01 October 2015

Students And Teachers Are More Than A Score

As the leaves turn beautiful hues associated with fall and students around Kentucky take some time to rest and relax with their families, test scores in our state are being released to the public.  Each year around this time I write yet another blog post about my hopes and fears or about stopping test prep approaches to teaching, or I write something encouraging everyone to change the conversation. As long as we continue emphasizing the almighty test score, there will be public demand for news related to scores and rankings.

Since the Kentucky scores were released at midnight, I awoke to my Twitter and Facebook feeds full of commentary from colleagues, friends, and news reporters. Of interest to me was this tweet by education reporter Toni Konz.

I appreciated her taking the time to reply to my suggestion that we share bright spots and stories from schools about more than test scores.

Her reply saying she likes to write those stories when she's allowed has me thinking that we have work to do as a community. If we keep demanding the ranking and we keep making decisions about where we buy our homes or send our children to school based on test scores, we are doing nothing to change the conversation, and we perpetuate the cycle of rankings based on standardized test scores.

Thankfully, I also had educator friends post today on Facebook with statements such as "let's remember the full picture" or "this is my least favorite day of the year...let's remember students and teachers are more than a test score..." I couldn't agree more and wished for a million likes on these posts.

We can do better. We can provide students more authentic learning opportunities like those we see in the film Most Likely to Succeed. We can do this. We must do this. Our children depend upon us!

21 September 2015

Smart Parents: Parenting for Powerful Learning Book Review and Giveaway

I don't know about you, but I'm one of those parents who has been reading books for every stage of my children's development. It started with The Birth Book and then The Baby Book both by Dr. William Sears and Martha Sears, R.N., and then The Successful Child: What Parents Can Do to Help Kids Turn Out Well by the same authors, and then The Five Love Languages of Children by Gary Chapman and then Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys by Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson.

From the time my children were born, I relied not only on intuition but also on books and blogs written by other parents. When my sons started school, there were no books to help me understand how to parent school aged children in public schools. I was a teacher and so was my husband. Surely, we had this covered. Not so fast. Parenting school aged children and teaching teens are two different things and when your personal views on education conflict with the current status quo, it's easy to feel overwhelmed and frustrated with the school system. Thankfully, we can turn to one another for advice and encouragement, and we can share our ideas via blogs and other social media.

Even more incredible, now we have a new book written by parents available to us. Smart Parents: Parenting for Powerful Learning by Bonnie Lathram, Carri Schneider, and Tom Vander Ark, provides tips, resources, and encouragement for parents like you and me who want to be involved in our children's learning. The book isn't only for parents--it's for anyone who wants schools to recognize children as unique individuals with individual learning needs.

The authors snagged my attention as early as the preface when they wrote about schools preparing our children for the future in a world of expanding innovations of the Digital Era. The focus on student-centered learning further pulled me in as I continued reading about how I, as a parent, can be informed, inspirational, intentional and involved in advocating for my children. As an educator, I'm an advocate for student choice in learning, and as a parent I want the same for my children.

Personally, I'd also add empowered because that's how I felt when I read this quote about valuing the uniqueness and unique smarts of each and every child.
"We must expect and require our school systems to figure out how to help each child use his/her smarts to live a happy life and achieve at the highest levels possible (p.46)."
The focus on helping our children learn at high levels and be happy runs throughout the text in both informative and inspiring segments. Various frameworks link out to other resources and stories relevant to topics such as social and emotional learning, deeper learning, and growth mindset.

"In front of our children, how we model our own ability to persevere, set goals, work through challenges and continue to try, despite failure or success, proves critical (p.46)."
Key ideas early in the book include inspirational and informative thoughts about smart parents and smart students. You'll find school spotlights from schools in California to schools in Kentucky and parent perspectives along with links to the parent toolkit, which makes up the entirety of part 2 of the book.

