Sunday, February 7, 2016

Classroom Conversations

I've been thinking a lot lately about my students and what I can do to help them realize their worth, their capabilities, and their strengths.  I want them to leave my classroom knowing that I thought that they could tackle any problem.  When they leave elementary, I want it to be with the courage to do amazing things because they have been encouraged to see themselves as nothing less than amazing.

As an educator, I definitely have days when this is not the case.  I get frustrated, tired, and even discouraged at times.  I wonder if they understand why we do the things we do.  I wonder if they grasp the reality of the impact that they can potentially make.

This morning, our pastor was sharing about the impact we have on others and spoke about something that he does every year.  He said that he makes two list titled "What Others Think About Me" and "What I Want Them to Think About Me".  He then looks at the differences and spends time thinking about those differences on the lists.  He responds by writing how he can change their perception.  What can he do for them to make an impact, help them see him for who he wants to be, and really make a difference?  

This afternoon, I began to think about my students and how such an activity could help me become a better teacher and have a greater impact on my students.  In doing so, I realized that making this list would be a wonderful start.   So, this week, I will ask my students, "What do you think about our class and how things are going?"  I will listen and reflect as they share.  I don't want to respond with excuses or justification with the things that they think I should change.  I just want to hear them.  

After I have reflected on their responses, I will make a list of "What I Want My Students to Think About Our Class".  Then I will compare the two lists and determine how I can make changes to ensure that my students are seeing the me that I want them to see.  I don't want to assume that I am doing what I need to do to help them succeed, I want to hear it from them.

In an effort to give our students control of their learning, it is so important that we, as teachers, are willing to learn from them.  We need to take time to really listen to their voices and then react with intention and purpose.  We may not be able to take every suggestion and make every single change that they suggest but if they see the classroom as "ours" instead of "mine", they will begin to take ownership of their learning.  

So, if anyone wants to join me in having this conversation this week in the classroom, please do!  I will write again before the end of the week to share my lists and the changes that I will make as a result of the conversations that we have.  I will use the simple chart below to document our conversation.  

Feel free to do the same and share with me on Twitter.  I would love to see how both teachers and students respond to the conversation.

Have a wonderful week and be the teacher that your students deserve!  

Friday, February 5, 2016

TCEA Reflection

Wow!  TCEA was such a great experience and I am still reeling from all of the wonderful things that I learned and the wonderful people that I met this week.

This year, I was able to attend TCEA on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. I went with one of our amazing science/social teachers, Desiree Toombs. While I would have loved to stay all week, this was just enough time to attend several sessions and meet lots of new people.

On Tuesday, I was able to present with an amazing group of girls including Jaime Donally, Fran Siracusa, Kari Espin, Lisa Monthie, Cassie Reeder, and Deb Atchison.  I was so surprised to find out that Fran was calling in from Clearwater to share during the session as I had met her at LaunchMe with Brad Waid back in October.  It was so fun to realize that connection and be able to say hello again.  I also had a blast sharing laughs (as usual) with Kari and Lisa. Jaime did an amazing job sharing Live Video Streaming and we played a fun game with puzzle pieces that gave everyone a chance to experience the different tools that we were sharing.

I also stopped by the TCEA Radio Booth to say hello to my sweet friend Christy Cate who was amazing all week.  She did such a great job keeping us updated and interviewing so many people throughout the conference.  She is one of the sweetest, friendliest people that I know and I can't wait to hang out with her when I visit Region 14 in Abilene this summer!

Wednesday morning, I was lucky enough to present Genius Hour with Don Wettrick.  Don has played such a huge role in changing my mindset.  After meeting him and learning from him over the last two years, my mindset and reasons for teaching have completely changed.  I no longer see my classroom as my own but instead see it as a space for my students innovate, create, and learn based on their passions.  I understand that my students deserve time in their school day to make connections and learn about things that are important to them.  Presenting with Don was such an awesome experience and one that I will remember for a very long time.  

Then it was lunch time with one my favorite GT educators, Terri Eichholz.  I love her blog, Engage Their Minds, and I learn so much from her on Twitter!  We were able to catch up, share some laughs, and hang out.  Her passion for doing what is best for students is so contagious and I absolutely love chatting with her every chance that I get.

After several great sessions that afternoon, it was time for some relaxation with great friends.  I am such a fan of so many of the educators from Weatherford ISD.  I absolutely adore Amanda Rogers, Shelly Stout, Jacqueline Rose, and the rest of their crew! They are so passionate about giving their students opportunities to be innovative and creative.  It seems they always have something new to share and contribute.  We chatted over dinner and came up with some amazing ways for our students to collaborate and connect.  The AMAZING Jaime Donally joined us and kept us laughing.  She is so full of energy, passion, and ideas.  I am so thankful that we connected as I learn so much from her every time we are together.

Wednesday evening, we joined the #gueri11aed and #txeduchat for a Tweetup.   All I can say that is Region 11 rocks!  How could it not with amazing people like Charles Cooper, Tom Kilgore, and Tracie Cain?  They are doing amazing things and I am so excited for Elementary Con in June!  I feel like I already knew Tom Kilgore but we were able to meet face to face and share more about what we do in education.  Such a great time connecting and collaborating with some of the very best!   Cassie Reeder and I chatted about Genius Hour and I can't wait to hear the amazing things that happen as she introduces it to her students.

I started Thursday morning with the hilarious Laura Kile.  I met her when I presented in Midland last summer and we became fast friends.  She always makes me laugh and has such an amazing personality.  Being able to run into her and then spend time catching up was such a treat!

After my presentation on Thursday, it was time to say goodbye.  I had made so many connections and was reminded of why my PLN is so important to me.  They are the ones that keep me going, encourage me to do things that are WAY outside of my comfort zone, and give me the courage that I need to be real about what is best for my students.  I don't know that they will ever know the impact that they have on my classroom each day but I am better because of their awesomeness!

So, until next year...
Sunday, December 27, 2015

Making a Difference in 2016

Is it really already 2016?  2015 has come and gone and it seems like it went by so quickly.  I like to start the new year by setting new goals for my classroom and this year is no different.  So here we educational priorities for 2016 are (drum roll please) boldness, passion, and conversation.

Boldness - I want this for myself as well as my students.  I want all of us to be bold enough to use our voices. As an educator, I want to speak up for what I know is best for my students.  I also want my students to speak up for themselves.  I want them to know that their voices are powerful, that they can make a difference.  More than anything, I want them to follow the paths that will lead to the lives that they've always imagined.  I don't want them to allow others to choose their paths for them. Instead, I hope to inspire them to realize that they have the opportunity to do amazing things by being bold and leading the way for the change.

Passion - As most of you know, I am a huge fan of passion projects, Genius Hour, and other activities in the classroom that give students opportunities to pursue their interests.  I believe that passion is the key to unlocking many problems in education today.  When students are interested, they are engaged. One size fits all classrooms will not work anymore.  It's time to realize that these students are different and they have different skill sets.  Because of this, we as teachers must play a different role and be okay with that.  Allowing our students to pursue their passions gives them the opportunity to learn by doing.   I've seen the impact of this type of learning in my own classroom and it changes everything.  Passion makes learning real and meaningful.  And, honestly, if it's not, why are we teaching it anyway?

Conversation - I want to start conversations in 2016 that matter.  I want to be a part of the conversations that are changing education.  I believe that conversation trumps everything.  In my classroom, conversation comes before grades, worksheets, and assignments.  I understand that through conversation, I will really know my students.  I will understand what works for them and what doesn't.  In having conversations with my colleagues, I am able to inspire and be inspired.  I want my students to understand that they can start conversations that ignite change.  Understanding the power of conversation is so important in education today and will definitely be a priority for us in 2016.

So that's it!  Boldness, passion, and conversation are my priorities this year.  I want to be bold enough to do what is best and passionate enough to start conversations that will make a difference.  These are the same things that I wish for my students.  I can't wait to see what this year holds.  I wish all of you a wonderful New Year and hope that you find ways to make it amazing! Let's rock 2016 and make it a year that we will remember for a long time!

Monday, November 9, 2015

A Mystery Skype to Remember

I'm a little late on writing this post but wanted to share because it was such a fun day for our students and gave them an opportunity to see themselves as teachers as well as students.

We were recently given the opportunity to participate in a Mystery Skype with teachers at a session at the Microsoft campus in North Dakota.  Kelly Rexine had contacted me to ask if we would be willing to participate and we were more than willing.  We were so excited!  Our third grade students absolutely love to Mystery Skype and I thought it would be a great opportunity for them to share their expertise and excitement about the topic with teachers that were wanting to learn.  

I want to begin by saying that our third grade teacher, Mrs. Battistella, is amazing at making each Mystery Skype a success.  She does a great job of explaining the roles, asking for feedback, and ensuring that it is a learning opportunity for everyone that is involved.  The first time that I observed her class participating in a Mystery Skype, I realized right away that every student was engaged, willingly engaged. 

We began the session by taking time to let Mrs. Battistella explain how a Mystery Skype works.  She shared the roles of each group and explained why each of them are important to the process.  After this, we turned it over to the students and let them work their magic.  

