Category Archives: Education

If a Lone Nut Falls in the Forest, Does it Make a Sound?

Last year I attended Cue Rockstar Tahoe (which is really in Truckee) for the first time. I truly had no idea what to expect, except that I knew I HAD to be there. It was like something was calling me from the dense forests and winding Truckee River. I was salivating to learn. What I didn’t expect was to fall in love. Strangely, the love wasn’t necessarily for the content, although that could not be ignored. It was for the people. The people that lead and attend are some of the kindest and passionate learners I’ve ever met. When I went back to my school in the fall, I must have seemed like a lunatic the way I bragged. I was truly a lone nut, trying to express how incredible the experience was. (I managed to get my principal to send me to Cue Rockstar Petaluma last February, as well, convincing him that I NEEDED to be there.) Apparently lunacy is an attractive quality because this year, 15 teachers and administrators from my district joined me. And I have to admit, it was FREAKING AMAZING! Now I had my followers.

As usual, the things I learned were mind blowing, (seriously, check out Site Maestro and Badgelist), but being able to go back to my hotel room, go out to dinner, lounge at the brewery until after 10pm, and get up in the morning for a five mile walk, all discussing teaching strategies, ideas for innovations and even how to balance life, THAT is where the magic happens. Of course, it wasn’t just with my staff, it was with the countless colleagues I have met since last year’s Cue Rockstar Tahoe, most via social media (Twitter, Voxer) and the new friends I met just this week. Passionate people never stop inspiring. They can’t help it.

If I could wear a billboard 24/7 it would be an advertisement for Cue Rockstar. Nowhere have I ever gotten so much out of a few days of professional development. But more than anything, nowhere have I ever felt so at home. These are my people.

More than Monuments: What 8th Graders Learn on the East Coast Trip

Parents are always super nervous dropping their 14-year-old off at the airport and sending him flying across the country. Of course, I will be nervous, too, when I send my own children, but I wanted to take a moment to commend those parents who do. They spend six days watching their phones for text messages and worrying if their kid is getting enough to eat, sleeping well, getting along with roommates, and I’m sure far worse scenarios. To those parents, know you’ve given them far more in those six days than you could ever imagine.

What 8th Graders Learn

1. How to get up on time. If (and when) he sleeps through his alarm, the entire group will be waiting on him. He will hear about it all day.

2. How to be on time. Like when he slept through his alarm, when he doesn’t arrive back at the bus at precisely 3:45, he will hear about it from his peers. Repeatedly.

3. How to Read Street Signs. When she is told to be at 42nd and Broadway and she is at 50th and 7th, her group needs to figure out how to get back.

4. How to live in tight spaces with other people. She needs to figure out how to share a bathroom and two beds with three other girls. Not taking 45 minutes in the bathroom is often a viable solution.

5. Why his parents tell him to get some sleep. He learns that only getting a couple of hours of sleep can be painful the next day. Of course, he might still do it the next night, however, he understands why.

6. Why his parents tell him to eat right. Binging on junk food always seems like a good idea at this age. Inevitably, one of those kids throws up.

7. Good shoes trump fashion. Those cute sandals she brought on the trip that match her new shirt are thrown to the bottom of her suitcase after the blisters of the first day.

8. Sometimes you can’t be goofy, even with your friends. TSA and the Capitol police have little room for horse-play or 8th-grade humor.

9. How to ask for help. Whether from a teacher, a tour guide or even a security guard, sometimes it’s necessary to ask when something is needed. He has to take care of his own needs.

10. How to pay attention. Well, at least the ramifications of not paying attention. When he didn’t hear what time to be back at the bus, he will be late. Again, he will hear about it. Repeatedly.

The best part about these lessons is that they come with a safety net. That kid might be the last one on the bus, but there are many adults making sure he gets on the bus. As a chaperone, my job is to not only to give the kids an educational experience, but also grant them that little bit of freedom. It’s the freedom that teaches them the most. A dear friend of mine commented to me once that after this trip, her daughter came back different. Older. More mature. That’s the bonus of this trip. So, to the parents that choose to send their kid, I tip my glass. You’ve given them far more than a trip of a lifetime. 🙂

I interviewed the kids at the airport. Someday I will learn to turn my phone to landscape when recording.

Genius Hour Part Deux: The Genesis of Genius

Galileo Galilei is credited for saying, “Passion is the genesis of genius.” This has never been clearer to me than watching my students give their Genius Hour presentations. Letting them choose the topics to research was not only motivating for each student, it was interesting to watch. EVERY student in the room was listening to EVERY presentation. Crazy.

Things I learned:

  • Practice Presenting: As much as I went over my guidelines and rubric, it wasn’t enough. So many of my students still have a hard time looking at the audience, not reading their slides, and not speaking clearly. Some of it might be that they are just 8th graders, but I think modeling and practicing would improve the process ten-fold. Luckily I have some stellar presentations on video!
  • Demand More: On that note, a few students got the audience involved with Kahoot quizzes, asking for volunteers for demonstrations, and even getting the audience out of the seats for a gallery walk. This needs to be the norm. I need to help them move beyond standing and simply presenting their slides.  Again, better modeling.
  • Length: My students researched every Friday for about seven weeks. Then in May, testing hit. We had to abandon our 20 percent time to make room for other curriculum because we lost so much instructional time. In retrospect, it worked out. Most were done with their research by then and were just working on their presentations. Heck, many were done after five weeks. I think next year, I’ll shoot for six weeks and just work on presentations skills for the final stretch.
  • Dress for Success: It’s funny that just the sheer requirement that students be “appropriately dressed” for a presentation, made it that much better. They looked the part and owned it. Dressing is all about mindset. It helped put them in the right frame of mind. I will absolutely require that next time.

All in all I was over the moon at what the kids researched and presented. Some didn’t dig as deeply as I would like, so I think better mentoring on my part will be key next time. I will say this with a beaming grin: every single one my students presented. Not one chose not to do it, as is usually the case. I had one student comment to me that she is normally so afraid to speak in front of a group, but this project was easy. I commented,”Because you knew the material, huh?” She responded, “It’s because I cared about the topic.” Wow. Just wow. THAT’S what it’s all about. Passion is truly the genesis of genius.

Check out our highlights:


It’s Always about Passion, Figurative Language and Tons of Glitter

Last night I had the privilege and honor to plan and execute a retirement party for a dear friend and colleague of mine. She has been teaching for 34 years and has decided to move into the next chapter of her life. I cannot convey what this woman has meant to me as a teacher and a person. I also had the opportunity to speak. I thought I’d share my speech here:

I met Tess in August of 2001. I had just moved here from Orange County and was checking out my new home at Cooley. I was with my mother and we were passing through the office. She grabbed my hand and exclaimed, “You’re German! We’re going to get along just fine.” And that we did. We were instantly connected mind and soul.

Over the years, I have learned many things from Tess. I thought I’d take my time tonight to highlight a few:

    1. Speak in analogies. Tess has an incredible ability to explain things in such a poetic way it not only creates a clear picture of what she is trying to say, but it also makes everything she says that much more interesting. One recent text I received reads: Wings work well in a flock or a single pattern.
    2. Use glitter. I remember my first year at Cooley, Tess had introduced our team to the Gift from the Heart project. Glitter, she says. The students need to use lots of glitter. I still have nightmares of drowning in rivers of glitter. But, the students LOVED it. She taught me that sometimes you just have to let teaching be messy, because, in the end, the sparkle will be worth it. In fact, when she sent me the guest list for tonight’s party, I opened the envelope, and sure enough: GLITTER.
    3. Cream Rises to the Top. When I got to Cooley, I had only been teaching six years. When I would come to her, fretting that I had botched a lesson or even ruined a child forever, she would assure me that the good things will always rise above the bad. Children will always remember the kindness we show them. The good can never go unnoticed.
    4. He’s a boy. I left teaching for eight years to be at home with my babies. I have a daughter, Stephanie, now 12, and a son, Jeffrey, soon to be 10. After Jeffrey was born, I remember complaining to Tess about the things he would do. He was nothing like my daughter. What was wrong with him? She would simply tell me that he’s a boy. He’d get there. There was nothing wrong with him. Boys are like Puppies, she’d say. They need to run, jump, bite things and maybe even bark at you.
    5. Go BIG: Tess taught me early on that nothing was worth doing if it was small. This was apparent when we decided to put on our first Renaissance Faire at Cooley. Not only did the every 7th grader out there in costume and guilds,  we had a professional Blacksmith, archery and at one point a large scale trebuchet. This woman never does anything small. And her costumes! Always fit for royalty! If you’ve ever been to a Tess event, you know what I mean. Always a grand celebration!
    6. Nod, smile but do what’s in your heart. Tess taught me that following the way everyone else is doing something, isn’t always the path that’s right. Sometimes you have to follow your own passion. You have to open your own wings and let the wind take you where it may. You have to allow your students to do the same. But when someone asks you how that common assessment is going, simply smile and never let on that it’s still buried in a pile of papers on your desk. When you’re busy flying, you can’t worry about the ground.
    7. Cherish every day and every person you hold dear. This is probably the biggest lesson of all. I don’t get to see Tess as much as I’d like. In fact, it makes me a bit sad how little I do see her. But when I do, she always reminds me what’s important. It’s not our crazy schedules as parents or the endless papers to grade as teachers that make our life full. It’s the people we love.  She always reminds me that no matter what happens, our time should be spent with the ones we love.


I have been blessed with knowing this incredible woman for over 14 years. She is a gift to me that I will hold dear until the end of time.

image (1)   



How Ed Camps Will Save the World

Even though teachers have been attending Ed Camps for years, I recently made the trek to my first in San Jose. After only 20 minutes in the day, I realized something: this is the answer. Why had it taken me so long to get here?

  1. The Board   When you arrive at an Ed Camp beyond the smiling faces, greetings from other educators, and if you’re lucky, the coffee table, there is a board. Now this board is the key to the entire day. Here you place a Post-it (or something like it) with your idea on one of the two sides: things I want to learn or things I want to share and lead discussions. After the attendees settle in, the sessions are determined based on the board. If educators want to know more about blended classrooms, for example, the organizers will try to find someone willing to lead. If one is passionate about Genius Hour, he can invite people to come to a session. If others want to join, a session is born. It’s brilliant, really. It’s why Ed Camps are called an unconference.
  2. The Discussions  Since it is not a predetermined session, there is no curriculum, no guideline for the way the course flows. If you are looking for structure go elsewhere. The leader simply starts the discussion, maybe helps answer questions, but really the participants are just as involved. In one session I attended, the topic was authentic writing. Our discussions went well beyond that, as well. I was collecting ideas from every teacher in the room. What works, what doesn’t work. We were brainstorming and exchanging ideas at such a rapid pace, the hour diminished before we knew it.
  3. The Rules  The best part, there really aren’t any. If you attend a session, and it’s not what you were hoping, get up and leave. No one minds. It’s about meeting your needs as an learner.
  4. The Cost  Unlike GAFE or even a CUE conference, Ed Camps are free. Yes, free. You really should be paying, though. The participants range from new teachers to veteran teachers who are experts beyond their own classroom. Of course, there are always educators in attendance who are innovators in the field and are so passionate about teaching, they are willing to inspire other teachers at EdCamps and other conferences regularly. They tend to lead sessions, but are just as eager to learn from you. They are the celebrities of the teaching world and the reason I drove 2 ½ hours to my first Ed Camp.

In recent years, there has been such a pressure to implement technology in the classroom and rightfully so. Districts all over the country are delivering Chromebooks and iPads to classrooms and dictating teachers use them. Some jump at the opportunity to try new ways to motivate and educate kids. Others are a bit more apprehensive. All of them feel they need more training.  We need knowledgeable educators to effectively teach with technology. Ed Camps just might be the answer. Train the teachers, save the world.

To find one in your area:

Navigating the Waves of the Backchannel

I’m a huge fan of the Socratic Seminar, but the drawback is always getting kids involved who don’t like to speak in a large group setting. I’ve tried many different configurations with moderate results. One of my PLN colleagues, Travis Phelps wrote about using Chromebooks to create a backchannel during the discussion. (Read his blog here.)

Like Travis, I used TodaysMeet to create my chat room, projecting it on the board, so all could see. I organized my room: chairs in the inner circle, desks with Chromebooks on the outer. As students came in, I let them choose their spot, but gave them a heads up that we would be switching halfway through the period.

What I learned

  • Assign seats, at least inner or outer circle. Letting students choose which circle they participated in first wasn’t necessarily a good thing. The discussions were sometimes unbalanced. Too many strong personalities in one group, not enough in the other.
  • Give guidelines on the nickname students choose for the chat. I basically told them I couldn’t grade them, (I grade for participating with useful evidence or insight), if I didn’t know who they were. “Farting Burrito” had to fess up to his handle.
  • Talk to them about spamming and set rules. I teach 8th graders. Writing “poop,” 14 times always seems like a good idea. I let them be silly when they first logged in, just to try it out. However, once the discussion started, the chat needed to be on task. The stream moves so quickly, if someone is typing, “Johnny is Bae,” or even, “LOL,” the other stuff is lost. Just talking about it made all the difference.
  • Change the chat room for each period. This is something I did not anticipate. I had students on Chromebooks in other classes, spamming our conversation. It was done in good fun, but became rather annoying.

The Good, the Bad, and the Silly

I asked the kids at the end of each period what they thought of this different Socratic technique. Most really liked it. They liked that the inner circle was smaller, so it was easier to talk. They also mentioned that they could check the chat on the board if they were stuck for something to say. Mostly they liked that in the outer circle, they could look stuff up on the internet to add to the conversation. The biggest drawback was that the board was sometimes distracting. In some classes, the inner circle would stop talking and take to just reading the board. Plus, there was always that one kid who had to try to make everyone laugh.  But I guess, that’s just what makes it an 8th grade classroom.

I’m looking forward to trying it again soon. Hoping Farting Burrito is too.