Monday, December 31, 2012

2012 Wrap-Up

Winter break has been a lovely and much-needed respite from teaching.  My husband and I spent Christmas with my family in Northern California. We ate, shopped, got caught up on movie watching, and spent lots of quality time with each other before things get busy again.

One of the best things about visiting the Bay Area during the holidays, though, is getting to see old friends. Facebook and email have made it easy to stay in touch, but there really is no substitute for actual face-to-face time with people you don't see too often. One such meet-up was with my college friend, Joe. Joe is a genius in my eyes and does amazing work with Apple. He has also been one of my biggest supporters as an educator, and I'm incredibly thankful for that.

As a prototype developer, Joe told me he has had to learn to "fail quickly." It's definitely something I've been trying to teach my students, but it's really stuck with me as I begin to think about the New Year. 2012 was a year of discovery, risk, and incredible highs and lows. I'm proud of what was accomplished in the last 12 months, but I am beginning to see that working through my failures was what ultimately helped me feel successful this year.

So, with that, I'm making the decision to "fail quickly" (and with grace) in 2013. Having this mindset makes the New Year seem less daunting and more adventurous as I face some pretty big projects in the next few months. I'm eagerly anticipating all that 2013 has in store, and am ever thankful for the support from my family, friends, colleagues, and PLN on Twitter.

Wishing you and yours a Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 20, 2012


Have you ever had a really crazy idea? One that seems so preposterous it can't be done? One that becomes so ingrained in your thoughts it keeps you awake at night? One that itches to be executed and brought to life?

For me, this idea was TEDxElementary.*

The idea of a TED-style conference for elementary-aged students emerged from an amalgamation of the right people with the right thoughts in the right place at the right time. TED speakers are considered among the most innovative and highly regarded thinkers in the world, which is exactly why we knew it was going to work. The purpose of the conference would be to give young students an opportunity to simulate dialogue within their community on meaningful issues facing them as 21st century learners. Through the process, they would be able to see themselves as part of a larger global picture and understand that their voice is a valid and important part of their community.

After a few bumps in the road, kinks in the plan, and unpreventable outside events, TEDxElementary finally came to fruition this past Tuesday. And it was amazing. My students presented ideas on how they'd change and improve school. They spoke openly and honestly to their audiences with utmost conviction and confidence. Their ideas reflected a need to feel engaged in school and a desire to make healthy lifestyle choices. Some definite themes around technology, school lunch, playground equipment, and making responsible earth-choices emerged. I am proud of the time and effort they put into their pieces, and the end result was an unforgettable and extremely powerful event.

The biggest lesson I learned through this project was the necessity, importance, and ultimate difficulty in "letting go." I'll be the first to admit TEDxElem was my dragon project. It was an idea I clung to, and one I desperately wanted to succeed. There came a point when I realized I had to let go and trust that things were going to be okay, however they were supposed to be okay. I had to let go of preconceived outcomes and expectations in order for this project to breathe and grow organically. I had to let go of my idea and trust it with my students so they could make it their own. Executing this idea was not easy, but the best things in life are worth fighting for. It took courage to move forward and keep moving forward. But it was so worth it.

Through this project, I helped my students find and capture their voice. I provided encouragement and support when they thought it was too hard, and helped them start some much-needed conversations within our school community. In return, they helped me see the world in a new light and push me to become a better educator. My students are such inspiring young people and I have no doubt that they will one day change the world.

I look forward to our next round of TEDxElem in the spring!

*This project is not affiliated with TEDx officially. Maybe one day.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


Last week, one of my table groups was having a big problem working together on a project.
Their arguing prevented them from completing work and caused a lot of hurt feelings. Their disagreements were caused by a number of things, from excessive chatting to miscommunication. When their attempts at problem-solving failed, I decided to spend some extra time with them during our afternoon table meetings to help them make sense of their issues and come up with some creative solutions.

As a group, we decided that arguing and using a disrespectful tone of voice were the biggest problems they were facing. We talked about the importance of communicating effectively, compromising during team tasks, and picking our battles. We brainstormed respectful phrases they could say in disagreement, and even decided on a "code word" to use when things were starting to spiral downward. They settled on "bacon." The rest of the class congratulated the table for persevering through a tough time and being creative problem-solvers.

Cut to the following Monday morning: I'm teaching a minilesson and a situation breaks out in the back of the room between a small group of girls peer-editing. Their voices are beginning to rise and tempers are starting to flare. I do my best to remain calm and remind myself to let them try to work it out before intervening. After a few deep breaths I decide to step in. Just then a small voice in the back of the room squeaks, "Bacon!" and the entire room erupts into laughter. It was perfect comedic timing and exactly what the situation needed. The girls take a deep breath, smile at each other, and continue in their task.

Our classroom is truly a community, and we routinely work hard to make it the best place for us to learn. That morning, laughter helped to build our classroom community in a way that no game or team-building activity ever could. It helped ease tension and put perspective on a relatively minor problem, and reminded us that we're a much better group of people when we communicate and work together to support one another in our learning.

Thursday, December 6, 2012


It's nearing the end of the day and one of my students approaches me with a gleam in her eye.

"Uh, Mrs. S.?" she asks. "You know tomorrow's Friday, right?" I nod and think to myself, Boy, do I ever! She continues, "...and you know what that means? You the end of the day? Tomorrow? On Friday.?" Her words are rushed and the intonation of her voice keeps going up at the end of each phrase.  A smile spreads across my face as I listen. Of course I know what tomorrow brings because my students have been talking about it all week long - The Smackdown!

Not sure about a smackdown? I like Cybraryman's terminology and examples, but a smackdown is basically a quick version of show and tell. I like them because they are fast-paced and offer a lot of resources from a lot of people in a short amount of time. They kind of remind me of those book reviews at the end of Reading Rainbow - just enough to whet your appetite and get you wanting more, but not too many where you feel overwhelmed or bored.

Inspired by the smackdown at EdCamp Seattle, I decided to try out a kid-version last Friday during our closing class meeting. In addition to a one-minute limit, we created the following ground rules:

  1. Be silently supportive and patient while a classmate is sharing (meaning, show attentiveness,  practice encouraging looks, and remember it can be scary to talk in front of a lot of people).
  2. Share something that is meaningful/helpful/important to you that you think others might be interested in, as well (meaning, this is not a bragging session).
  3. Keep the conversations going outside of class (meaning, if a classmate shared something really cool, ask them about it later).

Students shared favorite websites and apps, funny jokes, fun facts, book recommendations, stories and reports they were working on, pictures, and dance moves. The response was overwhelming, even from my shyest and most introverted students, and we decided to make it a thing.

I continually stress to my students that we're here to learn, take risks, and collaborate. A smackdown encompasses all those ideas and more. Last Friday's smackdown helped build classroom community and boost individual self-confidence, and I foresee this weekly event becoming something we all look forward to at the end of a busy week.