Because I Can’t Resist (or Say No), The 1,2,3,4,5 Challenge

If you spend anytime with me, you know my kryptonite: the direct question. “Will you….” No hesitation, “Yes.” I was challenged by Trisha to write a blog post, so here it is:


  1. What has been your one biggest struggle during this school year?

Hands down I will say time. I started a master’s program this year, as well as started taking on more gigs of presenting at conferences and teaching workshops. As any sane person can imagine, making time to create fabulous lessons has suffered. I often find myself flying by the seat of my pants. Of course, I’ve learned a lot about myself in the process.

  1. Share two accomplishments that you are proud of from this school year.
  • The relationships I’ve fostered with my students. It’s funny, all the flying by the seat of my pants has actually made me relax a bit more in the classroom. I’m not so uptight about following my plans. Instead, I find myself giving far more one on one time to individuals. We have more conversations, and I feel like I’m meeting their needs better than I have in the past. I know them as people. When the structure falls apart, the human emerges. It’s pretty awesome.
  • The relationships I’ve fostered with other educators. From my coworkers at my site and in my district, to my PLN on Twitter and Voxer to my cohorts in my master’s program, I am surrounded by amazing people. I’ve managed to collaborate on so many levels and learned so much from these incredible individuals. Plus, I’ve formed friendships that have already proven valuable, and I will cherish for years to come. I feel darn lucky!
  1. What are three things you wish to accomplish before the end of the school year?
  • First, I want my students to not notice I’ve left the room. I want them to be so engaged in their own learning, that I am not needed. I seriously can’t wait to start Genius Hour in the next few weeks!
  • Second, I want to get a handle on where I’m going. Next year will be a big year for me doing my Action Research project for my masters, but I still feel I’m floundering as to what I really want to accomplish. This tends to be a common theme with me. I want to do everything, but have such a hard time narrowing my focus. I’m working on it.
  • Lastly, I just want to survive. Taking three classes this semester, along with all the other extra hats I wear, has been exhausting. I miss my family, even though they’re in the other room as I work away on homework. I’m looking forward to when my classes end in May.  Then I can turn my attention to my students, too. Being the only 8th grade language arts teacher at my school, I’m not only very involved in the end of the year activities for my kiddos, it’s also a very emotional time for me. They are my babies and sending them to high school always wrecks me.
  1. Give four reasons why you remain in education in today’s rough culture.
  • The KIDS. I couldn’t imagine not hanging out with these guys on a daily basis.
  • The opportunity to constantly improve. I think it’s a rare job that allows you to simply stop what you’re doing, change direction or start all over when things aren’t working. I love that about my day. I’ll teach the same thing five different ways sometimes, just to see what works better.
  • My colleagues. I’m surrounded everyday by people who love their job. I know I’m lucky. Very lucky. Who can say that?
  • The chance to be a goofball. The one thing I love about my job is that I get to dance at a rally, wear silly outfits, compete in a pie eating contest, and during a lesson, throw myself on the ground in a gesture of dramatic despair. It’s all in a day in middle school.
  1. Which five people do you hope will take the challenge of answering these questions.

Travis Phelps @TravisPhelps80

Cate Tolnai @CateTolnai

Brandon Blom @brandonkblom

Josh Harris @EdTechSpec

Ryan Poulsen @ryanpoulsen79

Now Google Knows

Having been enveloped in a Master’s program since August, I’ve found little time to blog. Sure, I’ve been writing. A LOT. Let me know if you’d like my insight on Critical Pedagogy. You can buy me a beer, and I’ll read you all the papers I’ve written. Being on my winter break from school and work, I decided to use the time to apply to Google’s Innovator program. You know, because I thought I’d add one more thing to do. I have no hopes of getting in, (it’s rather competitive), but I’m glad I went through the process for many reasons. First, being a glutton, I enjoy pushing myself. The process of applying involves creating a video, a slide presentation and answering questions on a “Big Idea” you have for innovation. What I didn’t expect is what the answer to one of my questions would be.

Question: Imagine you are able to have coffee with one person (currently living) who would mentor you in support of your vision. Who would you pick and why?

I chewed and stewed on this one for a while. Like weeks. Today, I just started writing. I thought I’d share this:

When I first read this question, I searched my mind for all the amazing experts I’ve read about on choice based learning and gamification. But when I really thought about it, I picked someone I knew: Trisha Sanchez. Trisha wouldn’t consider herself an expert on either, but what she is is a problem solver. Trisha and I have collaborated many times over the last year, and she always has an answer for me. She is one of the most positive and forward thinking people I know, always searching for more meaningful and effective ways to teach. If she doesn’t know how to do something, she figures it out. Trisha understands students, too. The projects she has done with her students are not only innovative, but purposeful and authentic. She strives for meaning in technology, not just flash. This is why I need her in my corner. I need someone who can see the big picture, but isn’t afraid of getting her hands dirty on the nitty gritty. I feel darn lucky to know her and can beckon her on a whim.

It’s a great feeling to know your mentors are also your friends.

Why I Don’t Cook and Other Things I learned at Fall CUE

I’m a decent cook. I have even been known to fix a few dishes worthy of the finest of palates, but I really don’t enjoy it. On the other hand, my husband loves it. He watches cooking shows, researches perfect ways to make roux and dreams about chiffonading. So, a few years ago, I relinquished all meal making duties to him. I realized I was missing one main ingredient:  passion.

Our CapCUE shirts say it all. Photo by CateTolnai

This weekend was my first Fall CUE conference: a huge community of educators learning and sharing ways to enhance student experiences through technology, but also passion.  It would take me days to convey all that I learned. The practical takeaways are countless, but what resonates with me more are the philosophical and inspirational pieces.

Teach Students to Tell Stories: I got the opportunity to sit in the theater and listen to Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee talk about telling the stories of people on the fringe, who are hopeful and resilient, despite their perils. Sharing these with students can bring a layer to their lives incomparable to a conventional textbook. And getting kids to tell stories…wow!

Be a Rockstar in Your Classroom: Now I could listen to Jon Corippo preach for hours on lesson design. Apparently, I’m not the only one. I sat on the floor to listen to practical ways to engage my students, but also ways to change how I think as a teacher. Bottom line: empower your kids. We have to stop being content delivery systems. We need to be coaches because a coach helps you do something you cannot do yourself. Ah, I wish Corippo ran the world. CSL6JJEVEAA0MKy

Make Each Day an Adventure: David Theriault‘s keynote was on point and beautiful. He reminded us that learning should be sticky, it should be memorable, that your classroom needs to be an adventure. Why would a student want to learn another way?

If your student can Google it, why are you standing in the front of the room talking about it? Spoken by one of my dear friends, Trisha Sanchez, in her SAMR workshop, I was struck. Duh. Of course. We need to change the way we teach for our audience. This generation needs something else.

We are a Family of Educators: More than a community, people that feel passionately about innovation, student engagement and change tend to flock together. But with that they are stronger. Of course, there’s also a fair amount of fun.

That’s where you spend your time. Where you feel the passion. This is why we give up our weekends. This is how we fill up our cups to walk back into our classrooms on Monday ready to share the communal goblet. Cheers to my family!


photos by Ryan O’Donnell







Positive Shows for Young Fans

I was introduced to Frank Turner in 2008, shortly after his first full length album, Love Ire and Song was released. The minute I heard “Substitute” I was hooked. And not in an “I need a cup of coffee every morning,” sort of way, I mean in an “I need an intravenous drip to roll around at my side” kind of way.

My first Turner show was at the Fillmore in San Francisco, September 2009. He was the opening, opening, opening band for The Gaslight Anthem. My husband and I planned for this one months out. We got tickets and a hotel room. We even asked my parents to drive down from Idaho to watch our kids. At the time my daughter was six and my son was four. The show was just Turner and his guitar singing to a small crowd of people, but I was there in the front, singing and dancing along to every song. Loudly. It was incredible. My husband and I even managed to accost him coming out of the bathroom later to fawn over him. A brilliant night.


It’s now been six years since that night and Mr. Turner has since put out four more highly successful records. My attendance at his shows are now in the double digits, one even at that same venue two years ago in San Francisco, which he managed to sell out as the headliner. But this post is not about me, it’s about the little girl who has grown up drenched in the poetry of Turner’s music.

