Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Bold and Ballsy: Teachers Who Inspire

I’m still settling in on my #OneWord2017. It's so hard to choose just one. Depending on the day and my mood, I toss around things like focus, balance, intention, purpose. They all clearly circle around a similar idea and each one merits serious attention in my life. And I will eventually choose one. I'm pretty sure of it.

And, yet. There's another, very different, recurring theme that keeps coming back to me.

What I really want to be this year is: bold and ballsy. It strikes a different tone, no? An earthier, grittier ring. And the two words must go together. Sounds like a good job for the hashtag:

I apologize if the ballsy part is a bit off-putting for you. There's an explanation, if you'll read on.

I am surrounded by amazing educators, both online and in my day-to-day. My ever-growing PLN consists of incredible teachers, administrators, edu consultants, authors, bloggers... so many outstanding people working hard to make learning better for children. And many of them push themselves in personal ways that are nothing short of inspiring, too.

Below is my shortlist of educators leading the bold and ballsy charge. These folks inspire me by what they're doing both in and out of the classroom. They deserve some celebrating!

1. @kellyhaydenMT: My dear friend Kelly is a woman of adventure. After teaching 5th grade in Montana for eight years, she pursued international teaching and landed a position in Bogota, Colombia where she, her husband and two young children (ages 4 and 6) are now living for two years. She teaches 6th grade science and is ROCKING life in South America! They went from a mountain town of 40,000, to a bustling city of nearly 7 million. Nearly every weekend, they are traveling to other parts of the country, exploring their new culture and living life in a big way. And, because moving to Colombia isn't quite enough, Kelly applied and got accepted to present at a STEM conference in Rio de Janeiro in March. Yeah, girl, go get 'em!

2. Hardcore Halnon: Andrea Halnon is a 3rd/4th grade teacher and former colleague of mine in Vermont. Shortly before turning 50, Andrea started running. Soon thereafter, she began competing–5Ks, 10Ks, and longer races. And in recent years, she's added triathlons to the mix. To date, Andrea has run 5 marathons, 25 half marathons and 31 triathlons. One of her many goals is to run at least one race each month of the year. (And, remember, she lives in Vermont. Think cold. Think snow.) She's incredible! I mean, just look at this list of personal and fitness goals for 2017. (And, believe me, she will knock each of those items right off her list.) Andrea, I don't call you Hardcore Halnon for nothin'!

Hardcore Halnon's 2017 personal and fitness goals.

3. Team #Ditchbook: Led by Matt Miller (@jmattmiller), author of Ditch That Textbook, this incredible group of educators is always brainstorming ways to make teaching and learning more Different, Innovative, Tech-laden, Creative and Hands-on. Most recently, Matt organized (for FREE!) an opportunity called #DitchSummit, which included 9 recorded interviews with amazing educators. The videos aired over winter break. Gasp! You missed it? (I missed some, too... shhhhh!) Well, you're in luck... Matt is re-releasing the videos January 12-18! Click here for details.

Be sure to follow the rest of Team #Ditchbook to see the amazing things they're doing with students and teachers: @karlymoura, @seanjfahey, @sandyrotto, @TTmomTT, @emosier3, @leadlaughlearn, @craigklement, @TaraMartinEDU.

4. #Booksnaps: Speaking of @TaraMartinEDU, she is leading the charge with educators and students, alike. Annotating PD books and getting kids to analyze text has never been more fun! Using Seesaw, Snapchat and other photo editing apps, Tara shows us how inserting Bitmojis and fun annotations on top of text can be a powerful and creative way to dig deep into any kind of text. Visit her blog for an in-depth tutorial to get started!

5. #teacherpowered: I am incredibly inspired by several teachers in my district (@mtkristigaines, @AlisonFeddes, @hirsch_tara) who are pursuing the idea of #teacherpowered schools. (Did you know these schools exist?) The teachers at these sites develop a focused vision and mission, and then run their own school through shared leadership. We traveled to Casper, Wyoming last month to see one teacher-powered school in action: Woods Learning Center. It was incredible. Many thanks to @DeyonneJ and the rest of the Woods Learning Center staff for hosting us!

And now for the BALLSY explanation:

6. @Mr_B_Teacher: Justin Birckbichler is a 4th grade teacher in Virginia. He was diagnosed with testicular cancer this fall, at the age of 25. He is chronicling his journey with treatment in his incredible blog, A Ballsy Sense of Tumor. Discussing testicular cancer can be taboo in our culture, and part of Justin's blogging mission is to spread awareness of this kind of cancer. His posts are remarkable. Please share his story far and wide!

Justin's ordeal hits close to home for me. I was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma (Stage 1) on my 39th birthday (truth)–nearly 3 years ago. I was lucky to have caught the cancer at such an early stage, and I required only three weeks of radiation.

It was a surreal time in my life. I would finish teaching, drive a few miles to the hospital, get 25 minutes of radiation, and continue on to get my kids at pre-school and Kindergarten. I'd rush home like every other working parent, make dinner, and get kids into baths (maybe) and bed. All with the help of an amazing husband, to be sure. While on the one hand I was fighting cancer, on the other, life still felt pretty normal. And as ridiculous as this sounds, radiation therapy was–quite literally–the most relaxing few minutes of each day. Seriously. I got to lie horizontal, relax, breath deeply, with no one demanding my attention. When a typical day was bookended by teaching 28 fourth graders and wrangling my own tired kids through the evening hours, this was bliss. But, yeah, this was also cancer. Weird.

Unlike Justin, however, I chose to keep the diagnosis relatively quiet. Because my treatment was going to be so minimal and side-effects wouldn't be obvious, I didn't feel the need to share the news broadly. I told my school colleagues, family and close friends. My students didn't know, nor did their parents.

At the time, it seemed like the right choice. And, to a large degree, it still does. So many people are fighting more severe cancers and are really fighting for their lives; my experience hardly seems comparable. It really wasn't.

But, all the same, I do feel like I carry this little "cancer survivor" secret around with me at all times. I've switched to a new role in my district since my diagnosis and treatment, and not all my colleagues know. Nor does my Facebook community or amazing Twitter PLN. I hate to drop this cancer bomb through a blog post, but it feels deceptive to keep it under wraps as I follow Justin's journey.

I am so overwhelmed by Justin's generosity of the experience. What he is going through is deeply personal, and he has chosen to share that experience and help others in the process. How selfless. And bold. And totally ballsy.

It is this boldness that I find lighting a fire under me these days. I suppose it's part of what motivates me to blog, to reach out more broadly, cast my net wider in the edu world.

While 2016 had its heartbreak and I, myself, had a serious bout of depression from Nov. 8 or so until winter break, I do think my #BoldandBallsy mentality is off to a solid start. Last year, I participated in the Teacher Leadership Initiative, which led to launching a Twitter project in my district (with @kellyhaydenMT): getting school hashtags going in my district to share and celebrate the awesome at our schools, and the creation of a district Twitter chat. I also helped organize (with @MrHagemeister) the first #EdcampBigSky, which took place in November and saw 125 attendees. These are definitely things to celebrate!

So what's next? What bold and ballsy moves can I make in 2017? Looking forward to the journey of discovery. Go big, or go home, as they say. Maybe my #OneWord2017 will help me identify some goals and make them a reality? Fingers crossed. Cheers to all of you and a fantastic 2017 ahead!

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Power of Digital Portfolios

Student portfolios are nothing new in the world of education. Many teachers have been using them for years.

They can vary in appearance and purpose. Some may be physical binders, or hanging folders in a crate. Others may have become digital, in the form of slide decks, blogs, websites or a tool such as Seesaw. Teachers use them in various capacities, as well. They may be used to showcase exemplars of students work, or they may focus on process and house an array of work showing growth over time.

In a recent PD session, we focused on how digital portfolios can help students reflect on the process of learning. Often, we save reflection for the end of an assignment, unit or project. But by the end, we've missed the opportunity to improve, set goals and try again. Reflecting at the end of a learning experience is not entirely bad or wrong, and I've done it many times, but if we only reflect at the end of a learning cycle, we've neglected the valuable process of mistake-making and the growth that results. And many of those mistakes may have gone unnoticed by our students until the end–when it's a bit too late.

The school day is busy, that is a fact. And many teachers may feel constrained by the school schedule and the limited time they have with students to "cover content."

But we must find time to build-in opportunities to reflect. A digital portfolio can do just that. Even our youngest learners, with a tool such as Seesaw, can learn how to reflect on their learning and set goals for improvement.

Let's start in the top-right corner of this infographic.

Ownership & Independence: Digital portfolios provide a platform for voice and choice. Students have access to a variety of tools such as text, pictures, drawing and voice recordings. They can take photos of their work. They can choose which items to add. All of these pieces are empowering to students, and lead them toward more ownership of their learning and independence in how they reflect on that learning.

