31 December 2014

My Favorite Books from 2014 Book A Week

A few of the books I read in 2014
This morning I finished reading my 52nd book in 2014. What a terrific feeling to have accomplished my personal goal of reading a book a week consistently for the entire year.  I began this journey on January 1st of 2014 feeling confident yet slightly cautious. However, knowing I'm someone with determination once I set my mind to do something, I never really thought I wouldn't achieve what I set out to accomplish.  I believed I would do it all year long, and I did. As is typical with my favorite genre of books, many of the books I read were about individuals on journeys of some sort.

As predicted, I read more nonfiction than fiction, and somewhat surprisingly, I read only a handful of professional books. 37 works of nonfiction. 9 works of fiction. 1 collection of poems. 5 professional books for a total of 52 books read for pleasure, knowledge, inspiration and sheer enjoyment.

Here are my 14 favorite books from 2014 (in no particular order). Keep reading below for short descriptions on why each of these books made my top 14 list.

1. Wave: Life and Memories After the Tsunami by Sonali Deraniyagala
2. Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
3. A Sliver of Light:  Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran by Shane Bauer, Josh Fattal, & Sarah Shourd
4. Things a Little Bird Told Me: Confessions of a Creative Mind by Biz Stone
5. A House in the Sky by Amanda Lindhout
6. 46 Days: Keeping Up With Jennifer Pharr Davis on the Appalachian Trail by Brew Davis
7.  Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary Confinement with the Bard by Laura Bates
8.  A Long Way From Nowhere: A Couple's Journey on the Continental Divide Trail by Julie Urbanski and Matt Urbanski
9.  In My Father's Country: An Afghan Woman Defies Her Fate by Saima Wahab
10. Become Your Own Great and Powerful: A Woman's Guide to Living Your Real, Big Life by Barbara Bellissimo
11.  Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink
12.  Thinking in NumbersOn Life, Love, Meaning, and Math by Daniel Tammet
13.  Hatching Twitter:  A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal by Nick Bilton
14.  Ultima Thule by Davis McCombs

General reasons these books made my top 14 list
**They made me laugh, cry, feel outrage, want to speak out, want to take action, and want to make changes in my life**

Two of my January 2014 reads made my top 14 list. Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala was heart wrenching while also offering hope. The author was the only one in her family to survive the 2004 Tsunami. I read this book while traveling for work and could hardly wait to get home to be with my family because I know without a doubt how fortunate I am for their presence and love.  46 Days made my list because I enjoyed reading the daily journal of logistics and support as Brew Davis helped his wife set the record for the fastest AT thru-hike. Both hikers amaze and inspire me to get outdoors & get moving more.

Only one of my February reads made my top 14 list of books this year. Hatching Twitter was interesting and fascinating as well as it transported me to another world of high technology and business start-ups.  You can read more of my thoughts on the book here.

March proved another fantastic month for reading, and once again two of the books made my top 14 list. Recommended to me by a friend who knows how much I enjoy nonfiction, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, left me wordless and unable to articulate just how much I learned and experienced while reading about the lives of people half a world away from me in Mumbai. Also of note in March was Daniel Tammet's Thinking in Numbers which took me into a world of thoughts about how numbers connect to every aspect of our lives, including language and poetry.

When National Poetry Month rolled around in April, my list had to include at least one collection of poems. Though I love poetry, I don't take nearly enough time to read it daily (other than the poem a day which comes in my inbox). Ultima Thule by Davis McCombs provided the perfect segue into a field trip to Mammoth Cave I took with my son. With great anticipation, I also read A Sliver of Light in April. This story of three American hikers imprisoned in Iran kept me curious for years so reading their book provided more details of their experience and awakened me to other issues of solitary confinement and false imprisonment, issues that continue to keep me curious and wanting to take action.

Four of my five reads in May made my top 14 list, all nonfiction, of course. Because I've been thinking a great deal this year about my career, my life, my family, Barbara Bellissimo's book Become Your Own Great and Powerful:  A Woman's Guide to Living Your Real, Big Life was inspirational. I have found when you start your career as a teacher, it's not easy to think about asking for what you want and need for yourself. You are taught to believe--you do it because it matters--so money, comfort, and stability shouldn't matter. This year is one when I've been denying that expectation as truth, and I've been thinking more than ever before about what I really want and need from my career and personal life.

Five Days at Memorial, Things a Little Bird Told Me and A House in the Sky also made my list. Each of these books left me thinking throughout the year for different reasons. When I visited New Orleans for a conference in October, I was taken back in memory to the fantastic journalistic piece by Sherri Fink. When the beheadings of other journalists in Syria this year were reported, I remembered with vivid detail Lindhout's story of her captivity.

Half way through the reading year June-September, I continued reading with a list of both nonfiction and fiction, though none of the books from those months made my top 14 list here.

By October, I was beginning to realize I really would make my goal of a book a week as long as I continued to stay consistent through the busy work conference and holiday seasons of October-December. Included in my top 14 list was In My Father's Country: An Afghan Woman Defies Her Fate by Saima Wahab. In this memoir a young woman was sent to America to live with relatives at the age of 14 so she would be spared a childhood marriage. If you care about women's issues around the world, I would encourage you to read her story.

I ended my year by reading memoirs for all of December. Each story was interesting and inspirational as the authors shared their personal stories and journeys. However, the story of Julie and Matt Urbanski hiking the Continental Divide Trail was the only one of the five to make my top 14 list because I enjoyed the book as each spouse took turns writing chapters from their individual point of view. Since the book was about their hike and their relationship, it was inspiring to see how the couple worked individually and cooperatively to meet personal goals and solve problems.

Cheers to a great year of reading!

29 December 2014

10 Most Popular Blog Posts of 2014

Sitting on the balcony of our beach condo rental on this beautiful December day, I'm reflecting on my year as a reader and writer and planning several end of the year blog posts accordingly. My 10 most popular blog posts for the year aren't even necessarily my favorite posts, but they all hold a common theme of more engaged education experiences for students and teachers.

Even though this post has been up the least amount of time of all the posts listed here, it is by far the most popular amongst readers as it's had the most page views.

Number 2: Why I Support the Common Core

Unfortunately these excellent standards have become extremely politicized, and higher standards for students have turned into politician talking points. I'm no politician. Just a parent and educator who genuinely wants what's best for children and teens.  At a recent education conference, I heard Chuck Todd speak, and he assured us the political drama over these standards will increase in the coming election year.

Number 3:  Social Studies Includes History and Teaching

Another hot topic in America right now relates to how we teach social studies.

Number 4:  EQuIP Educators Evaluating Quality Instruction 

My work this year has led me to participate as a member of the peer review panel with Achieve, and the opportunities have continued as I've spoken at several national conferences, have guest blogged, and have met new people because of my work with The Fund for Transforming Education in Kentucky. 

For me this actually was one of my favorite posts to write, and it's also been popular amongst readers. I suppose because we see so many poor examples a of vocabulary instruction, we're all hoping for something more meaningful and engaging. 

Number 6:  A World Enough and Time

When my husband started teaching high school this year, we began this written conversation series and have blogged together a few times. This particular post includes a play on an Andrew Marvel poem.

Number 7:  Kentucky and Colorado Teachers Collaborate to Create Units of Study with Embedded  LDC Modules

Collaborating with others invigorates me because I believe many minds are better than one.

Number 8:  Why I Won't Make My Child Complete a Word Search Worksheet for Homework

Talk about feedback. Within a few hours this post garnered both positive and negative feedback on Facebook, so I provided an update a few months later.

Number 9:  Formative Assessment--A Process--Not a Thing

This post followed a NCTE Twitter chat about formative assessment and included a culmination of my thoughts on this topic from the past few years.

Number 10:  Students Plan to Change the World with Real-World Project Based Learning 

A highlight of last year for me was listening to students explain their project to me. I have no doubt they really will impact our world.

Finally finishing this post while enjoying the evening view.

24 December 2014

Coding in December

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My thirteen year old tech-savvy son thought it was a hoot that I was the parent advocating for his middle school to participate in Hour of Code this year. Since my boys started school nine years ago, I've been volunteering in the public school system. I've chaperoned field trips, baked goodies, and sold refreshments at middle school dances, but the volunteering I've enjoyed the most has been the times I have been able to work directly with students. When I sign up for committees, I try to sign up for committees that might afford me the opportunity to interact with students. Maybe it's my former teacher self who misses regular interactions with students. Maybe it's my parent self who wants to know the kids my own children attend school with. Or, maybe, it's my school improvement advocate self who wants to know what students really think about school, and the best way to know is to be there with the students.  Regardless of the reason, I set my plan in motion in October when I first heard about Hour of Code via Twitter.

By working with the head of technology at the middle school my sons I attend, I was able to gain access to two teachers who felt they had room in their curriculum to squeeze in an hour of coding during the official week December 8-14. These teachers opened their classrooms to me, and I spent each hour working directly with students as they tried out the various tutorials on the Hour of Code site. The best part? Hearing kids say "hey miss--I got it! I figured it out!" None of the students with whom I worked had any previous experience with coding.

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Whatever field our children choose to enter as adults, their ability to succeed will increasingly hinge on understanding how computers and other technology work. Nearly 9 out of 10 schools do not offer any computer science classes. Yet, the demand for skilled workers to fill computer science jobs will continue to increase. Supposedly by 2020, there will be a million vacant computer science jobs. When I shared this statistic with some eighth graders, I saw their faces light up a bit.

Across the globe, schools are beginning to see the benefits of teaching coding. While jobs in the future might motivate some people to teach coding, I can imagine others are less motivated by jobs and more motivated by other benefits. Coding teaches students problem solving and forces them to pay attention to details, and if you have students work in teams on coding, they are also learning valuable skills as members of a team.

Business and community partners have everything to gain by volunteering time and resources in our public schools. Microsoft sends their engineers to schools to teach courses and volunteer, and several other organizations (including Facebook, Google, and the Ford Foundation) partner together as part of the #yeswecode movement. One of my favorite holiday activities this year was following Google's work with lighting up Christmas trees (an initiative aimed at getting more girls to code) and encouraging kids to use the Santa Tracker to code. Certainly, these activities are specific to people who celebrate Christmas, but since I celebrate Christmas, I found it fun to see the opportunities to make the holiday a continued learning experience.

Whether you are a parent, teacher, administrator, or community member reading my blog, I want to encourage you to support more coding opportunities in the area where you live because it's interesting to kids and it provides them valuable skills and experiences in life now and for their future.

Earlier this month, I attended and presented at the Achieve Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C. so my colleagues and I took a walk the first evening to see the Christmas lights. We were excited to see the trees that were lit because students wrote computer code to light them up.
Seeing my world come full circle this December along the Christmas Pathway of Peace delighted me to no end. Kentucky's ornaments this year created by students from the Warehouse After School Program in Danville. This is the very program co-founded by Kendra Montejos, the young woman I interviewed for a Cake and Whiskey magazine article. You can read more here.

01 December 2014

How Rosa Parks Can Inspire Our Efforts to Transform Education in the United States

One month before our family visited Washington, D.C. for spring break in 2013, a statue of Rosa Parks was unveiled 
at the Capitol, so we were excited to snap this photo when we visited.

Today, on the 59th anniversary of Rosa Parks not giving up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama,  I'm thinking about how Parks' refusal to give up her seat moved the world. She was a leader who made a difference in the Civil Rights Movement because she was passionate and took a stand when she was tired of giving in to the inequities she faced as an African American. I believe there are lessons we can learn and apply to the world of education and the inequities we see as evidenced in both achievement gaps and opportunity gaps

We must be passionate about our work to transform education & act on our passion to improve the opportunities for all students to enjoy high quality learning experiences. Where I work, we often talk about "blowing up the education system." Not in a violent sense, obviously, but definitely with a sense of urgency. We are impatient about the need to change and improve our current educational system. Too many children and teens are bored in school because so many school systems are doing the same thing they've been doing for hundreds of years, and it's often focused on test prep, worksheets, and isolated learning experiences.

We can make a difference together.  Just as Parks was part of a longstanding effort to create change, we must not underestimate our individual and collective efforts to stand up for what we believe is right for children and teens. Last month I was offered the opportunity to blog for Teaching Channel, and what resulted was a post on transforming the teaching profession and honoring teachers as leaders as one strategy for improving the educational system for the students we teach.

We must shine light on bright spots in education. Granted, boring instruction is not happening everywhere, and I'm all for highlighting effective learning experiences. We need these experiences to be more widespread for all students.

 "I would like to be known as a person who is concerned about freedom and equality and justice and prosperity for all people." 
One of my all time favorite quotes by Rosa Parks