25 March 2014

7 Takeaways from Better Blogging Training

An opportunity to receive coaching from expert writers and bloggers in our Nation's Capital? Sign me up!  Actually, the opportunity required me to apply, so in December just before Christmas, I sent my application and by January learned I was accepted for a one day blogging training for educators from around the country.  Bellwether Education Partners hosted the intense full day training last week at the Sofitel at Lafayette Square.  We received interactive writing coaching and participated in a seminar on marketing and social media, all with renowned authors from organizations such as The Atlantic, The Daily Caller, RealClearPolitics, Bellwether Education Partners, Bully Pulpit Interactive, and Inside Higher Ed.  The coaches were direct, honest, and extremely knowledgeable.

Spring 2013

Here are my top 7 takeaways from the day--

1.  Dedicate time each day to writing.
As an educator and writer, I instinctively know this.  But, do I do it?  Matt Lewis from The Daily Caller walked us through photographic day in his life, starting with his morning coffee and writing.  Write at a time of day when you're at your best and take frequent walk breaks before publishing anything.

2.  Dedicate 50% of your writing time to promoting your writing.
Again, this one was from Lewis.  He suggested shamelessly promoting your work--to get it out there and read by many because it sometimes takes tweeting it 3 or 4 times before the story catches on.  This one is hard for me and for many other educators I know because we're not used to "bragging" about our work.  Plus, I've personally found it annoying when someone tweets the same link so many times it feels like I'm being spammed.  Guess I'll have to figure out how to strike a balance between self-promotion and spamming people.

3. Read. Read. Read.
All of the writers at the training told us we need to be reading all the time to be better writers, to find ideas for stories, and to be aware of what's happening in the world.  We can also capitalize on timely content for our own blogs.  Carl Cannon from RealClearPolitics told us we should also be reading our own work aloud all the time, multiple times, and always before we press publish. 

4.  Write interesting headlines and ledes.
We received small group and one-on-one coaching for headline and lede writing.  They gave us a fake press release and asked us to write in response to it for our own blogs.  My first stab received feedback of "boring." I realized I'm not incredibly fast with my writing either because I spend so much time thinking about it before writing about it.  Eleanor Barkhorn shared a few tips with us telling us to "draw our reader in and not to mislead, annoy, talk down to, or otherwise turn off a reader from reading."  Further, she said it's best to be straightforward and offer a headline that tells readers what they're going to get if they click. 

5.  Tell stories.
So much for David Coleman's statement that nobody gives a sh__about our stories.  In fact, people care very much about stories, and we have to use them effectively and embed them into our arguments and expository writing when blogging. According to Carl Cannon, part of sharing a story includes "making sure people on the other side of an issue recognize their argument in your characterization of their position." We can do this with stories.

6.  Know your content.
Cannon shared a Joel Garreau quote with us--"I was there & this is no sh__" Really, better writing happens when you're part of whatever you're writing about, so if you're trying to write about an event you didn't attend, you're likely to have poor content, and as Hemingway said--"readers are bullshit detectors."  Part of knowing your content means you can become known as a go-to source on something, too. This way if there's a major event happening, people will say "I can't wait to read Learning to Muse to hear what Renee thinks about innovative school design or effective teaching strategies" (or whatever your area of expertise is).

7.  Be obsessed.
 Given that I'm rather passionate about education, this shouldn't be too difficult.  I'm already obsessed with learning in ways that make sense and push on traditional boundaries.  Bully Pulpit Interactive led this section of our day on social media and branding.  This was the toughest part of the day for me, but it was also intriguing to learn about branding, marketing, SEOs--all relatively new topics for me, given my background in education for the past fifteen years. Blogging, however, has brought these topics more front and center for me because I do want my blog to be great, so that means I have to pay attention to my audience and I have to help the internet find my content by adding tags and using keywords.  I also need to organize my content in ways that make sense to my readers (something you might notice I've been working on more lately).  If you have any tips or feedback--feel free to share.

On my way home from this fully exhausting day, I downloaded another e-book on blogging.  This one, titled "How to Blog for Profit without Selling Your Soul," was interesting and I finished it quickly.  I'm not really trying to blog for profit, but I did learn many ideas similar to the ones suggested in this training that should help me continue improving as a blogger.

23 March 2014

Driven by Passion, Curiosity, and Dedication: Creating My Personal Mission Statement

For a work project, we were asked to develop personal mission statements and create Individual Development Plans.  As a former classroom teacher, I'm well familiar with Individual Growth Plans, but never before have I worked so diligently to consider my personal goals and mission because those forms previously created as a teacher were driven by the school's mission statements or the organization's overall strategic plan. Over the past few weeks I've been reading texts that I thought would help with my task of developing a personal mission statement, and I've been musing on my personal attributes, goals, and values.

One of the websites I visited suggested asking friends to tell me my top three attributes, so I asked my family and friends on Facebook to respond. I cut and pasted their responses to create a word cloud, so I could visualize my greatest attributes.  Other tips suggested by Gala Darling were similarly suggested on Franklin Covey's site as well. Using all of the sentence starters below, I drafted a somewhat cohesive mission statement to keep me going on this personal journey.

I'm at my best when...
I'm at my worst when...
At work I really like to...
In my personal life I really like to...
My natural gifts and talents are...
3 people who have influenced me most & one attribute they possess...
On my 80th birthday I hope people say....Renee is...
The image I'd like to project is...


Since I'm reading a book a week, I selected Susan Cain's Quiet:  The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking to read last week.  Learning more about my introverted self and how to leverage my strengths fed directly into my Individual Development Plan.  I especially enjoyed the sections on the differences between shyness and introversion.

"Many people believe that introversion is about being antisocial, and that's really a misperception. Because actually it's just that introverts are differently social. So they would prefer to have a glass of wine with a close friend as opposed to going to a loud party full of strangers."

"Now, shyness, on the other hand, is about a fear of negative social judgment. So you can be introverted without having that particular fear at all, and you can be shy but also be an extrovert."

As I proceed with my Individual Development Plan and living my personal mission statement, I suspect I'll benefit from knowing the power of my introversion.

17 March 2014

Will all the National Board Certified Teachers in the Room Please Stand?

Sandwiched between big name leaders such as Secretary Arne Duncan and North Carolina's former Governor Hunt were delightful speeches from former National Board Certified physical education teacher--Barbara Kelly, and Susan Hopgood, President of Education International.  Delightful speeches by these women brought inspiration amidst political and controversial conversations that  take much of the stage in the follow up blogs and news articles about the Teaching and Learning Conference last week in Washington, D.C..

With tears rimming my eye lids, I listened intently as Barbara Kelly shared a story about a recent tennis match where her tennis partner asked her to come to net because they were about to lose if she didn't step out of her comfort zone and approach the net. She spoke of the early years of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards where at meetings they regularly asked all NBCTs to stand, and then she asked us all to stand if we were NBCTs.  Hundreds of teachers stood and were then encouraged by Kelly to step forward as teacher leaders and raise our voices to make an impact on education in our country.  Barbara Kelly was honored with the James A. Kelly (no relation to Barbara) Award for demonstrating clear, consistent and convincing evidence of her ability to foster the legacy of accomplished teaching.

Just when I thought my tears would dry up and I could move on to listening to the politicians speak of education reform in our country, Susan Hopgood from Educational International approached the podium to speak.  Her comments about gender equality struck a chord with me given my study and efforts over the past year.  Her call for a global campaign around more just, peaceful, and tolerant societies to set the stage for education goals around the world appealed to my interests as well.  In America, it's easy to get lost in our own world of education reform and to forget about the millions of women and girls around the world who have no access to education.  When we consider the statistics, we realize we must do something at this critical time for the world to make decisions that will affect children for many years to come.

"Together we can make a difference for the education of girls around the world" 
                                                                        ~~Susan Hopgood

Hopgood's organization believes teachers are at the heart of education, so it was fitting that she spoke to thousands of teachers because quality education for all cannot be attained without investment in teachers.
Children from Lexington perform in event planned by Mahika

Because her short speech was so inspiring on day one, I selected to attend another session where Hopgood served on a panel day two.  In this session on Lessons Learned from High Performing Countries, Susan Hopgood, Pasi Sahlberg Mary Cathryn Ricker, and Dan Montgomery talked about the lessons we should learn from other countries.  Sahlberg suggested instead of comparing our PISA test results from country to country like a competition or beauty pageant, we should dig deeper into the patterns and trends of our own systems. 

 One of the biggest differences between America and other countries is that many other countries hold teachers in higher regard than we do here, and if you have been reading my blog since I started it, you will recall that one of the reasons I left the classroom was because I was tired of the lack of respect for the profession.

