Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Looking Back at 2013 - Becoming Connected

2013 has FLOWN by and here it is New Year's Eve.  While this has been a good year, I am believing that 2014 is going to be incredible.  I will always remember 2013 as the year that I became a connected educator.  Towards the end of this year, I started blogging, building my PLN on Twitter, and speaking at educational conferences. These things have completely changed the way that I teach and I am happier now than I have been in years.

Blogging has given me an opportunity to share my thoughts and ideas with others as well as connect with other educators around the world.  Blogging allows me to be creative and open.  It gives me the space that I need to reflect and realize what I could have done differently.   While blogging helps me realize my weaknesses, it also makes me aware of my strengths.  Often as teachers, we focus on what needs improvement or how we could have taught a lesson differently. It's also important to focus on the things that we do well.  Share your successes with others so that they can learn from you.   I have started small, blogging once a week or every other week.  I'm not sure I'm doing it right, but I'm doing it and I'm convinced that it has improved my outlook on education.

Twitter, well, I can't say enough about Twitter.  Because of the wonderful teachers that I have met on Twitter, my classroom is forever changed. Engaging in conversations with other educators that are passionate about what they do makes my job much more fun. I have a sense of community and don't feel like I am going at this alone.  I make time to participate in chats which gives me the opportunity to learn from other educators while sharing things that are working for my classroom as well.  If you are an educator and not on Twitter, please consider checking it out. You owe it to yourself and your students to connect with some of the best educators in the world and you will find them on Twitter.

I also started presenting this year.  I presented at a couple of conferences early in the year but I was most proud about sharing at the TAGT (Texas Association for the Gifted and Talented) Conference in December of this year. I shared about how to use Edmodo to engage students even when they are not in your classroom.  It was a wonderful opportunity and I made some great connections.  It was fun to connect with some of my tweeps and other GT educators that are passionate about using technology in their classrooms.  I hope to continue to present and share with others even more in 2014.

I am always learning and I know that I have just scratched the surface of the amazing resources that are out there.  In 2014, I have many goals and aspirations.  If you are a teacher that is passionate about what you do everyday, I would encourage you to start blogging, join Twitter, and be willing to share what you know with other educators.  You have something to offer and we would love to learn from you.  Make the decision to step out on that limb...and then get ready to FLY!  Below is a word cloud that I created on Tagxedo from my 2013 blog posts. One more look back and now it's full steam ahead!  Happy 2014!

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Teaching Resolutions

Image Source:  www.mycutegraphics.com

Each year, I love to set and try to successfully live out my New Year's resolutions.  Some of them are easy to keep and others - well, not so much.  But there's something about that feeling of accomplishment when a resolution comes to fruition, whether it's losing that extra ten pounds or offering forgiveness to someone even when it is not deserved.

As a teacher, I enjoy setting teaching resolutions along with my personal resolutions each year. These serve as goals for myself as well as my students.  It gives me a drive and dedication as I finish out the school year.  For me, these resolutions give me the second wind that I need to go into the second semester with the same energy and excitement as I had at the beginning of the year.

This year, I've decided to share my resolutions.  I hope that they bring inspiration and motivation. I hope that they encourage you to persevere with boldness, creativity, and innovation in the classroom.  But more than anything, I hope that they give you a desire to be the best teacher that you can be in 2014.

Resolution #1:  I resolve to understand my students as individuals.
So often as teachers, we see our students as a class and not as individuals.  We set goals for our class, plan lessons for our class, and even discipline them as a class.  I think it's very important that we remember that our students are individuals.  They are all very different and will set upon very different paths as they navigate through life.  Some of them will go home to parents that love and care for them while others will go to bed hungry and dirty. Some of our students will go home and study for the test in the morning while others will babysit their siblings and just hope they can get to school on time.  They deserve to be treated as individuals in the classroom even when it is challenging.  Different circumstances should warrant different classroom experiences.  We can not continue to offer a one size fits all classroom experience and expect students to be successful. Most of our students long to learn and have an intrinsic motivation to investigate, create, and discover. However, if we fail to give them the opportunity to do so, we are not doing our jobs as educators.  

Resolution #2:  I resolve to engage my students in meaningful activities.
Planning lessons can be difficult when we are aiming for high test scores as well as meaningful activities that students will enjoy.   I am in no way a fan of standardized testing, but I understand that it is part of my job to teach the standards that are given each year.   While using workbooks and worksheets is easy and will allow me to check off the standards as I go, such activities are not meaningful to my students.  Instead, they give students the impression that my only goal for them is to do well on the test.  In fact, my goal for my students is to learn the standards that are given in a way that is meaningful to them as individuals.  I want them to have a desire to learn and to gain a curiosity about the world around them. In order to provide these meaningful activities, it is important that I understand and really know my students as I explained in my first resolution. Learning what makes them tick will give me the insight that I need to plan activities that will be relevant to them. Real learning and real understanding is not going to happen with worksheets but instead will happen when I purposefully plan lessons that give my students the opportunity to connect with the concepts that we are learning in class.    

Resolution #3:  I resolve to give my students the opportunity to explore their passions.
Just before Thanksgiving, I began reading about Genius Hour and Innovations on Twitter.  I have to say that this has reignited my passion for teaching and has given my students a motivation that is unprecedented in my teaching experience.  Because I have given them the opportunity to explore their passions, they are excited, driven, and engaged in their learning. I hope to continue to learn more about this style of learning and how to carry it out effectively in my classroom.  Since implementing passion driven learning in my classroom, my students are learning things about themselves as well as each other. Passion driven activities give them an opportunity to explore things that are relevant to them which results in students that are motivated to learn and interact with the world around them.  And that makes for one happy teacher! 

Resolution #4:  I resolve to help my students use technology to discover the world.
Technology is tearing down the walls of the classroom and allowing students to experience the world in ways that were once thought impossible.  As their teacher, I feel it is my job to guide them as they learn to use technology in new and exciting ways.  Giving students a voice by allowing them to blog or allowing them to Skype with someone in another part of the world changes their learning experience. We are able to take our learning from the classroom and share it with the world.  I have learned that technology integration in the classroom must be purposeful. Using technology simply for the sake for using technology is pointless.  However, using technology in an effort to give my students an authentic audience and a place to discover new things will give them opportunities beyond what we can even imagine.  I resolve to continue to learn about the incredible and surprising ways that technology is being used in the classroom. Continuing to be a connected educator is just one of the many ways that I plan to stay on top of technology in education and the ways that I can use it effectively in my classroom.

Resolution #5:  I resolve to encourage other teachers to make their classrooms a place for students to discover and explore their passions.
I am amazed every day at the number of educators that are not connected and do not know about the exciting things going on education today.  I hope to encourage many teachers on my campus and in my area to get connected and share what they are doing in their classrooms.  Just in the short time that I have been connected through social media like Edmodo and Twitter, my teaching experience has changed.  I am trying new things, sharing my experiences, and collaborating with other educators all over the world.  In doing so, my classroom has changed.  While change can be scary and intimidating, it can also be refreshing and invigorating.  One spark of change can light a fire of curiosity that will spread like wildfire.  I want to be that spark!

Thank you for taking the time to read my resolutions.  Feel free to comment and share some of your teaching resolutions.  I hope you all have a wonderful start to 2014!  Let's be awesome this year!
Thursday, December 19, 2013

My First Experience with Augmented Reality

I have heard lots of buzz lately about augmented reality and how it can be used in the classroom. After reading several blogs and articles about AR, I decided to give it a try.  Well, not only did I give it a try, but I tried it with first graders.  To say the least, it was a hit and I can't wait to try more AR activities after the break.

In my first activity, I used the ColAR App.  This is a great app that is very easy to use.  You simply print the pages from their website (some are free while others you can purchase).  Students then color the picture and use the app to bring their creation to life.  It really is that easy!

In preparation for our activity, I printed off the airplane and hot air balloon.  Before coloring the pages, we talked about the similarities and differences between the two.  The students really surprised me with some of their answers.  Most were the obvious such as they both fly and the airplane goes faster then a hot air balloon.  But others were more creative such as they both have seats and an airplane lands differently than a hot air balloon.

After our discussion, I allowed students to choose which picture they wanted to color.  As they colored, I asked if any of them thought I could make their airplanes really fly and their hot air balloons really float.  They all stopped and looked at me like I had lost my mind.  I asked again and then told them we were going to use technology to make their pictures seem very real.  We discussed augmented reality and what it meant.  I think it's important to use correct vocabulary with students even when they are younger.

As students completed their worksheets, we used our tablets to open the ColAR App and bring our pictures to "life".  The students were fascinated.  They couldn't believe what they were seeing and were buzzing with excitement over the new technology that they had just experienced.  Many students asked for the app so they could try this at home and that's when I knew it was a success.

Finally, we wrote about the experience.  I asked students to write a story about the picture that we had just created.  They were excited to write and share their thoughts.  The first grade students wrote great sentences about hot air balloons, airplanes, and augmented reality.  They were engaged and connected with the assignment.  However, this would not have been the case if we would have simply colored the worksheet and written.  The fact that we were able to take the picture and make it do things beyond what they had imagined was a gamechanger.

Needless to say, I'm very excited about augmented reality and its possible role in the classroom.  If used correctly, this technology can change the way we teach as well as they way that our students learn.  If you haven't heard of augmented reality or would like learn more about the way that this technology can me used in the classroom, please check out Two Guys and Some iPads and  Kleinspiration. The possibilities are endless!

Saturday, December 14, 2013

A Global Encounter

Teaching at a small school has opened my eyes to the reality that many of my students have little knowledge about the world that they live in.  They tend to think of their world as the small town that we live in and their immediate surroundings.

In an effort to make our students globally aware, some friends and I did something a little out of the ordinary around this time a couple of years ago. A family member of mine was getting ready to venture out on a trip around the world...literally.  He and his buddy from college quit their jobs, left everything behind, and set out to see the world in one year.  They called the experience Global Encounter and you can see their itinerary HERE.

Before leaving, Toby called me and asked if I thought there would be any educational value in their trip and we talked about what that would look like.  After several discussions and meetings, we decided that this would be a once in a lifetime opportunity for my students to see the world and so we would virtually travel right along with them.  Before leaving they came to visit our school so that my students would feel like they actually knew our travel companions.

As they traveled, we Skyped with them, participated in live webcasts, and watched the educational videos that they provided along the way.  I cannot put into words the impact that this opportunity had on my students as well as myself.  We were changed forever and still talk about the amazing experiences we were able to have because of Global Encounter.  As word spread about the worldwide trip, many others joined in. Thousands of students ended up following along as they traveled to places that many of my students never even knew existed.

As the trip grew in popularity, we decided that it would help teachers to provide lesson plans and activities to go along with each leg of the trip.  Students would watch Toby and David on location and then we would discuss and dig deeper, learning more about the culture and geography of the specific destinations.

One of my favorite lessons was the Petra lesson.  Students watched as Toby and David walked around the ancient city made of stone while explaining interesting facts and information about what they had learned. My students were in awe of the amazing structures and carvings they saw and wanted to know more about the people that had created this unbelievable wonder.

While traveling along with Global Encounter, we also saw China's Forbidden City and Harbin Ice Festival, Egypt's Ancient Pyramids, Mount Everest, and Milford Sound (and that's just to name a few). They also were kind enough to put together a scavenger hunt for us to participate in along with them that eventually took us to an underwater discovery involving the shipwrecked SS Conch.  (I know this sounds crazy and I still can't believe we were able to do this even as I write.)

When their trip was over, Toby and David came back to our school to visit again.  This time they brought many items that they had accumulated along the way to share including currency, crafts, and even food.  We loved trying Turkey's version of fruit gummies!  The students were able to ask questions and process the experience while learning even more about different cultures around the world.

I wanted to share our adventure to inspire others to dream big for your students.  Look for ways to bring unconventional learning opportunities into your classroom. I believe that every student deserves to learn about the world in an exciting and meaningful way.  Reading about Egypt in a textbook is not exciting. However, seeing someone that you know visit Egypt and share cool facts and photos from their adventure is very exciting.   While this was our way of bringing the world to our students, it is certainly not the only way that global education can be encouraged.  Technology has given us the ability to knock down the walls of the classroom and allow our students to experience the world in ways that were once thought impossible.

By participating in this activity, I learned that my students had a strong desire to know about the world around them.  They wanted to know about people in other countries and other children that lived differently than them.  It was so fun to watch their excitement as we learned about the many places around the world. Unfortunately, this ended up being a one time opportunity but I was so thankful that my students were able to participate and learn about the world in a real and meaningful way.

*Global Encounter is considering posting their videos, webcasts, and lesson plans on the internet at some point at no cost for educators.  If and when this happens, I will post the link along with more information about the program.  

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Passion Projects: A Win-Win

What are you passionate about?  This is the question that I have been asking my students for the last couple of weeks.

I service the gifted and advanced students on our campus and I absolutely love my job.  In one of my previous posts, I shared that we were diving into innovation projects.  We have just finalized our project ideas and have started talking about the process.  These projects are being done by my 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade gifted students.   This is a multi-age classroom and it's fun to see them working together to come up with meaningful projects that are passion-driven.  Below is a list of the projects that my students will be working on:

Raising $ for Cancer – Organizing a 5K for our community in order to raise money for local cancer organizations 
School Publicity – Finding ways to get positive publicity for our school as well as creating a school newspaper 
Animals Being Euthanized – Hoping to work with the Humane Society to find a solution to so many animals being euthanized
Technology in Classrooms – Working with teachers to provide suggestions about how to integrate technology into their classroom
Snakes – Organizing a presentation on snakes to explain that they are not always bad
Hunting Safety – Creating ways to educate others about hunting safety
Ice Cream Flavors – Creating new ice cream flavors and sharing with others
Hospital Improvement – Working with local hospitals to find ways that we can help improve hospital stays for others

As you can see, some of these projects are very ambitious.  One of the major requirements for each project is that students must collaborate with an expert outside of our school.  While some of these projects will turn out great,  some will fail.  And that’s okay.  Failure is something that students need to experience.  I believe that this will be a great way for students to engage in meaningful activities while learning important skills.   Ultimately, my goal is for them to become innovative, creative, and reflective learners.  

In addition to these projects, the advanced learners that I see each week for each grade level (1st - 5th) will be working on Passion Projects during our Genius Hour.  After doing lots of research and visiting The Genius Hour Website, I decided that I wanted all of my students spending some of their time each time we meet working on something that they are passionate about.  I have these students for three hours every other week.  Our first hour of class will be dedicated to such projects.  Some of my favorites so far include:

QR Codes for the Library - One of my students that loves to read will be making book reviews for the Bluebonnet Award books and using QR codes to display her reviews in the library.
Fashion Design - This student will create a blog where she will give fashion tips and information to other students her age.
Robotics - This student will study how to make a robot and will then do so using everyday materials that he finds at school and around his house. 
Cartoon Creation - After researching how cartoons are made, this student hopes to make his own cartoons and post on YouTube.  
Video Games Around the World - This student will use Google Maps to create a visual representation of the different video games that people play all over the world.  

My students will begin blogging soon about their projects and I am excited to see their reflections as they share their progress with an authentic audience.  We spent some time today making meaningful comments using Accountable Talk.  I was very pleased with their ability to come up with comments that were appropriate and engaging.  

My favorite thing about all of these projects is that they will incorporate multiple subject areas. Students will be doing what they love while still using math, science, ELA, technology, and social studies.  What more could a teacher ask for?  The students will be invested in their learning while learning the skills that need to be addressed.  It's a win-win for everyone involved!

If you have not heard of Genius Hour or Innovative Classrooms, please check out the following websites and blogs.   You owe it to your students and yourself to try something new and exciting. What a great way to start the New Year!

The Innovation Teacher - Don Wettrick
Genius Hour Website - Chris Kesler
Engage Their Minds - Terri Eichholz
Runde's Room - Jen Runde

Please feel free to comment below to share how you use Genius Hour or ask questions about how you can make this work in your classroom.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

A Few of My Favorite Things

I spent Thursday and Friday of last week at the TAGT (Texas Association for the Gifted and Talented) Conference and learned so much!  I always tend to get so much information at these conferences and have to remind myself not to come back and try it all at once.  After coming home and processing all that I learned, I wanted to take some time to share some of my favorite things from TAGT 2013.
  • Dr. Brian Housand's 60 Tech Tools in 60 Minutes presentation - I loved the format of this session.  He flew through 60 different tech tools explaining what they could be used for and where they could be found. My hand was a little sore because I was writing so fast, but it was great.  
  • DIY.org - This was one of the tools shared in Dr. Housand's 60in60 session.  When I got back to the hotel room and checked it out, I was SO excited!  It is the perfect tool for Genius Hour and Innovative Classrooms.  I shared with my kids today and they loved it.  I can't wait to share with my students!
  • Global Garden Project - Krissy Venosdale shared this project in her Global Connections session. I learned so many great ways to bring the world into my classroom but this was my favorite. I love the thought of sharing all of the data and making connections with classrooms all over the world. What a great way to get students excited about learning!
  • Student Exhibits - I always enjoy the student exhibits at TAGT and this year was no exception.  I am always amazed by the wonderful work that students can do when they are able to investigate, discover, and create.  As I walked by each exhibit and saw the passion each student had for his/her project, I couldn't help but be encouraged and motivated by their work.  
  • Dr. Temple Grandin - We were blessed to hear Dr. Grandin speak on Friday morning and it was fascinating.  She is such an inspiration and spoke some wonderful truths.  She emphasized how students need to do real world stuff and not become recluses playing video games in a basement.  
  • #GTchat - I learned more about Twitter and the power of networking with other educators.  #GTchat is a great place for me to talk to other educators that are passionate about gifted education.  My PLN has become a great place for me to learn and share and I am thankful for each one of them. 
  • Guadalajara Del Centro - Okay...so this is totally not related to the conference but this restaurant was amazing.  It was so good that we ate there BOTH nights!  If you are ever in downtown Houston, check them out!
There were so many great things at the conference this year that it would be impossible for me to share them all.  These are just a few that topped my list.  I had such wonderful time and can't wait for TAGT '14!

Student Blogs - The How and The Why

After sharing student blogging with several colleagues this week, I realized that many students are still not blogging.  Blogging has made its way into my classroom and has changed the way that my students write.  I have seen struggling writers sit and blog for 20 minutes without coming up for air.  I have heard students discuss their blog posts with excitement and anticipation.  My students actually ask to blog each day and they are almost giddy when I respond with a fun prompt to begin our class.

There are many reasons that I allow students in my class to create blogs.  I believe that blogging is a writing skill that needs to be addressed in the classroom.  Blogging is a great way for students to reflect and share experiences with an authentic audience.  My students see blogging as meaningful and engaging.  Class blogs create a sense of community in the classroom that is refreshing.

Before we begin blogging, I like to show my students examples of other student blogs and blogs written by successful adults as well.  This always brings authenticity and purpose to our classroom blogging and students understand why we are doing this.  We discuss the benefits and negative aspects of blogging.  I also think it is very important to discuss digital citizenship before students begin blogging.  

Blogging for my students is a way to communicate their thoughts and feelings with an audience.  They are given permission to share their writing and even comment on other student blogs.  Commenting on other blogs brings a whole new concept to the table.  Students must think about their comments and determine whether or not they are meaningful.  While I sometimes allow the "great post" or "nice job" comment, I want students to work toward making comments that encourage conversation and thought about the blog post that they have read.  As my elementary students are just learning to blog, this is a work in progress but we are getting there.

Just as students are able to comment on each other's blogs, I am able to comment as well.  I am able to see their writing progress by comparing earlier posts to more recent ones.   I can read their posts at any time and offer my guidance or assistance as they work on their writing.  This is invaluable to me as a teacher as I can communicate a genuine response that the students appreciate.

For those that are just beginning to use blogs in their classroom, there are so many ways to get started. In my classroom, we use KidBlog.  This is a great tool for beginning bloggers because it is very easy to use.  I also love that students can set their blogs to public or private.  This means that if they do not want to share with other students in our class, they can choose private and the post is only seen by the teacher and the student.  This gives us the ability to use KidBlog as a digital portfolio sharing work that is visible to others as well as work that is private.  There are many other blogging websites such as BloggerWordpress, and Edublogs. Check them out and decide which will work best for your classroom.

As we first started to blog, I simply gave my students writing prompts that were fun and exciting.  These are some great examples that I found at www.writingprompts.tumblr.com.  I then asked them to get on KidBlog and write their response.  If you haven't seen these writing prompts, you should really check them out. There are tons of them and the students absolutely love them!

John Spencer has created what is possibly my favorite prompt ever.This is writing prompt #703… but it’s been reworked based on some excellent feedback… feedback about simplifying the wording of things, which I’ll try to incorporate more often. If anyone else has specific prompts that they think need to be reworded or simplified, please let me know. I really appreciate the feedback. Sometimes I forget what Milton Glaser said: “Just enough is more.”

As my students have become bloggers, I have been able to give them a little more freedom with their writing. They are beginning to see that blogging allows them to express themselves.  This encourages student creativity, transparency, and self-awareness.  These are things that are not easy to develop and yet blogging, when used correctly, seems to make it automatic.

We are preparing to begin our innovation projects very soon.  You can read more about this in my previous post (Innovations Class...And So It Begins).  Students will then begin to move into blogging about their progress and will share their blogs with a larger audience.  

While blogging in class is still fairly new to me, it has already had a huge impact on my students and their feelings about writing.  If you would like to read more about student blogging, I would encourage you to visit the following websites:

Blogging is the New Persuasive Essay

How Blogging, Texting, and Twitter Can Help Students Learn

Teaching With Blogs

While I know blogging is old news to many, I also know that several teachers just don't know where to start. I hope that this post has encouraged you to try blogging in your classroom.  You will be glad that you did!