Saturday, March 16, 2019

Stop Teaching Skills That Disappear

I recently had the opportunity to watch the educational documentary, Most Likely to Succeed by Ted Dintersmith. It's a pretty powerful video.  While there were dozens of ideas that struck me during the viewing, there was one particular idea that I keep circling back to.

I understand that we all have a curriculum to teach and standards to align our instruction to, but I think we need to ask ourselves some tough questions about what exactly we are teaching.

Are we teaching students things that stay with them or are we teaching them things that disappear?

If you really think hard about this, it might be a game-changing question for you.

My son is in first grade and every Friday he has a spelling test, a vocabulary quiz, and a reading test. Don't get me started on the fact that a 6 year old has already deemed Fridays as "test days".  He knows about the 5-day death march that we trudge through week after week.

Luckily, he doesn't have to study a lot for these tests, as he has strong literacy skills. But, imagine if he didn't.  Some students have to study for 4 or 5 tests every Friday.  Let's think about what it is that he is learning. He gets a set of spelling words on Monday and then is tested at the end of the week.  Once Friday comes and goes, that knowledge also goes. While he will apply spelling patterns in the future, he'll never have to regurgitate that list again.  Why have we created these routines in education?

Consider a similar situation in an upper level math class.  Our students memorize formulas for the big test and then throw that information away once it has served its purpose.  I fear that we are forcing our students to consume information that they will never use again. What if we taught students things that stuck with them, like how to work in a group or how to think flexibly about a problem. What if our lessons focused on how to communicate with others and confidently present an idea. Then we would be equipping students with skills for life, the skills that don't disappear on Friday or any day a year or two from now. 

We wonder why kids say--when am I ever going to use this?  It's because we are teaching them things that will disappear--likely sooner than later.  How can we change that trajectory?

Connect with kids--Every conversation we have with our students allows us to model the importance of relationships. The interactions we have and the stories we tell shows students that people matter.  Their words matter. That is a life lesson that won't fade away throughout their schooling.

Design tasks that matter--Rethink your instruction and create tasks that push student thinking and force them to tap into skills that don't disappear like grit, empathy, and perseverance.  Memorized skills and rote repetition won't stick with your students much beyond Friday's test. Opt for learning experiences that will expand creativity and equip them to solve problems.  These are tools that will help them in any class, job, or life experience.

Provide a purpose-Learning a topic "because we have to" or taking a test on Friday out of habit are not good enough reasons for me.  Tell your students why they are learning what they are learning. Define the purpose and make sure it's a good one!  Provide students with the reasons behind the content they are learning. 

When we provide a purpose, connect with kids, and design tasks that matter, we are building knowledge within our learners that won't fade away over time.  We can give them a foundation for learning that will stick with them and show them the value in this thing we call school.

This week, reflect on what you are teaching and assessing.  Are you focused on skills for Friday or skills for the future? Teach your students the things that won't disappear.  

Share a comment below about your reflection. 

Saturday, March 9, 2019

How Do We Celebrate Creativity?


In schools, we hold academic honor ceremonies, athletic competitions, and science fairs.  We have spelling bees and "Math-A-Thons". We lift up the successes of our students in big ways when it comes to these types of accomplishments.  We recognize championship wins and perfect SAT scores.  We hand out certificates for honor roll and perfect attendance, but how do we celebrate creativity?

I recently attended an event at my son's school called Arts Alive.  Your school may have one of these kinds of events, too.  Student artwork was hung throughout the halls.  Each grade level practiced a few songs and did a performance on stage.  There were crafts in the cafeteria for families to do and a even a face painter.  It was a lively evening focused on celebrating the arts, but it got me wondering about what we do to support creative learning throughout the year.

If we value creative thinking and the imaginative work of our students, then we should celebrate this in both big and small ways. Here are a few simple ways to honor the creativity in your students and show them that their creative mindset matters.