 A lack of respect was not obvious at the Teaching and Learning Conference.  In fact, quite the opposite.  Over and over there was a celebration of teaching and learning by everyone, and there was special recognition for all National Board Certified Teachers, especially when Barbara Kelly asked us all to stand.

16 March 2014

Where Knowledge Meets Inspiration: Learning & Networking at the T & L Conference

Where Knowledge Meets Inspiration-a germane tag line for the 2014 Teaching and Learning Conference in Washington, D.C. last week given the inspiring and informational sessions offered. As a National Board Certified Teacher, it was incredible to be surrounded by two thousand other knowledgeable and inspirational education professionals at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.  

Though my flight was delayed and I missed a pre-conference workshop at the National Geographic Society, I wasted no time connecting with fellow educators via Twitter for a dinner at Pi Pizzeria for a day early celebration of Pi Day.  Our conversations ranged from discussing our own NB
certification process to our own children and families at home holding down the fort while we were off to our Nation's Capital to learn with and from fellow educators.  Before leaving the restaurant, we had each mapped out the next day and shared our plans with one another.

On Friday morning, a friend and I met up with the Director of NBCT from Kentucky's Education Professional Standards Board (EPSB) to attend a session about the SEED (Supporting Educator Effectiveness Development) grant of which Kentucky is a part.  In this 8:30 am informational session, we learned about work taking place over the next three years to transform systems of support for encouraging more NBCT candidates in high-needs schools.  We also learned about the redesign of the NBCT process, including a total revamping of the assessment center part of certification and a redesign of the portfolio entries, with the primary change being an opportunity to complete only one or two components per year over two years rather than squeezing the entire NBCT certification process into a single year.  With this, new NBCT candidates will be able to spread out the hefty payments for certification as well.  All told, a very practical session focused on not only logistics and what needs to happen but on why we need to make these changes--a more intense focus on the 5 Core Propositions.  The new process also allows candidates to reflect thoughtfully and maintain high levels of teaching during the certification year.  An additional session on the SEED grant and Instructional Leadership later in the day brought occasion to learn more about how we can encourage and support more NBCTs as teacher leaders in our respective states.

The Plenary Session with Bill Gates was by far the most popular session of the day, with people lining up to gain entrance an hour before the doors to the ballroom opened and security checking tags for everyone who entered.  His speech focused on encouraging us to remain steadfast with the Common Core State Standards.  He mentioned our great state of Kentucky when citing examples of effective CCSS implementation because we all know poor implementation and too much focus on standardized tests are what's causing much of the recent backlash against the Common Core.  Following his speech, Gates was joined on stage by George Stephanopoulos who asked questions previously submitted by teachers, allowing a response from Gates.

A few of my favorite quotes from Bill Gates on 3.14.14

"...I'm not politically sophisticated, so I made the assumption people opposing them would have actually read the standards..."

"...the Common Core State Standards give every child an equal chance..."

"...handing out a worksheet will not be seen as a way to provide homework..."

"...I hope people are willing to read long books..."

Each of these quotes is significant to me because they speak to many of the topics I address in my own blog as well as to philosophies of teaching and learning I appreciate, so I linked each quote to a previous blog post I've written on a similar topic.

Our day ended with another plenary session, this one with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.  Again, a Kentucky reference.  Secretary Duncan referenced a Kentucky teacher who divides his time between teaching and providing professional development.

We also learned more information about new initiatives such as Teach to Lead and T3 (teachers leading efforts in turnaround schools!).  This project enticed me given that I've taught in low performing schools and know that the test prep mentality often employed only brings temporary success at most, and it does nothing for real learning and engaging students toward the futures they deserve and desire.

Debriefing the day over Indian food and beverage with a teacher friend included conversations about our experiences with the Common Core, travels with students to foreign countries, and family life, all in the name of keeping ourselves healthy and balanced individuals, something teachers often need reminders to do.

**Stay tuned for another post on the conference because there was too much to say in just one post**

09 March 2014

Lexington Teen Inspired by Girl Rising

Sixteen year-old Mahika left the Kentucky Theatre on a rainy evening several months ago determined to take action after seeing the film Girl Rising.  Upon leaving the theatre, Mahika's father told her--"talking is great, but taking action is even better."  The film and her father's statement spun Mahika into action, so for the past few months she and her friends worked to organize an event to take place around International Women's Day.

When Mahika emailed me a few weeks ago to tell me her plan, you can imagine my excitement knowing Girl Rising inspired her.  Indeed, the film did inspire young Mahikha and her friends to create, perform, and organize an event and performance.  Seventy five people from our Lexington community came together this afternoon at the Bharatiya Temple and Cultural Center to watch twenty young people (girls and boys) put on a production as part of a book drive designed to support the education of women and girls in underprivileged areas of our world.

 The event was superbly planned and the performances were fantastic.  Mahika and her friends carefully narrated the entire ninety-minute performance which included beautifully delivered monologues, world music with startling statistics presented on posters, slide shows of pictures of girls and women from around the world, a film clip from a school in India, and biographical sketches of young girls separated at birth with one girl telling her story of growing up in the United States and another girl telling the story of a sister who grew up in India.  The girls were careful to note the differences in living status, education, equality, and freedom because of one's home.

 A young 4th grader wrote and read an original poem inspired by the film.  A line from the poem that stayed with me--

 "we go to school to be educated and to live a free life..."

Lexington girls delivered speeches from memory by women from around the world including--

Malala Yousafzai
Sunitha Krishnan
Mother Theresea
Michelle Obama
Sonia Sotomayor
Harriet Van Meter

The transitions from sequence to sequence in the program were thoughtfully planned.  For example, the program transitioned from the monologues ending with the one by a Lexington girl delivering the words of Hariret Van Meter to a presentation by Dr. Vijayaraghavan speaking about International We Serve Foundation.  Mahika and her friends met with Dr. Vijayaraghavan to share their dream, and he realized Mahika and her friends shared his vision of promoting global prosperity to empower citizens.  When he rose to give his presentation, he was clearly moved by the inspiring program and performances of the young people at BTCC, as were we all.

01 March 2014

February 2014 Reads

February brought more nonfiction, but that's not a surprise since I'm always drawn to it.

Monkey Mind:  A Memoir of Anxiety
amused me while I traveled in the early part of the month.  A tragicomedy by Daniel Smith,  the book made for a perfect read while traveling because it kept me smiling. Smith's narrative reminded me of the stories I enjoyed by Oliver Sacks during my college years as a psychology major.  An intense desire to learn more about self and others can drive a person to major in psychology.  Indeed, my degree and psychology studies have proved useful in multiple aspects of my career and work in education.  While reading Smith's memoir, I thought about my students and family members who cope with anxiety, and I realized even while lauging at Smith's hilarious portrayals of anxiety, that it's not funny when you're helping someone who deals with massive amounts of debilitating anxiety.  If you are a teacher, parent, spouse, or friend of someone with anxiety disorders, you should consider reading this book because the raw material Smith describes might help you better understand people who suffer from anxiety.

Hatching Twitter inspired an entire blog post of its own because of my fascination with the world of business and start-ups and my lack of experiential knowledge around either.  The book still has me thinking about the power of social media, and I'm even dismayed when I hear of others who think social media is a useless waste of time given that entire revolutions began in places around the world because of social media.  The activists and educators who use Twitter for making change are most interesting to me, I guess because those are ideas that matter to me in the grand plan of making a difference in the world.

Formative Assessment:  Making it Happen in the Classroom fed a professional need to revisit a topic for a post on this important aspect of a more balanced approach to teaching and learning.  For my book a week goal, I didn't set out to read a certain number of professional books, nonfiction or fiction, I just knew I would read what was most relevant to me in a given week.  The week I read this book began with a Twitter edchat (#nctechat) about formative assessment, and instead of speaking only from experience and knowledge I've gained over the years, reading this book by Margaret Herritage reminded me of important pieces of research that have been written to prove the impact formative assessment can have on student achievement and learning.

The Three Weissmanns of Westport, the only work of fiction I read this month, was not my favorite read of the month.  Initially when I purchased this book by Cathleen Schine off a bargain table at Barnes and Noble, the blurbs on the back sounded interesting, literary, and reminiscent of a Jane Austen novel.  The book has won awards and is listed as a New York Times Bestseller, but it's not one I would ever read again or recommend.  For me the contemporary version of a genteel society is not one for which I have any care or interest.  Had I known the book is classified as "chick lit" I might have known better than to pick it up since that genre typically does not appeal to me.  I'll make a better choice next time and pay better attention to why a book is on the bargain table in the first place.