Jump Start Your Workout (And Your Classroom)!

A couple of months ago, I started working out again. I’m one of those people who works out a lot for a few weeks, then loses interest and doesn’t work out for six months. It wasn’t a New Year’s thing; I started in December instead of with everyone else in January. It wasn’t a weight loss thing either; I just wanted to be healthy and strong.

Part of being successful and consistent in working out is finding a routine that works for the individual. Some people are early morning gym rats like my husband. Others race to the gym after work before picking up the kids. Neither of those worked for me. I found my best time is right after putting my son to bed. I’m awake, I have energy, and nobody else can bug me.

I also had to discover that I hate cardio. Well, I already knew that actually, but I found out that what I really enjoy is lifting weights. Not only that, but just walking or jogging here and there didn’t give me the results I wanted. Now, I still get some cardio mixed in there, but my program is much heavier on weights than anything else. And you know what? My body is not the same as when I started. Most people probably don’t notice, but I notice a difference in how I look and (more importantly) how I feel.

Anyone who has ever tried to lose weight or get in shape will tell you that they struggle with plateaus, those points where they seem to stop making progress. No matter what they do, they can’t seem to lose another pound. The body has gotten used to whatever it is they were doing and has refused to budge. Many trainers recommend cross training and changing things up to continue to see results. Surprise the body with changed routines and it will respond.

In many ways, teaching is the same. It’s easy to fall into the same “plateau effect” where things might feel in control but aren’t really going anywhere. While it’s okay to pause to take a breath during those times, it’s dangerous to get comfortable there. Just like we have to surprise our body with new workouts or foods to jump start our metabolism, we have to jump start our teaching with new ideas and strategies to keep us moving forward.

Teaching on autopilot and expecting results is the same as those people you see at the gym who do the elliptical on a low speed while reading a magazine. Yes, they’re moving, but if they’re really trying to improve, they’re going to have to be on that thing 24 hours a day. Yes, your kids are learning something, but are you really making progress?

If we don’t defeat the plateau in the gym, we keep those last ten pounds in perpetuity. If we don’t defeat it in the classroom, we keep our kids from reaching their highest potential. But remember, just like we can’t just keep doing the same thing in our workout routine and expect to see results, we can’t keep doing the same with our students. If you’re not seeing the results you want, change your routine.

What’s the “ten pounds” in your classroom? What are you hanging on to even though it isn’t working? Take a hard look at what you do in your classroom (and your workout) and only keep what is truly effective. The next time you plan a lesson, stop and think: what am I trying to accomplish and is this the most effective way to get there?

For the record, those are not my arms in the photo. Maybe someday?

Wise Words from the Wayward Son

Those of you who know me personally, know my musical tastes are very eclectic. My favorite time to listen to music is in the morning while I’m getting ready. In any given week, you could hear anything from “Piano Man” to Pitbull coming through the door. Earlier this week, my Spotify mix featured the classic tune “Carry on My Wayward Son” by Kansas (I’ll pause while you get that one stuck in your head).

I’ve listened to that song hundreds of times before and I know most of the lyrics, but for some reason I heard a new line this time. In the second verse, the line goes, “And if I claim to be a wise man, it surely means that I don’t know.” This struck me because of everything I’ve been reading, thinking about, and working through the past few weeks.

A couple of weeks ago, I traveled to Stone Mountain, Georgia (home of 30 Rock‘s Kenneth Parcell), for a training dealing with building capacity in teachers. The biggest priority for these trainers was building awareness and reflective ability on the part of the teacher. They described four stages that the reflective practitioner goes through as they develop.

We begin as unaware teachers, practitioners who are doing the best we can with what we currently know. We aren’t aware that there are more efficient ways to do things, better ways to get our kids to learn. As we progress through the next stages, we (hopefully) ultimately end at the refinement stage. This is the “sweet spot” of teaching and learning. Refinement teachers are responsive to their students and their curriculum and can pivot on a dime to adapt to their needs right then in the moment. Every child gets what s/he needs when they need it.

As you can imagine, this takes time and practice to get to this point. It’s important to note, however, that the four stages of reflective practice don’t exactly correlate to years in the profession. I’ve worked with first year teachers who are closer to refinement than some twenty year veterans. It really comes down to how intentional we are in the classroom.

So, back to my bathroom jam. What struck me the most about the lyric was that it reminded me of so many teachers I’ve worked with over the years. The teachers who we view as “experts” often doubt their own expertise. They are constantly growing, learning, changing despite getting better results than many of their colleagues. On the other hand, the teachers that self-identify as experts, or perhaps more accurately, see expertise as an “arrival point” rather than a state of mind, often have much more work to do.

Nobody’s perfect, especially teachers who are fighting an uphill battle to educate children despite difficult home lives, unreliable political climates, and full moon/lunar eclipses/barometric pressure changes. Every year is a new battle with new players and new challenges. None of us can afford to get complacent and think what we’re doing is “good enough.”

I challenge you to find an area, no matter how small, where your teaching could improve and take some solid steps to go there. Not sure where to start? Find a coach, a principal, a colleague who you can process with. Have them watch you teach and give feedback. Pay extra attention to your students and see what needs you discover.

And then go listen to some sweet tunes and dance in your bathroom…

Lessons Learned at Preschool

Last week, I had the opportunity to visit my son’s preschool for the first time. An almost 3-year old, he’s been attending the same Montessori center since he was an infant. About a month ago, he transferred into one of the preschool rooms. Last week, they invited parents into the classroom to see what the children had been learning about.

When we arrived, each child had their own space in the room, marked by a small name tag. Some were sitting at tables, while others were on the floor. He came over to greet me when I walked into the room. Then, he grabbed a small rug, laid it out on the floor and went to find his first “job.”

Yes, my toddler has jobs. They are different activities that he can choose from to practice a variety of skills. He goes to the shelf, chooses his job, carries it carefully to his mat, then starts to work. When he decides he’s done, he cleans up, returns the job to the shelf and grabs another one. This process repeats until time is up.