Showcase Student Creativity (all year long)

When I was an elementary principal, we had an amazing art teacher.  Not only did she build student skills in the art room, but she inspired students to be creative.  She did a great job of displaying student work throughout the school, but visitors to the school didn't always have the pleasure of walking the halls and viewing these masterpieces.  We invested some money in some plain black frames and hung them in the main office.  Select pieces of student work could be displayed regularly in the office for everyone to see.  While this is a simple step to take, imagine the pride in a student's face when they see their creative work displayed in this way.

Offer Creative Assessment Options

If we agree that creative thinking will solve the complex problems of the future, then we need to start equipping students now with the skills to do that.  Reflect on your assessment practices.  Paper and pencil tests can't always measure everything we want to see in our students. Do you offer options that tap into the creativity of students?  Are video animations a choice when summarizing a story? Can students use Buncee to illustrate their understanding of a science concept?  Does building a physical model to explain a math formula "count" as an assessment? Exploring creative assessment options provides an alternate pathway to demonstrate understanding and allows student strengths to shine.



Promote Creative Accomplishments

We post on Facebook and tweet out when our sports teams win and when our scholars excel.  Let's honor our designers, painters, poets, and musicians just as often. Promote the work of our creative students all year long, not just for the one-time art show every spring.  Let's be intentional about giving students the time and space to exhibit their creativity.  We can promote it through the programs we offer in our schools and the communication that we push out to our school community. Tell the story of creativity in your school and share it.

Celebrate Creativity

Sir Ken Robinson said, "Creativity is as important now in education as literacy and we should treat it with the same status." There is no doubt that lots of educators are lifting up creativity and giving it the status it deserves. Let's #uNlockCreativity and open a world of imagination within our students!

How do you celebrate creativity in your classroom? In what ways does your school promote student creative successes? Share your ideas for unlocking creativity in schools.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

3 Books That Support Remaking Literacy

If you are one of many teachers who are wondering how maker education fits into your curriculum, I'd ask you to think about literacy as a potential pathway.  There are so many engaging books that can lead students to meaningful opportunities to make. Hands-on learning has the ability to engage disengaged students and boost student understanding when it comes to reading, writing, speaking, and listening.

We have an opportunity to "remake" our literacy practices and take the effective strategies that we already know and use and ramp them up with an added layer of maker education.  Within our classrooms, we can share stories with our students that lead to creativity and design.  Finding the right stories or taking time to find the connections within children's literature can be a challenge, so I wanted to share three great books that can support remaking literacy in the classroom.


The Branch is a great story that you probably haven't heard of.  It shares the connection between a young girl and her neighbor who work together on a project.  This book can lead to a number of maker experiences.  The girl and her neighbor explore tools in the workshop and move through a number of steps. The story provides opportunities for students to use their imaginations to create something out of a problem.

Remake Opportunity: Simulate the idea of the branch and provide every student with a large chunk of cardboard.  It's essentially a blank slate. What ideas do they have? What steps will they take to create something new out of this material?


Twenty-One Elephants and Still Standing provides a some historical context about the Brooklyn Bridge.  With concerns that the bridge wouldn't be strong enough to hold them, the members of the community look to circus legend P.T. Barnum for help.  In response, he sends his herd of 21 elephants across the bridge to ensure that it is structurally sound.

Remake Opportunity: This book is a smart choice if your students enjoy bridge building and you are looking for a literature connection. Use your favorite maker materials and have students design and build bridges for strength. Spaghetti and marshmallows, craft sticks, or cardboard--any materials that you have available would work.


The last book to share is Green City which taps into environmental awareness and the importance of sustainability.  The author shares the story of one town that was devastated by a tornado and worked together to create a green city that would sustain their community in the future. 

Remake Opportunity: This book can lead to opportunities to explore solar and wind power. Imagine your students designing solar panels and wind turbines or other creations. Create a "green" challenge for your class to create a new power source or get involved in the Future City project. 

Books can be one way to engage your students in connected, hands-on learning. The content that they learn about within literature can be applied through maker learning in your classroom or in a school makerspace. These books are just a starting point.  There are hundreds of  stories that present opportunities for "remaking".

Interested in more ideas like this?  My book Remaking Literacy will be coming out later in 2019 with Solution Tree. Check their site or my website http://www.steam-makers.com/ for the release date. 

Sunday, February 10, 2019

A Cabin in the Woods: One Writer's Secrets



I never understood in the movies how authors would lock themselves away in a cabin in the woods and pound out a novel in a matter of days.  Don't get me wrong, I understand the need for solitude.  I long for an escape to a serene location to stir up some inspiration, but my process isn't that linear.  Partly because I can't find those big chunks of time and partly because I don't think my brain works that way.

I often struggle (when I do have some quiet time) to just sit and plug away at my writing.  My process takes twists and turns.  Rarely do I find myself focused in for a long period of time on one topic, chapter, or idea.  I wish I had that in me, the ability to just lock myself in a room and crank out page after page, but I don't.

Over the last year, I've been reflecting more about myself as a writer.  I love the idea of a writer's retreat.  Who doesn't need time at a chalet in the mountains or a lakeside getaway, right?  But since I don't often have that luxury, I have to find my own strategies to persevere as a writer.

Here's what I have figured out so far on my journey as an author.  Perhaps some of these strategies will work for you too.  Maybe you will take one strategy and put your own spin on it.

Pre-Writing

Collect your ideas--Let me start by saying that my "pre-writing" happens all the time.  I literally carry around a notebook with me wherever I go.  I jot down quotes that I hear or ideas that I have.  Sometimes it's just scribbles.  Once in a while I will use the ideas right away and other times the thoughts will stay stashed away in my notebook for months before I return to them again.

Create your atmosphere--a quiet room or a noisy coffee shop, maybe some distant background noise. It seems that every writer has their preferred way.  For me, it's no TV, no soundtrack playing to get me motivated. I find that I just need to be alone with my thoughts.  Not too comfortable of a place to sit, I need to keep focused and not wander away in the coziness of the spot.  I often find myself at the dining room table or sitting on the couch with the sun from the outside shining in on me. Every writer will create a different atmosphere.  Find yours and make it work.

During Writing

Get it on the page--Some writers are intentional about working from chapter to chapter, from logical beginning to end.  Not me.  I jump around to wherever my thoughts take me.  I may write a few paragraphs in one section and then move to something completely different.  I know that I need to get it on the page, in whatever way I can, reassuring myself that I can always go back and change it later.

Take a sidebar-- I know that we just got started writing so taking a sidebar may seem a bit like procrastination but sometimes that's how my writing goes. I had a great writing professor once tell me that writing doesn't have to always be writing.  Work on a reference list.  Stop to reread your notes.  Write a list of alternate titles.  Sometimes formal writing takes a backseat to other strategies that lead to future writing, so taking a break and having a short sidebar is OK.

What does this look like? For me, it might mean:

Hopping on Twitter to search a hashtag for ideas
Google image search related to what I'm writing about
Reading quotes from others on the same topic
Paging through my notebook for handwritten ideas that strike a chord
Leafing through a magazine
Draw, sketch, or doodle
Closing my eyes for a minute or two to pull ideas together
Talking to someone else about the topic

Post Writing

Walk away-- Sometimes I just have to step away from my laptop.  Sometimes you just need to take a mental and physical break from writing and clear your head. Don't sit there and beat yourself up waiting for the perfect idea or transition sentence to come to you. Walk away and take some time to refresh.  It will help you to returned to your work refocused and ready for your next piece.

Share with a critical friend--Just when you think you are done with a blog, an article, or chapter the last thing you might want to do is revise and edit your work, but sharing it with a critical friend may be what you need to take your writing to the next level.  Find a trusted colleague or valued critic who will give you some honest feedback.  Getting someone else's perspective may help you in your process.  Join a writing group like Teach Write  or create your own.

