A Little Less Filtered #TeacherMom

As our family settled in a few weeks ago to watch a show together, my toddler’s attention was captured by an icon for an National Geographic animal documentary. And that’s how we found ourselves learning about baboons’ alpha hierarchy and frogs’ defense mechanisms that night.

What surprised me most was how the show’s benefits for my son went well beyond simply learning about animal facts. It was the engagement. It was the conversation. It was the connection. As he soaked up every word and every shot, he asked questions, he placed vocabulary in context, and he play-acted out his observations.

This experience had me reflecting about two ideas.

The first is that we can more frequently go to the source for learning. With all the guidelines and curriculum and expert recommendations, we as adults often feel the need to contrive and filter to maximize our kids’ learning. It’s like we think that if we can pack in enough ABC’s and numbers and cooperation messages in one show (or workbook, etc), it’s like a multivitamin we can feed our kids to fill in the gaps of their education (and no, this is not to bash those shows–we love Sesame Street around here, remember?).

Yet the reality is, we don’t have to rely on such concoctions for learning. True, when it comes to science and history, we’re usually already many steps removed from the source–after all, it’s not like we can take a field trip to the Serengeti or World War II or the Moon. But, often thanks to modern technology and social networking, we can get ourselves and our children closer than ever (like leveraging Google Street View for virtual exploration, or following this Twitter account that narrates WWII in real time, or exploring this Interactive Lunar Guide by ESA).

The second thought: when we more directly allow our children’s interests to take the lead, richer learning follows. Learning is to be had wherever our students’ interests lead us. Like I said above, my son wasn’t just learning about animal facts. He was learning vocabulary, speaking and listening skills, and even pre-reading skills through his imaginative play.

More importantly, when we try to turn this on its head–that is, force student interest on our agenda for “learning”–the results are poorer anyway. As Marcia L. Tate writes in Reading & Language Arts Worksheets Don’t Grow Dendrites:

“…there is actually a physiological reason for whether students choose to comprehend instruction. The basal ganglia acts like a policeman that protects the brain from distracting input. Information that has been selected as worthy of being learned flows through fibers back to the thalamus and on to areas of the brain where information can be interpreted (Nevills & Wolfe, 2009).”

Of course, with a class of 30+ students, it is certainly a challenge to meet our students where they are in their interests, which is why boxed programs with promises for perfect differentiation and solutions to all our students’ reading comprehension needs are tempting.

While we’re going to keep on watching intermittent episodes of Sesame Street around here, in the future, it will be less about meeting some kind of learning quota and more about family entertainment. And I look forward to getting better at recognizing learning opportunites as they come through my children’s interests.

Featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

That Time I Failed At Inquiry: 5 Missing Elements

Years ago, toward the end of the school year, I felt like our class was in a rut. I wasn’t sure what we were missing–Autonomy? Inspiration? Creativity? All of the above?

Whatever it was, I decided to do something drastic. I had recently come across a story online of a teacher who encouraged her students to create videos, and it seemed like a great idea to me.

So the next day, I checked out the laptop carts and dived head-long. I told them they had to work in small groups. I told them they could create any commercial they wanted. I might have had slightly more structure than I can recall, but if there was, it wasn’t much. And I stepped back, awaiting the student-centered magic to come to life.

It was bedlam.

Shocked and dismayed at the chaos and the discord and the aimlessness, I cancelled the whole thing the next day.

Today, a small part of me still wants to leave this experience forever buried in the corner of my memory labeled, “I-can’t-believe-you-actually-tried-that.”

But the rest of me knows that our failures are rich with learning opportunities. It reminds me of a teacher’s remarks during a PD session on inquiry this fall in which she expressed a wish to hear more about inquiry attempts that have crashed and burned. So, having come a long way since then (I hope!), I think I’m ready to finally retrieve that memory from its dark recesses and shed light and learning on it instead.

Here are 5 major elements that I now realize I was missing:

What is the Ship? What is the Sea? 4 Ideas for Vision #TeacherMom


These words turn my mind to all the spheres of my life, past and present. What is the ship? What is the sea?

When I look at my children, the ship-building vision comes readily: raising healthy, happy, and competent individuals. It’s why I require them to wear clean underwear, to eat vegetables, to brush their teeth, to say ‘sorry.’

When I recall my 5th graders, a similar ship comes to mind: self-aware and self-driven people who can drive their personal learning and growth. It’s why I asked them to write in complete sentences, to reflect with peers, to study out evidence for thinking, to keep track of goals.

I find it interesting how easily these tasks and expectations quickly slip from being part of grander vision, down to dreary repetition. In isolation, no one much wants to do any of those things. But when we elevate our sights to that “vast and endless sea,” our days change. A few ideas come to mind when I consider how we can help our children and students catch the vision of the sea, not only for their futures, but for their present daily experiences:

    • Constantly ask why, and help them to do the same. It’s tough because there is always so much to do in a perpetually tight schedule, but it’s worth the effort to slow down. Ensure students aren’t just “getting it done” so we can get it done. I admire the way Katherine Hansen brings the why into a simple yet effective place in her classroom:

  • Deliberately cultivate creativity and inspiration. Show videos of awe-inspiring phenomena, mind-boggling inventions, and stories of perseverance and possibility. Help them find their personal passion to help them drive their daily efforts.
  • Let them experience natural consequences. This is not really about “tough love,” grades, or getting them to see how correct we are in our requests for them to perform the daily tasks. It’s about helping them gradually discover the need for these tasks and skills independently. And it requires a lot of metacognition instruction on our part to help them think more about their thinking process so they can identify what is going wrong and what is going right.
  • Cultivate ownership, choice, and voice. Yes, they still have to wear clean underwear and write in complete sentences. But when we give our kids as many choices as possible and let them in on the learning plan, it makes a tremendous difference in their ability to see beyond the mundane daily to-do list. Check out this fantastic example of student agency by Charlotte Hills.

If we’re not careful, life can become like one long series of “gathering wood, dividing the work, and giving orders.” Elevate the vision. Seek the inspiration. And help all those around you to also “yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

I would love to hear more ideas for ways you help your students elevate their vision! Please share in the comments!

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

A 2 Year-Old’s Favorite “Things That Go” Books #TeacherMom

You know your local library rocks when even your two year-old can access his favorites with ease. One such accessibility detail includes sorting the high-interest books by category, such as ABC’s, colors, dinosaurs, princesses, potty training, and above all (at least in my son’s eyes), “Things that Go.”

Every week, he makes a beeline for that section, quickly piling books on tractors, buses, cars, boats, planes, and bikes (and every week, we face the immortal struggle as he refuses add his books to the bag, but he can’t carry his entire selection. I can’t be the only parent that has failed to convince their child of the purpose of the book bag, can I?).


Over time, I’ve come to notice he has definite preferences. So, for other parents of “things-that-go”-loving kids out there, I thought I’d share those for today’s #TeacherMom post. After all, every book in their hands that helps them make significant personal meaning is what it’s all about. And right now, for my son, most of that significant personal meaning revolves around “things that go.” So here we go:


His absolute most-selected “things-that-go” book is Sally Sutton’s “Construction.” It might be the attention to detail in constructing a building. Or the variety of tractors and construction vehicles. Or perhaps the fun rhythm and abundant onomatopoeia. Or all of the above.


This is probably the most my son has enjoyed a black-and-white illustrated book. “Night Driving,” by John Coy depicts a special nighttime road trip with a father and his son.


Sheep in a Jeep” by Nancy Shaw has now brought multi-generational delight to my family. The spare rhymes offer endless laughter with hilarious illustrations to match.


Alison Paul’s “The Plan” is an instant classic. For now, my son just enjoys the process of a child constructing a plane, but eventually, I’m sure he’ll come to appreciate the deeper themes, along with the simple literary construct of shifting one letter per page.


“Flight 1-2-3” by Maria van Lieshout is another frequent choice. The graphic design and use of actual airport symbols engage my son every time.


A bus + an enjoyable story-line of perseverance = another favorite read. “Axle Annie” by Robin Pulver will have your child wondering what’s next!


Alice Schertle’s “Little Blue Truck” gets double points with my 2 year-old as it brings farm animals into the mix. And I love that it addresses what kindness really means.


Another oldie-but-eternally-goodie is Pamela Allen’s “Who Sank the Boat?” It’s always fun for little ones to guess who, in fact, will sink that boat!


“Little Explorers: On the move” by Ruth Martin is a recent nonfiction discovery that has also become an instant favorite. My son spends a good deal of time checking under every single flap.


“Little Red’s Riding ‘Hood” by Peter Stein is a delightful vehicular fractured fairy tale. Little Red the scooter meets the big bad Tank–what’s not to love?


“Old MacDonald Had a Truck” by Steve Goetz is another fabulous vehicles-meets-farm story, with an ending that reveals what Old MacDonald and Mrs. MacDonald have been working on all along.


In “Duck on a Bike” by David Shannon, Duck shares his bike-riding antics with all the other farm animals–and finds out what happens when a bunch of kids park their bikes.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

If Only Parents Would…

My initiation to the parent side of the school table was abrupt and rather unpleasant. It was the first of many moments over the last two years that would expand my perspective and empathy as an educator. I have been reflecting lately on my old list of things I wished parents would do:

If only parents would

  • Practice spelling with their students for just a couple minutes each night.
  • Check their child’s backpack every day.
  • Sign the reading log.
  • Help their child practice math facts at home.

Interestingly enough, now that I have a first grader myself, my wish list for her teachers have very little to do with the list above:

If only teachers would

  • See my child as a person–not a benchmark result–first.
  • Help her con-construct meaning for herself rather than rely on worksheets.
  • Focus less on compliance and control and more on student voice/choice and ownership.

