Thursday, December 8, 2016

Getting our Hands on Nature

Emma Marris's recent TED Summit talk has me dipping back into Richard Louv's The Last Child in the Woods. I remember reading and connecting with Richard Louv as part of my summer institute experience with the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project. His book, asking how we can foster our future environmental stewards, remains vivid for me. Examples shared in his book of running through the woods as youngsters, imagination hand-in-hand with a do-it-yourself creativity, creating forts and capturing frogs, perfectly capture my childhood.

Back in June, I had the good fortunate of sitting just nine rows from the front of the stage to see Emma Marris share her talk in Banff, Alberta, at the TED Summit. I scribbled furiously in my notebook as she presented.  And there was this moment toward the close of her speech in which she mentioned the wild space growing on an abandoned rail trestle above the streets of north Philadelphia when it all clicked together.

I know this space.  I have driven by it without thinking of it many times.  You can see it when you are riding the Media - West Trenton train (although I still think of it as the R3 line). What Marris highlighted in her speech was the juxtaposition of all the life found in this abandoned space as compared to the concrete school playground that abuts the trestle.  And this got me thinking about my own students in rural mid-Michigan.

My students have a different awareness of nature compared to those students I taught in the suburbs of Philadelphia.  And yet, it is not quite as different as you might imagine.  Yes, the winters here are much more harsh.  My Michigan students are quite used to temperatures that dip below freezing and wind gusts that make it nearly impossible to see the road as a result of drifting snow.  Some of my students live on farms. In fact, there is a small farm on the campus of my school.  Students learn to cut the hooves of their goats, care for piglets, and even castrate the animals.  Many of my students are hunters or have family members that are. A good number of my students, boys and girls, know how to field dress a deer.  Teaching in the suburbs of Philadelphia for thirteen years, I know that I can count on one hand the number of students that had even heard of the term "field-dress".

But here's the thing. When I started my second unit with my current tenth grade students just a few weeks back, a unit focused on our relationship to nature, very few of my students reported spending a regular amount of time in nature on a weekly basis.  I asked students to think about how much time each week they spent in nature.  The response was overwhelmingly, "Each week? I'm not in nature each week."  But here's the thing. They are.  For as much time as my students report spending on homework, sports, video games, binge watching Netflix, they are also outside.  They are hunting on the weekends, waiting for the bus, practicing on the soccer field, running each afternoon on the country roads near their home.  My students defined spending time in nature as time that a person went hiking or visited the state recreational area near our school.  Nature was something that a person went to visit, not something found in our backyards. And my guess is that this is also true for how my previous students in the Philadelphia area would define nature.

This is the point that Emma Marris made in her TED Talk!

So as we started our second unit of study, we needed to get hands on with the nature around us.  And that started with a number of trips outside.  We walked through the milkweed meadow across from our school.  We played with the goats in the barn. We grabbed our writer's notebooks and went outside, exploring the impact our school structures made on the local environment.  Rather than focusing on dissecting the literary elements of the texts included in our unit's study, we opted to use our readings as mentor texts meant to help us explore our driving question: what is a local environmental issue that I can address? We turned our unit on the nature around us into a project-based learning opportunity that culminated in authentic research and local action.

It's research week for us, and we've been getting hands on with our research!  On Wednesday, our tenth graders used a Google Hangout to learn from Ms. Ondrea Spychalski, the Water Projects Coordinator at the West Michigan Environmental Action Council. Then on Thursday, we used a Hangout to learn from Ms. Emma Marris (check out the videos below). Students also interviewed staff and volunteers at Ionia's animal shelter on Thursday as they volunteered their time. On Friday, we have a crew of students cleaning the vacant lot in town across from our McDonalds, teaching Rather Elementary students about trees and bees, and we have a group canvasing local businesses about their recycling habits. We are learning hands-on!

Connecting with Ms. Ondrea Spychalski from the West Michigan Environmental Action Council

Connecting with Emma Marris

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Mentoring Failure

I love these conference connections!

I am presenting at the Michigan Google Summit today at Lake Fenton High School on both teaching with TED-Ed and a session on mentoring passion.  I love the conversations that stem from my presentation on the work Christy Brennan and I did on our mentoring passion project, bringing together students of differing grade levels to share their inquiry experiences with one another.  In fact, I was hoping to scale this into a much larger project by putting together an online space to connect various teachers, students, and experts engaging in similar passion-driven inquiry projects across the country.  It was to be my TED-Ed Innovative Project.

But I failed.

Sharing my Mentoring Passion project with TED-Ed Innovative educators in June
I love this presentation, but so much of it is still in process.  It is not a finished project.  I am still reflecting on the role student ownership plays in the inquiry process. As I was presenting today, I revealed some of my pitfalls with my passion-driven inquiry projects and where I was still struggling. I need more time to reflect on where I am stepping into the student inquiry process.  I still spend too much time hunting down expert connections for my students, instead of facilitating opportunities to define and find those experts themselves. And as I shared, a conversation emerged that has me thinking more deeply about changes I want to make in the coming months to our inquiry projects.

Here is what I have learned: I need to open up more space in my classroom for students to talk about their failures. So much time is spent honoring the successes, the students who have done everything we have asked and have come to the conclusions that we expected them to have.  But what are they really learning?  Instead, I need to open up time and space for my students to share their struggles, like I did today, because the conversations that emerged from my admission of failure has moved me forward in my planning and thinking in important ways.  Imagine the power of those types of moments in our classroom.  Instead of teaching students to jump through hoops, we should be mentoring students on how to recover from initial failure.  This is a critical step in innovation. If we want to grow innovation in our classroom, we must open up spaces for failure.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Practicing Poetry

Flickr image the from TED Conference
I was fortunate to be able to attend both Eric Johnson's and Sarah Kay's poetry workshops at the TED Summit in Banff a couple of weeks ago. Both workshops invited participants to delved into the performance aspect of poetry, and for those of us in the classroom setting, consider how we might bring these lessons back to our students. I walked away from both sessions not only with a notebook filled of excited, albeit nearly illegible, reminders of the exercises both presenters lead us through, but I also left with a few drafts of new poems.

High school English teacher Andrew Simmons wrote about the importance of bringing poetry into the classroom in an article published not long ago by The Atlantic:
"Reading original poetry aloud in class can foster trust and empathy in the classroom community, while also emphasizing speaking and listening skills that are often neglected in high school literature classes."
I couldn't agree more. Bringing perfomance poetry into the classroom, whether via YouTube channels like Button Poetry or through live performances, can help student voice and choice take center stage in our learning communities. Poetry builds bridges; it helps readers and writers to connect and empathize with the particular experiences that connect all of us. Poetry brings into focus our humanity.  So here are ideas I learned while attending the TED Summit workshops to help bring performance poetry into your classroom.

