Outside the box

Balancing the Box

Last month, sitting in a workshop discussing the power of writer’s workshop, the inevitable question arose: “How can I find time for this when I have a mandated curriculum to follow?”

One seasoned educator responded, “I just do it. What are they going to do, fire me?”

I chuckled, along with the rest of the room, but it really got me thinking about this common dilemma so many educators face: trying to follow along with a boxed curriculum, while still trying to bring in activities and lessons that help and engage every student. We know our students and so often the “one size fits all” curriculum doesn’t fit the missing puzzle pieces. It is in these moments that we need to trust ourselves as professionals and do what is right for students.

On the social media/message app Voxer, I am a part of an amazing community of middle school English teachers from across the country where we discuss this dilemma often. The pressure to keep pace with our PLCs, complete the required assessments on time, while still having time to reteach, accommodate for those with special needs and engage students with topical, relatable activities that bring fun to the classroom can be overwhelming. It can leave teachers feeling inadequate and as if they are failing. This common scenario is definitely not good for students.

The key is balancing the box with what you think is right for your students. I often think the best thing that ever happened to education was the adoption of Common Core standards without having any approved curriculum. It forced teachers to not only truly understand the standards, but also trust ourselves to create lessons to meet those high benchmarks. Sure, it was brutal, and if you’re like me, most of those units were far from smooth, but personally, I learned so much. About the standards. About curriculum development. About my own teaching gaps. There was no box to protect me.

This is my second year with purchased curriculum, (third if you include piloting). The greatest gift my district gave our teachers was not mandating that we teach every single activity. We do have common unit assessments (three times a year) and common writing pieces (3-4 a year). Don’t get me wrong; I think having these common assessments are incredibly important. District wide we can make decisions on areas of growth for our students and teachers based on results. Even in our PLCs it is important to have shorter-term common assessments, as well. It drives instruction and monitors student growth.

What does not need to be common and identical is the way we teach the standards. I am a huge fan of UDL (Universal Lesson Design) and one of the cardinal rules is that not every student learns the same way, so if we give students options for learning, we can essentially get more bang for our buck, creating a more successful learning environment.

For those of you struggling with being trapped inside the box, I thought I would share a few things my PLC has done with our box curriculum. Hopefully you can share some of your ideas with me, as well.

  • The first time, try it all. You really do not know if an activity is any good, unless you try it. Last year my partner and I taught a chunk of our curriculum to fidelity. This year, we were able to pick what we thought was the best for students and meeting the standards. We have done a lot of taking the “essence” of the lessons and using more topical pieces to hit the same standards.
  • Give CHOICES…
    • for whole class novels or other long term projects. The only whole class novel I teach is The Outsiders. I start this right away and use it as a tool to teach independent reading strategies and review writing. I’ve never met an 8th grader who doesn’t like the classic story, so it’s a safe choice. But that’s it. When our box curriculum includes teaching a novel, we give the students choices. As my Voxer friend Joy Kirr put it, if you teach a novel for 4-6 weeks, it’s likely only a certain portion of your students are engaged with it, so you’ve lost the rest of your class for all that time. I hate to tell you, English teachers, not every student enjoys Of Mice and Men. Let it go.
    • in writing and other assessments. In my class we start the day with daily writing in journals. I give prompts, but students can always write about whatever they want. This is just about building stamina and learning to love writing. We also publish our choice writing in blogs most weeks. As far as our academic writing, the only writing that will ever be the same for every student is short formative pieces, where I need to give quick feedback. Essays? I would shoot myself if I had to read 100+ 8th grade essays on the same topic. Why would I have them write the same argumentative piece? I would much rather have students write about something that matters to them. Fortnight? By all means, write me a well-written, researched essay about the pros and cons of a Battle Royale game.
  • DON’T FORGET INDEPENDENT CHOICE READING. (I’m yelling that, btw.) I had a high schooler in the back of my car the other day who said, “Ah, I miss choice reading.” Students NEED to read books, but not the ones YOU choose. And not just in English class. This should be a school-wide culture adoption. Independent reading improves student academics in so many aspects, plus the research on how reading creates empathy is worth checking out.

Check out this video from Penny Kittle as a reminder of the importance of choice reading.

Having common language, goals and assessments district-wide, but especially in your PLCs is incredibly important. Looking at data, at each level should help drive instruction, but don’t get trapped by the box curriculum. It is there to help frame your lessons not determine the needs of your students. So, don’t feel guilty when you veer. You might need to. As long as you are heading in the right direction and doing what is right for your students, you are not failing anyone. In fact, celebrate the fact that you are the kind of educator who does whatever it takes to make sure his or her students succeed. I celebrate and commend you. You are my people. Cheers!

Pencil on paper

Wait. Don’t Wait. Write.

This post originally published at: http://blog.cue.org/wait-dont-wait-write/

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of sitting in a workshop led by the legendary Ralph Fletcher. When I first started teaching, his book What a Writer Needs transformed the way I taught writing in my classroom. Giving students choice and time to write about topics for which they are passionate is a lesson I have carried with me since my writer’s workshop inception over 20 years ago. This weekend, sitting with members of my local Writing Project (Area 3 in the house!) Fletcher reminded me of the power writing has on the individual. And I’m not just talking about my students. I’m talking about me. I love writing, but I rarely do it because there are always so many other things to do: Laundry, grading, that new series on Netflix…

Since May, I have embarked on a writing journey, unlike any other. When CUE asked for applications to be a regular contributor to the OnCUE blog, I was so excited, I filled out the questionnaire within minutes. Then the doubt set in. How was this going to fit into my already busy schedule? Was my voice one that people even wanted to read?

Soon, though, I was in a groove. I explored areas of teaching pedagogy and educational technology, where I always wanted to learn more, but never chose to spend the time on follow through. I reached out to friends and acquaintances, asking for expertise and publishing their voices. It wasn’t hard to find the time. I gave myself deadlines, made plans and hit every one of my goals.

Looking back, I know it was a lot of work, but that’s not what stands out. What I remember is how easy it was to sit down at my computer and get my thoughts out. I remember how good it felt when others reacted to the content I chose to publish. Honestly, it was an amazing ride.

My Instant Gratification Monkey.

My Instant Gratification Monkey shirt always comes out to play!
Each year I show my students Tim Urban’s Ted Talk: Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator. We discuss how procrastination is a very normal thing and how all of us have our “Instant Gratification Monkey.” It’s a great lesson for us all, but what strikes me every year is how Urban ends his talk. He references times in people’s lives where there are no deadlines. That’s when we can miss out on trying something new. Taking risks. Challenging ourselves to become more than we ever thought possible. He says, “We need to think about what we’re really procrastinating on, because everyone is procrastinating on something in life.”

I took a risk and went on a journey with CUE. It may have been a small trek, but it helped me grow in ways I couldn’t have imagine. How are you procrastinating and not living your best life? Take a little advice from Tim Urban and me. Don’t let your Instant Gratification Monkey take the wheel. Make a plan and do it!

Oh, and if you want to apply to be a part of the Social Media Champs for CUE the deadline is October 31st. Go to http://blog.cue.org/smc/ today. Well, maybe not today.

Girl on ipad

Facebook Joins the Digital Literacy Game

Here’s an interesting development: Facebook wants to teach your students digital citizenship and literacy. I’m not just talking about how to change your settings on your account. Facebook has actually created lessons meant to be used in classrooms and homes, as Facebook says, “to develop skills needed to navigate the digital world, critically consume information and responsibly produce and share content.” These lessons are designed to be interactive, with the use of games and activities, while also utilizing discussion time with groups of students.

Much like the Common Sense Media lessons, Facebook is giving educators useable and accessible resources to teach very important skills to our 21st Century learners. The need cannot be avoided. We must teach our students how to live responsibly in this digital world. It is no longer about simply trying to block content in the classroom and protect them. These are vital life skills. Add Facebook’s Digital Library of lessons for educators to your tool belt. Make digital citizenship and literacy a priority in your classroom today.

Learning and Earning in your Jammies

Want to know how to incorporate Artificial Intelligence in your classroom? Why not take a class designed for an educator, while earning professional development hours and even college units. ISTE, the International Society for Technology in Education, has announced that they will be offering online courses to fit the innovative curious teacher in all of us. ISTE U, ISTE’s new online learning platform, has a menu of options that is not only cutting edge, but constantly changing for the latest in technology.

No more outdated tech classes at your local university. The best part is, you can earn hours (and even credits through Dominican University of California) on your own time, at home, in your pajamas if you choose. Check out the options and find a course that satisfies your learning needs. Finally, technology focused learning from the name you trust.

Learning to Teach for the Future

This post originally published at http://blog.cue.org/confessions-of-a-clipart-junkie/

“If you can dream it, you can code it.” As I looked around the huge ballroom filled with eager educators, Hadi Partovi’s words began to energize and excite me. It also seemed Partovi’s words were having a similar effect on the overly air conditioned room, filled with over 500 teachers. Of course, it could have been the delicious spread of food in front of us, too. (The food! OMG.) As Partovi, the founder of code.org spoke, it became increasingly clear to me why we were all here. Our world needs us to engage, encourage and train students for the jobs of not just the future, the jobs of today.

Bag, water bottle name tag from code.org
Swag!