Track Growth: Most digital options store student work chronologically. This makes it easy for students and teachers to look at growth over time. What an incredible way for students to celebrate how far they've come as more items are added to the portfolio. And teachers? This is heaps of formative assessment at your fingertips to help guide and differentiate your instruction. More on that below.

Timely Feedback: Research shows there is nothing quite as effective and impactful on student learning as direct feedback to the student. In a digital portfolio, teachers (and potentially peers and/or parents) can leave immediate feedback, helping deepen the student's understanding and learning. For more information about feedback, check out this Edutopia article or The Power of Feedback by John Hattie).

21st Century Skills & Digital Citizenship: Digital portfolios are likely to hit on whatever technology expectations and standards you have in your district. And what a natural platform for discussions around digital citizenship and how to critique the work of peers respectfully online.

Reflection & Goal-setting: This is the true gem of digital portfolios. Give your students a chance to slow down and think about what it is they're learning–and how they're doing learning it. (Meta-cognition, anyone?) This is hugely powerful for all learners. We don't want our kids just going through the motions of school, learning to be compliant school do'ers. Nope. We want them to understand why they're learning things and how those things apply to the world. And, as teachers, we want to know how they're doing as they move along the learning process.

Formative Assessment: Every item in a digital portfolio is formative assessment for us. Have your students take a picture of their "just right" book and record themselves reading it. Boom, you have yourself a running record! Say your students are working on multi-digit multiplication. Have them choose one problem and write a story problem to go with it. They can draw a representation and record themselves explaining it. Immediate assessment at our fingertips, at any time of day (or night)!

Authentic Audience: Many digital platforms make sharing with a wider audience easy. A class blog, student website, slide deck or Seesaw are all great ways to encourage student sharing. And students love hearing the feedback of their peers. Why not invite your principal and other teachers at your site to participate in your students' learning? By providing an authentic audience, you are legitimizing student learning. Students will realize that their learning matters to real people other than you, their teacher (which, let's be honest, may not matter a whole lot to them). Let them share their awesome!

Digital Tools for Digital Portfolios

There are lots of platforms for digital portfolios. Think about your class setting and the access you have to devices. A blog or website might be appealing, or you may choose to start with a simple slide deck. 

My personal favorite is Seesaw. It is incredibly easy to use and intuitive, for both students and teachers. And... parents can be invited to participate in their child's portfolio! This is a huge boon for parent-teacher communication and helps parents feel connected to the work their child is doing at school. (I speak from experience!)

If you use iPads in your classroom, Seesaw is likely compatible with the majority of other apps your students are using. Projects on DoInk, Book Creator and Sock Puppets are easily integrated with Seesaw and can be added to the student's portfolio. 

Seesaw is also web-based and works on any computer or chromebook.

When students add a new item to their portfolio, they are presented with this menu of choices:


After selecting one of these options, students can then use multiple tools to further enhance their portfolio item. They can add labels and captions to pictures, record audio, take video (up to five minutes) and annotate using the drawing tool. 

Parents can also use some of the tools above. They can "like" their child's item (as they would on social media), leave a text comment and even record an audio comment for their child. This is amazing for students during their school day. What? My mom left a comment about my fluency practice? Awesome! 

The Seesaw folks are great and very responsive to teacher questions and requests. Check out their website, as well as the Seesaw Help Center for tutorials, implementation ideas and loads of PD in Your PJs videos!

Here's a Getting Started video to get you started!

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

A Commitment to Change

Change. It's like growing old(er). We know it's inevitable, but we often fight it. We get comfortable in our habits and routines, and we dwell there–often for far too long. I have a list a mile long of various types of changes I would like to make in life: exercise more regularly, create better organizational systems at home, meditate. The list goes on.

As an educator, I think a lot about change and growth. It’s a constant focus in our work with students and guides our instruction throughout the year. We are always looking for evidence of growth and change over time. As our students explore, learn and mature over the course of an academic year, change and growth tend to be our measures of success. And when we don’t see that growth and mastery of standards, we worry–and then get promptly to problem-solving.

But what about the changes that we make as educators? Do we look for change and growth in ourselves? In our peers? In our schools? Are we expected to embrace meaningful change that will impact our students?

We must keep pushing ourselves to make change and try new things. Our students’ learning experiences deserve to be engaging, relevant and exciting–and different from the way we did things 20 years ago. Or five years ago, for that matter.

And our instruction deserves similar shifts, as well. As teachers, I believe we should be required to grow our toolboxes and encouraged to make changes to our instruction. We can’t let our fear of change prevent us from redefining the learning experiences of our students.

Brush aside your self-doubt and discomfort, and reject the notion that, as teachers, we must become “experts” before taking a leap with our students.

Change is exciting and rewarding. Change breathes life into our units and lessons. Change allows us to discover new tools to help us do our jobs better. Change reinvigorates our teaching and can fire-up our learners!

Change models risk-taking and mistake-making. Let’s demonstrate growth mindset every day for our students. Let’s show them what the learning process really looks like. Instead of feeling a need to become an “expert” before trying something, let’s partner with our students in the journey of discovery.

Change is empowering. When we go out on a limb to try something new, and experience growth and success from that effort, our confidence soars. Our mindset suddenly shifts toward “I CAN” statements, and we start to believe in the power and benefit of change.

Change is contagious. We are all inspired by the folks around us whom we see doing amazing things. Imagine if our school cultures revolved around this notion of change, and everyone began to try new things and share their experiences. That "change mindset" would sweep through our school sites like a bad cold!

I recognize that I may be on one end of the change spectrum. In high school, I lived (and schooled) on a working farm. During college and afterwards, I lived in two major cities on opposite sides of the country.

I've worked in publishing and for two internet start-ups. I've worked seasonally in the ski industry and as a wilderness ranger for the Forest Service.

I lived in the west for eight years, journeyed eastward for six, and then turned life on its head once more in a move to Montana (where we hope to stay for quite some time). Oh, and during all those wonderful, growth-filled transitions was a wedding and the arrival of two lovely children.

Clearly, I am not risk averse. I welcome and embrace change. But change doesn't necessarily have to be drastic. One doesn't have to move across the country with two toddlers to keep life interesting.

Scaffold your change. Fortunately for us, there are many ways to start. It doesn't need to happen overnight. Or all at once. There are many small changes we can make in our classrooms and instructional practices that are relatively low-risk and anxiety-free! Here are some ideas (in no particular order):

  • Introduce some flexible seating. Start with a beanbag chair or two. Add some table lamps to soften or eliminate some of the overhead lighting.
  • Grow your classroom library. Spend those Scholastic points and hit-up yard sales to buy high-interest novels and non-fiction that your students will love. And let them choose what they want to read!
  • Try the 'Hour of Code.' Curious about coding but haven’t started, yet? December 5th is the official kick-off, but really, you can do it any time of the year!
  • Start having class meetings. Take time to connect with your students in a new way. Where can you carve out 15 minutes in your schedule to build classroom community?
  • Do Number Talks. 10 minutes a day. In my opinion, it’s the best bang for your buck in building strong, flexible number sense. You will learn so much from your students, and they will learn amazing strategies from one another. So powerful.
  • Try a HyperDoc. You’ll never look back (and you’ll wonder why you didn't start sooner). Here are two great blog posts by Heather Marshall and Karly Moura to get you started.
  • Start using Twitter. What’s all the fuss about Twitter in education? How could I possibly find time to explore another social media tool? Start with 5 minutes a day: explore hashtags to hone-in on content and discussions that are relevant to you; read an article; retweet something you find interesting. Click here for some Twitter 101 resources.
  • Make an authentic connection. Connect with a classroom in another part of the country or world. You can do this through a Mystery Skype/Hangout, blogging, class Twitter account, etc.
  • Strengthen your parent partnerships. Expand beyond the weekly/monthly newsletter and try a tool like Seesaw. It's a triple-threat of wonderful: students can record their learning, reflect on their growth and collaborate with peers in meaningful ways; parents gain valuable, real-time insight into their child’s learning and what 21st century school looks and feels like; you, as the teacher, have endless formative assessment at your fingertips that you can access anytime, anywhere.

Blogging has been at the top of my personal change list for months. I’ve literally been mulling over this topic of change since August. What got me to finally commit to this change and actually start? The presidential election. No more apathy. No more excuses. For me, it was the kick in the pants I needed to begin my blogging journey.

So what's on your Change Menu for this year? What projects or ideas have you been considering as possibilities in your role as an educator? Don't delay or postpone! Get a jump start on your New Year’s Resolutions, and commit to a change (or two or three) in your practice.

After all, it's for the benefit of your students–our future leaders.