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Saturday, December 12, 2015

How to Not Be a Grinch This Holiday Season

As we enter the Yuletide season of joy and giving, let's be honest. Every last nerve in our body is about to tested.

Our students are on the verge of eating excessive amounts of sugar for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They will be bombarded with ads for the newest, coolest toys on the internet and at their neighborhood Walmart.

Their eyes will glaze over during class with visions of robot toys that shoot lasers at annoying little sisters, or video games that blow up evil empires while simultaneously chatting with an opponent in the UK.

As engaging as we try to make our lessons, they will not be able to compete with the big man in the fat red suit sporting a white beard who owns flying reindeer.  Yes. Whether we want to admit it or not, we are all at risk of becoming a Grinch.

Before it's too late, I've pulled together five safeguards to protect our students, parents, and ourselves.

Safe Guard #1. Expand your heart

During this holiday season, two types of students tend to emerge. The Cindy Loo Who's who are innately kind, loving, and will complete homework and projects in a timely manner. You will love these students. "Who" wouldn't?

But what about the non-Cindy Loo Who's who will fail to complete assignments, push your last button, and then go home and tell their parent that you hate them.

Take a deep breath. A mentor of mine once said, "Fake it until you feel it." Act like you love The Cindy Loo Who's and the Non-Cindy Loo Who's and you'll be surprised when your heart catches up!

"And what happened then? Well, in Whoville they say that the Grinch's small heart grew three sizes that day." The Grinch Who Stole Christmas

Safeguard #2. Collaborate don't isolate.

It is easy to feel like you are the only teacher on the planet who is considering early retirement (and it's your first year) but know that you are not alone! Teachers all across the U.S. and Canada are feeling the effects, as well.

Just as you would never attempt Black Friday or Brown Thursday alone, you should not take on the days and weeks leading up to winter break alone. Go to your team and express how you are feeling. Chocolate also helps!

Safeguard #3. Be realistic. 

As excited as you are about completing an ice sculpture of the Great Wall of China in your World Geography class, this is not the time or the place.

Variables like shorter attention spans, additional carbs to induce sleeping, and inevitable interruptions by your former students coming by to remind you why you love to teach, are very, very real.

Ask yourself. What assignments can wait until these variable diminish? Separate the need to do's from the I want to's and you will become far less frustrated.

Taking on too much can make you feel like you are a horrible teacher, which of course, you aren't.

Safeguard #4. Be kind.

Even if you have failed miserably at Safeguards #1-#3, it is never too late to change your behavior. Before sending out the mass email and a bcc: to your principal about the teacher whose students are climbing the walls. Stop!

Before posting or emailing anything ask yourself: Is it biased? Could it be taken out of context? Is it hurtful?

If you can answer one or more of these questions with a yes, you need step away from your computer, Ipad, or Iphone and take a deep breath.

This is the perfect moment to engage in a random act of kindness!

Safeguard #5. Be thankful.

Hands-down one of the best Grinch repellents is a spirit of thankfulness. Begin making a list of reasons to be thankful. Warning: While you may exude thankfulness on a normal basis, you may struggle.

This isn't to say you aren't a grateful person...because you are!

Remembering the reasons you are thankful is more about reminding you of the person you truly are!

Confession Reflection:
  • How can administrators support teachers who are dealing with "seasonal" behavior issues?
  • Why is it important for teachers to stay connected to their PLC or mentor teachers and not isolate?
  • What are the benefits of closing the Teacher Evaluation Window the week before a holiday break?



Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Importance of Classroom Environment: Lessons from A Colt Named Carl

I spotted him across the aisles of baskets of ferns and Christmas garland. There was something distinct about this colt. Maybe it was the crayon scribbles across his saddle or the way he leaned precariously to one side or the missing strands of yarn from his mane.

All the same, I left my local Goodwill with a Clue game and a Star Wars puzzle (which I discovered later was missing an edge and two pieces from the Death Star), justifiably for my classroom, but not with the lopsided horse.
Maybe it was predestined, but I left my wallet on the counter and a spunky, auburn-haired girl wearing a badge named Nan was waving it in the air just as I re-entered the store.

I thanked Nan and then the words every bargain shopper this side of the Mississippi can't resist blared over the intercom, "For the next hour all orange tagged items are half off."

There was no turning back.
I grabbed my wallet and was caught up in a stampede of other bargain shoppers in the direction of "orange tagged" items. It didn't matter if the orange tagged item was a set of golf clubs, ubiquitous painting of snow-covered mountains, mismatched set of holiday dishes, or a personalized cookie jar, for that matter.

The sheer rush of adrenaline that coursed thru my veins created a borderline hoarder mentality which is the reason seasoned thrift shoppers like myself must be careful and ask, "Do I really need this item? or Do I want it because it has an orange tag and I don't want anyone else to have it?"

Which is exactly why I ended up carrying an over-sized, over-stuffed, pony which I purchased for a whopping $3.50. I didn't need it and I didn't want the lady wearing the gray sweater to have it.

And so it was that a Colt named Carl made its way into my literacy classroom.
What happened in my classroom in the years that followed, is undeniable.
Since finding his way into my classroom, I've witnessed a reluctant 8th grader who would rather play Call of Duty than eat or breathe, choose Carl as a reading backrest and lose himself in a book.
I've seen a stressed out eleven-year-old whose parents were going thru a divorce, relax while fidgeting with the yarn on his mane. I've even heard kids called "dibs" on him; which is the highest honor when it comes to pre-teens' territorial nature.

And so I've developed a theory about comfort objects like stuffed animals and middle schoolers. I believe there is still a child-heart in these learners in spite of how cool and worldly they try to act. Eleven and twelve year olds are in an awkward phase of life.
6th graders posing with Carl

They're too old to play with dolls and robots, build blanket forts at birthday parties, or wear capes and pretend to be Spiderman. On the flip side, middle schoolers have a whole life ahead of them to lose sleep over whether or not a Senate house bill will pass or the collapse of civilization as we know it.

I believe that the middle school years should be a right of passage, if you will.
It's the period when kids can secretly believe that Santa climbed down their chimney in the wee hours of the night and that there is still a chance they will one day be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.

It's a window of time when they can hold on to the magic of their childhood while building skills to survive high school, and life, for that matter.
Carl in my home office.
Carl has taught me the importance of designing a learning environment that feels safe and taking risks are encouraged. As the years go by, I have had high school learners come back to say "hi" to Carl. I've even heard of kids posting "selfies" on Instagram with none other than Carl himself.
I don't pretend to understand how or why this odd purchase made such a difference in the culture of my classroom. Sometimes magic just happens.


Confession Reflection:
  • What are some characteristics of a positive learning environment? How does a positive learning environment support learning?
  • Research shows that optimum learning happens in a safe environment. What does this mean?
  • How can teacher entitlement (my room, my rules) be a barrier to building a culture of learning?

Saturday, October 10, 2015

What's a Lug Nut? (And Other Pertinent Questions)

What is a Lug Nut?

A. A powerful fictional character known as a Decepticon
B. A large, rounded nut that fits over a heavy bolt
C. An object of scorn and ridicule

I confess that I learned about the indestructible, incomprehensible, incorrigible lug nut during my college days when I had a flat tire on Highway 6. Luckily, I had an auto policy that allowed me to call for help rather than tackle the job alone. Through the years I've learned how utterly deceptive a lug nut can be.

 Although relatively small in size, the lug nut could very well be a contender for Ripley's Believe it or Not edition of "Small Metal Things that Make Grown Men Cry."

Back to my initial question.

A Transformer Decepticon
What is a lug nut? It depends on who you ask. If framed as a fictional, animated character from the Transformers, the answer is:
A: A powerful, fictional character known as a Decepticon. 

And you would be correct.

If you are my husband who is a car aficionado, the answer is:
B. A large, rounded nut that fits over a heavy bolt.

And you would be correct. This is also the appropriate definition for anyone who has had to change a tire.

I have also witnessed from both my husband and from movies how obstinate a lug nut can be. In The Christmas Story Ralphy helps his dad change a flat tire. His sole responsibility is to hold the lug nuts but instead he drops them. In the iconic scene Ralphy says "Oh....Fudge!" (But he doesn't really say fudge) which results in getting to taste a bar of soap.

Lug nuts can be a source of ridicule and scorn even if you have a lug wrench to remove them from your tire. This scenario was featured on a recent Big Bang Theory episode.

 My husband the car afficionado
The four geniuses, Leonard, Howard, Sheldon, and Rajesh encounter a flat tire and are not able to remove the lug nuts. They are on too tight. In spite of their ridiculously high I.Q.s and applied Science, they are no match for the lug nuts.

So...if you are Dr. Leonard Hofstadter (or Ralphy) the answer is:
C. An object of scorn and ridicule.

And you would be right.

It doesn't take a genius to  see that a lug nut means something different depending on your schema (or background knowledge). As educators it is imperative that we tap into our learners' understanding before throwing out vocabulary terms and wonder why learners don't "get it."

Here are some vocabulary tips to avoid the lug nut trap:

1. Front load essential vocabulary in context. 
Handing a list of terms to define isn't enough. I can define lug nut in the dictionary, but is meaningless without a picture to give me a context. There are also incidences where the dictionary can make it worse.

For example, if The dictionary defines lug nut as a noun: a large rounded nut that fits over a heavy bolt, used especially to attach the wheel of a vehicle to its axle. 

If I were an English Language Learner and trying to make sense of words with multiple meanings, a dictionary would make the meaning more confusing. This is especially unhelpful if I think a "nut" is a pecan or a walnut and a "bolt" is lightening. This would make me think of a large walnut that fits over a bolt of lightening attached to the "wheel" used to steer a car.

Here is an example of how to introduce vocabulary in context using an app called lino it. The board can be shared live and allow learners from cross campus or classes to collaborate in real time. This was a board created last year for upcoming 6th graders.

What is sedimentary rock?

2. Build background knowledge (even when you are 99.9% sure they've got it).

Building background knowledge should not be an option. It is only fair for our English Language Learners or economically disadvantaged students to be supplied the prior knowledge most privileged students have. It is as simple as providing a two minute You Tube video, a virtual field trip, or a picture walk.

There is some discrepancy as to what it means to build background knowledge. Teaching a learner to spell a word or "sound it out" isn't teaching the definition of the word. I can learn to spell l-u-g-n-u-t but it is meaningless without background knowledge. Teaching affixes (stems and roots) are helpful...only if background knowledge is provided as to what the affix means.

3.  Integrate opportunities for writing across all content areas

One of my high points as an instructional literacy coach was collaborating with Science teachers to create "How to Be" Poems. I modeled for teachers how to teach literary elements such as personification and language structure into a lesson on scientific elements. The learners worked alone or with partners.

Learners chose an element from the Periodic Table. Next, academic vocabulary was introduced in context (not in isolation). Scaffolding was embedded in the design. Here are a few of projects our middle school learners created. Notice the rich vocabulary and creativity that went into writing these! Learners had to investigate the element and thoroughly understand the features before writing these poems...and they had fun!

Other ideas are to have learners write a R.A.F.T. This is when the writer takes on a "Role" and writes to an "Audience" in a chosen "Form" on a specific "Topic." One of my favorites from years back was a letter from Pluto asking the Science community to reinstate him as a planet.

4. Ask pertinent questions in conversation

One of the BEST ways to teach vocabulary is to begin with pertinent questions. Asking pertinent questions are questions that are focused and specifically designed to tap into and build on the learner's prior knowledge. A multiple choice quiz; a poll; a worksheet; a matching game are not asking pertinent questions. Pertinent questions are relevant and meaningful to the learner.

For example, through questioning about my learners interests, I discover he/she collects Transformers, I could integrate Lug Nut, The Decepticon, into a lesson on story conflict. As a project, the learner could create a story about Lug Nut battling his arch rival. By questioning, educators tap into their learner's schema. This is where teaching begins.

Confession Reflection:

1. Why is it important to teach academic vocabulary in context and not in isolation i.e. vocabulary worksheets, vocabulary matching.

2. What are the benefits of tapping into learner's interests and passions? How does this shape vocabulary instruction?

3. When is it appropriate to incorporate other genres such as music, poetry, art to teach core academic vocabulary in content areas such as math, science, and social studies? How can an instructional coach support these efforts? 

Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Art of Speaking Texan

Big Tex! State Fair of Texas
I confess that I learned to speak "Texan" at an early age from my West Texas grandparents. "You don't say!" and "Oh my lands!" are household exclamatory phrases meaning, "Your statement is unbelievable to me given the circumstances!"

I remember going to my first Texas State Fair and hearing Big Tex say, "Howdy!" which in everyday English means, "Hello!" or "Greetings from Texas!" I remember coming home with a chalk drawn portrait of myself which still hangs in my wall of memories.

I begged my parents to move to Texas believing school would be like The State Fair.

I finally got my wish and my family uprooted from Renton, Washington and moved to Irving, Texas and enrolled me in fourth grade.  I colored the state bird, the state tree, the state flower, the state flag; the state capitol. I wished we'd never moved to Texas. I also wondered how long learning about Texas would last.

It lasted all of fourth grade.

My family was uprooted once again and we moved to Hinsdale, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. I autographed my bigger-than -life "All About Texas" book and gave it to my grandparents. I adored my new 5th grade teacher who read to our class everyday.

I also learned to speak like a "Chicagoan." I learned that it was improper English to pronounce the final /s/ at the end of the "Illinois." I learned to pronouce Chicago as Shi-caw-go. Aunt was pronounced like it was spelled which was different than Texan in which Aunt is pronounced like the insect ant. And a "John" was another name for where you go in order to relieve your bladder.
ESL Summer School

At the end of sixth grade we moved back to Texas and I cried the whole way. The first day of middle school I made the mistake of asking permission to "go to the John" which in Texan meant,"go to a person named, John, who is nicknamed a toilet." I also discovered that I would spend yet another year learning all about Texas.

Once again I felt like an outsider until I made a friend.

Lilly had moved to the United States from Israel and had to learn English. While learning "Texan" was a far cry from learning English, somehow we connected. She made me feel welcome in middle school. And so Lilly became my best friend.

Every week her mom made flat bread and Lilly would invite me over. I can still remember the aroma of bread wafting from the oven. I watched her mom painstakingly roll layers of dough until they were as thin as a sheet of paper.  It was called Baklava. I introduced Lilly to fried okra, cornbread, and lemonade tea.

I was reminded of this experience while teaching an English Second Language (ESL) Summer School class. We had an end-of-summer-school food fest and learners brought food representing their culture. Not only were these learners having to learn an entirely different language, but they had to acclimate to a new time zone; pop culture; social language. Learning to speak fluent Texan was a far cry from learning an entirely new way of life!

Here are some other things I learned:

1. Technology levels the playing field for English Language Learners.
2. Embracing culture and diversity are essential to learning.
3. All learners crave connection and relationship.
4. Food can break down cultural barriers and nurture budding friendships.

As summer gives way to fall, Big Tex' is poised and ready to greet visitors to the 2015 State Fair of Texas. The smell of fried corndogs; corn-on-the-cob, and cotton candy will greet me and my family when we step onto the fair grounds. I will proudly choral my children and grandchildren as Big Tex' greets us with a Texas "Howdy!"

Now that I think about it, learning "Texan" wasn't difficult. 

I just needed a friend.

Confession Reflection:

1. Why is it important to create a culture that embraces diversity in our schools and in our community?

2. How does technology level the playing field for ESL learners? Give examples.

3. Is there a more efficient way to integrate Texas state history standards into the curriculum without devoting an entire year to them? What would the new standards look like?

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Alien Matters: Keychains, Bobble Heads, and Refrigerator Magnets

Excursion in Roswell, NM
I confess the venture was pure happen chance. It was at a coffee shop in Roswell, New Mexico. The proprietor was a second cousin to the brother-in-law of the nephew's half-brother who was married to…are you sitting down? He was married to the great-granddaughter of Mr. Foster who was, in fact, the very farmer who cited the visitation of the 1947 UFO on his ranch!

Yes, indeed, the stars had all aligned for me as I sat listening to a distant relative recant the story which indubitably upped his sales in coffee, as well as, impulse buys like alien magnets, alien key chains, bobble head aliens, and alien breath mints.

The door chimed and my husband poked his head in, rolled his eyes and told me he'd be at the Army Navy Surplus store next door. I, on the other hand, sat with baited breath listening to the story which landed Roswell, New Mexico on the map. It may have been the caffeine, but I couldn't stop thinking about whether UFO's and aliens exist.