When the students correctly concluded that the audience was in North Dakota, they were so excited! As closure,  Kelly asked his audience if they had any questions for the students.  One teacher asked what it was about Mystery Skype that the students liked.  In response, several students shared that they liked learning about new places and liked that they were learning by having fun and meeting new people.  They absolutely loved answering the questions and being the experts as they shared with the teachers.

It was so fun watching them find ways to share their learning and express their feelings about the activity.  I was so impressed with their willingness to speak up and give their perspective.

As we wrapped up, Mrs. Battistella asked her class to reflect on the event.  She has a wonderful reflection sheet for each Mystery Skype and so she gave one to each student.  Below are a few of their responses. 

I love that almost every student was surprised to learn that they could teach teachers. They were in awe of the fact that they had spent their afternoon showing teachers how to do something well.  

It was such a fun day!  The students were given an opportunity to teach and they did.  Sometimes learning from students is more engaging and has more of an impact than learning from our peers.  I love nothing more than to hear from student panels and see students doing whatever it is that I am learning about.  I am so thankful that Kelly was willing to ask our students to teach educators about Mystery Skype and share their perspective.

If you haven't considered trying a Mystery Skype in your classroom, you should.  It is such a wonderful way to encourage critical thinking while using geography skills.   And even better, it's a lot of fun!

Genius Hour - Application at its Best

So I recently began challenging my students to find ways to apply specific standards when working on their Genius Hour projects.  For example, this week I gave them a TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) objective for Math,  ELA, Science, and Technology.  I then asked them to tell me if they found a way to incorporate that specific skill into their project.

I wasn't sure how this would work out or how my students would respond to the challenge.  I like to give them as much freedom as possible during Genius Hour and worried that this might put a damper on things.  In order to encourage them to consider using the skills, I offered a digital badge for each skill that they were able to apply during Genius Hour.  It was not mandatory and students were encouraged to find creative ways to apply the skills.

Genius Hour in our classroom

The first week was a little bit rough as they were confused about how to weave the standards into their projects and just weren't really sure why we were doing this.  The second week, I gave them a second set of standards.  Fifth grade students were challenged to use the following:

Math - Select tools to solve problems
Science - Collect information by observing
ELA - Use context clues to clarify meaning
Technology - Use various search strategies

Before we started Genius Hour, I spent several minutes giving specific examples of how these might be used in our projects.  I talked about using measuring cups, rulers, and other tools to measure.  I shared how they might take notes while they observed or watched YouTube videos.  I explained that when researching online, we sometimes use context clues to clarify meaning of specific words.  Finally, we talked about searching on Google and Pinterest and the various strategies that we might use.  As I explained, I realized that the students were beginning to catch on.  They were asking questions and sharing their own examples as well.

We are on week 3 of applying the standards and I have to say that it is making an impact on my students.  Above all else, they are beginning to realize that they are applying the skills that they are learning in class.  They are making connections between real world application and their classroom experience.  I love that they are able to see that the standards are not just something that can be done on a worksheet but instead something that they can incorporate into their life outside of school.

I knew I was onto something when one of my students sent me a message on Edmodo.  She asked me if she could earn a badge for using one of the standards outside of class.  In other words, if she realized she was applying a standard in her everyday life, would I give her a badge for that?  My answer...of course!  Isn't this what I want?  Don't I want my students to understand that they can apply what they are learning outside of my classroom?  Just seeing that she could apply the standards to her Genius Hour project has given her the ability to see the many ways she uses her learning every day.

We certainly still have a lot to learn but I'm so glad that the students are responding to this idea.  It has not hindered their creativity in any way and is in fact, encouraging them to be more creative. Many of them are finding interesting ways to weave the standards into their projects and realizing that this can be done in so many ways.

I look forward to encouraging this throughout the year and seeing where it leads.  I believe that if we can't find ways to help our students make these connections, the work is not meaningful for them.   If it's not meaningful, I'm wasting my time and theirs and that's just not something I'm willing to do.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

3 Reasons to Hold Student Conferences

Today was possibly one of my favorite days as a teacher.  I have often had conversations with my students.  We've had Genius Hour conferences, brainstorming sessions, and class meetings.  But today was different.  Today, I let my students negotiate and give input as I completed their 4C Rubrics for the end of the six weeks.  I had heard Don Wettrick share how he allowed his students to do this and wanted to give my students the same opportunity.

I met with students individually and shared the rubrics that I had completed.  I explained why I rated them the way that I did and then gave them an opportunity to respond.  I could have never imagined the amazing conversations that occurred as a result of asking for their feedback.

You see, I honestly expected that students would just accept the score that I had given them or argue that they deserved higher a score with little evidence for their argument.  Boy, was I wrong!  Instead, my students did the opposite.  They listened well as I explained my decisions and then responded. Not only did they respond but they justified their responses with evidence and specific examples. They shared struggles and successes, strengths and weaknesses.

I was so impressed when I heard things like, "Mrs. McNair, I really think I need a 2 instead of a 3 for risk-taking.  It seems like I take a lot of risks but I don't like to if I feel like I am going fail" from the mouths of my fifth grade students.   Many of them shared specific examples of how they had demonstrated specific skills.  They also shared examples of their weaknesses and struggles.  This is huge in a Gifted Education classroom.

In reflecting on today's experience, I saw three major benefits to allowing my students to have a voice in the feedback process.

1.  Students see you as someone that is on their side.  I wasn't sitting behind my desk handing down my opinions and judgment.  Instead, we collaborated to come up with some of their strengths and weaknesses.  We discussed what they need to work on and what they do well.  They saw me as someone wanting to help them reach their goals.

2.  You learn so much about your students and their goals.  There is only so much you can know about your students from a parent information sheet and a stack of completed worksheets. Conversation opens doors to relationships and give us opportunities to really know our students. Knowing our students helps us make their learning experiences meaningful and know what will and will not work for them.

3.  Students begin see themselves as learners.  So often our students just see school as a place that they have to be and learning as a chore that has to be accomplished each day.  When they are given the opportunity to take an active role in their learning experiences, they begin to see learning as meaningful.  As a result, they see reflection as a beneficial and necessary part of the learning process.

Today was such a great day!  My students amazed me with their ability to assess themselves honestly.  This is definitely something that we will be doing at the end of each six weeks.  I look forward to seeing progress and watching them grow in their areas of weakness.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

LaunchMe Reflection

I finally have time to reflect on this week's experience and write about the wonderful time that I had at LaunchMe in Clearwater, Florida. 

So, a few months ago Brad Waid encouraged me to come to the LaunchMe Academy that he was hosting in Florida.  I said "sure" but honestly, was a little unsure and insecure about going.  I thought I would feel out of place, uncomfortable, and just weird around so many people that I had never met.  
However, the experience  was the complete opposite.  I flew in on Wednesday evening and hardly slept because I was so excited and nervous about what was to come.  Thursday morning I arrived at Plato Academy ready to learn.  I instantly realized that I was in for an amazing experience when I met Brad Waid, Katrina Keene, and Bryan Miller at the front desk.  They were so welcoming and helped me realize I was right where I belonged.

As the day went on and I sat in the room with so many amazing educators, I listened to their stories and their experiences.  It was evident right away that I was in for more than I could have ever imagined.  I loved hearing them share their passion for education, innovative teaching, and risk taking.  I loved having conversations about changing the world and following our dreams.  More than anything, I loved being around real people that were like me.  People that know they are on a specific path, just not sure where it's going to lead.  People that want to share their passion with others and feel like they can make a difference.  I was right at home and was so pleased to be included in such an amazing group of people.  

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Every person in the group contributed in their own special way.  Brad shared so openly about what he does and gave us the inspiration to go after our dreams.  Kevin couldn't be there but was so gracious to share videos from the airport answering our questions and offering wonderful advice.   Katrina asked honest questions and kept us laughing with her Twitter antics and fun personality.  Bryan was so inspiring as he shared his goals and challenged us to think bigger.  Mona kept me laughing and helped me realize that we all have purpose and worth.  Fran was so sweet and introduced us to the BEST Italian food I have ever had by taking us to Villa Maria for lunch.  Jen made me feel so comfortable by introducing herself right away.  It was so fun meeting Troy and hearing him share about his podcast.  Nik kept us laughing and his excitement for innovative education was so inspiring and contagious.  Adam inspired me to try something new by sharing how previews ruin movies...LOL.  I will definitely think before I watch a movie preview next time!  There were so many other wonderful people that played a role and made LaunchMe such a terrific experience.

On the flight home, I reflected on what I had learned, who I had met, and how my life was changed.   It was so much fun being around like-minded people that were passionate and believed that we could make a difference.  I thought about the words that Brad shared and the challenges that he gave each of us. In reflecting on all of these things, I came to the conclusion that life is what we make it.  We can't achieve what we don't go after and being ourselves is enough.  

I am so thankful for this experience and would not trade it for anything.   It was two days of being inspired, being challenged, and making connections. I learned so much from every single person in that room and will forever be grateful for the role each of them played in helping me find my inspiration.   I am grateful for the friendships that were made and look forward to crossing paths again in the near future!