At his age, my son’s tasks help him practice colors, shapes, matching, stacking, letter sounds, and motor skills. In the shape sorting activity below, he has to sort the shapes. Some of them are quite small, which helps him practice fine motor skills as well.


H working on shape sorting and fine motor skills with squares, circles, and triangles of various sizes.

Another activity appears to be a simple stacking activity, but the blocks are weighted. This allows him to not only working on the coordination of stacking, but helps him learn body control while carrying the blocks. He can stack the blocks in any sort of configuration, but the classroom rule is that the towers are not taller than the builder (H is still working on this one as the best part of building towers is still destroying them).

I have been consistently impressed with the things my son learns at preschool.  Did you know that both the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper were painted by DaVinci? My son does. Or that you can show him a painting and he can tell you it’s the Purple Robe by Matisse. I don’t share this to show you how brilliant my son is (though I’m sure he is and likely gets that from his mother, right?), but to share how impressed I’ve been with his Montessori experience.


H and the weighted “brown stairs” blocks.

The most astounding part of this experience? The fact that my almost 3-year-old was working side by side with a 5-year-old who was ordering numbers from 0 to 20 and working on single digit addition. Multi-age classrooms are a trademark of the Montessori approach, the idea being that social learning is vital and children teach each other. How is my son able to blend in with the rest of the class even though he’s only been learning the routine for a few weeks? Because he watches his peers and copies what they do.

Every single one of the 18 students in the class is working on a different activity simultaneously. Every child works on what they need to work on to develop their own skills. There’s no “lesson plan” for the whole class during Montessori time. Children work independently, so teachers are able to circulate throughout the room to help them as needed. As they notice that the children are mastering certain tasks, they can give them new ones to push them forward.

As I watched the kids working, the parent side of my brain was so amazed and proud of everything my son can already do and excited to think about what he’ll be able to do very soon with the help of his classmates and teachers. The teacher side of my brain was reeling at the implications this has for K-12 education.

Imagine what a classroom would look like if every child could work independently on what he or she needed right then. Because they’re not tied up teaching whole group instruction, the teacher gets to circulate to observe and interact with every child. Teachers wouldn’t spend time preparing lesson plans in the traditional sense, but would develop activities for independent skill practice. Students wouldn’t be held back or dragged along to keep them on pace with their peers.

Some classrooms utilize learning centers or stations that do something similar. But often times they’re missing some of the elements that I witnessed yesterday: individualization for each child rather than for groups, a quiet working environment, students fully engaged the entire time, and one-on-one time with every child.

Perhaps K-12 education could benefit from taking a page out of the Maria Montessori playbook. What elements of Montessori education could you incorporate into your teaching?


This blog post only describes a fraction of all of the amazing things Montessori education provides for kids. Want to learn more?  Click here!

The “Other” One in 1:1

I’m sitting at the airport waiting for my delayed flight home from the Leyden Symposium near Chicago. I’ve just spent the past three days filling my brain, meeting new people, and exhausting myself thinking about all of the possibilities for how I can apply it all. The Symposium started a few years ago as the folks at Leyden were forging ahead with their 1:1 device initiative. Educators from several states come to West Leyden High School to talk technology and best practice.

One thing stuck out to me though. While there was definitely talk of technology at the Symposium, there were more sessions that started to shift the conversation a bit. More and more, conversations centered around innovative teaching and learning and how technology supports it.

We are beginning to realize that our 1:1 initiatives might not be enough. It’s not about the devices, but rather the opportunities they provide for access and collaboration. In fact, the organizers of the Symposium know this, too. This year’s event was billed as the Innovative Teaching and Learning Symposium, as opposed to previous years when it was a 1:1 Symposium.

And the change isn’t unique to Leyden. Earlier this summer, I attended an EdCamp and noticed the same thing. Gone were the obligatory tech tool sessions of EdCamps past. Now, teachers were asking for ideas for project-based learning, student centered classrooms, and student voice and choice.

We’re starting to pay more attention to how students learn, what skills they will need to survive in the world after high school, and turning the tables on educators who refuse to adapt to the times. Suddenly (but really not so suddenly), the way we’ve always done things or the way we learned them in school is not enough. This change can be difficult, particularly for those teachers who’ve never been shown another way, but some districts are trying to help the process along.

Some districts, including Leyden, are changing the roles of their instructional coaches. In years past, they may have had specific technology coaches in addition to math or literacy coaches. Now, those positions are merging to one instructional coach position that focuses on good teaching as a whole. Despite the fact that I’ve worked as a technology coach (though under a different title), I like the change.

When I would work with teachers, I would often notice other issues in the classroom that merited discussion, but they didn’t fit into the category of “technology.” I also believe that the title of “technology coach” implies that technology is somehow separate from the rest of the teacher’s practice. Instead, I believe instructional coaches need to be skilled (or at least resourceful) in all areas of pedagogy, including technology, to be able to serve their teachers.

One of my favorite takeaways from the conference came from a session about innovation facilitated by Jason Markey (@JasonMMarkey). One graphic he posted (originally credited to Molly Schroeder, @followmolly), encouraged us to remember the “other” one in 1:1. It’s far too easy to focus on the device and all of the neat things it does. However, the device will change as will the tasks it can perform. What doesn’t change?  The “other” one.Screen Shot 2016-07-29 at 4.36.43 PM

What IS the other one? The kid using the device.  The students are why we do this job, why we have these conversations, why we attend these conferences. Ultimately, everything we do should make the educational experience better for them. We have to let go of our old ideas and biases about what education did or should look like and continually ask ourselves one question, “Is this really what’s best for kids?”  They’re the ones we need to worry about.

Preparing For That First Year

Think back to your first year of teaching.  For some of you, it’s an easy request as it wasn’t long ago.  For others, you may have to dig in the memory a bit.  I don’t remember my first day of teaching, probably because it was a nerve-wracking blur.  I do remember highlights, though, and that will suffice for now.

