It’s Election Day!

Unless you’ve been living under a rock the last year, you’re probably pretty sick and tired of hearing about the U.S. Presidential Election. The good news is that it will all be over tomorrow! img_6350

Here at Sheridan Road, we have been harnessing the glut of information around the election to run a school-wide PBL unit. The driving question for the project has been “How can we use knowledge of the U.S. Presidential election to create a successful campaign for Sheridan Road STEM’s student council race?”

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Over the past two months, students have been engaged in researching and participating in how the election process works – fundraising to pay for commercials and campaign posters, interviewing “constituents” to see what issues are important, and working hard to make sure they lock up their votes. Additionally, students have learned about how the electoral college works, the popular vote, the issues that voters are working on, how and why we elect people to represent us, and what the civic responsibilities are in choosing a candidate.

There will be a president and vice president selected from each grade level – each 4th, 5th, and 6th grade have nominated a candidate. Those candidates have created posters, campaign videos, and have given speeches. Students have heard from local politicians about their own path to election and have had the opportunity to ask questions about the process.

One of the key components of a good PBL is that it is relevant and timely. Clearly capitalizing on the election has helped make this unit timely, but it is also relevant for the students because they are actually choosing candidates who will represent their grade level on the school’s student council. Sheridan Road has tried to model as much as possible the real election process. Once the nominees were chosen from each class, students divided into committees to help their candidate win the election. In order to air their commercials or hang their campaign posters, students had to fundraise and earn money to pay for their commercial slot. Candidates have had to give interviews about what their platform is. We have even had debates between the different candidates at each grade level. (Fourth Grade, Fifth Grade, and Sixth Grade)

Sixth grade students used the website I Side With to evaluate the issues that are important to them and what their positions are. Once they received their results and saw which of the 4 main candidates they sided with, they created a series of fake text messages between themselves and friend, telling their friend which candidate they sided the most with and why.

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Today is our election day since our schools are closed tomorrow for the election. On Wednesday, we will have the results and the losing candidates will give their concession speeches.

Top 10 in 10: Reality for Michigan or Just Empty Rhetoric?

Yesterday I attended the METS Fall 2016 Rally in Jackson, MI at a wonderfully creative and innovative space created by Consumer’s Energy. It is a true example of combining new and old with collaborative and non-traditional learning spaces. Classroom design and flexible learning spaces seem to be on my mind lately as I begin providing input to our District Bond Committee in charge of purchasing new equipment, furniture, and other learning materials for our re-designed schools. While it is important to remember that simply changing “X” isn’t going to result in [insert educational buzzword here], it is equally important to begin the conversation about what learning looks like.

For myself, I often struggle to be creative or even productive in my office building cubicle. I’m constantly distracted by the ringing phone, people coming in and out, sounds of the copy machine, etc., not to mention being surrounded by concrete blocks, beige cubicle dividers, and no access to flexible seating or alternative lighting. Alternatively, when I can curl up on a beanbag, sit outside, or enjoy some natural light, I feel much more energized and engaged with my work. The same is true for our students. I always hear the comments from teachers after a long day at a conference about how tired they are – from SITTING!

One of our discussions at the Rally yesterday centered around the State Superintendent’s missive to make Michigan a Top Ten state for education in ten years. To that end, he has laid out a plan of 10 strategic goals that we as a state need to pursue and get better at if we are to thrive and improve education in this state. You can read more about the plan here.

While on its surface, these ten strategic goals sound wonderful and certainly no one is going to disagree with things like, “Develop, support, and sustain a high-quality, prepared, and collaborative workforce”. However, we spent a fair amount of time digging in to these strategic goals, and a few things struck me. There are a variety of underlying issues that must be addressed in order to truly help Michigan schools become one of the top 10 in the nation.

We discussed these strategic goals in a really innovative format. There were several tables set up; at each table was either a high school student from an area school or a young professional from the area. Each guest had a strategic goal they discussed with the others at the table. It was a unique way to discuss a variety of issues with a diverse group of people.

