Wednesday, December 31, 2014

5 Ways to Make Learning Meaningful in 2015

If what we are teaching is not meaningful for our students, we are wasting our time and theirs. I know I say this all the time but it is so very true. Why do we as educators waste our time talking at our students about things without giving them an opportunity to make connections? How can we expect them to learn about something that has no meaning for them? Imagine yourself being forced to sit through a class or lecture about something that is of no interest to you whatsoever. We've all been there...we've sat through a professional development class that we knew would not work in our classroom or had nothing to do with our subject area.'s...torture! It's not fun because it's not meaningful. We can't connect to what is being shared because we do not see a practical use or reason to learn what we are being taught.

So, today I wanted to share some ways that I hope to make learning meaningful in my classroom this year.

1) Know your students well. Know your students well enough to know what they are interested in and how they are motivated. Understand that it will not work to see them as a class but instead you must see them as individuals. It's difficult to make learning meaningful if you cannot find a way to connect personally with your students. They need to trust you enough to know that you would not waste their time sharing something that is not important or will be important at some point in their lives.

2) Trust yourself. Trust yourself as an educator to teach in a way that you know is best for your students. Don't be afraid to try new things. Give yourself permission to fail and make mistakes as you look for new ways to engage your students and make learning meaningful for them. Look for opportunities to step outside your comfort zone and do what you know is best for your classroom.

3) Be okay with a little chaos. Meaningful learning is messy. It's not always easy and does not involve students sitting in rows doing the same worksheet. Instead, it's chaotic and sometimes a little crazy. Kids are okay with this and can learn best when we allow them to explore, interact, and create. While I understand there are times when a classroom should be quiet and students need to be individually focused, I also believe that more often than not, they should be moving around and being given the opportunity to find out what meaningful learning is for themselves.

4) Get connected. Being a connected educator has helped me give my students some amazing experiences this year. Genius Hour and Innovations has had a huge impact on my students and has given us a new perspective on what is meaningful and what is not. Knowing that I have access to some of the world's most amazing educators instantly is still mind-boggling to me. Being connected has opened doors and given me the opportunity to explore what is meaningful for me and in turn, I am able to offer meaningful experiences to my students.

5) Use technology. Like it or not, technology is meaningful for our students. They get's their world. I'm not saying that technology will always make the lesson more meaningful because there are so many ways to add meaning without using any technology. However, when used appropriately technology has a way of taking a learning experience to new level. Students are learning on their terms using their devices. If it will make the learning more meaningful or provide an opportunity for connections to be made, use technology in your classroom. Don't be afraid to learn from your students. Ask questions, share concerns, and find ways to implement technology in your classroom as often as possible.

Make it a priority to ask yourself as you plan every lesson this year if it is going to meaningful or a waste of time.  And then be honest with yourself.  Look for ways to give your students opportunities to connect with the learning. As I said earlier, meaningful learning is messy. I'm still learning from my students what this looks like in our classroom and will continue to learn as long as I am an educator.  If you are setting goals for 2015, please make one of those goals to provide meaningful learning experiences for your students. They deserve it!
Monday, December 29, 2014

One Word for 2015

As we begin to wrap up 2014, it's a great time to reflect and appreciate all of the wonderful things that happened this year.  However, it's also a wonderful opportunity to look forward to the wonderful things that 2015 is going to bring.  I love this time of year because it brings the excitement of the unknown, the opportunity to write a new chapter, and the challenge to make this year the best year yet.

Last year, I began participating in One Word to start off my new year.  One Word encourages us to choose one word to be our focus.  Last year, I chose change as my one word and often thought about this throughout the year.  I used the word to remind me of my goals and my desire to encourage change in our education system while making it a priority to change my own classroom to meet the needs of my students.

So, what's my word for 2015?  Drum roll One Word for 2015 is brave.  I chose this word because I often struggle with fear and doubt.  I wonder if I can really make a difference, bring change, and give back to the world in the ways that I know that I should.

                                                             Image Source:  The Stir

This year, I plan on conquering this fear.  I will be brave enough to share my thoughts, stand up for what I know is right, and encourage others to do the same.  I've spent too much time wondering what it would be like to begin a speaking career, wishing I could share what I know with others, and wanting to influence other educators to look outside the walls of their classrooms in order to give their students the world.  So this year, I will be brave enough to pursue these ambitions.

