All posts by figurativelyteaching

San Diego is for Nerds

Every year San Diego hosts Comic-Con, an absurdly large convention that started as a way for comic book artists and writers and their fans to interact. Over the years it has grown exponentially, to a multi-genre entertainment convocation, that boasts an attendance of over 130,000 fans. I have friends who make the pilgrimage every year, and, in turn, I find it necessary to tease them for it. “Bunch of nerds.” In truth, I love when people are passionate about their hobbies, work, or really anything. Passion is what makes people interesting. 

Immediately following Comic-Con, the city of San Diego was infested with teachers.  I scoffed at my friends noting, “I hope the nerd smell is gone when I get there.” Some may argue this contamination was worse than the week before. 4,000 teachers arrived at the Town and Country Convention Center, as they do every year, (and 4,000 more the week after), to be trained and inspired by AVID, a program that has been incredibly successful for over 30 years. AVID, or Advancement Via Individual Determination, is a global nonprofit organization designed to give students the tools they need to go to college.  There’s nothing flashy, nothing trendy, it’s all about teaching kids how to write, ask questions, collaborate with others, read critically and stay organized. 

As I sat in my “strand”, or class, learning about proven effective strategies to teach students, and actually walking through the steps of some fun activities like hosting a World Cafe, writing Mentor Texts, and rattling off impromptu speeches, it was obvious. I was just as much of a nerd as any of those fanboys at Comic-Con. I was totally geeking out on graphic organizers, sentence starters and rubrics. The smell of my passion and enthusiasm was polluting the warm San Diego air, and I knew it was awesome. 

photo (1)

What was even better than total teaching nerdery was that I got to do it next to my fellow Chilton teachers. Eight of us traveled to San Diego, learning and collaborating from 8am to 5pm for three days, not to mention riding in trolleys and taxis shoulder to shoulder, eating every meal together, taking in a Padres game and sharing laughter all along the way. Not everyone gets to work with friends, I just happen to be astonishingly lucky.  These colleagues and friends certainly fuel my enthusiasm for teaching each and every day.

The truth is, I’ve been a nerd my whole life, and I love nerds. People who are ardent, zealous and just truly enjoy the things in their life are the people I enjoy being around. So don’t be afraid to hold up that nerd flag and let it fly. Let’s let our scent fill every city we grace. 

Even John Green gets it. 🙂


How to Become a Rockstar in Three Days

When I was asked to be a part of a team of “Google Trainers” for our district back in January, I really had no idea what that meant. As it was explained to me, I would be educating teachers to implement technology into their classrooms.  Now I consider myself a fairly savvy tech person, but by no means an expert on anything. I can navigate the web and mainstream programs with ease, problem solve some hardware issues, but mostly, I am really good at asking for help. In fact, I was the winner last year of the most tech tickets at my school!  That means, I complained the most about things that needed to be fixed by our tech department. I’m apparently the best at complaining: like gold medal-worthy. Sadly, there was no award. 

Attending the Google Summit changed so much for me, but it left me hungry, salivating for more. When I saw the CUE Rockstar conference agenda, I smooth talked my principal into paying for my entry AND my hotel stay in Truckee. Little did he know I would have footed the bill myself. 

The format of CUE (Computer Using Educators) Rockstar is unlike any other. It is small, only 70 or so participants. There are only two sessions a day, two hours each, plus a TWO hour lunch. This annoyed me at first.  I wanted to learn as much as I could, and take advantage of every opportunity. Why couldn’t I go to more sessions?  Let’s just say, these folks know what they’re doing. The leisure time is valuable, far more valuable than the price of admission. Of course, if you’re me, the time is not spent in leisure.

The biggest complaint teachers have about technology is training. We are thrown Chromebooks, Smart Boards, tablets, iPads, Mobis and told to use them in our classroom. We might get an hour of instruction, a 200 page booklet, a list of helpful websites and apps that might lead to good lessons. What we NEVER get is time: time to “play”, time to discover, time to plan a lesson using the new tools. It is in using the new technology that you learn to implement it into your everyday lessons. Time is what I had in Truckee, but it wasn’t just idle time. It was time surrounded by colleagues. Even enjoying street tacos in the Alder Creek Middle School Cafetorium, I was learning. “How do you embed a form onto my web page that only my students can see?” After hours, at the restaurant across the street, the conversations continued until late in the evenings. Time spent collaborating is beyond invaluable.

