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syllabus of silliness

This young man chose to story map The Landlady by Roald Dahl. Classic old lady and poisoned tea!

Ah, on my to-do list: an updated syllabus for the Computer Technology Essentials course. I put one together this summer with the foresight that it would need to be modified. As with all things new, what we expect doesn’t always materialize, and what we get is sometimes far greater than we hoped.

The current unit of study is “Documents.” I had hoped to get all the students into Google apps, but alas, because of the age restrictions I’m taking a step back and asking parents to sign their children up with accounts since many of them aren’t 13 yet. I know the method of adding them in edublogs with the +name method, but that’s not enough, and time-consuming for a single semester course.

This week we focused on mind mapping/story mapping. Of all the software and apps I looked at, everything requires potential money, were too dry, boring, and tediously requiring logins. I have login fatigue: only imagine what this generation will feel. They’ll welcome the biometrics with open arms and eyeballs, surrendering more data to the Borg.

My district, thankfully, is in the process of obtaining new software, but we can’t wait for POs and checks. I did what any smart teacher would: went low-tech. Paper, pencils, colored pencils, highlighters. And modeling.

The criteria:

  • The map had to be for a class: math, science, language arts, social studies, pe/health
    • character sketches
    • story maps
    • scientific process
    • claim, evidence and reasoning charts
    • claim, evidence, and reasoning questions
    • math processes and equations
  • It would have a central idea/topic/question and a minimum of nine other connections
  • Choose something that’s currently challenging or difficult to help make sense of it OR
  • Choose something that’s currently interesting/easy to show what you know

I asked the teachers in the building what they were working on this week, and received so much support. The students loved that I helped them make connections to CTE and their other classes. (Not to mention the mad teacher ninja skills we possess.)

After they spent a class sketching on rough paper, they drew a more finished copy on blank paper (it was tough to give up my own paper supply, but worth it). The next day I walked them through Word features: shapes, inserting Youtube videos, pictures, online pictures, etc. to recreate their sketches digitally. With writing, the process is key on the path to publication.

Some examples:

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There may be hundreds of apps and software companies trying to get a piece of the ed-tech dollars. I would ask that perhaps you talk to teachers in the classroom about the hurdles we help our students jump over to use your products. Ask yourselves the same questions my students ask: What is the point of this product? Is it helping me or getting in my way?

I’m not sure how to phrase that on a syllabus, those nuances and subtleties of creating.

Never be afraid to slow it down, stop, look up, and then move forward.

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Fluff the Knickers.

“There’s truth in every story told.” –Neil Gaiman

Last spring, when I made a commitment to my administration that I would create, develop and lead curriculum and classes for the critical and important vision of bringing technology instruction for our students; however, I wasn’t quite ready to give up ELA. I hoped to be able to continue my work in ELA and at least have one class. But it wasn’t meant to be, and I even knew it last year. Some instinct whispered to me, but I ignored it. Something didn’t sit right, but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. My premonitions are usually accurate: it’s my lack of ability to stop or mend potential events where I struggle. English/Language Arts pumps my teaching heart with blood and purpose for the past eleven years: curriculum leader for five years, collaborative teams, professional development, hours of my own blogging, writing, research: every time a test changed or standards flowed in, I took it as a personal challenge to grow and adapt, all in order to help my students grow and adapt. I am not an outwardly competitive person (which I think confuses competitive people: I am my harshest critic), but my internalized coach is demanding. I have not found a teaching problem that can’t be solved with discussion, reading, trying: isolation is its kryptonite, however. Teaching is breathing: no oxygen = death.

If you take the time to read the thread above when I found out a week into the school year I wouldn’t be able to keep the ELA class, that hit me hard. The repercussions of this meant I wouldn’t be able to meet with beloved colleagues during PLCs and continue the work we’ve created in any formal way. The thousands of dollars of books, the Lord of the Flies unit, the planning, the money, the time, the curriculum –hours of the years, and the summer–stopped. Continuity and conversations: muted.

So when I process and grieve that due to numbers, budgets, and hard decisions that may or may not be in the process behind the scenes for over a year and I lost my one ELA class, please understand that need to reflect and process, but I will remain strong. And — full disclosure: the computer technology work I’ve been doing parallel these past eleven years, too, is also my heart. This is going to be very powerful indeed. I have my friend John Spencer in our decade-long digital friendship and discussion, my colleagues who know me, I share willingly and listen with open ears. My curiosity is a gift.

As I write this, pour a cup of coffee, I realize I am lucky, maybe even blessed, not cursed: our district is in big financial trouble. Being a building union representative, I’ve monitored this issue for some time now. We teachers and our building administration are justifiably scared. With fear comes an outward display of anger. From the information we’ve listened to in horror at union meetings, a few dozen teachers were forced to move to positions they didn’t want, or have the necessary credentials for. Trust me: if the district moved me to a calculus classroom parents could sue for educational malpractice. There isn’t enough Khan Academy in the world to catch me up in that content area.

But as my friend and mentor said, good teaching is good teaching. I am fortunate that my style and approach has never been concrete-content driven, but big picture learning. We create scientists, mathematicians, historians, journalist, writers, readers, and thinkers. I’m looking forward to continuing this work.

The Great Handshake started a series on teacher hacks. While the word ‘hack’ connotes a modern sense of coolness and ingenuity, it doesn’t really serve the powerful message of the posts. “Conferences that work” artfully and subtly underscores how data has gone wrong in a few powerful sentences: (typos are the writer’s: pay not attention)

“My principal and I have started to call these meetings “data chats.” At first, I thought that was a great name. But then, as is often the case, adults started to ruin the word “data.” People start to think that we are turning kids into numbers and charts, and forgetting the humanity that makes teaching and learning so challenging and meaningful.

But this kind of data is full of humanity. In fact, on countless occasions, students have cried about challenging years while recounting why certain times in their school experience were harder than others. Teachers have to be prepared to hear about pain that students should never have to endure, and reasons why they failed all of their classes a given year. At other times, students laugh as they remember middle school, goofing off, and all of that pre-pubescent confusion. During these conferences teachers morph from planners of individual instruction, to listeners and amatuer councelors, to friends, to mentors, to motivators and to all the other roles wedged in between those.”

Read some of his comments and noticings for the student. If I were her, there is no way I would leave that conversation without finding my dignity, integrity and moreover, power again. She is a lucky student.

But it shouldn’t take “luck.” Conferencing, relationships, conversations and heartfelt, sincerity supports all of us, teachers and students alike.Our building is fortunate to have strong leadership now. However, if we don’t have a role model or leader who promotes warmth and fairness amongst the staff, we must steal it for ourselves in order to have the strength to have the loving, difficult conversations with students. To reframe and refocus: “Yes, you are more than a test score. And here is why.

What I research, read, think about, write about: all of that may not mean anything to the district, administration, or leaders. They have their own purposes and to-do lists. So, I’ll continue to grow back my tails, fluff my knickers, and carry on.

I have important work to do:

No Longer a Luxury: Digital Literacy Can’t Wait



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8 Days a Week

"Time Hopping"
“Time Hopping”

Let’s pretend we live in a world where no students are ever tardy, there are no altered schedules (no joke: last year there were no fewer* than eight to ten different schedules depending on whether or not it was a morning assembly, afternoon, late start, etc.) The class period is 50 minutes long, after a four-minute passing period, where all students have hydrated, taken care of bathroom necessities, and enter the classroom, crossing the threshold to a new adventure. That’s the dream. The reality is students, and teachers, are…humans. The school day feels less like a nurtured, creative maze and more like a gauntlet. The big question on the Notice & Note site is a pragmatic and all-too-real scenario: just how do we teachers use our time with students to maximize learning, growth, and engagement? Perhaps this is the only pedagogical question worth asking.

Last year I had the pleasure of having block classes: I taught Humanities, and at that my 75 minutes was squeezed. Whereas a science or a math teacher has the science and math standards, which are abundant and demanding, ELA/SS has a complex web of standards, so ‘two content areas in one.’  I loved it, though, and knew when I let go of that teaching assignment to return to 8th grade, that was a teaching luxury that proves to be difficult to relinquish. But I did it for years, and can figure out how to refine it and make it work again.

If a student’s day is their personal journey of the hero, then the first step is to get them to cross that threshold. I try to create and embed routines, as well as design and decorate my classroom so it feels ‘other worldly.’ And like the flight attendant speech we’ve all learned to ignore after years of travel, I don’t hesitate to remind and refresh students about those routines.

When planning the scope/sequence of the year, I go big picture/thematic to monthly, to weekly, to daily. For years, I tried this:

Metacognition Monday: focus on reading through a lens, discuss fix-up strategies, usually a passage intended for Talk Tuesdays.

Talk Tuesdays: just like it says — small group discussions, possibly Socratic Seminars, etc.

Write It Right Wednesdays: focus on a writing skill, genre, concepts –mini lessons. I try to write every single class period.

Thematic Thursdays: this one is less constrained — perhaps a concept discussion, literary elements, big question/burning question concepts, read aloud, connect with film for Film Friday, other texts that connect, media pairings, etc.

Film Fridays (Friday Fives are also due on Friday –five vocabulary words) Film Fridays are not guaranteed, but usually a short film from Vimeo, StoryCorp, TedTalk, etc. I have a list of tens of short films and am shark-like in my never sleeping hunt for great little shorts. For these films, often I’ll use a Levels of Questions graphic organizer or What It Says graphic organizer; sometimes, *shrug* I just let us enjoy the film.

One big change for this year is instead of a standard entry task, which isn’t time-cost beneficial, I’m switching to ten minutes of reading. How we as a class will manage and use that ten minutes for The Book Whisperer’s challenge is to be determined.

A caution: one year, someone from the district needed me to change my and my students’ routine based on her scheduling needs, and I realize I must have seemed inflexible. The thing is, though, especially for a high-impact, high-poverty school, is that many students have too much chaos in their lives, and the routines of school are safe and necessary. Never apologize if your classroom timeframe is what’s best for students. Ever. I just saw a student who’s just graduated from college, and I asked him what he remembers, and he was clear: how I made them feel supported. I was honest and supported them emotionally.

I guess the point is — and the only wobbly advice — it’s your job/life — how do you want to construct your day? How do you want to feel after every class? And before the next one? I’ve adjusted my time talking, and when I do need to impart information, make it very clear on how long I’ll talk, and keep my word. (No pun intended.) Like backwards design, consider what are the essential elements you want your students to keep and sustain their learning? The answers on how to schedule your, and their time, will become clearer. I have to pack a lot into those 50 minutes: I don’t assign homework but try to do flipped lessons that don’t depend on internet service, as many of my students don’t have access. I’m going to have to get real creative and resourceful this next year, and I’ll share this challenge with my students. The more they see that I’m thinking about them, respecting their time, and honoring their commitment to learning, the more it fosters engagement.

Like ‘backward design,’ consider what are the essential elements you want your students to keep and sustain their learning? The answers on how to schedule your, and their time, will become clearer. I have to pack a lot into those 50 minutes: I don’t assign homework but try to do flipped lessons that don’t depend on internet service, as many of my students don’t have access. I’m going to have to get real creative and resourceful this next year, and I’ll share this challenge with my students. The more they see that I’m thinking about them, respecting their time, and honoring their commitment to learning, the more it fosters engagement.

Look to Pernille Ripp for more ideas on how to manage the hardest thing of all: time.

Someone also posted Kelly Gallagher’s suggestion on how to use time: (click to enlarge)

kelly time schedule
This may not work for you or your students.



*Always trying to brush up on my grammar. And I have a nerd crush on Grammar Girl.

Some resources: