Saturday, October 11, 2014

3 Quick & Easy Apps to Turn Homework into AnyTimeWork

(Originally published on gettingsmart.com on September 23, 2013.)

As someone who seeks to make truly blended learning as seamless and ubiquitous as possible, I am constantly on the search for smartphone apps that will help students show mastery of knowledge no matter where they are. Let’s face it. The word homework gets a bad rap. Now, I am not one of those teachers who thinks students should work their butts off in class only to go home and log in another two or three hours, eat poorly, and go to bed around 2:00 a.m. Sure, homework is necessary at times, but I prefer students to be challenged from bell-to-annoying bell and then go home and practice other valuable lessons, such as: eating dinner with their families, participating in physical activities outside cinder block walls, relaxing and recharging near a pond with a pesky fish on the other end of a line, or chasing those passions and dreams that are so often ignored in more traditional educational settings. One way to alleviate the stress incurred from a hectic afterschool schedule is to take the “home” out of homework. That’s right. With a projected “1.4 billion smartphones in use by December,” the solution is simple. Students should be taught the power of their smartphones to extend their classroom knowledge and express their curiosity at any time, anywhere. In fact, three quick and easy smartphones apps to leverage the power of anytimework are Lumify, Snapguide, and Shadow Puppets.

Video Editing in No Time with Lumify

For students on-the-go who want to create a video for an “anytimework” assignment or to connect their newfound skills with the world around them, Lumify is perfect. Not only does Lumify offer four modes of sharing/saving (Lumify, YouTube, camera roll, or e-mail), but the ability to add an infinite number of songs directly from a smartphone’s music collection, to completely customize any audio or voice-overs, to trim all video clips, and to keep the entire process simple is absolutely awesome. Check out this test run from my colleague, Wes Vonier. He is offering Lumify as a way for his students to practice Spanish everywhere and any time. For more information about Lumify, check out their blog site and their smartphone app.

Create How-To Guides with SnapGuide

Although SnapGuide does not have a category for K-12 education (Are you listening, SnapGuide?), this powerful, and easy-to-use, smartphone app and website has huge academic potential. Whether students are creating guides to solve math equations, teach the writing process, construct a self-propelled car for Physics, help peers produce a creative product, analyze a literary character through acting, or simply link a class concept to something witnessed while loafing in town on a lazy Sunday afternoon, the creative and didactic possibilities of sharing photos and videos with textual explanations is limitless. Who knows how students will react when they realize education is all around them. Heck, I’m even contemplating using SnapGuide as a way to document and share some of our interactive learning structures from Studio 113 and E.P.I.C.C. Academy. Take a look at my first SnapGuide here.

Add Narration to Your Story or Slideshow with Shadow Puppet

Check out Shadow Puppet for giving a voice to stories or slideshows. After adding images, Shadow Puppet allows the creator to drop in an explanatory voice-over. Although this app does not accept videos, it is just as simple to use as SnapGuide. Take a look at this example from Dr. Lisa Sheehy as she pretends to be a student who narrates the process of solving a math problem. Surely you are wondering what the cons are for these three apps. Well, the only negative I have found is their absence in the Android and Windows smartphone markets.  For now, they are only available on iOS. However, considering their efficiency, simplicity, and reliability, there is reason to believe that they will be available on other platforms soon. One thing is for sure. With the help of Lumify, SnapGuide, Shadow Puppets, and the multitudes of other creative smartphone apps, homework is no longer just for home. It’s for any time and anywhere. Now, isn’t that how learning should be?  

36 Codes, an OWL, a Pitch Counter, and a Headset: Nontraditional Tools for Nontraditional Feedback

(Originally published on gettingsmart.com on September 23, 2013.)


Just like many educators, I am always working towards improvement, and my incessant quests for enhanced teaching and professional practices usually stem from a desire for one thing: quality feedback for my students. Obviously, to reach this goal on a daily basis, efficiency is paramount. Whether I am speed-reading a stack of e-mail, tweeting out class reminders for our new E.P.I.C.C. Academy, or creating online content to facilitate personalized learning, the goal of efficiency (and, as always, creativity) is at the root of my daily practices. Likewise, I am constantly experimenting. One such experiment these past six weeks has led me to a newer, more efficient mode of assessing students’ essays. Yep, it may sound a bit eclectic at first, but the only tools I currently use to provide valuable, timely feedback for my students’ writings are 36 codes, an Owl, a baseball pitch counter, and a headset.

36 Codes and an OWL

Call me a slow learner if you want, but I grew tired and frustrated after many years of crafting thoughtful paragraphs of feedback on my students’ papers only to watch them get trashed after their numerical grades were ascertained. This disappointment led me to develop an ever-evolving spreadsheet of grading codes and relevant links. These thirty-six codes have worked very well for the thousands of essays I have graded the last few years, but the effectiveness of these one-to-three character codes was taken to another level when our district recently did something amazing…students were given Google Drive accounts. This breakthrough, along with knowledge gained from this blog post from Catlin Tucker and the availability of Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab (OWL), has totally transformed my process for assessing students’ work. Take a look at the process here.
 

A Pitch Counter

To be even more efficient, I borrowed an idea from my days of playing and coaching baseball. A baseball pitch counter, which is obviously used by coaches to protect their players from overthrowing, can come in very handy when trying to quantify any particular area of focus when grading students’ essays. Sometimes I click and click to get an understanding of how students struggle with sentence fragments, run-ons, or comma splices, while other times I search for the number of ideas that support the students’ well-crafted thesis statements. Whatever it may be, the little gadget that cost me a mere $8 is oh so valuable.

A Headset

I remember using Audacity and a pile of students’ flash drives about five years ago to “voice grade” a set of AP Language essays. My colleague and I decided to give it a try, and the results were overwhelming. Students said the feedback via .mp4 audio files was some of the best they ever received. Since it did not take nearly as long for us to articulate our criticism as it did to write those same thoughts, we were relatively efficient. However, we encountered two problems: 1. Managing a multitude of students’ jump drives 2. Not having an effective technique for highlighting key areas within the pupils’ essays. Flash forward to 2013. Thanks to Jen Roberts, I learned how to add voice comments through Google Drive. This particular site, 121Writing, is now Kaizena. This powerful site has been revamped to accommodate teachers’ wishes and to make every aspect of assessment more efficient. From the ability to record multiple comments and send them all at once to the ease of underlining text or submitting written feedback, Kaizena is a teacher’s dream. Here it is in action.
   
Who knows what the future holds for teacher assessment. Maybe years from now I’ll look back at these grading tools, laugh at their assumed improbability, and discuss the presently unimaginable gadgets that line my feedback toolbox. For now, however, I’ll stick with 36 codes, an OWL, a pitch counter, and a headset.

Powerful Apps to Empower Powerful Writing

(Originally published on gettingsmart.com on September 10, 2013.)

After the first four weeks of school, one truth is clear. The majority of my students are not very fond of writing. As a Language Arts teacher and one who writes for enjoyment, I find this alarming. I first became aware of this overwhelming fact by studying my students’ Google form submissions, which were designed to shed light on their talents, academic strengths and weaknesses, educational backgrounds, and wishes for learning activities in our new blended learning academy. This invaluable data, which I collect at the beginning of each school year, was validated even more when I discussed the writing process face-to-face with individual students. No worries, though. I have a plan. What might that be? To unveil an unaware passion for writing by guiding students through powerful writing experiences with powerful writing apps.

Brainstorming with Mindmaps

As we all know, most students’ writing struggles begin with no beginning. They engage in personal mental warfare by volleying potential ideas back and forth until the only things that get spiked are their crumpled up sheets of paper, and since so many students are visual learners, they end up with no conceptions of their introductory paragraphs. No plans, no visuals, no start, and, ultimately, no power to continue. Enter mindmaps. Websites and apps like bubbl.us, Mind42, Mindjet, and RealTimeBoard provide students with user-friendly technology tools that help them organize and plan masterful compositions. No more writing fatigue caused by indecisive and unorganized brain chatter. Just a strong foothold at the “Start Line” of the prose, a clear understanding of the academic task, and a rock-solid game plan for excelling at the composition’s “Finish Line.” If you’re interested in learning more about the first three sites mentioned, please visit the “You’re Making Me” YouTube Channel for excellent video tutorials. Click here for a test-drive of RealTimeBoard.

Bridging the Writing and Talking Divide with Voice-to-Text Software

I may be slow sometimes, but I am no dummy. I realize the process of inspiring an unwilling writer to pour his thoughts and emotions into black letters on a white canvas is much more convoluted than simply saying, “Just talk.” However, the power in my students’ eyes last week when I used our Apple TV wifi connection to show them how Dragon Dictation converts my thoughts and words into a coherent and solid introductory paragraph was palpable, to say the least. If you have just one student who is reluctant to think through a pen, please click here and take a few minutes to see for yourself the writing muscle exhibited when Dragon Dictation flexes its digital ears.

Setting the Writing Mood

All right. Prepare yourself for this. I am about to reveal two apps that are incredibly effective at inviting students into the writing zone…you know, that one foot area of connection between a writer’s heart and mind where thoughts and emotions flow into beautifully scripted sentences like water cascading over a precipice of smooth rocks. And here they are…. Dun-dun-duuuun. The light switch... ...and... The play button. That’s right. Simply turning off those annoyingly bright, overhead lights and replacing them with soft corner lamps will entice students to relax just a bit and listen to their inner voices. If that’s not enough, try hitting play on a hypnotic, looping sound like this. Trust me. Setting the mood for writing time makes all the difference. See it in action here. If the use of these two apps are not possible for whatever reasons, give OMMWriter a look. Here’s the well-written explanation awaiting you on their website: “OmmWriter is your own private writing room where you can close the door behind you to focus on your writing in peace. Everywhere you go, you have access to a beautiful distraction-free writing environment where your authentic voice is free to go where it is meant to go.”

Sharing with a Larger Audience

Not too many students get excited about submitting their essays to me. Sure, some are eager to see how they scored and what they truly need to work on, however, most are absolutely ecstatic over the prospects of the entire world reading their musings. I understand. I feel the same way. Obviously, this is where the power of blogspots like WordPress and Blogger shine. Students can tailor these sites to reflect their personalities, topics, and authentic voices. Resting in their seats is not the only way they can publish their writings to the world; posting for all to see is just a click away on any smartphone or internet-capable tablet. As always, teachers can do a lot to help with exposing their students’ writings to a larger audience by repurposing websites like Symbaloo. With a thorough game plan like this one, Symbaloo can serve as a one-stop shop for your students’ original thoughts. And what about your students? How can they promote their essays, journals, and blogs? Don’t worry. They already know. I’m sure they’ll use prominent social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and Instagram.

Lightening Students’ Loads with a Digital Backpack

By encouraging students to use Google Drive in lieu of Microsoft Office and WeVideo instead of MovieMaker Live, my colleagues and I have nearly eradicated backpacks. Through an open BYOD policy and the luxury of a 1-to-1 tech-to-student ratio, our students are entering class many days with their internet capable gadgets or nothing at all. What’s even cooler than that, however, is the simplicity of students sharing and collaborating through Google Drive. Seriously, take just a few steps in our blended learning academy and you’ll surely see teams of three to four working on one, shared document. With the power of WeVideo in Google Drive, you may even see students recording directly from their laptops and teaming up to render one, awesome video. I would be remiss if I didn’t divulge my favorite aspect of Google Drive…grading with voice comments. Seriously. It is way too cool. Here’s how it’s done. Hopefully, these apps will serve you well, but please take a minute and post a comment about your most powerful writing apps. Who knows. If we work together, we may claim ourselves to be educators fit enough to carry a fifty-pound pencil, untether a shackled keyboard, or flip through an endless spiral notebook of blank paper… Or just powerful enough to introduce emerging writers to themselves.  

Tupac & Einstein: Now That's Blended Learning

(Originally published on gettingsmart.com on August 29th, 2013.)

I can honestly remember sitting in a high school Language Arts classroom as a sophomore in 1990 and thinking, “Man, there has to be a better way of learning than this.” But I was that pimple-faced, just-want-to-play-sports, socially awkward kid who tried his best not to be noticed due to an affliction of P.S.S., or Painfully Shy Syndrome. I wasn’t about to voice my criticism. Truth is, however, my inner voice was screaming so loudly for alternative ways of proving my knowledge, of revealing my talents, of challenging myself to conquer personal weaknesses, of stimulating my desire to learn by being physically active in class…anything other than the usual drill of lecture, read, and worksheet. You know what I mean. I was longing for a Shakespeare rap in the style of Public Enemy, an improvisational acting of Jem and Scout’s scary, nighttime walk in To Kill a Mockingbird, or maybe just the creation of a totally original short story to demonstrate my understanding of character development. Heck, my simplest classroom wishes had me daydreaming of a teacher who found some way of invoking all students’ voices to form a symphony of diversity via anything other than the one-size-fits-all pedagogy. Now, I’m not going to lie and say I had visions of multi-touch screens that accessed a world of knowledge by wirelessly connecting to a digital, infinite library. If that were true, I wouldn’t be writing this blog post, but instead I would be stretched out with my feet propped up while I watched the sunset on Lake Washington as a 40-year-old retiree of Silicon Valley. Oh, but I am far more blessed than that. You see, I, along with Dr. Lisa Sheehy and Wes Vonier, facilitate learning in a classroom with infinite possibilities. Not only is it a classroom where personalized and asynchronous learning dictate the students’ individual paths, but it is a classroom where creativity reigns supreme through flexibility, shared classroom ownership, and a superfluity of educational choices. Think of it as a classroom where all types of learners can succeed…on their terms. You know, students as diverse and different as, say, Tupac Shakur and Albert Einstein. Hmmm. Tupac and Einstein? Now that sounds like a unique blended learning academy. Let’s take a tour.
   

Want to see another Wax Museum version of our introduction? This one features live music. Click here.

The Seven Zones

In order to efficiently structure our classroom in some organizational manner and to accommodate all types of learning styles and activities, we established seven zones that bear the names of famously different learners. These names will remain for a half-semester, at which time they will be replaced by the names of other unique learners. Ultimately, our pie-in-the-sky goal is to end the year with the zones renamed in honor of our current students. Here is a brief introduction of our seven zones:

The Yousafzai Zone and a Welcoming Collage of Greatness

Yousafzai
Our first zone, named after Malala Yousafzai, is located immediately inside the entrance to our blended learning academy. It is simple. With only two comfortable chairs, a small table, and one dry-erase board, this learning area beckons students to curl up with wifi-connected tablets or no technology gadgets at all as they brainstorm and collaborate about their next big creation or their next, epic educational stance. They need not look far for inspiration. A collage of diverse thinkers ranging from Will Smith to Mahatma Gandhi to Steve Jobs to Ray Charles hangs nearby and reminds all students that they are stepping into a room designed for greatness.   Collage of Greatness
 Currently top-secret knowledge at this time, our ultimate plan is to gradually replace these famous faces with expressions from our brilliant students to create the final collage at the end of the year. After all, students should believe themselves capable of the extraordinary.

The Tupac Zone
Tupac Zone
Not to glorify any negative actions but to lift up the potential of a truly dedicated and focused blended learner, a portrait of the often troubled but extremely talented Tupac Shakur and his inspirational poem "The Rose That Grew from Concrete" hang just above the entrance to our professional-grade music studio. Equipped with all the appropriate musical hardware and the highly-touted ProTools software, this music studio is ready to pump out high-quality tracks and lyrics. My years in Studio 113 taught me that music almost always gets the students’ attention. Whether they can sing or not, every student is curious about the process of crafting an original poem and setting it to music. I have witnessed students over the years who had no singing ability whatsoever who were filled with enthusiasm and engagement at the daunting task of demonstrating knowledge through originally written music. Even if the songs weren’t actually worthy of a download from iTunes, the assignment always pushed them way past finish lines normally marked by worksheets and preparation for standardized testing.

The Frida, Lennon, and Mandela Zones

Frida Lennon Mandela
Named after Frida Kahlo, John Lennon, and Nelson Mandela, respectively, three of the seven zones contain 65-inch Samsung flat screens with touch overlays, or windows, that allow up to six simultaneous touches at once. These powerful tech screens also allow students to hook up their tablets or laptops through HDMI or VGA cables. By simply switching the “source” input on the screens, students can toggle back and forth from different computer screens. However, the Frida Zone’s Chromecast and the Lennon Zone’s Apple TV help add extra flexibility and efficiency by allowing students to share directly from wi-fi enabled tablets, laptops, and smartphones from any location in the room.  

The Lee Zone

Lee Zone
The energetic, rebellious, courageous, and gifted spirit of Bruce Lee encapsulates this zone. Comprising a six-section, portable stage that maxes out at 18” x 12’ x 16’, speakers that will absolutely rock the house, a pull-down screen, and projector, this zone is perfect for mind-blowing presentations and concerts. Furthermore, by reconfiguring the stage into different dimensions, an infinite number of gamified and interactive learning structures may be set up. These structures may stem from Whose Line Is It Anyway? or they may be some of the totally original ones created by our class as a whole. I can’t wait to show you some of our future presentations and interactive structures. Please stay tuned.

The Einstein Zone

Einstein Zone
This particular zone, named after the genius himself, adds pretty cool bit of technology. Enter the media:scape from Dekalb Office. Take a look at this picture, and you will immediately understand the concept. So far, our first two weeks have revealed this zone to be one of the favorites. This dual screen setup allows students to toggle to and fro from up to four computers. Students can choose to share their laptop or tablet screens by simply clicking on circular, push-button switch that shoots the image directly to one or both of the flat screens. As you can easily imagine, this zone is powerful for teamwork.  

Our Digital Learning Platform and Google Drive

To deliver our digital content, we use “Dell's and Intel's DLP user interface sitting on top of the Agilix BrainHoney learning management system.” (O’Dell). Our county has rebranded the digital learning platform, and we now refer to it as HallConnect. To provide even more 21st century technology tools to our students, our county has integrated the power of Google Drive into HallConnect. Students are absolutely blown away by the effectiveness and collaborative potential of creating and sharing all their work in Google Drive. Me? I’m pumped, too. I can’t wait to grade my first stack of essays with Voice Comment in Drive.

The Tech Gadgets

Our 1:1 program affords us the privilege of using Dell laptops, Dell tablets, and iPads, and to help with our full-scale movie program, as well as a multitude of other creative ventures, we have access to HD cameras, a 10’ X 20’ chroma key set, and lapel mics. Basically, if the students can imagine, they can create it.

Student Profiles

Student Profiles
Perhaps the foundation of what we intend to accomplish in our blended learning academy can be found showcased on our entrance wall in digital picture frames. Scrolling through fifteen seconds at a time, the slideshows announce to our learning family the strengths, weaknesses, talents, and ambitions of our students. No weakness is too great to demand help, and no strength is too humble to hide and go unused. Modeled by the teachers also, students are asked to be as appropriately transparent as possible. Only in this way can students move forward.    

An Evolving and Flexible Schedule

As our program develops, we envision a day where “school” hours may resemble a two-shift factory instead of a traditional 8:00-4:00. Due to various conditions, some students in the future may not be able to be present in our physical classroom, but they will easily be able to work on their course content through HallConnect. To show mastery of the standards in a creative way or to seek extra help, students may check the master schedule and plan a time to visit our academy. At this time, students will have access to the latest educational and creative technology to complete original projects. And that’s not all. Students will be encouraged to register and attend interactive learning sessions where they can collaborate on an interactive level with their peers. It may sound funny, but, hey, it has worked for Home Depot. It’s been proven. People want to be creative, and they will show up when the learning is scheduled to begin.

The Sanctuary

The Sanctuary  
 Nestled back in our classroom, a 10’ x 12’ area serves as the teachers’ homebase, and high above Mother Teresa sets the atmosphere for what will surely be a sanctuary as we try to provide answers for all the questions we have about this first-year program. But there is no need to worry. And if there is, lyrics from Tupac will help us stay the course:
“That's right
I know it seems hard sometimes but uhh
Remember one thing
Through every dark night, there's a bright day after that
So no matter how hard it gets, stick your chest out
Keep your head up, and handle it.”
I’m sure Einstein would agree with these lines, even if my colleagues and I do have a different version of his famous equation. You see, whereas “E” equals “engagement” and “MC” stands for “many choices,” there isn’t anything square about this academy.  

Ordering a Teacher: Suggestions from Students (Part 2)

(Originally published on gettingsmart.com on August 13, 2013.)

The feedback from Part 1 of “Ordering a Teacher” has been very positive and insightful. The blog has sparked many meaningful discussions, and, in some cases, arguments. All have been fruitful and ultimately positive, however. So, it is with much enthusiasm that I speak on behalf of my brilliant students to deliver the remaining five characteristics of an extremely successful educator…one who appears to be custom-made to order for today’s 21st students. Again, the experts have spoken, and they say today’s educators should be…

#6 Excellent Dancers

Adaptability or flexibility means being able to change as circumstances require it. It recognizes that life will bring us unforeseen challenges and if we are to honor our values and goals, we must adjust and learn as we go. Adaptability requires a certain willingness to let go, sometimes even grieving unmet expectations or ideas of how things ‘should’ have been.” -WisdomCommons.org Honestly, this concept is a bit scary and threatening to me. I mean, seriously, have you seen me dance? I make Elaine Benes from Seinfeld look like Michael Jackson performing “Billie Jean” live. All kidding aside, thank goodness this idea of dancing teachers is only a metaphor. And a powerful one, too. During a recent discussion about the characteristics of an effective educator mentioned within Part 1, a team of colleagues and I decided the art of teaching can be likened to the art of dancing. This conversation derived from the age-old argument about the ability for teachers to control their classrooms. Thankfully, a number of teachers and I agreed that, although classroom management is vital, classroom control is an illusion. A canard. A lie. There is no such thing as classroom control. Anyone still holding on to this mirage has not seen the clip of A Bug’s Life where the ants finally realize how powerful they are when banded together. Instead, we decided most successful learning environments are facilitated by awesome dancers who rely on the classroom magic that stems from an interdependent, give-and-take partnership between students and teachers. Think about it. Sometimes educators guide a group of students through a meticulously detailed and choreographed lesson plan and pray students follow, while the very next moment the roles are totally deconstructed with the students adding new moves and twists. This image reminds me to treat my lesson plans as mere frameworks of a house to be constructed later by a team of collaborative carpenters. If I install foundations replete with standards, engaging and interactive resources, and the flexibility to augment lesson plans with details created, suggested, and organized by students, the results will surely resemble fluid, harmonious, and symbiotic learning at its finest. Other times, class is like a synchronized line dance with all students following a rock-solid, gamified lesson plan. Although students are always on different levels of learning, these well-planned learning activities can bring students’ diverse talents and skills together to create something much larger than themselves. One thing is definitely for sure. According to the students, learning should rarely resemble the kind of dance illustrated by John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. Yeah, I know. It is an amazing scene from an amazing movie, and, truthfully, I wish I could be as cool as he was dancing under a multi-colored strobe light on multi-colored, tiled floor while strutting around with butterfly collars and snug-fitting polyester. Heck, the paint-can walk at the beginning of the movie was enough to make me long for coolness. But that’s exactly my point. The students say it is not about me. It is not about the power lecturers or the know-it-all sages on the stage. It is not about the teachers. It is about the dance created by all parties involved.

#7 Energetic

“The world belongs to the energetic.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson Let’s face it. There is no comparison between the lethargic and monotone teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and the energetic and inspirational Mr. Keating in Dead Poets Society. There is no way students will be enthusiastic about learning if the teachers show no excitement or energy for teaching. Students were in agreement that educators who drag themselves around the classrooms and show no signs of zest for their professions ultimately zap the life out of their students. I thought it was quite interesting that many students said teachers who exhibit this type of behavior actually establish classroom atmospheres that mirror this lack of energy and overall indifference. No students were saying teachers need to jump on desks and tables, a la Ron Clark. All that is needed is a little excitement for learning and genuine concern and love for the students. The energy will effortlessly flow then.

#8 Aware

"What is necessary to change a person is to change his awareness of himself.” –Abraham Maslow Students often paint a gloomy picture of teachers who are extremely unaware. They say this lack of awareness keeps students from connecting, and oftentimes respecting, According to these overlooked experts, unsuccessful teachers are unaware of:
  • Student's needs, strengths, weaknesses, talents, passions, future ambitions, homelife and fears
  • Their own strengths, weaknesses, talents, and fears
  • Current modes of connecting to other professionals
  • How powerful a heart-to-heart and face-to-face conversation with students can be
  • Engaging teaching strategies
  • Trends in educational technology
  • Their tone and condescending manner when speaking to students
  • How their preceding reputations establish negative expectations before students ever enter the classrooms
  • How awesome their classes could be if the students were asked their opinions

#9 Curious

“It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.” –Albert Einstein This quotation just about sums it all up. It seems so many educators are unwilling, or maybe just downright scared, to deviate the slightest bit from the learning blueprint, the unbending lesson plan. This rigidity often squelches students' questions. As one student put it so well, "It seems teachers want to fill our brains with facts when all we want to do is discover the facts of who we are and what we can accomplish through questioning and creating." Teachers who ask questions, pose challenges, and demonstrate a genuinely inquisitive nature spark this same curious mindset within their students. One such teacher who ignited a passion for learning was one who I never met...Steve Irwin. This ceaseless ball of energy captivated a world of animal lovers, or soon-to-be animal lovers, by simply expressing his awe for all living creatures. Even when things didn't go his way, Steve Irwin remained curious. Take a look at this video and hear the curiosity and wonder in his voice. It nearly makes me want to stare eye-to-eye with this beautiful lizard.

#10 Creative

“The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.” –Carl Jung I know, I know. Expecting teachers to be creative all the time adds pressure to the always challenging profession, but injecting creative twists to old lesson plans through gamification, interactive learning structures, passion-based learning projects or by simply redesigning traditional classrooms could be just the pressure relief needed. After all, a classroom of engaged and passionate learners is the most effective form of classroom management.
As this embedded tweet suggests, teachers who feel the DNA gods failed to give them the creative genes necessary to wow a class of learners can simply remember to "create" an environment that allows students to construct authentic work. Well, quite frankly, the students have spoken. I sure have tried to listen. Take one last look at all ten and ask yourself, "What would my students say about me?" If I am truthful right now, I better to get to work. If I need any help, I'll ask the students to point the way.

Ordering a Teacher: Suggestions from Students (Part 1)

(Originally published on gettingsmart.com on August 1, 2013.)


I have learned the best way to improve my teaching practices is to listen to the people who matter the most…the customers, the students, the ones I serve. It seems the last few years students have been more than willing to “burn up” my ears with their opinions. Perhaps they felt the need to correct me when lesson plans lacked interest and engagement, or perhaps they simply sensed the sincerity of my educational inquiries and decided to enlighten a 40-year-old, baldheaded teacher of fifteen years. I’ll assume the latter. Whatever the reason for their eagerness to divulge educational bits of advice is immaterial here. However, the certainty, conviction, and passion behind their musings cannot be denied. So, in keeping with my self-prescribed plan for professional rejuvenation and development, I have compiled a list of the top 10 suggestions for today’s professional educators. Directly from those who matter the most, the students. What has been my question to initiate such mature discussions? I always ask, “If you could walk up to a machine that dispenses great educators at your disposal, what characteristics would you select to create the teacher of your dreams?” Of course, I figured I would get comments reminiscent of Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher” music video or maybe even a bunch of teenage girls remarking how they would surely pay attention if Channing Tatum were behind the class lectern. To my surprise, none of that. Instead, I was pleased to continually hear a rapid, machine-gun list of characteristics that should be practiced by all educators. According to the experts, the brilliant students who fill our classrooms, today’s educators should be…

#1 Positive

“Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.” –Marcus Aurelius
This characteristic is definitely a no-brainer. Overwhelmingly, students choose the word “positive” to describe their favorite teachers. As one brilliant young lady said to me recently, “There’s no way in the world a teacher can expect us to be excited about learning when he starts class by saying, ‘All right, I don’t wanna be here either, but we gotta get some stuff done.’” Fifteen years ago when I started teaching, my supervising professor gave me sound advice: “Stay away from negativity, shut your classroom door, and teach your butt off.” With the exception of closing off my classroom, I try my best to adhere to his advice. Likewise, if I ever find myself in a negative environment, I need not foul the air with verbal poison. I can simply vote with my feet and walk away from the pessimism.

#2 A Forward Thinking Professional

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” –Albert Einstein
What does it mean to be a forward thinking professional? According to the customers, educators should not rely on doing the same things they’ve always done. Instead, teachers must always seek to stay connected to current educational trends and classroom practices. This most definitely includes being cognizant of the latest educational sites, apps, and gadgets that could potentially help students reach mastery of the standards through efficient and engaging technology tools. As one student said to me, “It says a whole lot when a teacher says, ‘Put away those darn cell phones and quit tweetering with your friends on FaceVine, or whatever it is you’re using.’” And she continued by adding, “Obviously, it’s not too exciting when the teacher follows that up with, ‘Now get out a pencil and sheet of paper to turn in your one-paragraph journal.’” So, what’s the best way to stay connected to all things awesome in education? For me, Twitter is my starting point. From this powerful, social media giant, I learn of new educational tools, and I am challenged to move forward by reading thought-provoking blogs from fascinating teachers around the globe.

#3 Fearless

“There is no hope unmingled with fear, and no fear unmingled with hope.”-Baruch Spinoza
Yep! I know. This is a tough one. How can teachers be fearless when faced with pay cuts, job losses, less classroom time, increased standardized testing, and a new teacher evaluation system? Heck, I’ll be honest. Teaching demands ten times more than it did when I first stepped into the classroom. It’s hard to imagine being twenty-three, fresh out of college, and thrown into a classroom of thirty-five boisterous students. Yes, I did it many years ago, but with all the extra responsibilities, it seems a daunting task. The answer, however, is rooted in the above quotation from Baruch Spinoza. If we can ground ourselves in the hopes that we can be the superhero educators of our dreams, then our fear of dealing with the minutia that zaps our energy and robs us of precious classroom time will easily subside and melt away. Only the product of our hope, and engaged classroom of personalized learning, will remain.

#4 Balanced

“Happiness is not a matter of intensity but of balance, order, rhythm and harmony.” –Thomas Merton
I was amazed recently to discover that most students think all teachers do is go to work and argue with students, only to go home and grade papers until collapsing from exhaustion. In essence, many students think teachers have no lives. In fact, students want to see the exact opposite. They want to see teachers leaving “work” at work. They want to see teachers having a blast with their families. They want to see teachers in the community involved in non-work-related activities. This doesn’t mean that you need to go get a tattoo that says “YOLO” or go to a Lil’ Wayne concert, but students continually want teachers to simply live. Maybe students say this so they won’t receive extra homework from overzealous instructors, or maybe their suggestions are more altruistic and they want adults to recapture that kindred spirit of adventurous and excited living that our overloaded brains must have squeezed out.

#5 A Leader and a Follower

“The task of leadership is not to put greatness into people, but to elicit it, for the greatness is there already.”John Buchan
Quick question: What feels more natural, easier, to you? Leading or following? I guess it depends on the situation, right? Well, surely being the curriculum leader in your classroom feels natural, but how about following? Students continually say that following is just as important as leading. Admittedly, they want their teachers to be confident leaders who understand the direction of the classrooms. However, students often told me that after the standards and learning tasks have been introduced, the best thing teachers can do is get out of the way. Allowing students to “play” and “explore” with the assignments in mind provides them with a more natural way of learning. Students repeatedly informed me that when they have a voice in the direction of the class, when they are allowed to choose how to demonstrate mastery of the standards, they ultimately feel as if the classrooms are theirs and intended solely for their benefit. The end result? More engaged and enthusiastic students learning in an active, not passive, educational environment. Please check back next week for the remaining five suggestions for teacher improvement. In the meantime, I'll be checking myself next to these five suggestions while trying to determine how much I would be worth if I could be ordered as a teacher.

5 Lessons from a Beach Vacation

(Originally published on gettingsmart.com on July 16, 2013.)

I write where I am, and for the last week I have had my toes entrenched in the sand on the beaches of Panama City, Florida. My seven days of sun and relaxation were reminiscent of a song from the Zac Brown Band. However, just like any true educator, I was open to any lessons while I kicked back in a beach chair, covered in Bull Frog 50+ SPF sunscreen, behind prescription shades, and under a Columbia fishing hat. Somehow, someway, five lessons managed to roll up on the waves and saturate me with educational droplets of wisdom.

Lesson #1: Doing Nothing is Doing Something

Unless you consider throwing a Frisbee, playing cornhole, and swimming in the ocean to be intensely physical activities, I didn’t do much of anything for about seven straight days while on vacation. The funny thing is, however, that I reflected on many parallels to the classroom while sitting on my behind. How often do I leave work more fatigued than my students? I have often been told that a solid classroom is indicated by the students working harder than the teacher. Do I consider myself a teacher or a facilitator of learning? I used to be proud when an administrator walked in to observe me and I was busy lecturing away. Now, I know better. I am proud when my students are “observed” as active learners, and I am simply strolling around the classroom seeking to help and guide students on their individual learning journeys. Am I too eager to jump in and “rescue” a student who is struggling with a standard or concept, or do I stand by as a patient guide while waiting for him to ask for help or clarification? I can honestly admit that I oftentimes made the answer all-too-easy to discover during my first few years of teaching.

Lesson #2: A Pier’s Foundation Must Be Strong

A popular community pier was about a half mile from my spot on the beach. Through binoculars (and not trying to exert too much energy) I witnessed all walks of life trek back and forth on that pier, and I could only imagine how sturdy the pier’s foundation needed to be to handle all types of weather. Do I set my classes up strongly by introducing and practicing all classroom procedures or do I dive immediately into the curriculum? Will these classroom foundations be solid, but flexible enough, to allow for all types of learning activities? Do I establish a BYOD system that welcomes all learning devices, including smartphones?

Lesson #3: If You Feed the Birds, They Will Soar

Feeding the birds

On day four of my beach escape, I watched a young man throw pieces of CheezIt crackers into the air just feet above him while Seagulls floated on the gulf breeze and gobbled up the bite-sized snacks. It was quite mesmerizing. As long as he fed them, they stayed directly above him…hungry for more. Am I knowledgeable of my students’ interests, passions, past failures/successes, and future ambitions? Do I allow these same interests and passions to dictate the direction of class? Do I stay abreast of current educational trends and practices in order to meet the students” where they are” and not where “I was” as a teacher?

Lesson #4: Every Seashell is Unique

The collection of seashells produced by my son, daughter, nephew, and niece reminded me of this unchanging truth. Do I continually treat all students as if they were the same by teaching as the sage-on-the-stage through boring lectures? Am I open-minded enough to allow ALL students to be who they are and learn the way they do even if I don’t truly understand why? Do I seek to help students discover their own individual ways of learning and then provide challenges that help them perfect those individual styles?

Lesson #5: Connections Are Everywhere

My father-in-law is one of the best cornhole players I have ever seen, and it was a given that his set of cornhole boards were going to Florida. I was so glad he did because we continually met aspiring players from Kentucky, Alabama, Texas, and Georgia. Hearing their stories and learning about their backgrounds was very educational. I even met one professor from Texas and one history teacher from Kentucky. Of course, we didn’t talk work too much, but the moments we did left me with even more insight into an ever-evolving profession. Do I provide “outside-the-classroom-walls” connections for my students? What technology tools do I use to make these connections? Google Hangouts? Skype? Lync? Twitter? Do I gamify certain lessons in order to bring students together with a common purpose? Yeah, my beach vacation was definitely needed and definitely successful. In fact, each day had me singing words from the very same Zac Brown song… “Life is good today, life is good today.” One thing’s for sure. If I take these five lessons to heart, I’ll be singing this same line at the end of each future school day.