Reflections

Tips for Preventing the Teacher Summer Slide

A few weeks back, there was some Twitter buzz on what good teachers should or should not do with their summer break. Should we be learning as much as we can, preparing for our new students, and collaborating with our PLN? Should we be 100% unplugged, relax with our family, and not think about school until the night before we go back? Last summer, I wrote about Navigating the Sea of Shoulds, and pushing back against all the things we should do.

We all have our own summer priorities and ways we want to spend this time off. The key here is to find what works best for each of us to ensure we reach the first day of school with our whole and rested selves!

La Jolla Cove
One of my first summer outings was catching the sunset at La Jolla Cove!

I reflected on my school year in last week’s blog post, and mentioned that it was a stressful and emotionally draining year. I didn’t quite realize the full extent until now, as I am struggling to come out of the fog. As much as I have relaxed at home and traveled to present at conferences (all of which help me decompress), I still feel the weight of the year.

As educators, we worry about kids and the “summer slide” where they lose some content knowledge during their time off. My district has only 6 weeks off for summer–a decision made before I entered the district 7 years ago, and presumably to help mitigate the summer slide.

What we don’t talk about is teachers and the summer slide! I know my audience is mostly friends on Twitter, so maybe this doesn’t entirely apply to this crowd, since we all embrace a growth mindset and are seeking opportunities (via Twitter) to grow as teachers and leaders. Nonetheless, how can we make sure we are intentional with our time, even during our summer break?

My take? I’m going to take the same advice/summer assignment I give to my students!

Read a Book

This one is easy. You don’t need to tell me twice to go read a book! I’m hoping to read a mix of YA lit, education books, and nonfiction this summer. Plus, I’ll sprinkle in a few audiobooks during my plane flights. Even with all my travel so far this year, I’ve only finished 2 books.

My summer “to read” stack!

And, I admit, I’ve been watching more TV than I usually do–with new seasons of Masterchef and Food Network Star (really, the only two shows I regularly watch!), lots of baseball games, and the World Cup.

I’m looking forward to sharing my thoughts on some of my summer books on my book blog!

I want to return to school with a few more recommendations for my students. And I hope they have some for me too.

Give Someone a Hug

When I give this homework assignment to my students, I’m met with some incredulous looks. Yes, yes, I am asking you to go hug someone! Yes, it can be me!

This assignment is less about the hug, and more about seeking out people who we value, trust, and enjoy being around.

I’ll be at ISTE next week. Come find me, give me a hug, then let’s take a selfie!

Go Outside

It’s so easy for me to spend an entire day sitting on the couch, mindlessly scrolling Twitter, eating ice cream, and reading books. I know there are plenty of people out there that “go outside” is second nature. It’s like, third nature for me (if that wasn’t a thing, now it is). I have a hard time getting myself there, but once outside, I’m happy!

Zoo adventure with my friend Nick! 

One of my favorite places in San Diego is the San Diego Zoo. With my membership pass, I can always bring in a guest for free. When I think about ways to get myself outside longer than walking my dog, hanging with the animals at the San Diego Zoo or San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and learning about endangered species sounds like an excellent idea! And, this leads me to my next point…

Learn Something!

Summer is a great time for learning something that interests us! I don’t assign my students summer reading or experiments for science. Instead, I want them to spend this time learning something new on their own. We are surrounded by so many sources of knowledge, from videos, to the internet, to local museums, to family members.

One great thing about San Diego is that different museums in Balboa Park are open to San Diego residents on Tuesdays (see the schedule here). I’ll be around for a few Tuesdays, and I look forward to visiting some museums.

I know I owe it to myself and my future students to take care of me. It feels 100% selfish at times, but I know ultimately this investment will pay off down the road.

How are you resting and recharging over summer?

Let us know in the comments below 🙂

Reflections

2017-2018 School Year Reflection

It has been quite a year. I just finished year 6 of teaching, and I know I’ve grown quite a bit. I am grateful for some fantastic leadership opportunities through the Teacher Leadership Book Study, Teacher Leadership Academy, and speaking and various conferences.

When I look back at my goals for the 2017-2018 school year, I know I accomplished a few big goals.

Social Media

I did a better job of incorporating social media into my classroom, both through interacting with students and by allowing students to take over posting responsibilities. There is still more I’d like to do next year, but for now, I’m happy with how our classroom accounts are going.

Common Sense Media Certified School

This year, we worked hard and became a Common Sense Media Certified School! I used the Common Sense Media curriculum, recreated the lessons using Pear Deck, then shared them with staff (read more here). Each department and grade level was responsible for teaching one 45 minute lesson. My teachers appreciated that there was little prep work they needed to do, since everything was included in the Pear Deck slides. Even some who are hesitant with technology dove in! This also produced fantastic conversations, both with staff and with students. By no means have we solved our cyberbullying problems, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Next year, we will recertify during the fall semester. And, I am revising the curriculum to push out district-wide so our district can become a Common Sense Media Certified District!