I will not wonder if I'm good enough or smart enough.  Instead, I will remember that our students just need educators that are willing to stand up for what they need.  They need teachers to model that it's okay to fail and try again.  Our students need their teachers to be brave enough to do what has not been done, to try what has not be tried, and to find ways to make learning meaningful for them.

Bravery is inside of all of us.  It's just a matter of putting our fears behind us and looking forward to what lies ahead.   I'm excited about the new year and the opportunities that await.  I can't wait to see what 2015 holds for myself, my family, and my classroom.

Wishing you all an amazing year!  I look forward to continuing to learn with you in 2015.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Learning from Experts - Five Ways to Connect Your Students with Outside Experts

Marine biology, ALS research, endangered animals, and autism in children...these are just a few of the many topics my students have been researching and studying for their Genius Hour projects. Needless to say, I am not an expert on any of the topics.  However, because of technology, I am able to find ways to connect my students with amazing experts and mentors from many different places. 

As I've written before, I no longer take the lead in my classroom, but instead allow my students to navigate their own learning.  I am, however, their guide and must find ways to help them make connections while they are learning.  In doing so, we sometimes have to be very creative.

Outside experts are a huge part of Genius Hour. My students are required to have an outside expert for their projects.  This expert cannot be mom, dad, aunt, or best friend's mom.  It has to be someone that they do not know and could be considered an "expert" on the topic that he/she is studying.

Finding these experts can be difficult and I will say that it is a lot of work.  However, as I watch my students ask the questions that THEY want to know and experience their project topic in a way that is meaningful, it is definitely worth the time and effort that goes into finding the experts.

Some of the experts that we have talked to so far include:

Sea World Skyped with my student that is studying dolphins.  They actually Skyped from Dolphin Cove so we were able to see the dolphins and experience what it must be like to be a dolphin trainer.

Sea World Skyped with my student that is studying endangered animals.  During the session, they brought out an endangered seal and we were able to watch as the trainer and seal interacted.

ALS Association Texas Chapter Skyped with my student that is finding ways to raise awareness for ALS.  She spoke with the Director of Care Services who provided us with so much information.  We learned so much and my student was able to ask several questions that were on her mind.

Paws 4 Autism Skyped with my student that is learning about how dogs help children with autism. She answered lots of questions and shared personal stories about how autism has affected her and her family.

Holly Tucker came to the school and visited with my student that is creating a website about music.

Texas State Technical College allowed us to visit and tour their Culinary Arts Department.  My student was then able to sit down with a chef and get the answers that she needed to carry out her project.

These are just a few of the many ways that my students have been able to connect with people that they consider experts on their topics of choice.  In doing so, they have learned more than I could have ever taught them in the classroom.  They are able to experience their project and ask the questions that they want to ask.

Below are my suggestions if you are considering incorporating outside experts into your students' learning.  I am still learning and making mistakes but I do know that this aspect of our learning is worth pursuing.

1.  Look local.  Consider contacting your local colleges for experts.  There are professors, athletes, and students that are more than willing to share their knowledge and information with young minds.

2.  Use social media.  We contact most of our experts on Twitter.  While we don't always receive a response and don't always get to contact our first choice, it is a great way to find and contact experts quickly and easily.

3.  Just ask.  There have been many times that I have thought, "We can contact them, but I don't think this organization or person will have the time to work with us."  I have been so surprised at the willingness of experts to speak with my students.  They love to share their knowledge and enjoy knowing that students are interested in learning from them.  Don't be afraid to ask others to share and serve as experts for your student projects.  Worse case scenario is that they say no and you keep looking.

4.  Look for opportunities.  I always keep my student projects in the back of my mind.  Even when I am out and about,  I watch for opportunities to connect my students with experts.  I ask around and share my student projects with anyone that will listen and I'm not afraid to ask to for suggestions.  Many of the experts we have contacted have been suggested by other teachers, friends, or parents that know about our projects and are willing to help.  As my friend, Don Wettrick says, "Opportunities are everywhere!"

5.  Take chances.  Stick your neck out for your students.  Allow them to see your willingness to help them find experts and connect with them.  Share your desire to make these connections with your administration and ask for their support.  While they may not understand this type of learning right away, it will not take long for them them to see the value and meaning in connecting your students with outside experts.

Connecting with outside experts takes your students' learning outside the four walls of the classroom. Collaborating makes the learning so much more real and meaningful.  It opens doors of opportunity and provides students a way to invest in their own learning.

For more information about experts in the classroom, please consider reading the following:

Experts in the Classroom  - Scholastic

Bringing the Outside In: Experts in Your Classroom - Ginger Lewman

Pure Genius: Building A Culture of Innovation and Taking 20% Time to the Next Level

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Meaningful Motivation

                                                        Image Source:

Motivating's a discussion taking place in the teacher's lounge every day.  How do we find ways to motivate students to complete assignments, participate in class, and want to learn in our classrooms?

I definitely do not have all the answers when it comes to motivating students but I do know that a "one size fits all approach" will not work.  We cannot continue to try to motivate all of our students in the same way and expect the desired results.  

As I was reflecting on motivation before writing this post, I thought about what motivates me. Affirmation is very motivational for me.  In other words, a "great job" from my principal, pat on the back from a colleague, or encouraging words from my PLN are the things that keep me going. However, negative words or attitudes do not motivate at all.  In fact, if I feel like I have let someone down, done something wrong, or failed in a way that was disappointing to someone, I tend to shut down.  While there are exceptions, I would say that the majority of the time, negativity does not result in motivation for me.  

I can't help but wonder if this is the case for many of our students.  As teachers, we often try to motivate students by dishing out negative consequences.  We hope that by giving the students such consequences, they will learn from that experience and change their behavior.  However, I can't help but notice that it's the same students that are missing recess, receiving zeros, and visiting the office each day.  Can't we assume that if the behavior isn't changing, it's not working?  

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Students are different.  They are not going to be motivated in the same way and some students may require more motivation than others.  While intrinsic motivation is the goal, it's unrealistic to expect all students to be intrinsically motivated 100% of the time.  As teachers, it's our job to not only ask questions and guide student learning, but we should also consider the motivational strategies in our classrooms.  

When we get to know our students, their interests, and their dreams, we are better able to motivate them to do what they need to do reach their goals.  If they realize that we genuinely care about them and their story, they begin to trust us.  They begin to realize that we are all working together to reach one goal...success.  

That success might be different for each student.  While success for one student might be making a high score on the next test, success for another might simply be completing an assignment and getting it turned in.  Again, a one size fits all approach will not work with today's students.  They come from such a variety of backgrounds, homes, and families, it is imperative that we make it a priority to know them well enough to find what motivates them.  

I write this post simply to encourage us all, as teachers, to consider or reconsider the motivation strategies that we are using in our classrooms.  If our ultimate goal is to engage and motivate our students, shouldn't the motivation be meaningful?  Shouldn't motivation encourage students rather than discourage them?  Taking the time to know and understand our students gives us the opportunity to find what intrinsically motivates them.  In doing so, students gain an understanding of themselves and are able to understand what does and does not work for them.  

Friday, December 12, 2014

Smore - Interactive Flyers for the Classroom

We used Smore this week in my 5th grade GT classroom as a way to share about the structures that we are studying.  Each student chose a structure that they wanted to learn more about and then researched that structure to find information that they wanted to share.

In planning this project, I was looking for a digital tool that would allow students to share their information in poster form.  However, we didn't want to create regular posters because we wanted them to be interactive.  And then I remembered Smore.  It had been a while since I had used this tool in my classroom, but I remembered enough to know that it would be perfect for this assignment.

After each student had completed their research, I explained what I wanted them to include in their flyer.  We talked about the why we were using Smore instead of creating regular posters.  Here are three reasons that using Smore is appropriate for today's classrooms:

1.  Smore flyers are interactive. - Students can add so much information and content to a Smore versus a paper poster.  They are able to add YouTube videos, audio, website links, and more.  In doing so, they are able give their audience an opportunity to learn even more about the information that they are sharing.  

2.  Smore flyers can be shared with the world. - Smore flyers are able to be easily shared on a blog, website, or social media.  Students can share what they have learned with their parents, peers, and anyone else for that matter. 

3.  Smore flyers teach digital design. - Using Smore, students are able to create visually appealing flyers from scratch.  They can change the fonts, backgrounds, and layout of the flyer in any way that they would like.  This gives students an opportunity to explore digital design and learn how to create using digital tools.  

My students absolutely loved this assignment and worked very hard to create flyers that would teach others about the structures that they had chosen.  Here is an example of one of the student's flyers about The Gherkin.  I love that he was able to share so much information instantly with his audience. I especially like that he was able to add his voice to the flyer to make his learning more personal and meaningful.

I was so impressed with their final products.  They created beautiful flyers that represented the structures that they were studying.

Next time you ask your students to create posters in your classroom, consider using Smore. A free account allows you to create up to 5 flyers.   Educators can purchase Smore annually for $59.00. With this purchase, you are given the opportunity to create an unlimited amount of flyers, receive reports for your newsletters, and gain access to education-themed backgrounds. You can read more about Smore Flyers for Teachers HERE.

I am so glad that we used this tool and look forward to using it more in the future.

Friday, December 5, 2014

TAGT 2014 Reflections

I just got back from TAGT (Texas Association for Gifted and Talented) Conference in Fort Worth.  I attend/present at this conference every year and I always learn so much.  This year was a little different as I went with the intention of networking and really getting as much as I could out the two days that I was there.  

Wednesday night was the Welcome Reception and I had the pleasure of meeting one of my Twitter buddies, Ginger Lewman (@gingerlewman).  It's always such a surreal experience to meet these people that you've followed and learned from online face to face.  We took a quick selfie, chatted a bit, and then I headed out to get some rest for a full day on Thursday.

The next morning started with a wonderful keynote from Nikhil Goyal (@nikhilgoya_l).  His keynote addressed today's school system and the fact that it has not changed much over time.  He pointed out that we subject kids to conditions in school every day that we would not tolerate as adults.  He encouraged teachers to offer choice and real experiences in their classrooms.  Nikhil suggested that we need to think differently about intelligence as a society.  Students should be encouraged to be curious and creative.  He shared this image during his presentation and asked if this is how we are making our students feel every day when they are at school.

After this session, I attended Ginger Lewman's session on gamification and badges.  I had some great discussions with some of the other educators sitting close by as we shared our questions and thoughts about motivating students in our classrooms.  Having an opportunity to discuss my struggles/concerns with my peers gave me an opportunity to hear different perspectives.  I left that session with a lot going on in my head and questions about how I could give badges more significance in my own classroom.

And then it was my turn.  I shared the technology that I use in my classroom and encouraged teachers to engage students in meaningful learning.  After the session, I was able to talk with several educators that are so ready for change.  They want to try things in their classrooms but just do not know where to start.  Some explained that their district just isn't ready for change and they are doing the best that they can.  I was inspired as I listened to their desire to try new things and willingness to implement technology to provide meaningful experiences for their students.  

My colleague, Brenda Davis (@brenkaydavis), shared The Six Thinking Hats strategy in her session.  She challenged educators to use this technique to give students an opportunity to think differently.  In explaining the hats, she gave teachers an opportunity to use the technique themselves.  In doing so, they were able to see the value in looking at a problem from many different perspectives.  Many of them shared how they were using these hats to challenge their students and engage them in different ways.

That evening, we enjoyed laughs and great conversation over dinner with Ginger.  It was so fun to be able to ask questions, share our thoughts, and get to know each other.  She introduced us to Uber (even though I was scared to death) and shared her story with us.  In listening to all Ginger had to share, I was so inspired by her willingness to think differently about education.  I love that she asks the hard questions and encourages other educators to do the same.  By the end of the evening, I knew we had a begun a wonderful friendship and I look forward to many more conversations with Ginger as our paths cross in the future.  

Friday morning, we had the pleasure of listening to another keynote by Scott Barry Kaufman (@sbkaufman) who wrote Ungifted.  He was so much fun and very engaging!  His story is so inspiring and his presentation was enlightening.  In sharing his story, he explained that we sometimes miss seeing the whole child because we get so focused on specific labels.  

He challenged us to help kids fall in love with the future image of themselves.  In closing, he told us about The Future Project which is an organization that provides "dream directors" to help students make their dreams come true.   I was so intrigued by this idea and still can't help but want to find out more about the initiative and the specifics of dream directors.  What a great job description!

As I sit here this evening reflecting on all that I learned and the connections that I made this year at TAGT, I can't help but be thankful for the opportunity to learn from some of the best minds in education and look forward to TAGT 2015 in San Antonio.