Thursday, July 21, 2016

Empower Students through Authentic Presentations

I don't think I can say it enough. I went to ISTE with this thought in mind: one gem. I just need one nugget of information that lights me on fire. Isn't this the way it often goes when a teacher attends a professional development opportunity? Okay, I hear ya. Some people grudgingly drag their feet to PD. I choose to look forward to such opportunities in an effort to grow in this career that I love.

I attended more than 17 hours worth of sessions at ISTE. and I did come across some awesome sessions with fresh ideas to fill my tank (click on the link; I promise it's worthwhile!).  On the third day, however, I was still searching for the gem that would make me go, "aha! Now that's what I'm talkin' about!" Really? Am I the only one who does this? Okay, moving on...

So there I was, day three. I started to wonder if I was going to stumble across this moment before making the short drive back home. My head was swimming with ideas already, so maybe I ought to give it up already.

I am incredibly lucky to have a support system in my district (shout out to you lovely people!) who encourage me to take risks in my classroom and who seek my feedback to make things work better. For this occasion, I was signed up to have students present how high school students act as both consumers and creators of virtual reality. If you've read my last post, you've seen a little bit of how my students have become consumers of virtual reality.

At ISTE, my students were presenting on how they created virtual reality projects. Yes, my FRESHMEN students, five fabulous ladies, were presenting to educators about what they had created. As I explained to a colleague about how three of my students were those who barely spoke in class, she looked at me like I was crazy. These three students were explaining their project and answering questions as if they were the most talkative students in my classes.

And there it was: my gem. The one thing I was looking for during the conference. These five students communicating with others at an international conference that more than 14k educators attended. Here are some gems that I uncovered by reflecting on their experience:

  • Students were excitedly presenting on topics they chose and they created. 
  • Students came across challenges in their projects, and were proud of how they overcame the challenges to create their projects. 
  • Students were empowered to speak because of the above, but also, because of this: their teacher thought their project was worthy of presenting at a prestigious event and they had an authentic audience in which to present to. 
If that's not a sparkly gem and a highlight of my teaching career, I don't know what is! Teachers really need to think creatively and critically about how to incorporate the elements bulleted above into their courses if they wish to really, truly empower students.

That's all for me today. I know you're probably still waiting to hear about what my students created with VR, but that's for another day. :)

Thursday, July 14, 2016

#VR4edu to Build Empathy in 9th Grade English

Virtual reality (VR) has been a phrase that has lingered in the back of minds for some time now. At earlier points in history, it seemed the work of creative science fiction authors (see "Pygmalion's Spectacles" by Stanley Weinbaum), but over the last 85 years, it has become an ideal way to place one in a new environment that may otherwise never be experienced. From VR gaming platforms to college campus tours, #VR4edu is more than a hashtag; it's an innovative way to immerse students in creative and critical thinking while also engaging them in empathy and social-emotional wellness building. 

Social Emotional Learning (SEL) activities lead to student success both academically and as citizens in the community (Hamedani & Darling-Hammond, 2015). Incorporating activities into the classroom that focus on a student's ability to self-assess or build relationships with others reinforces critical and creative thinking by increasing his self-awareness and understanding of a situation. Essentially, SEL activities build strong schema for students to reference as they make decisions and solve problems both in and outside of the classroom. Additionally, teachers who reflectively incorporate SEL components into their classroom on a regular basis receive surprisingly positive emotional wellness benefits, as well (Zakrzewski, 2014). 

A strong and often emphasized component of SEL lay in a student's ability to empathize with others and see from differing perspectives. VR is a revolutionary way to place a student in a new environment so that they might experience the raw emotions of another. 

During a unit titled "It Happened Here" with the Compose Our World curriculum project I've been lucky to be a part of, students in my 9th grade English classroom were exploring setting and perspective as ways to make meaning. We had been reading To Kill a Mockingbird, focusing heavily on the setting aspect and the comparisons/contrasts between the small town that my students live in and the time period/place in which the wily Scout and Jem lived. Just as Scout slowly uncovers the importance of empathy for characters such as Boo and Tom Robinson, my students needed an extra boost to understand how their perspectives were influenced by their own setting and time. Thus, I decided to take them on a tour to view other places in our world during our current time period. 

Through the immersive journalism app NYT VR students in my classroom followed three refugee children through the place in which they lived, highlighting the daily happenings of their lives. Using headphones and Google Cardboard viewers, students were placed in the shoes of one who was sitting/standing right next to the refugees as they stood in a bombed classroom, rubble surrounding them in 360 degrees or on a boat as it glided through alligator infested waters, the sound of the water splashing in their ears as it slapped the side of the boat. 

I am absolutely positive that simply talking about this experience with students would not have produced nearly as compassionate and thoughtful responses as viewing, and thereby acting as an active participant through the 360/3D video, The Displaced report. Responding to a prompt that simply said, "before today, I'd never thought about..." students had this to say:
"The scarring memories each child carries with them due to the different circumstances present in the countries the children live in."
"I had never thought about how specific time periods and settings influence how situations play out." 
"Before today I had never thought about how you may be born into a situation that you can not easily get out of and the cycle repeats."
"Before today, I had never thought about how much pain refugees go through. Everything seems difficult for them, even simply getting food to survive. They get grain and basic supplies dropped from airplanes for them to take, and meanwhile we, in America, are sitting around eating food and complaining if there isn't anything we like in our house." 
 To get started with VR is easy: start looking for apps that you can use in the classroom and gather the materials necessary to facilitate the activity. Apps such as NYT VR, Google Cardboard, Google Expeditions (now available!), and Discovery VR all contain valuable lessons that can support both SEL and PBL in the classroom. 

You'll also need smartphones and viewers for the magic to happen. My students cycled through the VR station four at a time to experience the situation above, and I was lucky enough to borrow three phones in addition to my own to make this happen (thanks, friends!). You can also walk students through the process of downloading the appropriate app at school, but you'll likely want to give them the warning that 1) they should be connected to wifi and 2) this may take a while. VR apps are large and take up lots of data. Use the wifi to download them! 

Viewers come in many shapes, sizes and comforts. I was lucky enough to be awarded a grant through my school district and through to buy the cardboard viewers you see above in the photos from my classroom. These are cheap and usable! In fact, some students have since gone out and purchased their own.

Placing your students in the experience of someone else is truly life-changing and builds empathy on a whole new level beyond talking about it in a book. Using VR to do this gives your students an opportunity to build skills of empathy, while also igniting creative passions, such as when my students created their own VR experiences, but I'll talk more about that later! 

What implications can you see for #VR4edu in your classroom, content area, and/or grade level? Share with me below! I'd love to learn from you!

Hamedani, M. & Darling-Hammond, L. (2015). Social Emotional Learning in High School: How Three Urban High Schools Engage, Educate, and Empower Youth (1st ed.). Retrieved from

Zakrzewski, V. (2014). How Social-Emotional Learning Transforms Classrooms. Greater Good. Retrieved 15 July 2016, from

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Take it to the Community: Engaging Students in Project Based Storytelling

As many of you have read in this blog before, I'm constantly reflecting, wondering, and planning for ways to engage students while also making learning relevant to them. I am not a teacher who recycles lessons from previous years and plops them into present time. While this sounds like a lovely time-saving endeavor, it's not my style. 

For the past nine years, I have made many conjectures on how to get students to tell meaningful narrative stories. I've assigned many of these over the years in both ninth and tenth grade English, and each year I have run into the same problem: many in my population of students simply lack the experience to tell stories about their own lives. The projects I have given them--memory maps of their lives, This I Believe essays, or anecdotal accounts of meaningful events--have been a challenge for them for this very reason. 

With this in mind, a more experiential student experience was born: the interview narrative. While reading Mitch Albom's Tuesdays with Morrie about the author's experience with his dying professor, I began to see the wisdom and experience that comes with aging--and my students did, too. Admittedly, some of them didn't see it right away, as one student remarked: 
...I thought that it would not be a good book at all.  I thought I would just have to read the book and get it over with, just like it seems it is with most books I am assigned to read... As I started to get into it, the book kept growing on me more and more. After we finished the book, we were assigned to go interview an elderly person and tell “their story.” At that point, I thought “ok, well I will go ahead and interview someone and get it out of the way.” I then interviewed a lovely women and learned about her, her life, and and her story.  Here is her story which really touched me.
And she tells it exactly as I presented it to students: read the text, write at least ten questions about topics from the text ("death, fear, aging, greed, marriage, family, society, forgiveness, and a meaningful life (66)."), and interview someone in preparation to tell his/her story. 