Finally, take some time to celebrate.  Writing is hard work.  Sometimes it can be exhausting.  It can also be invigorating and joyful.  As writers, we can't forget to step back and appreciate our own accomplishments. You have taken a risk and shared your ideas.  You are a writer.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Why Every Educator Needs to Attend an Educational Conference

I just spent the last few days at the Future of Educational Technology Conference, so I am still coming down from my "learning high".  If you don't know what I'm talking about, then you probably haven't been to a great conference in a while.  It was an incredible opportunity to learn new things, see new products, and connect with some of the most influential innovators in education.

You see, when I go to conferences I try to get to as many sessions as possible and absorb as much learning as I can.  I find joy in listening to engaging speakers and gaining new knowledge from their experience. I'm also the kind of person who gets mad when someone knows something that I don't know. In turn, my thirst for knowledge grows.

I NEED to learn more.

Share your knowledge with me, please!

I don't know about you, but I like to surround myself with lifelong learners who can make me better. I find myself drawn to educators who have the passion for teaching and the drive to continue their own learning. This is why it's disappointing when I talk to educators who never get out of their buildings to learn and grow from others. There may be lots of reasons why educators don't get out to conference more often:

"My district doesn't have any money to send me to a conference."

"It's too much work to prepare for a sub while I'm gone-----if I even get a sub."

"I don't know which conferences are the best ones to go to."

Let's get rid of these excuses!  I know, conferences cost money, but there are options out there.  Some conferences (like @FETC) offers free registration for educators who are willing to present.  Many others provide group discounts when more than one educator attends.  Some conferences will offer a discount if you volunteer a certain number of hours at the event. Need another way to get yourself there? Maybe you are connected to an educational company?  Are you an Ambassador for Microsoft, Buncee, or Osmo?  Ask them if they'll provide you with a sponsorship or a stipend.  Every little bit helps.

So, grab a buddy and plan your road trip to the next big conference.  Start saving up now if you have to.  Find an inexpensive Air B&B and join in the learning!

Not sure which conferences are right for you? Check out Cybraryman's  always-amazing collection of resources.  He shares upcoming EdCamps, Conferences and other regional PD.  You are sure to find the right event for you!  The Education Calendar site is also a helpful tool, as you can search by state/location for great event near you.

We all need time to recharge our minds and refocus on our educational role. Time away at a conference fuels my need to learn and grow.  It allows me to connect with enthusiastic educators who love what they do.  I also get the opportunity to hear from thought leaders in education. When I map out my schedule, I look for the educators who I follow on social media and am rarely disappointed when I get to meet them face-to-face.  If you don't follow Heather Lister or Jaime Donally, check out their work. I've followed them for a while and was ecstatic to finally meet them in person!



Educational conferences are just one pathway to personalized professional learning, but it is a path that every educator needs to explore. While every conference experience is unique, it is a time to reflect on your practices, refresh your mindset, and rejuvenate your practices.

Teachers--take time away from your classrooms and attend an educational conference this year.  It will be worth it. You will return to your students filled with new ideas and a renewed sense of purpose.

School leaders--remember the importance of helping your teachers to learn and grow. Carve out time and money to make sure that opportunities exist in your district.


Sunday, January 13, 2019

Educators as Storytellers

I recently had the opportunity to have lunch with some of our high school students and talk about their educational journey in our school district.  With a focus on instruction, assessment, resources, and technology, we talked about the things that they felt were important to them and their school.

I went into the conversation wondering what the students (juniors and seniors) would say about the last 12 years in our school district.  Would they complain about school lunches or dress code?  Would they talk about their favorite teachers or coaches? Would they question whether we should start school later or add more study halls?

The students definitely shared bits and pieces like these, but there was one critical take-away from the conversation---their connections with teachers.

They lit up when they shared about the relationships that they had with some of their teachers.  They laughed about funny quirks of some teachers and personal anecdotes from others.  One thing rang true--the relationships that were cultivated throughout their high school experience were meaningful and longstanding.

Image result for storytellerOne student shared something particularly important--the idea of educators as storytellers.  The group all agreed, the best teachers were those who told stories, not just personal stories, bridging connections in the classrooms but those who wove stories into their content.  Without realizing it, their teachers hooked them in to the learning with the power of a story.

