Tuesday, April 25, 2017

A Time for a Change...

Please follow me to my new website. I will keep this blog up and running until I can transfer everything over to my new location.


Thanks for joining me!

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

We Learn Best By Doing

Why do professional developments, in-services, conferences, you name it, tend to flop? What are they missing and what can we do as educators to better utilize our time during these gatherings?

It never fails. Leading up to an in-service day you hear grumblings of, "Ugh. I wish I could just have one more day off." Or, "What I wouldn't give to just work in my room all day instead of attend those dreaded meetings." It always pains me to hear these comments, even though many times I completely relate. School leaders tend to spend their time pushing new initiatives, going over logistics, but very little time modeling the initiatives, or sharing best practices.

In A.J. Juliani's "5 Reasons Why Teachers Learn Best From Other Teachers," blogpost, Juliani states,

In fact, when I look back at my most valuable learning experiences as a teacher, they are almost always with colleagues and other teachers, instead of with an administrator or consultant or presenter.

I mentioned in an earlier post (read about it here) that our school hosted a conference recently. As we were planning for the conference, we knew that teachers learn best from other teachers, as Juliani discusses, so we knew it was imperative that we plan a conference that is centered around teachers leading other teachers. Hence why the idea of fishbowl style learning came about. At the conference, I co-presented with a fellow teacher on "Authentic Learning and Creating a Collaborative Culture" during one of our general sessions. You can read my blogpost about the conference itself by clicking here.

During our presentation, we knew the importance of not only sharing best practices, ideas, and tech uses in the classroom, but we knew we had to involve our audience from the get go. That is what we do in a classroom setting, right? So why not present the way we teach our students? To begin, we pulled the audience in right away by having them take a Socrative quiz in which we posed 3 scenario based true/false questions. For example, "In a 4th grade math class, the students are learning about perimeter and area. To demonstrate the students' understanding of the concept, the children work in groups to construct a dog house using cardboard. True/False: This is an example of a truly authentic lesson." (Looking back, we shouldn't have made the questions true/false. We should have altered the options to a "strongly agree, disagree..." style question.) After the participants answered the questions, we then opened up a discussion on why we agreed or didn't agree that the scenarios were or were not authentic. This then led into a discussion of professional developments and how they tend to not be led in authentic manners. Throughout the presentation, we continued to engage the audience, discussed how we took a traditional novel study and revamped it, and then ended with having the audience share ideas of how in the past they have revamped lessons to make them more authentic, and shared future ideas.

Upon reflecting on our presentation, where did we succeed?

  • involving the audience from the start and throughout the presentation 
  • sharing our ideas on how to build authentic lessons 
  • began a discussion on the best tech tools we utilize frequently when it comes to authenticity
  • candy - candy always works with kids or adults to get them join the conversation :)

What could we change for the future?
  • model a lesson rather than simply talk about it
Moving forward, I would like to focus on finding a way to have the audience actually "do" something/build something/create something in addition to them being a part of the conversation. Since our presentation was built around the novel unit that we revamped, could we have had the audience work on a part of that project so that they could have actually seen it in action? I will keep pondering this thought for now. 

If you would like to view our google slides presentation, feel free to click here


Monday, March 6, 2017

A Twist on Traditional Conference Style Learning

I wrote a post earlier in which I explained a conference our school recently hosted called Lausanne Learning Institute of the Southwest. A conference in which we offered a day of general sessions and a day in which fishbowl sessions occurred on our campus with our students. To read that post, click here.

Day 1 of the conference offered a new twist on conference style learning. I have attended many conferences/workshops in the past that have ranged from sit-and-get to general sessions that actively engage and involve the audience. However, I have never attended, nor have I actually heard of, a conference offering a fishbowl type setting in which students are taught in front of your very eyes.

What did the fishbowl day look like?

  • 20 educators sat around the perimeter of the room observing while one teacher from various schools chose a topic and taught live in front of the observing teachers
  • Teachers from 53 different schools proposed fishbowl topics 
  • Teachers let us know what grade level they needed, and what prior knowledge the students needed to have before teaching them
  • Fishbowl sessions lasted 45 minutes followed by a 45 minute debrief
  • 4 fishbowl sessions were offered throughout the day 
  • Fishbowl session topics included: 

According to the immediate feedback we received from our participants, the fishbowls were a huge success. Teachers mentioned that rarely do we get to see ideas in action, so this was an interesting way to run a conference. Educators mentioned that they loved the fact that they could see a lesson in action and then were given time to debrief, share other ideas, or ask questions amongst a group of fellow educators. The feedback we received from the students included quotes such as:
  • "Being taught by a new teacher, was weird and cool all at the same time! You didn't know what to expect." 
  • "Learning how to use lockboxes was so much more fun than a worksheet. We used math to open the lockboxes instead of just writing our answers down on paper. The teacher who taught the lesson was fun because he not only taught us the lesson, but he connected with us on rap music." 
  • "I thought it was going to be hard to be taught by someone we didn't know, but it ended up being a fun experience."
Planning for a fishbowl setting during a conference was no easy task. We asked the presenters for their topic, a brief description of what will be occurring during the session, grade level, and prior knowledge in order to create the schedule for the day. The challenge, on top of the fact that it was a "normal" day of school with our normal 900 or so people on campus, was that we were adding 200 additional people to a flexible schedule. We ended up silencing all bells for the day and had someone announce on the loud speakers when to rotate. Although the schedule was an ever changing document that took months to create, it ended up being executed flawlessly. 

Participants reflected upon the fact that they enjoyed the fishbowl setting, topic selections, and flow of the schedule. Based upon feedback from participants as well as our own observations, we plan to make some minor adjustments next year, such as:
  • Offer less time during the debriefing periods which allows for more time to network casually
  • Ensure there are topics offered for all divisions as well as disciplines
  • Continue to focus on hands-on inquiry as well as Makerspaces
  • Offer general sessions on tech integration
Some feedback from our participants: 

Professional Development Can Be Hands-On?

When you think of professional development, what do you picture? A faculty meeting that lasts an hour in which you mostly discuss logistics? A sit-and-get conference? During workshops, conferences, meetings, whatever you would like to call it, we spend time discussing pedagogy, cutting edge lessons, engagement and so on, but ironically many times these gatherings are just the opposite of what we are encouraging our educators to do. Educators discuss how to make classrooms engaging, hands-on, real-world, but we do not model that same setting during our meetings. 

On February 23 and 24, our school partnered with Lausanne Learning Institute located in Memphis, TN, to host the first annual Lausanne Learning Institute of the Southwest (LLISW) in which we promoted a conference unlike any other. At the conference, 

   53 schools were represented
   93 sessions were offered (including fishbowl sessions and general sessions)
   over 275 educators attended

Session topics varied from Makerspace, to authenticity in math classes, to connecting a Spanish and French class for verb study, coding, empathy lessons and much more. Sessions were offered for all grade levels from Early Childhood to Upper School classes and the focus of the conference was authentic, innovative practices that allow professional development to be truly authentic - and this conference was just that, authentic.

On Thursday, we offered 4 fishbowl sessions with 9-12 fishbowl options per session time. (I will be sharing the fishbowl details in a later blogpost.)

After months and months of planning, it was incredible to watch the conference unfold. With having never attended a fishbowl type conference, we didn't 100% know what to expect and were forced the plan the conference in our own terms. To say the conference was a huge success, in my humble opinion, is putting it lightly. This was the first conference I have ever attended where students were involved in professional development and that very factor is what changed the environment. The lessons were real. Educators were able to not only observe a lesson being taught instead of simply talking about it, but they were also given time to debrief, ask follow-up questions, pose ideas, and network with like-minded educators. Our campus was vibrant with life. Happy, engaged kids who were eager to learn from complete strangers. Energized educators who were chomping at the bit to learn new, innovative ideas to steal and take back to their own classrooms. 