I was also pleasantly surprised at how much I already knew going into each session. From lessons on Google Earth, Doctopus, Google Forms and even coding, I was quite ahead of the curve. That in itself felt pretty good. In only six months, I had come so very far. 

Being a contemplative person by nature, driving down the hill back home, I thought about what I had learned.  Sure, I learned some incredible logistic things: listening to Megan Ellis talk about how she implements Doctopus, organizes her Drive and uses Google Forms for reading logs was nothing short of empowering. But there was something else. It was a theme that each presenter shared in one way or another. Technology is an incredible tool. Nevertheless, it is just that, a tool. It is there to help you teach and to help kids learn. It’s not about how fancy and hip you look. In the end, what matters is that students learn to create content, based on standards we teach. We live in this 21st century digital world, but our goal is still the same as it has always been: to create literate, problem-solving, independent-thinking citizens. 

That’s when I knew I was a rockstar, and not just because I had the lyrics of “21st Century Digital Boy” blasting on my iPod on Interstate 80 heading home. 🙂

East Coast Shenanigans

Of the many incredibly cool things I get to do, take a group of 8th graders to Washington DC and New York is by far one of the coolest. Chilton’s inaugural trip hosted 14 eighth grade travelers and three parents. Sharing the trip with Cooley Middle School and Loomis District, we embarked on what many will eventually consider the trip of a lifetime.

Things I learned: 

  • Alexandria, Virginia has ghost stories, downpours and lightning. Cutting the first night touring short is a good idea, since barbecued 8th graders are not tasty. 
  • Wake-up calls don’t work on all 8th graders. Banging on doors sometimes doesn’t either. However, threat of missing breakfast does.
  • Security guards at the Capitol are never amused. “What about these guns?” (lifting arms to show muscles.)
  • Putting an 8th grader in a dark room, after the first night in a hotel room with his friends, far away from his parents, will result in inevitable snoozing. 
  • You will NEVER have enough time to visit the Smithsonians.
  • Your shoes can fill a swimming pool after a June rain in DC, but it’s just rain. You get wet.
  • George Washington was wickedly handsome.
  • You will fall in love with New York every time you visit. Every. Time.
  • Broadway performers are some of the hardest working people in the world.
  • Riding bikes in Central Park can be exhilarating, or you could break an arm.
  • There are 20 different types of bottled water to purchase at JFK.

What I love more than anything about this trip is the reaction I get from students when we depart and for years after. For most, this is the furthest they have ever been away from home. More than anything, this is the first time they have ever been away from their parents for an extended time. It is their first brush with life beyond their town, beyond their world. It gives them a sense of place in this vast universe. Beyond even that, it gives them independence. They have to learn to coordinate showers and bathroom time with three other people. They have to be at a certain place at a certain time, without constant reminders from adults. They have to remember to NOT have a soda bottle in their carry on bag when entering the security checkpoint at the airport. Sure, I’m there to help, but ask any kid who goes on this trip. Somehow, he’s changed. 

Much love to my 14 students who made this a memorable and amazing trip. xoxo

Goodbye with a Side of Robert Frost

Sometime back in February, I had an idea. We should put together a slideshow for 8th grade commencement that wasn’t just pictures, but spotlighted every 8th grader in the school. After all, there were only 97 of them, and they were our first graduating class. A little leery of setting a precedent for years to come, Mr. Ancker, our illustrious principal, reluctantly agreed. “But then we’ll have to do it every year.” “No,” I assured him. “We won’t. This group is special.” They deserved all we had to offer.

I put my newspaper kids on the task.  They interviewed every 8th grader and created a slide for each. As any of my bright ideas, I ended up spending far too much of my own time on the project. Hours were spent editing, revising and formatting.

The night before the ceremony, as I was putting the final touches on the show, it hit me. And it hit me hard. These kids were leaving. My kids. With a few exceptions, they had been in my life for two years. A few I’d even taught for three. I knew them. These were MY kids. They were off to high school. I was suddenly sobbing, tears flowing down my cheeks to the tune of Taylor Swift’s “Never Grow Up”, a sappy song I had chosen to end the show.

One of my favorite moments of the year was our journey together reading SE Hinton’s The Outsiders. As every 8th grader knows, who has had the privilege of that rite of passage, one of the prominent themes is from Robert Frost’s poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay”. Never has that theme become so real to me then at that moment. My kids had to change. They needed to move on. 

As I stood at the podium at commencement, trying not to repeat the water works from the night before, Johnny’s words to Ponyboy at the end of the novel reverberated.  “Stay gold, Ponyboy. Stay gold.”  

As educators, we have students who come into our lives and plant themselves right next to our hearts. I was fortunate enough to not just have a few these past two years, but almost 100. I will truly miss them. 

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf,
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day
Nothing gold can stay

                –Robert Frost

Web Page Wrap Up

Yeah. I’m not going to rap. I care too much for the sanctity of your keyboard. I don’t want you to have to clean vomit out of those tiny spaces between your keys. You’re welcome.

On May 30th, 2014, my little experiment came to an end.  Looking back, my goal was to get the kids to write and write often. Adding the “21st Century” component is really just a fancy way of tricking kids into writing.  They live in this world of social media, of instant access, of sharing every aspect of one’s life. Why fight that? My job is to teach students how to function and be successful in this world. This world. This world of instant feedback with a skewed sense of fame. But I’m not writing to rant about some inevitable doom of our youth, especially since I LOVE social media. (You can find me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr….) I’m writing to share what I learned. 

I decided to take the last week of school and have students add essays, a list of books they’ve read, as well as “blurbs” about projects they did in social studies and science. I wanted it to be more than just a blog, but also a portfolio of their 8th grade year. 

What I learned:

  • Have students write down passwords and usernames. In Sharpie. On their foreheads. Permanent tattoos might be a viable option. I had so many students who had to start over because they couldn’t access their page. I’m developing a lesson plan on “How to pick a password you won’t forget.”
  • Allow more time for design, but then set a deadline. I started blogging after just one day in the lab. Quite a few weren’t ready, and it snowballed. They got further and further behind.
  • Be very specific about your expectations on a blog. This might seem like a “no duh” teaching moment, but it’s worth highlighting. I fell into this hole. Simply giving an 8th grader a topic and telling him to “write as much as he’d like” often results in one sentence. I found giving a specific word count to be the most helpful (200 words).
  • Always give a topic, but also allow for “your choice”. Freedom allows for creativity, but not all are ready for that. 
  • Require students to read other blogs and comment. Work this into the day. It is completely worth it. I sent out a Google Doc with the all the URLs. 
  • Learn from your students. As with anything else, some will only do exactly what you require, so be specific. Others will take this to a whole new level you never imagined. Pay attention to these kiddos. They’ll show you things that you didn’t even know were possible.
  • Mostly,  BLOGGING IS POWERFUL. As I sat and read every kid’s web page, each blog written, I remembered how powerful writing can be. It is therapeutic, leading to self discovery and is often a safe place to share things, one might never share. I read about losing a friend in a car crash, being adopted at only five years old, watching a beloved pet get hit by a car, and what it feels like to be left out of a group. I laughed, I cried and felt a sense of connection with my students. So much of my days are spent teaching students to analyze literature, to cite sources, to organize thoughts, that I fail to teach the heart of writing. Writing is one of the greatest forms of communication, but it also allows us time to think, organize and reflect before we let others in. 

I am so excited to continue this project next year. Taking what I’ve learned and building on new ideas, I hope to improve it ten fold. I’ll be starting right away in the fall, making it a year long effort. 

I’m guessing I’ll still be wearing my running shoes.

Adventures in Student Blogging

I’ve dedicated every Friday as “Blog Day”. 

The first Friday we spent setting up an account and designing the look and feel of the web page. Before we headed to the lab, I introduced them to Weebly and walked them through my web site and how they could set up their own.  Then we meandered, (because 8th graders can never just walk), to the Library Lab. I was glad I had on my comfortable sneakers. My dogs were chasing their tails. “Mrs. Allison! Mrs. Allison!” So many questions to answer. “How do you change the background color?” “Can I add a picture?” “What do I call this?” “What’s my email address, again?” More than anything, though, the students were excited. That was huge. I radiated hope.

The next week, I thought, “It’s time to blog!”  We had just read a story about a boy who had a hard time dealing with change. We had also revisited the Robert Frost poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay”. Perfect! We’ll blog about change. I can be so optimistic sometimes. Back to the lab we went. Disappointment hit. So many students weren’t ready at all to blog.  “Where’s the website?” “What’s a URL?” “Which email did I use to sign up?” Sigh. I think I forget sometimes they’re only 13 and 14. I need to wear a pedometer to see just how many miles I can log on these shoes. 

Third Friday. This time I had an epiphany to send each student an email listing everything that should be included thus far on the website! This will work, right? 
More running. 
“Wait, what are we supposed to have on the site?” 
“Check your email.” 
“What’s my email password, again?” 

Tomorrow we go back again. 
I might need new shoes.

Secrets of the Freemasons Revealed

As an educator, you often get asked an off the cuff question, “Why did you become a teacher?” In fact, just the other day my daughter asked me that very question. Seems like I should have a obligatory answer packed away in my psyche somewhere, but I never have truly been able to nail it. There are the moments, though when it’s clear. Last Monday night was one of them.

The school had received an email from a Deacon at the Masonic Lodge asking if we had an outstanding student we would like to recognize at a dinner. The student would receive an award and the teachers were invited to speak on his or her behalf. It is a monthly dinner and this month was Chilton’s turn. One student immediately came to mind: Ravina. 

Trusting my GPS to lead me into old Roseville in the pouring rain, I managed to find the lodge near the old theater on historic Vernon Street. I forget this part of Roseville still exists, near the train tracks that founded this city. I climbed the old stairs of the building and entered the hall. There sat Ravina and her family, greeting me with the warmest of welcomes.

The Masons had cooked a fabulous corned beef dinner, apparently for two days, (we sat with the cook) and it was absolutely delicious. Ravina wasn’t as keen on the food as the rest of us, but luckily they served ice cream and brownies for dessert. Visiting with her parents and brother, it was evident why Ravina is such an amazing young lady. 

Then came the time for the recognition. Ravina and I were asked to come up to the front, where I had the honor and pleasure of saying a few kind words about her. Now, Ravina is absolutely amazing. Every assignment she ever completes is not only good, but impeccable. She is involved in Leadership, and is always one of the last to leave a function. She stays after to make sure everything is in order. Ravina is also a first class athlete. Most of all, she does it all with a smile on her face. Her positive attitude is infectious. Although, I do admit that I love her even more because she laughs at my jokes. 

The Masons awarded Ravina with $50, and even gave me a granite plaque. 

It’s these opportunities that help me answer that question of why I became an educator. I get to work with kids like Ravina. It’s just one part of the puzzle, but a part that is vital. 

Leaving that night, I realized that I had not only experienced an amazing night as an educator, but I had done something few had ever done: unearthed a secret from a Freemason. I learned that after boiling the corned beef, slather it with brown sugar and spicy brown mustard. Delicious!

Coding, What?

I was in a meeting a few months back, and a parent was talking about how there really are so few women computer engineers in the work force.  He added that not only that, there are just so few engineers. My mind immediately went to my uncle.  The man was a whiz at computers, but socially could barely hold a conversation with even his family. He enjoyed solitude and would have never been the life of any party. Not exactly the job I envision for my daughter. This is the stereotype that has lived in my head now for decades. That all changed when I attended the GAFE Summit. 

Google Apps for Education is a network of educators and trainers designed to implement and integrate focused learning using Google Apps for Education and other tools. It teaches educators to promote student learning and bridge that ever needed gap of creating 21st Century students. But, I took away much more than that in that weekend at Roseville High School. I was inspired. Giddy. I realized I needed to pass along that enthusiasm to my students, in some way. Any way. So I decided to jump.

Now I am a planner by nature. I want to know what the weather will be like, have on the right outfit, slather the correct amount of SPF, and even dip my toe in the water before I swim.  However, something happens when you’re a teacher, mom, wife, marathon runner, and locator of all lost objects–you have little time. I figured, if anything was going to happen,  I needed to start swimming fully clothed. 

Last week I opened the lab and simply instructed the fifteen or so middle schoolers who came by, to explore. What happened? They were engaged. They were playing games and actually exploring the world of code. Now, I still don’t fully understand it myself, but it didn’t seem to matter. They were showing ME different sites. Teaching ME! It was truly inspiring.

I got an email the next day from the parent who had initially mentioned the statistics in that meeting a few months back. He was so excited I had started this new club. He has a friend who works for Facebook and even bragged to him.  The response, “How many girls showed up?” I searched my head for the picture of the computer- lined room–I only counted three. Guess I have my work cut out for me.

My goal as an educator is to inspire. I was inspired. Now it’s time to pay it forward. The water is perfect.