As I write this, I’m taking a break from planning a new teacher induction program.  My job is to take brand new baby teachers and help them have a successful first year (and hopefully come back for a second).  I’m calling on a lot of my own knowledge of things that were good and not so good from my own first year (perhaps it’s fortunate my first year wasn’t that great, so I have lots of ideas for what NOT to do), but I’m also consulting outside sources.

One such book is called Your First Year: How to Survive and Thrive as a New Teacher, written by Todd Whitaker along with his two teacher daughters (Whitaker is also the author of books like What Connected Educators Do Differently, School Culture Rewired, and a handful of books talking about what great teachers, principals and others do differently).  The book is a quick read (a must for me) and gives some pretty solid advice for newbies to the profession about how to not only survive but even thrive in the first year of this crazy job.

The authors give a great deal of emphasis to relationship building and classroom management for the new teacher and spend very little time talking about curriculum and instruction.  While some might see this as odd, I think it’s brilliant.  Not that teachers don’t need to plan great lessons (actually, they do), but if you don’t have the respect and cooperation of your students, you can’t expect much magic to happen in that classroom.

Behavior management is one of the most difficult things for first year teachers, though I actually like to think of it as behavior prevention instead.  If I invest time up front with structure, procedures, and respect (not necessarily in that order), I will have very little behavior to “manage.”  There was a running joke between my behavior para and I when I was in the classroom that if I ever sent a student to the office, they must have really screwed up in class!  There were many years I could count the number of students I removed from class on my two hands.  And that was teaching 400 kids each week.

Why?  Because I had routines in place for students to follow so they knew what to do most of the time.  I had lessons planned that kept my students moving and engaged to keep them from having down time (what’s the saying about idle hands….?).  My students knew if they messed up in class, I wasn’t going to tolerate it but I would let them try again when they had pulled themselves back together.

I know the time I have with these new teachers is invaluable.  I also know their minds will be spinning a hundred miles an hour with excitement, anticipation, and honest to goodness fear as they think about everything that is coming their way.  What do I leave them with that is a good use of their time and helps start the year off on the right foot?

What do they need to hear in August and what can wait until later in the year?  How do we give them as much information as possible while not making their brains explode (in a bad way)?  But how do we make their brains explode in a good way because of all of the mind-blowing discussion or ideas?

I’ll be tackling some of those questions and others over the next few weeks.  In the mean time, what would have been the most helpful for you in that first week as a new teacher?


Note: Clicking on any of the links in this blog post will take you to Amazon.com for purchase. 

Beginning to Power Up – Prepping for a 1:1 Rollout

Many districts have made the move toward 1:1 device access for their students.  This can look different in every district; what devices are used, what ages of students are involved, whether students take devices home, and other variables make each 1:1 deployment unique.  Because of these differences, there really can’t be a “one size fits all” handbook when it comes to starting this type of program.  There are, however, books available now that try to provide some guidance and answers for teachers and districts as they navigate this new frontier.

Power Up: Making the Shift to 1:1 Teaching and Learning, written by Jen Roberts and Diana Neebe, does just that.  Both authors are teachers who have experience teaching with 1:1 access for their students.  While their two teaching assignments and 1:1 programs do not look alike, these differences allow them to provide more varied examples for teachers to learn from.

I just picked up this book for my Kindle a few weeks ago and finally had a chance to start digging in.  I’m about a quarter of the way through it, so I’m certainly no expert.  But I work in a district about to embark on its 1:1 journey and thought it might be a helpful resource.  So far, I have quite pleased and plan to share many of the ideas in the book with the teachers I support.

The first thing I love most about the book is that it is written by teachers.  The book is accessible and because you know the authors are “in the trenches,” it gives them much more credibility.  They are also very honest with their experience.  They aren’t preaching for teachers to change their entire curriculum in the first year and they don’t claim it will be easy, but they do provide some valuable tips for teachers to make things easier that they themselves learned along the way.

I also appreciate the abundance of ideas for class activities and assessments they share throughout the book.  They provide a longer example to begin with, but then share snippets of additional assignments that teachers may choose to use instead.  This is particularly helpful for teachers who are new to integrating technology and helps to get their minds spinning about all of the possibilities.

One wish I would have for the book so far is that I would love to see more examples for younger grades.  Both Neebe and Roberts are secondary level teachers, come with a wealth of experience, and their ideas in many cases could still be modified for younger students.  Still, as someone who has spent the majority of their career in K-5 settings, I would appreciate more examples of ideas for successful 1:1 implementation with those students.

I’m excited to continue reading the book and look forward to sharing more learning!

Out With The Old…

Think about your favorite lesson to teach.  We’ve all got at least one; the one we look most forward to teaching every year and can’t wait to dust off.  When did you first start teaching that lesson?  Last year?  Five years ago?  More?

Does the lesson look the same now as when you started teaching it or have you made changes?  Most likely, the first time you taught it, there were some bugs.  Maybe a direction was unclear or there was a step missing that, once added, made the student’s work go much more smoothly.  The great part about accumulating experience is that we get the opportunity to revise our work and continually make it better.

Here’s the thing though.  If that favorite lesson is more than, say, five years old, there are so many things we’ve learned about learning and teaching that your lesson is most likely in need of a revamp (and very possible that it might even if it’s newer than that).  Much research has shown us that the way many of us were taught is actually relatively ineffective.  That’s not to say we didn’t have great teachers; in fact, it’s likely one of those great teachers who inspired you to pursue this career in the first place.  Even our best educators need to update their material once and awhile.

Think of it this way: how likely would you be to go to a doctor who hadn’t gone to a single medical conference or medical practice seminar in the past twenty years?  Would you want them using outdated medical tools, practices, and procedures on you or your loved one?  Of course not!  With medicine, we want the most up to date knowledge so we can care for our health effectively.

Education is very similar.  Though the stakes may not seem quite as high as in medicine, using practices that don’t support what we know about how students learn actually makes it that much more difficult for our students to learn.  We need to use what we’ve learned about education to make better choices.

