Monday, December 3, 2012

Reflections from EdcampNJ

I am a huge fan of the Edcamp Movement.  Surely, any teacher who cares about becoming better is, since this is an opportunity to grow professionally in a way that meets your needs, an opportunity to participate in conversations about education and your classroom, and a chance to work with people who just want to  be better teachers.

So when I first heard of talk about an Edcamp coming to NJ, I was excited.  I mean, come on--the chance to do all the things I mentioned above after literally rolling out of my own bed and driving for 15 minutes?  Yes!

I almost wasn't able to attend after battling Jedi style with a stomach thing all day Friday; the thing ultimately claimed my five year old son and kept my husband from attending the Edcamp with me, but I was good to go on Saturday morning.  I arrived early (see 15 minute commute and add in teacher's schedule with young children)
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and was promptly greeted by Kevin Jarrett!   A number of super cool stickers greeted me:

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Of course I picked up the Awesome one for my Awesome teacher husband.
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I set up shop in the Cafetorium and started chatting with some folks, including some people I had met at previous Edcamps.  I was invited to be interviewed by Teachercast; I declined because who wants to hear what I have to say?  It was cool to just be in the excited atmosphere of the room; clearly there were folks who are very active in this kind of movement, those who are involved in the education movement happening on Twitter and there were others to whom this whole thing was very new.

Speaking of which, one of the most popular sessions of the day was on using Storytelling in the classroom.  I walked into one of these sessions late, after "voting with [my] feet" and leaving another session that wasn't meeting my needs.  Traditional methods work!  Elise spoke about using storytelling to develop students speaking skills, both for personal conversations and for formal presentations.  It was great just listening to her speak!  Here are the notes from her presentation, as shared by another attendee.

Another great presentation, which I wish I'd chosen first, was Paul Bogush's presentation on body language. Here are the notes.  Again, traditional methods are effective and important.

But technology was clearly the focus of the day.  Innovation was king.  Folks shared methods on using tools like Edmodo, how to use Twitter to increase communication with parents, and using cell phones in the classroom.

It's so exciting to attend an Edcamp; I love seeing and speaking with people I consider "Twitter Rockstars."  I love engaging in conversations with people who are like minded about education, who have innovative ideas, or reinforce the ways in which traditional methods can be applied and used for modern students.  Attending an Edcamp always re-energizes me about my year, about what I'm doing in the classroom, and what's going on in classrooms across the country.

Here's all the Tweets that came over the course of the day using the #edcampnj hashtag:

The Collaborative Notes can be found here


The Flickr Photostream can be seen here.

I got up and presented in the Smackdown for the first time, sharing a website,, which I'd recently discovered on Twitter.  This photo documents just one reason that I don't present stuff:
Edcamp NJ 2012
Photo Credit:  Kevin Jarrett via

Tuesday, November 27, 2012


It occurred to me the other day that I have been horrible about blogging; not only here in my reflection space but also in my personal blogs I've just let everything slip.  Largely, it's due to the fact that I spend all day this year pretty much staring at a computer screen, which makes it tough to do so even for personal reasons in the evening.

In the spirit of Thanksgiving's pause for reflection on the year, here's what's been happening this school year.

I've struggled a lot this year with having new courses.  Two of my courses are completely new to me and while I have taught the other two before, I would hardly say I've done either of them really well.  But I've really tried to up my efforts at making all four classes great this year.

In Communications Media (Comm Media), we have done a lot of media watching and discussing and writing, but I've really struggled with what to HAVE THEM DO.  I know there's a ton of research out there about having students create media, but have had a hard time figuring out what to have them do that would be meaningful.  After spending a lot of time viewing and discussing television (sitcom, reality, and children's being our main focal points), and the stereotypes created and/or reinforced (gender roles and behavior, stereotypes; mainly the same things we discussed in our advertising unit), I decided to have students create a sitcom in which they would either challenge or parody those stereotypes, demonstrate their understanding of the "rules" of sitcoms, and identify the ways in which shows target a particular audience.  I mentioned this project to my class on Tuesday before our Thanksgiving break, and had them develop the rules of the project with me; we came up with this.

Day 1 went really well as students developed the basic plots and characters of the shows, petitioned for bonus points for product placement, and generally collaborated.  One rule I instituted on-the-fly was that there must be each gender represented in each group in the hopes this would mix up the groups a little bit more than sometimes occurs.  I was most pleased to see what looked like true collaboration; students were in a circle, facing each other, and discussing the plotlines and what would or wouldn't work.  It was also clear which students weren't participating as much as others by their body language and location on the outskirts of a group.

I am really enjoying this class.  I love leading students in learning about things they care about and are often pushed to the outskirts of school.  I also believe we're doing important stuff if students begin to consider what messages media is sending to them and what impact it has on their thinking and society.  It's a struggle, though, to come up with new things in an area that is so new to me (hey, I love media as much as my students do, but teaching them how to be media analysts rather than consumers is new to me too!)  I am so thankful that I work in a district that gives me the freedom to teach this course in a way that bends the rules of following the curriculum precisely.  I'm also so thankful to have a good friend teaching a similar course in another school who is willing to share resources!

Humanities is the other course that is new to me this year.  It's also a pretty flexible course, but is even harder to find comparable courses being taught elsewhere from which to borrow materials.  Again, we have a great curriculum that is an area that's pretty new to me; I love art and music but teaching about it is a completely different animal.

Students recently completed our unit on modern music by designing the Soundtrack of their Lives.  I totally stole this assignment from another teacher.  I was amazed at what came out of such a simple seeming assignment.  Students really got creative and opened up about what their life stories were in a very personal way.  It occurred to me that it's too bad we don't learn these kinds of things about our students until so late in their high school careers; wouldn't it be great to have an assignment like this when we FIRST meet them so we can know these things all along?  Of course, they mentioned that there was no way they'd have had the trust in us and their classmates at the very beginning--a double edge sword, I suppose.

I feel like, even more than in Comm Media, I am flying by the seat of my pants, so to speak, in this class.  This is a struggle but also a blessing; I'm taking ideas from the curriculum and expanding them to what the interests of my students seem to be (hopefully I'm doing ok at meeting them!)  For example, I planned to show my students a documentary about how music was used to help and reflect the Civil Rights Movement.  They were bored by it and saw a different documentary on my desk (Pom Wonderful Presents:  The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, which I had used in Comm Media).  On the fly, I changed the assignment to one about selling out and artistic integrity, which fits into the goals of our Humanities course pretty well, and was certainly more engaging to them than my original plan.  This then transitioned to our viewing A Raisin in the Sun.  We discussed a different type of selling out, racism and prejudice, and the Civil Rights Movement in that way as well as viewing a classic film based on a play.

In this class, I decided to use the idea of the Twenty Percent Project to get students working on projects they care about.  It hasn't been as wildly successful as I hoped, since students are struggling with the ongoing reflection piece.  I keep giving feedback that they need to write more to indicate what they are doing and learning and working on each week.  I'm not sure how to help them improve in this area so that they can get better feedback on their projects.  For the most part, though, they are doing some exciting projects, which can be found here.

I'm really proud of what's going on in these classes, though I'm not particularly sure how all this would rate on any evaluation I might get from an administrator observing my classes.

Friday, September 28, 2012


I have been flipping Economics so far this semester, and I think I'm doing a much better job of it than I did last year.  I probably made mistakes in starting off the year right away this way, but it seems to be working.  Some things I've done differently...

First, I think I'm doing a better job of the in-class stuff.  We worked on some PBL Economics from BIE in class while students viewed the relevant podcasts at home.  This time around, my expectation is that they are viewing the podcasts outside of class.  Students in my school have time in their day to go to a computer lab, so even if they do not have the internet at home, it isn't necessary to view them during class time.  If THAT doesn't work, students can read the relevant chapters in their textbook to achieve the same goal.  I feel that last year, giving students the opportunity to view the podcasts in class communicated that they could just view them in class ALL  the time, so the class wasn't flipped at all in reality.

I've also given a review quiz to assess what students do and don't know.  This wasn't to be a "gotcha," but rather a wake up call and for them to assess what they might not be understanding.   Rather than grading this and punishing them, I posted the correct answers on the class website so they could see how the problems should have been solved, and it could be a learning tool.

When discussing the process with students after the quiz, they expressed that they have a hard time with the podcasts because they can't ask questions right there.  Totally a reasonable problem to have, but I then asked them if they could email me that moment or write their question down in the notes to be addressed in class next time?  The student said he could, and at least so far, he has.

Finally, for better or for worse, I give a quick rundown, emphasizing again what needs to be noted from the podcast.  It's quick, and hopefully helps the students to identify what should be highlighted in their notes. 

We'll see how all this works on our first assessment day on Monday, but in general, I am very happy with how Economics is going so far this semester.  My biggest problem in teaching the course in the past has been my inability to do fun and exciting things with the material besides lecture and then problems, so the PBL Economics program has been an incredible help in that regard.

Friday, June 22, 2012


Wow, what a year this has been. I struggled--first, the full time working mom of two was a much bigger adjustment than the full time working mom of one was; next, all my courses this year were either new or ones I haven't taught in five or ten years; finally, I brought a lot of completely new ideas to my instruction, such as trying the flipped classroom, mastery learning, and less focus on memorization of the content and more focus on learning what's really important.

I also had the best evaluation of my career.  Although I struggled and challenged myself, I definitely laughed more than I cried this year.  I hope to have inspired students to think deeper, to care about more than the grade they received at the end, and to have learned a new thing or two about American History.  I, by and large, stayed out of trouble and was able to connect with my students in ways I never have before.

Have no fear, though, I remain the anti-teacher of the year. 

PS--I plan on doing lots of learning the year, mostly living vicariously through my becoming-an-educational-consultant husband.  I also plan to read Why Won't You Just Tell Us the Answer? this summer (even though I won't be teaching history, for the first time in my career...) and some of Marzano's books as well.

Monday, April 2, 2012

WW2/Holocaust Project

When it comes to teaching World War 2 and the Holocaust, it's so easy to spend a month, two months, and much longer since there's so much of interest!  As an instructor, I get excited to spend time on such cool stuff, but I also hope to get into MY lifetime by the end of the year, let alone the lifetime of my students.

So, I decided to have my students take on a nebulous project.  It became much less nebulous after talking it out with others.

My original plan was to have students pursue an aspect of the era that appealed to them, collaborate on it with another school in another district, and perhaps even form groups from that other school.  They'd perform deep, meaningful research, they'd collaborate, and they'd blog to reflect.

The end result wasn't quite my original vision because of concerns from building administration about the collaboration aspect (not concerns as in never; concerns as in "not for the first project.")  I did get students to learn deeper about something that interests them, challenge themselves to make connections between seemingly unrelated content, and reflecting on their work.

Feel free to look at the project here

In general, students enjoyed the project.  They liked the freedom of the essential questions, though some of them didn't so much like the objectives being so unrelated (some liked this, though, because it focused their research and forced them to learn things they wouldn't have if they didn't have the need to connect the objectives).  Some of them liked the blogging, saying they got some great ideas by collaborating with their peers while others hated the blogging, thinking it a hassle, though most of those students acknowledged the blogging helped keep them on task and thinking about their achievements. 

Students were required to make a blog post for each class work session for a total of four, and they had to post at least three comments on the blogs of others offering feedback.  I created a Google Doc of all the blogs and grouped them by essential question.  A great suggestion was made that groups should be made into groups of groups for collaboration so that they don't need to go through all 60+ blogs looking for something to comment.  A great idea for so many reasons!  This would have happened in the original vision, since they'd be working closely with a group from the other school, but I missed that in my actual implementation.

I'm proud of this project, and I'm proud of the work my students achieved.  I can't wait to put it all together with them this week, having conversations based around the essential questions and the learning they did through the project.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Like Minded

I am incredibly lucky that I live with a largely like-minded, innovative educator.  Our conversations about education occur on a daily basis and could likely fill any Edcamp session.  Yet, it's unusual for me to be surrounded by a large number of like minded teachers, who are all interested in using technology to improve instruction in a meaningful way, who recognize that our students aren't the enemy, who want to teach students in a way that will have real learning rather than involving lectures and rote memorization.

Yesterday, I had the amazing opportunity to take part in EdcampSS, an "unconference" in Philadelphia where Social Studies teachers (as well as a few representatives from other disciplines) me to discuss strategies that were important to all of us.  Interestingly, many of us already "knew" each other from the Twitterverse, and most attendees are involved in the Twitter chat #sschat.

I attended conferences about Teaching History without a Textbook, Flipping the Social Studies Classroom, Using Evernote, Getting Students to Ask Better questions, and Paperless Classroom.  Watching the ways these teachers teach teachers led me to thinking about how awesome it must be to be a student in their classes.  Usually, those teaching PD (even those who are current or former teachers) are so boring, it's hard to think of how students are successful in their classrooms, but these are truly engaging and enthusiastic educators.

In addition to participants creating Google Docs, which can all be seen here,  Teacher Cast streamed sessions from each room, though it doesn't look like all the feeds are available now.  The archive of all the tweets throughout the day can be viewed here.

There was also a Smackdown,  where folks shared resources of all kinds that can help improve a Social Studies classroom and Kenneth C Davis gave the keynote AND ran a quiz show.  I volunteered for the Quiz Show and was more than astonished to get a question correct.  As a prize, he gave all the participants a copy of his new book, signed mine, and shook this geek's hand!

I generally kept quiet, feeling sort of intimidated by so many people I know (and, not so secretly... idolize) from Twitter who are such educator rock stars--c'mon, what can a never-gonna-be-teacher-of-the-year offer any of them?--but was really happy and enthused to engage with these folks in conversations.  It's refreshing to know that THIS is the state of education in this country, or at least, what education can be if we're not afraid to push the envelope and force our students and ourselves to THINK!  It's engaging to know that I'm not only not the wacko I may sometimes seem, but I'm also perhaps not wacko enough in my non-traditional classroom.  I am refreshed.  I am energized.  

I engaged in many, many conversations and am so enthused, my husband and I are figuring out how we can swing an overnight babysitter and a hotel so we can attend EdcampPhilly together.  These kinds of events are incredible for any teacher who is feeling all alone in his/her school or district, any teacher who needs a spark to get out of a rut or feeling stale, any teacher who is excited to share.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Reflections on my Flipped Classroom

I have tried the Flipped Classroom for two units this year.  The first attempt can be seen here  and the second can be seen here.

I wanted to try to the Flipped Classroom method for a variety of reasons.  First, I felt it would drive my instruction away from traditional.  I hope to have students engaged in learning about things that were relevant to what I hoped they'd learn but also that excited and interested them.  I wanted my students to think bigger picture than "What do I need to know to do well on the test and move on?"

For my first attempt, I planned A LOT.  I gathered a ton of materials, and centered the lesson on essential questions that my students could tackle but not come to a "right" answer.  I struggled to find other history teachers who were using the flipped classroom to steal ideas I could use.  Of course, making a lecture was no big deal, but what activities could my students do while in class if they were taking on the lecture piece at home?  Simple read and answer questions from the text just wouldn't work.

To me, that's a good thing.  To my students, however, they struggled.  They felt they didn't know what they needed to know.  They felt they didn't get the more social aspect of sitting in a lecture class--when someone else asked a question, it alerted the student to questions he/she didn't know he/she had.

I tried to implement a twitter chat with the students, so they could ask these kinds of questions as they viewed.  Most would not participate (I did not probe, but my suspicion is that some of them see Twitter as nothing but a way to waste time).  I tried to show the students that they could write their questions in their notes to bring them to class, but when I met with them, they rarely seemed to have any questions.  But yet they went to their counselors and expressed these issues.

This resulted in a ... session.  The counselor came to my classroom to facilitate discussion with the students.  One student mentioned a desire to have more class discussion, so we decided to move forward with that, but if other students wanted to work independently, they could.  We'd divide the room.  (more on how this worked later).  Students express their like for flexibility, the ability to get feedback and imprve their work, ability to pause and rewind podcasts, working on own pace.  They also expressed that they don't have the time to ask questions and that they like learning in a more social setting, a belief that learning from textbooks helps them learn in a more orderly fashion, and a feeling that the traditional method works so why mess with it.

I felt good about the positives and very bad about the negatives.  I was very happy that the session seemed to be a productive one rather than a "you are a terrible teacher, I hate you and I hate this class" session.  I turned to a more traditional instruction for my next unit, but also started thinking about my next flip unit.  I was (and still am) bummed that the students expressed their concerns to the counselor without ever coming to me about it, despite my many requests for feedback on the way things were going.  I thought there were a lot of benefits, like the day a debate started between two students about the rights and wrongs of imperialism.  It was incredible!  They, however, felt that this debate didn't help them achieve the goals of the class because it wasn't coming from a "reliable" source like me or their book.  I had a student who was very interested in the impact of yellow journalism who also felt that without my direct oversight, she was not learning the "right" things.

Overwhelmed at this point and unsure of how to assess this whole mess, I found this (incredible) project from the talented Diana Laufenberg, focused it on theme of imperialism, and had students begin.  It was a mistake to start this after the bulk of the learning had occurred, which got me behind where I'd have rather been, but that's minor and easily solved.. next time, I'll introduce it earlier so students can be looking for ideas while they learn and begin investigating connections.  Otherwise, though, I think this was a much better way to assess this first jump into the flipped classroom because students didn't feel "on the hook" in the way they would had I given them a traditional test.

My second venture into the flipped classroom went both better and worse, but my takeaways from the first experience are many.  First, students rely heavily on being told what they need to know.  In addition to that, they are not trained to want to learn more, or perhaps by the process of becoming more educated, much of their natural curiosity has been squashed.  All this makes me wonder how many kids get burned by teachers in one way or another.  I also wonder how colleges are balancing traditional and newer methods, how they're bridging a more traditional based high school experience with the realities of the workplace's demands.  I also realized that due dates were a problem, and so created a shared Google Doc so that students could see each assignment for which they were responsible (in the first try, I posted them as assignments on the blog, and they were easily buried if a student wasn't paying close enough attention).  I liked the experience of giving feedback and another chance for students to improve their work; it not only gave students the opportunity to improve their grade if desired (and some figured one or two points wasn't really worth a re-do), but it gave me a chance to really figure out what I wanted them to get from the assignments and made the assignments meaningful.  I have to figure out a better way to manage student work, though, because trying to give them immediate feedback has really detracted from the amount of time I have to work individually with them.  I also need to figure out in class activities that aren't always reading or always writing.

This turned out to be a really long post on the successes and failures of my first attempt at the flipped classroom, and it certainly isn't complete.  I'm still encouraged by the obvious benefits of the flipped classroom, though I am frustrated at how poorly I feel my implementation usually has gone.

Monday, March 5, 2012


In addition to be a place for reflection on my teaching, it's also a place to share new things I've learned or used.  One of these tools is Prezi.  When my husband first introduced me to Prezi, my response (like many of my students') was, "What's wrong with Powerpoint?"

Of course, you're familiar with Powerpoint.  It's easy.  You know how to use it.  If you work really really hard at it, you can make it sort of interesting.  But you know that it's easy.

You also know that most Powerpoint presentations through which you've sat have been boring.  Some may even have been drool worthy--the kind that brings you to fall asleep and drool all over yourself--because the presenter outlined some text and brought nothing of him/herself to the presentation.  In fact, you realized you didn't even need the presenter because everything was right there in the text for you.

I recently introduced Prezi to a group of students.  Some of them made the attempt, and complained about it. It's hard.  It's not as easy to figure out as Powerpoint.

But, look, they said.  I can be creative... look at this cool design I made!  Wow, I can work on the same presentation from a different computer or even at home!  This is really cool!

For whatever reason, those students who attempted Prezi generally brought more of their own understanding of the concept than their Powerpoint selecting peers in this group.  By their presentation, it was clear that they knew what they were talking about, rather than using the words of their source, which they'd outlined and then read directly from their Powerpoint.

As far as figuring out how to use Prezi, they have lots of tutorials to get you started.

Students can be as creative (or not) as they wish, but you'll discover that their presentations are that much more dynamic.  They have to plan in ways they do not in Powerpoint.  They can bring colors and videos in ways Powerpoint does not allow.

Plus they can collaborate.  And collaboration is awesome.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Common Core Standards

This little picture was posted on Twitter.

20 percent

In his book, Drive, Daniel Pink describes what he calls "Fed Ex Days."  I'd call them Google Days, but the premise is the same.  Employees are given 20% of their work time to work on whatever projects interest and excite them.  In the Google world, this 20% time has resulted in lots of new products for Google, like Talk, Gmail, to name a few.

Pink advocates for such days in a school setting.  I've heard of various people putting it into action at the school wide level, but just discovered a teacher who is documenting how it's working in his classroom.  It just so happens that this particular teacher is implementing this in an 8th grade classroom, with the rules of it must relate to the topics considered "Social Studies" and they must be using skills included in the curriculum.  Check out 20 Percent blog.

I'm very curious what they come up with, how it works out, how it impact the teacher's ability to "get through" his curriculum, and I'm particularly curious how I might implement it on a block schedule (because while I have no problem giving up a 40 minute period a week, giving up 83 minutes every two weeks seems daunting!)

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Grading with Less Paper

I've begun in recent weeks to move toward using less papers in my assessment.  Previously, I've set up a bin each year with a folder for each student inside a folder for each class.  Work would be returned here and students were responsible for "homework buddies," and would collect work and let their buddies know what they missed.  It failed.  Students didn't collect their work, some not even looking at it all year, and they wouldn't take care of their homework buddies, so I had to catch the person up anyway.

So, I've set up Google Docs.  Each class has a folder (still) and each student has a folder within his/her class (still).  But it's digital.  I grade their work on rubrics, which I save to my computer, then upload to Google Docs. Students can only see their own folders, so when I upload work and share it with the individual folder, only that student can see the rubric.  I followed the steps outlined by this teacher to do the same method for midterm (project) grading.  Students get much more immediate feedback--they don't have to wait for me to put things in their folders, remember to check, etc--and it saves tons and tons of paper.

This is not to say this process has been without its problems; students forget to check it (it doesn't sesem to send an email when there's new forms shared), forget how to log in, forget the process altogether.  Some students simply don't like the technology.  Overall, though, it seems to be a successful method by which feedback on their work can be shared and with less overall paperwork.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012


I am the anti teacher of the year.  Some days, I like to think I'm doing a pretty good job, but I'll never be teacher of the year.  I've come to accept this, but that doesn't mean I'm not disappointed anyway.  I'm hard on myself, and as much as I'd love to say I'm all about Dan Pink's Drive, it's a realized fact of my life that I'm after the gold star.  The external motivator drives me, just as much (if not more) as wanting to do a good job because I want to do my best.

This year has been a tough one for me.  In addition to it being my first year back from maternity leave with a second child, I'm teaching a course I haven't taught in more than 10 years (and it was my FIRST year teaching to boot), a course I haven't taught in 4 years, and a completely new, online course.  To say my days are spent trying to keep my head above water the next day is an understatement. 

Despite these challenges, or perhaps because of them, I've made attempts to incorporate the Flipped Classroom into my US History 2 course.  Thus far, I've done two attempts, using both The Flipped Classroom and Mastery Learning.  It has, by no stretch of the imagination, been easy.  I feel like all my homework assignments are crap, which means what the kids are doing in class is crap.  I feel like in order to give fast feedback so students can make corrections, I spend all my time in front of a computer or at my desk marking papers so that they can be turned around and handed back.  Of course, the point of the Flipped Classroom is so the teacher has more engagement time with her students, but I feel like I have substantially less on those days.  And, for some reason, my students are frustrated but not telling me about it.

In short, most days I feel like my implementation of the Flipped Classroom gives the Flipped Classroom a bad name.

I believe there have been successes, though, and they're big ones.  I think my implementation has gotten students thinking bigger about the content--many of them are thinking more and memorizing less.  I've also been using essential questions to frame my units, and these essential questions, or elements of them, have become my test questions.  I believe students are thinking deeper and making more connections across time, whether by the lessons I've designed or because of something else.

My principal has asked me to write a reflection on what I'm doing here, and since the likelihood of me losing anything I write on paper is high, here's that reflection.  In my compartmentalized blog world of six blogs under this account alone (most of which haven't been updated in months), I hope I can remember to post at all.