While I'm a huge fan of student choice in learning and intentional personalized learning, my biggest questions arose in chapter two of the book with all the talk about digital personalized learning. Don't get me wrong here, I believe in student-centered learning focused on interests and needs of students, and I think when intentionally and carefully pursued, our students have the best chance possible to succeed in school when offered choices about how they learn. The authors answered my questions about personalized learning not being a "put a student in front of a computer and walk away" approach when they wrote--
"students become actively involved in designing their own process and take responsibility for how they learn. They also have authentic choices about what they learn (p. 72)."
In fact, as described by the authors, an individualized learning plan provides students more than another task to mark off in the computer lab before they graduate from high school. It's actually a learning plan created by the students together with their parents and teachers and includes a vision statement, goals list, specific projects list, and tasks. Personalized learning is not one size fits all. It's blended and includes providing students a chance to learn at their own pace as they achieve competencies in skills and subjects.

We also learn in Smart Parents that students can learn anytime, anywhere. Using ideas from mobile learning apps, maker clubs, blogging, and mobile maker apps, parents can even take their children on the road without worrying about required "seat time." Imagine the opportunities to travel and vacation at times of the year when it's off season and less expensive and not interrupt learning for our sons and daughters!

If you want to feel empowered as a parent to create a demand for change in our schools or if you are an educator wanting to understand how to encourage parents to be involved in powerful ways, read Smart Parents: Parenting for Powerful Learning.

***Note: All opinions expressed here are mine and mine alone but I'm thankful to Smart Parents for providing me with an e-book version of the book to review and a paper version of the book to giveaway***

Win a free paper copy of this book by commenting below and sharing a link to your favorite parent blogger and telling why you enjoy learning from this parent. The book giveaway starts September 21, 2015 and ends September 28, 2015 at midnight EDT.

13 September 2015

How Do You Make Time to Read a Book a Week

When I began my book a week journey a little over 18 months ago, my commitment to myself was to enjoy more time for myself doing something important to me--reading. People have asked me over and over how I find the time because they don't have time to read much at all let alone a book a week. Really, it's the same as anything else you wish to devote time to. I prioritize time for reading. Some people enjoy cooking or baking or training for a marathon or hiking or playing music or making art or gardening or _______(fill in the blank). People make time for what they find important.

Here's how I make this one important part of my life work

1) I read what I'm in the mood to read. 
Instead of joining a book club and feeling obligated to read a particular title in a given week or month, I read what I feel like reading each week. Some weeks (in fact, most weeks) I read nonfiction. I'm inspired by the lives of other people, especially the stories of women who work hard or who overcome obstacles in their lives. Sometimes, I'm in the mood for professional texts and I let myself read and count those texts as part of my book a week goal too. Other times, I'm in the mood for fiction, especially fiction that transports me to another place (because I love to travel).

2) I always have reading material with me.
Last year I surprised myself by learning to read e-books like I never had before. While I still love a great paper book, e-books are just so convenient. I have multiple e-reading apps on my iPhone which is also connected to my i-pad. Most of the time my e-reading happens on the iPad, but if I don't have it with me when I'm waiting at the school to pick up my sons from cross-country practice, then I always have my phone with me and can access whatever book I'm reading there.

3) I let myself stop reading books I'm not enjoying.
Gone are the days when I must power through just for the sake of finishing a book. There are too many great books in the world to make myself finish reading something I'm not enjoying. Granted, I always give books the benefit of the doubt and I finish the majority of books I start, but if a particular title looked better by reading the cover, the back of the book and the reviews on Goodreads than it does when I read the first few chapters, I'll let it go. Sometimes I'll return to it in another year or month when it's of more interest to me. Other times, I just move on to a new title I like better.

4) I don't watch much television.
Television isn't very important to me like it is to so many others. I will watch some T.V., but I'm not one of those people who can't wait for the next episode of a favorite show (with the exception of the time I binge watched all of House of Cards in a single month). That month I fell behind in my reading, but I caught back up once the series was over and I re-committed myself to making reading top priority in my free time.

