Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Evolution of a Teacher- Finding Your Passion Again

When I became a teacher in 2005, I could have become a rich woman if I had requested a dollar for each time I heard, "Don't smile 'til after Christmas."  I even sort of naively bought into this notion my first few years of teaching!  In fact, in one of my professor's observation notes it was mentioned, "Your classroom management is excellent, but you need to smile more!"  That comment has ultimately hung with me even after a decade+ of teaching in my classroom.

When I first starting teaching, I put my students in rows. I did so because that's what I thought teachers were supposed to do.  I used every textbook, every workbook, every lined piece of paper activity I could find.  I walked my students quietly down the halls, tracked their testing growth, and made my newsletter diligently each week. I did everything I thought I was supposed to do to be a "good" teacher.  I was joyless in my profession.

Four years in I was thinking, "Is this it? Is this really what I wanted to do with my life?" At the very least- I was considering a position change, at most- leaving the profession all together.  Teaching was not what I thought it was going to be.  One day my husband had a very honest discussion with me. He told me how much it hurt him to see me so passionless in my job.  As someone who has always been a leader, I had resolved myself to following and had even convinced myself that I wasn't even good at being a teacher.  Together we decided it may be good to make a big change.

The next year I began work as a third grade teacher in a new building.  I felt excited and renewed.  I even mixed up my seating arrangement to include table groups! Then something amazing happened.  Our district began a digital initiative.  I can only describe this as the spark that reignited my passion for teaching once again.  It wasn't just the technology that did it either.  It was the amazing and overwhelming philosophies that came with it.  For me, using technology has never, ever been about tech.  It's been about allowing students the freedom to explore and create in ways previously unheard of.

With this change, I began to find myself excited and energized to come to school.  Project ideas and activities that got kids up and moving overwhelmed my brain.  I began devouring blogs such as Matt Miller's and anything George Couros wrote.  I stepped away from textbooks, embraced the PBL movement, curated digital content, relaxed with my students, facilitated learning, flexed my seating, and more! I attended conferences and suddenly found myself wanting to share this passion with other teachers locally which led to presenting around the state and eventually nationally.  Sometimes my excitement is too much for some people, and I've learned to refine my passion in such a way that it is not overly aggressive.  I get to work with teachers all across the nation with the singular goal of inspiring them to step out of their comfort zone for the sake of kids.  There is nothing more amazing than that to me.

Eventually, I've found my way here in the middle school...teaching Digital Literacy which is a course I've had the creative freedom to write and develop using the Indiana Computer Science and ISTE Standards.  On a daily basis I get to play, explore, discuss, and create with kids. I smile more these days, and I'm sure my professor would be proud. I look back at twelve years of teaching and smile, shudder, and shake my head at this incredible evolution that's been my teaching career.  On that day when I considered saying goodbye to this profession, I would have never dreamed of the position I have now or the opportunities I get to share the gospel of freedom in teaching.  I'm oh-so-thankful God didn't allow me to cave to my insecurities, but gave me new life in this profession that allows me to reach so many young people.  In the end, it's all about that.  The students.  Our future. #teachon

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Inclusion in the Techy Classroom: Modified Sphero Mazes

Recently we had a PLC meeting where we were asked to share one way we make considerations for our students with special learning needs.  Since I teach students with both learning and behavioral IEPs, there are many things to think about when tackling a project in our Digital Literacy classroom.

Most recently, we have been working on a Sphero Maze Challenge.  Students are required use the Tickle app to successfully program a Sphero to navigate a maze with a few challenges.  Let me break down a few of the components of this project that were carefully and thoughtfully created with our special learning needs in mind. The following photo breaks it into four categories to explore.

1. Leveled Challenges

As you can see in the photos above of our mazes, each maze has a different level of difficulty.  The mazes are leveled by number of turns to complete, width of paths, and overall length.  The more turns students must navigate means more lines of code to write.  The narrower the path means the students must be more precise in their code.  The overall length again adds or takes away from the lines of code students must write.  Few students, even my principal, did not outright notice the differences in the maze difficulties.  For me, this is a success.  When all students feel challenged at their level, they can all feel that sense of pride and accomplishment without feeling different from others. 

2. Choice Groups

When selecting project groups in the inclusive classroom, it is important to pair students with those that compliment their strengths and weaknesses.  I use a variety of techniques for assigning groups, but for this particular project I knew it was imperative for each group to have a strong coder.  This is where I started when determining groups.  What I've found with students who demonstrate difficulties in other subjects of study, they often shine in technology situations.  This gives them the opportunity to feel strong success.  I also make sure each group has a student who demonstrates budding leadership qualities.  I don't always choose the "typical" leader.  I look for the student who hasn't been given enough chances to flex this skill in the classroom sometimes due to their learning struggles.

3. Written Work Modifications

As a part of this project, groups are also asked to record their daily activity in their Sphero Maze Log.  We use the Book Creator app for this activity.  One person is "in charge" of making sure the log is filled out each day, but all members are responsible for contributing to the book.  In the log, I make sure to require a variety of artifacts that demonstrate their learning.  Photographs, videos, written word, etc. are all valid and important pieces of information that give a glimpse into the group's learning process.  Because it isn't all written, all students can contribute in ways that fit their learning style and needs.  I've included some sample pages below.  Other pages include end of project group reflections and any other additions the group wants to make to their log.  

Book Creator makes these logs simple and convenient as they are all kept in one place on their iPad.  Students who struggle with organization appreciate this feature Book Creator provides. For more about how Book Creator can work in your classroom, be sure to check out my other blog posts about this versatile app. 

4. Modified Goals as Needed

As students work throughout the process, I carefully monitor their progress. If I note that a particular group of learners need a goal modified, I will do that.  Modified goals are the business of the group and other group is privy to this decision.  Sometimes in the case of students with behavioral IEPs (or even those who don't have an IEP), they are very opinionated about what the goal should be or how it should be achieved.  I've always had the mindset that students often have better ideas than I do, and I am willing to listen to their opinions and often work out a compromise that both achieves the learning goals and their personal choices.  One of my biggest pet peeves in education is when educators expect students with behavioral needs to complete work or be disciplined the same as every other student.  I feel that this is no different than asking a person confined to a wheelchair to walk up the stairs the same way as everyone else.  We would never as a society ask that this be done! Why then do we see behavioral and emotional disabilities as anything lesser? I digress from my soapbox... In a nutshell, it's my job as an educator to meet my students where they are and give them the taste of success they earn. As my principal likes to stress, learning isn't about equality.  It's about equity.   
Photo Cred:

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Digital Citizenship Week: Adventures in PBL in a 1:1 Middle School

PBL is quite possibly one of my favorite methods of ensuring student-centered learning in my classroom. When I moved to middle school last year, I was unsure of how this would work managing five different class periods, and I sadly let that keep me from pursuing it in my classroom. PBL in the elem wasn't exactly easy-peasy, but managing one classroom working toward a common goal is a far different thing than getting 100 students coordinated.

Sneak peek of one component of our project. 
When I knew that Indiana Digital Citizenship Week was around the corner, I decided to quit thinking about trying PBL in my DigLit classroom and just DO it! I figured if it was an epic failure, then there would be plenty of lessons to make it better next time.

Driving Question
Our driving question was, "How can we as a team teach our school community and beyond about how to become a better digital citizen?"  Helpful info: Our sixth grade is broken into two "teams." One team consists of approximately 100 students broken into five class periods.

What We Need to Know
Throughout the school day, we added to our brainstorm board things we needed to know about digital citizenship in order to teach others.  This is where the students tell ME what THEY want to learn. For teachers who struggle with letting go of control, I always share that students most often include the standards you know you must teach them.  Never once have I had to add a thing!

Next Steps and Mini-Lessons
The students decided to make training videos that would teach their classmates about the different elements of digital citizenship.  I had already introduced them earlier in the year to this concept as we began our Common Sense Media app Digital Compass.  Side note: Amazing FREE app that I must recommend! There is a high school and elementary version as well!
Haven't tried Digital Compass or it's elem/high school counterparts?
Click the image to check it out! I highly recommend!
The students learned the fine art of good video making with iMovie and created interesting training videos for their peers.  As I completed a mini-lesson each day during Indiana DigCit Week, they viewed one of their videos! This was always a highlight of the day for the students.   Students also used the Tellagami app to explain information about Digital Security and Commerce.  We were able to learn both digcit content AND tech skills in the process of these activities.

Project Development
Editing our work.
The students also created a list of ideas for teaching their school community about DigCit.

They included:

  • Posters for the hallway with DigCit tips
  • Daily Morning Announcements on the intercom 
  • Fliers around town
  • Warrior Window information (Our hallway video monitor that plays announcements and other important info for the students.)
  • Survey the school 
There were a few other ideas, but throughout the day we narrowed it down to the top five!  Students signed up for their area of interest using a Google Form which made organization for me a snap.  This allowed students to collaborate with peers from five separate classrooms on the same project.  

Becoming a Professional
Since many of their project ideas involved areas of our school culture that went far beyond our hallway, we arranged a meeting with our principal.  Our leadership committee did a superb job explaining the project to our principal and arranging permissions for the above project ideas.  I am so thankful to work in a building that embraces student-centered learning.  The leadership committee walked away with notes and deadlines they shared via GoogleDocs. 

Now, we were really committed to doing this thing!

Google to the Rescue
Managing this ongoing project was a breeze thanks to Google products.  Each group was headed by a project leader and all members were invited to edit a common Google Doc or Slide depending on the project.  I really enjoyed both watching and participating in their collaborative docs/slides and the conversations that naturally flowed from the students.
Meeting with part of my Warrior Window team.  Face to face meetings
were just as important as the online versions.  All meetings should
be this fun!

The poster and flier crew were allowed to use any app of choice (most chose PicCollage) to create their digcit tip poster.  We learned a great deal about using the law of thirds and critiquing our own work.  I was simply amazed to watch them develop a professional eye.  

The day before our deadline with our principal, the students met with me and we finalized and edited their work.  Turning in our links was a final step and it felt great! 

Digital Citizenship Week

They did a great job creating posters for their peers. 
Since the hard work was all finished, we really were able to enjoy the fruits of our labor during DigCit Week.  I loved listening to the students on the daily announcements, seeing their tips on the Warrior Window, and seeing the hallways plastered with positive digcit tips for their classmates.  (We are still waiting to analyze the results of our survey.)  We also shared our great work via the #INDigCitWeek hashtag on Instagram and Twitter!  I want to give a huge shout out to the INCREDIBLE team behind Indiana Digital Citizenship Week! I love my #INeLearn family.
Warrior Window teammates showing off their handiwork!

Reflection is a necessary piece for growth in any project and this was no exception. Looking back, I am thankful I finally stopped being scared and took the PBL leap in middle school.  I know that the key to making it work was the collaborative qualities that Google products lend. 

I already look forward to our next big project!

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Student Voice: Why Every Student Deserves Digital Access

Today I am turning over the keys to my blog and putting my students in the driver's seat.  As we learn about digital access and what it truly means to be a GLOBAL citizen, I am leaving with you THEIR words about why every student deserves digital access.

It would be AMAZING if you would share this post with your edtech friends and beyond. The students will be watching the blog stats to see what countries are represented in their readership as well as number of page views.  Their words matter!  Comments are welcome below! If you share on Twitter, please use our classroom hashtag #SMSDigLit. Thanks!

These are actual words from my sixth grade students.

"Digital access is the starting point of digital citizenship. We can't even begin to be digital citizens if we don't have access." -Rachel

"Learning about today's technology helps us learn how to problem solve so we can use technology we don't even know about in the future." -Aubrey

"Kids need to know what's going on in the world around them." -Shania

"We should have access so we can do projects that include our own passions and talents." -Halo

"If you don't have access, you may not be able to get help in an emergency." -Jackie

"They should have the right to choose when they are adults if they want technology." -Cameron D.

"You need to be able to communicate with your friends on projects." -Mason

"Learning doesn't have to stop when we have snow days." -Cameron R.

"Digital access means we never have a reason to be bored." -Haylie

"Digital access lets us grow as digital citizens." -Jazzy

"Digital access helps us communicate with friends, family, and other loved ones." -Hunter

"It makes learning a lot more fun and meaningful." -Devin

"Digital access is environmentally friendly." -Logan

"Digital access allows me to communicate directly and privately with my teacher." -Aidan

"I can communicate with people around the world." -Brianna

Thanks for reading!  Why do YOU believe all students deserve digital access?

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Privileged Power of Digital Access (and Why I am Thankful)

I am so fortunate to have the opportunity to travel throughout the state and country sharing my love and passion for technology in the classroom.  Beyond my fortune, I see my travels as an opportunity to remind myself of the incredible, privileged power my students have simply because they have access to top-notch technology.

I work in a district that just rolled out over 3600 devices k-12 over the course of three days with a tech crew of less than ten people dedicated to the task.  THREE DAYS! I know the tremendous amount of work, sleepless nights, frustration, and dedication this crew has to their job because I happen to live with one.  It's not uncommon for me to rouse at 1:00 in the morning to hear him click, click, clicking away on his keyboard solving someone's pressing tech problem.  Why does he and the other tech guys do this? Because they know that what we are doing is important.  They know our carefully crafted lessons depend on technology that works for us and our students.  They are each personally vested in our district because they, too, have children who are benefitting from the technology they work hard to deliver.

This, my friends, is not the norm across the country.  I know. I've heard the stories from countless teachers who have to set up their own devices, pay for their own apps, put in help desk tickets that go weeks untouched because their tech staff punches the clock at 3:00.  Ours don't, and I am thankful for that.  They are the heroes of our school (often unsung) and also the punching bag when things go wrong.  There are a myriad of reasons behind why things are the way things are.  Why certain issues aren't an easy fix and why some are.  They know that a lot of times things are out of their hands as they await answers and fixes from companies across the country. So, again, I am thankful.  And patient even when I don't want to be.

I also know many teachers who attend tech-integration conferences with nothing but a hope and prayer that someday, some blessed day, she or he will see devices in her students' hands.  Teachers who toil at grant writing so they can maybe snag five iPads for their students to create with and explore the world.  I know there are teachers who have all the passionate and desire in the world to provide their students the AMAZING opportunities they read about, hear about, learn about, but simply do not have the access.

Digital access in America should be a right for our students.  Not a privilege.  Yet until we reach that point we all need to take a step back.  Be thankful.  Understand.  Be patient.  Don't forget where you were five years ago. Thank our lucky stars that our students are amongst the most privileged students in the world simply because they have access and a chance.


Monday, August 15, 2016

Mystery Bag Challenges *Freebie

This year our school implemented a 25 minute "Boost" period intended for enrichment and intervention for our students.  As a digital literacy teacher, I have thought a lot about this extra bit of time and how I want to spend it with my students.  Though I will likely employ a lot of strategies during this time, I know that I always want to keep it creation based!

In order to keep this extra period organized and easy prep, I've created some Mystery Bag challenges that I will use each week with my students.  These challenges are also perfect for fun Fridays, morning work, classroom parties, and more.  I feel they are extremely flexible for grade levels.  Don't have all the supplies on hand? Just use what you have!  I've included the file for these challenges and some photos that make it self-explanatory!


This photo shows the contents of each bag for the Pom Pom Launcher activity.  If you don't have enough masking tape or scissors to go around, just leave a tub of those on a supply table for students.  I even kept the masking tape roll on my arm and students had to come to me to receive their tape (saves on waste). 
Simple brown bags make this activity inexpensive. I printed and laminated my direction cards and stapled them to the bags.  Want something more durable? Try using laminated gift bags or even cheap Dollar Tree tubs.  I can now fold these flat and store them for next year. 

Groups had to first read directions.  I did not provide them with extra directions! This was difficult for some groups.  Keeping groups small is important for these mini-challenges.  In order to add tech, have one person document the group's work in a simple PicCollage or movie. We kept this challenge simple and to the point.  

I gave them 15 minutes to complete and test their launchers.  Then we went in the hallway and had a small contest to see which group's launcher was most successful!  You can see one group's launcher below.                                                      

Download the file here and 

be sure to share this post with friends!

Thursday, August 11, 2016

An Easy Design Build Challenge (STEM minus the Tech) for the Beginning of the Year

When I was looking for easy ways to kick-start my Digital Literacy classroom, it was a no-brainer to consider STEM activities.  There's absolutely no better way to build teamwork, learn new friends, and get the brain rolling than problem-solving your way through a design challenge. There's only one catch...

School started on Wednesday for us, and iPad roll-out isn't scheduled until Friday afternoon.  There goes the T in STEM...

No worries! I actually found that the following activity was a great way to build the foundational skills we need for the school year ahead.  The teachable moments were absolutely priceless! Below I'll detail the three layers of challenges I presented my students and the lessons we learned in between.  This is a simple, cheap (yay!), and fun way to work in a variety of character building discussions and team-building for your classroom at any time of the year!

*I by no means created this activity. I've seen it floating around for a few years, but I thought it might be worthy of a share.  I think it's amazing how activities can look different from year to year depending on your group of students or circumstances.  Teachers should be willing to share freely and tweak activities to fit their classroom needs! Enjoy!

The Red Solo Stacking Challenge

To get started, I divided my classroom into groups of four or five students depending upon class size.  Each group received a stack of ten red "Solo" cups and one rubber band that had four/five (depending upon group size) 12 inch long strings attached it.  I purposely selected groups so students would be working with a friend and classmates they didn't yet know.  I encourage you to decide what arrangement best fits your classroom needs! Students chose to work on our more traditional tabletops, but the floor or any other hard-surface work space would work just fine.

Challenge One
I then directed groups to select three of the cups for this challenge and push the others to the side.  I feel it is very important when doing STEM or design challenges to give as few directions as possible.  I told the students they were to build a two-story tower out of the cups.  There was only one rule in this challenge.  They could not touch the cups with anything but the string or rubber-band.  If students raised their hand to ask more questions, I simply responded, "You have all the instructions you need for this challenge."  I love how much that drives them crazy. :)

During the challenges, I walk around and observe the groups.

Here are important questions I ask myself as I observe:

How are they working as a team?
Who steps out as the leader?
What interesting or out-of-the-box methods are they trying?
Who seems to be struggling with teamwork/participation/technical skills?

I did not set a certain time for the first challenge.  After all teams were successful, or I had given ample time for all groups to at least have the chance, I called time.  Then we all discussed.  I'll include discussion questions and topics later.

Challenge Two
For this challenge, I upped the anti just a bit.  I asked students to add three cups to their total which was now six cups.  Secondly, I told students they must build a three-story tower with their cups.  Finally, I made it even more difficult by taking away the power of verbal communication.  That's right.  Students were not allowed to talk, whisper, grunt, hum, or otherwise make any noise during this challenge.  This was my favorite of the challenges.  Obvious reasons. ;) Kidding...

What I loved about this challenge was watching the students learn from their mistakes in the first challenge.  Many groups who were unsuccessful in the first round, quickly built their tower despite the communication challenges.

Again, after all groups were successful, we stopped and discussed.

Challenge Three
In this final challenge, I increased the difficulty once again.  All ten cups were now in play, and I asked the students to build the tallest tower possible in five minutes.  Adding the time component now made groups focus more sharply.  I did allow talking during this challenge, but minimized it to whispering only.  This was quite interesting in and of itself.

My favorite part of this challenge was watching the joy on their faces when they achieved success.  I would be working with another group and hear a shout of happiness when another group completed their tower.  At the end of five minutes, I was pleased to see most groups were able to successfully build a great tower!

Again, reflection and discussion was key!

Discussion Questions and Topics

There are so many questions that easily come to mind when observing students.

What was easy? What was difficult?  What would make this challenge easier? Who in your group was the leader?  What would you do differently if doing this challenge again?

A few of the items that came up through our reflections and discussions include:

  • Teamwork
  • The importance of both leaders and followers
  • Noise level (What's appropriate for this activity? What's your learning preference?)
  • Perserverance
  • Learning from Mistakes
  • Getting out of our comfort zones
  • Redefining success
  • Following directions
I'll leave you with a brief video of this activity in action.  Be sure to check the blog often over the next few months.  I have plenty of amazing students to share with you!