After unpacking my suitcase and feeding the dog, I decided to investigate whether or not aliens exist. This blog is dedicated to my findings. Proof aliens exist:

1) iPads (Intergalactic Planet Augmented Device)

While iPads are ubiquitous in Earthling homes, businesses, and schools it hasn't been around very long. April 3, 2010 Apple, Inc. released the iPad to United States markets. What does it do? you ask. No, the question should be What doesn't it do?

Learning using school iPad

2) Unidentified Fruit Objects (UFO’s)

Aliens are altering our food's DNA in secret laboratories. The code name is "GMO". Go ahead and Google it. My hunch is that GMO is the precursor to an intergalactic food fight.

3) 3D Augmented Reality (AR) and 3D Food Printers

NASA and a Texas company have been at work to design food printers for deep space missions. The "D" stands for Dining. The printer will be docked at an undisclosed space station near the planet Mars in order to share Earthly cuisine with the Martians.

4) Ionosphere surveillance program (ISP)

Windmill farms are popping up all over the United States. Clearly, these "windmills" are part of a conspiracy to intercept governmental intelligence secrets from the ionosphere surveillance program (ISP) and feed them to rulers of the planet Zorgoff. The cover-up story is that scientists at Texas A&M are designing them to conserve our planet's natural resources. I don't buy it.
Edcamp Presentation 2014

5) #Edcamps

If 1-4 did not convince you, the birth of Edcamps is surely the coup de grâce to trump all human reasoning. Unlike traditional conferences sponsored by slick marketers and charging financially-strapped educators to attend, Ordinary Earthlings share ideas and resources...and it's free of charge!

Most recently #Edcamp Global connected educators all around the world in 24/7 PD. Clearly, aliens have had their hand (or tentacle) in #Edcamp's unprecedented popularity and growth.

I confess that I've given way more thought to this topic than I should have. When I think about it, what does it really matter? Aliens exist or they don't. So I've decided to take my husband's advise and leave the questions to Mulder and Skully. In the meantime, I'm going to relax while I play with my alien bobble head and finish off my last breath mint.

To learn more about Edcamps go to:

Confession Reflection:
  • Have you ever participated in Edcamp? Reflect on your experience. 
  • What are the benefits of teacher led professional development? How does it benefit the teacher? How does it benefit others?
  •  How can the Edcamp PD model be implemented in schools? How would it support a culture of learning? 

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Ghost Plant and Other (Potentially) Fateful Tales

Nancy Drew Vintage Books
Holding my number 2 pencil in perfect form, I smiled at the empty page before me. I was ready. Today my mystery plant would be revealed. Like the great literary masterpiece series: Nancy Drew Mysteries, I had high hopes that my story, The Ghost Plant, would one day be the first of a trilogy to include: The Ghost Cat and The Ghost Tree.

Line by line, I painstakingly formed my letters, capitols and lowercase, meticulously connecting to the lined boundaries on the paper. My ambition was to craft a story about a forest plant so rare and mysterious, the plant could not be found in my fourth grade Science textbook. It was, however, hidden in one of the volumes in an Encyclopedia Britannica which sat on a shelf at my Grandparent's farmhouse.

Back Story:
Vintage 1952 Edition
As my Papa tells it, he had been sucker punched into buying a set of  leather-bound Encyclopedia Britannicas by a door-to-door salesman. Who can put a price on knowledge? History is history and they'll never be out of date! What better gift than to leave the gift of knowledge as an inheritance to your children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren! the salesman (most likely) pitched.

And so my Grandparents bought the 24 volume set and autobiographical addition for more money than they care to admit. But like many Americans in the 1950's and 1960's, having a set of encyclopedias in one's home was like having the internet today. If you owned Encyclopedias, well, you had the world of knowledge at your fingertips. To the elation of my Grandparents, I was carefully taking notes on the bit of information I could decipher about this one-of-a-kind plant. I suspect I wrote something to this effect:

Yes, Mrs. Killjoy. This is a real plant.
1. Ghost plants live in forests.
2. Ghost plants do not use Photosynthesis.
3. Ghost plants do not have chlorophyll and are transparent.

As I scripted my story during class, I defaulted to my imagination and filled in the blanks for pieces of information I had failed to include. I also did not understand the difference between a "book report" and a "story."  When my name was called, I handed my "story" appropriately titled "The Ghost Plant" to my fourth grade teacher. The next day my "story" was handed back to me with a C- on the cover.

As a further act of humiliation and shame, Mrs. Killjoy (not her real name) wrote in ominous red ink next to my title: THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A GHOST PLANT.

In one swoop of her evil pen, Mrs. Killjoy had squashed my excitement and confidence. My aspirations of becoming a mystery writer had both been born and died in fourth grade.

Moments like these, are forever stamped in our childhood memories, and if we are not careful, can begin to shape our self-image as a writer and as a person.

I recalled this story last  summer while working with a reluctant seven-year-old writer named Conner. He is vivacious, talkative, and loves to read about sharks. He also hates to write. When I asked him why he didn't like to write he answered, "It takes too long!"
"What if you could write about sharks and you could write as little or as much as you wanted?" And to close the sell I added, "And you won't have to rewrite to make corrections."

3D color page by @quivervision
He looked at me suspiciously, chose a marker and wrote, "Sharks have five rose of teeth."

What did I notice? He had written "rose" instead of "rows."

But that was NOT what Conner needed to hear. He needed to know that he could use writing as a way to communicate. He needed to write about anything he wanted and read by (not corrected by) an authentic audience. Conner needed to have the freedom to write with confidence without a writing teaching saying, "Now go back and correct..." which is like saying to a emergent writer, "Your writing isn't good enough."

In a competitive world and race to be academically exemplary, WHAT IF we carved out moments when our learners could write without the fear of being corrected? WHAT IF the Conners of the world could create without being graded or corrected under the guise of "teachable moments? WHAT IF this generation finds their voice and believe that what they have to say matters?

Rose instead of rows
I have a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach that we, as educators, are devaluing our kids when we rush to point out how many points they did or didn't earn. I can't help but wonder, Are we creating a culture of fearful writers?

In a world of high stakes testing in fourth, seventh, and ninth grades, we are thrown into a very real conundrum. How do we affirm children's writing and teach the skills needed to become effective communicators? How do we embrace "teachable moments" without shutting down a struggling writer?

What if we, as educators, stepped back and paused before marking up a child's writing and comparing against a 6 point rubric? What if we pledged to ourselves: Before I have the right to correct, sit down, point out your errors, I will affirm you as a writer who has something important to say? 

Assessments will come and go...but valuing (or devaluing) a child's voice will stay with them forever. When we give them a voice we empower them to make changes in their own lives, their community, and the world.

The question is, "Are we listening?"

Confession Reflection:
  • Have you ever experienced a time when your writing was not affirmed by a teacher? How did this impact your attitude towards writing?
  • How do we cultivate a generation of confident and creative writers while teaching the necessary skills to be effective communicators? i.e. blogging, interactive writing.
  • How can we Differentiate Instruction for diverse writers such as in RtI, economically disadvantaged, ELL learners? Is differentiation a fair practice? Why or why not?
Book Recommendation:
Click to read an excerpt from Katherine Bomer's book, Hidden Gems.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Message about #TMchat (Thinking Maps) Chat

I hope you'll join me for #TMchat with Connie Hamilton on July 26th & Aug. 2nd to discuss reading comprehension. Since comprehension is a complex topic we're breaking it down:

July 26th -We're chatting about what specific strategies, or tools, are available for comprehending texts.
August 2nd- We're chatting about knowing and understanding the difference between teaching and testing reading comprehension.

Do you have any questions or comments you believe should be addressed? If so, please add them to this Google form: #TMchat Survey

Thanks for your help! Tamra

Sunday, June 14, 2015

No Wifi? No Problem! iPad Applications to Use When the Internet Goes on the Blink!

Nowadays it seems like technology is everywhere. I can walk into a restaurant, place my food order, play a game of Solitaire, pay for my meal (and even tip) by using a Kiosk. Except for a person who shows me and my family where to sit down and a person who brings our food to the table, my experience is virtual.

teacher drone
It only makes sense that technology should be integrated into our lessons. It is one of the primary ways to prepare our students for life in a world that is global, virtual, and full of possibilities! But if I'm being honest, technology also worries me.

I confess that I have feared on more than one occasion that I would be replaced by a robot or drone. But until that happens I purpose to infuse technology into class experiences whenever possible. Which brings me back to the focus of this blog...

So what happens when your campus Wifi shuts down on the day you have the BEST technology infused lesson plan and your campus evaluator is planning on seeing your genius manifested?Ugg! You can have them come back another day. You can also have plan B ready, especially when your school's Wifi doesn't comply.

1.  Cursive Handwriting

Advantages: free app; doesn't require internet; personalized instruction; purposeful learning; appropriate for secondary grades.

Disadvantages: may not hold student's interest; requires lowest level of thinking; is an electronic worksheet.

This is a little known app that teaches students how to write their name in cursive. We can't assume our students know how to do so even at the high school level.

If you don't believe me, pass around a piece of paper and ask your students to write their names in cursive. Explain that writing their name in cursive is required to do so on important documents, like contracts.

You'll be shocked how many future doctors are sitting in your class because their signature will be unreadable!

2. Little Writer: Tracing App for Kids

Advantages: free app; doesn't require internet; improves fine motor skills; practice tracing and writing.

Disadvantages: may not hold student's attention; requires lowest level of thinking; is an electronic worksheet.

Teaching the basics of handwriting is fundamental to written expression. Until keyboarding has entirely taken over, there is a time and place for manuscript writing. However, iPad writing doesn't replace the good ol' number two pencil and writer's notebook!

3. Quiver 3D Coloring (formally known as ColAr Mix)

Advantages; free app; does not require internet; free color pages; highly engaging; integrates well into reading and writing workshop; fun for all ages!

Photo from #sharkday
Disadvantages: cost for some of the "cooler" color sheets; learning gets messy (but fun) when GT students use scissors to cut the pages apart trying to identify the "trigger".

If you are unfamiliar with this 3D app, it will blow your mind! After running off color sheets, students can color and create stories to go along with their 3D images that come to life.

I've witnessed reluctant writers collaborate to create stories about their pictures and then share out with other students. This is creativity and innovation at its best!   

If you are looking for a global experience, I encourage you to check out International Dot Day. Most likely your school or community librarian has heard of this experience and can hook you up with the book, The Dot  by Peter Reynolds. There are endless activities such as Skype sessions to connect you and your students to a global audience.

More information and classroom ideas for 3D coloring can be found at these blog sites:
The Techie Teachers Blog
Lore's Latest Links
Cool Cat Teacher

Watch this ColAr Mix demonstration

4.Stop Motion

Advantages: free app; appropriate for all ages; especially nice for themed projects like "Recycling" or "Earth Day"; highly engaging; collaborative; students become the experts; Lego may follow you if you post a project on Twitter +LEGO

Disadvantages: Lego pieces can go missing; Play do can end up on carpet or the floor; teacher esteem my go down a notch after watching children as young as ten-years-old create stop motion videos in less than an hour.

This is a perfect application for students who like to figure out how things work and enjoy manipulating props. I had a class of sixth graders who created some very cool projects this year by simply playing around with the app and watching a couple of "how to" videos on Google.

Here are a couple to check out:

Earth Day Video  This video was created for an Earth Day project using Play dough and Stop Motion.

The 3 R's: Recycle, Reuse, Reduce This video was created for a unit on Recycling using Legos  and Stop Motion.

Side Note: Not every student will enjoy this project because it requires patience and multi-steps. I was surprised when a group of eighth grade girls who had been knee deep in end-of-the-year drama stories, play like children when given play dough and cookie cutters. Sometimes I think it's okay to let our students "just play" regardless of their ages.

5. Sock Puppet

Advantages: free app; doesn't require internet; user friendly; collaborative; easy to manipulate.

Disadvantages: limited to 60 seconds of talk; best if uploaded to You Tube (which requires internet).

This year I worked with a Science teacher to modify an assignment for a student using Sock Puppet. Instead of writing a "how to" essay on lab safety, the student created a sock puppet show on the importance of using goggles during an experiment. Click here to view: Hannah's Safety Goggle Project

Students/teachers can create puppet shows to:
  • Explain a science concept.
  • Retell a story.
  • Tell about an event from history.
  • Share information about a famous person.
  • Model appropriate social behavior.
  • Tell jokes. (Knock-knock jokes work well!)
  • This is a clip of a book review for Amelia Bedelia. 

A detailed "how to" for Sock Puppet and suggested uses can be found here: Tammy's Technology Tips for Teachers created by blogger; speaker; author extraordinaire Tammy Worcester Tang

Confession Reflection:

What are some advantages to integrating technology into lesson design? What are some disadvantages?

How can we encourage teachers who are "technology resisters" to embrace technology? What are some baby steps they can take?

Who are your technology "go to" people on your campus or in your district to help you design meaningful lessons?

What is one new iPad app you will try this coming year with your students?


Sunday, May 3, 2015

Fleas in Room 212!

It wasn't my idea to infest the school with fleas. But it happened.

Backstory: Dr. Bertie Kingore is a guru in the field of gifted and talented education, but back in the day I am proud to say that she was my reading professor at Hardin-Simmons University. In the 1980's the amazing Bertie ventured out and introduced the avant guard idea of differentiated
instruction via learning centers or stations.

With Dr. Kingore at GT Workshop
I know, you're rolling your eyes, because learning stations are as common as jam on bread, but in the days of Saturday Night fever and shoulder pads, the concept was virtually unknown. But like everything else Bertie set her mind to do, her theories proved true and have shaken the very core of our educational system landing gifted and talented on the map...which brings me back to my flea story.

Fortunately, I landed my first teaching job fresh out of college at Provident Heights Elementary in Waco, Texas. The school was in an aging, low socio-economic part of Waco. We had no air-conditioning and if you've never been to Texas in the heat of summer, it can get so hot you can fry an egg on the sidewalk!

I was assigned to first grade. While the other teachers on my team were cranking out ditto packets  using blue carbon copy sheets, I was at work arranging my room into stations! I was naïve and believed that the world needed my genius which was creativity and innovation to meet the individual needs of every learner. Well, this is what Bertie had brainwashed her students to believe!

I recall a variety of learning stations: listening station, puzzle station, painting/art station, reading station, music station, building blocks/Lego station, mystery station, play dough/clay station, cooking station and yes, a sandbox station.

My sandbox was more like a plastic, oblong rectangular trough that was raised above the ground on wooden stilts. I had a drop cloth underneath to catch grains that inevitably fell in the course of learning.

The learning objective was to have a multi-sensory approach to allow my six-year-olds to trace their spelling words into the sand with an occasional prize hidden somewhere in the sand. It was easy to convert the sandbox/tray to a fossil hunt when teaching science about rocks and fossils which was the enrichment piece.

My principal, Mrs. Stapler (not her real name) seemed to like the idea of students moving to learn, just as long as the talking stayed at a minimum and I continued to use the math and reading primer that my team was using.

And then it happened.

The first bites happened in the reading area where my students sat on a throw rug I had picked up at a local Goodwill. I was sitting on a chair reading to my students when the bites started. In case you've never been bitten by a flea...those suckers are quick!

First you feel an isolated itch, but when you scratch there is nothing there. These little boogers are not like mosquitoes where you can hear them coming. They are tiny creatures which, I believe, are really aliens sent from the planet Fleazore, which will someday take over our planet.

I didn't report the bites at first, because I didn't know what they were. But within days, my students had spots popping up on their arms and legs and scratched more than they engaged in learning. The situation continued to the next room and it seemed like the entire first grade were scratching scabs on the playground, at lunch and their teachers began complaining. Our principal brought in an exterminator to spray over the weekend. It was determined that the fleas were nesting and hatching in my learning center!

And so it is with life. Implementing new ideas can be messy and full of set backs. If I had let all that I had learned in college leave with the fleas, I would have gone the safe route. My students would have spent the rest of the year sitting in desks, coloring work pages and live in a "one size fits all" classroom.

I confess that while I hate the fleas and the embarrassment it caused, I also gleaned wisdom on how to be a leader who encourages others to take risks and that failure is part of the pathway to success. Life is full of setbacks and we make corrections and move on.

I'm proud to say that my first grade students learned to read and write, as well as, their peers in the traditional classroom setting. The following year other teachers on my team began to implement learning stations.
 Confession Reflection:

What is the value of encouraging students and teachers to take risks? 
How do leaders/educators deal with setbacks?
Describe a learning outcome that resulted from a setback.
Why is it important to model failure? Give an example.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Game On! Building Comprehension with Video Games

I confess to feeling like a fraud. At a recent literacy conference I wooed the crowd on ways video games could positively impact reading scores. The truth is that I hate video games.

In college I was a Pac Man aficionado. I lost interest during child baring years, but was quick to snatch up games like Where in the World is Carmen San Diego? and Oregon Trail because of their educational value.

When Iphones erupted on the market in 2007 I became obsessed with Angry Birds, which I am convinced was created by sinister engineers designed to make you feel stupid.

Farmville took phone gaming to a new extreme and gaming became personal. My sister-in-law was vacationing out of the country and had asked me to "see after her farm." 

I forgot to water her newly planted sprouts and they died. Our relationship hasn't been the same since.

I also confess that I'm stuck in middle school. In 1984 I graduated from Hardin-Simmons University looking forward to teaching first graders. As life so often happens, our destiny is not always as we planned or even imagined.

As a parent and educator, I can vouch that the middle school years are the most challenging. Kids are at a crossroads. Middle schoolers are child-teens desperately seeking acceptance from their peers. They are no longer motivated by smiley stickers or high-fives.

For struggling learners, middle school can be sheer torture especially when being pulled into a
reading intervention class. I describe these learners as "pencil breakers." Literally, they break pencils.

And so a paradigm shift occurs when educators band together and pledge to "do whatever it takes" to interrupt the downward spiral that can lead to utter defeat and negative behaviors.

After all, it is much "cooler" to act out and spend a day or so in detention than to reveal to the world the inability to read grade level texts. These are some of the tools I've used as a literacy coach to reach these learners.

Get Kahoot!

Using a simple and speedy ‘drag n drop’ creation tool, educators can easily create and manage ‘Kahoots’ in the form of quizzes, surveys or polls related to specific topics.

Simple quizzes can happen at the drop of a hat to get feedback or opinion, or more in depth questions for formative assessment. Content can be shared with educators, learners or colleagues globally.

This video game site couldn't be any easier to use and kids love it!
1. Log onto Kahoot!
2. Create a free account.
3. Choose a premade quiz or create your own.

Kahoot builds comprehension by teaching kids to monitor their comprehension. Instead of disengaging as with traditional teaching methods, kids engage in the learning process!

Cheat to Learn

Luke (not his real name) returned in the fall as a more confident reader. His beginning of the year reading screeners showed growth in reading comprehension and yet I never saw him with a book.

I pulled him aside and asked point blank, "What did you read over the summer? Your reading scores have sky rocketed!"
Luke shrugged his shoulders. "I didn't read. I hate to read," he said matter-of-factly.
After prodding, Luke admitted to reading game cheats to his favorite game, Minecraft.

I can hear naysayers whisper, "The student needs to be reading instructional texts that will help him pass his state assessment or that will prepare him for high school."

Reading game cheats may be unconventional, but I stand by this methodology. Luke's comprehension is increasing because he is engaged in complex texts. Luke is strengthening his ability to think critically and his vocabulary is growing exponentially.

High-interest articles can be found on the internet, as well. Here is an example:
Mind Controlled Video Games

I pitch the article by asking, "What if you could play a video game without touching the controls and control it with your mind?"

Seriously, what middle school gamer wouldn't want to read this?!?

Writing Expository Texts

The better kids read...the better they write. Carlos (not his real name) hated to write. We considered it progress if he wrote more than four sentences without disrupting the entire sixth grade classroom by making farting sounds and making his teacher consider early retirement.

Thankfully, his teacher was a kind soul who focused on growth and what he could do as opposed to what he should do. 

The prompt: "Write about an discovery that has changed your life."

A discovery that changed my life was electronics. I think that the first electronic was the phone. It allowed people to communicate. Some stuff came out like computers, t.v., radios, and finally gaming. It is entertaining, fun, and makes me think, and it helps me with hand eye cordintion. Some games alow me to play with other people like online and i can chat with my friends. if I didn't have electronics i would not be able to watch t.v. or call my friends or text my friends. I also wouldn't be able to play games with my friends. i would be very bored especialy without gaming.

Video Game Coding

Creating video games builds comprehension by engaging learners in informational texts and following written directions. Video games can be integrated into literacy circles and writing prompts could be tweaked to target unmotivated writers.

This year several of our sixth grade English Language Arts classes designed a "Hero's Journey" unit. Kids collaborated in groups to create a new hero to represent their book. In a stroke of genius, one activity was to design a video game to represent a challenge their character would need to overcome.

Several websites were introduced to the learners:

Middle school gamers come into our classroom and are bored and unengaged. If they are struggling readers, the odds of changing their outlook is next to impossible.

While I cringe at the thought of our middle schoolers hooked up to headsets and hyper focused on blowing up empires, this is a reality.

If, as educators, we can find innovative ways to integrate video game experiences in lesson design, at least we have a chance.

Remember: Technology is a TOOL for learning...not a learning OUTCOME.

Games made by Kids via Brain Pop!

Confession Reflection

1. What are advantages of integrating video games into lesson design? What are some disadvantages?

2. What is one baby step educators could take to begin integrating video games into the classroom? i.e. play Kahoot, writing prompts

3. How do skills like video games help prepare learners for the real world?
Investigate how businesses such as McDonald's are using video games to prepare employees.

4. Why is it important to teach digital literacy?

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Rules of Engagement: Administering State Assessments and Living to Tell About It

Disclaimer: The views I express in this blog are entirely my own.
Once again it's time for every student in the United States to take some form of a standardized state assessment. It's federal law and there is no way around it.
And so I've decided to dedicate this blog to support educators like myself who begin eating an excess amount of comfort foods like Peanut M & M's and popcorn doused in real butter.
Here are my "go to" set of rules which have helped me survive the yearly state assessment.
1. No cell phone.

The day before warn your family and friends that they will not be able to reach you while the test is in progress. Make sure they have the phone number to the front office in case of emergency.

Next, turn your cell phone off and place it somewhere out of reach, but not forgotten. Even if you are tempted to play Words with Friends for a triple word score, your phone is far out of reach.

Make a note on the inside palm of your hand with a non-permanent marker as a reminder where you placed your cell phone. This will save you the embarrassment of admitting to the whole school via mass email that you need help finding your phone.

2. Monitor closely.

Think back to the previous week's training and PowerPoint on how to administer the assessment.
Your principal will most likely allow you to dress down and wear your most comfortable shoes.

The point is to be comfortable because you will be walking around to "actively" monitor your students.

Do NOT pull out your grade book or email a parent. This is against policy and could result in losing your hard earned teaching certificate. Even if these trainings bore you to tears, take the rules seriously!

3. Keep your eye on the test.

Never leave the tests unattended, even if everyone is finished and you need to make a quick run to
relieve your bladder. Have a hall monitor or another teacher stay with the students until you return or the tests have been taken up by administration. If there are still a few students testing, you will still need to be an active monitor.

4. Control your bladder.
Remember the coffee you drink every morning? Well, this is the one day to go for a smaller cup with higher concentration of caffeine.
Depending on the size of your bladder, control your liquid intake. This includes water, sodas, power drinks, and so forth. This rule will make rule #3 easier to follow.

5. Stay calm and breathe.

Students have a sixth sense and can sense when teachers are about to crawl out of their skin. This can cause additional stress to the student, as well as, give you an ulcer.

As simple as it may seem, remember to breathe. Find a happy place in your heart to focus on in case panic starts to set in.

Warning: This is especially true when the lower reader in your class finishes in a record seventeen minutes and is convinced he or she "rocked" the test.

Most importantly, remember it is ONE test and should not define who you are as a teacher.

Now go find your cell phone.

Confession Reflection:

1. Why is it important to review policy and procedures before the test? What steps can I take to ensure these policies are followed?

2. What can I do if I am confused about a student's testing accommodation? How do I verify this information?

3. In what way can we stop state standardized scores from negatively impacting a student's self-esteem? Why is this important?

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Secrets from the Crypt

It was a Monday when Harold (not his real name) motioned for me to join him at his locker.

Harold is GT. While most GT kids seemingly gravitated towards dinosaurs in elementary school, Harold researched Egyptian history. When the King Tut exhibit rolled thru Dallas in 2008, he was one of the first to see it.

He was also the first to tell me about every artifact he could recall from his day at the museum.

 By virtue of being in all Pre AP and GT classes, Harold can come across like a know-it-all. Sometimes I feel like he thinks he knows more than me!

I looked both ways as I scurried across a dangerous intersection of giggling girls on their way to 6th
grade lunch. “What is it, Harold? What did you want to show me?”

 He looked to the left and to the right. “Mrs. Dollar, I’m going to learn to read the language,” he said in a hushed tone. “I’m going to teach myself to write it, too!”

 “What kind of language?”

”You know. The secret language.”

 Harold pulled out a brown paper lunch sack and reached inside like an archeologist excavating a rare find.

I could see the Half-Price Books sticker peeling off the weathered brown cover. I recognized it right away.

It was a Gregg Shorthand Manual.

 Back story:

 I was the short-hand champion in high school only because my advisory teacher, Mrs. Platemus (not her real name), insisted I take shorthand as a “career path.”

The truth was that because I played the piano, I was also a fast typist making me a perfect candidate for district competition. Typing I was good at, but learning shorthand was very much like learning a foreign language.

As much as I hated hours of practice, filling up steno pad after steno pad with pencil strokes, by sheer determination my chicken scratches slowly came to life. Sometimes when I’m tired and taking hand written notes, I slip back into my old habits and use shorthand script.

The secret language was nothing more than shorthand. Harold must have seen shorthand notes scattered across my desk.

I could certainly understand how to a 21st century native like Harold, shorthand would look very much like something found in an Egyptian crypt!
I decided then and there to shoot straight. Harold was now in middle school and I’d rather break it to him early in year to prevent being teased for the duration of his middle school life.

By virtue of his obsession with Ancient Egypt and his awkward attempts to socialize, he was already not going to be responsible for painting it neon orange!

wearing a target on his back. I was

 “Harold, I am very impressed that you want to write and read the types of notes I sometimes write, but I need you to know that this isn’t hieroglyphics.”

I paused, carefully choosing the right words. “This is called shorthand and is nothing more than symbols that represent sounds.”
Harold looked at me like I had just beamed down from another planet.” I know, Mrs. Dollar. I thought you might need someone to read and write your notes when you retire...since you don’t have Siri.”

Then it dawned on me. Harold (in his own way) respected that I was holding on to a form of communication that was now obsolete. He had chosen to learn to read and write shorthand just as the archeologists study to preserve the history and stories of the ancient Egyptians.

I confess that I still use shorthand when I’m tired and I slip back into my old habits. But I'm okay
with it.I am confident that when steno pads start popping up in 20th century time capsules or surface in antique wooden office desks and file cabinets, their history will be preserved because Harold will be there to ensure that it does.

I'm sure of it.
Confession Reflection:
  • What other communication tools might become obsolete in the near future? i.e. cursive handwriting, word processers How will this impact how I teach today?
  • How can educators help students strengthen skills sets for a career that may not even exist?
  • Why is it important to embrace technology?