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?

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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? 

Putting it Out There

Being able to learn from what we do is such an important part of improving our performance. While I know my own flaws and am aware of the things I think are necessary for me to work on, it is always beneficial to hear about what others’ perceptions of what I do are. I did this every year with my students; we would use a Google Form for students to evaluate my teaching. Students didn’t have to write their names if they didn’t want to, and they were able to give really helpful feedback on what worked for them, which lessons were their favorite, least favorite, what they wished we could have done more of, and ways I could improve for the next year. It can be a little scary, but honestly, I never had an inappropriate or hurtful response. Students love having a sense of agency. They love having a voice. The majority of students took the evaluation process seriously and provided really good feedback – often providing ideas for teaching that I hadn’t thought of myself.

Data-driven (everything) instruction is crucial, but it is often difficult to find meaning in data. I was never a numbers girl; social studies nerd all the way. So I often am overwhelmed with trying to make meaning from rows and rows of numbers. But when data is meaningful and easy to parse, it makes sense to me. Not only that, it makes me want to be better. I truly took to heart the suggestions and comments students provided in their end of year evaluations. Am I a completely different person? No. But, I am cognizant of how my mannerisms, delivery methods, responses, etc. can appear, and try to be as balanced and fair as possible.

Fitting myself into a new role as a Technology Integration Specialist is somewhat tricky. There are a vast number of teachers I am working with and just as many levels of technology knowledge. Creating presentations and offering suggestions that will be a one-size-fits-all is pretty challenging, and perhaps impossible. I have been working to provide a variety of tutorials that will hit on several different levels of technology confidence. So often, technology creates anxiety among teachers, but I do my best to help them to think about a device or a website as a tool, just like any other. Technology is a tool that makes a job or outcome easier. Paper is a technology. Pencils are technology. iPads are technology. The tool doesn’t matter – the learning does.

My overarching goal is to teach everyone at least ONE thing they will use – with confidence – in their classes. Beyond using it, the second piece of that goal  – and perhaps the more important piece of that goal – is that the technology tool teachers implement will enhance the learning for students. At the end of the day, that is the goal of technology – to transform WHAT we do, HOW we do it, and how students are CONNECTING to their learning.

This week I have spent some time working with teachers talking about iPad basics, using their Promethean Boards, and Kahoot. A variety of different tools, a variety of learner outcomes. And a plethora of lessons for this Integration Specialist to learn. To that end, I am putting myself out there in a sense. After sessions, I send an evaluation form to my attendees (thanks to my friend Jeremy Radner for the template!). The questions are simple; they ask teachers to evaluate their level of knowledge before and after the session and to provide any suggestions or comments if they’d like. There is always a risk in asking for feedback on something you do. Knowing what you do well – and hearing about that – is always nice, but that’s not how we grow and learn. It is only by asking for ways to improve, evaluating the reasonableness of that feedback, and, if necessary, implementing changes, that we truly grow and improve our practice.

After all, we ask our students to do these kinds of things all the time. We ask them to review their behavior, we provide feedback on their work (and their behavior sometimes!), and ask them to revise, improve, and learn. If we are not willing to do that ourselves, what kind of model are we for our kids?

Your Turn:

Do you ask for feedback often? 

How do you implement suggestions into your practice?