Erik Johnson's session began with Willie Perdomo's poem titled "Where I Live." Erik asked workshop participants to listen for the sensory details the words and phrases of the poem evoked. Using this poem as a mentor text, we then were asked to imagine our homes and make a list of what a person would see, smell, taste, hear, and feel.  I could easily picture this exercise being used in conjunction with George Ella Lyon's "Where I'm From" poem. In a similar way that I've used Lyon's poem, we created a list of concrete images and details which we then crafted into a poem, sharing our favorite lines aloud. The idea Erik presented was about giveing students mentors for their potential slam pieces and deconstructing those models into smaller chunks in order to give the novice poetry performer a place to begin.

Sarah Kay's poetry masterclass workshop also focused on the inclusion of sensory and figurative details in the craft of poetry performance. She started her workshop by inviting participants into a safe-space, asking that we refrain from engaging with social medial during the session in order to focus our attention on the stories unfolding in the room. Our writing began with a prompt which had us creating a list. Why a list? Well, most people don't spend hours each day crafting poems, especially poems for performance. It can be an overwhelming task to ask of students, or in our case, a crowded room of adults. But a list, a list is something we all know how to do. We don't need instructions on how to create a list.

We listed out three things we knew to be true, an activity she used to craft the piece she perfomed for her 2011 TED Talk titled "If I Should Have a Daughter." As we created our lists, Sarah asked us to be as literal as possible, adding in concrete details to help listeners understand the particulars of our truths. Here are mine:
  1. I know that teaching without heart is not teaching at all.
  2. I know that homemade pickles taste better than any pickle you will ever find on a store shelf, especially if the cucumbers are homegrown.
  3. I know there is forgiveness in gardening.
After sharing our favorite truths, Sarah walked us through why this type of list works so well as a starting point for poetry. Lists, whether they are about three things we know to be true or 10 things I should have learned by now, help us access and illuminate all that stuff that is just floating around in our brains. It is being able to toss a baited hook into our conscience and come back with potential writing ideas. Without that starting point, we're standing on the shore and simply hoping an idea will jump out at us. Writing rarely works like this.  A list gives writers a starting point.

So, you've got a list, but now what? Sarah lead us through a discussion and activity meant to elicit more sensory details in our writing.  It is those details and particulars that help readers connect to our writing.  This time we started with an abstract concept - regret. Sarah explained that regret, as a concept, can mean so many different things to different people.  Instead, she challenged us to think about what regret looks like, sounds like, tastes like.  Participants came up with such powerful metaphors to define regret. Regret looks like a trash can filled with crumpled notebook paper. Regret stutters, trying to grasp for words you should have known in the first place. Regret tastes like bitter chocolate. Challenging us to use more sensory details helped reveal a more particular and descriptive experience of an abstract idea. This same exercise could be used with any of those lofty ideals that emerging writers struggle to make sense of - justice, hate, love, sorrow.

After completing this exercise, Sarah had us dip back into our original list and select one truth to add sensory details to. I returned to my homemade pickles. As we added sensory details to capture what we knew to be true, Sarah paused to challenge us again, this time to try to include figurative language as well. How might our descriptions and metaphors do double duty? As I wrote about planting cucumber plants with my youngest son, I challenged myself to describe small moments in novel ways. Sarah asked us to picture a single moment. For me, it was the dirt collected under my son's small fingernails.  And that one moment is where I think my new poem will start:
The smell of earth collects under small fingernails, changing waning moons to full eclipses.
But Sarah's workshop didn't just include writing poetry. We also spent time talking about the art of perfomance. How do you get students comfortable performing their original work for others. This is not a simple task. In fact, the fifty or so of us gathered in Sarah's workshop all tightened our shoulders a little bit when she introduced that we would be standing to share our work.  However, what made it easier was the fact that we started with an improv game. Performance, Sarah stated, is anxiety-producting, but it should also be fun. These two feelings aren't mutally exclusive.  So we pushed our tables to the side of the room and stood in a large circle. She asked us to pick our favorite word from our writing.  Standing in a circle, we were to make eye contact with someone across the room, and at the same time as all other participants, we said our word to the other person. Then we all shouted our word at the same time. Gradually we added movement to showcase our word and send it across the circle. Because we were all shouting and moving at the same time, people in the group didn't feel nervous. It was a game; it was fun. Finally, we went around the circle and one by one shouted and acted out our word.  The catch was that after each person said their word, all other workshop participants had to do the same movement and say the word with the same intonation. However awkward we might have felt, all the other participants had to act it out as well.  And by starting our performance in this manner, we were able to talk about using our voices and body to impart meaning in a playful way.

I am grateful to both Erik and Sarah for sharing their expertise. I'm looking forward to bringing these ideas back to my high school English classroom in the fall.  I'm curious about how other teachers incorporate performance poetry into their curriculums. Please share your ideas and resouces!

Friday, July 1, 2016

Finding Time

I'll admit it. I'm guilty.

I'm a chronic over-planner.

Each class period starts with our opening routines and check-in, review of previous learning, daily lesson activity, and a launch to close the class period. I rely on routines to help my students move efficiently in our learning space and maximize our time together as a learning team. Like me, many teachers learned in our methods courses and classroom management classes techniques for grouping students; we were trained to manage how students interact with one another. A great deal of the art of teaching is managing how class time is used, how students move about the room, and how they interact. The classroom is a very structured setting.

But here's the thing, this might not be the best way to think about our time in the classroom. In fact, this might be one way that we are structuring students out of authentic collaboration.

Attending the TED Summit has me reflecting on the skills I want students to leave my classroom with at the close of the school year. And here's what I now realize: my micro-managing group work is stifling students' opportunity to truly connect and collaborate. Students will never become creative innovators if teachers continue to map out when, how, and with whom students connect. Ideas come in open spaces.

What I am most thankful for is the in-between spaces that this Summit allowed for. It was in the ample time given between sessions, after meals, and throughout the workshops that encouraged all the organic and energizing collaborations and connections. Moments of serendipity and innovation blossomed because we had time to reflect, to connect, and share our stories.

This is what I  hope to bring back into my classroom. Teachers must build in space and time for authentic conversation. No homework questions to answer or worksheets to fill out during a discussion, just space for the informal and the authentic. This is where connection happens, where innovation happens.

There were so many moments of serendipity at the TED Summit. The other evening while attending the cowboy dinner on a ranch in Banff, one of my fellow TIE teachers (we've started calling ourselves the TIE fighters) let me know that another attendee, Melanie, was looking for me. I've discovered this is not unusual at a TED event. Attendees are invested in connecting. When we found one another a few minutes later, it turned out that we had a mutual friend. We took a selfie together for our friend and ordinarily that might have been the end of the interaction, but neither of us had any place we had to be. We weren't eager to rush off. There was time and space to connect. Melanie asked about the TIE program, and I shared a bit about my innovation project for the program - Mentoring Passion. As I explained, I watched her eyes widen. "You're kidding!" It turns out that Melanie is also a high school English teacher, one who is passionate about helping students find their passion. We were able to talk a bit more about our shared passion and have plans to connect upon our return from the Summit.

We all have so many stories like these from the Summit.  In between sessions, we'd run into people relaxing on the lawn and discover a commonality. While in a workshop, we'd hear a presenter share something that we knew a fellow TIE member might also like. We shared our connections in order to build further collaboration. While in a workshop, my fellow TIE educator, Susan Herder, connected with a woman who works as an advisor to actors, athletes, and other creatives. Her role is to connect her clients to philanthropic organizations that support the causes her clients are most passionate about. In the open time between workshops, we were able to grab a picnic table and chat about her role in connecting her talent with the experts and organizations that her clients are interested in helping. It was striking how her work and my TIE innovation project are similar in a number of aspects. We each shared our process for helping people both understand their passion and then connect with the right people in order to learn more. She was able to help me thing through how best to build a network of experts willing to mentor students in the area of their passion. Her advice to look not for individual experts but for foundations and professional organizations with a diverse membership has helped to change how I am thinking about my project. And this connection happened because throughout sessions, in those in-between moments, we were encouraged to connect and to listen to one another's stories. We didn't need to rush between scheduled events; no bell to signal us to get moving. TED left spaces and time for connection. This is what I will take back to my classroom.

We do not honor student stories and ideas when we pack our class time tight with activities. Opening up time and space for students to share and connect is the fertile ground where ideas come into bloom. We need to consider how we are using our class time and spaces to foster collaboration and innovation.

I understand that secondary teachers are particularly limited by the amount of time we have with students each day. My 55-minute class periods are marked at each end by bells. I don't have the luxury of giving large blocks of time for open discussion each day. But there are a number of small changes that I can make in how I use my class time and space to foster organic connections and open up space for innovation.

First, I must consider the physical space and set-up of my classroom. Is my room arranged in a way to foster collaboration? Can students easily move about the room and find the supplies they need? Are there comfortable spaces for students to have small group discussions? Are there spaces for my students to work together on group projects?

Second, I need to consider how I am having students connect. How are students working in groups? Are groups engaged in purposeful activities that will lead to innovation? Am I opening up time for students to explore ideas?

Our class time with students is valuable, and we should be using that time to facilitate the activities that students cannot complete independently at home. Our classrooms need to be places filled with collaborative conversations. Our students need to learn how to speak with one another in order to grow an idea. We all need to make time for time. Let's make our classrooms spaces where students have time to make their own connections, collaborations, and creations.

Thank you to all of the TED community for inspiring me in so many ways this past week!

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Framing Innovation

It happens at nearly every conference I attend.

"Oh, I recognize you! It's the glasses."

The thick black cat's eyes have framed my perspective for the last seven years. Sometimes the opposite will happen. If I am not wearing my glasses, students and even friends have walked right by me without a spark of recognition. These frames have become my brand, if you will. It is how people come to recognize and remember me, at least initially. But a conversation at last night's TED Summit dinner has me looking at my lenses through a new perspective.

Amanda Palmer, who happens to be here in Banff for the TED Summit, writes in her book about how her perspective was changed by shaving her eyebrows, a look that has become part of her signature style:
"I found to my delight, that it had the unintended side effect of causing people to look me in the eye. When you have creatively painted eyebrows, people will assume you're approachable and affable, and talk to you."
This has also been true of my black cat's eye frames dotted with silver stars in the corners. I have been stopped on the street and questioned in the checkout line. They are a ready made conversation starter. And as I am not the best at small talk or even introducing myself to strangers, my glasses help me connect immediately. There was the barista who had to know where I got my frames because they reminded her of a picture of her mother, which was a reason I was drawn to them as well. My mother wore a similar pair in her high school graduation photo. The mother who stopped me to share her love of the singer Lisa Loeb (again, me too). My frames are a way to form immediate connections, to share stories, and move beyond simply getting to know someone by asking what they do for a living. These frames introduce me before I even open my mouth to speak.

And last night at dinner, TED fellow Tunji Lardner helped me think through my lenses from a new perspective.

Over our first course, Mr. Lardner asked about the role of the new TED Innovative Educators within the larger TED community. I described the innovation projects that each of us would spend the next year working on. He asked about how we, those of us sitting around him, framed the idea of innovation. What is innovation? The conversation evolved to discusseing how elements of design and innovation are dependent upon a particular cultural lense. Innovation, real innovation, must then both acknowledge that frame and move beyond it. Our culture frames design, frames innovation. What then is innovation at a global level?
Photo by TED Innovative Education YauJau Ku

So now I'm thinking about how my glasses might also serve as a reminder. The fat black frame is always present in my periphery, serving as a reminder for me to check my perspective. I am always aware of the frame through which I interact with the world. My glasses tangibly remind me that I have a particular perspective and perhaps if I want to think outside that frame, I might need to remove my glasses.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Not Just A Matter of Luck

It is our first full day at the TED Summit in Banff. Our group of 30 TED Innovative Educators (TIEs) from around the world is pitching our innovation plans. Mine has to do with mentoring passion. In preparing my pitch, I am reminded of a conversation a number of years back.

The year I first started teaching high school English, we piled into a friend's Honda and drove south to Williamsburg, Virginia, to spend Thanksgiving break with a group of friends from our college years. We spent all morning, afternoon, and into the wee hours of the morning cooking, eating, laughing, playing Boogle, and chatting. Sometime after three in the morning, one of my close friends turned to me and declared me lucky. "You've always known what you wanted to do with your life." And then she popped a question that many of my high school students have also grappled with:
"How do your figure out your passion?"
I didn't always know that I wanted to be a teacher. As a child, I remember declaring that I wanted to be an astronomer, namely because being an astronaut sounded scary and none of first grade peers seemed to know that an astronomer was. I thought it sounded cool. Secretly, I wanted to be a mermaid. But all the while, whether astronomer, mermaid, author, or teacher, I was writing. When I look back at what brought me joy as a child and what continues to bring me joy, it often involves writing. My passion for encouraging emerging writers to share their voice with real readers developed out of my own love for writing.

Luckily, I had teachers along the way that encouraged my writing. Tucked away somewhere in a trunk in my parent's basement is my very first book - The Amazing Talking Dog -  which I wrote as a fourth grader as part of the Young Author's initiative. In eighth grade, my English teacher, Mrs. Zeinstra, had us bring in notebooks which we wrote in every single day. We scribbled down lines from favorite poems which we found in her collection of anthologies lining the windowsills. We crafted stories that incorporated the hijinks of our peers as main plot points, taking joy in reading them aloud. We wrote every day. As a high school senior, my AP English teacher asked if he might submit a poem I wrote for an assignment to a regional writing competition. Before submitting it, we met after school to talk about the tone of one particular word I had used in the piece. Mr. Dik and I discussed how a single word can alter the feel of a text, but ultimately, he left the decision about whether I changed the work in my hands. Weeks later he took me into the city along with a couple of other classmates when the winners were announced. My name wasn't classed, but it didn't matter. I was lucky. It was this experience - playing with words, crafting lines, working with writers - where I was lucky to discover what I wanted to spend my life doing.

My good friend and so many of my students have not been as lucky, especially when what has brought them joy does not easily fit into one of the content-area silos of our current education system. What happens to the student who wants to design toys? What content-area does that fall under? Will that student be encouraged in our current system? What happens to the passion that does not easily fit into the curriculum of our algebra classes or biology or American literature?

We are educating students out of their stories. We are educating people out of passion.

That Thanksgiving conversation has haunted me, namely because I found my friend's question so difficult to answer:
"How do you figure out your passion?"
She wanted something more tangible, something she could do. Was there a class that I took in college that helped me discover a career path I am passionate about? Was there a book she could read? In my current classroom, I hear echoes of this same question. Is there a website I could look at? A test I might take to understand what my passion might be?

We have taught students how to look up the answers, but we have given them the questions. We have fed them questions that have right answers. My students, many of them, lack the confidence to struggle with the unknown, lack the practice of coming up with their own big questions.

I teach high school English in the third poorest county in my state. Our high school of about 900 students sits squarely in the middle of Michigan farm country. Over the course of this past year, I have had students struggle with food insecurity, homelessness, depression and suicide, broken homes, and broken hearts. Our teachers are fighting to raise our graduation rate and prepare our students for what lies outside the walls of our school. Unfortunately, our effectiveness is measured in how well our students pass the state tests. And so to prepare students for these tests and to take the college entrance exams, many of the writing experiences that my students have had in school have been in the form of timed essays written to a single prompt. As many of my students will be first generation college students, early exposure to the type of writing tasks that they will encounter on the SAT and ACT and AP test is helpful. To an extent. However, this cannot be the only type of writing we ask of students. Such high-stakes testing situations will not make up a majority of the writing experiences that my students will have over the course of their lifetimes. And yet, this is the type of writing they are most often asked to craft whilde in school. By the time I meet students as sophomores, juniors, and seniors, they are frustrated writers, frustrated by a lack of choice, lack of purpose, lack of writing that has relavence to their lived experiences.  They no longer see the purpose of writing yet another essay. Far too many papers have been returned with red circles and hash marks and a letter that looms large at the top of the page. Sure it is for a grade, but what does that mean? What has that taught someone about the purpose of writing?

I want my students to graduate high school as connectors, collaborators, and creators. If we don't facilitate more opportunities for students to do this inside the classroom, how can we expect them to be curious and critical learners outside of the classroom. As teachers, we need to facilitate possibility, potential, and passion. How can we help students not only discover their passion but pursue it as well? It shouldn't simply be a matter of luck.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

A New Kind of Resume

Last summer I had the opportunity to participate in the ThingLink Summer Challenge for Educators.  As part of our initial challenge, we were asked to use the ThingLink platform to create a digital portfolio. I linked my many professional learning networks and digital platforms to a a static image.  But I've been thinking lately about the importance of video, of movement and photography. In our weekly video conversations with fellow TED-Ed Innovative Educators (TIEs), we've been reflecting on how video has changed the face of learning in the last few years.  How, where, and when students are learning has substantially changed in the last decade.

So, why shouldn't resumes change? For teachers interested in the intersections of blended learning, video opens up a number of opportunities to share what we, too, have learned.  In particular, platforms like ThingLink (or Touchcast, EdPuzzle, TED Lessons) offer opportunities to make videos interactive.

And so here it is: my interactive resume. I made this using Adobe Spark, WeVideo, and ThingLink.  I'd love to see what others are doing to create interactive teaching resumes. Share yours!

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Why It's Important to Share Heartbreak

I don't even recall what the student said. It was an off-hand, joking comment about my weekend. And that's when I started to feel the tears well up. "It was a bit difficult, actually."

A few students noticed, crossed the room, and asked gently, "Are you okay?" I answered honestly.

"Not really."

About a year and a half ago, my father was diagnosed with cancer, but after a difficult surgery and six months of chemotherapy, he recovered. Unfortunately, this past weekend, we learned that he again had cancer. A different type of cancer. But cancer.

I shared this with my students. And what followed was heartbreaking. Cancer has touched the lives of nearly every one of my students.  I have a number of students who have lost uncles and aunts, grandparents and cousins to cancer.  The student who left my first period class in tears this morning revealed that her aunt was in surgery this morning to remove a tumor and that family had texted her during class to update her on the progress. A couple of my students have lost parents to cancer. A father lost to lung cancer five years ago. Another student learned this weekend that her mother's cancer has grown. Doctors discovered a tumor on her lung and two more growing on her brain.

It is a club that none of us want to belong to: the Those-Touched-By-Cancer club.

What I discovered today was just how large our club really is. As students in the room caught snippets of what began as a small group discussion, they drifted into our conversation circle, sharing with us their heartbreak. Before long, many in the room were sharing their stories.  At one point, we started to wonder how it was that so many of us, nearly all of us in fact, had so many personal connections to cancer.  "When I was younger, I don't think I understood what it was. Maybe it has always been like this, but we're just starting to realize what it means to have cancer," volunteered one of my tenth graders.

"My family just wouldn't talk about it. I don't think they thought I could handle it. They thought they were protecting me. But not knowing just made it worse."

"Maybe it's always been like this, but we've gotten better at identifying cancer. Maybe the tests have gotten better."

That's when a student made a connection to something we are working on in class. "I wish I did something about cancer for my IonPassion project. That's what breaks my heart. Cancer. That's what I want to fix."

And that's when I could respond, "You can."

This is how meaningful, purposeful, heartbreakingly important works comes from the classroom.  We have to share what touches us, what breaks our heart. Both teachers and students need spaces to share without fear. This is where innovation comes from.  We need classrooms where students have flexibility to share, to find the work that is meaningful both to them personally but also to our local and global communities.

So, now I have students who are rethinking their inquiry projects. I have students who want to do something about cancer. They are not sure what they will research, but you can bet that I'm going to share Jack Andraka's work. Before his 16th birthday, Jack developed a more cost-effective and accurate test for pancreatic cancer. And I know that even before they begin their inquiry work, my students are embarking on learning journey that will certainly bring our community closer. This is learning that touches lives in hopes of changing them. This is what can happen when we share.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Lasts and Firsts

This coming Friday will be my seniors last day submitting articles to our online school newspaper, last day of standing up to present speeches in our public speaking class. It will be the last time they spin that combination to change out one textbook for another, last time rushing from class to bathroom to class again all in under five minutes time. Some of these rituals they will miss. Other routines they will wonder how they managed once they have a few weeks or months perspective on their high school experience. But in addition to the list of lasts, this past year has also been filled with quite a few firsts, for both my students and for me.

This was my first year teaching in Michigan. When I started back in September, there were some challenges that I anticipated and some I never saw coming, much like my soon-to-be-graduating seniors. I knew that this year would be markedly different from my previous 13 years of teaching just outside the Philadelphia area. Up until this year, I taught on a four-by-four block schedule with a maximum of 30 students in my classroom. Yes, sometimes 31 or 32 would sneak in, but for the most part, I worked with between 75 - 85 students each semester, approximately 160 each year.

This year, I had 137 students first semester, and 131 in my second semester classes. Some of those 268 students I had throughout the entire year, but not all. This has certainly been the largest number of students I have been responsible for in my entire teaching career. And in addition to getting to know more students, I also learned new standards, new state testing procedures, and new curriculum. I taught classes this year that were all new to me. Although I taught a public speaking class about ten years ago, it was nothing like the class I had this past semester. And the tenth grade class I had taught my previous 13 years was focused on world literature. This was my first year teaching tenth grade students American literature. All new content, all new school. New routines, new systems, new faces. I felt like a first year teacher all over again. There were more times that I can count that I ended up crying in my classroom, crying in the car, crying on the shoulder of husband, feeling overwhelmed. How do I both plan and grade? How can I effectively individualize lessons for this many learners? How can I provide timely feedback on this much writing?

Then I would catch myself in conversations with students. In the past few months, I have had students miss significant school due to in-patient hospitalizations, homelessness, and parent illness. I have multiple students sitting in my rows who have lost parents and lost loved ones to cancer, to divorce, to accidents, to addictions. I have students who feel bullied and lost and alone. They, too, are overwhelmed. And here's what strikes me: I know these things.

I may have more students than I have ever had in my entire career this year, but I also know more students this year. Really know them. The district that I landed in is one that focuses on intervening not just on the academic level, but on the personal level. Each month we meet as an entire staff, the students have a half day of school, and the teachers talk about students. We look at specific students. Why is this student failing my class and not yours? What have you tried that is working? Which students are falling under the radar? Why? Why did this students miss seven days of class in the last month? What's going on at home? We do this each and every month. We connect around the individuals sitting in our classrooms. This is a first for me.

As Angela Maiers wrote not all that long ago, "If you don’t first secure students’ hearts, you don’t have a shot at their brains." The teachers I work with this year care about more than data. During my first year in this district, I have witnessed so many students meet the challenges they are facing head on, both academically and personally. I have witnessed resilience and kindness, empathy and grit. As a first year teacher in this district, students didn't know what to expect from me and neither did I. But I would put forth a challenge, ask them to try a new way of doing something, and students met those challenges and exceeded expectations. In the process, we got to know one another. We grew as a community of learners. And they were not the only ones growing. I had challenging days, challenging weeks. My students would push me. They provided support as well as constructive feedback.

About a month ago, I was offered a consulting position which would have taken me out of the classroom. The offer came at a time when I was feeling particularly frustrated, not with students, but with some of the requirements and politics that happen in a public school setting.  The consulting position would have paid a little more and put me in closer proximity to my family, but something about it didn't feel quite right. It took some soul searching to figure out exactly what it was. The company is wonderful. Their vision and mission align with my values and teaching philosophy. Their attention to team building, dedicated time for reflection, and commitment to personal and professional development are building blocks for a position made just for me. At the time of the offer, I happened to stumble upon Caitlin Tucker's blog post titled "Manifesting My Perfect Teaching Position" and Vicki Davis's post "When Is It Time To Quit Teaching?" After reading both posts, I realized that although I am frustrated by aspects of my current position, I am not ready for this to be my last year of working directly with students. I love coaching and working with teachers, one look at the list of presentations and conferences I've attended in the past couple years is evidence of that, but I am energized by working with young people. I love teaching emerging writers. I love getting young readers excited about new books. I love connecting practicing readers and writers with real audiences and purposes. I have more to give to the classroom.

So this will not be my last year in the classroom.  Unlike my senior students, I am not yet ready to graduate high school.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

We've Got Our Eye on Passion with #IonPassion

We've been talking about passion in my high school English classes for the past two weeks.

No, not quite like that.

Much like the unit I introduced last year, we began our tenth grade inquiry projects about two weeks ago, which this year we've dubbed our #IonPassion Projects (get it? "Ion"...for Ionia), with an exploration of the roots of the word passion.  Students explored how our passions differ from our interests or even our hobbies.  In our discussion, we returned to our very first day of school, where following a failed attempt at folding origami cranes, we learned the importance of failing. Students remembered me saying that I wanted them to fail. I did say this. I want them to take risks, try new things, and fail in order to discover just how resilient they are. We don't learn by staying inside our comfort zones; we learn when we try out new ideas, new ways of thinking. During our discussion of what makes something a passion, students returned to this idea. A passion is something that we will continue to pursue despite setbacks and adversity.  Our passion, as Angela Maiers has pointed out, is what we are willing to suffer for.

And it turns out, I have a variety of passions sitting in my tenth grade English classes!

So now we're looking to connect our passions with experts in a variety of fields. My tenth grade English students have carefully crafted their inquiry questions, found mentor texts, written their initial inquiry proposals, and outlined their action plans for our #IonPassion research projects. But now we need some help. You'll find my students' research blogs linked below.

Roll over each picture to find a description and link to each student's blog. We'd love to hear your ideas and feedback.

1st Period 10th Grade Honors American Literature

2nd Period 10th Grade Honors American Literature

7th Period 10th Grade Honors American Literature

In addition to consulting mentor texts, we are looking for mentors to help us learn more about our inquiry topics. Do you have a passion for photography or mixing music? We are looking to interview, either in person or via email, experts. Please take a few moments to review our inquiry questions below, and if you wouldn't mind if one of my students contacting you, add your name and information to the columns on the right on our list below.


Wednesday, April 20, 2016

One of THOSE Days

It has been an incredible week so far. On Monday, environmental reporter from the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, Garret Ellison, joined my journalism class to discuss his writing and research process. We learned all about how he gathers information, interviews for a story, and about how state agencies and the general public interact with the pieces he has written.  Today, Darcy Meade from the Ionia Sentinel Standard shared with us her experiences in both television production as well as working as a newspaper education reporter.

It also happens to be our big poetry week.  Students brought in their favorite poems and lyrics which we posted in a hallway display. My public speaking students listened and responded to the American Academy of Poets "Dear Poet" program. Tomorrow we will chalk our favorite verses outside on the sidewalk of the school's main entrance and share our favorite poets for Poem in Your Pocket Day.

But today has also been one of those days.

Because despite how well I planned for these events, and how well some small pieces went, those things that went oh-so-wrong are overwhelming me.

It started small. Some of the students in my first period class didn't come prepared. I had asked students to bring in their favorite poem or lyrics to share. No big deal. This is to be expected.  I have Chromebooks in my room and a whole slew of poetry books, so students had the ability to look up their favorite verses if they forgot to bring them in.  "Ms. Ward, it can be a song, right?" Of course! Which lead to a short but great conversation about why song lyrics should be considered poetry. Students named off similar traits.  I asked students to list the title, author, and favorite stanza on an index card which we then taped to a hallway display for poetry month.

I teach 15 and 16 year old students. I know that they like to push boundaries. But we know each other. We've built a community of trust. I suppose I should have expected, but didn't, the couple of students who made the decision to write inappropriate lyrics. That question about whether they could use song lyrics wasn't about whether lyrics were poetry. The students were looking to push a boundary. And they did. Pulling up crude and profane lyrics, scrawling them quickly onto a note card, grabbing a piece of tape, and jumping to add their card high upon the hallway wall, far out of my reach.  I had pull a desk from my classroom and scramble on top of it to snatch the offensive verse from the display.

What irks me most is not that I didn't think students would try to push boundaries, they are tenth graders after all and that is what they do, but what irks me most is that the students didn't take into account our classroom community. I sought special permission from the principal to post this display in the hallway, to showcase our love of well-crafted lines, and a couple of students, students who have been in my class and built our learning community together since September, made the decision to disrespect our learning community.

If that was all that happened, I would be handling today better. I know that tomorrow we will have a class discussion about respect and community. And I know that it will be a good reminder for all of us about what we value and how we build our community. But this initial disruption was followed by a much larger one.

Part of my day is scheduled by the students and teachers. Students have 30 minutes each day to schedule time to work with a particular teacher, or a particular teacher can assign a student to "office hours" for more individualized help. It is a wonderful program. I had scheduled my struggling journalism students to my office hours today, hoping to get those who had fallen behind caught back up.  But one young woman wasn't having it. "Why do I have to be here?" she demanded. My room was filled with 30 students, many who needed extra help on specific assignments and others who were still signing into my office hours.  The room fell silent. When I explained, she threw her hands on her hips and stated that she didn't need my class to graduate so she was just planning to fail it. This breaks my heart.  To see someone so young, so angry, so checked out.  I responded something to the effect that I didn't want her to fail. She turned on heel and started to march out of the room.

"Making the choice to leave your assigned time will result in consequences," I called.

"F**k your consequences," she yelled back at me as she walked out the door.

She skipped our journalism class as well.

At the beginning of the year, I start my classes with an exercise. I ask students to fold an origami crane using these awful printed directions in two minutes time. They can't do it. I ask them why, and they tell me what they need to learn. We use this exercise to talk about failure. Failure gives us an opportunity to reassess and reflect, to figure out what went wrong and make adjustments. I tell students, if you aren't failing, then you aren't learning.

But what happens when the teacher fails.  I know this is my learning moment. This is the point where I need to reflect, to adjust what I did and how I respond. I know that there are reasons and personal stories that accompany both of these disruptions today. I know that in the scheme of things, they are not insurmountable issues. But I feel defeated today.

I love teaching poetry. It is sacred for me. It feels trampled.

I love working with students, and it is a point of pride that I do not respond to students with sarcasm or disrespect. I was so taken aback to be spoken to in such a way.

I just finished re-reading Brene Brown's Daring Greatly, and in it she quotes Theodore Roosevelt,
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.” 
I know all of this. But there is a gap between knowing and feeling. I feel like I have failed. And while I may know that I have dared greatly, I still feel pretty lousy in this moment.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Joining the TED-Ed Family

I'm beyond thrilled! I recently learned that I was one of 30 teachers selected to participate in the second cohort of the TED-Ed Innovative Educator initiative. I'm looking forward to sharing a bit more about the program in the coming weeks, but for now, I wanted to introduce the 29 educators that I'm been connecting and collaborating with in the weeks and months ahead.

Reblogged from the TED-Ed blog.

Meet the second cohort of TED-Ed Innovative Educators!

Kenya. India. Australia. These are just three of the 12 countries represented by the second cohort of 30 TED-Ed Innovative Educators. [Learn more about the TED-Ed Innovative Educator program here.] As leaders within TED’s global network of over 250,000 teachers, these innovative educators are dedicated to making the world better for learners everywhere by helping people make the most of TED’s free tools for teachers and students — including TED-Ed Lessons, TED-Ed Clubs and the TED-Ed Platform. Throughout the year-long program, this outstanding community will connect regularly across time zones and national borders to explore, create and share idea-based innovations that spark student curiosity. Below, meet the second cohort of TED-Ed Innovative Educators as they embark on this learning voyage.

What does innovation in education look like to you?

We asked the second cohort of TED-Ed Innovative Educators. Read their inspiring answers below:

Sarah Harkin, Darwin, AUSTRALIA
“Innovation in education means thinking about the hard questions while looking at the larger picture. What isn’t working? Who is being left out? What could be better? Designing solutions to address areas of real need in the classroom can be tricky, as different groups of people must work together to implement new initiatives. However, bettering a student’s future is more than a worthy cause.”

David Aderhold, New Jersey, USA
“Innovation in education means the evolution of thinking over time. It means applying one’s learning to problems in order to create varied and nuanced solutions.”

Mark Ayres, Lancashire, UK
“Innovation in education means changing mindsets. It means using real life situations — and positive role models in the media — to teach difficult concepts.”

John Branya, Nairobi, KENYA
“Innovation in education means helping the students to learn actively and at their own pace, with frequent feedback and encouragement.”

David Burt, California, USA
“Innovation comes from a constant desire to improve the way you teach. Teachers must be willing to evaluate the needs of their students and the effectiveness of their teaching methods. Once a need is identified, educators need to be willing to change lessons, to use different methods — and to adapt new technologies to the needs of their students.”

Wiputra Cendana, West Java, INDONESIA
“Innovation in education means that a new, fresh idea bursts from the mind to bring benefit to the education community. It means integrating visual or auditory media in the classroom so that students can better absorb the content of learning and be more equipped as 21st century learners. It means shifting our paradigm from traditional learning methods to new learning methods that implement more innovation in education. It means that the curriculum itself is very dynamic, like a living organism.”

Sandy Chambers, North Carolina, USA
“Innovation is required! Innovation is creating, collaborating and thinking critically. Innovation in education will prepare our students for the future world.”

Pen-Pen Chen, New York, USA
“To me, innovation in education means not being confounded by limitations, financial or otherwise. It means to create new and effective methods for having students learn. I am a firm believer in Coach John Wooden’s quote, ‘You haven’t taught until they have learned.’ I am also a proponent of Bruce Lee’s approach to martial arts, which is to not subscribe to one particular school of thought, but rather to take learnings and effective methods from wherever you may find them, and incorporate them to achieve the desired results.”

Sunkyong Choi, Daegu, SOUTH KOREA
“To me, innovation in education means to go back to the essence of education. Education is raising a person, I think. It is encouraging students to try something new, instead of defining their abilities by scores.”

Natalie Coleman, Illinois, USA
“It means allowing students to try and fail and try again. It means allowing students to be creative thinkers, free to try what they think will work to solve a problem. Innovation is not pre-packaged. Nor is it determined by demographics. We are currently using our 3D printers to allow students to create their own prototype of an innovative product that will help society on a global level. Allowing them to address a problem — one that they believe they have the solution for — creates a sense of accomplishment and importance in their work and contribution to society.”

Rafranz Davis, Texas, USA
“Innovation in education is about kids learning from what motivates them and designing their own pathways with support. It’s not wrapped in a single device or app, but in the access that the devices and apps provide. Too often, the adults decide what students should be, and we don’t include them in their own learning enough. What if we gave students to room to explore, think, create and build? That’s what innovation is about. True innovation is when we create the space that all students can achieve this regardless of zip code, IQ, economic background, race or gender. It is where we no longer use the phrase, “yes…but” and instead scream, “yes…and.”

Jacqueline Fernandez, Maryland, USA
“Innovation in education is to be comfortable questioning what we do in our schools and why we do it. It’s to make positive changes that will impact student learning outcomes. As a STEM educator, it is my duty to make sure that students are engaged in my classes through my curriculum, lessons and use of technology.”

Bojana Golubovic, Nis, SERBIA
“It can be described in few words: being – doing – knowing. I find the “Nosce te ipsum” learning strategy and Socratic dialogue the best approaches in education today. Yes, I can not imagine education of the 21st century without application of IT in the classrooms, but without reflection on the question: “What is education for?” and “Who am I?” education loses its essence.”

Kathryn Hammond, Florida, USA
“To me, innovation in education is finding ways to make what and how students learn engaging, relevant and meaningful. It means embracing technology and change, and helping students to do the same. It means introducing students to a broad range of resources, information, and perspectives, and giving them the tools, the freedom, and the confidence to move beyond what you have to teach them. It means constantly seeking out new tools, methods, resources, and ideas, or using and combining existing ones in new ways, while systematically evaluating everything we do to make sure that whatever we do is in the best interest of students.”

Susan Herder, Minnesota, USA
“Innovation in education means that we are not treating school and students as part of a factory model, but instead finding ways for students to guide us in their own learning. Innovation is letting go of teaching the way we learned, because ‘that worked then.’ It is about embracing new ideas, providing places to learn iteratively, and recognizing that failure is an important part of working and that most people do not work in isolation. It is about providing ways for students to collaborate with others beyond the classroom walls and to think on a global scale.”

Corey Holmer, Illinois, USA
“An idea becomes an innovation when it is put into action, and innovation exists in education when that idea takes action, through a team effort, and then results in student growth. Innovation also means that an idea is growing, impacting others, and promoting positive change. Educational innovation may include new tools, methods, workspaces, or initiatives, but only if they are the result of a collaborative effort to genuinely enhance student learning. I see innovation in schools whenever teachers, students, parents, or administrators find a new, creative way to address a need. Innovation gains momentum when educators team up, combine their expertise, ask questions, and learn from each other as they work to solve problems or make improvements to existing systems. Innovation doesn’t need to be fancy or result in accolades — but in a school setting, it does need to lead to authentic student growth. True innovation thrives when educators infuse their own passion into learning.”

Ashley Huffmon, Abu Dhabi, UAE
“Innovation in education means that a student has control of their own learning. It is creativity at its best without limitations. It is cooperative learning in such a way that each student learns from one another, and the lessons can be connected to day-to-day life.”

Gwangho Kim, Cheonan, SOUTH KOREA
“Innovation in education is necessary for survival in the future. The world is changing rapidly, and students must learn new skills in school to live in the real world.”

Yau-Jau Ku, Buenos Aires, ARGENTINA
“Innovation takes creativity, and creativity takes risks. In order to take risks, it must feel safe, where failure is redefined and seen as a stepping stone in the learner’s journey. Innovation in education is about problem solving, resiliency, and grit. We aren’t providing lesson plans, but creating learning experiences that our students will never forget.”

Alicia Lane, Washington, DC, USA
“Innovation in education means that teaching and learning at all levels is relevant and aligned to ensure that the most critical challenges we face today (engineering better medicines, securing cyberspace, increasing access to clean water and many other needs) will be solved by our current learners when they enter the workforce in the future.”

Jennifer Lehotsky, Illinois, USA
“Innovation in education is about empowering students with the skills to engage in their own learning paths. In the end, it is about teaching them how to use the learning tools available to them, so that they have the grit to solve problems with authentic solutions that were once inconceivable.”

Liz Loether, California, USA
“Innovation means to look at education from different perspectives, and to try something new in an effort to help students become better than they were yesterday. Those that limit innovation see the classroom, the students, and the teaching role as the same day-to-day. Innovation is evolving with the ever-changing world.”

Wendy Morales, New Jersey, USA
“Innovation means taking risks and learning from both successes and failures. Innovation does not always have to include technology, but it has to result in an increase in student motivation and success. An innovative learning environment is one in which teachers and students are learning together, and students are driving instruction. Students have choice and voice in an innovative classroom, and are becoming prepared for a future that will look very different than our present. Innovation requires problem-solving, communication, collaboration and creativity; skills that all of our students will need as we get further into the 21st century.”

Vipul S Redey, Bangalore, INDIA
“Innovation in education means 3 things: Individual attention, immersive learning for things like languages, and a curriculum that honors Constructivism.”

Fred Sagwe, Kisii, KENYA
“Innovation in education will improve what exists, building on existing resources and materials from co-educators, writers and educational technology experts. Innovation acts as a catalyst and a spice to earlier creations.”

Lamar Schrader, Texas, USA
“Innovation in education means sharing ideas on how to activate and cultivate students’ learning. It means helping students make their own lives better and richer, and showing them ways that they can make their world a better place to live in by using their intelligence and talents to serve those around them. Innovation does not mean throwing out good ideas that have worked, just for the sake of the new — but it can mean sacrificing good ideas to get to great ideas.”

Georgios Villias, Athens, GREECE
“Innovation in education means to start using all of our senses and abilities in education, and not only our reading skills. Seeing, hearing, experiencing, doing, talking, cooperating, watching, feeling, creating, constructing, playing, imagining, dreaming — these are some of the verbs that should be used more often in a learning experience, because education should be fun. Innovation means using these verbs in productive and meaningful ways.”

Jennifer Ward, Michigan, USA (hey, that's me!)
“Innovation requires first understanding the root of a problem in order to better grasp where, how, and what kind of change is needed. Innovation involves mistakes, missteps and failures, and it also involves resilience, passion and grit.”

Shameka Williams, Georgia, USA
“Innovation in education means using creative ways to pique student curiosity and interest, while also helping students develop 21st century skills. This can happen through technology, in-field experts, or relating content and approaches to real-world events. I believe that innovation is exciting and that students should feel excited to come into innovative environments.”

Pablo Yafe, Buenos Aires, ARGENTINA
“Innovation in education means reevaluating the needs and potential of students in interaction with the world they will be living in. It means training students in the art of producing new content meant to improve their surroundings. It means redefining the teaching role.”

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Monday, April 4, 2016

Find Funding

I have been very fortunate this school year. I've been able to add an instamatic camera, three DSLR cameras with telephoto lenses, and 36 Chromebooks to my classroom. One of my students recently asked me, "Wheredya get all the money for this technology?"

At least once a week, I'm scouring my network for new grants and initiatives to help bring resources into my classroom. I spend at least one of my planning hours each week either researching or writing grants to bring the outside into my class, whether that be through hardware, speakers, or virtual connections to experts in areas we are studying. I am passionate about making sure that what happens inside my classroom walls connects with what is happening outside of them. To do this, I rely on a network of organizations that help provide funding for such initiatives.

In addition to my student, I've also had a couple of teachers in my district ask the same question: "Where did you find the funding?" So I thought I would share some of the resources and organizations that have supported my classroom, as well as share links to a few promising awards that I've recently become aware of.  As I learn of more, I'll update this post. And if you know of any, please share! Use the comment section below to add any links you think other educators should know about.

Crowdfunding for Educators:

  • is a site where teachers can post projects for which they are seeking financial support.  Donations come in from individuals as well as from larger corporations and organizations. Last summer, Staples supported a large number of projects as did the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Recently, athletes, artists, and philanthropists funded a hundreds of projects through the #BestSchoolDay initiative. This is a well-used, well-organized space, but the downside is that if you do not reach your funding goal, you lose all the money donated towards that goal.
  • is a lot like DonorsChoose, but with one big difference. Teachers keep all the money raised for a project. So, even if the project doesn't reach its funding goal, say you only raise $125 of the $200 you were seeking, you keep the $125 you've raised.   


  • Being a Google Certified Innovator (formerly known as a Google Certified Teacher) links you in to a whole community of innovative educators from around the world.  Our online communities are a place where we regularly trade cool tools, tips, and of course, grant opportunities. And you can join, too!  Applications to participate in the June 2016 Google Innovator Academy open on April 5th.
  • As a member of Pennsylvania Association for Educational Communications and Technology (PAECT) and Michigan Association for Computer Users in Learning (MACUL), I receive a regular newsletter in my inbox which shares upcoming grant opportunities - Big Deal Media. You can sign up for free without having to join either of these organizations. 
  • GetEDFunding tracks a huge list of grants and awards for educators. Create a free account and select your experience and interest areas in order to receive a personalized list of grants your classroom may be eligible for at the state and national level.
  • And this post by Edutopia contains a wealth of advice and links. Make sure you save this post to go back to again and again. 
  • For local Grand Rapids area teachers, the Grand Rapids Community Foundation is a fantastic resource. This group oversees a number of organizations and grant opportunities in our region.
  • Be sure to also speak with your local Rotary club as many clubs are invested in supporting local education initiatives.

Grants and Awards:

  • EdTechTeam Student Device Grant:  One of the best emails I received recently had the subject line, "Your Student Device Grant Application was...Selected!" Months earlier, I enlisted the help of my tenth grade students and together we put together a video and responded to a couple of essay prompts about how adding a class set of Chromebooks would change our classroom. Perhaps my second favorite email was the one that followed a short couple of weeks later which began "Chromebooks have shipped!"  I look forward to sharing with you all the innovations that come from our one-to-one Chromebook classroom.
  • Voya is awarding 100 $2,000 grants for innovative classroom projects. But hurry! The Unsung Hero award deadline is April 30th.

More Ideas:

Friday, March 25, 2016

What is the Opposite of Bullying?

I've had the opportunity to connect with Spring Lake teacher David Theune and his student Elise McGannon at a number of conferences around Michigan recently. When I saw that David was presenting with students at December's ECET2 Conference on Michigan State's campus, I knew it was a session that I didn't want to miss.  It was at this session that I was introduced to the Share Chair, a regular podcast David and Elise produce to introduce their learning community to the diversity of voices in their midst. In February, I was happy to see the pair presenting and podcasting a conversation live at NovaNow. And again last week at MACUL, the pair presented their work, introducing their project with a simple question:
"What is the opposite of bullying?"
Especially at the secondary level, teachers and administrators tend to focus more energy on addressing the negative consequences of bullying. However by focusing only on the negative, we leave a vacuum for the positive message. What are the values of our learning community? Rather than focus a majority of our energy on punishing the negative behavior, what are we doing to promote a positive culture in our learning community? Punishment is a reaction. What are we doing to create a community that it is not built on the shaky and destructive foundation of punitive reactions?

Prior to yesterday's professional development day, I posed many of these questions to my high school students. It began months earlier with our study of Arthur Miller's play The Crucible. Our guiding essential question for this unit was "Who are the witches today?" and I asked my students to consider who were the groups in our community that might feel ostracized and isolated. Our class discussed ways in which society isolates the elderly, refugees and immigrants, the homeless and poor. Many students identified the victims of bullying in our school community as being treated as witches, as outsiders. But our conversation didn't end there. Students wanted to find ways to help those in our community that felt isolated and had been victims of bullying.

Initially, our conversations revolved around how to best help the victims, but in allowing space for discussions and sometimes disagreements, the group of students also started to discuss our school culture and community. What were we doing to promote a culture of support, of kindness? What started as a unit project for our study of The Crucible became something much more.

Our unit has long since ended. Some of the students that were initially in my class, switched to other classes when the new semester began but continue to stop by my classroom regularly. Students brought friends into our discussions. This wasn't about a grade or a class project. Because the group was bringing together students from all grade-levels and a variety of classes, students started a Facebook group as a way to communicate with each other and with our larger community. They meet weekly in my classroom to spend time discussing and planning ways to promote kindness in our community. Based on an activity we did earlier in the year, the students have recently sought permission to paint a Kindness Wall near our cafeteria, a visual reminder of the values of our community. They have spoken with the assistant principal and high school principal about their vision and values. And then there was yesterday.

Yesterday was a professional development day for teachers in our district. Students had the day off. However instead of sleeping in, the core members of the Anti-Bullying group rose early in order to be at school by 7:30. Why? Because yesterday they taught the teachers.

The group has been working hard the past few weeks, researching, planning, and practicing a 30-minute presentation for our entire teaching staff on the topic of what bullying looks like in our classrooms. Initially, they started with a 12-slide PowerPoint.  However, after a bit of discussion about what they like to see happen in their own classes, they ditched the PowerPoint in favor of hands-on activities.  So at 8 am on Thursday morning, my students lead us through a quick round of warm-up jumping jacks before we emptied tubes of toothpaste and tried to unsuccessfully smash the paste back into the tube. We then created a Wrinkled Wanda and reflected on what happens when we don't address name-calling in our classrooms. The students also shared with the teachers that they had designed and would be selling anti-bullying t-shirts prior to their April presentation to our student body. Yes, the group not only presented to teachers, but they are also working on a 60-minute presentation for our student body. As the presentation wound to a close, something truly magical happened.

The assistant principal announced that he would be speaking with school administration in the coming days in order to seek funding to send these students to a leadership camp this summer. And that's when you felt the energy in the room build. These are our students, all of ours. How might we support them, their efforts, help them expand their ideas to others in our community?  A fellow English teacher volunteered the idea of having a dress down day for teachers. "I would pay to wear jeans, especially if the money helped to purchase the t-shirts for the students and would send them to leadership camp." This idea was quickly seconded. And then another teacher jumped up, literally jumped up, "Next week is the week before spring break; let's have a jeans week. If we all paid $15 we could buy the t-shirts for the students and send them all to camp." You could feel the excitement. Nods and affirmations flooded the room. I had goosebumps, which I quickly showed the student sitting next to me. She whispered back, "Wow, I didn't expect this!"   

At our mid-morning break, teachers came up to the students to share congratulations, share ideas, and share support.  When students came back to my classroom to reflect on the morning's activities, they were bubbling with energy and ideas.  They were excited to be heading to the leadership camp, but also had ideas for what they would like to do in the future. They want to run their own summer camp next year, a camp to help other schools replicate what they've started: a conversation about what's the opposite of bullying.

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