Hosting a student teacher

I blogged about my experiences having a student teacher back in January. I didn’t get placed with one for the spring semester–HR does the placements, not the SDSU cohort leads. I loved being able to reflect on my own teaching, and help someone else build their strong foundation. In spring, we had 2 student teachers down the hall from me, and I enjoyed getting to know them. Together we reflected, talked about successes and challenges of teaching, and continued to build strong skills. Even if I wasn’t their guide teacher, I appreciated our reflective conversations!

But, this year was really stressful…

Honestly, this felt like my worst year teaching. Not the teacher skills part, but my stress level was above and beyond any of the past years. I had a lot going on, both at work and outside of work, that made it difficult to stay focused on the big picture. There were plenty of moments where I was in survival-mode, and I know my lessons were just so-so.

I think this is called burnout. I don’t dislike teaching or my kids, however the stress overshadowed a lot of joy this year. I realized I needed to take some drastic actions to preserve my mental/emotional health, so I did an April no-work challenge. I didn’t know how much I needed some non-teaching hobbies! I spent more time crocheting, playing with my dog, reading, and doing nothing.

Additionally, student behavior tanked. I’m not sure what exactly was going on–there was way more drama, fights, and kids getting referrals than any year I can remember. While I won’t speak to our front-office discipline, I do know that I found classroom management challenging at times. Classroom management is one of my strengths, and overall my kids were great at our routines and following lab procedures. The biggest roadblock in classroom management was the more emotionally draining part of knowing that my kids are dealing with all kinds of home and school issues. There were dozens of moments where I had to help a student calm down or process something before we could get into our science. Even if this was incredibly stressful (and definitely not sustainable), I appreciate that I have the relationship with my students where they know they can be real people.

Finding the positives

As I scroll through my Google Photos, there are so many fun moments this year. It’s a good reminder that despite the stress, I had a great time!

I love my work friends!

More so than any other year, I got way more hugs from my kids! I had a few that regularly hugged me, and others who surprisingly wanted hugs. I’m a hugger, so this makes my teacher heart happy. And, with all the emotional challenges for my kids, I ended many of our conversations with, “would you like a hug?” They almost always said yes! With that, there were also many incredibly genuine “I love you” moments. I am confident that my students left my class knowing they are loved and appreciated for who they are, no matter their identity, the decisions they make, or their circumstances.

Lastly, I wouldn’t survive teaching without my incredible colleagues. My work friends are seriously the best. They’ve hugged me through a lot of challenging moments, and cheered for me when things go well. And, I’ve been able to do the same for them. It seemed like every period someone would drop by my classroom, either to grab something from the printer, informally observe, or grab a Diet Coke from my fridge.

With the informal observations, I started keeping our school’s reflection form on a clipboard, and I’d hand it to someone as they dropped by. I won’t dwell too much on this, but I didn’t have a single walkthrough observation from an administrator this year (with the exception of a 10 minute observation for my formal evaluation); even if I’m a “good teacher” I still have areas where I can improve. I crave feedback, and I’m grateful our school encourages teachers to observe each other! Of course, I returned the favor as I dropped in during my prep period.

5/6 of our science PLC, eating tacos an the beach!

Another set of colleagues I greatly appreciate is our science PLC. They are awesome, supportive, and think critically through all kinds of problems; it has taken a long time to get to this point, and it all comes down to building relationships!

Of course, I couldn’t do any of this without my PLN! I love connecting with you all on Twitter, incredible conversations and support over DMs, and traveling and working with friends from all over the world at summits and custom workshops.

Next steps

Rest. Relax. Recover.

I’m not ready to set goals for next year, and that’s ok. I need to give myself time and permission to take care of me!

Reflections

Reflections on the Teacher Leadership Academy

The blog post below is co-written by many members of the 2017-2018 Teacher Leadership Academy, and cross-posted to Amy I’s blog!

A brief note from Mari: I am grateful to Amy Hunt and Amy Illingworth for providing us this experience! For my blog, I have put my own contributions in italics. 


What is TLA and how did it come to exist (Amy I.)

The idea for the Teacher Leadership Academy (TLA) came from our district’s Title II committee last spring. As we were brainstorming how to build teacher leadership capacity across the district, the committee agreed to two key pathways: teacher leadership book studies and a teacher leadership academy. I found a partner in another Amy, a district leader colleague who works in HR. We began to create a plan for the year of learning. The committee helped create a promotional video about the academy, with thanks from our communications department. We sent this out in an email inviting teachers to attend an informational meeting to learn more about the TLA.

Our goal was to create an application process so that we could find a relatively small cohort of teachers who wanted to participate in this monthly professional development opportunity; I think our initial goal was 12-20 participants. We received interest from nearly 25 teachers. We brought our Title II committee together to review applications and we selected 17 teachers to participate. Two of those had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts, so we ended up with a cohort of 15.