Some interesting statistics about California:

  • There are 75,612 currently open computing jobs
  • The average salary for computing jobs is $110,078
  • Only 25% of high schools in CA offer AP Computer Science
  • Of those taking the AP test, most are white males
  • In 2016, the University of California did not graduate any teachers prepared to teach computer science.
  • CA has no dedicated funding for Computer Science Professional Development

If you want to know more check out California’s fact sheet on code.org.

As I finished my velvety chocolate cake and laughed with my cohort of Northern California area teachers, (thank you Sacramento County Office of Education for being our regional sponsor), I knew TeacherCon was going to be an intense five days of learning, discussing and practicing ways to promote and teach computer science. My last thought before falling asleep in my hotel room (alone–we didn’t even have to share rooms) was, “Why aren’t there more teachers here?”

Our first day, (after the amazing breakfast spread), we separated into middle school and high school rooms. I sat down in the Sheraton conference room in Phoenix along with middle school teachers from Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, North Dakota, West Virginia, the list went on. We had gathered here with a similar goal, to learn a carefully scoped and sequenced computer science curriculum.

Cards on table for a game
Learning about algorithms in an unplugged activity.

The problem with computer science instruction, especially in middle school, is that educators traditionally have taught programs that were cobbled together, with no clear path to the AP exam or other courses in high school. The beauty of the curriculum code.org has crafted is that each unit builds on the other from Computer Science Fundamentals (elementary) Computer Science Discoveries (middle grades) to Computer Science Principles (high school). And every bit of it is FREE for teachers to use. Yes, free.

Through the course of the five days of training, we met in groups with our cohorts from high school and middle school to discuss ways to bring more computer science to our schools, but I spent the majority of time in my Northern California cohort of middle school teachers, participating as a student in model lessons, then eventually teaching a lesson alongside a smaller group of teachers. This cohort model allowed us time to really get to know each other, building relationships beyond our own classroom of teachers we could lean on throughout the school year. We will also meet four more times this year for further instruction and collaborating. Honestly, I miss those awesome educators in my cohort already!

Large group of people at a bowling alley
My Sacramento cohort bowling night.

Oh and I forgot to mention this. The entire experience was FREE. TeacherCon, put on by code.org is well backed by some serious giants: Microsoft, Amazon, Google, just to name a few. (Find the whole list here.) While I know these companies have altruistic motivations in helping move education forward, they also have a vested interest in creating a future workforce. To the donors, it is money well spent. The need for graduates who can fill jobs in the computer industry is imperative.

The good news is things are moving forward. Trish Williams, from the California Board of Education, hosted a lunch for the California educators at TeacherCon and gave us the latest scoop. My state is expected to pass California’s first ever model K12 computer science standards next month and more changes to curriculum standards are constantly being discussed. Williams assured us that she is fighting to see Computer Science education in all schools.

As Williams reiterated to us, all students deserve to learn computer science and explore if they have an aptitude for it. Even if they don’t want to end up in a computing career, all students need to understand how the digital world they live in is made.

Wrapping up my week of intense learning (and gorging on scrumptious food), I walked away with one very important realization. I am a computer science teacher. As a secondary teacher who has spent most of her career in middle school English, I have always called myself an English teacher. Today, I took the sign off my classroom door that read, “Mrs. Allison–Language Arts.” Tomorrow a new one goes up: “Mrs. Allison–Computer Science and Language Arts .”

5 people
My Cohorts and Me with Dani and Josh of code.org. (We thought it would give us street cred with students).

Advice for New and Old(er) Teachers

Tomorrow, I start back my 15th year of classroom teaching next to at least two teachers right out of the credential program. I love the “new blood” anticipation these new teachers have, the excitement of having your own classroom space, the optimism of changing lives and truly making a difference. It’s a refreshing wash of hope that can bring a staff and school culture a replenishing new start of the school year. Unfortunately, not every campus can be as welcoming or as supportive of our profession’s newbies and so many new teachers are left feeling overwhelmed and lost.

Flittering around on Twitter yesterday, I came across one of my favorite older blogs post from Jennifer Gonzalez. I was reminded of how I need to be a “marigold” for new teachers on my campus. I need to be the one that helps cultivate their growth. It also reminded me that I need to check my own attitude and practices to make sure that I continue to not only be a positive role model for new teachers, but how I should constantly work to surround myself with my own marigolds. Read the post here and think about who you want to be this school year for your colleagues. Remember, we’re all in this together!

Sharing Humanity in the Classroom

If you’re like me, I love engaging students with short videos. I especially love short inspirational videos that get my students to think. I use them as starters for writing, discussions, or even teaching specific concepts. Strangely, most of my videos are advertisements. My students have even begun guessing half way through the video what the company behind the message is. “What are they selling?”