My daughter is now 12 and in middle school. Having worked with middle school kids for over 20 years, I am very aware of their search for identity. The lessons, though, that we’ve been preaching as parents still surface. As a little girl, she begged for Turner’s music in the car, sang along with every lyric, (carefully omitting certain words), and danced along side me. She has since found her own loves in the musical pop world of teenagedom, but still she pilfers my Turner shirts, and loads his music on her Spotify playlists. So, when I heard he was coming to Sacramento, I couldn’t wait to take her.


We got there early, planted ourselves in the front and waited. “I’ve never been this close to a stage before, mom.” Well, she’s never gone to Turner show with me. When Turner burst into his first set, I watched her watch others, especially me. When I exploded in dance, throwing my arms in the air and belting lyrics, she was right there with me, mimicking my excited behavior.

This show had everything a young fan could want: crowd surfing, hand clapping, audience participation. At one point Turner even made the entire venue sit down, so we could jump up synchronously at the perfect point. It was crazy, sitting on a dirty floor, smashed next to sweaty people, but we all did it.  The smiles radiating from my daughter’s face made this by far my favorite Turner show.

We stuck around to meet him after, wanting her to have that experience. Turner is one of the nicest musicians you’ll ever meet, always gracious to his fans. We could tell how tired he was, but still he took the time to let us snap photos and chat for a bit.


My love for live music is something I’m proud to pass on to my daughter, but more than anything, I know I’ve found my front row dancing partner.

Why I MADE my kids go to Germany

The first time I went to Germany I was seven years old. I spent it mostly with family, our sightseeing limited to areas close to relatives. Even growing up with a German mother, it was still a culture shock. I mean I was used to butter on my ham sandwiches, and the language was at least familiar. But the first time someone gave me a glass of water, I took a huge sip and spit it out. Who drinks water with bubbles in it? I longed for peanut butter and cartoons in English. Of course, I fell in love with the ice cream.

I have since been to Germany many times, at least four before I left my parents’ house. As a parent now, I know how truly lucky I was. I know my mom just wanted to visit “home” and take he family with her, but it gave me so much more as a person. I longed to introduce this experience to my children. So, I told my husband it was time. He tried to persuade me at first, thinking a nice beach in Hawaii or a grand camping trip to Yellowstone would be a better idea, but he gave in easily. I’d like to think it was my charm. Nonetheless, I’m so glad he did. This is why I’m glad I drug my 10 and 12-year-old across the globe.

What I think they learned:

  • Not speaking the language is scary. I think this is a hard concept for kids or anyone who doesn’t travel to get. Living in California, we encounter people everyday who learned English after their native tongue. We are often not very patient with second language learners. Watching my kids experience this is humbling. Of course, I speak a fair amount of German and most Germans speak perfect English, but my kids were still very confused and frustrated with being on the outside. I think they are far more empathetic now of people who are not native English speakers. By the end, though, they had picked up words and phrases and were even ordering things off menus. They have never been interested in learning German before. That’s all changed. They see the world beyond their fences.
  • People eat different foods. This is one of those things my kids know but didn’t really get. Again, we live in California. We can get anything. We have plenty of diverse food, but it’s all still Americanized. I mean, you can still get chicken nuggets. Germany was a great introduction for them. The food isn’t drastically different, but there were times they were forced to try something new. Now, my kids are pretty picky eaters, and without batting an eye, they did it. No complaining. I was blown away. My daughter didn’t even spit out the Sprudel when she first took a sip. Just asked for water without bubbles. My kids rarely try new things at home. By the way, my daughter now eats butter and ham sandwiches. She can’t get enough.
  • The world is still small. Despite the differences, they also noticed how similar things were. Kids their age love TV, video games, YouTube and playing soccer. Despite the language barrier, my cousin’s kids and my kids communicated and played just fine. They all even watched Harry Potter in German. There are McDonald’s in most big towns, people walk around texting on their iPhones, and you can buy a Laker hat at any sporting goods store. The world is linked now in ways I didn’t experience when I was seven.

By the end of the trip, my kids were happy to come home, but I know I gave them something incredibly important in this experience. And if nothing else, we had ice cream every day. That, they already miss.


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.

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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: