Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Questions from Mrs. Baker

It seems that there's been blogger homework assigned this winter break!  My friend Kate Baker, who write at Baker's BYOD, challenged me and ten other bloggers to do this task.  I've known Kate for a long, long time!  We went to high school together, and were in our 7-9 middle school at the same time, though I'm not sure if we knew each other then or not.  We know each other from marching band.  We reconnected through Facebook and discovered how close in age our families are, then learned that we're both teachers doing similar (crazy) things.  It's been so fun remembering Kate as a teenager and learning who she is as a grown-up mother of two!

Up first, part 1:  11 facts about me:

  1. I run far too many blogs.  Or, at least, I "have" too many blogs that I update far too infrequently.
  2. My husband and I are both high school teachers.
  3. I never, ever, would have considered myself a cat person, yet I've lived with two cats for 9 years.
  4. I am not interesting enough for 11 things about me.
  5. One of the things I miss most about my pre-kids life is the ability to lounge in bed reading a good book.  It's definitely not for me to go BACK to bed to do this, and I'm usually the one who gets up when they do.
  6. I HATE to be cold, but....
  7. I miss going skiing.  I haven't been since 2000, and keep trying to make plans that often fall through.
  8. I would love to live in another state.
  9. I've been abroad twice--first, on a trip called "American Music Abroad," which toured several countries for sometimes hours, and second on a trip sponsored by the Lions Club in which I was essentially an exchange student, living in different people's homes around Germany.
  10. I traveled with my college pep band to two NCAA Tournaments--first to Chicago (I recall that being a whirlwind trip) and second to Charlotte.
  11. I made a "bucket list" for my 30s.  I'm 35 and have only done one of the things on that list.
Part 2:  11 Questions from Mrs. Baker:

  1. What is your favorite type of cookie?
    My first thought is peanut butter cookies--either the kind where you take a fork and crosshatch or the kind with a kiss on top.  My must-buy Girl Scout cookies are the red box and the orange box; I have no idea the cookie names but they're both peanut butter.
  2. As a cook, what is your signature dish?
    I don't really have a "signature" dish.  Despite enjoying cooking, there's very few recipes committed to memory.  Do grilled cheese or pita pizzas count?  But among the things made most frequently around here are enchiladas, macaroni and cheese, and crock-pot lasagna.
  3. What was your best Christmas/Birthday/Holiday gift ever (either given to you or you gave to someone else)?
    I don't know if this is the "best," but it's the most storied in my marriage.  Before we were married or engaged... heck, we were still fairly new in dating as it went... I was inspired by a friend who went really BIG when it came to gifts for her fiance.  So, I decided to buy my then boyfriend a trip for us both to Hawaii.  He'd been before (but never with me!) and I had not, the price was great for right after school, so we went!  He doesn't let me live this one down, since he calls it a gift for him but for me, but if the timing had worked better, it could have been spun as a visit to his sister, who moved around the corner from our hotel a few months after our trip.
  4. Why was that the best gift ever?
    See above!
  5. What is your favorite tech tool?
    Google Drive keeps me way more organized than I used to be.
  6. Oxford comma, necessary or superfluous? 
  7. What is your favorite book?
    TOUGH choice!  I really couldn't tell you my one favorite of pretty much anything, and with so many great books, this is impossible to choose.  I love a great picture book--Mo Williems's books are readable, engaging and beautiful, and Love You Forever always brings me to tears.  A great piece of nonfiction that's stuck with me is Zeitoun.  Ready, Player One was also in audiobook for me, but was probably the best book I've read this year.
  8. If you could have 3 wishes, what would they be?
    To see the results of the parenting choices we're making now--who are our boys in 15 and 30 years?
    More time; I am not successful at this working parent thing, on top of being really hard-on-myself.  There's so much I want to do and see and be, but I cannot figure out how to make it all fit.
    More wishes?  No?  Ixnay?  Well then, I'd wish for something to help someone who couldn't help me in return.  I'd wish to help the man who lives under the bridge, the man about whom I think every time it gets so cold.  I'd eradicate the extreme poverty in this country.
  9. If you were to name one piece of clothing that describes you, what would you say?
    Bill Cosby sweater
  10. Would you rather visit the world 100 years into the past or 100 years into the future?
    Ooooo, good question.  A tough choice, but I think I would want to visit the future.  This may be due to Back to the Future 2 being my favorite in the series, but in reality, the news is grim and I've read a lot of dystopian fiction; I want to see the world my grandchildren will encounter to best prepare them and also to assuage my anxious mind.
  11. What's the kindest act you have ever seen done (either to/by you or another)?
    It's so hard to think of kind acts when I try to be intentional in doing them, mostly because we encounter so many very public, very huge kindnesses via the media.  The heroic acts of first responders during Hurricane Sandy is the first thing that I think of for this question, but these are things I can never do.  But since having children, I've seen how very kind the world is--the people who have offered help to a child who appears to be lost, the random gifts strangers have given to my boys, the people who hand over their tickets at an arcade--and these are the types of kindnesses of which we are all capable, little kindnesses that restore all of our faith that this is a good time and a good place.
That was tough, and boy do I seem hokey.

Part 3--Nominate Other Bloggers
Well, by the time I'm getting around to this, everyone who I might nominate has probably already done this.  So, if you're the one person who reads this thing of mine, feel free to play and let me know!

Part 4--Questions for YOU:
  1. What's your favorite outdoor activity?  What do you love about it?
  2. What is the most beautiful sight you've ever seen?  Describe the scene.
  3. Would you be 16 again?  Why or why not?
  4. What's your favorite holiday and why?
  5. If you could live in any era of the past, when would you choose and why?
  6. What energizes you?
  7. How would you spend an hour with no responsibility?
  8. How would you spend $100 with no strings attached?
  9. Describe your best Halloween costume.
  10. City or country?
  11. Can you currently play an instrument?  Which?

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Reflections from Edcamp

Another great Saturday spent learning how to be a better educator at EdcampNJ!
With some running a session at an Edcamp experience in my belt, my husband and I had discussed running a session on our "Redesign the School" projects and student choice, but he was again unable to attend EdcampNJ, this time due to marking period grades.

I was excited to see some friends, both from the real world and the virtual one, and spend the day learning.

First session I attended Steve Tetreault's session on Intermediate uses of Google Docs.  I was super excited when he discussed how to use Scripts, since I had a failed attempt to do so (in the midst of an end-of-the-marking-period grading frenzy is not the time to figure out how to do something new); Steve showed us the many different ways we could use scripts and how to do it.  Win; I can't wait to use this TODAY.

I've spent some time playing around with this, and while I'm not sure how to start using it now(my students are having a hard enough time with the system I've already set up, so I don't think it's wise to start using something else...), it will make my life immensely better in the future.

Edcamp NJ 2013
You can see my striped back, right in the center of the photo.

Next session was a little more difficult.  There wasn't really a session that I was interested in joining, so I ended up hopping around a bit.  I ended up in a session on Flipping; it was great to meet the presenter, whom I'd just discovered on Twitter that week, and also contribute a little to a conversation.

Next up was lunch, at which point door prizes were announced.  I was selected to win a door prize, and chose a subscription to Flocabulary; I can't wait for it to arrive!

For session 3, I joined a session "Assessments that Don't Suck."  Funny title aside, I knew the session was being run by Paul Bogush, a middle school Social Studies teacher from whom I could surely steal some great ideas.  Additionally, I always seek new and better ways to assess student learning.  He didn't disappoint, giving a ton of great project based ideas.  

I followed Paul to his next session, the famous Body Language one.  Paul shared a list of resources in addition to his presentation.  Fascinating stuff, with immediate application to the classroom and, frankly, any relationship we have with other humans.

Once again, I did not win the Chromebook.  Grr.  But that Flocabulary membership will be AWESOME!!

At the Smackdown, I learned about quite a few new tools, but the one I'm most excited about was shared by Rich Kiker; I made a podcast of how to use it here.

Here's some friends and I being silly in the Photobooth!

Thanks, again, to the EdcampNJ folks for putting on another great day!

Check out all the shared notes from all the sessions here.
The photostream may be seen here.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Flipping again

I've been trying to figure out how to flip my class this year, after a hiatus of a year.  They've had homeworks of viewing podcasts the past few days, but today was the day they got started on the real demonstration of learning!
Image Source:  http://edudemic.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/flipped-classroom1.jpg

The unit I planned is laid out here.  I tried to give students some choices on their activities--some choices are more artistic while others are more straightforward written assignments.  One of the disappointments of my first time flipping a core course was that most of my ongoing class activities were written ones, and I didn't want that to be the case this time.

So today they got to work.  There seemed to be a pretty even split between those who wanted to pursue the more creative approach and those who wanted to go the more straightforward path.  It was interesting; I felt I needed to keep reminding the students to refer to the rubric as they completed their work to determine the expectations.  I've been raised in an environment of rubrics for assessment and expressing clearly through them the expectations, but I've also been reading a lot about the ways in which rubrics force students to focus on the grade rather than on the learning.  What a conundrum.

Interestingly, I just discovered the work of Dr. Lodge McCammom, and viewed his TED Talk yesterday.  His co-presenter mentioned that she would be completely exhausted after a day of traditional direct instruction (and, presumably, that this is not the case when she runs a flipped class).

I was EXHAUSTED by the end of the day.  I was up and all over the (fairly large) computer lab.  I found that I kept going back to the same students in each section; they had lots of questions and weren't making an attempt to figure it out on their own.  Something to work on with them is that this is a safe space in which to make mistakes and that it's important to figure out things on our own or maybe even with a partner.
Image Source:  http://laporteisflippinglanguagearts.files.wordpress.com/2012/07/collaborate.jpg
With that said, I got to engage in one of the best things about the Flipped Classroom--I got to engage with each student at least once during the period.  I was able to, hopefully, demonstrate that I care about them and want them to do well.  I think they may have just been happy to not have a test this go 'round.

Thursday, October 3, 2013


I feel like I'm letting myself down this year.

Photo Source:  http://alleecreative.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Frustration.jpg

The last time I taught US History, I taught the second half of it (1900ish to presentish).  I had not taught this course since my very first (very crummy) year teaching and I (and the world) had changed a lot in those 9 years.  I used essential questions and flipped some of my units.  My instruction was very tech heavy.  I think I did a very good job of teaching in a new, interesting, engaging, manner.

Now it's this year.  I'm teaching the FIRST half of US History (Foundings to 1900ish), and I'm struggling to make it into the course I want it to be.  First, I taught this course much more recently (2009-10) and was already starting to be more innovative in my instruction.  I still used lecture and the textbook.

My larger class load than that USII class has me struggling to be creative.  I feel like I'm barely keeping my head above water, and the grading hasn't even really started yet. I also am finding that there seems to be way fewer resources for flipping USI; at least that I can find shared and for free.  I just don't know where to start with flipping and what students would actually DO during class.

So I'm doing a lot of the same things I did then, and I feel sort of terrible about it.  We're getting ready to assess the first unit of the course, and I'm looking fondly at the test I used way back when.  I need to find some inspiration, some collaboration, and that spark that lit me up when I taught USII!

With all that said, I mentioned that we were working on a mock Mystery Skype here.  A student wanted some comfort and asked if she could make a "screen" to simulate Skype better, to which I replied OF COURSE!  Here's what she made!  (She cut the frame out of cardboard; not sure why it looks so skewed here.

Monday, September 30, 2013

New to me Classroom

The classroom into which I moved this year is very white.  There are three walls that have white paint, and a blue wall, all the way in the back of the room, which is painted navy blue.  White floor, white table tops....  So to say the classroom needed some color is quite an understatement.

I've been scouring the inexpensive stores for tchotchkes with little success, so was super happy to find this set on the clearance rack at Bed Bath and Beyond.  Not only does it bring some color (which happen to be among my favorites), but it is also pretty hefty and so takes up a good amount of space on a very large wall.

I placed it on the wall facing the door, alongside our "windows."

So, things are starting to come together.  A student volunteered to paint me a mural; hopefully that will come to fruition!  I also plan to pickup some posters a woman offered on freecycle, which should add even more color and fun to the room.

Suggestions to brighten this space welcomed and appreciated!!

Friday, September 27, 2013


This first month of school has been challenging--a new population of students (not just new students, but from different schools on campus so different expectations and experiences), changes to courses I've taught before (my Humanities class has switched from a semester to a full year, from seniors to sophomores), changing classroom space.  I'm down to three preps, but up to six sections (last year was four preps and five sections).

No grass has been able to grow under my feet.
Source:  http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/o/oliverherf383203.html

All these challenges aside, I'm actually devoting the most energy to revamping my USI classes.  I last taught the course in 2009-10, and while I was pretty innovative then (or maybe just so I thought), I've underwent some serious changes in my philosophy and how I do things.  Most of the things I did then are not suitable for a flipped classroom mindset, let alone a wholly flipped classroom.

Resources that helped me so much when I flipped USII have disappeared--either from my browser's history and my bookmarks or from the internet altogether.  I keep searching for this huge list of US History essential questions I used then to help focus my units--gone.  It also seems that many teachers who flip have turned their classes to non-public sources like Edmodo, so it's been tough to find ideas for what will happen in class.

So, my classes have been working a lot with primary sources.  This is great for common core as well as trying to get to the meat of what's important with less of the textbook type processing and a different amount of specificity.  Of course, working with primary sources is a big part of the Common Core, which of course helpful too.

We're working on a project that will help them recognize the regional differences and reasons for the founding of each colony (a modification of my previous "Character of a Colony Project" to become a simulated Mystery Skype--shout out to Rachelle Lamoureaux for the Mystery Skype idea).

The changes are many:  first, we've changed textbooks to one that really doesn't fit what I tend to do in my classes, so gone are all the textbook/question homework assignments.  I have not yet given a Powerpoint or a lecture of any kind.  We've had a lot of conversations; we're trying to group and categorize in anticipation of DBQ writing; we're building relationships; we're learning about Google Drive and Chromebooks; we're collaborating.

Speaking of which, check out the new desks, which arrived yesterday morning!

My current struggle with USI is, of course, what the heck to do with them in class time.  The students who have been trained in the more traditional methods have already expressed that they WANT lectures and that they're getting sick of primary sources.  The Mystery Skype is a start, but I'm struggling to fill the day-to-day.  Building meaningful class activities is what makes the class time fun, memorable, and the point of getting the opportunity to spend one's days with high school students!

Monday, June 10, 2013

The End of the Year

This post, which discusses how our language of reflection impacts our mindsets, is on my mind today.  We still have about two more weeks before graduation, but it's still important to think about what went right in the past year, before the lazy unstructured days of summer begin.

Student choice
The 20% Project was an incredible experience, hopefully for my students as much as it was for me!  I am so happy this project happened in my elective class; it allowed me to really hone some of my tools of instruction (reflection blogging, Problem Based Learning, to name a few), and allowed me to see my students in new ways.
Source:  http://www.iteachithink.com/2012/08/a-letter-to-my-students-and-parents.html

Making it Matter
One reason I struggle in my instruction of Economics is that I have a very hard time making it relevant, especially when teaching microeconomics (the only Econ I teach, unless you count my online Financial Literacy course).  In Comm Media, I've been able (I hope) to show students why it matters in every example.  We did close readings in ads, tv, movies... yay, Common Core!...  and related media to the everyday experiences of the students.    In such a class, it was very easy to bring in whatever fad the internet created, since we could talk about it in direct relation to the course.  (Dove Real Beauty?  Perfect!  Dumb cat videos on youtube?  Excellent!  Last night's results of *insert reality competition show here*?  Fantastic!)  The same happened in Humanities--we looked at themes that were not only fun and different from a typical honors level class, but also had relevance to real life or even just got them thinking.

Paperless Instruction
I received very few papers on paper this year.  My Comm Media class meets in a computer lab, so it was very easy for every assignment/note taking activity/do now/whatever to happen in Google Docs.  I didn't
Source:  http://www.droid-life.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Google-Drive.png
push it as much in Humanities, but students recognize that there's a time savings to them to submit it via email (students in our school have the opportunity to use computer labs during half of their lunch hour; just today, there was a line of folks late to class because they were hastily printing the work due the very next period) so most papers were sent in that way.  I actually spent so much time in front of the computer this year, I began printing out some of the papers I received to make them easier for my eyes.

I also run a completely online course, but this is a what went right post, so I'll say that it makes me so happy when kids comment on things I share or assignments they have to do that the thing/assignment was helpful and/or really made them think.

I've done a lot of connecting this year.  Connecting with teachers outside my district through social media, but also sharing a lot of what I've read or learned.  I used to be afraid of sharing resources I found on Twitter; so many people are afraid of social media or don't like it or think it takes too much time to be useful.  With that said, so many people have mentioned that the resources I've shared this year have been helpful or funny or whatever, and there's been talk about getting me a stipend for the tech stuff I do (some of it in jest, some of it serious).    It's been a great way to make a niche for myself.
Source:  http://flatclassroom09-3.flatclassroomproject.org/Connecting+the+World+Online

I've also embraced a new attitude and say hello and/or smile at everyone in the hallways, especially in the mornings.  My schedule has left me with more time (teaching 5 classes, even with four preps, is way easier than teaching 6) and thus I've been way less overwhelmed with preparing and grading.  I think this has been especially important as I teach this online class--I have an entire grade of students that "go" to the school in which I consider my home base but don't really have many face-to-face contact with them.  So, smiling at everyone makes me have a happier day and also (hopefully) let's them know that even though it seems like I do nothing but give them work, I do care about them and want them to do well.  At least, I hope that's how it's being perceived!

Source:  http://pearlsofprofundity.wordpress.com/2013/01/26/emulsification-andor-to-emulsify/
In short, my successes as a teacher this year have been from doing things differently, from not being a traditional teacher.  I've changed my methods, I've changed my mindset, and I've enjoyed myself a ton.  As I change schools and courses for next year, I hope to carry these successes forward.  I probably won't be able to teach the same ways and wonder if I can continue a 20% Project in a traditional core class (I'm thinking probably not, since I have a tendency to not finish the curriculum in the first place...), but hope I remember that not being traditional can generate more fun, more meaning, and great connections in the classroom.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Traditional PD

On Tuesday, I attended a professional development experience on Genocide.  The conference was held at Ramapo College, and while it was raising awareness of several examples, the Armenian Genocide of the First World War era was the focus.

The conference began in typical fashion--opening remarks  and a mention (by the fantastic Paul Winkler) of the Holocaust/Genocide mandate for schools to discuss the Holocaust and Genocide (their website has some great resources).

Next, Michael Bobelian gave us some information in lecture form about the Armenian Genocide, giving us the basic outline likely in his book, Children of Armenia:  A Forgotten Genocide and the Century-long Struggle for Justice.

Here's where I started to struggle.  It became clear that the lecture format of PD just wasn't going to work for me.  I took excellent notes, but struggled in general with the presentation.  See, he had a powerpoint with some incredible resources.  But, he didn't share it with us.  Copies of his book were around the room, and a quick flip through it showed me that the resources in his presentation weren't even there.  Luckily, I'm a Google Fanatic, and was able to find some of the resources, supporting information, and the like by searching on my own, and you can see those links in my notes.  But the idea of "sage on the stage" instruction is

By this point, I had looked around the room a few times and noticed something else that was very different from my recent PD experiences.  After requesting the wireless password (I was told they didn't have one, and would try to get it), I helped one woman connect using her ipad.  There were a handful of ipads, one or two besides me with laptops, and every one else of the 70 or so participants had a pad and paper.  A pad and paper that would probably go into a desk drawer to only be found at the end of the year or when he/she cleans out the desk one day.

As much as I dislike group work or forced collaboration at conferences, it is clear how much more engaging a presentation becomes when you turn to someone to discuss--even if it's just because you're listening to someone else's ideas and/or voice!

The next piece of the conference was two high school teachers presenting on the pedagogy of teaching Genocide.  YAY!  Teachers vs professors, I had high hopes for collaboration.  Alas, it was again more presentation (though much more sharing of the resources).  There seemed to be more time for questions, but it really was a "here's how I do it" sort of thing.  That's not to say it wasn't valuable; in fact, there were a ton of resources shared and instructional/assessment tools that could be applied to areas of Social Studies beyond Genocide.  It's just something different from what I expect from PD these days.

After an hour for lunch (everyone at my table was wondering what to do with themselves for the remaining 40 minutes after finishing!), we heard from a panel of survivors.  For some reason, despite this again being listening with no graphics, it was incredibly engaging.  Hearing their stories, hearing what they think we should be doing to stop Genocide, hearing their takes on the big picture, really had a huge impact.  When considering how best to present Genocide to students, clearly survivor stories and testimony is the way to go.  Nothing humanizes inhumanity better than hearing stories from survivors (and their descendants, as the case was for one woman on the panel here), and few things work better for history than storytelling.

Monday, May 20, 2013


Saturday was my second visit to #Edcampphilly, and I had a great time and learned about so much.  Most notable about this time around was that I actually got up the nerve to present something.  Yes, it was in a large group of presenters, but it's saying something that I got such gumption.  We shared thoughts on Flipped Classroom, Paperless Classroom, 20% Time, and Edmodo.  Here's our Session Doc, and the Q and A was run via Today's Meet (at the bottom of the Session Doc).

In the first session, I participated in a discussion about Being Kind Online and using the fantastic novel Wonder as a starting point for those discussions.  I found some great resources (shared in the Google Doc), but also got some great ideas for parenting my young elementary school aged son.  It really got me thinking about the idea of Googling yourself---everyone always says you should do this, but I've been so very nervous to do so.  It all started way back when ratemyteacher was new.....  I need to figure out how to develop a thicker skin, really.

In the second session, I did a little bit of session hopping.  I finally settled down in Gerald Aungst's session "Preventing the Zombie Apocalypse," where there was some great conversation happening about how teachers can keep students engaged in school!  Gerald started the conversation with his own sons to demonstrate the ways that grades and scores don't really measure a student's engagement in the content.  Some great conversations here about engagement and what schools do/don't let students and/or teachers do.

We had a fantastic (though hurried) lunch down the street at Picnic.  It was a ten minute hike there and another ten minutes back, so we had to eat quickly in order to prepare for our third session presentation.

I think on the whole, our session went really well, and I'm really proud of all of us!  We had too much to talk about, though, which is the problem of cramming four different people into one short presentation space.  Our time was more of a presentation with some Q&A time; had we had less topics to discuss, we could have structured it more like a discussion.  The good, though, was that we shared a lot of our thoughts and materials on the session's GDoc, so everyone could check them out at will rather than us having to share them on the projector.

Finally, I ended up in a conversation about Doing What's Best for Kids without Getting Fired.  Interestingly, the conversation went in the direction of opting our own kids out of state tests and the movement of folks doing so.  This was not really a problem solving session of any kind, but rather, a sense of validation.  Everyone in the room expressed that he/she is an outcast at work, so it's refreshing to be in a room of "crazy people" who are all trying to do what's best for kids and embracing some new methods that don't necessarily involve worksheets to do so.

Here I am in the Smackdown, sharing the great Financial Literacy/Being a Good Human Being website, playspent.org, and looking slightly less dorky than at EdcampNJ.
Edcamp Philly 2013
Photo by Kevin Jarrett, http://www.flickr.com/photos/kjarrett/8751122961/in/pool-edcamp
I love the conversations that happen at these events.  I love the ideas, I love the backchanneling, I love the networking.  It's exciting to be surrounded by educators who are on the cutting edge of what is happening in schools in the area.  This style of Professional Development, where you're learning about or talking about cool things in classrooms, where you're participating (and not necessarily exclusively in a "turn to your partner and share your thoughts" kind of way, where you can feel free to leave a session that's not meeting your needs, where you're surrounded by people who want so much to be there that they are coming to do PD on a Saturday, is completely amazing.

Check out the archive of all the #edcampphilly Tweets, compiled by Brad Currie.

PROPS to the Edcamp team!!

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

My classroom

I stumbled across Krissy Venosdale's post "When you have Nothing to Blog About," and was inspired to just write about the mundane.  So, here's my current classroom.

It has a lot of white space.  With an online class, I spend a lot of time at my desk, so a colleague inspired me to put up some of the faces I love seeing around my desk.  I also put up some posters about art to go along with the Humanities class I teach in this room.  By taking this photo, I've just now realized the poster that was on the left side of the Starboard has fallen down and disappeared....

This is the vantage point from my desk.  I have no windows, so my students know well that I've had windows to paradise installed.  Even on the grayest of days, we get to look out the window to a beautiful sunny day.  I really like the maroon walls and cabinets!

Here you can see more art posters, and what looks like a mess on the back cabinet.  This is a series of Humanities projects, actually.  First, on the first day of class, students were to create art.  Nearly all of them worked with modeling clay, and they stay on display for the whole semester.  Also back there is a great quote from Dr. Seuss, "You have brains in your head, you have feet in your shoes, you can steer yourself any direction you choose."

On the cabinets is another Humanities project.  Students were to bring a piece of art they felt represented them.

It's clear that I need to put some more on the walls to better reflect the OTHER class that happens here.  There's no way of knowing from the physical space that Economics is learned in this room.

As far as the pods go, it works great in my Economics class, which only has six students.  They collaborate well and are pretty motivated.  In my larger Humanities class, however, it hasn't quite worked the way I'd hoped.  I wanted the chairs whose backs are to us in the last picture to sit on the sides, however, the students have moved the chairs so that they face the back of the room and the custodians leave those chairs there every night.  If I am scheduled to be in this classroom again, I hope to figure out a better room design given the space confines.

Suggestions welcome and appreciated!

Monday, April 15, 2013


A current student is doing a 20% project with a focus on demonstrating how life as a teenager has changed over the years.  As we chatted about her project, she mentioned she wanted to interview her brother as a sort of in between point; he graduated high school in 2009.  I offered to put out some feelers to former students to help her.

They responded quickly and enthusiastically, but it touched my heart when one former student responded, "I still remember thinking differently about visitors after you played that song in class about them being 'everyday people like you and me.'  My activism started right there.  Thank you!"

Wow!  Now, I don't remember the moment that had such an impact on her, I don't recall the song to which she recalls me sharing (I really wonder if it was in fact my teaching partner!).  But, even if she's mis-remembering and I didn't do this, I apparently DID do something right that she would attribute something having such an impact on her to me.  (A quick Google turns up this lyric as a Rage Against the Machine song I *do* remember having shared with them.)

This made me feel so incredible, but of course, my self-deprecation mosquito in the ear has me wondering if that was the enthusiasm of my youth, and if my greatest days of having a real impact are behind me.  And that mosquito is probably at least a little bit right.  BUT, my tired old fogey self keeps trying to be better (even if it rocks the boat and/or isn't liked so much), keeps trying to be innovative, relevant, and helping students gain the skills they will need moving forward.  I just read a post that reflects that others have these same mosquitoes in their ears; ideas that particularly resonate with me
I want to be different in a system of standardization. I want to push learning ahead of achievement. I want to prove that relationships and humility work better than behaviorist systems. I want to be different in the midst of the mainstream.
                                                              -John Spencer, "Please Become a Teacher"

"Different in the midst of the mainstream."  Raging against the machine.  Hey, maybe that's the goal.  To be my natural, trouble-making self.  Eek.

Monday, March 25, 2013


My husband is reading Why are all the Good Teachers Crazy by Frank Stepnowski.  I picked it up the other day and started reading the introduction, in which he explains the pretty crazy story of how he got his first teaching job.  It got me to think about my first successful interview, which while not nearly as crazy as his, is pretty interesting in its own way.

I was gallivanting in Germany the summer after college graduation, so my mom actually sent most of my resumes out.  As such, I interviewed for every job for which I was qualified.  I interviewed for in school suspension positions, maternity leave replacements; I impressed one high school principal but looked too young (I was not yet 22) and was referred to the middle school in the district, a job I also did not get.

So, things were looking pretty bleak when September rolled around.  In the midst of a strong economy, I could not find a job with a Bachelor's degree in History Education.  Resigned, I started looking into master's programs (it was too late) and contemplated working at my seasonal summer job and moving back into Mom and Dad's house.

I really had nothing to lose, I guess, when I interviewed for a position far north of my home.  I didn't know what I was getting into and was asked, "Why should I hire you when I have a stack of resumes here from people with master's degrees?"  What are you supposed to say to that when you have no experience and no advanced degree?  With nothing to lose, I replied, "Well, because I'm awesome."

I truly believe it was that answer that got me the job as well as the lasting friendship of the interviewer.  When he called me at that seasonal job, I dropped to the floor screaming with joy.

What I learned from the experience was that sometimes, you just have to throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks.  Sometimes, you just have to wing it.  And sometimes, being serious is not the best course of action.

Img source:  http://t2ak.roblox.com/ad23cf63c84d9cb3184f257ebb8682c0

Thursday, March 7, 2013

But now I'm stronger than yesterday....

It recently came to my attention that my husband gave me a shout out on his blog, in a post titled "I'm better because of you."  No, it's not a lovey dovey something, and neither will this be, but it's about being inspired, being better than yesterday (hence the Britney), and about not only being a better teacher, but also about being a better person.

At the end of the post, he asked, "Who makes you a better person?"

First, I have to point to my sons here; since the birth of the first, I have taken our family (sometimes kicking and screaming) on a more healthful, more environmentally friendly, and less exploitative path.  I was never mindful of the garbage I put into and onto my body before thinking about the impact it would have on my baby (although I still put some of that garbage into and onto my body, I feel worse about it and am mindful of it being garbage--I'm looking at you, gummy "fruit" snacks).

Furthermore, how can I expect them to be good sharerers or kind, or any of the other things I expect them to be if I am not?  How can I tell them to take turns if I don't let a driver into a line of cars?  How can I teach them that it's ok to make mistakes and to not beat themselves up when they do when I don't?

So I try to be better.  I'm not always great at it, but I'm working to model the behavior I expect in my sons, which makes me a person who is working to be better every day.

Next up is my aforementioned husband, who teaches me about being passionate every day.  I don't know if I've ever met someone who is as passionate about his/her profession as he is.  He is always available to his students, always thinking about how to be better at his work tomorrow or next year, always trying to be better.  While I have no where near his level of work ethic, his passion reminds me that work is about more than a paycheck.  A phrase his parents told him as a kid is "If you're not having fun, pack up your toys and head home."  Steve Jobs said, "'If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?'" And whenever the answer has been "'No'" for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something."

Work should be fun.  Hell, LIFE should be fun.  Life is too short to spend too many days unhappy.  If I feel like Eeyore for too many days, I need to make a change.  If small changes aren't helping in the big picture, I need to make bigger changes.  I also need to keep in mind what Richard Carlson posits,

“Will this matter a year from now?”

But yet, it's important to remember too that work is not life.  Time for play is important, not only to being a good parent but to being a good person.  I don't want to wait until I retire (or even until summer brings a slew of fun days off) to have fun.  My parents spend their winters in a community of retirees in the Florida Keys; they have fun all the live long day there.  Although I am working full time, parenting full time, and being a lousy homemaker full time as well as living in gray NJ, I need to find ways to bring that fun, that joy, to my life every week if not every day.  

So, why am I posting this on my educator reflection spot rather than my personal one?  Because, of course, all these areas are what I hope to bring to my students.  I need to model good behavior and be a better person for them, but I also hope to help them determine for themselves what being a good person means.  I hope to inspire them to follow their passions rather than pursuing the career that will make Mom and Dad happy or bring them riches (unless doing so also fulfills their passions), and I want them to realize that work and school should be fun--being passionate about it will make that true.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Twenty Percent, round 2

The first round of 20% Projects were so successful, I'm having students try them again for semester 2.  Students were instructed to meet with me outside of class, bringing a list of five potential ideas for their projects.  I met with them to discuss which project they really wanted to do, what their learning goals for the project are, and how their learning is going to take the course of a whole semester.

They then had to write up proposals for yesterday's class.  They workshopped with another student to discuss ideas and how to improve the proposal, and then we went around the room with each person sharing his ideas and the class giving ideas and feedback on the proposal.

Next, they will post their decided upon project to the reflection blog, twentypercent13.blogspot.com.

The ideas that were proposed included:

  • writing, filming, and editing a television show
  • creating a rubric by which to evaluate restaurant meals and creating a restaurant critic blog
  • creating a guidebook for how men should understand women
  • learning about classical music theory and using that to write and perform a piece of music
  • creating a gluten free lifestyle blog and learning about making beautiful food photography
  • creating a vegetarian lifestyle blog
  • choreographing a dance for young dancers, teaching it to them, and documenting the instructional process
  • learning about song/rap writing, creating a song, using adobe products to produce and edit a music video for the song, and improving upon piano skills to perform the song.
  • character animation in 3d studio max

There's also a student who is taking an independent study type thing in Humanities 2; she intends to continue the 20 percent project she began in the first semester, bringing it to the conclusion she envisioned in October.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013


My students have spent 20% of the last semester's class time preparing for their so called "20% Projects."  They reflected on what they achieved and learned in that time, had some failures and/or had projects turn out not quite in the direction intended in October.

At close to the last minute, I surprised them by saying I had invited the whole district by sending an email to all the faculty in the district inviting them to bring their students if they were not taking an exam (our school has students come in for a full day during exams, so students such as those taking fitness that period are not responsible for an exam).  I also told them they would be presenting in our auditorium on the stage (our stage is small; it's meant for presentations rather than drama productions).  Not many took the call, but our building's supervisor did come for some of the presentations as well as a few other teachers.

From their presentations, they learned a lot.  The student who went first wrote a program.  His original intent was to write an app for Android devices, which didn't happen, so he said he failed.  This student also said he learned how important it is to do some research on a project before committing to it--had he know how much time and work went into writing code (his program had something like 1000 lines of code in it), he probably would have gone in a different direction, but he felt he learned a lot by taking on the process too.

Another student presented on her research on creating an animal sanctuary.  She spoke with folks at different levels of sanctuary (from small animals to big cats) and learned about how non-profits work and expressed that this is what she wants to do with her life and is very happy she started the process now because she realized how much money and work goes into it.

Other reflections focused mainly on the process of the project rather than on the learning from the project itself, which I found very interesting!  My goal was to have them learning about something that interested them and turning it into a TED talk, but they seem to have learned a lot about the process of a big, inquiry type project, which (I hope!) will serve them even better than learning about something that interests them.

As has happened so often with this group, the audience asked questions so presentations ran longer than our allotted time (100 minutes for 8 presentations SHOULD have been enough!!), so we are lucky that we have another hour of class time to finish up the remaining ones.

The grading rubric for the project can be viewed here.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Reflections from Educon 2.5 Day 1

When I attend these "big" education conferences in this new world of education, I feel like such an introvert.  I'm overwhelmed by all these people with grand ideas, doing awesome things for and with students, and usually feel like I'm not doing enough, just following behind the wave, etc.  I also feel like my 6th grade self had I ever met Joey McIntyre; totally star struck by the "Twitter rock stars," as I call them, with whom I come into contact and even have conversations (when I can work up the nerve) at a conference like this.  Even my husband commented on my wallflower-ness at places like this, knowing that I'm usually the social butterfly.  It's weird but it's also something I can't help.

I attended a number of sessions, some I stayed through and some I bounced out of.  I took a lot of notes and got some great resources; I sure hope I'm teaching media again next year so I can put to use what I learned from the Mozilla folks at Session 2.  In the first session, I went to a session called The Closer Citizen: Linking Close Reading to a Careful Analysis Of Media and Our Lives, the focus of which was using "close reading" of a text, be the text actual text or a media text, to determine meaning.  A man sitting next to me asked first our small group and then the presenter how this method is different from teaching reading comprehension; I didn't really get a clear answer from the presenter but I think it could be really effective for building analysis at the high school level and better help students dig beyond the literal meaning of a text.  Just another thing to keep in the back pocket... and this is definitely not a strong point of mine so I need tools in my back pocket to help me.

My second session was the previously mentioned session with Mozilla and The National Literacy Project.  This was a great session about building media literacy and also fluency.  We were supposed to do some group work, but my whole table left right as that piece began (I guess I smell!), so the session leader came over and engaged me in conversation; she asked what I'd come to the session to learn and I told her about my media class, how I'd like to move from media analysis to media creation, and she gave me a bunch of links to help me help my class do that:   

Even if I'm not teaching a media class next year, these tools and lessons are certainly ones I can use in my history classroom, so that's a definite good thing (though I really hope to be teaching media again next year!!)

By the time the third session rolled around, I was in full on what I call "A.D.D. mode."  I was having a really hard time sitting still and focusing.  There had been a lot of sitting and listening and talking and I was pretty fried.  The last session was about Formative Assessments, but I hadn't really figured out what I was supposed to be learning halfway through the session.  I definitely needed something more sequential at that point in the day, so I headed to another session.  Unfortunately, people were doing independent work there and no discussion was happening.  So, up I went again.  This time, I went into a conversation but, like I said, I was fried and having real trouble focusing.

We then went to dinner with some friends and had a lot of conversation, but instead of going out for all the partying some folks did, I fell asleep at the hotel room around 9:30.  Total rock star here.

I come out of a conference like this feeling both energized and feeling like there are others who think like I do and are pushing boundaries way further than I can ever imagine but also I feel a real big sense of dissonance.  A lot of the folks here are making really big changes in education--they are teacher leaders, they are administrators, they have the power to effect real change.  After a thing like this, I feel so powerless to make change beyond the walls of my classroom (and even then, I feel like I'm totally doing the wrong thing by making these changes within my classroom walls since I'm usually in trouble).  I have to learn/figure out how to make change the right way and not do it in a way that makes me feel like an island (Iceberg, right ahead!) AND in a way that doesn't get me into trouble!


Friday, January 25, 2013

Second Semester Reflections

This year, I was presented with the challenge of teaching new classes.  Two of them, for a total of four different preps.  The joy in all this is that most of the four preps are elective courses that largely allow me to do my thing.

My biggest struggle this semester has actually been a course I've taught a few times before, Microeconomics.  It's the type of material that my brain doesn't do well; I can learn it but I'm literally refreshing myself from my notes before every single class.  And during.  It, for whatever reason, does not stick, and it occurs to me that it must have been by some miracle I passed it in college.  I try to put a creative spin on the course, but have trouble finding relevance to my students, particularly those who do not plan to major in finance or run a business in their futures.  So despite feeling pretty successful in my other courses, I leave on those days often feeling totally inadequate (and thankful it isn't my last class of the day).  The struggle comes from knowing I should be doing better than the traditional lecture, practice problems, test.  I even have a hard time finding resources so that I can do certain topics better.

My two new classes this year have been Communications Media, which is a full year course, and Humanities, which is a semester long one.  Comm Media has been a fun ride so far, largely thanks to a friend with whom I'm sharing a ton of ideas.  Unfortunately, I kind of kept pace with her, and she runs a semester long class.  Oops.  As a result, I could and should have spent more time on all the topics, and am trying to think about ways to make the other parts of the curriculum fun and interesting.  I ran the class mostly as a media literacy one; we analyzed television for stereotypes and gender roles being reinforced, discussed the ways all media is advertising of some kind or another, viewed an episode of Mad Men to see how they tried to spin cigarettes after the Surgeon General report that cigarettes are bad came out, and viewed Inception to analyze whether blockbusters can be smart.  On the agenda for next semester is analysis of the Super Bowl ads and we'll also be taking a look at the Academy Awards to determine how they reflect our society as well as make our culture. 

I'm really proud of the bigger projects they've done; they worked on a fairly large project of creating a 15 minute sitcom, which had to appeal to a particular target audience and reflect or challenge stereotype prevalent in today's media culture.  They are currently working on their midterms, which has them creating a trailer for a non existent blockbuster film based on a children's story AND creating an effective movie poster for the same film.  They'll need to demonstrate understanding of what makes a blockbuster film as well as advertising techniques.  The beginning work is looking really exciting!

The Humanities course has been exciting too.  The curriculum is pretty loose so we've done some really fun stuff...  the big project has been the 20% Project.  This is their final exam project, but they've been spending roughly 20% of our class time in support of their outside work on a project of their choice.  They're learning about things that are so varied, it's unbelievable.  I do worry about their process of reflection; it sometimes seems the project is being only worked on during our 20% of class-time and not at all outside of class and I'm not sure how to combat that with students who are overworked and prioritize based on what's due soonest.  A long term project is likely to be thing pushed off till another time.  Perhaps I need to be stricter about due dates for reflection journals.  I also feel I'm not communicating well what a reflection journal should be, even though I feel like a broken record (what's the 21st century version of a broken record?) telling the students it's a documentation of their learning and progress for the week, giving them examples of what to use and examples of other student reflections.  I'll have to present these points better the next time we do this (hopefully in the second semester....)

In addition to the 20% Project, the Humanities class has had some remarkable projects this semester.  Most notable was when they presented their ideas for improving our school to the building administration.  They even got dressed up, and spent more than an hour presenting their super well thought out ideas for how the school could serve students better.  Ideas included a separate space for guidance because they always feel everyone is staring at them when they come out of the counselor's office, re-design of classroom spaces to facilitate collaboration, and even a whole redesign of the sequence of courses for all five high schools in our district.  Some of their ideas went into the "can't happen" file box but most of them were well received.  Oh, and are still being talked about by the administration. 

These have been the biggest outside of the box activities they've done, but we've also viewed films and they've completed the Soundtrack to their Lives, we've viewed films to discuss philosophy and reality and utopia and free will, we've made and discussed art and discussed censorship and whether it's mostly positive or mostly negative as well as a more general discussion of artistic integrity--creating for creation's sake vs creating to get paid as well as artists who create music and then change lyrics so they don't get censored and do get radio play.

So, although I haven't been doing a whole lot of formal ongoing reflection, there has been some incredible stuff happening this year so far.  I hope to improve on all these things in the new semester--taking Comm Media to the next level as we discuss media and journalism, making Economics more interesting and relevant, and making Humanities have more focus and even better outcomes.