When I examine these two lists carefully, I have a few important takeaways:

  • My old “if only parents” list was more focused on grades and standards.
  • My new “if only teachers” list is more about student autonomy and powerful learning.
  • When I return to the classroom, my new “if only parents” list will undergo at least 2 important changes:
    • It will be transparent and more collaborative in nature (I hope it will become less of an “if only” list and more of an ongoing dialogue with parents).
    • It will stop assuming that parents who don’t worry about grades aren’t concerned about learning (because they are most certainly not one and the same).
  • Getting on the same page as teachers and parents is easier when we stop making assumptions and start finding better communication channels (not just #StudentVoice, but #ParentVoice, too).
  • I need to make it a point to find out my future students’ parents’ “If only teachers would” lists (ie, while I would personally be inclined to do away with homework altogether, I will be sure to work with parents to find out their thoughts and needs for their individual children).

Do you spot any other tips for me? How have you improved parent/teacher communication?

featured image: clogsilk

The Self-Perpetuating Cycle of Authentic Creativity

Earlier this summer, my daughter started expressing interest in all things behind-the-scenes-movie-making. Not only did she seem more attentive during the “bonus features” than the movies themselves, but she took rapt illustrated notes as she watched.

When she told us she wanted to make movies for Disney when she grows up, I sensed a learning opportunity. I downloaded a stop motion video-making app for her to explore (Stop Motion Studio on Android).

Though the first attempt was pretty rough, I was impressed that a 6 year-old was able to figure out a fairly complex creative app almost completely independently. After some time exploring, I offered her an additional resource: a camera holder. We Googled some solutions together, found a cardboard lid, cut some slots, and let her roll. Below was her attempt a few days later:

Over the months, I noticed continued exploration of the the app’s features and techniques, including altering the speed of the stop motion, adding music, and typing in titles to her videos.

She also wanted to watch examples of high quality stop motion videos on Youtube. Her favorites were this:


and this… (which included a particularly rich conversation as she watched with wonder and made hypotheses on how each shot was created. We paused, rewound, and re-watched frame-by-frame. It was a magic in and of itself to watch her try to unravel the mystery).

I was not surprised when our mini-film festival inspired her to create something new, with markedly improved technique:

But I was ever so surprised to find that as I went about my business later that day, I was suddenly struck with an idea for a stop motion video myself (having had a bumpy, less-than confident relationship with creativity in the past). So we brought “Goldilocks and the 3 Chairs” to life together (the “river” and “bridge” were her additions):

I would never have guessed when I first downloaded the app that this would have evolved into such an enjoyable shared pursuit. And I marvel at the skills that she is developing (no sticker charts, grades, or rewards needed here!):

  • Story structure Over time, I can see her getting better at developing a beginning, middle, and end of her stories. She’s also considering settings, characters, and key details that bring a story to life.
  • Phonics As she slowly locates each letter on the keypad for her titles, she is making connections about spelling rules and “rule-breakers.”
  • Speaking and listening I listen to her record her voice, listen back, and then rerecord over and over until she is satisfied with the way it sounds.
  • Media literacy All this device and app exploration has increased her confidence in navigating and wielding the device features.
  • PATIENCE Would you have thought it possible for a 6 year-old to spend hours going back and forth between snapping photos and making infinitesimal adjustments to her set over and over and over again? Me neither.

The teacher-side of me is reminded that when we allow ourselves to be authentic participants of the learning (and not just the ringmaster or director of it as it swirls or marches around us), not only is that learning exponentially enhanced for our students, but it is enhanced for ourselves. The entire process becomes self-perpetuating in an ever richer cycle. And the relationships are deepened in a way that worksheets and boxed units can simply never replicate.

featured image: r. nial bradshaw

An Inquiry Into Tech Use

By show of hands, who else is exhausted by the ping-pong-like opinions on tech use whizzing by?

One side: “We’re disconnected, we’re not missing anything when we cut screen time, our children aren’t getting enough exercise, we don’t carry on proper conversations anymore.”

And the other: “We’re more connected than ever on a global scale, accessibility is growing, we are finding new ways to connect with our loved ones, we are building new literacies.”

Author Alison Gopnik recently said in an Edutopia interview,

“We tend to panic too much about technological change. Maybe this time the technology is, in fact, going to have all these disastrous effects that everyone’s worried about. But children have always been the first adopters of new technologies, and the previous generation has always been terrified when the new technology was introduced…

But school-age children have been gossiping and interacting with one another and trying to figure out peer relationships for as long as we’ve been human. And the way that they’ve done that might have been just whispering and talking in that hunter-gatherer culture, or passing notes in the culture that I grew up in, or texting in the culture that children are growing up in now. I don’t think there’s any particular reason to believe that the technology is going to make that worse or more problematic than it was before.”

So, this week’s provocation is to let those children consider both sides of this tech issue themselves. The first resource is a photo series by Eric Pickersgill entitled “Removed.”





The second is a video I’ve shared before, but that I think would pair well with the above resource for this provocation.

Provocation Questions:

  • Why do people have different perspectives about technology use?
  • How does tech use impact your life?
  • How does tech use impact your family’s life?
  • How does tech use impact your school/community function?
  • How do you see tech use impacting your future?

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto