Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Reflections on iPadpaloozaOU

The first two weeks of school, as always, have been a whirlwind of activity as students and teachers settle in to the schedule of school. This past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend and speak at iPadpaloozaOU in Norman, OK. What I loved about this conference was the fact that the entire day on Friday was devoted to providing authentic professional learning to pre-service teachers.  Anne Beck, Dr. Terri Cullen, and the faculty at the OU College of Education are creating such incredible opportunities for these undergrads to engage in their profession, even before entering their own classrooms. I loved getting to speak with these students and watching them engage on Twitter and build their own professional learning networks. We even took a selfie in my green screen session.
We spent a lot of time in this session actually working with apps and experiencing the green screen, and we even took some pictures with Beyonce, which I thought was hilarious.
The best part of this day was the general sense of excitement and enthusiasm. You could feel it in the air. These junior and seniors are so pumped to be teachers! It makes my heart so happy to know that these are the people that are coming into our schools and are preparing to make a difference in the lives of students. As the morning keynote speaker on Friday, I spoke to this audience of about 150 pre-service teachers about the importance of creating a safe haven for all students in our classrooms. Technology can help us foster that sense of community as it connects us to students in new ways and allows them to share their lives and learning experiences with us as teachers. I know that teaching my students to blog and journal with technology has given me so much insight into their interests, passions, fears, and joys. Teaching my students to code with Sphero and create with iMovie has built their confidence and helped them to see their own awesomeness in the classroom. Being with these soon-to-be teachers on Friday just got me so excited to get back into my own classroom and make this year the best year yet!  

On Monday, we had our first lesson with the Spheros, and I wish I could bottle up the joy and excitement I saw on those kids' faces! When you can get a kid that excited over reading early American literature, it feels like a real teacher win. As I reflect on the past few days, I can't help but feel a renewed sense of passion for what I get to do every day. It's a privilege to learn and create and improve every day with these kids, and I can't wait to see where this year takes us! 

Monday, August 15, 2016

Be a Bridge Builder

I just completed my 23rd first day of school, my 6th as a teacher. For some reason, that feels bigger than my other first days as a teacher. Time really does fly faster with every year in the classroom. Today, I found myself reflecting on all the relationships I have built with other teachers in my short time in the classroom. I feel so fortunate to have friends and colleagues and mentors that constantly help me to grow in my work. Those relationships are part of what continues to fuel my love for the classroom. 

As I was meeting students today and watching them in the halls, I was intrigued by watching the way groups of students ebb and flow and the way some students walk the halls alone. I was struck by the idea that “no man is an island.” When we think about teenagers, we often think about them traveling in packs; we think about the way kids operate in cliques or groups or whatever you want to call them. But I was really struck by the number of students I noticed going it alone on the first day of school today. 

Often, kids do spend some time in their adolescence as an island. Even when they are standing in the middle of a group, they can feel isolated, as if no one really understands them. They hold back because they’re afraid to share all of who they are with another person. That’s not always something we grow out of as we become adults. 

As I was watching all of this today, I found myself thinking about my role as a teacher in this intricate infrastructure of student “islands.” In addition to the many other roles that teachers fill each day, I think one of our most important roles is that of the bridge builder. It’s incumbent on us as teachers to be architects of relationship, to reach out to students who isolate themselves and those who hide their isolation in plain sight as they stand in the middle of a group but don’t fully engage. 


We’re meant to learn together. Learning in isolation doesn’t stay with us the way it does when we can talk about what we know and share it with others. If we want to be bridge builders of concepts in our content, we have to be bridge builders of relationships and trust first. I’m looking forward to continuing to build the foundations of those bridges tomorrow. 

Friday, August 5, 2016

Process Over Perfection

Well, it's been quite some time since my last post. "BLOG" has been on my to-do list in big, bold letters for months now, and it somehow kept getting pushed to the bottom of the list. Recently, I ran into one of my old high school teachers at Whole Foods, and she asked if I was still blogging. Embarrassed, I said "kind of..." and apparently that was the motivation I needed because here I am. Writing again finally.

I want to be clear that my lack of writing does not come from a lack of excitement about what I've been doing in the classroom. I think I can honestly say that this past spring semester was one of my most rewarding teaching experiences. In the fall, I felt insecure and uncomfortable as a high school teacher. I was trying to fit into some mold I thought existed for upper secondary teachers instead of just being myself in the classroom. It was awkward and frustrating, and I finally had to tell myself to just settle down. This spring, though, all that awkwardness and all those growing pains paid off, and I found myself so much more willing to try new things in my classroom.