5) I don't give myself a hard time if I do fall behind.
At times, life happens and I do fall behind. Instead of stressing out or giving up, I commit to catching up as I can. Sometimes I catch up by giving myself one entire day on the weekend to avoid household chores and social outings. Other times I catch up by staying up too late to finish books I can't put down. Most of all, I don't beat myself up over falling behind because doing so would hinder my enjoyment of reading and my personal goal of reading an average of a book a week throughout the year.

6) I find ways to be active and to keep my brain stimulated.
Walking and reading have to be two of the best activities for the mind. Mentally and physically, I'm on top of my game and am a better mom, wife, employee and person when I make time to be active. Walking and hiking are my two favorite ways to be physically active. Reading provides an outlet for reducing stress in a way similar to walking and hiking, but the actual movement is necessary to me too. Exercise and reading have at least one thing in common. Both are good for us.

As a mom who also works outside the home, I not only balance home and work life but also community involvement and time for myself. By modeling the importance of balance and taking time to do what I enjoy I show my sons the importance of finding this balance in their own lives.

What about you? What's important in your life and how do you make time for what matters to you?

07 September 2015

Using Creativity for Inspiration in the New Year

Over at National Blogging Collaborative, bloggers are encouraged to consider their "New Year's" resolution for the blog a month.

This fall marks the third year I've taught a course at the local university, and just as I did as a high school teacher, I took time over the summer to reflect on what worked and didn't work the previous time I taught the course, and I thought about how I want to improve. Naturally, I looked at course evaluations, weighed the recommendations from students, and considered what I know these young adults will face when they enter middle school classrooms as English language arts teachers.

On our first day of class last week, I asked the students to write about what English language arts means to them. What is it we teach when we teach students English language arts? While a couple of students focused on the skills they will teach (language, grammar, writing), many of the explanations also included thoughts on critical thinking, creativity, communication, and personal connections to text that create life-long readers. Our syllabus is full of ideas for what we will read, discuss, and learn. I vow to focus on what my students need.

Even as I help students learn what they need to learn, my "New Year's" resolution for the 2015-2016 academic year is to encourage more creativity in myself and my students and to help these future teachers understand the importance of creativity in teaching middle school students.

Inspired by my reading of Transforming Schools Using Project-Based Learning, Performance Assessment, and Common Core Standards by Bob Lenz, Justin Wells, and Sally Kingston and a recent phone conversation with Justin, I am resolving to make this year better and more creative than the last. We will focus on creativity and all the non creative acts required for us to be creative. We will focus on deeper learning, more authentic assessment, and engaging learning.

"...for learning to be meaningful and long lasting, it should culminate in the creation of something that never existed before."

"...creativity is what excites and engages us, forging an emotional connection to our learning that is as critical to the process as the content of learning itself."

~~quotes from the book by Lenz, Wells, and Kingston~~

What about you? Do you have plans to be creative this academic year? To encourage creativity in yourself and your students? Do share your ideas, please!

29 August 2015

My 14 Year Old Son Built a Computer

Ethan, age 14, built a computer this summer. Starting at age eleven, he began asking if he could build his own computer. He "sold" the idea to my husband by saying "this can be a father-son project." He informed me my contributions would not be required. For the past three years, we've been planning financially for the special purchase of the appropriate parts needed for the build.

Ethan researched the best parts for the best prices for the computer he imagined. Late this summer we finally purchased all the individual parts (not as a kit like at least one Negative Nancy has already suggested). As the parts began arriving via UPS, excitement escalated, and we could see our son's eyes sparkle with anticipation.
First shipment delivered by UPS
When the first shipment arrived, the project began to feel real to all of us. This is really happening--my son is building a computer! Neither my husband nor I have any experience with building computers, so we relied completely on our teenager for leading this project.

Getting Started
Ethan was sure the project would only take a couple of hours, and he and my husband both welcomed my presence with the camera snapping photos (at least for the first two hours they welcomed photos).
Wearing gloves and electrostatic wrist bands

In Ethan's research and preparation for the build he learned he should wear gloves to avoid fingerprints and wear anti-static wrist straps as a key piece of safety gear that helps prevent the build up of static electricity. He told me "highly conductive threads on the wrist band lead to a ground conductor that discharges static electricity."

Part of Ethan's drive to build a computer grew from his desire to have a better computer for gaming, so this particular motherboard was important to him. He's also previously worked on creating a computer game, and he writes code for various purposes. What you see above reminds me of the circuit kits he used to play with when he was younger.

Knowing this would be his first build, Ethan selected a rather large case to make it easier to deal with all the cords. He customized aspects of what he put inside the case and added extra fans for cooling effects. His preference was for some type of water cooling device, but that was completely out of the budget.
Ethan Boss did it--built a working computer!
The smile of accomplishment upon completion (many more hours than he expected) was worth every penny we invested in encouraging our son to pursue his dreams and passions. His patience and perseverance manifested themselves in this project, and a "father-son" experience has been added to the books. When the computer was finished and my son proudly brought us all around to see it, my husband said "he did this on his own; I was merely the person who handed him parts and held the flashlight."

Since he is a teenager and not always wanting his entire life shared by his mom via social media, I asked Ethan's permission to write about him building the computer and he granted it, even saying I could take photos. His feelings of accomplishment upon completion of the final product caused him to say "I really did this, mom, blog about it and be sure to use my name."
Gladly. Ethan. Gladly.

22 August 2015

Using Blogging to Connect, Learn, & Magnify Teacher Voice

In today’s connected world, teachers no longer go all summer without connecting with each other using social media (Twitter, Voxer, Blogs, Facebook). Rather, teachers learn from their personal learning networks (PLN) year-round. Even with frequent formal and informal connections, let’s consider specifically what we can learn from one another through blogging. Blogs are excellent resources for helping us connect, learn, grow, and magnify our voices.

When the communications/marketing director at my work asked me to write a post about teachers blogging, I initially thought “no problem--I blog, I support bloggers, and I read blogs all the time--I’ll pull this post off in no time at all.” Wrong. What I found is that there are so many blogs I enjoy it was hard to pare it down into the size of one readable blog post about educators blogging. After days of considering my options,  I determined that I would allow myself only four slots under three categories (learn, magnify voice, and connect). The blogs listed below are the ones I return to regularly, and there are many more I could have included. Do you have favorite educator blogs? Please share!

Muir Woods
Sites like this provide inspiration to me as a writer.
What places provide you inspiration?

Blogs for learning

With the editor of this blog (Katherine Schulten) having a long experience in education and regular contributing bloggers being teachers, you can count on the NYT Learning Network blog for daily resources for teaching and learning. You will find lesson plans connected to reading the NYT (valuable for all subject areas), questions for writing and discussion and opportunities to join the conversations by commenting on posts. Personally, I have utilized The New York Times in my work with high school students and college students because the resources are free, the topics are timely, and it’s also a great resource for staying current on issues in our country and world.

For years now I have been following the work of Vicki Davis from Camilla, Georgia. As a leading educator in technology and blogging, you can count on Vicki’s blog for resources on a plethora of topics, especially technology. A few years ago I met Vicki at an education conference and she shared the story of the title of her blog coming from students who thought she was a cool teacher and the school’s mascot were the cats, so her blog became CoolCat Teacher. She’s been all over the world speaking and inspiring fellow educators and she still teaches in South Georgia and shares her expertise with all of us.

Kevin Hodgson writes about technology, digital literacy, jazz, connected educators, and teaching middle schoolers. His posts are witty, informative, and innovative. Read his blog to learn new ideas for teaching students at any grade and be inspired by his level-headed approach to education.

A blog written by Tricia Shelton, a Kentucky teacher and connected educator, offers inspiration for learning and sharing through a lens of science for all students. Tricia engages other teachers as learners exploring the Next Generation Science Standards, and she believes science should be exciting and accessible for all students. I concur.