This made me reflect on my own education and those teachers who crafted stories within their classrooms.  You probably remember some as well--the ones who had you hanging on their every word while (slyly) infusing history or literature content.  You felt like they were just talking to you, but they were really just finding pathways to incorporate core content in meaningful ways.

The high school students shared that they found comfort in those teachers who crafted stories to support their subject areas.  They expressed feeling more engaged, more interested in the topic, and more connected to their teachers.  It didn't matter if it was art, music, math or foreign language, the conversation kept coming back around to the stories that teachers tell.  Isn't that what we want for every student?  Connections to their teachers.  Connections to the content. Personal connections that lead to deeper understanding.

So the challenge is:

Teachers--Reflect this week on your role as a storyteller.  Do you weave examples and stories throughout your content?  How does that make a difference to your students?  Ask them!

School Leaders--As you visit classrooms this week, look for the storytellers.  How are these teachers intentionally using storytelling as an instructional tool?  What do you notice about student responses?

Also think about your role as a decision maker and an instructional leader, where can you use storytelling to compel others to take action or improve their practice?

Please leave a comment on the power of storytelling in your school.  I'd love to hear how these opportunities are impacting teaching and learning.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

3 Maker Tools to Try This Year

Maker learning is happening in schools and libraries.  It is an exciting time in education as we have so many tools and materials as our disposal.  Our classrooms and makerspaces are filled with so many options, how do we know what to choose?

When you spend time with students, it is always interesting to see what materials they gravitate towards.  Sometimes its the unexpected item that gets a lot of attention.  Other times, the things that you think are going to be a huge hit are actually a big flop.  Before I introduce materials to my teachers or students, I usually try it out at home with my own little makers.

It's exciting when I bring home a new product to try.  My sons and I love to tinker so we figure out how things work and play around with them.  That's really the heart of making, if you ask me.  It's that informal messing with materials that provide a creative spark or a new idea that pushes kids to think differently about whatever it is they are working with.

Right now my older son is loving Plus Plus.  These interlocking mini blocks can be used to build just about anything.  2-D and 3-D structures, people, or vehicles.  In a short time, my son used the images from the packaging to replicate a robot, flowers, and an airplane.  Pieces fit snugly together and are perfect for small hands. They offer flexible play on the part of the learner but can also be used to follow a set of directions to accomplish a specific end product.  We love the colors and the creative opportunity that Plus Plus offers to create and design whatever you want.

If you haven't heard about Buddha Board yet, you will want to give this a try.  Think relaxation meets maker education.  We all need the opportunity to step away from technology and do something to "de-stress".

Buddha Board is essentially a painting canvas that only requires water and a little imagination.  The brushstrokes are quite calming as students use the water to create sentences, images, or anything they come up with.  The challenge is that it doesn't stay for long. Within a minute or two, the water dries and the image is gone.  It's a great tool for brainstorming or sketching but is especially powerful when it comes to the mental impact.  Now I know that might sound a little far-fetched, but painting on the Buddha Board can really calm you down. It provides this zen-like opportunity for individualized creation that works for every student.
I recently stumbled upon Solarbotics, based on my youngest son's obsession with creating marble runs.  We have a plastic set which he builds and tears down a dozen times coming up with new and improved iterations.  When I found the Gravitrack from Solarbotics this took the idea of the marble run to a whole new level.  Adding battery and solar powered panels, allows the mechanisms to move the marbles at different points in the track.  Other models from the company include carousels and other machines that makers will love building, hacking, and remaking.



There are tons of great maker tools out there.  This post represents just a few fun options for the little makers in your life. They support both structured and unstructured play for students.  While you can't beat free materials like cardboard and some duct tape, these are all fairly inexpensive ranging from $15-$40.  Don't have the funds? You can always create a Donor's Choose post to add these maker tools to your space this year.  

Do you have a favorite maker tool that we should try in 2019?  Please post a comment below.  

Keep on Making!