Before you teach your next unit or lesson, consider the following images:

What do you notice?  What do they have in common?  All of them shift the focus from the teacher as knowledge bearer/giver and student as passive receiver to a model where the students are actively learning with the teacher as facilitator or guide.  You’ll also notice that there is an increase emphasis on personalizing learning for the student (and using technology to help with this as needed).  Kids don’t need the same things, so they don’t get the same things (I will grant that this gets a little stickier to understand when we have a push in education for “standardizing” everything – more on this in a later post).  In the 21st century classroom, the teacher’s role becomes more of a coach, guiding kids to the outcomes while pushing them to do the real “work” of learning.

I hear a lot of teachers argue that these ideas don’t match what was when they attended, and they’re right.  Schools in years past prepared students for jobs that already existed. But schools today must prepare students for jobs that can’t even be imagined yet. Kids today have unprecedented amount of knowledge at their fingertips within seconds. That changes the type of information they need to know going forward, and the type of skills they need to have to be successful after graduation.

This is a hard concept for some teachers to get behind. We are trained to be in charge of the classroom and make all of the decisions about student learning.  But don’t worry; giving students choices is not the same as letting them be in charge (My two-year-old gets to make choices, too, but he is certainly not in charge).  In fact, I would argue that allowing for student voice and choice actually requires better classroom management skills because those things can only happen within a strong classroom structure so students can feel safe and free to learn and explore.

Again, remember we are preparing students for life after our classroom.  Life is full of making choices.  If we want our students to make good ones in the real world, they need practice.  And what better place to practice making decisions that probably aren’t life altering than in the classroom with the support of a great teacher/coach?

These changes likely won’t happen overnight.  I don’t expect you to overhaul your entire curriculum over the weekend.  But as you sit down to plan your next week, consider the following and see where you can make a tweak or two:

  • Is there room in your lesson plan for a chance for students to make a choice or two?
  • How can you allow them to be creative, collaborative, critical thinkers with strong communication skills?
  • How can you provide differentiated learning for students of varying ability or readiness levels?
  • If your lesson includes lecture, how can you shorten, minimize, or toss it out altogether for something more engaging?

You just mind find your changes addicting.  I can guarantee your students will!


All Learn and No Play?

Think about your school when you were a child.  Did you like going to school or dread it?  Do you remember being happy there or was it all hard work?  I honestly don’t remember much from those early school days, but I remember my mom telling me I was excited the first day and then came home and said I was bored.  That being said, I remember many good things about my elementary school days.  A few bad things, of course, but I was generally a good kid and did well in school so it was a pretty positive experience.

I remember having recess at least twice a day (and playing on playground equipment that would likely be banned today), having special events at school, and making all sorts of crafty things that I still have in scrapbooks in my basement.  As I’ve become a teacher myself, I wonder what that experience will look like when my own son gets to be school age.  Ask anyone who teaches kindergarten and they’ll tell you that kindergarten is not what it was when I went.

Kids are expected to be reading before leaving kindergarten, yet many of them enter it without knowing any letters or sounds.  It’s setting up a five year old with a pretty unrealistic expectation.  The learning that used to happen in first grade has now been bumped down to the younger ones, regardless of whether those learners are prepared for such a load.

Kids are coming to school younger and much less prepared than ever before.  Daycare is expensive and school is free.  Many families require both parents to work outside the home, and often multiple jobs, to make ends meet so there isn’t a parent home all the time to read to them.  Then on top of all that, we cut down on art, music, physical education, and recess and then expect them to sit still for eight hours.  Anyone else not surprised by the growing number of ADD/ADHD labels in schools today?

Today, I read an article from this past fall that talked about the vast differences between kindergarten in the United States and Finland (read the article here).  The Finns take a very different approach to learning with the little ones.  The vast majority of their day is spent at play and “real learning” happens when students are ready (though really, they’re learning all the time they’re playing, just not in the traditional sense).  In more and more American schools, however, children are expected to spend up to half of their day in reading instruction with minimal amounts of time for free play and physical movement.

A study from New Zealand cited in the article said that children who learn to read at age seven catch up to their peers who learn at age five, and by age eleven the two groups have comparable skills.  So why the big push to start so young?  Not only do our younger “readers” not come out ahead in the long run, I’d venture to guess that many of them actually come out behind.  If reading is drilled into you for 3 hours a day, will you ever learn to love it?  Will you ever think of school as a place to learn and grow or will it always be the land of rules, worksheets, and no fun?

I feel fortunate that so much of my own training has been centered around teaching children through play.  My approach to musical literacy has always relied on kindergarten to lay the foundation of sound and experience and never begins true “reading” until first grade.  My lessons centered around play and experience; often students wouldn’t see what we were doing as “work” or even learning because they were having so much fun (on a side note, I also had very few behavior issues in class because the students were playing and moving all the time).

According to the article, the Finns have a saying that goes, “Those things you learn without joy you will forget easily.”  Read that again.  Now think back to your own days at school, both as a student and as a teacher (if you are one).  How much of what you did was done with joy?  And how much do you remember?

I can already hear some of the teachers I know saying, “School isn’t supposed to be fun.  Kids are there to learn, not have fun.”  Why can’t it be both?  Is there some unwritten rule that says you can’t have fun while learning?  Or some thought that if your class is fun that the kids aren’t learning anything?

We need to let kids be little.  In case you don’t believe me, consider these:

“Play is the work of the child.” – Maria Montessori

“Play is the highest form of research.” – Albert Einstein

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” – George Bernard Shaw

“Do not keep children to their studies by compulsion but by play.” – Plato

“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” –  Fred Rogers

They will learn, no matter when they begin.  But they can never go back to being little.

Ditch The Textbook! Find Your Passion!

This past week, I participated in the #ditchbook Twitter chat.  Named after the book by Matt Miller (see on Amazon here), the chat focused on moving students from being consumers to creators and pushing teachers to be creators themselves, particularly when it comes to their own curriculum and resources.  The teacher side of the discussion particularly challenges the traditional way of thinking of curriculum and resources in the classroom.

Many districts still spend time and money on traditional curriculum review cycles, which ultimately result in the purchase of some sort of textbook and related resources.  The thing is, though teachers spent a fair amount of time and district money to choose the textbook, they are almost always dissatisfied with their purchase.  But by then it’s too late; there’s not usually a return policy for a mass purchase of textbooks.

Then once the books arrive, teachers are always so excited because they think that this book might just be “the one;” the one-stop shop that allows them to just teach and not have to scramble putting together extra resources when the book doesn’t meet their students’ needs.  Yet time after time, they eventually come to the same realization that they will still be hunting and gathering to get the job done.

So why do we keep doing this?  If we have been buying textbooks for decades only to be continually disappointed, why haven’t we figured out that the only way to fix it is stop buying them? Even when some teachers are on board with not purchasing textbooks, districts often say no and force them to purchase them anyway.

One reason I hear from teachers who cling to textbooks is that it would take far too much time to curate or create all of the resources they’d need to teach their course.  A fair point to some extent. But if you’re already scrounging for extra resources to fill in the gaps of a textbook, why not just start there to begin with?  Start with the standards you are expected to teach and then select the best resources available to teach them.

Textbooks are boring.  When was the last time anyone was at all excited about the content in a textbook?  This is particularly true when I look at texts for English/Language Arts.  I have yet to see a textbook that can remotely compete with the excitement of a good novel or short story.  How on earth do we expect to create kids who are passionate about reading if all they ever get to read are the awful, canned stories from the textbooks?  Why not teach using the latest YA novel that kids are raving about anyway?

On top of that, textbooks in some subjects, such as science, are virtually out of date the moment they’re printed. And since many district don’t purchase new texts for at least seven years, there could potentially be drastic changes to the information before a new purchase is made.

Guess what else?  Teaching boring materials is boring.  Remember how most teachers got into education because they were excited and passionate about teaching kids?  It’s pretty hard to be passionate about textbooks.  Textbooks don’t make subject content come alive; passionate teachers do.  How much easier would it be to spring out of bed each morning if you knew you were teaching a concept you were absolutely nuts over using resources that were exciting and engaging?  Now compare that to your excitement about teaching chapter 5, page 12.

A word of caution here: teachers sometimes confuse teaching with passion with just teaching whatever they want and throwing standards out the window.  That doesn’t work either.  But good teachers can use something they’re excited about to teach virtually any concept by the connections they make with the material and the resources they support with learning.  In fact, they might even become more efficient because they will realize that they can tackle multiple standards with a particular resource.

One thing I haven’t mentioned yet is the fact that some teachers might feel compelled to use the resources provided by the district.  It’s as if the teachers need to hold up their end of the bargain in exchange for the district pulling out its wallet.  That needs to stop right now.  Yes, I know there are districts that mandate textbook use; some even go so far as to designate what is taught on a given day in each classroom with the excuse being high numbers of transient students.  I actually do see the benefit of some consistency in what standards are being taught when, but I believe it should be up to the teacher to determine how that happens.

Finally, what works with one group of students doesn’t work with all. And what is relevant one year might not be in five years. Creating or curating your own curriculum resources ensures that the person who knows the students best is choosing materials specific for them, rather than some generic textbook that is supposed to “fit” students all over the country.

This process I’m suggesting here is not an overnight fix.  Building these types of resource collection takes time and effort.  So start small.  Choose one standard or group of standards that is presented in a particularly terrible way in your current textbook and completely transform it.  How could you teach it so it would absolutely blow your students’ minds?  What resources would you choose?  Where could you allow students some choice in what or how they learn?  How will you have students show you what they know?  How might technology fit in?  I promise, if you take the time do really do this well, it will likely grow to be your favorite unit all year.  Imagine if you worked up to all of your units being taught that way – you’d have the best job ever!

Full disclosure, I haven’t even read Matt’s book yet and I know I’m totally on board.  In nine years of teaching, I never used the textbooks provided to me by the district (unless you count using one or two to prop up a projector or flatten something).  The material wasn’t great quality, the books themselves were not great quality, and the book didn’t support the sequence of concepts and skills set forth by our district.

If any of this resonates with you, join the #ditchbook Twitter chats on Thursday nights at 7pm CST and follow Matt Miller on Twitter!

Get Them Talking About Their Learning!

If you’ve spent any time with children, you know that the majority of them LOVE to talk.  In fact, as many parents and teachers can attest, once you get them started, it’s hard to get them to stop!  Teachers cite excessive talking as a problem issue for many students in class, but what if we could teach them to harness this power and use it for good rather than evil (well, not really evil, but certainly not productive)?

What if instead of giving a student a test at the end of a particular lesson or unit, you had them talk about what they know or what they learned?

Would you be able to say with certainty whether or not the child had mastered that standard?  I feel confident that if I got to hear my students talk through their learning, I could get a pretty good handle on what they know and where their learning gaps were.  On top of that, while reading and writing are extremely important skills for students to develop, the ideas of speaking and listening are too often neglected yet just as valuable.

But what about the fact that you have 20+ kids in your class?  Or multiple classes?  How can you get to every student?  You can’t always count on them to listen to each other, because it takes a fair amount of practice for students to evaluate each other well and give constructive feedback (though I would absolutely recommend this as a good practice to get into the habit of doing in your classroom).  So how can a teacher reasonably listen to that many students to ensure that he or she truly knows what their students know?  By using technology, of course!  Teachers can have students use a variety of tools to record themselves sharing their thoughts and listen to them later, freeing them up to work with other students or manage other tasks during the school day.

The easiest way to have kids create an audio or video recording with a mobile device.  My favorite is simply the video camera on an iPad.  They can record in “selfie mode” so you can see them as they talk or they could use the back camera to show something they worked on (paper/pencil, manipulatives, artistic creation, etc.) and explain what they did or learned.  Rather than spending time outside of class correcting papers, the teacher would watch the videos instead.

If you want to get a little bit more exciting, you can try out a few iOS apps like Chatterpix Kids, Tellagami, 30Hands, Educreations, and Book Creator.  Each of these apps works a little differently, but what they all have in common is they have an audio recording feature that lets students talk about what they’re learning.   And each app allows students to take or import a photo of something they have working on and would like to tell you about.  Not only that, but each of these apps is easy to use and content-agnostic, meaning you can use them with literally any subject area.  That’s particularly important because teachers get more bang for their buck when they can teach one app to do many things rather than many apps that each do one thing.

For the most part, each of these apps creates a video that can be exported to your device’s camera roll.  Once there, you can choose to view it from the camera roll or collect it elsewhere.  One tip though: if you have many students doing this type of project, it is helpful to have them include their name on the project somehow.  In Chatterpix, for example, I have my students put their name on the photo they record so I can easily see which student I’m listening to.

Once you have all of these great artifacts showing student learning, you can manage them using a great app like Seesaw.  At its most basic level, Seesaw is a digital portfolio where you and your students can collect all these great photos and videos, comment on them, or annotate them.  It can pull items directly from the camera roll or you can record right in the app itself!  And it’s so easy to use that even the youngest learners can use it independently with some pre-teaching.  The biggest benefit to Seesaw, though there are many, is that the photos and videos are already organized for you by student, which makes assessing and later sharing with parents much easier.  If you prefer not to use Seesaw, see my previous blog post about getting photos and videos from a iOS device to Google Drive for storage and viewing.

What should students record?  Anything and everything!  Use Educreations to work out a math problem and record themselves solving it and talking through their answer.  Snap a pic of a reading passage using Chatterpix and have them read it on video for a fluency check.  Show a diagram of the water cycle and create a Tellagami to explain how the process works.  Instead of doing a traditional report on an animal, state, or other common theme, create a slideshow in 30Hands and narrate the entire thing.  Create a story with Book Creator and narrate it, either in addition to or instead of writing the words – your choice based on the time and readiness of your students.

By the way, as I was searching for images to use with this post, I couldn’t find many pictures of kids talking in a school setting. It was almost always kids reading or watching the teacher talk.  I was able, however, to find several pictures of adults talking to each other.  What does that tell you?

Give Screencasting a Try!

A lot of teachers ask me what my top tech tool is.  It’s like desert island for geeks: what one tool could you not live without if you were stranded with only one thing?  While it’s hard to narrow down, I think my answer right now would have to be the screencast.  They can be used by any teacher at any level and be extremely effective and efficient when done well.

What is a screencast?  Basically, it’s where you record what’s happening on your screen (a broadcast of your computer), usually with some sort of audio recording.  Some screencasting tools also allow you to record a web cam as well, meaning you can also see the person doing the recording while you watch.  Screencasts can be created on virtually any device, though some particular screen recorders work better on particular platforms.

Screencasts have a tremendous amount of value in the classroom!  A common use of screencasting is to operate in a flipped classroom model.  The teacher records a video segment teaching a lesson, the students watch the video as homework, then the teacher helps the students work through problems and questions the next day in class.  The lecture moves outside the school day and the in class time is spent working directly with students.

Screencasts can also be helpful when planning for a substitute.  I used to love creating screencasts for when I knew I was going to be gone.  When I was teaching a class, I couldn’t always count on getting a substitute who knew my content, but I always had someone that could click a link or press play.  I could leave directions for a particular activity or process, record a greeting for the class, or explain difficult concepts that my students needed to know about in my absence.

Or what about students who are absent?  How many times have you had to sit down with a student and reteach an entire lesson because they missed it?  Or a student who was in class but just hasn’t quite grasped the material yet.  Both of these students can stay in the classroom, watch the video on some kind of device, and then be ready to join back in with the rest of the class.  The teacher, meanwhile, is free to move around the room helping other students working in real time.

Students can also use screencasts to show what they know.  Want kids to explain a process and show you they understand?  Have them create a screencast where they walk through their knowledge, hopefully with visuals of some kind.  Want your students to do a slideshow of some kind but not want to sit through 30+ presentations?  Have them create a Google slideshow then record a screencast to talk through their presentation.  Then have students share their videos for the teacher and their classmates to view.

My favorite screencasting tool by far is Camtasia.  You can pause recording, edit out mistakes and add so many fancy features to make your videos look amazing.  But for the beginner screencaster, I would recommend checking out Screencast-o-Matic, Screencastify, or Snagit.  The last three products are free; Screencast-o-Matic works best on computers (Mac or PC) and the other two both work on the Chrome browser (Mac, PC, or Chromebooks).

Never made a screencast before?  One tip is to plan out your video ahead of time.  Have any windows open that you need and are ready to go rather than having to wait for software to load.  Make sure you have a quiet environment where you won’t be disturbed; this helps keep you from having to edit your video or re-record later.  Finally, keep your videos SHORT! Screencasts are generally more successful when they are less than five minutes, but even better when they are less than three.  Consider chunking your content into smaller bits to allow you to record shorter videos.  You will appreciate it when you are recording the videos (and so will your viewers).

Have you tried recording a screencast before?  How have you used it in your classroom?

Classroom = No Phone Zone?

Yesterday, I saw a post on Facebook that made me stop and think, and then get frustrated.  The photo was originally posted by the account of a newspaper in Oklahoma and showed what appeared to be high school students in a classroom.  In the foreground, a box with slots held all of their cell phones.  The caption read, “Do you think this would be a good idea in schools?”

As I scrolled through the comments, I was surprised to see that almost every one I read said yes.  A handful thought the same practice should be applied at meetings, in the workplace, and in the home.  One said she thought it should be used while driving as well.  So far, I’ve only seen one person say no but it was because she felt students should have access to phones in case of an emergency.

Don’t get me wrong, I agree that there are many aspects of cell phones that are problematic.  Obviously, distracted driving is a major concern among teens (and adults).  And yes, I am a little concerned with the number of teens I see buried in their phone screen rather than talking to the table of friends sitting with them.  I do value humans engaging and interacting with one another in meaningful ways that don’t include technology.

But that’s where I have to draw the line.  What does it teach kids that we need to lock up their phones in order to teach them?  What does it say about our teaching that the only way to get students to listen to what we say is to take away their personal property?  I know, I know.  Cell phones are a distraction in class, kids can cheat on tests, and teachers are up against a pretty big competitor when it comes to keeping kids focused when phones are in the room.

Humor me for a second, won’t you?

What if it didn’t matter that cell phones were in the classroom during an assessment because the “test” being given didn’t have answers you could Google.  Or text to your friend across the room or in the next period.  What if students were using their phones to create new content based on the material, such as blog posts or videos that make it virtually impossible to cheat unless you copy and paste the entire thing?

What if students were expected to engage in a backchannel for additional questions or discussion during class?  The teacher could check for understanding, the students would be engaged, and those students who tend to keep quiet in class would have a forum for their viewpoints or questions.   And since many students have phones, the teacher wouldn’t even need to provide many (if any) additional devices to do it.

What if teachers were so engaging and their content so relevant to their students that the kids couldn’t help but pay attention?  Maybe the teacher has a gift for turning everything into a compelling story that students just have to hear.  Or maybe kids really want to learn about what they’re doing because they need the information for a project that they’re doing, particularly one that has real world application or an authentic global audience.

Now, I know you’re probably saying that I’m crazy or unrealistic to think that any of this would work.  Maybe I am.  But I’ve also walked past many high school classrooms that still largely consist of lectures and worksheet packets.  Now tell me that you’d be able to leave your cell phone in your bag and pay attention!

We as teachers need to make sure we are engaging our students as fully as possible.  Engagement, however, is not the same as compliance.  Just because students are sitting quietly and not disrupting class doesn’t mean they are engaged.  They need to be thinking, and more importantly, they need to be talking.  Multiple sources say that the one doing the talking in the classroom is the one doing the learning.  Mobile devices like cell phones provide another way for students to “talk” and discuss the course content.

As more schools start moving toward one-to-one access with mobile devices, this is an issue that deserves some critical thought and reflection.  What kinds of questions should we be asking students when they have Google in their pocket?  How can they connect with others, not just in the classroom, but around the world?  Why write something just for the teacher when it can be shared globally?  Why watch videos when you can create your own?  How can we use the available technology to personalize each student’s experience for his or her learning style?

These changes won’t happen overnight, but if these questions aren’t on your radar (or if you have been the teacher with the cell phone box), you need to start thinking about them.  Gone are the days when teachers brag about keeping technology away from their students.  Instead, pride yourself on teaching them to use it appropriately and responsibly.

In the end, kids are going to be using cell phones anyway.  Might as well have them use them for something worthwhile.


Start Asking Why

Why?  I have several friends who have three-year-olds that seem to do nothing but ask this question all day.  It is probably their least favorite word in the entire dictionary.  But the word “why” is powerful, when used in right way.

Toddlers ask why because they are curious.  They want to understand everything around them and they’re trying to make it fit into their existing world view.  Eventually, though, they grow out of this phase.  By the time they hit school age, they are likely still curious, but it isn’t the only word out of their mouth.  By the time many of them get to high school, the only time they likely ask “why” is when an adult is telling them to do something.

What about teachers?  Do we ask why?  I would say that we do, similar to the high schooler above, when administration or some other authoritative body tells us to do something (think one size fits all professional development or state-mandated testing).  But what about in the classroom?  Do you ever ask your students why?

Today I read an article about some new ideas in teaching mathematics (read it here).  The first strategy the author mentions for changing how we teach is asking students why.  In this case, the teacher is specifically asking why students think a certain way or why their answer works or doesn’t.  They don’t just look for the answer, because the answer doesn’t reveal anything about how the students got there.  It could have just been a lucky guess.

If students know that when they give an answer the word from the teacher will be “why,” it forces them to pay attention to their work and be more thoughtful in their response.  This likely won’t happen the first few times, but eventually the students will start thinking in this way and will be able to articulate the why behind their thoughts.

Why is important for teachers, too.  It’s easy to ask when something is being asked of us or imposed upon us.  But what about the things we put upon ourselves?  How much of what you do in the classroom is of your own choice and how much is dictated by others?  The answers to that question will vary greatly depending on the teacher, school, and district, but the fact remains that some teachers do a great many things that nobody is forcing them to do.

Simon Sinek’s 2011 book, Start With Why, talks about how the “why” is one of the most important aspects of a successful corporation (and, I would argue, school).  Everything we say and do should tie back into our inner “why,” that part that really resonates with who we are.  Everything else is distracting background noise.

About five years ago, I remember standing in an Office Max with a friend during workshop week and she was worrying about her to-do list she hadn’t completed and open house was later that evening.  One particular item of concern was a magnet that she had intended to print out for every family that included her contact info.  When I asked why she was worrying about it, she told me she had always done it and the parents would be disappointed if she didn’t do it this year.  Really?  Unless she had retained a student from a previous year, I was pretty sure that no parent would ever notice or care.  So who was this really for?

If you work in a school, your “why” is likely to do what’s best for kids.  At least I hope it is.  And if it is, then your decisions become fairly simple.  Does a magnet with all of your contact info really help kids learn better?  What about creating new bulletin board displays every month?  What about grading every single homework assignment you give them?

None of these things are inherently bad.  I’m sure there were some parents that appreciated the contact info magnet.  But is it worth stressing yourself out over in a week where you’re already incredibly busy?

I’d challenge you to start asking your students why every day.  You might be surprised at how insightful they are.  And maybe, every once in awhile, you might take a look at your own practice and ask why.  Keep those things that are absolutely vital to making learning happen for kids.  If you have time for more, by all means go ahead.  But be okay to take those things off your plate that don’t fit with your why.

Taking Risks = Growth. Try it!