Recently, I came across a blog post by Larry Ferlazzo about StoryCorps. I had never heard of the series which records everyday people’s stories to share with the world and archive experiences for future generations through podcasts. As their website reads, “We do this to remind one another of our shared humanity, to strengthen and build the connections between people, to teach the value of listening, and to weave into the fabric of our culture the understanding that everyone’s story matters. At the same time, we are creating an invaluable archive for future generations.” And the stories are incredible.

StoryCorps has taken many of these stories and turned them into animations. Watching a few of them, my heart has grown three sizes! As Ferlazzo points out on his website, these short videos are perfect to use in the classroom. Check out Ferlazzo’s blog post here and add StoryCorps to your list of video resources. You might even want to take some time today to get lost in these beautiful shared human experiences.

AR and VR: Hype or Real Engagement?

I am completely fascinated by augmented reality and virtual reality. I mean it is freaking COOL! Of course, cool doesn’t always mean it’s the best tool to use in the classroom. Sometimes a tool is just flashy new gadget, without any real payoff for student engagement and learning. However, I’m following the glitz, the glam, the uber cool technology and wondering, will this be the next big tool to change my teaching? In order to invest time and money, most educators need some serious reasons (data would be good, too) to use any new technology. Hype and flash can only take us so far.

Luckily, I like to do my homework. A few days ago EdSurge hosted their #DLNChat (Digital Learning Network) on the topic of AR and VR being worth the hype. If you didn’t catch it, Michael Sano of EdSurge, put together a nice recap on their blog post: Can AR/VR Improve Learning? Integrating Extended Reality Into Academic Programs. Check it out. Are we looking at the next revolution in the classroom or is it not worth the investment?

Your Inside Google Scoop

If you are a Google Certified Innovator or Trainer you probably have been bursting at the seams with some serious news! Google is rolling out some amazing updates this coming Fall, and it’s time to share that inside scoop.  So what is next for educators who use Google?

Google Classroom

First, you may have heard about the updates coming to Google Classroom. A new Classwork page will give teachers more organizational functionality with the ability to group and reuse assignments in one location. Next, the Stream page will get a new look, allowing a collapsed view, so students can see more content. Google has also reorganized so all stakeholders are on one page called People. Settings will also be consolidated, making it easier to use. My favorite update, though, is the ability to create Locked Quizzes in “locked mode.” If you are interested in getting early access to these features, simply fill out the form Google provided.

Google Earth

At ISTE, Google launched the Measure Tool, Teacher Authored Voyager Stories, new data layers, and recently localized the Google Earth website to eight languages. Looks like I’ve got some exploring to do!

CS First

CS First is a new program brought to educators to teach Computer Science. The curriculum utilizes block coding with Scratch, as well as lesson plans all created around themes. Check it out!

Chromebooks

With apps for creativity, the new Staedtler stylus, and VR capabilities with AR coming this fall, Google is excited about the new Acer Chromebook Tab 10. At ISTE, Google also shared locked mode in Quizzes in Google Forms only on managed Chromebooks, and exciting admin features such as Off Hours, where students can bring their own devices and have them managed during school hours. Stay tuned for more exciting news coming this fall.

Google AR / VR

The AR functionality in the Expeditions app enables teachers and students to bring virtual objects into their physical space, bringing abstract concepts to life. Students can see and walk around the object as if it were right there in the room. Watch out for that tornado on your friend’s head!

Tour Creator is a way for anyone to easily create virtual reality tours, using footage from 360 cameras or picking from the existing Street View content. You can annotate it to provide details and facts. Then, you can publish to Poly, Google’s library of AR/VR content (https://poly.google.com/), to be viewed on the web or embed to your website. Later this year, Google will add the ability to import these tours into the Expeditions application.

Applied Digital Skills

Google is also rolling out new free digital curriculum, Applied Digital Skills. The curriculum integrates video-based and blended learning content for teachers to use to enhance their classroom lessons. Plus it has a path for students to practice problem solving at their own pace. Stay tuned for more!

There’s the Google inside scoop. Almost as tasty as a double scoop on a hot July day!

 

Learning like Fortnite

A student is sitting at his desk, face down in his lap, eyes engaged in something on his phone screen. No, he’s likely not texting. He’s probably playing Fortnite, the most popular game of its kind, a third-person cooperative, base-defense game. He’s completely tuned out all round him and doesn’t even notice you standing by his side. How can we utilize this kind of passion in the classroom? If you’re like me, you are always looking for ways to engage students even half as much as their favorite video game. How can we make learning as fun? How can our content be the subject for which a student is clamoring to get to his screen? One way is to create our own games.

While there are plenty of online games students can play, often we find the content is general or not exactly aligned with the standards we are trying to teach. This list of ways to create your own games from Free Technology for Teachers, by Richard Byrne might just be a great solution to add even more fun to your lessons. Plus, summer is the perfect time to explore. Check them out and share out any games you’ve create. Let’s make the classroom the next Fortnite!