We scheduled meetings once a month for two hours after school, which teachers were paid to attend out of our Title II funds.

What made teachers want to join?

I wanted to join the Sweetwater Teacher Leadership Academy because it provided classroom educators opportunities for personal and professional growth, without the pressure/expectation of taking our work into administration. Teachers being supported with time, collaboration and reflection is empowering and engaging for us to cultivate at leaders in our professional learning communities and schools. (Alicia)

I wanted to join the Sweetwater Teacher Leadership Academy because I wanted to gain new skills I could take with me back to the classroom. I also hoped to learn leadership skills I could take with me as an administrator. I wanted to gain as much experience as I could prior to completing my admin credential. I also wanted to learn new tactics for dealing with various issues in the workplace, particularly with issues that may arise in a PLC. (Sophia)

I wanted to join TLA because I was looking for the next step in my professional development apart from the administrative track. I was so excited to learn this was being offered. I was (and am) eager to continue growing and excited at the prospect of receiving mentorship from district leaders as well as learning and collaborating with others in the cohort. (Melody)

Since my long-term professional goal is to mentor current teachers and teach credential courses, the Sweetwater Teacher Leadership Academy provided me with a important stepping stone in my journey towards that goal. Receiving mentorship was an attracting factor. As leaders, we take care of our colleagues and students’ needs and sometimes put aside our own needs. I had forgotten what I need to do to make sure I am taken care of, so that I can better take care of others. Knowing that I was going to be nurtured by Amy and Amy, as well as other colleagues in the district, was a driving force in my decision to apply for the program. (Anna)

I joined the TLA cohort because I was concerned with a growing trend of plucking “qualified” teachers out of the classroom environment to serve in administrative roles. My concern was twofold: first, that we would thin the ranks of quality practitioners, leaving less mentors and dedicated classroom teachers; and, second, that this inadvertently told teachers that there was a ceiling to professional growth as a teacher, and if they wanted to aspire to anything higher, they had to become an administrator. The experience of TLA gave perspective on the district’s growth of leaders both in teachers and administrators as well as opportunities for teacher leadership. (Melissa)

I applied for the Teacher Leadership Academy, eager to improve my skills as a leader. With no desire to pursue the administrator track, I found myself with a lack of growth opportunities within SUHSD. Even though I was hesitant to take on any more commitments for the 2017-2018 school year, I knew this was necessary; and, the cherry on top was that it was led by Amy I, who I look up to as a strong leader. After our first meeting, I realized that this would be, by far, the best in-district professional development I had ever experienced! (Mari)

Enjoyable experiences and anecdotes from the TLA experience

I appreciated the time to collaborate with teachers across our district. Getting to hear experiences from different departments and schools allowed me to learn more about not only teaching practices, but how to use professional learning communities to support teachers and students. (Alicia)

I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent getting to know other teachers from different sites, understanding the dynamics of different school sites, different ways to engage, and having something to take away from each session. Although I was unable to attend every session, I was pleased at what I learned and the growth I experienced after being a part of the TLA. (Sophia)

I appreciated all the thoughtful materials shared, but I most appreciated the lens that we were asked to look through- a loving and compassionate one that promoted empathy for all personalities. Fun themes that thinly veiled professional challenges, like herding cats, helped frame the monthly growth conversations with self-awareness. (Melody)

I very much appreciated how every monthly meeting was thoughtfully planned out and engaging. After a long day of work it was a lot of fun to go to the teacher leadership academy meetings because not only were they informative but they included many hands on activities. I specifically enjoyed the role playing activities, because it provided me with a new perspective. It helped me understand how to work with different personalities which is important to know how to do as an educational leader. Thank you for all the support, strategies and feedback that was provided to us. I will definitely be putting what I learned into practice. (Maria C.)

Takeaways that have impacted teacher leadership

The time spent role playing, discussing personal strengths and areas of improvement, and having courageous conversations has impacted my teacher leadership. I feel better versed in not only how to manage a team meeting, but to also build and cultivate positive relationships with my peers. Emotional intelligence is pivotal for high performing teams. Through TLA, I am prepared for effective collaboration centered around student growth and success. (Alicia)

I particularly enjoyed asking for feedback and receiving feedback from colleagues, including the principal at my school site. This had the most profound impact on my teacher leadership. It gave me the courage to continue to speak up, while also continuing to work on myself. I feel that I have received valuable tools that I can utilize alongside my peers. (Sophia)

Amy and Amy did a fantastic job leading our cohort through a series of activities, reflective questions, and challenges that pushed us to dig deep into our own perspectives. I enjoyed learning from teachers from across our district. One of the most memorable activities was when we talked about how to deal with “difficult” people; acknowledging that there are different ways individuals can be difficult, helped me accept that the only thing I can control is my own actions and reactions. (Mari)