After a long weekend filled with many naps in order to attempt to recover from the exhaustion that comes with hosting 275 educators along with 850 students, came reflection. Reflection about why this conference was unlike many others, why we received such positive feedback, and how we can improve for next year's conference. After thinking it over for a few days, there are 3 distinct reasons that I believe this conference was so successful.
1  The little things make a difference. According to the verbal feedback we heard from our visiting educators, they were overly impressed with our hospitality. They noticed the student ambassadors we had at each and every door greeting them with a smile and directing them to wherever they were headed. They noticed the parent volunteers at the check-in stations, the drinks and snacks that were offered at every division, the energetic music that was played around campus and during lunch, the a cappella choir that sang during our opening session, and our eager students. 
2  The fishbowl experience was unlike any other. Teachers appreciated the fact that they could observe real-life teaching and then debrief the successes of the fishbowl settings and share pedagogy amongst like-minded educators.
3  There was a session for everyone. Many times you attend conferences in which the session topics are heavily directed to math, history, tech, and so on. LLISW offered sessions for Early Childhood teachers to Upper School teachers, makerspace teachers to fine arts teachers, as well as administrators, and everything in between.

Join us next year on February 22-23, 2018 for a hands-on, authentic conference! We are looking for other passionate, dynamic teachers to attend, as well as present. Check out http://llisouthwest.com for more details. 

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

One Schools Journey to Becoming Apple Teacher Certified

Earlier this year, our Director of Modern Learning pondered the idea of challenging our middle school teachers with becoming Apple Teacher certified since all students in grades 5 - 8 have iPad Pros. When we began this journey we started out by walking through the certification process as a tech and administration team to see if the journey and time put into becoming certified would be worth it for our teachers. After earning our certification it became apparent that yes, it was definitely worth the effort to become certified and that we saw great value in becoming Apple Teacher certified. In order to become certified, one must earn eight badges throughout the process. The badges are: iPad overview, Pages, Keynote, iMovie, Garageband, Numbers, Productivity and Creativity. The best part? In order to earn your badge, you must answer four of the five questions correctly per badge, BUT if you fail, you can retake each quiz as many times as necessary. Apple provides starter guide iBooks for each topic that include great graphics, tutorials, step-by-step directions, and my favorite part - suggestions on how to use the app/topic within a classroom. When we launched the idea to the teachers, our idea was that the teachers would read the starter guide that correlates with each badge, then earn their badge by taking the five question quiz, and repeat until all eight badges were earned resulting in becoming Apple Teacher certified.

What did we consider before we launched the process?

  • Time
  • A reward
  • Education/training
  • Support
We knew that this was a reachable goal for our teachers, but we also knew that this process would be tedious and we wanted a way to "reward" or "thank" them for their hard-work. We also quickly realized that this is an incredibly beneficial professional development opportunity that is completely free. Because the certification is completely free, but our teachers will be spending a good amount of their own time walking through the process, we came up with two ways to reward them. We concluded that if we were to send them to a day of training it would cost us around $250 or so for the workshop itself and then the cost of a substitute teacher. Therefore, we came up with what we thought was a great reward. Once a teacher becomes officially Apple Teacher certified, he/she will earn an extra personal day off work along with $100 gift card as long as the certification was earned before the end of April. When we launched the program to the teachers, they were pumped to find out the reward for earning their certification. Our hope was that at least half of the teachers would take us up on this offer and I am ecstatic to say that every single middle school teacher has joined the journey. Thus far, and it's only January, 16 out of 26 teachers are officially certified and the others are well on their way.

We quickly realized that we needed to offer support for the teachers as they walk through the training process which is where I came in. Every other week I offer Tech Talks that pertain to one of the eight badges that are earned throughout the certification process. During that 20-30 minute Tech Talk, we focus on one of the badges and quickly skim through the starter guide associated with each badge. We practice skills, answer questions, and discuss how we could see this particular app/skill being utilized within their classroom or someone else's classroom. I offer a before school time and a during lunch time in order to hopefully be able to meet with as many teachers as possible. Of course if that time doesn't work, I will meet with them individually during their planning periods. 

We also created a board in the teacher's workroom. Here is a picture of the board at the beginning of the process: 

When you earn a badge, Apple gives you a gold star so we decided that we would mimic that on our board and each time a teacher would earn a badge, they would earn their star on the board. The purpose of the board is not only to act as a scoreboard (a little healthy competition never killed anyone, right?), but more importantly to serve as a resource. Our mindset was that if you were about to use Pages in your classroom with your students, but you hadn't yet earned your badge nor did you feel comfortable with the app, the board would lead you to somehow who has earned their badge and you could seek them out for advice. Or, if you were struggling to learn/earn a certain badge, you could turn to the board to find someone who has mastered that skill.

Favorite outcomes:
Hearing teachers say, "Man! I wish I would have known that this app functioned that way last semester! It would have been perfect for a project I was working on!" Or getting an email that says, "Would you mind looking over this project I came up with? I am planning to use the knowledge that I gathered after earning two different badges." Or, watching teachers feel the frustration of learning something new. That sounds mean, doesn't it? I don't mean that I enjoy watching them struggle, or that I enjoy struggling myself, but that very struggle puts us in the seat of being a student and reminds us the challenges, frustrations and fears our students face on a daily basis. A great way to connect with that kid who is struggling with doing something new down the road. 

I am so proud of the fact that all of our teachers have agreed to take this risk and join our journey, and I can't wait to see how the knowledge they acquire through this process shows through within their classrooms.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Learning How to Unlearn

What does it mean to unlearn how to learn? Seyi Fabode on The Huffington Post explains the following:

So what is unlearning? It is to let go of the things which you have learned. A visual works here. Take a cup, learning represents filling up the cup and unlearning would represent emptying the cup. You empty the cup and fill it up again. You might empty the cup of water and fill it up with a nice nutrient laden smoothie. Same cup, different drink. Continue the loop.


Our students truly have answers at their fingertips whenever they need them. Problem solving, thinking, learning, looks very different today than it did a decade or two ago. With that in mind, teaching must look differently today. Students must learn how to "empty their cups and fill them up again" with different knowledge. 

Close your eyes and invasion a typical, traditional history classroom setting. Do you picture students in rows "listening" to the teacher as he/she lectures? Do you picture students with their textbooks open, mouths closed waiting to here, "This will be on your test"? 

Many students have become masters at school. What do I mean by that? Many students have learned how to learn; they've learned how to play the game. "Let me wait until I get the study guide, memorize the heck out of the study guide, take the test, repeat." Those very same students are the ones that need to truly learn, unlearn and relearn. They need to be the ones that are pushed outside of their comfort zones, given a chance to curate their knowledge and lead discussions. This is what led to our amazing journey on recreating the Decision Points Theater. There is this wonderful, simulated theater at the George W. Bush library on the SMU campus.
  • Critical Decisions - Play the role of President and dive into the decision-making process in our interactive Decision Points Theater. Hear from presidential advisers and voice how you would act as President when faced with major crises such as Hurricane Katrina or the troop surge in Iraq.
Click here to view one of the Decision Points in order to better understand what took place.

After visiting the theater, a few teachers and I had the idea to recreate the same idea with our students. Students were learning about the American Revolution and Patriots and Loyalists. Instead of simply having the students read the textbook, complete a few small activities, and take a test, we decided to create our own Decision Points Theater first, which would then lead to the students creating their own Decision Points Theater in the spring. We pulled in 5 teachers for help: a newscaster, a patriot, a loyalist, and two reporters. We used Touchcast to put our video together which argued why someone should be a patriot/loyalist. The students got a big kick out of the experience because they saw their teachers acting (insert: making fools of themselves). After they watched the 6 minute Decision Points video, the students were asked to vote using Socrative on whether they would have been a Patriot/Loyalist. Our intended outcome was to discuss Patriots/Loyalists and the pros and cons to both sides. Our true outcome was just that, plus discussing the fact that the president must make decisions on a regular basis. We discussed that he doesn't simply make a decision alone. He uses his own judgement along with many many other advisors facts and opinions. Stay tuned in the spring when we have the students creating the Decision Points Theater. I am certain their creations will be tenfold better than our creation. 

Cited sources:

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Dialogue Journals Deepen Student-Teacher Relationships

In August, I challenged myself with finding more and more ways to encourage my students to find their voices as they develop and share their passions. I came across a Cult of Pedagogy podcast titled, "How Dialogue Journals Build Teacher-Student Relationships." You can read the article and listen to Jennifer Gonzalez's podcast here. Gonzalez interviews Liz Galarza who uses dialogue journals in her classroom.

We spend 5 days per week with our students, but how well do we know them and how well do they know us?

What are dialogue journals according to Liz Galarza?

  • Dialogue journals are ongoing written conversations between a teacher and a student in the form of a letter
  • a written conversation as opposed to an oral conversation
  • usually finds complaints and questions in dialogue journals which are missing in normal classroom discourse and conversation
  • students choose the topics of conversations which allows them to share their passions or questions
  • teacher writes the first entry in every journal that is personalized to each student and then asks them to respond
  • teacher models the length, tone, format...
What happens if the conversation falls flat or students haven't bought in to the journals?
  • she usually responds with, "This is a place where you can talk about anything. What do you want to talk about? Teach me something." 
    • tends to empower students
  • goes back to original "all about me" sheet and starts to ask questions about information on all about me sheet
  • accepts one sentence and she responds in a small amount; realized through research that if she responds with too many sentences, student feels overwhelmed and thinks either, "I can't write that much or I don't want to"
    • realized not to ask too many questions because it puts teacher in authoritative role so tries to get them to ask the questions 
    • by disclosing information about her own life (not in question form) she realizes that it opens the door for them to feel comfortable and share
    • the more real the kids see her, the better the relationship will be and the more they see themselves as important people
Where do you store the journals?
  • trays in classroom labeled with periods
  • turn in on rotating basis so she doesn't get all in one day
What happens if they write about something that needs to be discussed with an administrator or counselor?
  • she explains at beginning of process that she will come to student first before going to admin
    • explains that many students are writing it for that reason - a cry for help
How do you grade the journals?
  • no grade for content, grammatical errors...
  • journal is for relationship purposes
  • if they spell a word wrong/write something grammatically incorrect, she will respond with the same word or grammar to model how to use it correctly and hope they see her usage
  • only grade = them handing it in (completion grade)
    • the more you put a grade on something, the less empowered the student feels (very interesting comment and point she makes here)
    • the more a teacher requires something, the less empowered a student feels so next year she is thinking of not grading at all and not making it mandatory 
What benefits/affects/impacts has Mrs. Galarza experienced due to dialogue journals? Why should teachers try this?
  • become better writers overtime by writing in these journals
  • students are looking for an authentic adult to hear them and converse with them
  • mentor text 
  • closer to speech than other writing styles which is easier for lower leveled students
  • teach a skill within journal (Example- highlighting a sentence and saying, "You could use a semi colon here instead of a period.) as long as they are going to be receptive
  • leads to a class grammar mini lesson if notices many students are misspelling or misusing same thing over and over
  • a way to collect data from students 
  • gain insight into their thinking and feelings (for example- a grandmother just passed away)
  • journal is all about dialogue and differentiation 
What if I am a non-English teacher? Are journals worth incorporating?
  • math teacher- base on math questions; a little more prompted
    • example) write in journal something you liked, understood, didn't understand, want to review with you
  • believes it could work in any classroom/discipline

Who remembers the movie, "Dangerous Minds?" After listening to the podcast and reflecting upon what Mrs. Galarza discussed, I immediately thought of the movie "Dangerous Minds" in which the teacher asks the students to write in journals. At first, the students are incredibly apprehensive and have not bought in to the idea of the journals. However, their mood and mindset quickly shifts and her unsuccessful classroom quickly becomes a learner-centered classroom with student buy in. I attribute much of her success as a teacher on the investment she made to get to know her students. 

Upon reflecting, what did I take away from this podcast?
  • Do I spend my time checking in with my students? Do I need to invest more time on the relationship aspect? More time on giving them an empowered voice? 
  • kids move from elementary to middle school and philosophy changes; middle school teachers are teachers of content, of transmission
    • elementary teacher's philosophy is that you are teaching a child over teaching content
  • could these lead to connections? (If a student shows interest in geography, could you connect them with an expert to deepen learning?)
  • Galarza explained, the way in which we empower our students or give up our own control, is by giving them the power to have valuable things to say