So why couldn't I seem to get myself to sit down and write about all those experiences through the spring and even the experiences I've had this summer at conferences? Great question. I could blame it on busyness, but that's not really fair. Everyone is busy. If I'm honest, I just wasn't prioritizing the time and space for written reflection. Every time I would sit down to start a post, my mind would wander to other seemingly more pressing items on my agenda. I'd start to ramble as I wrote, feeling like I was writing in circles and deleting whole paragraphs because they didn't feel good enough. I saved and deleted drafts all through the spring; it was like I couldn't ever get anything to come across in a satisfying way.

In thinking about this yesterday, I realized that I had gotten stuck in a loop where perfection became more important than process. As I looked at my to do list and started to think about this new school year, my eyes came across the word "BLOG" in all caps again, and I decided it was time to break my silent streak. It's a new school year, and I'm preparing to teach another group of incredible kids. They have stories that need to be shared. They're going to create and grow and learn and teach me important things that will continue to shape my practice as an educator.

Today I'm committing to process over perfection. I tell kids that's what I expect from them all the time, but I realized this week that I haven't been holding myself to the same standard. Sometimes, even in the professional world, it can become easy to let self doubt sneak up on you and convince you that your narrative isn't worth sharing, but that's just not the case. Our collective voice as educators is what will create change and advance our profession. Every story matters, and I'm so excited to see what incredible stories I get to hear and tell and engage in during this new school year.



Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Breaking Up and Moving On

Sometimes, teaching American Literature is tough. Early American lit involves so many historical documents and so much dense nonfiction. It can be daunting and overwhelming for students. While we want them to see the relevance of our forefathers in our everyday lives, and while those historical documents do frame the nation in which we now live, I really believe it's important for teachers to throw some spice and excitement into the writings of our founding fathers. We have to help kids find their own, personal meaning in these old letters, speeches, and founding documents.

One of my favorite writing projects that I ask my students to complete is a companion assignment to the Declaration of Independence. A fabulous teacher in my department, Terri Newton, gave me this assignment and allowed me to share it here. Terri is an incredible writing teacher. What I love the most about her is the heart she has for her students. She empathizes with and relates to kids in a way that is truly inspiring to me. She is also a lifeline for me as a "new to high school" teacher. The work she has shared with me has helped me so much in my transition to this new teaching position.

 The assignment is a breakup letter. We've all written them. We were probably in middle school, writing the letter on a ripped half-sheet of notebook paper, folding it up, and passing it across a lunch room. I ask my students to look at the Declaration of Independence not as a stuffy, old legal document, but as the ultimate guide to writing a break up letter. You can see the breakdown here. Terri created this excellent guide, and I can't thank her enough for sharing it with me and allowing me to share it with you.


I give kids this document, and I also give them a five paragraph outline. It looks like this:


  1. State the reasons that this breakup is necessary. What is wrong in the relationship? 
  2. Describe the ideal relationship. What would a healthy relationship look like? 
  3. Explain your right to end the relationship. What rights do you have as a person seeking happiness?
  4. Prove your accusations and state the "deal breakers." What makes this relationship unfixable? 
  5. State the consequences of ignoring your breakup letter. What is your final warning? 
I tell kids that they can write to anything or anyone. They can write to a negative person in their lives, a bad habit, a personal quality they dislike. My only condition is that they write to someone or something that really needs to leave their lives. 

Some students are pretty silly with this. I had several students write to their high school jobs, which are typically in fast food restaurants: 

Dear Taco Bell, 
Dear Wendy's, 

Others wrote to bad habits:

Dear Procrastination, 
Dear Junk Food, 

But I had far more kids write real, meaningful letters to people and things that have caused them pain and heartbreak. 

Dear Addiction,
Dear Ex-boyfriend, 
Dear Lack of Self Esteem, 
Dear Regret, 

As I was reading these letters my heart broke into a million pieces. At first, I wondered if students forgot I was going to be reading what they wrote, and I think some of them did. I think the act of writing and purging all of that frustration and sadness was so therapeutic for some of my students that they didn't think for a second about there being any kind of audience. It just felt right to get out all of their feelings. For others, I think they wrote these letters because they wanted someone to know. 

What I've noticed more and more this year is that kids need a champion. I've always known that, but I'm constantly reminded, now more than ever, that my job as a teacher isn't to talk; it's to listen. My job is to be present, to be available, to be a cheerleader, to be the person that kids know will challenge them and push them to be their best, not just as students but as human beings. I want the opportunity to challenge kids every day to tell stories in interesting ways, to address their feelings, and to grow and stretch themselves, even when it's hard and even when it hurts.