Here is what happened next, as told by another student in class: 
On September 15, 2015,  my English class and I made a chilly journey on foot to the old folks home that was only a couple blocks from our high school. The early morning air and slight drizzle sent shivers down my spine. I expected this to be like every other field trip, not fun or useful, but still better than school. Little did I know that inside that brick building would be a wrinkled, warm-hearted 94 year old woman named Doris who would change my outlook on life forever.
That, my friends, is magic. In the 100 essays I have read, I stumbled upon varying degrees of similar accounts to that above: students who were nervous to interview residents in a local nursing home, those who were attending to just get out of class, and those who were concerned they would meet "cranky old people". In 92% of these cases, however, students reflected upon the joy they received by meeting with our community's wise residents. Likewise, the residents were filled to the brim with happiness and pride as they shared with my students. 

The affects of this project did not stop with just students and the residents. In one instance, a student who interviewed a resident allowed his mom to read his narrative before he turned it in. Half-way through the narrative, the mother stopped suddenly, a vague recollection floating in the back of her mind. Her son hadn't even mentioned the resident's name yet--he was writing in first person point of view--but his mom knew exactly who he was writing about. It was a former customer of the mother's salon who had stopped coming to the salon four years earlier. She and her co-workers had been wondering where the resident had been. Because of this project, they were able to visit the resident in the nursing home to catch up again like old times. 

I went into this project as a way for my students to connect with people in our community and a hope that they would emerge with meaningful narratives. What I left with was gratification from students, parents, and residents alike. And what of those narratives? They were wonderful, harrowing, intriguing, beautiful narratives that spilled tears onto my cheeks, down to my chin, especially when reading lines like this: 
I smiled at the thought of me and Betty being alike, because I have never thought about myself growing old. I started to imagine Betty as a reflection of myself and as I listened to her speak, I could hear more of me in her voice.  
To read more of their beautiful lines, that connect nicely to the standards of the rubric, click here. I promise you won't be disappointed! 

How have you taken students into the community? What experience have you had with this? Let me know in the comments below!

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Building Up to Collaboration

Coll-ab-or-a-tion. A word that holds not only 5 syllables, but implications for problems to be solved, ideas to be generated, and lives to be changed. Working with a new team of about 30 thoughtful, talented educators on a grant project through the George Lucas Education Foundation called Composing Our World, I've had the opportunity to reflect on the idea of true collaboration and what it can do in the bigger picture.
In a typical classroom of 28 students, I'm standing at the front of the room, buzzing with excitement. I can't wait to share this prodigious opportunity for hands-on learning that I have carefully constructed for students. With an assignment sheet in hand, I commandeer the front of the room--my stage--and read through the requirements for the project. I start to bore myself with all the details (implications for reflection? yeah, I think so!), so I speed up the pace of reading a little bit and swiftly get to the part where I explain that students will work on the project as part of a group. Two things immediately happen: eyes start fluttering around the room as partnerships are formed between BFFs while at the same time I am met with groans and eyes that roll into last year. 
I'd like to say that the eye rolls stop with teenagers, but the truth is that even classroom teachers often meet mandates of collaboration from administration with proverbial eye rolls. I get caught up in trying to get so many things done in the classroom for my students, that I forget that the best resources to managing my classroom are the people I can freely share ideas with. Reflecting and collaborating with my colleagues easily enriches the experience of the students in my classroom ten fold. With so many varying perspectives and so many experiences, being able to speak to and work with others makes me a better person and a better teacher.

Whilst attending our first set of meetings for Composing Our World at the end of the summer, many of us were able to experience the magic of collaboration done right. With so many brilliant educators in one room, it was truly extraordinary to see the group's collective wheels turning as ideas flowed between us. As I reflect on this experience, I see the importance of culture and climate in the classroom as a cornerstone to approaching learning opportunities embedded with collaboration.

Returning to the classroom example that is all too common in schools, simply put, eye rolls occur as a result of someone feeling uncomfortable or unhappy with a situation:
Teenager asks to go to movie theater. Mom says not before her bedroom is cleaned. Teenager rolls her eyes with a huff as she heads out of the room. The teenager in this anecdote is 1) obviously angry that she didn't get her way and 2) ultimately uncomfortable and unhappy with mom's response.
The same can be applied to the classroom. When introduced to an activity that requires students to work together, I am met with eye rolls because my students don't feel completely comfortable with the idea of collaboration. They worry about doing all the work if one person doesn't do their part, they remember a time they received a lower grade in a project that could have been higher if they were on their own, or they fear having to meet outside of class to work on assignments.

If project-based learning is to be successful, one must remember that collaboration hinges on culture and climate. My students have to feel like they belong to my classroom and that they trust those in the room before they can be comfortable enough to collaborate effectively. Simply standing up and reading an assignment sheet that requires them to work in groups is not enough. The classroom must be a place where differences are respected,  failures are recognized, and celebrations are required. Building a culture and climate that does these things is paramount to the collaborative environment.

Following the construction of positive culture and climate, teachers must instruct students on how to appropriately collaborate with their peers. The short video below from Edutopia is a great introduction to how teachers can explicitly teach students how to work together.

What are some ways that you encourage true collaboration with students? How do you build positive culture and climate in your room?

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Tech up your Syllabus and Teambuilding

Sobbing teacher memes are popping up like raindrops on water while school supplies barricade the front of every store. It must be THAT time. THAT which shall not be named. I try really, really, really (no, like REALLY) hard to ignore the start of school. School lets out at the end of May, and before June even peeks its head out, family and friends ask me the one question I attempt to artfully evade: when do you go back to school?

Some readers will already know that my response is usually along the lines of "sometime in August." It's nearing the end of July, and I've received district and building back-to-school letters. I've been thinking about school--cleaning/moving classrooms, reading professional development texts, building my PLN on Twitter, designing lesson plans in my  head, reflecting on past practices--all summer long. Now is where the fun starts!

The beginning of the year brings bubbling excitement, nerves on fire, and, admittedly, a little bit of depression for summer days gone by. It also brings pressure for me to hunker down and organize: syllabus, classroom blog, welcome letter, and climate building activities.

My syllabus is where I want to lay everything out for my students. It tells both students and their families how my classroom is run, including how they will be graded, what specific rules they must follow, and other routines. I choose to put my syllabus into a handy Google Form so students can follow along as we review the syllabus in class, and then they can go home, access the form with their parents, fill it out, and submit it. Doing this puts all of my students' information (including their email addresses) and their parents' information (again, including their email addresses) into one Google Sheet so that I can access it later. Then, when I go to send out a parent welcome email, voila! All their emails, right there. Copy the column with email addresses, and it's done. It's like magic!

Here's a link to the form I use. PLEASE do me a solid. Don't edit this form. If you'd like to, ahem, steal it, go to "file" and then "make a copy" so that others can enjoy the original form, as well.

Here's another tip. When you make a copy, immediately click on the folder icon and place the copy where you'd like it to go in your Drive account. Likewise, click on "view responses" and do the same for your spreadsheet. Otherwise, your new handy syllabus may float in Google oblivion for infinity.

Here's a look at the spreadsheet. Just don't forget to change the location or you might lose it later. 

Having set up my syllabus in Google Forms for both semesters last year, I find it the easiest and most efficient way to collect information. Of course,  a bonus to having my syllabus as e-copies is having an empty drawer where I used to store 150 copies of this baby. Of course, now that drawer is filled with k-cups. Happiness!

Note: I struggled with whether or not I wanted to go to an electronic "signed" form. How do I know that parents are the ones who are filling it out and not students? I finally became content with the idea when a coworker said, "well, how do we know that their parents are the ones filling out the actual paper ones?" Good point. Whether hard copy or e-copy, we don't 100% know that these forms are being filled out by a student's guardian. If a parent returns later and says they never saw the syllabus and never filled out the form, that is a conversation the parent should have with his/her student about honesty.  

Classroom Blog
My students will be utilizing a blog (it's a work in progress!) to complete a variety of activities this year to reflect on learning and track their discoveries during their 20% time. I have decided to use Blogspot since it fits in so nicely with the GAFE community. I'm excited to see how my students learn throughout the year and how they affect global audiences through their learning. In order to prepare for the beginning of the year, I need to get a few things set up on the blog. First, I need to add a label widget so that students can easily categorize their posts (by their class period) and so that they are easily organized. 

Assuming you have already set up your blog, click on "layout" from the left navigation bar. 

You can choose where you would like your layouts to show up. I chose the top layout bar (tip: you can also customize this layout by choosing "template" from the left navigation bar) because once students start adding labels for the class period they are in, each label will show up at the top to be easily accessed. Click on "add a gadget". 

Next, find the "labels" gadget. Click the plus button to add it, review the settings on the next screen, and you're done. 

You can add as many gadgets to your page as you'd like. I have also chosen to add a gadget that tracks page views and one that tracks where visitors to our blog are from. This gives students some ownership and they like to see the impact they are having. To add my flag gadget, I went to, changed settings accordingly, and copied the script it spit out at me. Then, I added it as a gadget.

Step 1: Add gadget

Step 2: Choose the html gadget. In the next screen, copy the script into the box and you're done.

I've also added a "favorites" gadget to the blog. I'd like students' blog postings to be highlighted here to give them some ownership and pride in the work they are doing.

Each year, I write students a welcome letter that I share with them on the first day of class. The letter includes information about me, my summer, and my classroom. This is my first point of contact with students, so I open myself up to the so they see me as a person and I can begin building rapport with them right away. On the back of the letter, I ask students to write me a letter in return. Here, I ask them to do as I've done: tell me something about you and open yourself up to me. I plan to post this letter on the blog as a start to the year, but I'll still write and print out the letter using a chisel and tablets...errr...paper. I like to give students a run down of tech expectations before they get their hands on the Chromebooks in my room, and they always get the letter as a "warm-up" on the first day of class when we have 20(ish) minute class periods. After I collect and read them, I write a note or two on each and hand it back to them the next day.

Climate Building
I can't tell you how many times I have played around with climate building. In my eight years of teaching, I have spent weeks on team building activities one year, and the next year, I spent one measly day. Team building may seem like fluff as I once thought myself, but here's the truth: students. don't. know. each. other. Not only that, but they don't know me. How can they feel comfortable sharing their writing and taking risks if they don't know anyone in the room? At first, my 9th students came from only two schools. The majority came from the middle school in town and 5% or so came from the charter academy in town. With the addition of a second middle school, they come from three different places. Not only that, but the biggest population of transfer students are those who are in the 9th grade. Again. They. Don't. Know. Each. Other. I have to help them get to know one another. Here are a few of my favorites.

  1. Use Google Slides to create a class directory of your students. Set up the slideshow with the number of students in your class plus three extra slides. On the first slide, do a welcome message. On slide number two, write the instructions: take a picture of yourself using the Chromebook, add your name, tell me a book you love and a book you don't love, and tell me a random fact about you. On the third slide, model the instructions using your own information. My students have fun doing this--as well as photobombing each other as they take their photos to include. 
  2. Set up an assignment where students create a slideshow about themselves. Jackie Gerstein has a fabulous website with many community building activities on it, one of which is this slideshow activity. Head there to see more ideas!
  3. Play name games. And then play them some more. We like to play games with a tennis ball or squishy toys you can buy at the dollar store. Start with one ball and ask students to get in a circle (P.S: This activity is tech-free). Student 1 (or the teacher) starts off throwing the ball across the circle to someone else, saying their name as he does. Student 2 repeats this, throwing to someone else who is not on either side of him. Once a student has the ball once, he/she puts his/her hands behind his back. He may not have the ball again. Once all students have had the ball, it returns to student 1. Now, repeat the activity in the same order, asking students to move as quickly as possible. Once they have that down, throw in another ball and get two going at once. Then, for fun, thrown in a third. It gets crazy, but it's definitely fun! 
  4. Find Someone Who....and fill in the blank. This is almost like a scavenger hunt, or you can make it like BINGO. This is typically played on printed sheets of paper. OOOOO...LIGHT BULB! Mix this with your technology. Ask students to create either the class directory or slideshow about themselves (as above). Then, glance through their slides after class and pick out some noteworthy things about them. Put these into a paper BINGO board, and ask students to flip through the directory to find the different items and identify the student it matches. When a student gets five in a row, an X, or a frame (your choice), have them say "BINGO!" What does he or she get? In my class, it's usually a stick of gum or a few Tic Tacs. Yeah, I'm classy like that. 
  5. World Cafe (tech free): place desks in quads. One student will be the recorder in the group (they choose who that is) and another student will be the speaker. The teacher will show a question, and students have 30 seconds to ponder their answer without talking. This is the hardest part for them. If anyone talks, the time gets extended. When played at the beginning of the year, this is a great way for you to gauge how well your class listens. After 30 seconds, give students about 2 minutes to discuss their answers to the questions while the recorder writes them down. After that amount of time, the speaker from each group reports out their answers. Next, instruct all students except the recorder in each group to stand up. Those standing must now find a new group to sit with and may not travel with those they just sat with. Those who stayed in the group as the recorder now become the speaker and a new recorder is chosen. Repeat this process with four more questions. Start easy with the questions (What did you do over the summer?) and progress to more thought provoking questions (Describe a person or place that has deeply impacted you). 

There are many, many other ways to build climate in your room, but these are a few to start. I really, really enjoy doing a combination of both tech-related activities and paper activities. This gives students the variety they need and keeps them on their toes. Furthermore, it allows my students to move around the room so they aren't stagnant in their seats for 90 minutes. Students need to move to get their thoughts flowing!

What other ways do you build a positive and nurturing climate in your classroom (w/ or w/o tech)? How else do you get the school year started? Tell me in the comments below!

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Reflecting to Refresh: 4 Ways to Incorporate Student Reflection

I guess it could be called adrenaline. The feeling you get when your shoulders inch up just a little bit and your chin points inward toward your chest. Your eyebrows arch awkwardly higher at the same time that your eyes close to a squint. It's when anticipation is about to burst and you have a split second to make a decision: flight, fight, or protect. The word reflection holds so many implications that it becomes like filling a water balloon, never quite knowing when too much water will make the latex burst, leaving one with pieces of lime green rubber in his hand. 

One can, for example, view her reflection in the mirror, picking out all the imperfections and choosing the best products for a flawless look. The mirror holds truth, but often I allow my ill-fated confidence to cloud the reflection with lies. Reflecting on the past brings with it happy memories of childhood fun, first steps, big moments, sad times. I sometimes find myself allowing brief events to play over and over in my mind while wishing there was a way I could do things differently--or even if I could just relive that happy moment one more time. Reflection holds positive energy and negative power depending upon the angle in which I view it. 

After attending InnEdCo  this year, I've been pondering reflection and its purpose in both my personal life and the lives of students I teach. As the quote above aptly describes, reviewing where one has been clears a path for the future and places goals back into view. Metacognition is a healthy way for students to become active in their learning, and to continue on as life-long learners even beyond the walls of the classroom. Costa and Callick  describe the importance of reflection: 
Reflecting on work enhances its meaning. Reflecting on experiences encourages insight and complex learning. We foster our own growth when we control our learning, so some reflection is best done alone. Reflection is also enhanced, however, when we ponder our learning with others. (Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind 2009)
Furthermore, Over at Faculty Focus, the authors explain that "reflection allows students time to pause, think, make connections, and work through an idea before others have any input or criticism." Ultimately, it doesn't matter what we reflect on, as long as we take even just a brief amount of time to review where we've been, set a course of action, and promote a growth mindset toward our goals.

Below, I've compiled a list of ways (from my own classroom, or, where indicated, from other sources as well) to add reflection into the classroom. All of these ideas are easily accessible for those who don't teach, too!

1. Blogging
Just in the few posts I've published so far, I've learned how introspective blogging can make me. Blogging allows me to put my thoughts into actionable words that can benefit others. As an English teacher, I obviously am a huge proponent of literature. One of the ways I facilitate student reading, for example, is by helping students to see that within stories we find shared experiences no matter the setting, characterization, plot, etc. Stories allow us to step into someone else's shoes to see, even though it may not be the whole picture sometimes, a small glimpse into others' situations allowing for both empathy and solidarity. 

Blogging can be done multiple ways in the classroom as a means of reflection. Keeping in mind that students have a right to privacy of their information (read about COPPA laws here), students can set up their own blogs to share their thoughts, triumphs, experiences, etc. with a global audience. Similarly, the teacher can set up a classroom blog for students to post reflections on a variety of topics. I plan to use my classroom blog as a daily reflection space and for students to post updates about their 20% Time projects. In a session by Lisa Norton (@MissNorton13) at InnEdCo, I learned of a great resource that enables students in global reflection: Who Owns the Learning? by Alan November. I haven't had a chance to read the text in its entirety yet, but from my initial thumb-through, I found that it has great ideas for empowering students in the digital age.

2. Portfolios
Tom Vander Ark over on the HuffPost Education section states that "well-designed learner portfolios provide students an opportunity to chart their growth and tell their story." As such, portfolios can be an easy way for students to store their work and reflect upon the progress they have made.

There are a number of ways that a student can set up a portfolio. Websites, personal blogs, Google apps, Evernote, and other apps give space for setting up a portfolio. Because we are a GAFE (Google Apps for Education) district, setting up a portfolio on Google Drive is easy and convenient. Students can easily use their Google Classroom folder to keep track of their assignments. When setting up a folder in Drive for a portfolio, a teacher can start the year with an assignment (label it number 1 so it is easy to find later!) that asks students to set goals and reflect on previous years' learnings. From there, students can easily track their progress, interact with the teacher through comments on papers and on Classroom, and reflect on assignments through regular Docs free-writes.

If GAFE isn't your thing, setting up a website is easy and quick using websites like Weebly and Wix. By using the camera on their phone, students can take pictures of physical assignments they have completed to upload to the blog or they can just upload assignments as PDFs to the websites. For each assignment that is uploaded, students can reflect on what they did, why they did it, how they feel about the grade they received, and what they can do differently in the future. Teachers can take this one step further by asking students to visit their peers' websites to give feedback on pieces. Again, teachers should be aware of COPPA laws and limit student information online. A lesson on internet safety and digital footprints would be helpful before using websites as digital portfolios.

3. Learning Log
Learning logs can be a great way for students to continually reflect on what they are learning. I especially like the idea of using learning logs cross-curricular. In my classroom, this would look like students writing about how the concept we've learned on, say, semi-colons is applicable in other classes. More specifically, I would challenge my students to use the concept in other classes so that they can later reflect upon how, exactly, they used that concept. When students are able to make connections across a wide range of applications, they are more likely to remember abstract concepts and to accept it into their learning schema for later use.

I like the idea of using Evernote for a learning log. The log can easily be shared with the teacher so that the teacher can review the log either weekly or monthly. Reading logs provide a more formative assessment to guide lessons for the future. Similar to the use of Evernote, teachers can also use the GAFE domain to start a document in Google Docs and share it with the teacher. The neat thing about both platforms is that there are apps for both Android and Apple devices which  makes it easy for students to access any time, anywhere. The app for Evernote, however, is a bit easier for students to add pictures to.

4. Conferences
Teacher/Student (T/S) conferences can be tricky, but they can provide a space for students to verbally explain where they have been and to reflect on the choices they made in a way other than writing. Similarly, during T/S conferences, the teacher is able to ask pointed questions to allow the student to dig deeper and to truly reflect on things. One of the biggest issues with conferencing is that teachers find off-task students while he/she is conferencing with individuals and/or the teacher runs out of time and is unable to get to the entire class. This has definitely been my experience! This year, I plan to set a calendar and share it with students. On the calendar they will see the day that they are expected to conference with me. Before our meeting, they will reflect on their own about their 20% projects and we will then meet to discuss their project and the plan they have set up for it.

Peer conferences can also be used to reflect on learning and projects. Students can discuss what they've learned in groups and can then post a blog reflection about what they've learned. One person in the group can be a scribe each class period, designated by the students in the group. Everyone in the group must be the scribe one time before he/she is the scribe again.

How do you incorporate meaningful reflection into your classroom? What does meaningful reflection look like to you? Tell me about it in the comments below!

Friday, June 26, 2015

A Gardening Newbie

Part of being an all around miscell-anne-ous type of gal means continually trying new things.  As of this weekend,  I have embarked on a new journey: vegetable gardening. 

This does not come easy for me.  It's something I have been reading up on for a couple of years.  I'm lucky to have a crazy supportive husband who rides along with me on these tangents.  We have been working on our yard since we moved in, with most of the work in the backyard being done in the last year or so.

Here's what our backyard looked like when we first moved in: 

Last year, we hired a landscape company to come in, take out all the rock and all the railroad ties, and put in a sprinkler system. After that, we went about placing sod and adding plants to the yard. Here's the after: 

I am so proud of how far we've come! We've transformed the backyard into a place to play and relax, and I couldn't be happier with how it's turned out. Of course, a special shout out has to be given to my husband, father-in-law, and mother-in-law. They are all-around talented and this project could not have been done without them.

On the agenda for this year: Project Sutton Garden. C has been working hard to get a garden in place for me (If you can't already tell, I am a spoiled, lucky wife!). It started with removing the old rock and layers of weed barrier (which, obviously weren't doing their job!).

The next task was to till the ground to loosen it up. We mixed in bags of peat moss to really break up the clay.  Then, it was on to smoothing it out in preparation for the boxes that my husband built. 

C chose the boxes to fit our space, so from the front, they are 4 X 4, 4 X 5.5, and 4 X 7 and are made out of cedar.

Next, we filled the boxes with garden soil we picked up from a bulk landscape supply place in town. It was HOT that day, so we set up the canopy so we weren't baking in the sun.

I have not researched gardening to the extent that I maybe should have, but I decided to jump right in. Since this is my first go, I'm taking it one step at a time. Whatever happens, happens! I mixed in some organic compost to the boxes just to give the soil some extra nutrients. 

I'd heard from a friend that one can make a self-watering system by putting holes in pop bottles and burying them in the ground, so that was the next task. I'm not sure if I did it correctly, but again, this is my test year, so we'll see how it goes. Here I am, drilling holes in the bottles. I started out trying to poke them through, and then I whined to my husband in a dramatic voice, "there has to be a better way!" and he produced for me his fancy drill. Yay! Problem solved--and no more whining! 

I buried the pop bottles up to the top. The idea is that I can fill the bottles and water will leak out of them into the surrounding soil to keep it moist. I think I probably could have done four in the 4 X 4 box (I did three), but I was quickly running out of pop bottles and we'd already emptied 10 bottles of dollar store orange soda to make these. Ain't nobody got time to make five more! :)

C and I went to Lowe's to pick up plants. I'd tried some seed starters earlier in the year, but...well...let's just say that that didn't work out so well. When I do it next year, I'll plant in bigger containers. The k-cups idea was cool, but there is definitely not enough room for roots to develop so the poor honeys were stunted from the beginning. ANYWHO...we picked up plants from Lowes and I got them all in the ground, along with some marigolds to hopefully steer the insects away.

Yahoo!! It was hard work, but the garden is up filled up. I left the next morning for a few days, and while I was gone, C and his dad did an AMAZING job building a new section of the fence for the front yard and a cute little picket fence to keep little Barnum and sweet E out of the garden area. 

It has been five days since planting, and I'm not sold on the pop bottles. They needed to be filled up pretty often, so it either means the sun is sucking the moisture out quickly (possible) or I drilled too many holes in the bottles (highly probable!). And yeah, I googled "why are my plants wilting" today. So what? I'm learning and that's all that matters! 

What tips do you have for me? How do I keep these plants alive?!? I planted tomatoes, lettuce, peas, carrots, cucumbers, peppers, potatoes, and corn. Help a sister out and give me some tips!