Saturday, November 23, 2013

My Dad

My father passed away a week ago today. Nothing can prepare you for losing a loved one, especially a parent, and I've been living most of this week in a complete daze amidst fuzzy blankets, boxes of tissues, and trays of comfort food. While ill for many months, my father's death has been the hardest, most painful experience I've ever had to face. I'm forever grateful for the three decades I've had with him, and that his passing brought him peace, yet completely saddened that he died just eleven weeks before my little girl is due. Knowing she will never meet my father is heartbreaking beyond words.

I've had lots of time to reflect with my family this week about the wonderful person my father was. There are so many good things he taught me that I hope to share and pass along to my daughter. Above all, my dad was generous and kind. He always looked out for the little guy and helped people in need whenever he could. He worked hard for what we had and always encouraged me to complete every job to the best of my ability.

My dad taught me to love all kinds of music, from oldies to cowboy songs, and nurtured my musical abilities from a very early age. He also taught me to love reading (even though I never saw him do it much himself), and got me hooked on using computers as a young girl. An abundance of music, books, and technology gadgets certainly had a profound impact on who I am today, and for that, I am thankful.

Most importantly, my dad taught me to have a sense of humor and enjoy life to its fullest. He was a true kid at heart and a really funny guy, yet his jokes were often the silliest ones you've ever heard. He loved collecting toys and had lots of little trinkets in his office to play with. He always kept a great attitude, even when the cards didn't fall in his favor, and I rarely saw him get angry. He never doubted a risk I took, and often told me not to worry so much.

There are so many things I will miss about my dad, and it's the little things each day that remind me of him that will be the hardest to move beyond. I'm choosing to keep those little reminders close to my heart, though, and find comfort in knowing he will always be with me.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Family S.T.E.M. Night - Year 2

Last year I was given the task to plan a family STEM night for my school. I received lots of helpful feedback from students, parents, and teachers that helped me plan for this year's event. Planning started about a month prior to the event and stations were once again chosen for their level of engagement, simplicity, and variety. We had an amazing turn out for a busy Thursday night and the gym was packed the entire event! Here's what STEM Night Year 2 looked like:

The Activities


Students watched a chemical reaction between an acid (vinegar) and a base (baking soda) blow up a balloon! While this station was "hands off" (due to the potential messiness of this demonstration) students were still able to practice making verbal predictions, observations, and drawing conclusions. 

Tie-Dye Sharpie Art

Students created a small abstract art piece using Sharpie markers on a scrap of natural fabric. Teachers put a few drops of rubbing alcohol onto the fabric and students watched as the ink began to run together to create "tie-dye."

Magic Ketchup
Students discovered the secret of "Magic Ketchup" while exploring concepts of density and buoyancy. While this station was fairly simple and straightforward (only a bottle of water, kosher salt, and a ketchup packet were needed), students were fascinated that they could control the motion of their ketchup packet with just a simple squeeze of the water bottle. Note: this experiment is also called a Cartesian Diver.

ColAR App

Have you seen this app yet?! This was one of our most popular stations! I think parents were more impressed than the kids!

Marshmallow & Toothpick Towers

Families were challenged with the task of building a sturdy tower using only 30 marshmallows and 30 toothpicks in only 3 minutes.

Make a Parachute
Students learned how parachutes work and then were given materials to construct their own mini-version. Students had to make tough design choices (such as which type of material to use for the parachute) and experimented with adding weight to their pipe-cleaner person.

Angry Birds Farm Animals
Students begged for this station to return this year, so I had to oblige. I somehow managed to lose my two Angry Birds, though, so we used bean bag farm animals as a replacement (which proved to be just as effective in the sling-shots).

Guess My Number
Families used their keen questioning skills and knowledge of place value to guess their opponents mystery number. K-2 used a simple hundreds chart, while 3-5 worked up into the millions.

Walk the Line

Students completed a series of activities using self-created number lines (K-2's went to 100, and 3-5 went to 1,000). The best part? Students were able to take number lines home to use for homework and math games!

Coin Toss

Students practiced making tally marks and explored the concept of probability.

Fruit Snack Math
Who knew a single bag of fruit snacks could have so many math connections? Students completed at least three math activities ranging from simple addition and subtraction to graphing and fractions using their pack.

PK/Kinder Area

Our Pre-K and Kinder teachers wanted an area just for the little ones this year. These students made orange pumpkins by combining red and yellow paints, used straws and pipe cleaners to create sculptures, and used mini-pumpkins to measure basic objects.

Estimation Jars
We had two water bottles for each grade band (K-1, 2-3, 4-5) filled with yummy Halloween candies.

Family Resources 
We partnered this station up with our Watch D.O.G.S table. Teachers passed out free packs of playing cards and parents signed up for a print out of this math packet. My students love playing these games in class to build their math skills.

Lessons learned this year...

Ask for help - often. STEM night fell on another busy week this year. With so many obligations, I knew help from my colleagues was a must. I held a work party after school a few days before the event to tackle all the little things like making signs and cutting/counting out materials. I was also very thankful for the ten extra AmeriCorps volunteers that helped run stations during the event.

It still pays to be extra prepared. Having a one-sheet for each station that lists materials and talking points for facilitators was incredibly helpful. Not only did it help as I did my final checks the day before, these sheets allowed each station to essentially run themselves the night of our event without any confusion.

Variety is good, but kids like the hands-on messy stuff. I tried my best to have a variety of messy, clean, quiet, and loud stations. However, families seemed to overall gravitate to the more "exciting" stations - Magic Ketchup, Marshmallow Towers, Angry Birds, Make a Parachute, and the ColAR app. My goal for next year is to make the math stations more enticing.

Buckets and towels need to be written into the supply lists. I found myself running to fetch these items too many times throughout the night, reminding me that ease of clean-up is just as important as set-up.

Planning STEM Night has been such a fun opportunity for me these past two years. Thanks for letting me share the adventure with you. Year Three is already in the works and is looking to be even bigger and better. Get ready for more STEMmy fun!

Monday, October 7, 2013

Using Skype to Connect Close to Home

I've long touted the merits of using Skype in the classroom. It's an easy and cost-effective way for me to provide a variety of meaningful experiences for kids while having a lot of fun. Last year we were fortunate enough to connect with nearly 20 schools across the United States. However, it wasn't until a Mystery Skype call with a school only a mile away that I realized how powerful this tool could be for connecting teachers within my district.

Since then, I've been working with several colleagues from various elementary schools on projects that relate to our curriculum. It's been a wonderful experience to work with teachers from nearby schools and I feel that my students are more connected to their community.

I was recently interviewed by Skype's Social Good Blog on this project. You can read more about it here.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

21 Days

There's an old theory that if you do something for 21 days it becomes a habit. While I'm sure this is up for debate, I've been holding fast to this idea in the hopes of working on some professional goals and (in all honesty) breaking some bad habits.

At the beginning of the school year, I sat down and created a list of three wants for my classroom:

  1. An inviting space for students and teachers to learn and collaborate.
  2. Be more organized throughout my day.
  3. Maintain my online grade book so that it allows me to effectively plan instruction for my students and serves as a clear communication tool for parents.
My next step was the identify how I was going to get what I wanted in my classroom. For each want, I determined one or two little changes to implement throughout my day. Here's the breakdown: 

An inviting space for students and teachers to learn and collaborate.
I am the first to admit that learning can be messy, but I've really tried hard to enforce cleaning up as we go. Encouraging students to take one minute to put away materials and tidy up their spaces during transitions has saved us quite a bit of time at the end of the day. I even think that less clutter on the floors and tables throughout the day has helped students be more productive in their school work.

Be more organized throughout my day.
Whenever I have a lot going on it seems like my organizational skills are always the first to get pushed aside. I've developed several bad habits over the years, such as making piles of papers all over my room and not putting away materials at the end of the day because I'm tired. This year, I'm working to clean up my work spaces and leave lesson plans and materials for the next day near my computer. I've also experimented with ending my day by making a reasonable list of things to do in the morning. Not only do I feel better when I walk into my classroom in the morning, I know exactly what needs to get done. I'm almost embarrassed at how easy a change this is, and that I should have been doing this years ago. 

Maintain my online grade book so that it allows me to effectively plan instruction for my students and serves as a clear communication tool for parents.
While I've always maintained a grade book, paper or electronic, this year I'm really trying to be more intentional about what goes in and how often I update my grades. My district's new online grade book has all sorts of fancy bells and whistles that will allow me to deeply analyze my students' progress throughout the school year, but only if I put in quality assessments and information. Taking time during my prep period twice a week or so to enter grades and comments for parents (rather than the previous traditional "weekend grade-dump") has been extremely helpful in planning my small group instruction throughout the week and targeting kids for 1:1 conferencing on Fridays. 

Today marks the 21st day of school. While I can't confidently say that any of these are habits yet, I know I am making strides to be more effective in my instruction and efficient throughout my day. Baby steps.

Is there anything you're trying to change this school year?

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

For the Love of Multiage

Teaching in a multiage classroom is a challenging yet incredibly rewarding experience. This model definitely suits my teaching style and I greatly enjoy personalizing the curriculum and seeing older and younger students work together. I also love that I get to work with many of my students over the course of two years rather than the traditional one. Because of this, I've been able to develop some great relationships with kids and their families. 

Another great "side-effect" of a multiage classroom are the personal skills students learn when having to work with people of varying ages. Younger students learn to become an advocate for themselves, voice their thoughts and opinions, and take risks in their learning. Older students learn how to teach and listen thoughtfully, have patience, and appreciate each others' strengths and differences. Because most of our learning is done in small groups, students also naturally learn to become independent thinkers, problem solvers, and responsible community members.

A multiage classroom can really be a wonderful place, but it takes a lot of time and practice for the learning environment to get there - especially if most of the children have not experienced this type of classroom before. The beginning of the year always brings many frustrations and challenges to my students, new or returning. At first, younger students may feel intimidated by the older students, while older students may lack patience for their younger classmates' maturity and developmental abilities. Additionally, returning students may feel a pang of sadness for last year's friends that have moved on, while new students sometimes find it hard to navigate new routines and procedures. 

I've used a variety of strategies and activities to combat these challenges, and we work hard throughout the year to build a supportive learning environment. Daily classroom meetings, team building games, and honest dialogues with each other have helped all students acclimate to our classroom and feel successful working within a diverse community. It is important for me that the activities I choose help students build trust, deal with conflict, and allow them to commit to the group. It is also imperative that each student is held accountable for their words and actions and that we work together to achieve results for the good of the group. 

Over the past three weeks I've watched my new group of fifteen students interact with my eight from last year. I've seen older students take on more responsibility while younger students have become more confident in their abilities. It brings me joy to see young, old, new, and returning all working together and having fun. There are certainly moments of discord in our days, but we are ultimately still getting to know each other and learning what works for us as individuals and as a group. We must keep reminding ourselves that in order to get to where we want to go as learners, we must put in the time and effort to build that environment as a team. 

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Our Classroom Library

The classroom library is definitely the heart of our learning environment. Over the years I've accumulated nearly 2,000 books and have tried countless ways to organize and mange everything. Over the last few weeks I've been slowly tackling the library as I set up my classroom for the school year. It's an overwhelming process, but I always feel that it's time and energy well-spent to start the year organized and tidy.  While I'm definitely not as particular as some other teachers out there, here's a rundown of my classroom library:

The Books
Nearly all of my books were purchased or acquired second-hand. Yard sales and thrift stores are a great place to purchase gently used items. My new books usually come from Scholastic points or Powell's in Portland (I try to buy independent as much as possible). RAFT, a place for teachers in my hometown, has also been an incredible resource for boxes of free books. I honestly must thank my mother for her incredible yard sale skills and ability to track down free book opportunities for teachers (and willingness to ship them to me!).

Here's how they are all laid out, from one corner of the room to the other:

Most of my books are sorted into categories. Each category gets its own bin (or two or three), and each book within that category gets a corresponding small label on the back.  Non-fiction books are sorted by subject and most of the fiction books are categorized by theme, author, series, or genre. There are two exceptions: first, I separate all fiction picture books from chapter books; second, I separate series books from general fiction chapter books. I find that this makes it easier for students to find what they are looking for, and saves me a lot of time in the process. My fiction chapter books are also loosely alphabetized by author's last name (A-C, D-G). No matter how many mini-lessons or special helpers I have, trying to keep the books strictly alphabetized is losing battle. I'm much happier having things mostly where they are supposed to be rather than agonizing over small things.

Labels help the books stay organized!

Book Bags
I use these nifty little travel bags my mom picked up at RAFT. Despite a little wear and tear, they are still holding up after four years. IKEA magazine boxes also work really well.

The green bags hanging from the chairs make the perfect little book bags!
(excuse the mess on the floor - I think we made snowflakes that day)

In the last eight years I've only required kids to check out books if they're taking them home. This worked perfectly up until last year, when I noticed that kids started hoarding books in their book bags. A lot of books ended up getting squished and damaged, so limits need to be set this year. I'm still not sure what this might look like, but it needs to be easy and low-maintenance.

Reading Logs
Confession time: I hate reading logs. Students hate updating them, and I hate nagging students to update them. My solution? Book chains! As students finish a book they fill out a link that gets added to a personal book chain that hangs proudly from the ceiling. This also secretly lets me see quickly what kids are reading and who may be having trouble finishing books.
Book chains decorate our ceiling and make the room festive

There you have it - my classroom library! Hope you enjoyed the tour. :) Feel free to leave tips/tricks and what works best for you in your classroom library in the comments. 

Monday, August 12, 2013

Down to the Bare Bones

My house is almost 100 years old and full of character. There are many things I love about this space - the finished attic, our deck overlooking our backyard, the old built-in shelves throughout the dining room. However, there are some parts of this old place that just don't fit a modern lifestyle. One such space is our main bathroom. The 1900s clawfoot tub is a chore to use as our main shower, nor is it long enough for my husband or I to enjoy. In addition, the sink, lights, and electrical system all need upgrading. As children become a factor in the household, these safety issues have prompted some remodeling.

At the same time, I've also been trying to get back into school mode. I've been busy setting up my classroom and planning for the academic year. While I'm envisioning a new set of students working in the classroom space, I can't help but see some overlap with our bathroom remodel. Last week, our contractor demolished the entire bathroom down to its bare bones, stripping away cracked walls, three layers of flooring, and discovering water damage to a majority of the subfloor. Listening to the walls come down and the floor being ripped up reminded me of my students.

Kids come to school with lots of layers, and we often don't know how many there might be until we start stripping them away. There could also be damage unseen from the surface that could greatly affect performance and functionality of the student within the classroom. Getting to know a student down to his or her core takes time and careful attention to detail. It may also take special tools and require creative solutions. But doing so allows teachers to intentionally personalize lessons with that child's strengths and needs in mind. The end result is a functional, stress-free, and safe environment for everyone, which is exactly my hopes for my new bathroom.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

July Reads

After the hubbub of June and the reality that I'm delivering professional development most of August, I realized that July was my month to relax and do absolutely nothing. I've taken a break from social media (mostly) and have been focused on resting, reading, and spending time with my family. Here's a rundown of what I've read in July.


Wednesday, July 10, 2013

One Year Later

I've had this blog for a year now. In trying to get my thoughts down for this post, I keep thinking back to where I was one year ago. Having this space has surely made me more reflective and confident, and I've grown as as a result. Here's a quick rundown of the lessons a year of blogging has taught me:

-Pursue your passions

-Take risks

-Be curious

-Make your mark


-Appreciate your talents

-Choose kind

-Choose the cone

-Fail big

-Say no every once in a while

-Above all else, always stick with your buddy.

I started Classroom Quests not really knowing what would become of this space, and I admit that I'm still am trying to figure it out. But I like it. And I think I'll keep at it.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, June 28, 2013


June has been a whirlwind month full of wonderful and exciting experiences. Most notable have been my trips to Hilton Head, SC and San Antonio, TX for the NMC and ISTE conferences. While both are very different educational technology conferences, I often found myself reflecting on the following three themes:
  • It's not about the technology, it's about the relationships with students and colleagues.
  • Use the technology tools to personalize, support, and enhance learning experiences.
  • Flatten classroom walls and expand networks to provide students with more global opportunities.
Since I'm still technically "on vacation" in Austin, here are some quick highlights from both trips:

K-12 Ambassadors
While I've only met a few of the Ambassadors in my travels, I do know that they have all been great people, we've had inspiring conversations, and have made lifelong connections.

Troy, Lisa, David, Jonathan, Holly, me, Sue
photo courtesy of Laurie Burress

While at NMC I sat down and struck up a conversation with another attendee. The more we talked, the more I learned about his work (and the more it sounded familiar...). Turns out, I was chatting with Reuben Puentedura, developer of the SAMR model, himself! 

Steps to EdTech Transformation

2013 Horizon Report
This is an amazing time to be an educator. The NMC's Horizon Report is a great way to stay on top of emerging trends and get a sense for what's coming down the pike. Download your copy here. 

Jane McGonical
I'm not a gamer, but I love the idea of using gaming techniques in the classroom. I loved Jane's opening keynote and the connections she made with the audience. 

What do you get when six educators from around the US and Canada get together for (almost) monthly Google Hangouts? Eduparty! Hanging out with these ladies was absolutely a joy, and I've appreciated their support and friendship for the last six months. It's just too bad Ann and Celina could't be with us. 
Joan, Krissy, me, Karen
photo courtesy of Krissy Venosdale

Meeting Peter Reynolds
Starstruck! So great to meet this wonderful author. I can't wait for Dot Day '13!
I met Peter Reynolds!
This is going to make me a rockstar in the eyes of my students.

Adam Bellow
Inspiring doesn't even begin to describe Adam Bellow's closing keynote at ISTE. Wow!

Big Plans
Having a friend from my district at ISTE has been essential the past three years. Jake and I first joined forces in Philadelphia (ISTE '11) and have been co-conspirators since. We had a blast attending sessions, exploring vendor booths, and hatching new plans for our district at this ISTE conference.

Having a buddy always helps. Can you tell we were both left a little teary from Adam Bellow?

I got my start teaching in Texas, and it sure has been fun to return for the ISTE conference. I've been remembering the difficult experiences that made me a better educator, my mentors who helped me navigate my first years in the classroom, and reflecting on the choices I've made along my path. 

Now that this busy month is coming to an end, I can finally relax and enjoy summer break guilty pleasures and get to work planning a new school year!

Friday, June 7, 2013

Flipping Failure

I was incredibly honored to receive the first ever Henderson Prize from the New Media Consortium for my talk on using failure as a learning model. My talk is in response to one of the NMC's identified "wicked problems" in education. I encourage you to watch the other K-12 Ambassador videos for more inspiration. It was a privilege to share the stage with such brilliant minds this week, and I truly enjoyed collaborating with them at the summer conference. I hope our paths cross again soon!

Enjoy :)

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

NMC Summer Conference: Pre-Conference

This week I'll be blogging and tweeting from the New Media Consortium summer conference in beautiful Hilton Head, SC. I feel very fortunate to attend this conference as a NMC K12 Ambassador. I am especially thankful to the people that allowed me to make such a long-distance trip two weeks before school is out.

Since this is my first time at the NMC summer conference, here are the Top 5 things I'm looking forward to this week:

1. K-12 Ambassador Forum
Five K-12 Ambassadors will present solutions to the NMC's "wicked problems" in a 10-minute TED-style format. In speaking with the other Ambassadors today, I expect we will all be coming at these problems from very different and diverse perspectives.

2. Karen Cator's keynote
I'm really looking forward to hearing from such an influential and innovative leader in educational technology. What a treat!

3. HP Horizon Project Card Game
This card game looks like a really fun way to meet new people and spark conversation within a group.

4. Idea Lab
Great ideas can form when you get the right people at the right place at the right time. The Idea Lab looks like it will be a place chock-full of great energy and creativity.

5. 20th Anniversary Beach Party
This event promises to be another fun get-together for conference participants. Simply thinking about the advancements in technology over the last 20 years makes my brain spin. What a wonderful opportunity to come together as an organization and look towards the future by reflecting on the past.

Want to know more about this amazing conference? Follow along remotely:

Twitter/Vine: #NMC13

Friday, May 31, 2013

Skype Read Aloud With Bree Turner

Skype has been my absolute favorite classroom tool this year. With 50,000 teachers strong, it's no secret that educators love using Skype. This year, Skype has connected my students with several authors, experts, and dozens of classrooms from around the globe. We've shared favorite books, trivia, and many funny stories about our classroom with our new friends.  These connections have deeply impacted my students' learning and have provided them (and me!) with some really cool and unforgettable memories. Because of Skype, my students have become more curious about the world and see the value in connecting and learning with others beyond our classroom walls.

Last week, we had a fantastic opportunity to participate in the Skype Read Aloud program. Actress Bree Turner read to us Maurice Sendak's classic Where the Wild Things Are. This is a well-loved book in our classroom library, and we were very happy to hear it read by a professional. My students were absolutely enthralled during our call, and they loved how expressive Bree was in her reading.

Listening to Bree read.

After the read aloud was finished, we had some time to chat with Bree. We learned about her life as an actress and how she got into the business. Students enjoyed hearing about her early career as a dancer and her journey into film and television. Bree talked a little about her character on Grimm and what she likes most about being an actress. She also talked with my students about having brothers, being a mom, and her many travels abroad. My girls were especially jealous of her dinner at the Eiffel Tower! Finally, we learned a few fun facts: her favorite books as a child were Amelia Bedelia and The Egypt Game, her father was a professional football player, and she collects cuckoo clocks! Bree finished off the call by giving my students some great advice to keep reading and work hard for their dreams.

Thank you, Bree, for taking the time out of your day to read and talk with my students. You were incredibly sincere and I appreciate how you honored and validated their questions and comments. My students felt as if they had actually met you, and it was clear to them that you cared about their education. That's pretty awesome. 

Many thanks to Skype for connecting us with Bree, as well as for providing every student with a copy of Where the Wild Things Are, and upgrading our old webcam to a fancy new Logitech HD camera! This new technology will allow us to see our new friends much more clearly and let us continue connecting with others for many years to come! These kind gestures have truly impacted my students and my classroom. Thank you from the bottom of my heart, Skype!

Sunday, May 19, 2013

EdCamp PSWA Recap

Back in the fall, I helped organize the first EdCamp Seattle. We had so much fun we decided to do it again, but this time as EdCamp Puget Sound!

Our second event was another incredible day of connecting and learning. I was most impressed by the variety of educators that attended. People trekked from all parts of the Puget Sound region, some coming from as far away as Oregon and British Columbia! Our crew also included pre-service teachers, k-12 educators (public and independent schools), teacher-librarians, instructional coaches, college professors, and app developers. The wide range of experiences offered multiple and unique perspectives throughout the event.

We started off the day in a ball pit:

(we used colored whiffle balls instead)

And then it was time to assemble the board:


The rest of my day consisted of helping people get set up on Twitter, learning about motivation, and facilitating a discussion devoted to the New Media Consortium's "Wicked Problems" (more on this in a few weeks). The day ended with a fun smackdown and raffle where everyone walked away a winner!

As an added bonus, I also got to meet my Twitter friend, Karen, face to face! She is an amazing educator and friend. Karen definitely knows her stuff and is someone I continually strive to be. Her enthusiasm is contagious and it was such a wonderful treat to spend time with her.

To get a more detailed account of the incredible amounts of learning that went down, you can read yesterday's Storify.

Despite being physically exhausted from the day, I came home feeling energized from new connections and inspired to keep going these last few weeks of the school year. There are a lot of people doing really cool things in the Puget Sound region, and I'm glad I got to connect with them. Amazing things can happen when passionate and positive people band together and lead the way. I am truly thankful to be a part of the EdCamp movement. 

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Earth Day '13

Earth Day is my favorite holiday to celebrate with students. Helping the earth and celebrating its beauty is definitely an occasion we can all get behind. Not to mention, it's always a fun getting out of the classroom and doing something different for a change. Here are some of the ways we commemorated Earth Day '13:

Native Species QR Codes

After interviewing the Green Team Advisor, my after school TECH Club students researched and wrote short paragraphs about a few of the native plant species found in the 'forest' on our campus. Students are in the process of turning their writing into QR codes to be laminated and placed on stakes near the plant. After that, their plan is to create a scavenger hunt lesson plan of sorts for other classes to enjoy utilizing our school's iPad mobile lab. Some of the plants they researched include: salal, douglas fir, indian plum, Oregon grape, and rhododendron.

Measurement in the Garden

Teaching a multi-age classroom can sometimes pose problems when it comes to math standards. Our school's community garden was a great place to spend an afternoon while easily differentiating instruction for each student. Before heading out, we brainstormed as a class all the things that we could measure. We created separate categories for length, weight, temperature, and capacity and discussed how possible tasks related to specific standards. Students individually chose 2-3 tasks that would help them practice a skill, and off we went! Students worked together to find the perimeter of different garden beds, the average number of rocks a cup can hold, the lengths of flower stems and blades of grass, the weight of small garden tools, and the temperature of the soil (among other things). During this time I was able to confer with each child, assess measurement skills in context, and provide further instruction as needed. 

Dirt Cakes

This activity is an Earth Day staple. Earth Day happens to also be my birthday (or B'Earthday, as I like to call it) and this is my way to celebrate with my little friends. I have students make a simplified version of the traditional cake my mom always made me using Oreo cookies, pudding, and gummy worms. I make sure to work in multiplication, division, elapsed time, fractions, and measurement skills, too. This activity also emphasizes the importance of reading and following directions, as well as accuracy and teamwork. This year, a few groups also made blue ocean Jell-O with gummy fish for an added treat.

What did your classroom or school do to celebrate Earth Day? I'd love to add to this collection of fun activities for next year! 

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Connect. Reflect. Self-Respect.

I love my PLN, but social media can be tricky. To help me make sense of the overwhelming amount of resources, promote positive interactions within my networks, and stay true to myself, I've established three ground rules for using social media: connect, reflect, and self-respect.

Using social media (especially Twitter) feels a little like going to the playground by myself when I was a kid. It always took a lot of courage for me to go up to someone new and say hi, but once I did it was usually a lot of fun. It's not always easy to tell someone you've never met that you think they are doing great things or that they have greatly influenced your work, but it's up to us to promote creativity and innovation in our field. The more educators recognize each others' achievements, the more we will advance our profession. The same goes for conferences and meet-ups. A simple smile, hello, and genuine compliment can go a long way. Plus, you never know what might happen as a result.

There are a lot of people doing all sorts of cool things around the world. Before jumping all in to something new, I like to reflect on how I can make it work for me. I am lucky to have a lot of time naturally built into my days where I can think. Some of my best ideas for projects have come from zoning out during an early morning run, daydreaming during my commute, or browsing my Reader feed during evening down time. I also find that it is important to get my thoughts down in a safe place. While I love sticky notes, they usually just get lost. Google Drive and Evernote are my favorite tools for capturing my thoughts because I can access them anywhere and my notes are easy to share with others.

This last one is important, but often forgotten. We are not perfect people, nor are we superhuman. Let's stop beating ourselves up because we think we aren't enough. Because we are. When we start to count someone else's blessings, we begin to lose sight of our own individual path. Good things happen when we realize we have things to offer. Even greater things happen when we start to offer them to others.

I found that these three rules greatly overlap and depend on one another. Remembering to connect, reflect, and self-respect provides me with just the right perspective to make positive contributions to my PLN without compromising myself or getting overwhelmed.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Preserving Family Culture With QR Codes

For the past three years, third grade students at my school have been recording beloved family stories for our annual culture fair. This project was inspired by NPR's Story Corps and weaves together many reading, writing, and social studies state standards. Students are encouraged to talk with family members about their history and culture. After writing down their stories or memories, students step into our "recording booth" and record themselves reading. 

My partner and I have "displayed" the recordings in many different ways over the years. This year's audio QR codes were an absolute hit with both parents and students. It was like our own little living-museum among a sea of poster boards. 

Here's how we did it:

  1. Students used the iTalk app to record their stories and uploaded them to a shared Dropbox folder.
  2. The .aiff files were converted to .mp3s in iTunes.
  3. A Dropbox link for each student's file was placed in a Google spreadsheet template to create QR codes (thank you, Tammy Worcester). 
  4. QR codes were resized, printed, and placed next to a picture of the student along with a self-created bio.

This years' stories included:
  • family vacations to the Pacific Ocean, Mexico, and Kenya (to name a few).
  • a grandma who went to middle school with Michael Jackson.
  • a mischievous brother's hijinks involving diaper rash medicine and baby powder.
  • memories of important historic events (a relative involved with the Underground Railroad, memories of the Mt. St. Helen's eruption)
  • stories about how parents and grandparents immigrated to the United States. 
  • favorite holiday traditions, such as making tamales or attending attending special church services.
During the event, parents and kids used their mobile devices (or one of the school's iPads) to listen to the recordings. We always have a lot of fun with this project, and it is a great way to preserve history, involve parents, learn something new about our classmates, and bring our community together. 

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Author Skype With Ellis Weiner

The story goes like this:

Teacher goes to library. Teacher immediately falls in love with a new book. Teacher abandons current classroom read aloud for said new book. Students fall in love with the new book, too. Teacher has to  buy several copies for students. Teacher has a sneaky idea. Author plays along.

That's the short version of how we got to Skype with Ellis Weiner, author of The Templeton Twins Have an Idea. 

But seriously. Have you heard of this book? My students and I have been obsessing over it for the past few weeks. The Templeton Twins Have an Idea has everything you'd want in a new middle-grade series. It's clever. It's silly. It has a recipe for meatloaf! My students love The Narrator's snarky voice, the crazy inventions created by Professor Templeton, and the Twins' ability to outwit the evil Dean brothers. I love the unconventional-ness of this book (it has three prologues and cheeky 'Questions for Review' at the end of each chapter), the random puzzles and witty references sprinkled throughout, and how it was able to completely captivate twenty-five young people within the first page and sustain their interest to the very end. We also used this book to practice inferring (among many reading skills); analyze how the author's voice and word choice affects the story; and discuss concepts of energy, force and motion. If you're looking for an intelligent and fast-paced book with a definite "nooooooo!" factor (as in, "nooooooopleasedon'tstopreading!"), this is it. 

After a few sneaky emails to Ellis Weiner (unbeknownst to my students), we were in business for an author Skype a few days after we were scheduled to finish up his book. I broke the news upon reading the last chapter and you would have thought I had just announced Taylor Swift or Justin Beiber was coming to play a secret show in our classroom. That's how big of a deal this book was to my students. 

During our Skype session we asked all sorts of questions:
  • What inspired you to create the Templeton Twins?
  • Did you always want to be an author?
  • What are your  hobbies?
  • Did you ever have a ridiculous dog?
  • What was your life like as a kid?
  • What's your writing process like?
  • How has technology changed the way you write?
  • Have you ever been to Seattle?
  • Are you more of a sports person or a video games person?
  • If you won a million dollars, what would you spend it on?
  • Do you have any friends that are author's, too?
  • How'd you get so funny?
  • What advice would you give kids today?
My students even had the fun idea to prepare three 'Questions for Review' à la The Narrator to end our call. We had a lot of fun trying to emulate his style. 

Ellis Weiner talking with my students about the
 upcoming second book of the Templeton Twins series. 
Thank you, again, Ellis, for taking the time to talk with us and for writing such an engaging, witty, and hilarious book. The call was definitely the highlight of our week, and we are most certainly Templeton Twins fans for life!  

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Third Graders in Battle

If you walked past my classroom at 2:55 yesterday afternoon, you would have seen students crying and hugging each other. You would have seen ripped up pieces of scrap paper being thrown up in the air and 25 children jumping up and down like little bits of popcorn popping. You would have heard screams and shouts and high-five slaps. There were fist-pumps, yes!'s, way-to-go's, and even a spontaneous rendition of Kool and the Gang's Celebration. 

And it would have seemed like total chaos. But it wasn't.

For the first time in the history of our school, third graders placed at the annual Battle of the Books. Twice. In complete underdog fashion, two teams from my classroom took first and third place. While I don't put too much emphasis on Battle of the Books, this was our game plan from the first day of school:

Love of Reading + The Right Attitude + Collaboration = Success!

Leftover sign from our Battle of the Books (BOB) Competition
First, Battle books are notoriously hard for my third graders to read. I chose to read two of the sixteen aloud to the class (The Strange Case of Origami Yoda and The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: The Mysterious Howling), but that was it. The rest they read on their own because they were just plain good books and they love to read.

Second, we went into Battle with the attitude that a win for one third-grade team was a win for all third grade teams. The phrase "better together" became a daily mantra. Students agreed that no matter what team they were on for the event, in our classroom they were one team, united.

Third, we had to work hard. Sure, having the right attitude naturally fostered collaboration among the group, but students quickly realized they had to put in the time to practice. I helped by setting up an Edmodo group and a Google Spreadsheet. They took over from there. Students created quiz questions for each other, compiled important book information, and generally spent a lot of time just talking about the books - both in person and online. When one student didn't understand or was confused, another was there to help them comprehend. They began to show patience and trust each other's expertise. They began to really listen and learn from one another as a result of the process. This was a major breakthrough for a group of very independent, competitive, and strong-willed kids.

Seeing the joy and excitement yesterday afternoon was a great reminder of why I'm in this profession, despite all the hardships that led up to the event. It's about the process and love of learning. It's about the joy of collaborating with others. It's about celebrating successes - those that can be seen and those that can't. I hope my students never forget that feeling of 2:55 yesterday afternoon. I know I won't.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Mystery Skype

Mystery Skype has been an incredible teaching tool for me this year. My students love it because it challenges them and allows them to connect with other kids around the world. I love it because it is a fast-paced and rigorous adventure across the globe! But, Mystery Skype is more than just a fun game - it's a learning experience that lets my students practice and apply a great deal of academic and social skills in a short amount of time. There are many of fantastic blog posts circulating the internet about Mystery Skype (here and here and here), but I wanted to chime in on how we've made it work for us and made it our own.

Start With the "Why"

Last week I armed a group of students with sticky notes and asked them to brainstorm all the skills they learned and used in participating in a Mystery Skype. I think this chart speaks for itself:

Look at all that learning!


Spokespeople (3-4) - these students are the face of our classroom. They ask and answer questions and talk with the kids on the other side.

Atlas Masters (4-5) - these students use atlases to narrow in on the location. They use various types of maps to determine possible regions and landmarks.

Narrowing down the regions

Google Mappers (4-5) - these students use Google Maps to narrow in on the location. They are very helpful in locating cities our atlases might not list.

Working together to find the city

Clue Keepers (2) - these students record the questions and answers on our easel to help the questioners.

Keeping track of clues helps everyone stay focused.

Questioners (4-5) - these students synthesize the information given to us from our clues and determine the next questions we will ask. They sit between the Spokespeople, Atlas Masters and Google Mappers for easy access.

Possible next question?

First Responders (2) - these students are the problem solvers. They help re-engage students who might be off task, solve technical issues, provide voice level reminders, etc.

Recorders (2) - these students take photos and videos of our Mystery Skype experience.

The recorder captures another recorder - how meta :)

How We Extend the Learning Experience

Graphing - after each call, students add the new location their bar graph of regions and write a few statements on the updated data.

Estimation & Distances Traveled - we note the distance of each school in relation to ours on a big map in our classroom. This information helps students make educated guesses when the time comes to add a new label. Once added, we calculate the round trip or find out how much farther away or closer another location was.

Compare & Contrast - one of our our favorite activities is to "fly" to our mystery location's school on Google Earth and compare physical landmarks and school characteristics. We also take a few minutes to compare time zones, temperature, and city data.

Questions - sometimes our post-call conversations inspire us to find out more about that location. For example, we recently connected with a classroom from Danvers, MA (the site of the Salem Witch Trials). Many of my students were not yet aware of this time in American history, and our call sparked many great discussions that carried us through the rest of the day. Another call to Canada also triggered questions about forms of measurement, language, and the differences between a "state" and a "province." Letting students ask questions allows them to process the experience and encourages them to find out more.

States & Provinces we've "been" (as of early March '13)

  • Arizona
  • Florida
  • Illinois
  • Iowa
  • Indiana
  • Kansas
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Missouri
  • Nebraska
  • Ontario, Canada
  • Texas

If you're new to Mystery Skype and would like to know more or you're a seasoned Skyper and would like to connect with us, please let me know. You can also follow the conversation on Twitter (#mysteryskype) or at Skype in the Classroom.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

NMCk12 Ambassadors

Remember this post?

Well, I was selected to be a New Media Consortium K-12 Ambassador. Here's the official press release for posterity.

To be honest, I feel like I've joined the Justice League and won Miss America all at the same time!


Being a part of this incredible group of crazy-talented individuals is truly a dream come true. Working together, we can amplify our voices to reach a broader global community, utilize our individual strengths to foster meaningful change, and build upon our crazy ideas to help combat wicked problems facing our educational system and prepare our students for an unknown future.

This journey will no doubt be challenging, but I know that the NMC is full of my people. I have no doubts it will provide me with countless opportunities to learn, connect with others, and stretch my thinking in ways I never thought possible. Many thanks to my family, friends, and Twitter PLN who not only helped me realize this goal but have supported me in ways I cannot even comprehend. I am so grateful for this opportunity to make my mark on the world and I can't wait to see where it takes me.