This assignment makes kids uncomfortable and vulnerable, and that's the place you have to go to tell the best stories. It's the place you go to stretch yourself and figure out how you're going to stand up for yourself and make yourself better. I found myself commenting on letter after letter: "I am so proud of you! You are awesome, and you deserve the BEST!" And it's true. Our kids DO deserve the best. There is nothing that hurts my heart more that the idea that my students don't feel loved and valued. I want them to know how much they matter. I want to make sure that I can give them my best when they walk in my classroom everyday. 


Friday, January 22, 2016

Moving the Bookshelves

My high school has officially completed its first week as a 1:1 Macbook school. No one has done anything crazy with his computer or broken it...yet, although I'm sure some of those things will happen. Every student with whom I've interacted has been generally responsible and definitely excited about having this new device as a tool for learning. I've been so impressed with how easily students have made this transition. Typically, any change is going to be accompanied by grumbling and complaining of some kind, but I haven't seen that here.

I've been particularly impressed with my group of seniors. This week, I assigned them a poetry project in which they would work in small groups to teach an Anglo-Saxon poem to the class. I asked them to provide a recitation of the poem, analyze the poem and teach it to the class, and create some sort of assessment for their peers. I told them that they couldn't just allow their peers to sit and consume this new information; they needed to design a way for them to interact with it or show their new understanding. 

Those are pretty general guidelines. They could have simply stood in front of the class, recited the poem, droned on a bit with the help of a PowerPoint, and asked a few discussion questions. But that's not what they did at all. They got so excited about the opportunity to create something! One group used the green screen to create a filmed recitation of "The Seafarer." They reasoned that a true seafarer would not be standing in a high school hallway. He would be on the ocean. Obviously. So clearly the video also needed to have an authentic setting. One group decided to create an animation of their poem, similar to a mock epic we watched as a class called "The Wifi Hero." A third group, analyzing "The Wife's Lament," wanted to create a true song of mourning by using Final Cut Pro to make a music video of their poem. Several groups are creating Kahoot! reviews for their peers to complete at the end of the presentations.

I didn't ask for any of this. All I did was encourage them, cheer them on, and give them the space to figure it out on their own. What I think is often forgotten in traditional educational settings is that students really are dying to show what they know. The assumption is made that the motivation isn't there, or kids definitely want to do something wrong, or they don't have the energy to solve their own problems, but that's just not true. Yesterday, as I was helping one group with their video, another group moved a bookshelf to get to an outlet, so they could plug in their Macbooks to charge while they worked. A student laughed and commented, "They totally would not move a bookshelf in some of their classes." I asked why, and she said, "You can just tell which teachers mind if you move their bookshelves, and which teachers just want you to figure out on your own how to keep working and learning."

For the love, let's keep them working and learning please. You can move all the bookshelves if it means you're going to create these incredible products and guide your own learning process and discover your own resources. We have to remove the parameters of the factory model of education, with it's nice, neat rows and one-size-fits-all mentality. Learning should be personalized and engaging and enjoyable; sometimes that means things get a little messy, and you have to move the bookshelves. Isn't it worth it if we're teaching kids to be thinkers and creators in the process?

As I sit at home on this snow day and reflect on how fun it was to teach my classes this week, I can't help but get giddy, thinking about where we'll go from here.  We have so many incredible teachers in our building that are already engaging their students in innovative and exciting ways. I love my job all the time, but it's just so darn invigorating to be a part of this change and watch these students truly take ownership of their learning. Let's move the bookshelves and open up opportunities for students. They're ready and waiting for us to do so.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Rolling on the River: Huck Finn & Sphero


I wrote early in the semester about my first experience with using Spheros in a lesson in my English classes. While it was incredibly engaging and fun for the kids, what I loved most about the lesson was the critical thinking that it generated about complex texts. Giving students the opportunity to have an active, hands-on experience related to the text seemed to trigger a different kind of thinking in my students. It created a sort of relatability to these older texts that my kids couldn't gain by just having a class discussion about it.

My students have been asking about "those little robots" all semester, so I decided that early December was the perfect time to pull them back out for another lesson. This time, Dr. Michael Mills came to co-teach the lesson with me. We decided to have students use the SPRK app to do some block-based coding rather than having them use the basic Sphero app to manually control each Sphero during the activity. This added another layer of engagement but also another level of challenge to the activity. Many of my students had never been exposed to a program like this before.

The first time I used the Spheros, we had just read John Smith's A General History of Virginia and William Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation. This time, Dr. Mills and I decided that Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was the perfect novel with which to integrate the use of the Spheros. After reading the novel, students completed a plot map and a character chart to ensure that they all had the necessary background knowledge to participate in the Sphero activity. 

Next, we moved all the desks into one corner of my room, so we had lots of space. Guys, I think my co-workers thought I was crazy, but the kids were so excited to walk into this altered classroom environment! After we cleared the room, we created the Mississippi River on my classroom floor. 
We placed markers along the river to represent various settings in the novel. When students came in to class, we asked them to form small groups. We had six Spheros for this activity, so we formed groups of 4-5 students. Each group was asked to pick a character for their Sphero to represent. We asked the kids to first create a storyboard for a small piece of the plot in Huck Finn in which their chosen character played an integral role. Then we asked them to create a second storyboard explaining how the Sphero could illustrate the character's emotions and actions in this part of the story. In addition, students could take notes about their code.
Once students had brainstormed as a group and completed the storyboard handout, they began programming the Spheros on the iPad. As they created, they began engaging in the process of inquiry by testing their code and making adjustments in order to make the Sphero do exactly what they wanted it to do. It was incredible to watch them cooperate with each other to problem solve and test their work until they got it just right. 


At the end of the class period, students got to present their Sphero's program to the class. They had to explain which character their Sphero represented, which part of the plot the Sphero was reenacting, and why they had chosen certain colors and actions for their Sphero's program. This forced them to go back to the text and establish a strong link between this activity and the novel. 


I have never seen my students so engaged! They were working together, discussing the characters' emotions, motivations, and actions, and they were learning some basic coding. Typically, when you throw all that at a reluctant learner, they throw up their hands and say "I can't!" Not a single kid said "I can't do this" during this lesson. What was great about the open-endedness of the challenge was that kids could differentiate for themselves. If they didn't feel very comfortable with the programming of the Sphero, they could choose a fairly simply section of the plot to reenact. If they felt really comfortable, they could choose more elaborate pieces of the story and create longer programs for the Sphero. It eliminated the struggle of having some students racing ahead while others needed more time.


As we head into Christmas break, I am already brainstorming new ways to incorporate the Spheros in my spring classes. Story identification races for The Canterbury Tales? Sphero battles for Beowulf? I just can't wait to see what we can make happen with these little robots next!




Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Thanks for the Struggle

With Finals week around the corner, I find myself reflecting on the chaos and the awesomeness of this semester of my life. One thing that I've always loved about being a teacher is the defined beginning and ending of each season within which I work. This year, since my students will be moving on to new classes in the spring rather than coming back to English class, I find myself feeling oddly nostalgic already. Teaching kids for only a semester is so bittersweet. I'm saying goodbye to such a fun, interesting group of students; I'm so excited for a restful Christmas break, but I am definitely sad to think that I won't see this group of kids everyday when we return in January. I feel like I'm really just getting to know some of them.

In reflecting on this semester, I realized that one thing I've really tried to stress through the literature we've read is the importance of thinking for oneself. I want my students to be free thinkers. I want them to be confident in their own ability to justify their opinions. I want them to pull away from the group think of the herd and figure things out for themselves. That is so hard in high school. Let's be real, it's difficult in adulthood, too. There is so much pressure to keep your head down and fit in; there is so much pressure to do what you're "supposed" to do. Society constantly tries to dictate our choices if we let it.

As I scroll through the news and social media lately, I can't help but start to worry about this herd mentality, this lack of critical thinking in our society.  Our kids have to learn to look critically and objectively at a problem and decide for themselves what they believe about that problem and its solution. There's a lot of danger in the alternative.

I've also found that removing the "right" answers has been liberating for many of my students this semester. Students that have been told for most of their secondary education that they aren't "good at school" have opened up and flourished in an environment of inquiry, a place where it's safe to ask questions and struggle and fail forward.

I'm so thankful everyday for the opportunity to be a part of this journey with my students. I love that I get to build a community of learning where we walk through open doors of thought instead of standing in front of closed doors of conformity and wrong answers and doing what's always been done.

This semester, I feel like I've stretched myself as a teacher more than I ever have before. Having a clean slate to plan a course gave me the freedom to take things I've always wanted to do and do them. It gave me the courage to change it up because what did I really have to lose? It's been frustrating and intense and stressful at times, but it's definitely been worth it. If I'm going to ask kids to struggle, then it's only fair that I join them in that struggle to be better every day. I'll just tell you this. It's been a great struggle so far.