As I listened to one particular guest discuss the importance of strategic goal 4 – “Reduce the impact of high-risk factors, including poverty, and provide equitable resources to meet the needs of all students to ensure they have access to quality educational opportunities” – I was struck by how little of this is within the control of schools and districts. Michigan schools are funded through property taxes, but how much of those taxes are allocated for schools are decided by the state legislature on a per-pupil allotment. Resources to support families – welfare, affordable child care, access to reliable transportation, access to healthy food – have been whittled away and so many students come to schools without their basic needs being met. We have so many more responsibilities and duties as schools, but have less money than ever with which to fulfill these.

Another factor that strikes me as puzzling is the goal of creating “a prepared and quality future workforce[.]” We as teachers know that teaching students to fill in bubbles, take tests online, and memorize facts and figures aren’t what’s best for students. We also know that those types of skills are not in demand in today’s workforce. Children need to learn how to interact appropriately in a digital space, students need practice and access to engaging with others around the globe. Students should be creating and curating, not consuming and engaging in “digital worksheets.” And yet…teachers are evaluated on how well their students achieve on an assessment. We measure all students’ learning via a standardized test. We are still checking boxes instead of using a holistic approach that evaluates multiple factors of a teacher’s “effectiveness.” In fact, the state superintendent released his recommendations recently for ANOTHER new state test. For the past two years, schools have used the online M-STEP test that is administered in the spring. Districts throughout the state spent countless hours ensuring their networks were ready to handle the influx of traffic, that computers were functional. Teachers helped their students navigate the testing environment so that the test would measure what students actually know rather than how well they can take a test online. In our district, because many of our schools are 4-6, the better part of two MONTHS were engaged in testing, taking away valuable computer time because those labs were tied up with testing. Now, the superintendent wants to do away with the M-STEP, create a new, different assessment, and have it be administered in both the fall AND the spring.

We know what’s best for kids. We want students to show us what they know. We want them to be prepared to engage with and in the workforce. We want them to have access to a variety of educational opportunities. And yet, we also still seem to want them to be really good test takers. Teachers simply do not have time – or the freedom – to take risks in their classrooms when they know they are being evaluated on a state test.

It’s imperative that we as a society look at our values and our priorities. We cannot continue to cut taxes for the wealthiest 1% and lessen the amount of dollars going into social welfare problems and expect change. Schools cannot do it all. Parents cannot do it all. Even together, parents and schools, cannot do it all. Without the support, skills, training, and resources that can be provided through state and federal agencies, we risk being able to truly make Michigan a Top 10 in 10.

Global Read Aloud

Okay so I have used Twitter a lot for professional connection and learning for the past few years. And I know its power. But I’ve never really witnessed firsthand how powerful it can be! I’ve tweeted out a question and gotten a few responses. I’ve never really had an overwhelming amount of responses to something – until yesterday.

I created a Padlet (basically an interactive corkboard) about the first 5 chapters of a book called Pax. Pax is one of the books chosen for this year’s Global Read Aloud, a collaborative project designed to engage students with reading. I tweeted out the link to the Padlet, inviting people to collaborate on it. In less than 24 hours, I’ve had more than 63 students view and add to my Padlet from all over the WORLD! That’s amazing! Not to mention that it’s incredibly fun (for lack of a better term) to have people comment on your stuff. I get so excited when I have a comment on my blog to moderate; it validates me so much more than just writing for myself. While I get pleasure in sharing my words just to share and get my thoughts out, I’m much more nuanced and thoughtful when writing a blog because of the potential for other people to read it.

This is my second year participating in the Global Read Aloud, and it is such an amazing and inspiring project. I don’t know how Pernille Ripp does it, but she chooses books that are beautiful, engaging, and resonates so much with a variety of students. Last year, we read Fish in a Tree to our 4-6 Reading Class. This is a group of students who are used to feeling the like the “dumb” kids because they struggle with reading. It was such a powerful experience to see them EXCITED about reading and giving them a voice to share how they were connecting with the book.

This year, Pax is also really impacting our students. Working in an urban district, students come to us with a lot of deficits, many with unstable home lives. Peter (one of the main characters) is relatable to them in a lot of ways because he too struggles with belonging, betrayal, and all the challenges of growing up. Pax is also relatable, even though he’s a fox, because he struggles with finding his way and who he is. I cannot wait to get deeper into this book with my students.

Are you participating in the GRA? We’d love to connect with you via Skype or Google Hangout! 

 

First Day of School

Today, thousands of young scholars attended school for the first time in a couple of months. Teachers have spent lots of time decorating hallways and classrooms, perusing their class list and trying to learn student names, scouring Pinterest for engaging ice-breaker activities that students haven’t done countless times before, and students arrived in their new clothing, freshly sharpened pencils, a variety of colored pens and markers stuffed in brand new backpacks. Some students were anxious to begin their first day of formal schooling. For others, this is old hat, and they are marking time until they walk across that stage and collect their diplomas. Many parents anxiously waved goodbye to their children through misty eyes and tried to look brave.

As I traveled through some of the schools today, I was struck by how, despite the incredibly hot and humid weather, teachers, secretaries, principals, cafeteria workers, janitors, and other support staff greeted their students with smiles and hellos. Our schools are not air conditioned, friends. Here in the Mitten state we often don’t need air conditioning but for a handful of days in the fall and spring. But these buildings many of the teachers teach in are old with few windows that open, that cling to the heat, so that even early mornings don’t offer much respite. I know I have a hard time concentrating and being a pleasant member of society when I’m sweaty and feel like I can’t cool down. Not to mention working with 25 K-3 students, or saying the same “Welcome” speech 6 or 7 times to a group of eight graders and still maintaining my charming personality!

Bravo, Lansing teachers! Day one is over and I am inspired by you. We have a wonderful community of supportive, passionate, inspiring teachers here in Lansing. #LansingComeUp!

Permissions and Challenges

Something that’s been rumbling around in my brain the last couple of days after attending a training  and a recent update in privacy policy from Code.org – what responsibility do software and “web 2.0” companies have to schools and students in regard to student information and privacy?

There are literally thousands of websites and resources for students to create digital products, share their knowledge in different ways, or interact with the world at large. However, common among so many of them is the requirement of creating an account, which asks for some kind of information for students. Presumably, many of these companies keep this information to email students, market to them, sell their emails to other companies, etc. I know many websites have their privacy policies and terms of conditions labeled on their websites, but they often have a requirement for students to be 13 or older to use their sites.

Working with many K-6 teachers, it is often a big challenge to find good (free, or relatively cheap) sites, that do what teachers want, and is appropriate for younger learners. This got me thinking – what responsibilities do technology education companies have to the people they are claiming to serve?

I know this isn’t a black or white issue and there are probably a lot of things I’ve left out or haven’t fully unpacked, but I’m interested to hear your thoughts. What say you?

 

It’s a Big Job…

The nights are getting longer, temperatures are dropping a bit, the sun is coming up a tad later every morning, pens and notebooks are on super sale in the store. Summer is winding down and it’s about time for school to start again. While people are always somewhat reluctant to head back to work after a vacation, most teachers I know are ready to get back in their classrooms after a couple of months away. They miss the energy of a new school year, their students, the creativity and collaboration of lesson planning and learning from students.

This year, I am also getting excited as I am transitioning into a new role. For the past two years I have supported the Magnet Program in Lansing. These five schools focused on STEM, STEAM, and Global Studies/Spanish Immersion. Through that role, I built relationships with some wonderful people and helped to share the power of technology in creating meaningful and relevant learning opportunities for students. Now, as that program is winding down, I have moved into a new role where I am supporting the entire district’s technology integration efforts.

While it is a big job – one of me and 27 schools – I am excited for the opportunity to continue to push students and teachers to do new and innovative things with the assistance of technology. But, it is going to be a challenge to support so many people with only so many hours in the day. This year I am trying something new – a booking tool that syncs with my Google calendar. Hopefully this will eliminate a lot of the back and forth emailing that sometimes happens when people want to set something up. I anticipate there being a bit of a learning curve as the most common way to connect with someone is to send them an email. I am hopeful, though, that after a couple gentle reminders, most people will look to the booking site first rather than email.

I put together a little flyer to showcase who I am, what my role is, what I can do, and how to reach me. This will be posted on our Technology Integration website as well as shared with the people in Central Office and all the building principals. In a district our size, it’s impossible to know everyone, so this was the best way I could think of to get my name out there. Let me know what you think!

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School Year Goals

One of the best parts of working in the education field is the opportunity to start fresh each school year. Similar to how lots of people set New Year’s Resolutions on January 1st, I have been spending a lot of time thinking about what my goals for this school year are.

Rather than come up with a list of three or four “things” I want to implement in schools or projects to complete, I have decided to focus instead on something that is both small and large. Last year, I heard George Couros speak at ISTE, and one of things he said really stuck out to me: “What if every teacher tweeted one thing a day they did in their classroom […] and took five minutes a day to read each other’s tweets? What impact would that have on school culture?” You can read more about Building Culture from George here. 

Today’s educational environment – in Michigan especially – is challenging and demoralizing. Threatened with closure, almost 100 schools throughout the state are waiting to learn their fate. The state’s largest public school district (Detroit Public Schools) have students and teachers in buildings with mold growing on the walls, floors, and ceilings. It’s a mess, and it can be really hard to stay positive and work throughout the school year to continually try to innovate and come up with ways to engage students. It is challenging when you’re in the thick of it, to remember all those little moments that get buried in the daily minutiae of teaching.

So, this year, my goal is to tweet out one thing each day that I did or saw in my classroom observation. As the Technology Integrationist for the entire district – all 25 schools – I am sure I will have a lot of things to share! I’m going to share to the hashtag #LansingComeUp. As part of the mission to bring positivity and hope to this area, students brainstormed this hashtag as a way to show people that great things are happening in our schools and we are coming up. I invite you to join me; let’s make this year the best one yet!

How Do You Get That Lonely?

My blog title comes from a heartbreaking song called “How Do You Get That Lonely” by country singer Blaine Larson. The song tells the story of a young man who committed suicide. He asks over and over, “How do you get that lonely and no body knows?” This song lyric has been echoing in my head for the last couple of weeks as I heard about the death of one of my former students. His name was Alec and he was 17 years old. 

Alec was a bright, sweet, caring, and thoughtful young man when I had him as a 7th grade student. He was one of the 140 students I taught my first year of teaching. That group of kids will always have a special place in my heart. I’m certain those students taught me more my first year of teaching than I taught them. I learned patience, how to see the potential and good in each student, how to forge relationships with them, learn about their interest, how to engage students in different ways, how to challenge them. I also learned what exhaustion felt like and how hard it was to give your all – day in and day out – and still feel like it was never enough.

Perhaps even more heartbreaking about Alec’s death is that it happened in the midst of so much happiness in the school year. Students are graduating, making plans for college or a career, reflecting on their high school years. There is so much hope and optimism; a sense of the entire world at their feet. Tinged with all these celebratory moments is a profound sense of loss.

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Alec was a much different person as a high school student than he was when I had him as a 7th grader. He grew up – figuratively and literally. Reading through the posts from his classmates and family, it is clear that at his core, Alec was the same bright, caring, kind, and thoughtful young man. My heart breaks for his family.

 

Using KidBlog

Last week I wrote about the introduction of blogging with students using paper and pencil. It was a really powerful lesson that helped students to think about the realities of writing online and that there are real people behind the posts. It also was really engaging for them to see others comment on their posts.

Now, we are moving students into the digital realm and having them blog online using KidBlog. We chose this platform because our students don’t have email addresses or GAFE accounts, so Blogger was out. I have used KidBlog in the past and had a fair amount of success with it. We also liked that the educator version was reasonably priced – $35 for a calendar year – and it came with lesson plans, support, and ideas.

Students have the ability to personalize their blog posts through different backgrounds, images, media, text, and font colors. They also can personalize their blog avatar. These things go a long way in giving students ownership over their learning.

Since we started pretty late in the year, students have not used KidBlog as much as we would like, but they are LOVING it! Ms. Rubio wrote a blog post about why she was out sick from work and gave students an assignment to complete online. She can then interact with the students even while she is out of the classroom. It also helps students to develop empathy and realize that their teacher is a person with challenges and issues outside of the classroom. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that!

Earlier this week, I logged in to KidBlog and commented on several students’ posts. They were so excited to have their posts read and to continue the conversation. Ms. Rubio has already said she wants to start off the school year with her students on KidBlog. It’s such a great way for them to document their learning and growth throughout the year. It also provides a great way for kids to get to know more about their classmates. Students who tend to be shy about speaking up or don’t always have a chance to share in class can now comment and post about their learning and their opinions. IMG_5269 (1)IMG_5270 (1)

Blogging With Students

It can be really hard to get students to write – right? So often students do not resonate with the topic we’re asking them to elaborate on, or there are barriers and challenges that make writing at length difficult for them. One of the schools that I work with has a very large ELL population, and it can be challenging for them to write – they don’t know the English words or they don’t know how to spell them. Writing for a teacher, turning it in, waiting for feedback, then shoving the paper in a folder isn’t always the most meaningful way for students to grow in their writing. Too often the feedback comes at the end – and it only comes from one person.

One of the teachers I work with really understands this struggle and has been working to make writing curriculum more engaging for her kids. We worked through a couple of different platforms and decided on KidBlog. We liked the built in safety features and – because our students don’t have email addresses – it was an easy way to get student accounts without collecting personal information.

Blogging opens up the opportunity for students to share and engage with many other people – whether it’s the other students in the classroom, their friends at another school, or globally. When students know that others are reading their work, they have a higher level of ownership over it. Aside from that, the conversations often continue as others comment and ask questions and the author engages in a dialogue. Students, then, are naturally reading and writing more as they respond to comments and questions on their own blogs as well as interacting with others’ blogs as well.

To get kids excited about blogging, we knew we had to go beyond just “Tell me about your goals” or something similar that kids have been asked to think about many times before. Having attended a session at a conference last summer on introducing blogging to students, I knew one of the best ways to get kids excited about writing was to let them write about anything they wanted – their passion. I wrote a short “post” (on paper) about one of my passions – running. I decorated the paper similar to how you would decorate a blog page, and then read the blog to students.

Students were then given 10 minutes to write about anything they wanted. The only rule was they couldn’t stop writing for the entire 10 minutes. At first they were reluctant and hesitant; many of them didn’t think they could write for 10 minutes about anything. We continued to encourage them to write and write without talking. After a bit, students did settle in and the quiet was really neat – just hearing the sound of pencils on paper. Once students had time to write their post, we discussed commenting. I shared with students how one of the ways blogging is different than just writing something and turning it in, is the opportunity to have communication with others who are reading your blog. We talked about some of the things students might have commented after reading my blog post about running.

A little mini lesson was really all we needed to remind students about writing in complete sentences, using proper grammar and spelling, and writing comments that added to the conversation. We kept comparing it to what you would say if someone told you the story face to face. Most students understood that it would be rude to just say “Cool” to someone’s story. After that, we gave each student 3 sticky notes and had them write their names on each note. Then, students got up and walked around the room, reading other blog posts, writing comments on the sticky notes, and posting them around the edges of the blog. IMG_5254

It was really neat to see kids reading and quiet. Students were on task and engaged. At the end of the commenting period, we asked students to share what they learned, how the comments made them feel, etc. Then, the one student who had been the most reluctant to engage in the lesson at the beginning asked if they could do it again, reading others’ posts. We ended up doing it two more times. One student wanted to read everyone’s post and comment on everyone’s blog. It was awesome!

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