Reflections

This one time, at band camp…

Dress-up dinner at Camp Winters, only a few feet from and
2 years before my magical “ah ha!” moment. August 2006

No really, this one time, at band camp I had my “I need to be a teacher” epiphany. As a biology major in college, I was naturally following the pre-med path. I always knew I loved teaching, but it wasn’t until August 2008 and my annual adventure up to Camp Winthers Music Camp in Soda Springs, CA when I realized teaching was my life direction. I distinctly remember leading a flute section rehearsal near the campfire pit, making eye contact with the head counselor, and immediately knowing I had better become a teacher. It was a magical moment.

Four years of high school band, ten band classes, private flute and piano lessons, a zillion hours practicing, and two band teachers taught me many essential life lessons that directly apply to teaching. I spent a year in Concert Band, three years in Honors Concert Band, two years in Jazz Workshop (one of four jazz bands!), two years TA-ing zero period, and one year in Small Ensemble (think Genius Hour class for band nerds!).  The human being and teacher I am today is directly influenced by Mr. Faniani and Mr. Murray, our two incredible band directors.

“You never have a second chance to make a first impression”
Whether it’s a firm handshake and eye contact, hitting the downbeat, or welcoming students on the first day of school, it’s essential to be the best version of yourself at any given time. Backing up this first impression requires hard work, practice, and confidence (fake it ‘til you make it, if necessary). In my AVID classes, we discuss what makes a good handshake, and students practice correctly and incorrectly with their classmates until they feel comfortable shaking hands and introducing themselves. When they’re finished, I send them on a scavenger hunt to shake hands with their teachers and at least one administrator. Then, they put these handshakes into practice when they show up for their mock job interview! They constantly cite the confidence they’ve gained in AVID as an essential part of their middle school experience.

First year as a counselor, August 2005. These babies are now
graduated from college and doing amazing things!

“Perfect practice makes perfect”
Why do something only half-good? In music, this simply means grabbing a metronome, slowing way down, and gradually working up to tempo. When you make a mistake, keep your head up and recover quickly. In teaching, I try to focus on getting better at a few things at a time. Lessons never ever go perfectly, but the habits of mind of reflecting on our work are essential to growing ourselves as teachers and learners. There are so many great practices, lesson ideas, projects, and methods discussed on Twitter every day; if we get bogged down in trying to do them all, we will fail miserably. I am intentional about my opportunities for reflection: I blog occasionally, talk to a few trusted colleagues and friends daily (Voxer is great for this), and talk to myself using voice memos on my phone.

Annual Playathon fundraiser, honored for my 2 years as the
student chair. November 2006. 

Sometimes you have to stand up and dance!
Every year, Mr. Faniani told us a story about a time he was recording a percussion track, and kept hitting his part too early or too late. Once he stood up and started dancing, he nailed it. Obviously, this story is way more entertaining with Mr. Faniani acting it out for us, but you get the picture. This story has stuck with me because it’s so easy to sit in our comfy chair and play it safe, when really we must stand up, be bold, and take risks.

Both teaching and playing music take years of practice and hard work, moments of complete frustration, and an unparalleled joy when sharing our passion with others. And, both are entirely worth it!

Band tour in Beijing, Xi’an, and Shanghai China, June 2006.
Science

Engineering Beyond the Engineering Challenge

[This post was originally featured on Kids Discover on August 31, 2016]

Walk into my classroom in early August, and you’ll see students with their heads together, excitedly discussing their marble boat designs. There is chaos, but students are moving about the room purposefully between their desks, seeking out my feedback, and to the counters to test their models. 

Engineering Design Process

Three years ago, our school district adopted the Next Generation Science Standards, and we shifted not only the what we taught, but also how we approached our lessons. Previously, we addressed engineering as a one-shot challenge, where students were given a creation prompt, a time limit, and some materials. Typically I used a mystery building challenge, such as: “build the tallest tower you can from the materials in this bag in 20 minutes.” I knew that there was more to engineering than these quick building competitions, but I had no idea how to actually implement that into my classroom. When I heard about engineering-related projects other teachers were doing, they used coding, 3D printers, and robotics; even though I’m a techy teacher, this intimidated me. 

Last spring, my students and I participated in an engineering design field trial through the Lawrence Hall of Science where students were presented with a design challenge, had design constraints, and created and tested prototype models. After this experience, I felt more comfortable facilitating engineering into my science class. Engineering can easily be implemented by providing students with a problem or challenge, giving them design constraints (certain materials, budget, and/or size or appearance guidelines), and designating time for students to design, build, test, and redesign. 

So far this school year, we have done two different engineering design labs. 

Marble Boat Engineering

Testing marble boat designs

The marble boat engineering lab fit in less than our 100 minute block period, and was highly engaging for my students. I have done a similar activity with my students in the past as a one-shot design competition using pennies–this time I didn’t have enough pennies, so we switched to marbles. 

To prepare our lab stations, I set up bins and buckets with water and containers of marbles. After I introduced students to the lab and expectations (Mix 7th graders and water, some guidelines are necessary!), I asked them work in pairs to draw their first design in the “design & build” section. Once they showed me their drawing, I gave them a piece square of aluminum foil–any size works, as long as you stay consistent within the class period. 

Revising and retesting designs

Students went to test their design, and recorded how many marbles their boat held. When pairs returned to their seats, they filled out the “test” and “reflect” sections for their first design, and moved on to their next “design & build.” This design and build, test, and reflect process was repeated three times. Afterward, students completed their analysis questions to justify their most successful design. 


Once we finished the lab, we had a lively class discussion on what skills they used while completing the engineering design process. Eventually and with guidance, students came up with the following skills: ask questions, research, imagine solutions, build and test a model, and revise model. We discussed how engineering is not linear, and requires students to constantly think and reflect on what is working and what can be improved. 

One great thing about this lab is that I brought it to our moderate/severe special education class on my prep period. I was able to complete the lab in small groups with this group of students plus a few instructional aides. With the more verbal students in the class, we were able to have conversations about making changes to designs and what worked and what didn’t. For others, the act of counting marbles together was a valuable skill.

Paper Airplane Engineering

Testing paper airplane designs outside

After the marble boat engineering lab, I introduced my students to a larger project, the paper airplane engineering lab. This project took a week, two 100-minute block periods plus a Friday minimum day. In previous years, I’ve used a variation of this lab to teach the scientific method, independent and dependent variables, and data collection. My science team and I modified this lab to focus on engineering. Just like the marble boats, students designed, built, tested, and reflected on three different paper airplane models. Their goal was to create a paper airplane that flew both straight and far. 

To set up this lab for testing outside, I recruited students to draw landing strips, 1 meter wide and 20 meters long, in chalk on the concrete. With meter sticks, we marked off each meter along the landing strip. 

Collecting paper airplane data


When we went outside to test paper airplanes, students noted if their paper airplane flew straight and landed in the landing zone, and estimated how far their paper airplane went, down to the half meter (quarter meter for students who felt comfortable with that). Even though this is less accurate, we prioritized focusing on engineering practices over measurement skills–we will spiral back to measurement multiple times this school year, and exact measurements were not detrimental to our lab. For students who are ready, finding exact measurements and calculating the average distance would have been a logical extension. 


This school year, as my students and I get more comfortable with the engineering design process, we will be able to expand the scope of our projects. We have a good foundation for what engineering looks like on a small scale. Our next steps are to bring in an engineer as a guest speaker to talk about their career, and continue with more engineering projects that fit in with our curriculum.

Science

Interactive Notebooks in Science Class

[This blog post was originally posted to Kids Discover on August, 3, 2016]

Technology is an incredible tool the enhance and extend student learning. As we move more and more towards one-to-one technology classrooms, we need to keep what is best for students in the forefront of our minds. Sometimes, an analog model works best for student learning, and we must set aside the devices for a while. In my seventh grade science classroom, I do just that with our interactive science notebooks.

I follow a fairly strict interactive notebook format, where the right side page is the input and the left side page is the output. This is based on brain lateralization, where the left side of the brain focuses on being analytical, and the right side of the brain focuses on creativity (remember, each side of our brain controls the opposite side of the body). We always do the right side, then the left side; this takes a while for students to get the hang of, but eventually it becomes routine.

Brain Lateralization diagram

We set up our notebooks together in the first two weeks of school, once schedules are settled and students are comfortable in my class. I require students to have a single subject 8.5” x 11” or 9” x 11” notebook, which is enough for our entire school year. On notebook set-up day, we number each page front and back starting with the first right side page as page one. It is extremely important that students number their pages correctly–this saves a lot of trouble and stress for both the student and the teacher later on. Then, I provide students with handouts and a list of what will go in their notebook. This includes general information about our class, bathroom passes (I give them six per semester, and I do not offer extra credit for leftover bathroom passes), templates for writing claim-evidence-reasoning in science, and a summary of notebook expectations. I have created some interactive science notebook templates. Feel free to customize to meet your needs.

At the end of each unit, students complete their unit title page, self-check, individual reflection, and parent reflection. This allows them to identify their best work, areas of growth, and progress they’d like to make. We check notebooks in class with trade-and-grade, which saves me time. I’m always walking around to double check grading, and I randomly spot check notebooks in each class.

Example left side page, illustrations for
different types of measurement

In our science class, we are on a 100 minute block schedule. I almost always follow the same class format: warm-up, right side input, left side output, activity, closure. The routine helps students know exactly what to expect each day, and there is plenty of room for creativity and excitement.

Our right side pages are input, and can be information from direct instruction, short flipped video lessons completed for homework, videos (Bill Nye and Magic School Bus are our favorites), or station work. These are done in Cornell Note format. I provide my students with cloze Cornell Notes to make the input part as quick as possible. Slowly throughout the year, as they learn to write faster and more efficiently, I have them take on more and more of the note-taking process.

Right side example, reading & annotating
an article

After we’ve completed the right side together, I provide instructions for students to complete the left side of their notebook. This is always a creative activity that includes plenty of color and open-ended prompts. Activities include: quickwrites and quickdraws, creating cartoons, T-charts and Venn diagrams, and labeled diagrams.

With the exception of video notes or graphic organizer, the right side page typically takes no more than ten to fifteen minutes. We usually allow for twenty to thirty minutes for the left side page, and occasionally longer for a more detailed assignment. The entire right-left cycle can be completed in under an hour, including a warm-up and organizing notebooks for the day. This leaves the last hour for the activity, which may be a lab, game, stations work, or project, that directly implements what was learned in the right-left cycle (or a few right-left cycles). With labs in science, it is easy to adjust lab handouts into a right (procedures and pre-work) and left (data and analysis) format.

Left & right side pages together. Cornell Notes on the right,
foldable on the left.

My students absolutely love their science notebooks, and always smile at the end of the year when they flip back through to see how much they’ve grown throughout the year. This year, I am lucky that my whole department is on board with interactive notebooks in science!

Reflections

Hamilton: An American Education

Context: I teach 7th grade science, and history is my least favorite subject. My background knowledge is lacking in both US and world history, unless it directly pertains to science. I had incredible history teachers in middle school, and sub-par history teachers in high school. In so many ways, the teacher makes the subject come alive!

Last week, I was chatting with one of our amazing US History teachers, Daniel Garcia. I asked him what they were teaching. Turns out, they were learning about Hamilton v Jefferson. Did you just say…Hamilton?! Ok, I’m interested. Why? Because Hamilton, duh.

Mr. Garcia going over the day’s objective.

They were analyzing primary and secondary source documents from both Jefferson and Hamilton, and discussing the merits and faults. I ended up in Mr. Garcia’s class for most of period 2 on Tuesday, and the end of period 4 and beginning of period 6 on Thursday. On Tuesday, they listened to the intro song, Alexander Hamilton, and analyzed Hamilton’s background (tangent conversation, what do you notice about the actors?). On Thursday, they listened to Cabinet Battle #1 and Cabinet Battle #2. If the kids weren’t interested in Hamilton after Tuesday, they were begging for more after these 2 songs!

At one point during 4th period, I usurped power from Mr. Garcia to ask the kids “How do you think the Jefferson v Hamilton battle would have been different if it were via social media? And what are their hashtags?” That got them exciting and talking!

Ok, so Hamilton is exciting and popular. Awesome. Wow. But so what?

I’ve seen many of our usually disengaged students perk up with Hamilton. They love the lyrics, the hip hop, the angst, and that this is something cool outside of school. I stood in line outside Mr. Garcia’s class (ok, so really, it started as a game of “how long can I blend in before he notices”) and had a great conversation about women’s rights and the 2016 election with some of my former students.

For other students, using music to learn instantly makes learning come alive. On Friday, I did a circle with my 0 period AVID 8th graders to discuss using music in class. I started the period with 3 warm-up questions, (1) Make a hashtag for Jefferson, (2) Make a hashtag for Hamilton, and (3) Were you in the room where it happened? #3 got them super confused and curious. Only one student in my class understood the reference, and was cracking up. Everyone else kept asking “Ms. V, what does #3 mean?” I asked them to get in their circle, and before I threw out the question, they were already in a heated debate about Hamilton v Jefferson. For 15 minutes, they continued an intense conversation about the two and their ideas, using evidence from what they learned in history. Mind you, this was 7:30am.

Cabinet Battle #1 with US History

Finally, the conversation died down, and we moved on to discuss how Hamilton and other music fuels their interest in a topic. Overall, they agreed that authentic music experiences help them learn (such as Hamilton, Flocabulary, etc.).

For me, music and musicals are an instant hook. Cats was my broadway musical gateway drug in 4th grade. My dad and I read Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats together when I was on a poetry kick, then watched the musical. I moved on to Les Mis, Hairspray, and Rent. For all of these, I took time to research the issues and people behind the musicals.

I love that my students have found something relevant to ignite their passion for learning!

Breakout EDU

Student-Created Breakout EDU Games

I ran my first BreakoutEDU game with my 7th grade science students last February. It was an incredible experience for my students and me; even though they didn’t break out, we had a great debrief and were able to critically look at the skills needed for perseverance and problem solving.

In March, Justin Birckbichler and I started building digital versions of the breakouts, which ended up being quite the project. We found that many teachers struggle with the productive struggle just as much as our students, and we put great value on teachers modeling the critical thinking process alongside their students. In order to ensure more flexible and resilient adults in the future, we must explicitly teach and model these skills for our students. 

Double checking math clues.

Fast forward to now, my 8th grade AVID students just finished creating their own Breakout EDU games! They used what they learned in their career research project within their game. It was a very challenging process for both myself and my students–just like when I facilitate games, I did not step in to help them more than absolutely necessary. In other words, I allowed some of their clues to fail. Why? That’s where the learning takes place! 


Using emoji rebus to create a riddle

The setup
My students had already played a few physical and digital games, and were familiar with the skills needed to successfully play Breakout EDU games. They were excited about creating their own games, and we talked about what elements make a successful game (story hook, interesting topics, clues that are not too hard but not too easy), then they launched into their game building.


Brainstorming clues based on
available locks
Our creation process: 
1. I randomly divided students into groups of 4 or 5.
2. Students wrote their story in their group’s shared planning Doc (before they received their locks)
3. I gave each group a basket with 4-5 locks. Students decided who would create the clue for each lock.
4. Students created their clues on shared Slides.

5. I programmed all the locks and printed the clues.

Playing the games
I programmed the locks ahead of time based on students’ planning docs, and had each set of locks separated and ready to go.

Each team facilitated their own game. I had them fill out a reflection graphic organizer as their peers played their game. This served two purposes: it kept the facilitators busy so they didn’t become too vocal and it allowed students to reflect on the process of designing and facilitating their own game.

It was incredible to step back and watch my students play and facilitate their own groups. Some students tried to ask me about specific clues during the game, and I directed them to ask the game creators. It did not go perfectly, and some of the clues were confusing, but that’s all part of the learning process! 


Finding area of an shape to solve a clue
“I think I have it!”

One group particularly struggled with designing their game. They lacked teamwork and cohesion, and it showed in their final product. While playing, they realized that one of their clues made no sense to their participants: it was a math problem, but the resulting code was random numbers from that math problem. It was SO hard for me to not jump in and rework their clue to make sense. I had them go outside to discuss how they could change their clue on the fly, then come back in and give the participants a hint. They had to go back outside multiple times before they had a solution. The whole process took over 10 minutes, and many failed attempts of guiding questions from the facilitators to their peers. It stretched their brains, but it also taught my students how to think on their feet. 


The debrief
We had great discussions after playing the games. Students shared what they found was successful, challenging, and what they learned about themselves in the process. We focused on the positives and constructive feedback, and how we can learn from this.

Additionally, we used our school’s character qualities, the Vikings’ Code, to write blog posts on our experiences:
Use at least 3 characteristics from the Vikings’ Code to answer the following questions. Remember to use specific examples in your writing!
– Describe your experience designing your own Breakout EDU game.
– Describe your experience facilitating the game you created.
– Describe your experience playing your peers’ games.

Filling out facilitator feedback graphic organizer
while peers play.


What we learned
If I had a dollar for every time a student said “Ms. V, this is hard!” during the game creation process, I’d be rich! I knew this process would be tough, but I didn’t anticipate how much we would all learn. The formal and informal debrief conversations brought out many great ideas and learning opportunities.
– My students wished they had a chance to test out their games before their peers played. In the future, we will build in a peer review process within the game design.
– Students quickly realized that creating critical thinking opportunities is significantly more difficult than critically thinking itself. 

– As hard as it is to step back as a game facilitator, it’s even harder to step back while students are designing and facilitating their own games. They have to experience the highs and lows themselves, without me stepping in to fix everything.

Next steps
My students are excited to share their games via another teacher at the AVID National Conference in December. They are revising their games, testing them out on teachers and students at school, then submitting a final draft game.

Students will have another chance to build a game in the spring, and this time we’ll open it up to physical or digital games…content or purpose to be determined.

Classroom Strategies

5 Ways to Amplify the Voices of our Introverts

Our incredible #SunchatBloggers group decided to embark on a few group topics, the first one being our “top 5” of anything education related (here’s our top 5 Padlet). I love the opportunity to share blogging ideas and topics with this dedicated and lively group. We recently started a #SunchatBloggers Padlet to show off our favorite blog posts. It was tough to come up with a topic for top 5, and move beyond my current top 5 favorite apps/tools (which also would be fun!).

Lately, introverts are especially on my mind. I moderated #WeirdEd on October 5th and we had an incredible conversation about the myth of introverts and how we can celebrate their value in our world.

The Power of Introverts Ignite
San Diego Summit, October 2016

On October 9, I did my first ever Ignite session at the San Diego GAFE Summit. I had just 5 minutes to inspire attendees with a mini keynote. I decided to take a risk and share my story: I’m an introvert in a very extroverted edtech world, and it’s mentally tough to keep up my energy sometimes. I shared about how introverts process the world internally, while extroverts socialize instead. Our introverted students are less likely to advocate for their own needs, including when they need to work alone and/or in a quieter environment. I feel encouraged because many people I look up to have told me that this is a message that needs to be shared and spread.

I reflected on my own classroom and experience as a learner to think about what has worked for me. Here are five strategies and tools to help address the needs of the introverts in our classrooms:

1. Shift classroom discussions and questions onlineUse tools such as TodaysMeet or Google Classroom discussions to engage all learners. Allowing students to use an online discussions with threaded or @ replies gives plenty of room for introverts to enter the conversation when they are comfortable. Additionally, using an online discussion for students to ask content and class specific questions allows more students to speak up; it also empowers students to take ownership of their learning and help each other. If you’re ready to take a bigger leap with students, start blogging as a class or individual student blogs. I’m just starting this process with my 8th grade AVID students, and hoping to use blogging in science in the next year (2017-2017 goal?).

2. Provide introvert-friendly workspaces
In and around your classroom, create distinct workspaces with different working guidelines. Designate a large group work zone, a small or partner group zone, and/or an individual work zone. I’m in California, so I’m lucky we generally have good weather so we can expand our work area outside to the hallway (unlike all you East Coast friends, our schools are generally not one building with interior hallways). Often inside my room is the louder group work area, and outside in the “Venturino Zone” is for quiet work. The “Venturino Zone” is my pre-set boundaries between my classroom door and the poles at the end of my classroom.

3. Build digital collaboration skills
Collaboration and group work does not have to happen face-to-face, or even in real time. Digital collaboration isn’t a less valuable form of collaboration; it is just another way for students to work together. My students are able to quietly work together on projects, and those with quieter voices are still able to share their ideas. Additionally, introverts will feel less social exhaustion when they are not required to interact as frequently. As an introverted teacher in the edtech community, most of the work I do and projects I’m working on happen asynchronously and through collaborative platforms such as Docs. Furthermore, last February, some of my 7th grade AVID students and Rosy Burke’s 5th graders collaborated on the NASA Cassini essay contest. They used Docs to introduce themselves, brainstorm, write their essay, and edit their work. On the last work period, our students were able to quickly conference using appear.in to meet and share final ideas. It was such a cool experiences for all of us!

4. Use sufficient wait time
According to a 1972 study by Mary Budd Rowe, teachers rarely wait longer than 1.5 seconds after asking a question before calling on students for responses. She found that when teachers wait 3 or more seconds, there is an increase in students volunteering, decrease in “I don’t know” answers, and an increase in quality of responses. For introverts especially, wait time is critical for them to process their ideas and formulate a response. In grad school, we learne to wait 5 seconds. I was in a good habit in my first couple years of actually counting to 5 in my head. Recently, I’ve tried to bring back the habit. I’m not perfect, but I’m working on it.

5. Allow for students to choose how they show learning
Give students an objective or essential question as a starting point, and empower them to pick a tool or method to prove they learned. Providing students choice does not mean a free-for-all where students can do whatever they want, whenever they want. Use a menu of options or a HyperDoc to scaffold the choice-making process by suggesting apps or tools for students to use in their task. I’ve found that my students are more engaged and complete better quality work when they are given a few options for a product.

I’m thankful to spread the message and be an advocate for introverts in the world. And, I’m especially grateful that I can use my blog to share my own voice, which I wouldn’t otherwise speak up to share.

So I leave you with this: How will you empower all voices in your classroom?

Reflections

The Power of Introverts

[This post originally featured on He’s the Weird Teacher blog, as part of the #WeirdEd chat on 10/5/16. Here’s the chat storify.]



Trends in education focus on buzzword categories of students: English Learners, special education, homeless/foster youth, gifted, etc. If we’re not analyzing data, then we’re busy talking about getting students to collaborate and work together more. What happens when a student doesn’t prefer to work with a group? What happens when a student is an introvert?

Susan Cain, the author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, discusses how western culture has made a shift from the “culture of character” to the “culture of personality” where extroversion is dominant, and introversion is considered inferior. She names this the Extrovert Ideal, defined as “the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha and comfortable in the spotlight.” These are the values we intentionally and unintentionally translate to our classrooms, schools, and workplaces.

The biggest misconception about introverts is they have less to say. In reality, the major difference between introverts and extroverts is that extroverts prefer to process the world externally via social interactions, while introverts process the world internally via quiet thinking. Introverts have just as much to say as extroverts, but won’t readily speak it out loud.

In social situations, there may be extroverts who will not wait for others to speak, and overpower the quieter voices. We call these steamrollers. In any sort of collaborative grouping, an overpowering person can be dangerous for the group’s process and rapport. Helping these extroverts identify when they tend to steamroll is just as important as empowering the introverts to advocate for their own needs.

Many introverts, such as myself, can be “functional extroverts” for short periods of time. If you’ve met me in real life, you might not automatically know I’m an introvert–especially if I’m at an edtech conference. However, after I get home, I need plenty of time to decompress. This is a learned skill that took time to develop.

In our classrooms, we value students who are collaborative and vocal. It seems that we’re condemned as “bad teachers” (gasp) if we don’t have our students constantly working together. After auditing my own classroom, I see how many of my lessons that the voices of my extroverts, and leave my introverts quiet and alone. I’ve been more intentional to build in opportunities for both introverts and extroverts to shine.

So with this being said, how do we provide our introverts with an authentic voice in our classroom and world?

PS. Not sure where you lie on the introvert-extrovert continuum? Take this free Myers-Briggs Type Indicator quiz to find out.