I appreciated the candid conversations shared that reinforced how each of our journeys are normal because of the challenges we have. The themes explored made me feel more capable in the struggle and gave me tools to gracefully handle situations that may arise. My biggest takeaway though, has been the power to say ‘NO, I do not have the bandwidth for that!’ Realizing that the prosperity of my department does not rest on me; I cannot, nor should I, be the one to keep things afloat. If something is broken, let us shine some light on it and resolve things together!These realizations have shaped the way I interact with my PLC and we are stronger for it! Sincerest gratitude to Amy I. and Amy H., for broaching the tough subjects! (Melody)

Next Steps

I absolutely loved my experience in the TLA, and I am craving more opportunities to grow as a leader. Anna and I tweeted that we need a year 2, and no matter if there is funding or not. We’d love to have Amy I. lead us again, and if that is not possible, we will build our own growth opportunities. Maybe that’s the natural progression of an opportunity like this? We’ve been empowered to grow as leaders, and there’s no stopping us! (Mari)

This has been a gift- if there is an opportunity for TLA YR2, I am there!! Whether there is something structured or not, I will continue to develop myself as an individual and as a teacher leader, reach out to those who feel like I have, and to always continue learning, as Amy I. says. Every year gets better! (Melody)

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Our 2017-2018 Teacher Leadership Academy cohort!!
Classroom Strategies, Technology

Creating a Class Learning Journey with Slides

Each May, our science department hosts Science Night. It has been a lot of fun to involve our school, local high schools, and community in science! Many students bring their families, and participate in labs and activities together. Additionally, we invite local museums and science organizations to set up interactive displays. I love science night!

Science Night in my classroom. Students, teachers, and families are checking out the displays and learning from student presenters. 

Since most of the work we do is digital, there isn’t a ton of student work to physically display. Instead, we display interactive labs. To show off student work, I have them each create a slide in a collaborative deck to showcase their work. Then, this is projected as a slideshow all night.

This is a perfect way to have students reflect on their learning or on a particular assignment. Each student claims a slide, adds in a piece of work they are proud of, and reflects on it.

Here is a template you can try with your class! Duplicate the portfolio slide x # of kids in your class.

A few tips for getting started:

  • This is a perfect time to talk about digital citizenship, especially not intentionally editing someone else’s slide. No matter the age level, everyone needs this reminder.
  • Encourage students to get all the content on their slide first, before decorating. Otherwise, a student may spend 2 hours finding the perfect font for their name.
  • Do a virtual gallery walk! Play some music, and have students scroll through the slides. When the music stops, they add in a comment (try using TAG feedback!) where they stopped.

If you have a school or class open house or display night, play these reflection slides in the background. On Slides: File > Publish to the web > pick your settings, including “restart slideshow after the last slide” > publish > paste the link in the address bar. 

MVA Science Night 2017-2018
One student’s slide from our collaborative science night slide deck!

Try using this same idea for an introduction slide deck for all your students! Replace the work section with a selfie, and answer a few basic questions, such as what are your hobbies?

Out of the classroom? I’ve seen schools/districts with a tv in the front office. Have each teacher create a spotlight slide to sprinkle between announcements and important information.

PS. When you iterate on this and make it better, I’d love to see your example! Add it in the comments below, or share it with me and I’ll link it in this post.

Classroom Strategies, GSuite, Technology

Connecting with MyMaps

Google MyMaps is one of my favorite Googley gems! And, it doesn’t always get the attention it deserves. It’s easy to use, can be accessed from any mobile device, and it’s versatile for a variety of academic and fun uses.

If you’re brand new to MyMaps, here’s a quick intro video.

Start with a purpose:

What are you hoping to share? What do you want your students to get out of this experience?

My purpose here is to show off how awesome MyMaps are, and how collaborative maps can add authentic student engagement into your classroom.

Before we dive into classroom ideas, let’s play! I invite you to add your name & a favorite place to this map. There’s also a layer to add in your university. Use the description to share a bit about why you love this place. Remember to customize your pin!

MyMaps in the Classroom:

MyMaps pair really nicely with HyperDocs and the 5E lesson model, and can fit in at any point in a lesson sequence.

I’m lucky my friend Austin Houp shared out a collaborative MyMap with me last year, all about natural disasters. It was perfect timing, as my students were working on natural disasters projects in science! My students, along with students from all over the world, added in projects on different natural disasters. They loved clicking through the pins and seeing the information, pictures, and links to external projects created other students! And, knowing they were sharing with the world, they took extra care in their work.

Collaborative natural disasters map, created by Austin Houp

Additionally, my AVID students have plotted their college projects on a MyMap, making it easy to share resources with peers, other classes, and potentially other AVID classes at other schools.

Since my oldest students at my current school are juniors (class of 2019), I’ve made a MyMap to track where they head off to college in a year. It’ll be awesome to keep adding to this map throughout the years. They want to keep in contact with me because my class food rule is “no eating or drinking (other than water) until you have a college degree!” — and, I promise if they come back after they’ve graduated, I’ll buy them lunch and we’ll eat together in my room.

The more advanced tools on MyMaps, such as drawing lines and polygons, is perfect for practicing perimeter and area, calculating distances, or reinforcing measurements.

MyMaps for Fun:

MyMaps is great for personal use, especially planning trips, marking places I’ve been, and sharing favorite spots. I use a MyMap to track which states I’ve been to in the US–I still have a long way to go (16/50 as of May 2018), but it’s fun to change the pin color and switch it to the “Where I’ve Been” layer.

Mari’s States of Adventure map

In summer of 2018, my friend Nick will be visiting San Diego for a few days, and we have a MyMap of San Diego places to visit.

My Next Steps:

Next year, one of my goals is to connect with at least one other classroom to collaborate on a map project! Anyone want to join me? Specifically middle school science or any level of AVID.

What are your favorite ways to use MyMaps for fun and in your classroom? Leave a comment below, I’d love more ideas!

Science

All students can do science with Tomatosphere!

No matter how crazy my week is, I always look forward to Thursday afternoons. This is my weekly science period with our moderate/severe special education class. I’ve been working with Ashley, their teacher, for the last several years, doing science every few weeks–this was the first year that I went every week! It’s always been 100% voluntary, I am paid in smiles and hugs, and that’s all I need.

For the last three years, we have participated in Tomatosphere, a citizen science project! The premise is simple: we are sent two seed packets of tomato seeds, one has been to space and the other has not. We plant the seeds, count how many sprout, and submit the data. The scientists are measuring the effects of space on seeds and food production, for future long-term space travel.

“These space-faring seeds will be distributed in 2017. The seeds were launched to the International Space Station (ISS) on board SpaceX’s Dragon on July 18, 2016 and docked with the ISS two days later.” (image credit: www.firsttheseedfoundation.org/tomatosphere)

There are plenty of teaching resources on the Tomatosphere website, making it a suitable project for any grade level. It’s perfect for elementary school (especially big/little buddies!), general ed + special ed partnership, or in middle or high school for deeper scientific investigations.

Each year, I have run Tomatosphere differently, mainly due to timing. In year 1, Ashley’s class came to my 3rd period class, and we planted seeds and collected data together. In year 2, I went to them, and we blogged about our experience. In year 3, we had a little less time and the students were a little lower academically, so we did a few learning activities about plants and seeds, planted our tomato seeds, and made a few observations. Next year, we are hoping to create science journals to practice measuring, writing, and (possibly) graphing skills.

I love that no matter the academic and social level, all students are able to participate. We can work on a number of skills, including counting, sequencing, and writing. I love that I bring the science, and Ashley guides the skill-building.

Sample student observations, practicing measurement, observations, and drawing.

It’s easy to get started with Tomatosphere! Order your seeds from the website and get set-up for planting. We use Jiffy Peat Pellets, and it takes about 4-5 days to see sprouts. The 36 peat pellet trays fit about 3 seed packets. I use two trays, one for each letter packet (one letter has been to space, the other hasn’t).

After we’ve grown our seeds and submitted our data, we plant some of the tomato plants in our school garden and plant the rest in small cups for students (and staff) to take home. Each year, at least one person (not me…) has kept their plant alive long enough to produce tomatoes to eat!

What ideas do you have to build out a meaningful Tomatosphere unit? 

GSuite, Technology

Exploring our World with Google Expeditions AR

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One of my students viewing the layers of the Earth

In May 2016 we welcomed Google Expeditions Pioneer program to our school (read about it here), and our students and teachers loved it. I am so excited that we were able to host the Google Expeditions AR Pioneer program at the end of April.

I signed up for the Google Expeditions AR Pioneer program back in June 2017 at ISTE, when I got to play with a demo of the augmented reality (AR) app. Finally I received an email that they would be in San Diego. I quickly reserved my date and got to planning!

Setting Up Google Expeditions AR

As I prepared for our Expeditions AR experience, I was chatting with my friend Ben Kovaks. He shared this awesome See, Think, Wonder (Ve, Piensa, Pregunta) chart with me. It ended up being one of the most transformational parts of the day because it kept students centered and focused on the learning. Most of our teachers ended up using it or creating their own version, and agreed that it was integral to their students’ engagement with the technology. As Ben so wisely puts it, “there NEEDS to be a structure to help kids think through innovative tools.”

We had two rooms for simultaneous Expeditions, my classroom and our school library. I provided support for the teachers coming through my room, and our Expeditions Googler, Calvin, assisted the teachers in the library. We had 18 classes and about 450 students participate in the Expeditions experience over the course of the day.

Teacher training before school

 

The day began with the training session for our participating teachers. Calvin showed us how to use the devices, went over rules, and allowed for plenty of teacher exploration time. Once the bell rang, we started running Expeditions AR with classes.

Expeditions AR is similar to VR in how it is set-up in the Expeditions App (iOS & Android), and with a Guide and Explorers. One major difference is that it is not necessary to have a student:device ratio of 1:1 or 1:2. Instead, 1:4 was just fine, and everyone was able to participate. Because students had to share devices, they interacted a lot more, described what they were seeing, and talked to their peers, and asked more questions.

Using Google Expeditions AR with our Classes

I got to be with my own students first, and my wonderful sub, Mr. Smith, helped out and explored with us–it’s even cooler because he subbed for me 2 years ago when Expeditions first came to our school! This was my favorite class all day because we had multiple teachers, our principal, and even our campus assistant join in for a while.

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Exploring earthquakes around the world.

One of the best parts of our day was when our campus assistant came in to deliver a pass for one of my kids, and I convinced him to come take a look. He rarely gets to be involved in positive things around campus, as he is picking up students, delivering passes, and keeping students safe in the hallways. I watched him interact with my students, and he had the biggest and realest smile on his face! Even better, I heard from multiple people throughout the day that he kept talking about his experience!

Throughout the whole day, everyone was engaged and curious. We are grateful for this opportunity, and we can’t wait for the Google Expeditions AR app to launch!

 

Reflections

April 2018 No-Work Challenge

What if I told you that I made it the entire month of April without doing any work-work at home? Would you believe me? That’s right, no lesson planning, no emailing, and no grading at home for an entire month. As crazy as it sounds, it was a necessary leap.

Why I started this challenge

This past year I’ve been working toward a healthier work-life balance. I’ve written a few blog posts about my journey, including: Work Hard, Rest Hard, Work, Work, Work…What About Life (co-written with Meagan Kelly and Aubrey Yeh), and Navigating the Sea of Shoulds. I’m grateful for some excellent friends who have walked with me in this learning experience.

The no-work month challenge started on a whim, as I ended spring break and realized I had enjoyed periods of time without doing work-work or even thinking about teaching. However, I honestly doubted I could do it. I mean, I always have so much to do, and my to-do list never seems to get any shorter.

My guidelines

Very simple: All work-work had to be completed at work. Including grading, lesson planning, and checking email. Oh, and taking attendance.

I spent a lot of afternoons playing with my dog, Ollie.

There were text messages about work to friends, but nothing like serious work. Also, work-related errands (because birthdays, celebrations, science supplies) could be completed outside of work.

Tracking my progress

I kept a Google Doc journal throughout this month. I didn’t write every day, only when I thought of it and had something to say.

I’ve set the permissions to “anyone with the link can comment” and I would love it if you would add in a comment on something that resonated with you, or if you have a question.

What I learned

Aside from my reflections in my challenge journal, there are a few things I learned about myself:

  • Work is like a gas, it fills the container you put it in. If I allow myself to work all day, every day (except Sunday, because that work-limit has stayed strong), then I will have enough work to fill that space. Therefore, if I decrease the size of the container, then work will still fit.
  • Doing this challenge has forced me to put limits on what I say “yes” to. In the past, I have a hard time saying “no” because I can reason I can get things done at night or on the weekend. It just ends up being more stress. Unless I’m getting paid extra duty for these extra projects, I’m carefully considering additional commitments. This is a procedure I’ve had to put in place to safeguard my personal balance. Of course, there are exceptions for exceedingly cool things, such as working in the school garden on a Saturday morning.
  • Never do something you can have a kid do for you. I’ve always lived by this motto, but it really ramped up in the last month. Plus, my students love any opportunity to help. I need something taken to the office or another teacher? Please take this. There’s a lab to be set up? I’d like 2 volunteers who are done with their work to set up materials for tomorrow. Now the lab needs to be cleaned up? I will bribe you with chocolate if you stay for 5 minutes to help clean. Please, and thank you!
  • I have my brain back! I don’t find myself thinking about work every single second of every single day. It’s really refreshing; I’m learning to see myself as a human outside of my teacher identity. Don’t get me wrong, I love my teacher identity, but I felt like I was losing a bit of myself in the process. I’ve reclaimed something for me, and I’m much more relaxed.

Our district’s motto is “Putting Students First.” While it sounds counterproductive, I’m putting my students first by taking care of my own needs so that I can be a better teacher for them.

What’s next? I only have a month of school left, and I plan to continue this habit through the end of the school year. This summer, I will reevaluate my personal limits for next year.

Maybe this exact challenge isn’t for you. How will you ensure you set your own limits on your work-life balance?

Other

Engaging Teachers with a Teacher Leadership Book Study

This post is co-written with Amy Illingworth, and cross-posted to Amy’s blog!

One thing we (Amy Illingworth & Mari Venturino) have in common is our love of books! We both read a good mix of education, fiction, young adult, and nonfiction books. What better way to bring together teachers than with a Teacher Leadership Book Study? Our district did just that! Read on, for how we did it and what we learned, from the perspective of a teacher participant and an administrator facilitator.

