Sunday, November 15, 2015

Paint By The Numbers

"You can't be creative unless you are acting with high intelligence."
-Sir Ken Robinson

Does education allow our kids to paint outside the lines or does it encourage teachers to have the kids paint by the numbers?

One of the greatest joys I find in teaching is challenging my students to be creative and "paint outside the lines".

One of the greatest challenges I find in teaching is being allowed to challenge my students to be creative and "paint outside the lines".

How does a teacher help foster creativity with their students when they're told they think too far out of the box or outside of the lines? How does a teacher motivate their students when they're told they should try to do some more traditional lessons or keep their kids painting by the numbers? Does thinking like this prepare our kids for what they need NOW?

Like Sir Ken Robinson points out in this talk here, human beings possess one of the greatest qualities necessary to move forward and make great strides in education...our imagination. Robinson points this out in 2008! Why is it that seven years later teachers are still being questioned on making kids think imaginatively and creatively? Why do administrators, teachers, and communities continue to stifle it?

Robinson encouraged us to no think of  "reforming" our education system, but to think of "transforming" it. Has the education system been transformed yet?

I have roughly 180 days with my students. Every one of the those days I need to challenge their thinking and encourage them to look at their learning a bit differently and "transform" their thinking. I want my students creating their own paintings.

Robinson believes creativity is as important as literacy and numeracy. Why do we continue to not promote this with teachers and students? What can teachers do NOW for our kids?

What do our students need NOW?

Our students need to...
...have creativity as a centerpiece to their learning
...know that they are valued
...know they can make a difference
...think creatively
...have teachers that will encourage them to think outside the box
...understand all "courses" have value to their life given opportunities daily to develop their creativity
...understand that they are all creative

What else do you believe our students need right NOW?
What kind of paintings are your students creating?

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Reading Class Conundrum

Mystery Character Skypes & Hangouts


This summer I had the opportunity to show a group of teachers the power of Mystery Skypes and connecting my social studies classroom with other classrooms around the world. With the help of the amazing educator and person, Livingstone Kegode, a master teacher from Kenya, we were able to show a group of teachers how powerful connections are. Kegode was amazing and I recommend any teacher interested in trying a mystery skype to connect with his class. Our classes connected last school year for a mystery Skype session and it was pretty awesome seeing my students and parents arrive over an hour before the school day started to talk and learn from his class.

 However, after the session we conducted with teachers, I was left wondering how I'd be able to continue to promote these connections in a reading classroom. The idea of connecting with another class and trying to figure out literary characters hit me.  I'd been rolling this idea around for a few weeks and looking for resources, but have found no one who has done this (I'm sure you're out there somewhere- connect with me!).

Table of Contents (so far):

I put out a few tweets and received a ton of interest. I've been working with two teachers amazing teachers, Mary Ellen Davies and Jaime Hoffmeister, from Hillsborough Middle School in New Jersey. We're planning on doing our first mystery character session on November 2 at 10:50 AM est. Below is what we've come up with so far. Let me know what you think! I'm always looking for great ideas and connections that want to give this a try!

Mystery Character Skypes and Hangouts are based on the popular model of Mystery Skypes used in social studies classrooms around the world. Mystery Character Skypes and Hangouts are bringing these connections to the Reading and Literature classrooms around the world. They are used to increase a classroom’s knowledge of literary characters that may appear in SATs by trying to figure out the other classroom’s famous literary character - in as few questions as possible!


  1. School Introductions - introduce your school and class
  2. Rock/Paper/Scissors to see which school will ask first
  3. The game starts with schools alternating asking yes/no questions*.
    1. You may not guess a character until at least 5 questions have been asked
    2. After 10 questions, schools may ask for a clue
    3. Consider assigning roles/jobs to kids
  4. The class that figures out the opposing character first, wins.
    1. Classes could have a back-up (second) character if the first school guesses quickly
  5. At the conclusion of the skype - class shares drawings with each other *make sure you have mailing address
  6. If time permits - general questions about each other’s schools

*Technology note: Teachers should decide what/how technology will be used to support
ie. Todays Meet as a back channel, Google Docs to keep track of clues, etc.

