Sunday, December 14, 2014

Book review botheration

My students are writing a book review blog. I've been excited about this project since reading The Book Whisperer at the beginning of summer. It goes live next week, but I have a problem.

We worked together as a class to identify what a good book review looks like. We looked at professional reviews from The Horn Book and The Children's Book Review, and student-written book reviews at Reader Views Kids. But we were most impressed by the reviews from This Kid Reviews Books. Inspired by his format, my kids decided to write book reviews in two sections: a summary followed by their opinion.

Altered books by Bryan Elementary students
As the teacher, I led discussions about what made for a good book review. We read about writing book reviews and revising with a partner from the Writer's Express handbook. I wrote an example review using the format we chose as a class. I've offered suggestions on their Google Docs. Still, about a third of my students haven't written a quality book review yet. 

Some of my kids' reviews lack detail. When I push for more, they say that more detail would result in giving spoilers. Other reviews lack specifics in the opinion section and just say "it was a good book," without giving examples of the things that made it shine.

Other students have written beautiful reviews that tell just enough about the book to entice a reader. The opinions include reasons why the characters or settings were just right and comparisons to other books. Those reviews are ready to publish and represent the type of work I expect from students in an advanced learning program.

I'm struggling with where to go from here. I know that we'll post the detailed reviews this week, but not the others. This year, I've been working at building a culture of going back to review and revise work until it is top quality. I'm not allowing students to get a low grade and move on. How do I continue to support those students to develop their writing? Where do I find the balance between pushing them to improve and motivating them to write?

Please let me know if you have some ideas. I want my 4th and 5th graders' writing to shine. I know we can get there with some more time and effort. And I'll keep you updated as I continue to experiment and refine...

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Making ideas real: #slowchatED December 8-12

Since joining Twitter, #SlowChatEd has been one of my favorite hashtags. Since it runs for an entire week, it was always a little different than the other, sometimes frantic Twitter edchats I join in on. But when the school year started, #SlowChatEd disappeared. I figured it went on a short hiatus while the usual moderators were "September busy." The hiatus dragged on, and #SlowChatEd slipped to the back of my mind.

Then, a couple weeks ago, Ross LeBrun revived #SlowChatEd to talk about being thankful. Although I couldn't participate for the entire week, I was reminded how much I liked the slow chat format. So, this coming week I plan to hijack (I mean moderate) #SlowChatEd to talk about "making ideas real."

As I've shared before, joining Twitter has done wonders for me as a teacher. Before Twitter, I was still an avid reader of big education websites like Edutopia and a few teacher blogs. I attended conferences and professional development classes whenever I got the chance and I was always looking for new ideas in my classroom. When I hear a great idea, I want to put it into action right away! Sometimes, though, I had so many great new ideas that I just couldn't make them work. Being on Twitter has only made it worse - my TweetDeck columns are never-ending waterfalls of new ideas. How can I make the best of these ideas into reality?

Image by nocturnal~schism
I'll be posting one question or prompt each day for the next week. Since it is a slow chat, please feel free to respond in multiple tweets, post links to resources, and ask questions of the other participants. Here are the questions:

Monday: Share an idea you recently implemented in your school.

Tuesday: What are your favorite sources for new ideas?

Wednesday: How do you manage the flow of ideas?

Thursday: Share an idea you are working on now. How are you moving from idea to reality?

Friday: How can we support each other and our colleagues to implement new ideas?

I have a few follow-up questions in mind for some of the days, too. I hope this will be a valuable discussion and I hope to see you there!

Sunday, November 23, 2014

BIG things in math - Part 3

Read part one and part two to see how my fifth grade students began using Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada's "Out of Many, One" in math class.

After figuring out the square footage and weight of the materials used for "Out of Many, One," I wanted to give my students the opportunity to create something large. My original plan was to go outside and measure our school's field, make a scale drawing of the field, figure out an image that would fit the shape, and then use string to mark a portion of the artwork in a little-used corner of the field. A week of very rainy days made that plan impossible, so we figured out a suitable indoor alternative.

My fifth grade math students separated into two teams to design large posters for one of our school's hallways. I showed my kids the wall spaces available for posters before giving them a selection of different size graph paper and the requirement to include a quote or slogan that represented a growth mindset, but otherwise I left them alone to come up with something. 

Our spaces had obstacles including a fire extinguisher
The first day of work on the project consisted mostly of measuring the space for the poster. Both groups recorded a number of measurements, but had a difficult time translating those to a scale drawing. Seeing that my students needed some more experience with scale drawings, we spent part of the next class period looking at diagrams, blueprints, and other scale drawings and discussing how large objects were represented accurately in smaller drawings. We also looked at our second activity with "Out of Many, One" in an attempt to see how we previously worked with scale.

It didn't take long from there for students to complete their scale drawings. When they presented them to me for approval, I asked how much butcher paper they needed and how large the writing and other features would be on the poster to double-check their scale drawings.

Next, students divided up the work on their posters. It was interesting to see how one group put assigned members certain squares from the graph paper while the other group chose one person to work on text and others to complete specific drawings on their poster.
This group used 1/2 inch graph paper

Both groups ran into trouble with teamwork along the way. I did my best to let them solve their issues, but I had to step in a couple times to help. One group had a very difficult time drawing objects on the big poster to the correct scale based on their scale drawing. I frequently checked in and had them look back at the scale drawing to confirm that their poster matched the plan.
Turning the scale drawings into large murals
took a lot of careful measuring

In the end, my students created some nice art for a bare spot in the hallway, got some practice measuring & multiplying, and learned a bit about scale drawings. It definitely took longer than I planned. We spent three full math periods working on the project and used the last ten to fifteen minutes of class frequently for about two weeks. Still, the students really enjoyed the project and it gave them a chance to demonstrate their budding understanding of scale. If I do this with next year's fifth graders, I would want to give them some more opportunities to work with scale drawings before getting to this project and I would want to speed up the process of creating the final posters. Still, it was a fun project and it makes me excited to find more extended problem solving opportunities for all of my math groups. And I'll keep you updated as I continue to experiment and refine...  

