Sunday, May 27, 2012

Going Out On Top

Over the last four years I have had the privilege and honor of working with one of my educational idols, even though I didn't realize it until recently. Her name is Linda and she is a classroom teacher in our elementary school and after a phenomenal career, that spanned about 40 years, she has decided to take her journey in a different direction - she is retiring. The thing that impresses me most is that she is going out on top - she is basically the "Seinfeld" of teachers! She is still "getting the highest ratings" and her retirement is leaving people shaking their heads - why retire when you are still making such an incredible difference and having such a tremendous impact on the people around you? Just like Seinfeld impacted pop culture on various levels for many years, Linda has impacted the lives of children, parents and her colleagues on various levels for decades! Linda is one of my educational idols because she has changed me - she has made me a better father, husband, educator, leader, friend and person by allowing me the opportunity to be a small part of her journey.

During my 15 year career in the world of education, I have encountered many teachers/administrators/etc. who have decided that it was time to retire. The one thing that most of these retirees had in common was that retiring was really the best option for them - and everyone around them knew it too. They stopped taking risks in their learning and teaching; they felt that they had nothing new to learn because they had experienced it all; they started to see their administration, some colleagues and even students as roadblocks instead of vehicles. This is definitely not the case with Linda. She could easily teach for another 30 years because her passion for learning and teaching are stronger now than when she started her amazing career. Linda is a magnet for everyone in our community - students, colleagues, families, and administrators all want to be in Linda's presence because they know they will learn something and they will walk away in a better place. This is the reason for this post - people who don't know Linda need to know about her! Educators who are just starting out should use Linda as a model for what they should be striving for each day so they can have an amazing career that spans 40 years. Educators who are nearing the end of their journey should remember Linda when they start to feel a little stagnant.

So, what specifically can someone learn from Linda? Well, the list is endless, but these are some of the most important lessons that this educational idol has taught me...

1. Instead of saying NO, ask WHY NOT? Whether working with a student who wants to do something differently in the classroom or dealing with administration that is pushing the implementation of a new program instead of shutting it down right away, see the positive in it, find something you can support, give it a try and ask WHY NOT?!

2. Teach the WHOLE CHILD! Yes, the academics are important and they are the focus for most of the day but make time to allow for opportunities to help the whole child develop and grow. Have a class meeting to discuss issues that are important and relevant to the class; allow the students an opportunity to research a topic that is of personal interest to them and let them share their knowledge with the class; spend a little time with each individual child every day so you can connect with them and be their support system and advocate when necessary!

3. Thinking outside of the box should be more the norm than the exception! Take your students' learning beyond worksheets and textbooks - tap into their passions and creativity and use those as the vehicles for learning!

4. DIFFERENTIATE for EVERY CHILD in some way, shape or form! Whether letting students focus on topics of interest when appropriate or teaching to the various learning styles and readiness levels of your students, find a way to differentiate and personalize the learning experience each day for all of your students!

5. Make time to COLLABORATE with your colleagues! Some of the best teaching and learning may be happening in the classroom right next door to yours but you may never know if you don't open your door and share with the people around you. Why re-invent the wheel if someone already created it and all you have to do is tweak it and make it work for you and your kids? Why deal with the stresses and challenges of teaching alone when there are likely many other colleagues feeling the same way? Why not take the time to celebrate your successes and the ones of those around you? All of this, and much more, can be accomplished through collaboration!

6. Have FUN with your learning and teaching each and every day! Let your colleagues, administration, students and their families see how much you love to teach and learn - that love and passion for what you do will be infectious! And forget what you heard in your schools of education in college - it is ok to smile before December!

7. Don't let your fears or discomfort limit the learning opportunities for your students - figure out a way around them! Linda is somewhat of a self-diagnosed technophobe (we all have our flaws). Recently I introduced Prezi to our staff at a Faculty Meeting as an alternative to PowerPoint. Although Linda didn't necessarily feel comfortable with the tool herself, she did think her students would love it so, she came looking for me the next morning and asked that I share Prezi with her students. Linda did not allow her discomfort of technology impact her students in a negative way - she found a way around it - and in the end, Linda and her students were the first group to successfully use Prezi in our building.

8. Be the voice of REASON and HONESTY even when its not easy or popular. If you have a student who is struggling with something and their family doesn't realize the severity of the issue - don't shy away from being honest and sharing because in the end, you are trying to do what is best for children. Or, if a colleague is reacting to something from an emotional place, help them slow it down and reflect on the issue from a place of logic and reason. This is a difficult one to accomplish but so important!

9. Treat every single day as an opportunity to learn, grow, try something new and take a risk with your own learning and teaching!

10. LOVE and RESPECT ALL OF YOUR STUDENTS regardless of their backgrounds, issues, personalities or needs. Your students need you in their corner everyday and they will need you the most when they are most challenging and difficult!

Although this list could go on forever, I think the message is clear - Linda is an incredible educator who has gotten better each day and is truly going out on top! For all of us who have years of teaching and learning ahead of us, let Linda be one of our educational idols; one of our role models; one of our examples; one of our goals; let Linda be the reason we ask WHY NOT? instead of saying NO!

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Evernote and Balanced Literacy

Two months ago, after reading a lot about it on Twitter, I decided to download the Evernote app onto my I-Phone and I-Pad. Initially, I wasn't exactly sure how I intended or wanted to use it but the idea of having a note taking app that could easily sync across multiple devices and computers so that the information could be accessed from anywhere seemed liberating (I know, others have known about the power of Evernote for years but cut me some slack, I only joined the Twitterverse in February and most of my recent learning starts there).

Since downloading Evernote in March and spending some time exploring its abilities and capabilities, I am officially hooked! I use Evernote at ever administrator's meeting that I attend to take notes and identify the things that I must take action on immediately and the things that can wait. I use Evernote to gather ideas for my blog and even start writing some of the posts there because they are so easy to transfer onto my blog. I use Evernote to take notes while I visit the classrooms in our school each day so I can document the many activities, lessons and learning experiences I observe during my daily walk-arounds. I can say that Evernote has replaced my writer's notebook, which is hard to admit because I never thought I would be able to go without my physical notebook; but, using Evernote means I can stop and write whenever I want about whatever I want without having to worry about whether or not I have my notebook.

Although this list could go on and on as I have become more aware of the power of Evernote, I recently started to think about when I could share Evernote with our staff so that it was useful and relevant for them on both personal and professional levels. The idea of sharing a note taking app that could be saved in the cloud was clearly powerful but I wasn't sure if it would hook the staff and convince them that Evernote could enhance their craft. In thinking about the fact that it replaced my writer's notebook, it finally dawned on me, using Evernote could really enhance our literacy instruction where we implement a Balanced Literacy model in the areas of reading and writing. YES - that was it! Evernote could make our reading and writing workshop models better than before, which is always the goal.

So, at our Faculty Meeting this past week, I hooked up my I-Pad to the projector (first time I tried that and it was awesome but that is a whole other post) and shared the following ideas about how we could use Evernote as part of our Balanced Literacy model...

1. Use it for conference notes when meeting with individual children - instead of trying to organize all the notes from the many individual reading and writing conferences on different clipboards, notebooks and binders, Evernote could streamline that process for any educator! A "notebook" (or note within a class "notebook") could be created for each child in the class and every time the teacher meets with that child there is a place to record what reading/writing strategies and skills the child is currently using, what things the child is doing well as a reader/writer and what goals should be established for the child so they could continue to grow as a reader/writer. By saving these conference notes to the cloud and being able to access them from anywhere, think about how it could take a parent phone call or a parent/teacher conference to a whole other level. Also, the teacher's conference notes are with them all the time so if they get an idea about a specific child or group of children, they could launch Evernote, make note and access it when they are back in the classroom with their children. (In my eyes, that is AWESOME!)

2. Use it to help organize guided reading/writing groups and strategy groups just by typing a key word in the search box! After an educator has completed one round of independent reading and writing conferences, they could use the data they have amassed to begin grouping children by level for guided reading/writing lessons or by need for strategy lessons. For example, if the teacher wanted to pull all of her strong Level G readers for a guided reading lesson to scaffold them for the transition to Level H books, she could launch Evernote, type Level G in the search box within her class "notebook" and the notes on each child from the independent reading conferences where she included "Level G" would pop up and viola, there are the names for her guided reading group(s). Or, if certain students are struggling with generating a strong lead sentence in their writing, a teacher could access notes in Evernote taken during various independent writing conferences and enter the phrase "lead sentence" in the search box and the notes about the children who either soared or struggled with lead sentences would pop up and BAM - there is a strategy group! I think this is something that has AWESOME possibilities especially considering how important it is to analyze various data points, use the data to differentiate instruction and deliver information in small groups and doses.

3. Use it to record children reading aloud! The Evernote app comes with a recording/microphone feature, which could be used in various ways. For example, while completing a running record/miscue analysis, a teacher could record the children reading an excerpt aloud and go back and listen to the reading again to ensure that all the notes taken during the running record were accurate. Additionally, listening to a child read aloud again could help when working with the parent of a struggling reader to figure out ways a parent can support the child at home. Finally, recording a child reading aloud can be very powerful for the student because they could hear themselves and listen in with the teacher to review what strategies and skills were being used by the reader. Having a child listen to themselves read aloud is also an excellent way to work on fluency and phrasing, which are critical skills as children get older and the texts become more complex.

4. Use it to plan various mini-lessons and small group reading and writing lessons. After reviewing all the above mentioned data and listening to the children read aloud (either in person or through an Evernote recording), a teacher can use this information to help plan out the various mini-lessons for a certain unit of study, period of time or possibly the entire year! Mini-lessons should address various expectations of a unit of study; mini-lessons should also address the CCS; and mini-lessons should meet the needs of the students as measured during various conferences, conversations and observations. Using Evernote will allow an educator to pool all these data points together and then map out the necessary next steps in regards to whole class mini-lessons.

5. Use it to clip and gather a bevy of resources from the web that could enhance the shared reading or writing experience. One of the best ways to expose our students to a variety of genres and text types is through the shared reading/writing experience. By supporting the children through a shared reading/writing experience, we are able to better scaffold them for independent success and support them as they analyze texts. Of course, finding or generating shared reading texts is not always easy but with Evernote, it definitely gets easier! For example, lets say a teacher comes across a great article on a specific child friendly website, the teacher would be able to "clip" that specific page with the desired text within Evernote and then BAM, because Evernote is also on the computer connected to the projector in the classroom (that is what could be happening), all the teacher has to do is launch Evernote and there is the shared reading text!

In addition to the above mentioned ways, Evernote also has many other uses that can empower every educator and instructional leader! Check out these links for other ways to use Evernote...

1. Time Management Ninja - check out this blog for ways that using Evernote can save time!

2. 10 Tips for Teachers - check out this blog posted by Michael Cruz on the uses of Evernote in school!

3. 100 Ways to use Evernote - check out this blog by Andrew Maxwell for a bevy of ideas!

So, as the school year comes to a close and you begin thinking about your reading and writing workshop units of study for next year, remember that Evernote can take the Balanced Literacy experience to a whole other level for you and your students!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Avoiding Auto Pilot

Have you ever gotten behind the steering wheel of your car and ended up somewhere without recalling much about the journey except where you started and ended? Do you ever go through a specific routine or experience (i.e. - getting ready for work in the morning) and before you know it you're done and ready to move on to the next thing without being able to recall everything you've done? I don't know about you, but that happens to me on a regular basis. I have a 25 minute ride to work that involves using some side streets and two major highways but on most mornings as I pull into the parking lot at school, I don't remember much about the journey (luckily I haven't ended up totally lost and I only went to the wrong school once when I ended up at my old school). Fortunately, it seems that my brain has committed this whole morning journey to memory so that while I am consumed by thousands of thoughts, ideas and questions, I am subconsciously getting to work. I think I can confidently say that in this instance, being on auto pilot is my savior and a critical part to my success on any given day!

With that being said, there are times when we need to avoid being on auto pilot because auto pilot mode often means that we get too comfortable, too complacent, too stagnant and our opportunities for growth diminish. From my perspective it seems that auto pilot can be negative in certain relationships (friendships, work colleagues and even marriages), situations and work settings - especially in the world of education! As educators our whole world is about teaching and learning; learning and teaching. This constant cycle of learning and teaching means that educators are always growing, changing, evolving and rarely kicking it into auto pilot; except, when it doesn't.

We can all close our eyes and recall that teacher, principal, central office administrator or college professor who had clearly engaged the auto pilot feature and forgot to turn it off and re-enter the cycle of learning and teaching. That educator whose notes for the day were written on faded yellow lined paper (paper that started out white decades ago) and were found in a binder that hadn't been updated in years. Or that educator who gives the same lecture in the same class year after year completely neglecting new and relevant information that has surfaced since they started teaching the course 8,000 years ago (the one that still refers to U.S.S.R. as a place that exists today). Or that educator who believes that children's minds are like sponges and that they will absorb everything they hear so their only instructional approach is direct instruction where they function as the "sage on the stage" as opposed to the "guide on the side." The examples are endless and I am confident that each of us has come across an auto pilot educator at some point during our lives or careers (in fact, some of us are probably working with an auto pilot educator as we speak).

Please understand that I am not saying that the auto pilot educator is a bad educator or person at the core and sometimes being on auto pilot is necessary - but only for a short time! The full-time auto pilot educator has decided that they don't need to learn anything new because what they do works "just fine." In my mind though, "just fine" is not good enough and being an auto pilot educator is not in the best interest of children. With every new group of children, students, teachers or administrators we encounter, the dynamic, complexion and readiness levels vary, which means that our approaches towards teaching and learning must change, even if the change is minor and potentially unnoticeable. As educators we have many goals but one of the most important is tailoring what we do to meet the specific needs of our current group of learners to whom we are responsible. In my humble opinion, I don't think an auto pilot educator can accomplish this goal because they have exited the cycle of learning and teaching.

Recently, I felt myself engaging the auto pilot mode in regards to my own personal learning and growth because everything seemed to be "just fine" and I didn't think anyone around me was necessarily being impacted in a negative way. Then, after a Faculty Meeting this past January, I walked to my office and realized that I hadn't provided my staff anything new or current that they could potentially use in their own classrooms or spaces because I was starting to engage in the dreaded auto pilot mode. The meeting, like many of the recent meetings, was all about administrative odds and ends, which were important on some level but there wasn't much learning or growing happening at our meetings. That is when I decided to push myself and engage in something new - I joined Twitter! Well, over the last three and a half months, my whole professional and personal world has changed simply because I disengaged the auto pilot feature and tried something new. I have learned about things that have changed the way I work like using Google docs, Evernote, Diigo or Dropbox; I have learned about blogging, which has provided me with an outlet for my thoughts and opinions as they relate to the world of education (before I used to drive just my wife, colleagues and friends nuts but now I can drive all of you nuts too); I have been introduced to things like Prezi, the "Flipped Classroom" and, which have changed the way I do things and the way I view things (literally and figuratively). The list can go on and on thanks to my PLN and the information I have been exposed to on Twitter but the point is that by trying something new (just ONE new thing), I was able to stay in the cycle of learning and teaching and I avoided auto pilot!

So, do you think you might have lost your way in the cycle of learning and teaching? Has it been a long time since you tried something new in your classroom or school? Has it been a while since you reflected on a specific lesson or activity to really analyze what went well and what you would like to do differently the next time? Has it been a while since you tailored your instruction to meet the needs of a specific group or learner? Well, if you have answered yes to any or all of these questions, then you probably have engaged the auto pilot mode; but, don't fear because all you have to do is TRY ONE NEW THING or APPROACH and you can successfully avoid auto pilot!