At the conclusion of each session, each class would have a student draw their version of the character and send it to each other’s school. Classes may also choose to send a class picture and any other fun items from their school!

The goal would be to collect as many literary characters as possible to hang on your classroom walls!.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

I Felt Like Chris Farley

Want to get your kids' attention? 

Beyond the “get to know you papers”

As my 8th grader was getting ready for baseball practice, he put his hand to his head and said, “Oh no, I have homework…another get to know you paper. These are so dumb”. It clicked at that moment. For middle and high school students,  “get to know you surveys”, though often well intended often become a burden and boring to our students.  For years, I’ve collected paper from both my kids and parents, and read every one of them, but I wonder how many of the items on those papers are well-thought out. I mean, one can only write their favorite summer memory so many times…

Your mission should you choose to accept it…

I wanted to take a moment to share with you one of the most engaging back to school activities I’ve done in a long time.  I often hear from other teachers about how we should get to know the kids, how we should build our classroom atmosphere and develop relationships with our kids.  In my opinion, there’s no greater way to get to know your kids and tell them you care, than by showing them you trust them. The following activity is based completely around trust. Allowing my classes to roam around our building, with their phones, and interact with numerous adults had me worried, but also had me completely energized at the possibilities of what this could lead to…one hundred plus students moving around our building in small teams on the third day of school…what could go wrong? I’ll answer that now. Nothing.

Mission Impossible:

Class began with me playing that awesome catchy Mission Impossible theme song. Music played for a few seconds, and I picked up the cheesiest pair of sunglasses I could find. I placed them on my face and began to move around like Chris Farley in Beverly Hills Ninja – doing a roll on the floor and sliding over desks to deliver their “top secret missions”. I had them. I knew right then when I pushed play on that song, that this was going to be an awesome day. Once the music stopped, and my instructional aide, who is working with me for the first time, picked her jaw up off of the floor, I debriefed them on their mission. I also told them how I was unable to be the lead in the movie that came out this summer...they hired some "Tom Cruise" guy, but I was able to be his stunt double - as they could easily see by my athletic prowess. 

The mission gives guidelines, expectation, and the tasks. I attached the mission here. If you're unable to access or would like an email copy please let me know.

As students were moving around the building, I was using Remind to check for status updates and send out various “secret” missions for the kids to complete. I was able to tell my kids to check in with me, report to a specific location, or even when to report back to class. One of my goals this year was to incorporate Remind into my classroom beyond just texting reminders to my students about their work or turning in a paper. I was looking for ways to engage kids in my class with something every teenager loves- texting. My kids were soon texting me pictures of their completed missions which I shared to our Facebook and Twitter, almost immediately.
My kids sharing a fist-bump with the Head Principal
Finding some great books in the library!

Thanking the cafeteria staff.
High-five with the Assistant Principal!
Sharing a secret with me.

Mission Complete

The day after the lesson the class was still buzzing with questions about doing this again and who they took pictures with, and ideas for possible book titles. I was able to interact with every group and even hear some of their most interesting secrets on the third day of school! I thanked them for their efforts and discussed with them about what it really means to trust someone. It's something you don't just get, but have to earn. My students know I trust them, and in turn they trust me. This will go a long way in helping them to take risks and learn.

When we head into class next week, we’ll be creating book covers using this amazing site Canva!  My kids will be sharing photos via google docs and discussing digital citizenship, designing and creating book covers, discussing those books, and working collaboratively…after only a few days of school. I know this is going to be an amazing year. By the way, his blog post will self destruct in five seconds…

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Rainy Days

Looking for that Umbrella

As I sit here looking at the once dust-covered box (had to wipe it off; the dust was making me sneeze), I struggle to find the words to explain the emotions going through me...happiness, sadness, fear, regret...I'm not really sure how I should feel. The box contains artifacts from my first two or so years of teaching. I know there's cards from kids and parents in there, and lots of photographs, there may even be a copy of the VHS video yearbook I made for every student I taught my first two years.

I'm not sure what possessed me to crawl up into my steamy attic today to retrieve it - maybe the rain outside on this humid summer day giving me more computer time causing me to look at posts on Facebook from former students who are now, dare I say, "young" adults. Maybe it's the realization that I will be moving to a new subject and grade level after sixteen years, basically starting over. Believe me, the stresses feel like year one, the only saving grace is I have an amazing "bag of tricks" and stories to share that can engage a class at any moment. My emotions are a continuous roller coaster - happiness for the opportunity to start over, sadness at the realization that I won't be watching kids grow over the next three years, excitement over the amazing things I have planned for my kids.

I'm going to open the box in a few minutes and I'm not sure where my thoughts will go, or what I will post. Whatever I share, I know the emotions I feel from the items in that box are going to be powerful.


I can't explain the emotions. What I do know is this little box is invaluable. What has made these contents even more valuable is the connections on social media. I've connected with so many former students and I am watching them grow up before my eyes - raising their own kids and starting families, traveling, dealing with the ongoing struggles of life, and making moments in their lives. Some of my former students are no longer with us, and as I look at their pictures my heart breaks. Man, I miss some of these kids.

 Being a teacher and developing relationships is the most important thing we can do.  I often wonder the impact we have on our students, and what's crazy, is we'll never know. What I also know is that they may never know the impact they've had on me. With so much negativity and "rain" in our profession, we often lose sight of why we do what we do...why we teach.

I could post hundreds of pictures, not sure why I chose the ones I did, they just pulled at my heart or they showed things I was doing fourteen, fifteen or so years ago that are still essential in today's classroom, and I wanted to share with other teachers in the hope that they could learn a little something from them.

What I learned looking back is that relationships are what matter most in the classroom. Kids are people too and we must never forget that. I also noticed one thing in almost every one of the 400 plus pictures I looked at - smiles. We must never forget to have fun. The kids in front of us will never forget how we made them feel. I challenge you as educators to look at the pictures from almost two decades ago and see what else you can learn.



Sixteen years in and I have lots of boxes, a shelf in my classroom closet, and two bulletin boards devoted to the keepsakes from my students. I remember as an undergraduate student one of my professors encouraging us to keep a box with the things kids give you, from cards, to letters, photos, and all kinds of little odds and ends - to save it for the rainy days in the classroom. Believe me, you can never have enough of those umbrellas as a teacher.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Seeing Doors, Not Walls...

Key takeaways from Digital Learning Day 2015

Seeing Doors, Not Walls...

Friday, March 13th 2015 will go down as a key day of learning in my educational book of moments. I was lucky enough to be invited to Washington D.C. for Digital Learning Day. It was a day of learning highlighted by the "world premiere" of the PBS and Learning Matters Documentary entitled The School Sleuth, which my students and I were featured in.

I wanted to share some of the key takeaways I had from an amazing day of learning. Here they are (in no particular order):

Embedded image permalinkKids are amazing and no one in education should ever forget why we do what we do. Every decision needs to be made for the kids. Period. In the morning I was able to watch a group of students from @Bec_Chirps class discuss and present ideas related to the maker movement. One student, Oliver, was featured in the live event and had profound words for all educators when asked what students want from teachers - "allow us to fail". Powerful words Oliver.

Displaying 20150313_114542.jpgIf you haven't heard former Principal of New Milford High School,  Eric Sheninger speak, you should.  His presentation centered on being able to make a change and do what's best for kids. He talked about his own journey from teaching and enforcing the idea of compliance and rules to creating a school where kids wanted to be. Eric made me think about what we need to do to get what's best for all kids -even our own. I'm still trying to figure out how I will take back the ideas from his presentation to my class - how can we make the library the hub for all learning in our building, how will I convince others in my building that cell phones and devices should not be banned, how will I not only "dwell in possibility", but make it a reality.

Embedded image permalink
"Never take no for an answer''. We must always be an advocate for our kids, no matter what and we should never take no for an answer when trying to do what's best for them. Daisy Duerr, principal of Saint Paul Schools in Saint Paul, Arkansas made it very clear that getting devices and technology in our kids' hands can be a reality if we do not take no for an answer. We all may not have the "southern charm" that Daisy has, but we do all have some type of "charm" in us as educators. We need to find and use that charm to get what's best for kids. 

Many of the ideas I heard from Digital Learning Day are still resonating in my head and I plan on writing about them a bit more. 
  • I heard amazing ways that districts are handling the lack of technology at home by providing wifi hotspots on the school buses and parking them in the neighborhoods so the kids and families who cannot afford it have access.
  • Public libraries are providing students and families with devices and hot spot hubs they can sign out by just using their library cards!
  • Administrators need to identify the teachers who are willing to take risks and empower them to lead, not back them into a corner and label them as a "lone wolf".
  • Professional development is necessary for teachers, but what is not necessary is one size fits all professional development.
  • The power of a PLN (Personal Learning Network) is essential in a teacher and educator's life. With social media tools like Twitter, it is easier than ever before.
  • We need to tell our stories and be proud to tell those stories.
As educators we face many obstacles, but each of these walls provides us an opportunity. We need to see the obstacles not as walls, but as doors...doors that can open endless possibilities to what matters most - our kids.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Name Your First Kid Augustus?

Ambitious goals make for outstanding achievements.

Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now

According to “The Goals That Guide Us” an article in Psychology Today (2010) setting goals makes people happier and achieve more than without them, provides focus, increases productivity, bolsters self-esteem, and are just downright motivating.  My first experience with goal setting was inspired by former Philadelphia 76ers president, Pat Croce.  It’s been awhile since I read his autobiography, but I always remember part of the book where he confronts the President of the NBA and tells him about his goals for the Sixers – winning a championship. Croce even takes it a step further and actually asks former commissioner David Stern for the NBA trophy he had in his office to take with him – that was how confident he was that he would eventually achieve his goal of an NBA championship. He didn't quite get there, but he came real close- and in some cases, the journey trying to achieve the goal is just as awesome as achieving the goal. From that moment, I decided that I needed to get my kids thinking about their future and not being afraid to chase their dreams.

Now Is The Time

The last thirteen or so years of my teaching have included an exercise in goal setting that many may think of as somewhat challenging for an eleven or twelve year old to complete.  There’s no grade for this assignment, the requirements are simple, and they have roughly two weeks to complete it. The due date is always the same January, 20th, the day following Martin Luther King Day.

The task is this:  I ask my students to list 101 goals they’d like to achieve in their lifetime. The goals should be typed or written neatly and they are required to share only five with the class. They need to make two copies (or I will make one for them), one to turn in and one to keep somewhere they will see every day. I keep the goals in a cabinet in my room and challenge them to come back when they’re seniors to pick up their lists.

This is one of the most rewarding activities I do with my students. Their dreams amaze me and inspire each other. I've included a few of the 14,140 goals below to show you what these outstanding kids will achieve someday.

I  Want To...

  • ...laugh as much as possible.
  • independent, yet not afraid to ask for help.
  • a happy, unregretful life.
  • ...prove someone wrong.
  • sushi.
  • ...donate blood.
  • ...see the Great Pyramids
  • ...have confidence in everything I do.
  • my first kid Augustus (my wife will probably never let me do that)
  • a good brother.
  • a person who gives people an inspiration to follow their dreams.
  • ...ride in a hot air balloon.
  • a program that allows little kids to get started in their careers.
  • ...change the world.

 I challenge you to do this with your kids. I have no doubt my students will change the world and they may even get to have a little fun along the way.

Students selected a few goals they'd like to achieve in the near future and developed an action plan.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

One Word - Moments

The faded letters above my classroom door read “Make moments.” Moments are the things we remember. So often, as teachers (and just being a person), we get caught up in the little things and we often lose sight of what really matters. What matters are the moments we create for our students and the moments we remember as people.

My #oneword for 2015 is “Moments”. 2015 will be filled with moments and  I want to make sure that I recognize them.

My goal is to create more moments, both personally and professionally; to savor and live in the moments when they are happening, and to remember all the moments that have gotten me to where I am today.

As the “New Year” begins, I think about the 150 students who will be returning from break and know that the moments they will have for the remainder of the year only get to happen once in their lives. It’s up to me to help my students make as many moments as they can.

Remember, we don’t get the same moment twice in our lives. Make the first one count.