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Seeking enrichment for all

Teaching in an advanced learning program, the idea of enrichment drives so much of what I do. I'm always trying to go beyond our curriculum to provide my students deeper understanding. It's terrific! I love seeing what my students can do and sharing all of those enrichment opportunities with them.

But my students make up about 20% of my school's population in grades 3-5. What about the other 80%? What about the younger kids? If my job is to provide enrichment, how can I provide enrichment to all?

My first attempt to provide enrichment to all is our Invent Idaho competition. I participated three times when I was in elementary school: adapting a phone cord as a dog leash, creating a cat food container that was also a serving dish, and making a mash-up of Tiddly Winks and the Game of Life. The competition challenges students to create something. They keep an inventor's journal with their thoughts and sketches, build a prototype, and make a display board to share their invention with the world (or at least everyone at their school).

Last week some of my reading switch groups were canceled due to testing, so I took the opportunity to visit other classrooms and get the whole school (not just the kids officially in my program) fired up about inventing. It was awesome! Since visiting the first and second graders, I think I've had at least half a dozen of the little guys come up to me each day and tell me an invention idea. A fifth grader I never met before visiting his class has come to see me twice during recess to show me blueprints and dig through my tinker box for materials. I think we're in for some awesome inventions at our competition this year!

I shared this video with all the classes I visited

I'll put some posters up around the school, make a few guest appearances on our morning announcements, and keep encouraging the inventors I meet in the hallway. Hopefully that will result in a wide reach for this enrichment opportunity.

We're still about a month away from our school competition, but I'm already asking myself how I can provide more enrichment for all opportunities. The next one on the calendar are the classroom and school spelling bees I coordinate in January. Like any teacher, my time is limited, but I know there have to be more ways that I can help provide some great opportunities for all the kids at my school. Do you have an enrichment for all opportunity that works in your school? Please let me know in the comments. And I'll keep you updated as I continue to experiment and refine...

Monday, October 27, 2014

BIG things in math - part 2

Read part one to see how my fifth grade students began using Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada's "Out of Many, One" in math class.

This satellite image was captured by DigitalGlobe's GeoEye-1 satellite
on Oct. 6, 2014. Image from the National Portrait Gallery's website.
After figuring out how much dirt was used in the creation of "Out of Many, One," my kids tried to figure out just how big this colossal artwork is. We looked at a number of photos of the work, but decided that the one to the right gave us the easiest picture to measure. It didn't take long for students to realize that they needed more information to figure out the scale.

I pulled up a map of the National Mall on Google Maps to give us some context of the area. After a little discussion, we decided that we should figure out the length of another feature in the picture. We chose the road to the west of the DC War Memorial. Although the road had a small curve around the memorial, it was the easiest to clearly identify in the picture and on the map. The road measured 400 feet long. Students used that measurement to come up with a scale for the map and estimate the square footage of "Out of Many, One." If I were to do this project again, I would find measurements for other landmarks, such as the width of the reflecting pool, to see if we come up with similar estimates when basing our scale on other known distances.
Image from Google Maps
We weren't done exploring big things just yet. My students went from using scale to estimate the size of this artwork to creating their own scale drawings for a giant artwork. They're still working hard on that project, and I promise to let you know how it goes.

You can see my students' final project in part three.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

BIG things in math

Watch this video. What mathematical questions come to mind?

After two viewings, my fifth graders wondered how many pounds of dirt it took to create Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada's "Out of Many, One" portrait on the National Mall. Through the first viewing, most just wondered what the heck was happening until their jaws dropped at the final reveal.

One of my goals for this school year is to frequently engage my math students in extended problem solving. About once a month, I want to give my students a challenge that takes a week or more worth of math switch classes in order to find a solution. I've scoured all of my books and countless websites for resources, but I'm most excited for the projects that pop into my mind when I hear a great story on NPR, read about something unbelievable from mental_floss, or watch an especially interesting video shared by a friend.

My first attempt at creating an extended problem came together after learning about Dan Meyer's Three-Act Tasks at a recent district collaboration. Later that same day, I saw a video about the "Out of Many, One" project and realized it would make a great first act and a Three-Act Task would be a great kick-off for an extended problem. The first act of a Three-Act Task presents students with a chance to generate mathematical questions and estimate an answer. After coming up with their question, I asked my fifth graders to make a high and low estimate.

For act two, students generate more questions to pull out the information they need to solve the problem. Some of their questions didn't lead to helpful information, but we discussed them all. Eventually, many of my students asked how many truckloads of dirt were delivered to the site. Luckily I had a video for that, too.

The kids still didn't have enough information. They figured out they needed to ask how much dirt a dump truck holds. I had already reverse engineered the problem, so I was able to tell them that the trucks for this project carried between six and seven tons of dirt each.

I encourage a lot of teamwork in my math classes, so students worked together to make the unit conversions and figure out just how to use the information they had to find the answer they sought. Some found an answer right away and began trying to figure out how much sand was there, too.

Finally it was time for act three: the big reveal. We visited the National Portrait Gallery's page about the work to find out some more information and check our answers. Most of the class had been successful in finding an answer close to 1,600,000 pounds of dirt. The best part of act three was comparing that figure to students' initial estimates. The largest act one estimate was 600,000 pounds. One student commented that she didn't even know it was possible to have a million pounds of dirt in one place.

We read some more about the artwork and had a short non-mathematical discussion about the artist's choice to assemble features from many real people into a portrait. It was a great experience for my math students. We weren't done though, that was just our first day and a half, and I wanted my students involved in a problem for a week (or a little more). I'll post later this week about where we went next.

Be sure to read part 2 and part 3.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Life-long learning, a teacher's impact, and pizza

My family tried a new restaurant last week. I'd been excited to visit Embers by the Lake, a pizzeria out in the country about half an hour away from our house, since they opened this summer. Although I had heard great things about the food and the atmosphere, that wasn't the only reason I wanted to visit Embers. It's run by two of my favorite middle school teachers.

Photo by Carrie Scozzaro, INLANDER
Mr. Hammons was my seventh grade math teacher. At that point, math was not my thing. I had struggled with learning my multiplication facts and felt like I would never be good at math. He was my first teacher to present math in context. I remember a project where he challenged students to design a house and calculate the cost of windows, flooring, and other materials. I had fun with the project and I willingly did calculations that I would have avoided if they were presented as bare numbers in a textbook. In fact, a discussion about compound interest in his class inspired me, a math-a-phobic middle schooler, to go home and attempt to calculate the payments on my neighbors' crazy new boat even though it wasn't an assignment for class.

I never took a class from Miss Roletto (now Mrs. Hammons), but I remember her as one of the friendliest teachers in my middle school. She was always out in the hallway between classes talking with students. She was also one of the teachers who attended our middle school's Natural Helpers retreat the same year I did. It was a great program training students and teachers to help others. Now that I'm a teacher, I really admire each teacher who gave up a weekend with family to tackle serious middle school issues through the Natural Helpers program.

Our Embers experience was terrific. My little boy was excited because it was superhero theme night there and he got to wear a cape and mask to dinner. Our server (Captain America) happened to be a former student of mine. And my former teachers kept busy as Mr. Hammons manned the wood-fired brick oven and Mrs. Hammons greeted diners and checked in with each table. The pizza was terrific - we had a sausage pizza and one with Gorgonzola cheese and mushrooms.

After we cleaned our plates, Mr. Hammons stopped by our table to ask how we enjoyed everything. I just had to ask him how he learned to make pizza. He said that he took one class, watched YouTube videos, and practiced a lot before the restaurant opened. The practice paid off, because he is making outstanding pizza. After helping so many learn during his years as a teacher and principal, his commitment to lifelong learning is on display at Embers.

Dessert at Embers is an experience as well. You make your own s'mores at the firepit out in front of the restaurant. As Mrs. Hammons started the fire for us, she commented that our waitress remembered me as a fun teacher. I told her how great it is to run into my former students and see what they are up to. She reminded me that my former teachers have enjoyed seeing me grow up and come back to teach in the school district that educated me.

It's amazing how nourishing pizza at Embers can be!

Sunday, October 12, 2014

I have Googley EYES

The EXCEL foundation has awarded
over one million dollars in grant money
to Coeur d'Alene classrooms since 1986
I just found out that the EXCEL Foundation is supporting my proposal for classroom Chromebooks! I'll have one device for every three students. I figure that will give me enough technology to create a successful rotation plan for student use. I called my grant proposal "Googley EYES (Exploration Yields Extraordinary Students)". I want my students to explore their passions and take control of their learning. Here's the project summary from my proposal to give you an idea of what I have in mind.

“Self education is, I believe, the only education there is.”

-Isaac Asimov 

Great things come from exploring a passion. Imagine a classroom where students spend 20% of their time in class solving problems and investigating ideas that matter to them. When Google incorporated this 20% time into engineers’ work days, it resulted in innovations like gMail and Google News. Math students will generate questions that cannot be answered with a simple Internet search to guide their 20% time. These questions could involve a problem that could be solved by collecting and analyzing mathematical data or a student may choose to research and practice a mathematical concept of interest. Students will create a presentation, record a video, or otherwise creatively share the results of these “passion projects.” 

Students will have at least two chances during the school year to choose and complete a passion project. Although not all projects will require the use of a computing device, I want to have enough devices available in my classroom so each student can spend at least one class period each week working online to complete the project. In addition to passion projects, math students will also use the Chromebooks to research, organize data, and present solutions to real world math problems throughout the school year such as comparing the cost of the traditional “12 Days of Christmas” gifts to currently popular products.  
Reading and writing is all about communication. Authors have a conversation of sorts when their audience reads and thinks about their work. The audience for student writing has often been limited to the students’ teachers and classmates. Using Chromebooks and Google Documents will allow students to find a larger audience for their work. Students will publish a book review blog and receive and respond to comments from their readers. In addition, they will work together with digital pen pals from another school to revise and edit each others’ work using the commenting features of Google Documents.
These math and language arts activities will give students more control over their learning and equip them with the tools to be life-long learners. In addition, all of the documents they create on the Chromebooks are available on any Internet-connected device, so students can use work in class as a jumping-off point for further investigations at home. Through increased autonomy and experience in using powerful, cloud-based tools, students will be self-directed learners who are eager to learn at school and beyond!
I want to publicly thank the EXCEL foundation for all the good they do for our schools! This is the fourth project they have supported for my classroom, but my students have benefited from art, music, P.E., counseling, and other classroom projects supported by EXCEL. It's terrific to have a local foundation that will put money behind new ideas in our school district!