Today, I read a post about the questions all new teachers have (read it here).  As I was reading the article, I thought back to my first few years of teaching and remembered feeling like I had no idea what I was doing.  Sure, I had gone through my student teaching with two amazing educators, but my two experiences had been in a K-6 building and a 9-12 building.  My first job? A 5-8 middle school, working with the age level I found the most daunting and had the least experience with.

Everything I did was a gamble because I had no idea if it would really work with my kids.  I had been trained, but anyone who has been a teacher for more than five minutes knows that teacher prep programs NEVER prepare you for what it’s really like to be put in charge of a class by yourself (Fortunately, my second year of teaching took me to a K-5 building where I really felt at home).

In those first few years, I remember thinking constantly about how nice it would be to get to the point where things felt comfortable as opposed to chaotic.  Lessons would be easier to plan, behavior management skills would be polished, and I wouldn’t be up until midnight or later getting myself prepared for the next day.  I had the idea that once I had been teaching a few years that everything would be better.  And in some ways it was.

I know some teachers who still have a file cabinet of lessons (on actual paper) and they reach for the September folder to start the year.  Their entire year is planned from beginning to end and there’s very little prep work beforehand besides perhaps running a few copies.  But even nine years later, that still wasn’t me.  Every single year looked different for me and I was always working to improve or change what I brought to my students.

Some might see that as inefficient or unprepared, but my situation was different every year.  Some years my first graders would come in having had music in kindergarten, but some years not.  Other times, I had to teach the same grade level six times and I was just so unbelievably sick of some of those lessons that I couldn’t stand to teach them the next year.  Or I had just discovered this amazing song, activity, app, etc. at a conference and just HAD to use it with my kids.  In fact, my kids would get so excited when I went to a conference because they knew I’d come back with some exciting new game for them.  It would have been unfair to teach every year’s class in the exact same way as the previous year.

I guess maybe I just get bored too easily.  But I know if I’m not excited about what I’m teaching, there’s relatively little chance that my students will be.  They usually know when we’re faking it.  Not only that, but there are new things to learn.  I would always be excited to learn a new way to teach something because it was often better than how I was already doing it.

This week, I spent some time with a veteran teacher who took a risk in her teaching.  She tried something completely and totally out of her comfort zone (and after only a little suggestion by me, I promise!).  She tackled a major technology project with her students that could have been an epic failure.  Though I’m not sure she’ll do the project again, it was a step.  Were there things that could have been improved about the project and the experience?  Of course!  But that’s always the way it goes when we try anything new.

I would challenge any of you to look at your curriculum, and I don’t mean your textbook (in fact, go ahead and throw those away now).  How long have you been teaching the same lesson?  Five years? Ten?  If it’s anything longer than three, I’d argue it’s time for a change.  Maybe not the entire lesson, but perhaps a new means of delivery or a new way to allow students to show what they know.

Plus there’s the whole idea of something so familiar allowing us to just “go through the motions.”  Remember that whole thing about kids know we’re faking it?  They can tell when we’re phoning it in, too.  Doing something new and unfamiliar makes us uncomfortable, but it also makes us aware.  It causes us to pay attention to the details and might even get our hearts racing a bit.

Now, I’m not suggesting that you give yourself a heart condition, but a little bit of fear is good.  It means we are taking a risk and it means we are invested in the outcome.  It’s easy to get comfortable in teaching, but comfortable is dangerous.

I challenge each and every one of you to teach something new this month.  Maybe a new unit, or a new lesson, or maybe an old lesson with a new twist.  Do it now.  If you don’t know how to start, ask a colleague for ideas, jump on Pinterest, or find a tech guru in your district or building.  The bigger the challenge, the better.

I’m going to warn you, it might flop.  But you will be a better teacher if you do.


The New “Ask 3 Before Me”?

When I was in the classroom, I had a rule: ask three before me.  Several of my colleagues had a similar rule.  The basic premise was that students shouldn’t come ask the teacher about every single question they had.  The goal was so that students would learn to search for the answer for a bit themselves rather than just defaulting to asking the teacher right away (and honestly, saved the teacher time because there’s no way one person can answer every single question from 25 inquisitive kindergarteners in one class period!).

My goal as an educator has always been to help my students become independent learners; ideally, they shouldn’t need me at some point if I’ve done my job well.  But in 2016, I wonder if we need to take this a step further. I’ve heard many complain about a sort of “learned helplessness” among today’s youth, a lack of any real knowledge or skill.  I’ll admit that I fall into that category sometimes myself.  There are many things that my parents and grandparents know how to do that I have no clue about, such as changing my own oil or canning vegetables.

Yet in many ways, I am much more adept than my elders at figuring out how to solve new problems.  Take even a simple example: my mother plays a word game on her iPhone. When she gets stumped, she texts me and asks for a hint. For awhile I would help her, but after awhile I got tired of the game and couldn’t help her anymore. Instead, I taught her how to do a Google search to find hints and answers. It would have never occurred to her that such a thing even exists (I also showed her on YouTube that some people create videos of the solutions in case she really gets stuck).

Teachers sometimes bemoan the fact that today’s students may never know what it’s like to have to look up something in an actual dictionary or encyclopedia. While there’s something to be said for valuing traditions, when was the last time you picked up a volume of an actual bound copy of an encyclopedia to look for an answer? I bet you Googled it or looked on Wikipedia.  Need to learn a new skill?  You might take a class, or better yet, search for it on YouTube.  Need recommendations for a restaurant?  Visit UrbanSpoon.com or put out a request on social media to get several within hours if not minutes.

So, I propose a new “Ask 3 Before Me” based on this image:

Image by Heather Dowd (@heza)

Notice the teacher is not on the list.  But fear not.  Just because you’re not on the list doesn’t mean you’re not important.  Students need to use collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and sometimes even creativity (together known as the 4 C’s of 21st Century learning) to be able to do any of this.  That’s where we come in.  These “new” skills are so fundamental to our students’ future success that we don’t dare send them into the real world without them.

I challenge you to think about this for a bit: how might your classroom look different if you go in with the assumption that students will forever have access to Google (or its someday replacement)?  What do they need to know and do?  What no longer seems important?