Where the idea came from

Amy:

Our large, urban school district has a committee of teachers, site leaders, and district leaders, who come together to discuss how we can use our Title II funds to improve teaching and learning across the district. In the spring of 2017, as the committee reviewed the federal guidelines for Title II funds, we kept coming back to a big idea – leadership. We wanted to find ways to support teacher leadership.

Our district has a number of leadership support structures in place, creating a pathway from teacher to administrator roles, if one chooses to go in that direction. However, we have many dedicated teachers who want to take on leadership roles without stepping out of their classrooms. With those specific teachers in mind, our committee came up with two ideas: A Teacher Leadership Academy and Teacher Leadership Book Studies. The Academy was designed to follow a small cohort of teachers through a year-long learning opportunity. For the book studies, we agreed that we would offer a few throughout the year, and that any teacher in the district could join any single book study anytime. We used our Title II funds to pay any participating teacher to attend the two hour book study discussion meetings and to purchase the book for any interested teacher.

Mari:

A few years back, I started a book club at my school. We alternated YA novels and an education-related books each month, but it fizzed out before the end of the school year. I was craving more formalized book chatter, but couldn’t keep up the interest and commitment from my very busy colleagues.

I received a whole-district email from Amy at the beginning of the 2017-2018 school year with information about a district-hosted Teacher Leadership Book Study. Although one of my goals this year is to be careful about what I commit to, this was an easy and enthusiastic “yes!” I love chatting about books with colleagues and friends, and thought it would be a great way to have conversations with teachers across the district.

Implementation

Amy:

Trying to plan a book study that would be open to 2,000+ teachers is not easy! In September I sent out an email to all teachers in our district explaining what the Teacher Leadership Book Study would be. There was a website available for more detailed information, explaining that we would read a few books throughout the year and that any teacher was welcome to participate. I advertised our first book selection, The Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros, with an RSVP linked to a Google Form. When I hit send on that first email, I didn’t know if I would have more than one teacher sign up to join me on this new adventure.

Small group discussions with teachers across the district.

I had 50 people sign up to read the first book! I ordered a copy of the book for every teacher who signed up. Teachers had about a month to read the book, and then they attended one book study discussion meeting (which I offered on two consecutive nights to break up the large group and for flexibility with busy schedules).

When teachers walked into our Professional Development Center for the first discussion meeting, they were immediately surprised because I had all of the chairs arranged in a large circle. I asked everyone to make a name tag so that we could get to know each other and refer to new colleagues by name throughout our discussion. We sat in the circle and I facilitated a discussion about the book. I would share a quote or a prompt from the book, and then open it up for discussion by anyone. We let the conversation go wherever it was going and had fun getting to know each other in this new setting. At some point, I had participants get up and form a pair with someone from across the circle, to encourage more dialogue and to give all participants an opportunity to speak, since some seemed intimidated trying to speak in the large circle.

Small group discussions about Shift This

At the end of the first book study, I asked for recommendations for future books and used teacher feedback to select the rest of the books for the year. With each new book, we had more teachers participate, reaching 90 for our last book! As the meeting groups grew, I had to change the structure. Instead of one large circle discussion, I had teachers sit in small table groups and facilitate their own discussion, with prompts provided by me. To get everyone up and moving after a long talk period, I had the entire room stand up and form a line based on how many years of teaching experience they had. We folded the line in half so that the newest teacher in the room was talking face-to-face with the most veteran teacher in the room. We did a few minutes of this “speed dating” style partner talk, with each teacher having the opportunity to meet a few more colleagues for a 1:1 conversation.

Mari:

I participated in all four of the book studies: Innovator’s Mindset (George Couros), Shift This (Joy Kirr), Overcoming the Achievement Gap Trap (Anthony Muhammad), and Lead Like a Pirate (Shelley Burgess and Beth Houf). I thoroughly enjoyed the book discussions. There were a few people from my school who also signed up, and I saw a few friends from across the district. However, I loved meeting so many new people from my district during the discussions!

Teachers participating in the “speed dating” sharing activity.

During the conversations, Amy would put up a series of discussion questions, and we would choose the direction of our conversation. My favorite part was hearing from teachers at different schools, including middle school, high school, alternative education, and adult education–the variety of voices and experiences helped me to deeply reflect on how I am best meeting my students’ needs.

One particular activity I loved was “speed dating” from Lead Like a Pirate. Amy facilitated it with a group of about 30 teachers. We first lined up by number of years taught, then folded the line in half. Amy gave us a couple minutes to answer a question together. Then we waved goodbye to our partner, one line rotated 3 spots down, and we repeated the process.

Perspective from Amy, district leader

It’s always scary to try to implement something new. This was especially true for me, as I was still relatively new to my position and new to this large district. You never know what the turn out will be or how the initiative will be received. I was especially aware of the fact that I was an administrator attempting to lead conversations with large groups of teachers. While I always consider myself a teacher first, then a coach, and finally a leader, it has still been many years since I was last in my own classroom, doing the hard work of teaching every day.

My biggest takeaway from this experience was how open and excited teachers were to have the opportunity to talk to peers from across the district about their reading and professional experiences. In the final survey I sent out to get feedback on the book studies, I read a version of this quote over and over again when I asked what teachers most appreciated, “Being able to openly discuss ideas and concerns about our classrooms and teaching methods with others who read the book.”

Perspective from Mari, teacher

My biggest takeaway from the Teacher Leadership Book Studies was being given the time and space to talk with teachers from our district. Being in a very large district with 1500+ teachers, sometimes I feel like other schools are lightyears away. The Teacher Leadership Book Study made me feel closer to my colleagues at other schools. I appreciated the opportunity to learn together, meet new friends, and continue these connections on Twitter. I realized it didn’t matter how much I liked the book, but rather the little nuggets I gained from our conversations together.

Lead Like a Pirate

We are lucky to have Amy as a leader in our district! While she may be at the administrator level, she is approachable and frequently at schools and in classrooms. Amy’s facilitation style is respectful, she is a patient listener, and her presence allows us to have honest conversations without fear of repercussions.

The books were the vehicle, Amy was our Google Maps, and we were the adventurers.

Here is just a sampling of some of the feedback from our many participants:

  • “I appreciated the theories about mindset and being a teacher that can propel change.”
  • “I really appreciate everyone’s genuineness. Every individual shared some really valuable insight, opinions, etc. and it was so helpful to hear other reactions to the ideas in the books.”
  • “I enjoyed it a lot. It helped inspire and motivate me during the year when I was starting to drag or feel overwhelmed by the job. Thank you!”

 

Classroom Strategies, Science

Get Moving with Learning Stations

I have a little bit of jealousy for my elementary school teacher friends, mainly for two things: their beautiful and updated bulletin boards, and learning centers. I’ve given up on my bulletin boards (going to put some kids in charge soon) and I’m always trying to figure out how to use the learning center model in middle school science. So, I use stations!

I first started using stations in my classroom during my first year of teaching. I learned it from one of my very old-fashioned colleagues (imagine 3-inch 3-ring binders for each topic, with sheet protectors filled with zillions of worksheets), and fell in love with changing up the routine, getting kids up and moving, and providing some variety.

The Setup

Over the past six years, I have run stations in a variety of formats: 8 stations x 5-8 minutes, 4 stations x 12-15 minutes, 30 stations x 1-2 minutes, etc. The overall theme is that it usually takes about an hour. I typically use my lab counters so all students are standing around the perimeter of the classroom, and I can see their backs as they work. Occasionally, I’ll need an extra station space, so I’ll use a table group or outside. Students work in pairs or groups of 4.

Lately, I’ve been running 4 x 12-15 minute stations. I’ll have 2 of each set up, with 2 separate rotations–groups 1-4 rotate on one half of the room, and groups 5-8 rotate on the other half. On average, I use stations every couple weeks.

I create all my stations handouts on Google Slides (File > Page Setup > Custom > 11 x 8.5), print, then put in sheet protectors. I notice my students focus more quickly with paper instructions.

For the timer, I project the Google timer: search for “15 minute timer” (or desired length) and it’ll start right away.

The Content

Stations can fill multiple purposes, such as introducing new content, practicing skills, or reviewing old content. When practicing skills or reviewing, I usually use more and shorter stations, with one task or question per station. Sometimes these are problems to solve, other times it is charts or diagrams to interpret.

When introducing content, students will do some work in their interactive notebook and some work on their iPads. For notes, I use Pear Deck on student paced mode or I create a short screencast; students are able to work at their own pace, pause, and rewind as needed. There is always an output activity to go with the input (notes). For the tech-heavy stations, I enjoy using games, simulations, or videos.

Example stations: 4 stations x 15 minutes
Station 1 – Notes (in interactive notebook)
Station 2 – Left-side page, draw & label a diagram (in interactive notebook)
Station 3 – Quizizz game (on iPad)
Station 4 – Phet simulation with 2-3 questions on Google Forms (on iPad)

The Successes

While students are working in stations, I am free to call over individual students for quick conferences. When I walk around the classroom to check in on students and groups, I can answer questions or go deeper into content.

We have taken stations entirely outdoors as a scavenger hunt! Add a school map with coordinates, and directions to get to the next station on the bottom of the instructions, and you’re all set.

And, true teacher confession, if my students are working well and don’t have many questions, I can often work on some grading.

The Challenges

It is essential to work together to create expectations when working in stations. Some of ours include: read the directions first, don’t wander away to another group, stay on task, and turn and look at Ms. V when the timer goes off.

Students who are prone to distraction sometimes struggle with staying focused. However, the tradeoff is that they are able to move around, and lessons are broken down into manageable chunks.

The Next Steps

I’d like to try having students create their own stations. Since I have 8 table groups, each group would create 1 x 5 minute station.

There are tons of ways to use stations in all grade levels. I’d love to hear how you all do it!