The order for the Chromebooks goes out on Monday and I hope to have them in my room by the end of the month. I'm excited about all the possibilities this will open up for my kids. And I'll keep you updated as I continue to experiment and refine...

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Inspiration from Jim Henson

Picture from The Muppet Wiki
"When I was young, my ambition was to be one of the people who made a difference in the world. My hope is to leave the world a little better for having been there."    -Jim Henson 

Picture from The Muppet Wiki
Remember the chaos of the Muppet Theater from The Muppet Show? Dr. Bunsen Honeydew's inventions running amok, the Swedish Chef being attacked by his ingredients, Miss Piggy making demands for her closing number, The Great Gonzo's act onstage literally bringing down the house, and Kermit the Frog was backstage keeping everything running as smoothly as possible. That's the type of classroom I want to have. Jim Henson talked about the "gentle anarchy" of his work. I think that's just the thing our classrooms need.

Jim Henson would have turned 78 years old last Wednesday. I've loved his work for as long as I can remember. Some of my earliest memories are of laughing with my grandpa as we watched The Muppet Show. I played my Muppet Show Cast Album records so much growing up that I nearly wore out the grooves. When I had to pick a name for my high school German class, I chose Kermit. The area behind my desk is a gallery of Muppet photos and a picture of Statler and Waldorf hangs on the wall where I can imagine them heckling anytime I stand at the front of my classroom and lecture too much.

What does Jim Henson's work mean for me as a teacher?

First, his work had an enormous influence on my sense of humor. There's a good chance that Sesame Street was the first thing I watched on TV. Even today, the episodes from the early 1980s are very funny. The gentle anarchy of a neighborhood inhabited by children, adults, a giant bird, and friendly monsters is a prime environment for comedy. It wasn't long before I discovered The Muppet Show and really began to understand what made me laugh. The way Fozzie Bear tries too hard to make others laugh, Sam the Eagle's complete, stone-faced seriousness, and Gonzo's nonsensical stunts created my comedic vocabulary.

Picture from The Muppet Wiki
The Muppets taught me teamwork. All the residents of Sesame Street help each other out. And even though every production in the Muppet Theater nearly results in disaster, they all pull together for a show-stopping closing number. But that teamwork pales in comparison to what was going on under the Muppets. Jim Henson assembled an amazingly collaborative team. Everybody played to their strengths whenever possible, but took risks to create new, exciting things together. I aspire to that level of collaboration with my students and my colleagues.

Nothing teaches the value of individualism and diversity like the Muppets. Every pig, chicken, and monster has something wonderful to contribute. The same is true of every child in my classroom. I want my students to explore their own passions, to tackle problems from their unique perspectives, and share who they are with the class. Giving students choice often results in a classroom full of gentle anarchy, and that's the way I like it.

Image from The Oatmeal
Finally, loving Jim Henson and his work helps keep me in touch with my inner child. How can I teach a seven-year-old if I can't laugh at the same things that make her laugh? To be an effective teacher, I need to remember what it's like to lose myself in wonder - to believe that animals can talk and a frog and a pig can fall in love. Being able to connect with my students in that way helps me build rapport.

As I sit here early on Sunday morning in pajama pants decorated with wide Muppet smiles and wearing a Kermit the Frog T-shirt next to Muppet representations of my family sitting on the mantle, I know Jim Henson had an outsize influence on who I've grown up to be. I'm thankful for what his work has done for me and I aspire to pass on some of that gentle anarchy as I laugh and learn with my students.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Idaho edtech premiere

I am eagerly anticipating Thursday's inaugural Idaho edtech show on Google Hangouts. My wonderful wife, Sarah, is co-hosting a discussion of digital citizenship with the amazing Simon Miller. I'll be tuning in (and desperately hoping they need me to be an Ed McMahon-style announcer to kick off the show and add in a few quips)
Please consider joining us at 7p.m. PDT on Thursday, September 25 2014. I think it will be great!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

A different type of back to school

I was really looking forward to going back to school this year. I was taking on a new challenge leading my school's advanced learning program. All summer I was inspired by great new ideas from edcamp Idaho, my amazing PLN, and the books I read. My school had a much-needed remodel over the summer. We would finally have hallways! (That's a big deal: for the last nine years, students from other classes have had to walk through my classroom just to visit the restroom. When an entire class had to leave for lunch or the library, it would effectively interrupt teaching and learning until they passed.) I could hardly wait to share all of this with my students!

My school buzzed with energy (and last-minute construction sounds) as students arrived on the first day of school. I found a place near our new front entrance where I could help kids and parents find classrooms, share my excitement for our "new" building, and provide an enthusiastic welcome to a new school year. Since I'm a specialist teacher this year, I wasn't confined to my classroom that morning. Being out in the halls was amazing! It was wonderful to be a friendly face greeting our families on the first day of school.

Then the bell rang.

I went back to my classroom - alone.

I missed the first day of school excitement of a classroom. I still had plenty of work to do. Our remodel came with lots of new technology that I needed to help our staff learn how to use. I went outside for every recess and helped direct traffic when it was time for parents to pick up the morning kindergartners. Still, every time I went back to my room, it was empty.

Tomorrow is my second chance at a first day of school. I've spent many long hours assessing students and poring over data to help determine reading and math switch groups. Some of those groups will finally come to me tomorrow. I can't wait to build a classroom culture of supporting each other and embracing challenge. I'm planning to go in to school today, on Sunday, to make sure everything is ready. I definitely have my usual first day of school "butterflies," just a few weeks later than normal.

I think I made the right choice taking on this new challenge and leaving my traditional fifth-grade classroom behind. Still, I'm nervous about this new role. Will I be able to develop a strong bond with students who I work with for less than an hour each day? How will I get to know the whole child when my task is to provide enrichment in a specific subject? I have a lot to learn in this new job. And I'll keep you updated as I continue to experiment and refine...

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Mindfulness and morning ritual

We live in a multi-tasking world. From the moment I wake up, I'm making plans for the day ahead, reflecting on what I did the day before, and thinking big thoughts while I shower, eat breakfast, and get ready for the day. It seems no matter what my body is doing, my brain is thinking about something else.

There is one exception to that: my morning shave. A couple years ago I switched from my canned shaving cream and four-blade cartridge razor to something my grandpa might have used. I lather my face with a brush and bowl of soap. Then I scrape the scruff from my face with a double-edged safety razor. The threat of cutting myself makes it necessary to clear my mind of all other thoughts. I concentrate on gently guiding the razor until I've cleared all the lather from my face.

My morning shave is one of the best parts of my morning routine. Those minutes of concentration on a single task are wonderful, and I get a better shave than I ever did with my "high-tech" razor. Progress isn't always progress.

So, what does this have to do with my classroom? My morning shave grounds me and prepares me for the day. I don't always bring my regular shaving kit when I travel, and I miss it. In fact, my trip to Edcamp Idaho was one of the rare occasions when I brought everything along. I found that I was more alert, made better decisions, and was more present throughout the day than I am when I take a travel razor and can of shaving cream.

My students need something that calms their minds and grounds them, too. A couple years ago, I received a book about the Hawn Foundation's Mind Up program. It's centered around a core practice of having students sit quietly and focus on their breathing to begin class. I bought a chime so I could signal the beginning and end of our focusing time. When I tried it with my students, I started to see results immediately. After a few days practice, having those moments of quiet made such a difference for my kids. They were able to leave stress encountered on their way to school or during their before-school recess time behind so they could focus on what we were doing in class.

Students began to ask for the chime before tests or student presentations. If I forgot to ring the chime after recess, someone would always raise a hand to offer a reminder. It became an essential routine for my classroom.

In addition to the core practice, I led my students in exercises to improve focus. One time, we listened to all of the sounds in a quiet classroom. Another time I filled cups with different scented objects for students to experience. My favorite was taking time to carefully observe an orange slice candy: considering its appearance, sensing the texture of rough sugar crystals in the hand and on the tongue, and finally biting down and savoring the sweetness. With each activity, I saw students slow down and really pay attention to the world around them. Although I could see a benefit, I wasn't able to give students that type of extended exercise often enough. Still we did our core practice at least twice a day.

When our days of standardized testing started after spring break, the chime came with us to the computer lab for each testing session. I still gave a pep talk and reminded students to put in the effort that would result in each individual's best performance, but our core practice became a shortcut to mental preparation. As soon as I rang the chime, I saw many of my students physically change from tense to relaxed. Even the students who had great anxiety about testing would at least take the time to close their eyes and breathe deeply before looking at the screen. Our core practice served the same purpose my morning shave does: it allowed us to stop and focus on a single thing before facing an endless number of sensory inputs.

When do you focus on a single task? Does it prepare you to face the world? As I move to a new teaching position with six different groups of students each day, the mindfulness routine in my classroom will need to change. Still, I know it is important and I want to make sure it happens. And I'll keep you updated as I continue to experiment and refine...

If you're interested in trying out old-fashioned shaving for your morning routine, here is a slideshow of my recommendations. (These products are offered through the Amazon Associates program, so I am compensated if anyone purchases. I would recommend these tools regardless, they're what I choose to use)
In addition, I use Montana Natural Shave Company's pre-shave oil (from Missoula's Good Food Store).
My back-up razor is a Depression-era Gillette razor found at a junk store. There are many good antique razors available if you're interested in getting started that way.
No matter how you go about getting started, it's worth watching a lot of footage and instructional videos before your first attempt.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Inspiration from Edcamp Idaho

This has been a tough post to write, I really don't know how to describe my experience at the first Edcamp Idaho.  My son (almost 4 years old) helped me. He said I should write:

Camp was fun! Everything there was so much fun!

His words pretty much cover it, but I'll try to elaborate. When I first heard about it, I was afraid I wouldn't be able to go. Although it was my state Edcamp, it was a long way away. I took the plunge and made the 11 hour drive to be there.

Photo by Simon Miller
The night before the event, quite a few #IDedchat participants met for a Tweetup at a local restaurant. My main goal for the trip was to meet members of my personal learning network face to face and this would be my first opportunity. It was a little surreal meeting people I had never met before, yet they knew me by name before we even said hi. We were able to chat, share some food, and play bocce. If there is ever an inter-state edchat bocce competition, I wouldn't bet against the Idaho team (as long as I wasn't playing - my bocce game still needs some work).

Everyone was excited to be there to share ideas, and they were all unbelievably helpful and friendly. Being at the other end of the state, I only knew one other person there. Simon Miller is a technology coordinator from Kellogg, Idaho who I first met at a Google Apps for Education Festival this winter. He helped arrange accommodations for me in Hailey. I also met my host for the night, Dave Guymon. He just moved to Hailey to take a job with their school district and graciously offered a place for Simon and I to stay the night (and he cooked us a hearty breakfast before our day of learning). Tim Rocco was kind enough to supply us with sleeping bags for the night. In addition to the effort those three put into making sure I had somewhere to sleep, everyone else at dinner instantly made me feel at ease and comfortable. I met four more members of my PLN: Tami Rigby, Marita Diffenbaugh, Janet Avery, and Chad Avery. There were plenty of teachers who weren't on Twitter (yet) who joined in our conversations that night.

