The Story of A Teacher Without a Classroom: 10 Lessons Learned

Mid-February in 2014, I shut off the lights in my fifth grade classroom and headed home for the weekend–for what would turn out to be the last time. That weekend, pregnancy complications abruptly landed me on bedrest.  With a due date near the end of the school year, I was not fated to return to my fifth graders that year.  And the following fall, I decided to continue my leave from teaching until our small children are in school.

So that’s it, right? One day, learning amidst a thriving classroom, and the next, dropped off the face of the map for an unknown length of time.

Only not quite. As chance would have it, during bedrest, I was offered the opportunity to run an educational blog sponsored by Honors Graduation here on HonorsGradU. I consider it my voice in the education world. And once I revived my dormant Twitter account (and the wonders of a PLN) I discovered my window. And so, with a voice and a window, I find myself still very much (and very gratefully) involved in such an important facet of my life.

For other teachers out there who currently find themselves without a classroom, and to thank all the teachers who have taught me so much over the last two years, I’d like to share 10 of the most essential insights I’ve gained while equipped with just a blog and Twitter.

#1: Nothing matters more than the fact that we are working with human beings. The most important lesson I’m reminded of again and again is this: people over paper. Sometimes, the textbook strategies need to be set aside. Sometimes, we need to stop and think if our assessments are showing us who our students really are. Sometimes, we need to just remember that the 10 year-old in front of us might need more help being 10 than preparing for college.

#2: No shiny platform or gadget is worth it if it simply maintains the status quo. I remember investigating Flipped Learning with great enthusiasm–until it became clear to me that it’s still often rooted in direct instruction. That’s not to say that it’s not useful (and some teachers do an amazing job of using flipped learning to foster inquiry). However, it was an important realization of how we sometimes think our tech makes us innovative, when in fact we might not have changed at all. 

#3: Personalized professional development is out there for the taking. I am living proof of it! Twitter chats, my PLN, and even just reflecting on prior classroom moments like diy PD have all provided rich opportunities for professional learning. And it has all been free and personalized to my needs.

#4: Emphasizing concepts over content isn’t some pie-in-the-sky notion. Thousands of teachers practice it every day–and they share how they do so in abundance. Just take a look at the Twitter feeds for Taryn BondClegg, Graeme Anshaw, Chris Beddows, or the entirety of hashtag #aisq8.

#5: Providing students with authentic opportunities to make, create, and design isn’t just some passing ed fad. With our dynamically shifting future, most of us know that the content we’ve memorized is no longer enough. Providing students with opportunities to show what they can do with their knowledge–and better yet, to push the bounds into the unknown–will both better prepare them for the future and provide them with more enriching learning experiences now. MakerSpaces, coding, blogging, design–the list goes on, and you don’t have to have an enormous budget or a fulltime 1:1 classroom to get started.

#6: Digital citizenship is an urgent topic for students of all ages. Even if a school is hesitant about young students sharing their ideas with cyberspace, we must do all we can to help our students understand their role and responsibilities in the digital society. We must get digital citizenship out of the “wait-until-they’re-older” category. Today.

#7: Technology itself isn’t what makes edtech so amazing–it’s the way it encourages teachers to take risks, fail, try, and problem-solve WITH their students. It is SO easy to just “talk the talk” of being a lifelong learner. After all, we are in the business of trying to help people love learning. But do we truly embrace the messiness of learning? Do we move forward with unpolished ideas, even when we still have questions or feel like we could use more training? Modeling our own real learning process yields greater impact than delivering a lifeless lesson from a manual.

#8: “Letting go” as a teacher (trusting our students and giving them ownership over their learning) is essential, but it is a journey. Understanding that we need to let go is a major hurdle, but it’s just the first step. We need to be patient with ourselves as we gradually move toward that goal, reaching out to others who may be farther along on that journey. Whether or not you have that kind of support in your building, my shortlist of online recommendations include Kath Murdoch, Pernille Ripp, and Edna Sackson.

#9: Cute and orderly doesn’t automatically equal learning. Not that having a chaotic mess is necessarily conducive to learning either. But when an activity is adorable and highly pinnable, we sometimes fail to evaluate the real learning value.

#10: Kids can and need to understand words like metacognition.

Or at least the concept behind it. The unfortunate truth is we start labeling ourselves from a very young age, boxing ourselves into the fixed mindset. Realizing just how flexible our brains are might be more far reaching than anything else we learn.

What about you? What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned from PLN, in our outside the classroom?

featured image: deathtothestockphoto.com

6 Questions When Considering New Edtech

Given the sheer number of platforms and products, it’s not surprising when teachers despair at thought of seeking out a new #edtech resource. But once we establish some groundwork for what we adopt, it may make the entire decision-making process run more smoothly. Thus the creation of this infographic of 6 important questions to ask yourself when you consider new edtech!

What are other questions you consider? Please share in the comments!

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3 Reasons High School’s Too Late to Teach Digital Citizenship

As we read yet another news article about a high school paralyzed by a student’s social media threat, or a student pushed to the brink by cyberbullying, it makes us question. Are these just anomalies? Kids acting out despite all the support they’d received in digital participation? Perhaps.

But we still can’t help but wonder whether there’s a pattern here. A pattern rooted in the neglect of one essential 21st century principle: digital citizenship.

When high schools experience online-related trauma, they sometimes turn to programs advertised as prevention measures. And maybe such programs prove helpful. But we contend that if we’re waiting around until high school to cultivate meaningful digital citizenship, we have waited far too long. Here are three reasons that lead us to this conclusion:

The Digital Age is Their Birthright.

One of our favorite definitions of digital citizenship is as follows, “The quality of habits, actions, and consumption patterns that impact the ecology of digital content and communities.” And it is every bit as relevant to our kindergartners as those units on traditional citizenship. 

As Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach explains,

“…things have changed. We don’t only want students to be good citizens of their physical spaces and geographic regions, but now we’re all global citizens, connecting with people all over the world through digital means.”

Most teachers already value and teach citizenship from the youngest ages, which helps students understand that they belong to a community. But we must expand this priority in helping them realize how they belong to a digital community, too. Because Will Richardson reminds us, “If you think that your kids won’t be interacting with strangers on the Internet the rest of their learning lives, you’re crazy!” We must teach safety, etiquette, literacy, and responsibility–both online and offline.

Waiting until high school gives kids more time to cement the idea that tech is just a toy.

Encouraging deep understanding of the multifaceted nature of technology is no one-time lesson. It takes authentic modeling. It takes opportunity for exploration. And it takes continual in-depth discussion. Only then will our students gradually discover that resources like Youtube can be incredible learning tools–not just entertainment.

But the issue with neglecting digital citizenship reaches beyond just shallow personal amusement. As we mentioned earlier, cyberbullying and threats of violence crop up in news feeds on a regular basis, and each time, administrators and policymakers ask how it can be prevented. Introducing and cultivating digital citizenship from a young age can curb this kind of abuse. After all, when students have been encouraged to see themselves as members of a real global community, they are less likely to see themselves as anonymous outsiders, and more likely to recognize the impact of their online actions.  

Kids are capable of positive online social interaction much earlier.

We’ll let recent tweets from hashtags like #Comments4Kids, #HourOfCode, and #MysterySkype speak for this point.

Above Tweet via Orchard Place Elementary at Des Plaines School District 62.


What difference does digital citizenship make at your school? What are some of your favorite ways to help students become better digital citizens?

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

3 Timeless Lessons From “The Yellow Star” About Cyberbullying

The “Yellow Star” by Carmen Agra Deedy beautifully illustrates the legend of King Christian X standing with his Jewish people by wearing a yellow star during Nazi occupation.

And while the Danish Jews were never actually forced to wear the star, confirmation of the king’s support for his Jewish people have surfaced, including “substantial evidence that the King actually suggested the idea of everyone wearing the yellow star should the Danish Jews be forced to wear it.” (source)

Legend or not, this 20th century story highlights timeless lessons of humanity that we find especially applicable to the 21st century subject of cyberbullying.

  1. Teach Solidarity

“Early in the year 1940…there were only Danes. Tall Danes, stout Danes, cranky Danes, even Great Danes.”

We must actively teach our students that what we have in common outweighs our differences. Cyberbullying offers a shroud of anonymity that can tempt some people to forget that a living, feeling human being is on the other side of that unkind post or dehumanizing poll. We can bring that shroud out of obscurity by directly talking about it. About digital citizenship. About the human experience. And about whether it’s really worth making someone else feel like they don’t belong.

  1. Teach Courage

“If you wished to hide a star,” wondered the king to himself, “where would you place it?” His eyes searched the heavens. “Of course!” he thought. The answer was so simple. “You would hide it among its sisters.”

I recently came across a disturbing article about a poll for the ugliest girl at a high school. And though the young woman who was targeted responded courageously, I was left wondering how each kid involved in that poll could have acted with more courage, too. How can we teach them to take initiative and take a stand, even if it isn’t very popular? I believe it starts with us. We need to model the courage to stand up and say no, even in a society that often turns “cruelty into entertainment and sport.”  

  1. Teach Empathy

“What if the good and strong people of the world stood shoulder to shoulder, crowding the streets and filling the squares, saying,’ You cannot do this injustice to our sisters and brothers, or you must do it to us as well.’ What if?”

Empathy requires us to truly reach other people. It rejects in-group/out-group. It embraces vulnerability and imperfections. It places genuine value on every human being. Cyberbullying creates in-group/out-groups. It exploits people’s vulnerabilities and imperfections. And it tears apart the self-worth of everyone it can. We need teachers who will dare to voice exactly what cyberbullying is all about, “Go[ing] beyond praising the right behaviors — proactively counteract[ing] the forces that stand in their way. This is where standing up, not just standing by, comes in.” (“Empathy: The Most Important Back-to-School Supply”).

King Christian X’s Jewish people may never have been forced to wear the yellow star, but his solidarity, courage, and empathy are likely what prevented that unjust mandate to begin with. What could these three qualities do for your students, your school, and your community?

Image credit: the lost gallery

4 Outstanding Alternatives to Private Student Blogging

An authentic and global audience of peers and professionals–what could be more exciting when it comes to students pursuing meaningful collaboration?  Yet in the name of safety, many schools still choose to keep student blogs private, viewable only to students and their families. And while safety is an essential priority, these schools must understand the importance of digital citizenship, and its role in enhancing students’ online safety.

Meanwhile, for those teaching under such restrictions, the good news is that there are a growing number of alternatives available to still foster global connections. Here are four we’re sure your students will love!

Quadblogging

Meet the digital version of pen pals. This is a great compromise with an administration that is wary of public blogging–ask for permission to connect with just 3 other classes so they can learn about their peers in other places. Your class will become part of a Quad of four classes. You each take week-long turns as the focus class, meaning the other 3 classes visit and comment on your students’ blogs. The year I did this with my fifth graders, our quad included fifth grade classes from the U.S., the U.K., and China, and our students couldn’t get enough of seeing comments on their work from their quad friends across the globe.

The Wonderment

The Wonderment is a new creativity-sharing platform that makes me want to be a kid again. It allows students to share and connect with kids around the world using their WonderBots. Students can share their work, participate in creative challenges, and participate in discussions with other kids–all while filling up a WonderMeter that opens up the Wonderment to new locations in the world. “When we create things together, good things happen.”

 

Class Twitter Account

Twitter allows teachers to easily share snippets of student learning throughout the day in just 140 characters. A group just brainstormed phenomenal questions for a project? Just snap a photo and share on your classroom Twitter account with hashtags that will help their ideas reach beyond just the walls of your classroom (ie, #comments4kids, grade level chat like #5thchat, etc.).  Invite parents to follow your class account to give them a window into your classroom, too! To see it this in action, check out Mrs. Cassidy’s first grade class account. (For more inspiration, check out “Unlocking Twitter’s Classroom Potential“).

MysterySkype

Can your class guess the location of another over Skype?  Not only does MysterySkype give your students an opportunity to connect with kids around the world, but it allows them to cultivate communication, problem solving, collaboration, and organization.  Before you launch a session, be sure to check out how other teachers have set it up, like fifth grade teacher, Paul Solarz.

Though none of these options allow students to create individual and flexible digital portfolios like student blogging does, they are a start. Meanwhile, maintain forward-moving conversations with your administration and/or parents by making the case for public blogging, addressing safety concerns, showing them how beneficial digital connections are for us all.

What are ways you help your students build an authentic audience?

Featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Beginner’s Guide to Maker-ize An Elementary Classroom

When most penny-pinching, time-crunched, and exhausted teachers hear about lofty ideas like the MakerSpace movement in education, they are likely to dismiss it as another passing and impractical fad. However, the more we investigate, the more convinced we are that there are practical–and profoundly meaningful–ways for teachers to implement its ideals, even in an elementary school classroom.

Benefits of Maker Spaces

“Makerspaces come in all shapes and sizes, but they all serve as a gathering point for tools, projects, mentors and expertise. A collection of tools does not define a Makerspace. Rather, we define it by what it enables: making.” (MakerSpace Playbook)

They cultivate creativity. For students who already love doing, they will love this outlet to get their hands on a myriad of resources. For students who feel that they are lacking in creativity, they will have an opportunity to rekindle their inborn wonder and curiosity.

(Remember Caine’s Arcade? This video goes on to show the resulting movement, all from a bit of cardboard)

They provide an opportunity for students to take the lead. How much of our students’ time involves them being directed in what answers to give, what products to create, and even what art to design (and when)? A MakerSpace gives them the opportunity to learn how to pursue their own ideas and possibilities, and on their time-table.

They make for a much more productive fast-finisher. Have you ever had a parent report to you that their child is bored?  Get a MakerSpace zone going in your classroom, and watch what happens to that boredom.

They develop essential characteristics. In this ever-evolving global landscape, we must focus on giving our students practical tools that will serve them in the long-term. Critical thinking, problem solving, and intrinsic motivation–these are just a few attributes that are encouraged in a MakerSpace’s atmosphere of tinkering, iterating, and exploring.

They canCreate a physical laboratory for inquiry-based learning

MakerSpaces are designed to make students wonder, question, and experiment as they work to make sense of the world around them.

4 Realistic Tips to Maker-ize Your Room

#1: Start with designating a small space for your makers. A full-blown high school makerspace can cost over $30,000, complete with 10 different modules, including a workspace and tools area, and zones for woodworking, metalworking, electronics, textiles, computers, digital fabrication, 3D printing, laser cutting and more. Instead of getting overwhelmed by the magnitude of such a vision, simply pull elements that would be practical for your students and classroom. Put up a Wonder shelf in the back of your room. Mount a pegboard to display all the tools. Get creative with a workbench for multi-use storage and workspace, such as putting casters on a dresser.

#2: Look at existing resources. Add casters, table tops, and plexiglass to your student desks  for flexible workspaces & collaboration (Third Teacher + redesign).

  • Look at other teachers’ strategies for starting simply, such as this teacher’s list of top 5 materials to provide.
  • Ask for donations of cardboard, remnant fabric, playdough, and scrap wood. Look for tools you can borrow from home, like your hot glue gun, miter box, & travel sewing set. Recycle juice bottles and egg cartons. Make your space a poster child for “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” in the best possible ways!  

#3: Plan for Guidelines. As open-ended as a MakerSpace can and should be, be sure to consider basic boundaries and safety:

  • Create, display, and discuss posters that outline appropriate and safe use.
  • Support the growth mindset, being particularly mindful of embracing risk-taking, perseverance, and failing. We love this FAIL sheet as a guide to help students reflect upon and learn from their failures.
  • Decide when your MakerSpace will be open. Before or after school? Open lunch? Fast finishers? Family nights?
  • Consider designing open-ended projects/challenges for your students (top projects for beginners), especially those who would appreciate a little more structure.  For whole-class project-based learning that is actually graded, consider creating rubrics to offer more support.
  • Think about the conversations you’ll have with your students when they get stuck, overconfident, or frustrated. Gayle Allen and Lisa Yokana share great insight on student/teacher discussions during each stage of making.

#4: Gradually Invest. As tempting as it may be to try and dive in with one show-stopping gadget, you are better off letting your students gradually acclimate to their MakerSpace, learning and deciding together its growth and direction. Consider these ideas:

  • Make it a point to learn about your students’ interests. Would they love more electronics? How about a few Lego sets? Perhaps a sewing machine? Prioritize your MakerSpace growth based on those interests.
  • Look to teacher funding resources like Donors Choose to help your students’ dreams happen. Start small with fascinating tools like a Makey Makey, and perhaps eventually build to bigger ticket items, like a Printrbot 3D printer.

Other resources to launch your MakerSpace:

Featured Image: DeathtoTheStockPhoto.com

5 Best Virtual Math Manipulatives

Have access to computers, but short on the 31 protractors you’ll need for today’s lesson?  Or looking for more ways to inspire hands-on math exploration?  Look no further than our list of top digital math manipulatives, teacher tested to be student-friendly and relevant!


Glencoe Manipulatives Library:

This is literally a one-stop bank of easy-to-use manipulatives.  Geoboards, number cubes, pattern blocks–the works!  It also has all sorts of bells and whistles to construct inquiry-based environments including various workmat or game backgrounds, tools like a stopwatch, compass, and ruler, and even a print screen button so students can turn in their math thinking!  This is definitely a must-bookmark link for math teachers!

Glencoe Manipulatives

Algebraic Mobiles:

Solve Me Mobiles takes the abstract nature of algebra and turns it into something students can concretely tinker with. Through trial-and-error, students balance the mobile by entering the values of hanging shapes.  This is a perfect precursor to algebraic equations.

Algebra Mobiles

MathPlayground Manipulatives Library:

This is another library of manipulatives, with the additional feature wherein most of the manipulatives are gamified–there are tasks and “check the answer” components in most.  Manipulatives include pattern blocks, transformations, circle graphs, measuring angles, prime factorization, and more!

Math Playground

National Library of Virtual Manipulatives:

This resource likely includes every type of math manipulative you could fathom, and then at least a few more.  Just make sure you have Java downloaded and that students use it on a browser other than Chrome (since Chrome and Java do not mix at the moment).  Alternatively, they now offer a computer app for purchase to bypass the Java issues.

NLVM

ABCya!.com Virtual Manipulatives App

Speaking of apps, ABCya.com has put out a free app with some of their top virtual manipulatives for fractions, decimals, and percents.  Students will love camera feature, allowing them to project math concepts onto everyday objects.

ABCya virtual manipulatives

Featured Image: Tim Geers

Be sure to check the comments for more great ideas!