Blogs for magnifying voices

Another site I’ve followed for years is Getting Smart. Here you find innovative ideas for teaching and learning in blogs written by teachers and journalists alike. All positive ideas for re-imagining learning and sharing the voices of teachers as leaders. Coincidentally, I reconnected with a fellow Piedmont College graduate through his blog on Getting Smart. Our liberal arts college Masters in Teaching program served us well because we both maintain forward thinking ideas for teaching/learning and education reform. Check out all the innovative blogs on Getting Smart and access John’s contributions here.

Teaching Channel started with videos but I’m finding more and more blogs by teachers as another way for teachers to share their ideas about teaching and learning. Sometimes the blogs connect with the videos (another great resource for learning) and sometimes the blogs stand alone on topics relevant to the time of the school year or to issues in public education.

In this popular blog, teacher Pernille Ripp shares thoughts on teaching and student voice. I’ve always believed one of the major reasons teachers should be sharing their voice is because they are some of the best advocates for students. Ripp believes students have the right to raise a ruckus when education being given to them is not working. I couldn’t agree more, and I also believe teachers and parents have the same right. Let’s raise our voices & do so with the tips Ripp offers--with kindness, empathy and persistence. Together, we can make a difference in education.

The blog for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation frequently features teacher bloggers. My personal experiences working with the BMGF and with other teachers across the country working with them have been top notch. They listen. They learn. They support and encourage. They value teachers’ voices as experts in the field of education, and I couldn't agree more. Teachers know what students need to be successful in life.

Blogs for connecting

This teacher generated site hosts information for teachers in Kentucky wishing to connect with one another for optimal student learning. Visit to learn more about professional learning opportunities, to learn about Kentucky teacher blogs, and to add your voice to the change making happening in our state.

LDC provides tools for classroom teachers seeking to ensure students graduate college and career ready. The LDC instructional design system helps us think about the learning experiences we provide for students. LDC’s blog provides updates on information related to the tools and also shares educator perspectives on the usefulness of the tools for improved student learning. If you use the LDC tools or even if you don’t (yet), following the blog provides a great way to learn and stay connected.

Established by a non-profit organization over a decade ago, CTQ created the collaboratory for teachers to blog and connect with one another around topics of interest. Not only do they have the larger collaboratory, they also have smaller groups (called labs). Lab topics range from advocacy to leadership to sharing professional expertise. One of my personal favorites is the lab on Teacher Powered Schools.

Created by teachers for teachers, this service oriented blog offers various services to teachers, including free writing coaching by fellow teacher bloggers. The NBC encourages more teachers to blog and share their perspective on issues in education. Check out the site and start your own blogging journey today!

13 August 2015

In Response to Replies About Changing the American Public Education System

Within minutes of my blog posting yesterday I began receiving messages from friends, Twitter followers, colleagues and other blog readers. Most concerning to me was a private comment from someone (not a teacher) who said my attitude toward teachers is negative since teachers are part of the system I propose we change. A few thoughts: A) I taught high school students for nearly 12 years before leaving the classroom for other education related positions B) I am married to a teacher  C) I know many teachers who agree with me that the system needs to change because it's too focused on test preparation and not focused enough on learning and finally D) I work with teachers on a regular basis and have developed strong professional relationships with many in my state and across the country. I am a huge fan of teachers, and I understand how difficult teaching can be, especially teaching in schools with little autonomy or support.

After reflecting on yesterday's post overnight, I happened upon this article earlier this morning when I was catching up on reading. In Tom VanderArk's Education Week Column, Nicholas Donahue writes about why parents should support student-centered learning. Pertinent to consider because parents (and community members) are part of the overall education system. As parents we too often find ourselves nostalgic for the past and we sometimes say "the way we did it worked for me, so it's fine for my son or daughter." But, not all of us say that all the time. Some of us have begun to recognize the larger shift that must take place in the traditional system. Even if it's a system where our children are fine (as Donahue asserts is the case for his daughters and I concur the same for my sons), we must ask:  Is fine is good enough?

Granted, this is a difficult conversation. For us as parents. For our children who have learned well how to play the game of school. As with many things in life we find challenging, the struggles are worth it. We can have children/teens who are deeply engaged and owning their learning--the successes and the failures--and it will be worth it when we do.

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