Edcamp Idaho session board photo by Janet Avery
Since I was staying with some of the organizers, I was one of the first to arrive at Wood River High School in the morning. I met Maggie Stump, who has been an active participant in our Teach Like a Pirate book study, right away. Excited educators kept streaming in and voting for the day's topics. One of the great things about edcamp is that all of the sessions are completely participant created and driven. For Edcamp Idaho, most of the session ideas were proposed ahead of time and participants were able to place stickers on the topics they wanted included in the day's agenda. When the session board was posted, there were 36 sessions to choose from with topics ranging from encouraging students to read non-fiction to learning how to use specific technology resources.

My first session was Teach Like a PIRATE. Although only a handful of teachers in the room read the book, we had a great discussion on the importance of rapport and a lot of ideas shared for transforming classrooms. I went to sessions on favorite classroom apps and using Discovery Education, but my favorite session of the day was "Things That Suck." That session presented us with controversial education topics and everyone in the room physically arranged themselves in order from strong agreement to strong disagreement and then we debated. I found that I was frequently in the middle, but there were many passionate arguments for and against merit pay, high-stakes testing, and homework. I was surprised by the diversity of opinions in the room.

Hanging out with other edcampers - photo by Marita Diffenbaugh
Edcamp Idaho was everything I hoped it would be and more. With over 100 teachers in attendance and 36 sessions, I'm still sorting out everything I learned. I have a huge list of apps to check out, some resources to investigate for project-based learning, and ideas for getting my students started with Google Apps. I even won a year subscription to Nearpod! But by far the most valuable part of Edcamp Idaho are the connections I made. As great as building my Twitter PLN has been, meeting face to face is amazing. I guess the best way to wrap it all up is by saying: Camp was fun! Everything there was so much fun!

Friday, July 11, 2014

Twitter rescued me

I'll come right out and say it. I was burnt out. Somewhere along the way, I lost that spark that made me a teacher. There are so many reasons why it happened: The constant battle with the state legislature for adequate funding and fair treatment. The isolating feeling of being the only male teacher in my school. The sudden shift to new standards. So many little things that just made it harder and harder to be enthused about my work.

I knew that I wasn't doing my best teaching anymore. I was ashamed. I felt like a failure knowing that my attitude could prevent some of my kids from having the best fifth grade year possible. It seemed as though I had no one to turn to. I was uncomfortable talking to teachers who always seemed to be doing great because I didn't want them to know how I was feeling. If I talked to other teachers who were having a rough year, it became a festival of complaint. All of that just made my burnout worse and worse.

Illustration by Sarah Windisch (@slwindisch)
In February, a college friend of mine mentioned how much he enjoyed his state edchat. I had a Twitter account I never used, so I thought I would check things out. In a few minutes I discovered an upcoming Google Apps for Education Festival in my area. I secured a last-minute registration for the GAfE Festival, knowing that I needed something to inspire me. I gained some new ideas from the sessions at the festival, but the most valuable experience came after the event. The organizers invited everyone to meet later that night at a local pub for an after-party. That night, I connected with teachers throughout the West who were doing amazing things. In addition, they talked about how much they learn from Twitter.

Later that week, I made sure to participate in #IDedchat on Twitter. The topic was ideas for successfully implementing the Common Core Standards. I shared a few things that I had done, but mostly I learned that teachers from all over the state were coming up with ideas to implement the new standards even though they were struggling with the same problems of little training and insufficient materials that I was facing.

Over the next few weeks, I continued to participate with #IDedchat, but I also dropped in on #MTedchat, #NorCalChat, #SlowChatEd, #WyoEdChat, #nt2t and #WeirdEd. With each edchat, I met more teachers who were finding success in the face of obstacles and added them to my personal learning network.

I never mentioned my burnout to my PLN. It was my secret shame. But as I connected with more and more teachers, my enthusiasm and passion for teaching rekindled. I was trying new ideas like MysterySkype and Genius Hour with my students. I began sharing what I learned on Twitter and at the GAfE festival with my colleagues at school. Soon, new opportunities came my way: I was asked to be my building technology leader (an extra duty I had wanted for a long time), my principal approached me about teaching our school's advanced learning program for the coming year, I got to lead a session at EdCamp Spokane, and I facilitated a summer book study on Google+. In addition, I started blogging about my own experience as a teacher and even wrote a guest post for a summer Blog-a-thon. It was easy to forget that I had ever faced burnout.

My flame for teaching is burning the brightest it ever has! So, why bother sharing my story of burnout? Teaching is a tough job, and when someone faces the type of stress that comes with the job, burnout is always possible. Burnout carries such a stigma that I felt terribly ashamed for reaching that point. I was scared of how my colleagues in my own system would react if I admitted how much I was struggling. Yet, it was only after I connected with other teachers that I was able to overcome burnout. As teachers, we need to break the stigma associated with burnout and connect with our colleagues. I'm thankful that I found Twitter and some great professional development to light my fire, but the key was connecting with other educators and learning new ideas. We can do this in our own schools and districts. Please, reach out to the other teachers around you, especially those who are having a rough year. Be a sympathetic listener as they share struggles and ideas. You might be the light that rekindles a flame!

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

P is for passion

Image from a presentation by Christy Hilbun
The #IDedchat study of Teach Like a PIRATE has begun. And the P in PIRATE stands for passion, an essential element for any good teacher. Author Dave Burgess asks readers to answer three questions about passion. I decided to post my answers here.

"Within your subject matter, what are you passionate about teaching?"
When I was teaching fifth grade, this would have been an easy answer: U.S. History! I love our country's early history: the crazy adventures of the first European explorers, the hardships of colonization, the passion that ignited the revolutionary war, and my all-time favorite topic: the three branches of government. Next fall, when I am officially an advanced learning teacher, those aren't technically within my subject matter. Instead, I'll be teaching reading and math switch groups for third, fourth, and fifth graders.
My passions in reading and math aren't as easy to define. I'm passionate about good storytelling and the ability to get lost in a great book. I'm passionate about learning through non-fiction. I'm passionate about connecting mathematics to real life. I want my students to fall in love with reading for pleasure and reading to learn. In math, I want them to see mathematics as a language for communication and problem solving. If I can weave those into every class, the passion will be there.

"Within your profession, but not specific to your subject matter, what are you passionate about?"
Lifelong learning is definitely a passion! When I was in school, I wasn't a good student, but I was a good learner. I would take an idea and run with it, puzzling though multiple solutions or seeking out books to learn more. My greatest goal as a teacher is to create lifelong learners. I want my students to have the tools to learn and discover about anything they want or need to know.

"Completely outside your profession, what are you passionate about?"
I love my family! I want to spend quality time with them and have fun. Music is a big part of my life. I play the tuba whenever I get a chance, but listening to music is one of my favorite activities. I grew up loving my grandpa's big band records. I still love the music of his era, but I've branched out to have very eclectic tastes: I'll listen to anything! Food is always on my mind. I enjoy cooking just as much as eating.  I studied the Titanic disaster in-depth throughout high school and college, and I still add to my library of books and articles about the ill-fated maiden voyage. And I can't get enough of surprising and obscure facts: I'm constantly reading articles from mental_floss and sharing all of the crazy things I learn with anyone who will listen.

Now that I've identified my passions, it's time to bring them into my classroom. I'm looking forward to learning how to do that in the rest of Teach Like a PIRATE. And I'll keep you updated as I continue to experiment and refine...

If you would like to join the #IDedchat study of Teach Like a PIRATE, let me know in the comment section or by contacting me on Twitter @teacherwithtuba We just got started, and would be happy to build a larger group!

Tweetchat triumph

Tonight I followed two edchats simultaneously. I joined #WeirdEd talking about "The Whole Wide World" and #NDedchat discussing "Connections" It was my first attempt at dual chatting and I had a bit of beginners' luck! This is my Tweetchat Triumph:

What made this so great? It answered the second question from #WeirdEd

and #NDedchat AT THE SAME TIME!

I was feeling pretty good after that one! However, all that awesome broke the Interwebs. I lost my connection to the world wide web about ten minutes later and missed the end of both chats.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Inspiration from The Book Whisperer

Image from
My first professional read of the summer was Donalyn Miller's The Book Whisperer. I came away from it questioning everything I've done as a reading teacher. And I'm happy to be doing that.

The big question I've started to ask is: "Do the things I do in class promote reading?" My reflection reveals a mixed record. I have always taught in Accelerated Reader schools and put quite a bit of effort into calculating, monitoring, and rewarding student reading goals. No matter how high or low I set the goals, I always had about 25% of my students who never reached a grading period goal. As I conferred with and observed these students, I found that they would start books, but rarely finish. They weren't motivated to read and earning AR points wasn't doing anything to help. The time I invested on managing reading would have been better spent promoting reading. As a teacher, I need to help connect kids to the books that will make them passionate about reading. I should start with book recommendations to the class and individuals. My classroom needs a "reading culture" where students talk about and trade books on a regular basis. Reading is intrinsically motivating, and students need the opportunity to learn that.

Another big idea from The Book Whisperer is how important it is to have self-selected independent reading time in school. I haven't given my students much time for that in the past few years. Our reading program was focused on direct instruction in reading strategies and practice with short passages. I saw growth in comprehension ability, but I can't recall having a student learn to love reading under that instructional model.

So what will I do next year? Next year, I'll be teaching my school's advanced learning program: teaching the high math and reading switch groups for grades 3-5. I plan to start each of my reading switch classes with independent reading time. Donalyn Miller asserts that beginning class with independent reading time is more effective than any entry task that can become "busy work." Next, I'll set a 40 book goal for all of my students and help them set up personal reading logs to keep track of progress. I'll also set some genre requirements. At least ten of their books will be free choice, but I plan to require students to read some biographies, historical fiction, fantasy, science-fiction, classics, and informational non-fiction. Finally, I want to give my students an authentic audience to share about the books they read. We'll post reviews in our classroom and school library, create a blog of book reviews, and create opportunities to talk about books.

In addition to my work with students, I want to read more. If I've read the best books in current children's literature, it will be easier to help my students connect with just the right book. I'm going to set some time aside each day for reading. I expect that my students will give me some good suggestions, but if you can think of a must-read book for grade 3-5 let me know in the comments. After 11 years of teaching fifth grade, I feel pretty comfortable with the upper elementary literature, but I have no idea what third graders read.

I know it will be a great year for reading! I can hardly wait to see how these changes will build excitement for reading in my classes. And I'll keep you updated as I experiment and refine...

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Year in review

For the last four years, one of my last week of school activities is to ask my kids to write down a few things that they will remember from my class. I assemble their words into a word cloud. I present the 5th grade class of 2014 word could!

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Summer reading

Summer vacation just started and like most teachers, I'm already thinking about next year.  After 11 years of teaching fifth grade, I'm switching jobs. When I return in the fall, I'll be the Advanced Learning teacher at my school. I'll be teaching the high math and reading switch groups for third, fourth, and fifth grade. I'm looking forward to it, but it will be a big change. To prepare, I've made myself quite a list of summer reading. I'd love to share ideas from these books with anyone else who is reading them this summer and hear ideas from those of you who have made these books a part of your practice. So, in no particular order, here is my summer reading list:
Every year it seems like I have more and more reluctant readers - students who are capable, but just don't choose to read. The Idaho Core Standards definitely require more of our readers than our previous standards. With those changes and our school dropping Accelerated Reader next year, I hope this book will give me some new ideas for my reading switch groups.

Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess

When I first joined Twitter, this was the book that kept popping up in my feed.  I downloaded it before my spring break vacation, but I haven't found the time to read it yet. At last week's #idedchat, the book came up and I hastily put together a book study group for the summer. I'll post details about the book club as we figure it out.

Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe

This is another book that the teachers I admire most on Twitter frequently reference. In my new position, I am switching from having a somewhat flexible schedule with my students to 50 minute blocks with a group.  I need a plan that will give me the most impact with my short time. I'm hoping to find some ideas here.

He's the Weird Teacher by Doug Robertson

I am always amazed by what a fun and friendly community of teachers I have found on Twitter. And one of my favorite Twitter events is Wednesday night's #WeirdEd chat. We've discussed how being weird in the classroom builds relationships, how education relates to Pixar movies, and had a very serious exploration of violence and safety in schools.  Doug Robertson is the ringleader of this wonderful chat, so I want to read his book. Plus, I've overheard students say the title of this book when talking about me. If my kids want me to read it, so be it!

Mindsets in the Classroom by Mary Cay Ricci

This was my principal's teacher appreciation gift to the staff. I've heard quite a bit about Carol Dweck's book, Mindset, and the power of moving from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. I generally have a growth mindset, but I don't know how to impart that to my students. Maybe I'll find a plan here.

In addition to my professional reading, I hope to read some kid lit as well.  Now that I'll be working with younger students, I'm looking for suggestions of quality books that would be appropriate for good third grade readers.  Still, I have a few books in mind to read that should be of interest to my fourth and fifth grade students:
Now that my list is in writing, I need to follow through! Please let me know if you have any other kid lit suggestions or insights into the professional books I'm reading. I'm sure I'll post some reflections and ideas for how I'll apply these new ideas to the upcoming school year after reading. And I'll keep you updated as I continue to experiment and refine...

Images from

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Wrecking ball

Next week, my elementary school will fall to the wrecking ball. Not the one I teach at now, but the one I attended.

I'm so happy to see how our community is supporting our schools: voters passed a bond that will replace my elementary school and remodel four other schools that were in desperate need, including the one I currently teach at.

The current staff at Winton held an all-school reunion, so I had one last chance to walk the halls. I even got a hug from my second grade teacher in the room where I learned from her almost 30 years ago. I also added my memories of the school to a time capsule that future students will get to explore to learn their school's history.

I attended Winton Elementary from 1984-1989 for first through fifth grade.  At that time, Winton students were known as the Winton Warriors.  Our mascot was a knight with a pencil for a lance. 
Winton had the best playground of any school in town.  The west end had giant tractor tires that I liked to climb and hide inside of.  Next to those, there was a zip line that always attracted a long line during recess. The furthest northwest corner had a dirt slope where we would dig out “garages” and build ramps for racing toy cars.  There were swings, teeter-totters, and the large field to the east, but the very best part of the playground was the large play structure in the middle.  It was a huge wooden U with different levels to run around on and two wide metal slides.  In the center was a net made out of tires.  We would play “toilet tag” on the net.  The person who was it would try to reach though the tires to tag kids playing on the net.  Anyone who was tagged would join ‘it’ under the net.  If someone touched one of the posts at the corner of the net, it “flushed” the toilets and everyone who was ‘it’ had to run around the entire play structure before re-joining the game. 
Some of my other favorite memories of Winton included the first grade Easter hat contest, the annual science fair, the monthly “Perfect Peanut” assembly to honor students of the month, field day, and Friday ice cream sales. 
When I was in fifth grade, the ceiling over my classroom became weak and was in danger of falling.  For the last month of school, all of the fourth and fifth grade classrooms had to be evacuated in order to make repairs.  The fifth graders had class in the gym, and fourth grade classes were moved to Borah Elementary School.  I’m sure all of those changes at the end of the school year were tough on our teachers, but I remember thinking that moving our desks down the hall to the gym was a lot of fun! 
I’m sad to see my old elementary school go away, but I am excited for the fun and traditions that will be created with a new Winton Elementary.  I will definitely keep an eye on all of the great things that happen there!

As I look at my memories, I'm reminded how wonderful student-generated play is. I'm certain that toilet tag was student created, student taught, and student regulated. Just imagine reporting "he's cheating at toilet tag" to a teacher. It would probably get the game shut down. I hope that my students have secret recess games and activities that bring them joy.

Proposed Winton view from Coeur d'Alene School District
Also, I am amazed that my fifth grade teacher survived moving class into the gym! I know there were well over 30 students in my fifth grade class. I have a hard enough time keeping my fifth graders focused for their last two or three weeks of elementary school even when we're in our regular classroom.

I love that Winton's new building will contain elements of the old one. Still, I'll miss having the old building around: it held so many memories for me.