquaintance. Most of them are work colleagues – we are cordial at work and that’s about it. And even though I try to leave the personal junk out of my profession, it’s tough when your brain can only think about those terrible things that are happening in your life.

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I’m pretty sure no one sets out on this journey thinking they will fail. We dive in, blindly and full of faith, thinking we will be different, we will beat the odds, defy the statistics. And somehow, slowly, insidiously, things change. Cracks and warning signs, we ask ourselves questions like:

Is this it?
Is this all there is?

We try to push away that voice that whispers in your ear,
You deserve more. 

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Words define us and shape the way the world sees us.
Daughter.
Sister.
Wife.
Divorcee.
Disappointment.
Failure.
Unlovable.

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Last month, I was in a scary car accident. Someone ran a red light at an intersection and T-boned me. Luckily he hit more of the driver’s side front panel and less of the driver’s side door, but if either of us had been going a slightly different speed, things could have been very different. I was fine. My car was not fine. The car I just got 6 weeks ago spent a month in the body shop. And while it was an inconvenience to not have my own car, I was very happy that I was still healthy and was able to continue with the rest of my days relatively unchanged. However, it got me thinking. Even though I know – maybe better than some – how quickly life can change in an instant – I don’t get in my car each day thinking I might get in an accident.

It’s honestly really tough being the only sibling left from a family of four. When Tony died, not only did I feel responsible for being a success and making my parents proud on my own, I felt extra pressure to do something amazing with my life – because Tony never would have that chance. Nothing like making your parents proud than with a phone call telling them you are getting divorced. Your uber-Catholic, stay-with-someone-until-you-die-even-if-they-make-you-miserable Catholic parents… Yeah.

For the last six months, I have leaned heavily on my friends. I am beyond blessed to have such a wonderful support system, many of whom just listen and don’t offer words of wisdom or comfort. All of whom don’t sit in judgement of my decisions. Staying healthy and fit – making time for myself every morning to go to the gym and get in a solid workout – have helped me heal and process. I love my fitness center and the community they’ve created. So many of the members and trainers I can count among my friends.

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I know I’ll be okay. Eventually. I know I am strong enough to withstand even this. My value as a human and as a woman is not tied to anyone else. There are days when my heart feels heavy, my shoulders slump, my brow seems to be permanently furrowed, and a darkness descends over me. It’s in those moments it’s easy to question my decisions. But then there are other times when I feel like the world is waiting for me to make my mark on it. A new start. A fresh start. A new set of words to define me.

Daughter
Sister
Independent
Strong

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Hour of Code 2017

The 2017 Hour of Code movement is off to a great start here in Lansing. Sixth grade students at Sheridan Road STEM participated yesterday. We have been working through Google’s Be Internet Awesome curriculum around digital citizenship, and students are really loving the opportunity to interact with technology in different ways. They are also so appreciative of the chances they get to create instead of just passively consume technology.

Students have been working through some of the CS Fundamentals Express curriculum and most of them have been pretty intrigued by coding. Some students have struggled, and we’ve continued to support students in being problem-solvers and becoming self-sufficient learners.

We’ve been participating in The Hour of Code for the last 3 years and it’s something we always look forward to. This year we were so excited to see a whole bunch of new activities for students to try. Several of the boys in class were pumped to see a basketball game they could code. I was excited to code my own Google logo.

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You can check out all the cool stuff happening in Mrs. Bliesener’s class here.

 

Be Internet Awesome

We’ve been using a pretty great resource from our friends at Google this year to kick off our conversations about digital citizenship and digital literacy. There’s an entire curriculum titled Be Internet Awesome for teachers and students to navigate through. What I like about it is there are teacher-led activities and there is also an online game component that reinforces what the lesson’s focus was. So far we’ve tackled privacy, sharing, and settings within apps to limit access, and phishing scams.

One of the biggest mistakes I see a lot of teachers make is assuming our students know how to interact with technology in a school setting. We know students grow up with devices and are constantly connected. It’s easy to assume our students know how to use technology and will utilize it appropriately in a classroom setting. But, similar to how we embrace discipline in our schools with Culturally Responsive Positive Behavior Intervention Systems, so too do students need to be taught how to use technology.

The Digital Citizenship movement has been gaining traction for several years in education, but I have always found it to be a little lacking. So much of the focus was on what NOT to do, stranger danger, etc. and less on the why we need to learn how to make these types of choices with technology. Students need the opportunity to explore when we should trust someone with information, what signs to look for, and thinking through what may or may not happen in a given scenario. While students KNOW what they’re supposed to do, they don’t always do it. And neither do we as adults, right? I mean, I know I’m supposed to get 3-5 servings of vegetables every day, but I don’t always do it.

So our conversations with students have to be about more than just what we know we should and shouldn’t do. We have to educate them on the why and the reasons behind our expectations around any behavior – whether technology is involved or not. Of course, it starts with relationships and creating an environment of trust and openness. We have to establish and maintain rapport with our students, we can’t ask them to take risks while at the same time sending the message that we don’t trust them by banning sites or cell phones.

How are you teaching your students to Be Internet Awesome? 

Adapting to Change

“When our students get into the real world, they’re going to need to do X, Y, and Z…”

Sound familiar? I’ve been hearing this for many years in education, and, if I’m honest, have said it a lot of times myself. It’s one of those educational catchphrases that the older, wiser, mentor often says, and we new teachers lap it up without giving a lot of thought. Part of that is because sometimes school seems so much different than the outside world, we’re sometimes isolated from a lot of the reality of how people interact and communicate outside of our classroom walls. We can examine these two pictures of classrooms, and recognize that not a lot has changed, even though so much around us actually HAS changed.

Aside from the interactive board at the front of the room in the color photo, not much has changed from the classroom of the 1950s. While this is not true in all schools – lots of wonderful, immersive learning experiences are happening – it is still quite common to see the traditional desks/table in rows.

My brilliant friend George made me think about this topic again the other day when he wrote a blog – On the “Real World”. You should definitely read the entire post, but I especially relate to the idea that we have to “prepare students for continuous change and adaptation.”

How often does your schedule change? How many times have you logged into Google and noticed something changed, or management structure changed (again), or a process on how to submit for a reimbursement was adjusted? This can be frustrating and induce some stress, especially if you’re used to doing something the same way and have been doing it that way for a long time. Change is inevitable. We have to learn how to adapt to it and adjust.

Changing presidential administrations in 2017 was a huge challenge for me – and millions of Americans. It can be hard to adjust when things change and we’re not happy with the outcome. Our students experience those things, too, and it’s essential we equip them with the skills to process and deal with that. We must model it for our students – with as much grace and dignity as we can muster. As educators, we also must acknowledge change can sometimes be good, even if it doesn’t seem that way at the time. Evaluation and putting aside personal biases is a tough thing to do, but essential if we want to properly evaluate situations.

#choosekind

School is finally in session here in the Capital City and our students are busy settling in to new routines, earlier mornings, and getting to know their friends and teachers. When I was still in the classroom, one of my favorite things was to spend the first week getting to know my students, learning about their interests, getting their feedback on what they wanted their classrooms to look and feel like, and having them create digital collages and word clouds representing themselves.

Just as we can work hard to make our classrooms warm and welcoming, it’s incredibly powerful when an entire school gets involved and sets a theme for the year. One of the schools in our district – Sheridan Road STEM – embraced the theme of kindness this year, inspired by the book Wonder by R. J. Palacio. In fact, the entire school is reading the book and doing a book study around it, the themes it represents, and embracing the idea of being open to others, being kind to all people, regardless of their appearance, circumstance, or background. What a powerful message for our young people to hear, especially in our current political environment.

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This is a powerful message that schools across the country are embracing and using to connect with others. Some of the things being shared on Twitter with #choosekind are incredibly inspiring. I personally haven’t read this book yet, but I am very excited to participate in the book study along with the teachers and students at Sheridan Road STEM. 

How will you #choosekind this year?

 

First Days of School

Back when I was still a classroom teacher, our principal always used to email us before school the wise words of Harry Wong – “You only get one first day of school!”

Such a simple message but really powerful and a wonderful reminder to all of us to strive to set the tone for the first day of school. How do we want students to feel when they walk into our classroom? How do we want to feel at the end of the day?

Building relationships is such a crucial part of establishing a culture of trust in our classrooms. Our students need to know the adults in their lives care about them and respect them as people and as individuals.

When I taught 8th grade, my partner teacher and I shared students; he had them for English and I had them for Social Studies. We did a block schedule Mon-Thursday and then on Friday we saw all classes. So, every quarter, on a Friday, we’d combine our classes and do some team-building activities that centered around validating students and their talents, and generating a stronger sense of community. Middle school students are so great; just on the cusp of figuring themselves out but still wanting to be a little kid every now and then. They want their independence, but they also want to fit in and often conform in order to do so. I loved seeing them grow and change throughout the year.

I know a lot of the teachers in our district are focusing on climate and culture the first week of school, and rightly so. Before you can expect people to work for you, they have to feel valued and respected. It’s important to model that all voices are important, all perspectives are welcomed, and acceptance rules the day. But it’s not only crucial in the first week of school, it’s important to revisit and remind throughout the year.

What are some of your favorite ways to build community in your classroom? How do you cultivate trust all year long?

Blended Learning Day Camp 2017

Remember when you were a kid and you went to camp – and it was awesome? Well, last week I got to go to “camp” – and it was awesome! Michigan Virtual University has put on an annual Day Camp for the last three years. Centered around implemented blended learning, the conference features both inspiring speakers as well as examples of teachers implementing blended learning in their classrooms.

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Not only did I get to attend, I was asked to be a Camp Counselor and have my own cabin of campers. Each camper was assigned a cabin (table) and a seat, which was designed to get people out of their comfort zones and to network with others. Our table was split into two cabins – 12A and 12B – and each cabin had a counselor. Most counselors at each table were instructional technology specialists or building leaders. We acted as the moderator to help break the ice with our campers, facilitated some lunchtime discussions around our practice, and helped to manage the GooseChase scavenger hunt.

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And we got some sweet swag! There’s a fanny pack hiding in that coffee mug!

The Keynote speaker for the event was the incredibly inspiring Pernille Ripp. She’s a middle school teacher in Wisconsin who has a really interesting story about how she became a teacher and landed in her school. Aside from the hard work she engages in as a teacher, Pernille also is the founder of the Global Read Aloud, which several teachers in our district have participated in.

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We hear a lot in education about doing what’s best for kids, but we don’t often actually ask kids what it is they want we teachers to do. Pernille does this – and then she makes changes to her instruction and how to interacts with students. Not only does this create an environment where students feel comfortable to contribute to their learning, it also demonstrates to students that their voices are valued and matter. When we think about how we want to teach our students to engage in the world, what better way to model that for our students than to ask them to use their voices and have conversations about those wants.

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I could go on and on about how much what Pernille said resonated with me, but something she has been promoting for a few years is around behavior charts. I couldn’t agree more with her. Whether or not I’m having a bad day should not be public knowledge. Continually publicizing students’ behavior issues really doesn’t seem to make a difference in student behavior. I have seen behavior charts used in classrooms. The well-behaved students continue to behave well. The students who are on “yellow” or lose points become disgruntled or upset and continue to act out, until they go to “red” or lose more points. Of course eventually, those students on “red” lose other privileges. I think about how I would feel if I went to a conference session or a work meeting and was called out for talking or being off task. I certainly wouldn’t engage in the rest of the training with an open mind, and the next time I had to work with that presenter or leader, I’d have an attitude and would have my guard up.  Why would we expect any different from our students?

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There were a few big takeaways from the Blended Learning Day Camp for me. First, I loved the scavenger hunt component using the GooseChase app. GooseChase makes the work of a scavenger hunt super easy. You create a game, others join your game (you can password protect them), and then they complete the various challenges within the game. You can have participants take photo evidence, use GPS location, take a video, or write a text response. I love the multiple modalities incorporated into the app, and it’s so easy to create a game or participate in one. I’m definitely going to incorporate this into some of my day-long trainings this summer.

Another takeaway was the opportunity to get up, network, and play with a small group of teachers. Throughout the day there were multiple times when we were able to stand up, solve a problem, make something, or explore. We had a playground/Makerspace with a variety of “toys” – Spheros, MakeyMakey, Little Bits, BryteBites, etc. There was also a BreakoutEDU game. If you haven’t done one yet, I’d highly encourage you to give it a try. You can order a kit online, or you can make your own. It is a WONDERFUL community-building activity, first week of school, “brain break” activity. It requires students to work together to solve a common problem – with some tension added in as they are fighting against a clock and other teams. The GooseChase game also asked participants to find areas outside of the conference space, so it was fun to get outside and walk around.

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Lastly, I’m excited to participate in a book study with author Liz Kolb, who just published a new book called Learning First, Technology Second. We got to hear about the impetus behind her book and some of the highlights of her research findings. I’m not-so-patiently waiting for my book to arrive from ISTE so I can dive in and really participate in the online book study.

Your Turn: What were some of your favorite summer learning/professional development experiences? What made them so awesome?