Q4: Playing to your Strengths

The fourth question for the upcoming year is: What are your strengths and how can we utilize them? This question excites me! I can’t wait to hear what my kids will tell me about this one because it will be a clue to what they are passionate about in their lives.  I am hoping that by knowing some of these things, I can tap into their interests and abilities and link opportunities to writing and sharing those strengths with the class. We will all learn so much more that way.

As far as answering this myself goes, my first thought was well this is awkward! (I wonder if my students will feel this way too!) Well, okay, here goes. My most obvious strength is my ability to teach. It’s who I am, how I define myself, and something I have viewed myself as since I was about 8 years old. My mother tells me I played school as a youngster making everything from stuffed animals to the family dog be my “students”. I started teaching Sunday school classes when I was 12 and never looked back. I love the artistry and dynamic of teaching. Being very “people person” myself, I enjoy the human connections involved in teaching and that no two lessons are ever the same. People fascinate me!

My second strength is my ability to use technology and to acquire skills in this area.  A strength related to that is my inventive nature. I love making new connections and seeing new uses for tech. Show me an app or tool and I will start coming up with half a dozen ways I can use it my classes. My kids tell me that my fearless willingness to try new things makes them feel brave too. That’s what I hope it does for them. I want my students to believe they can learn how to do almost ANYTHING they set their minds to; and that includes technology.

Finally, one of my strengths is my ability to see the humor in life. I love to laugh. I love to to share stories with my students and friends. I think humor can turn a negative experience into a positive one. Being able to laugh helps me move forward in my life and to “roll with the punches”.

So those are the three things that came to mind today. Tomorrow I will think of two or three other things I should have mentioned instead.  Hope that I can use these to make my classroom a great place to be this year. What are your strengths?

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Question 3: One Big Question

The third question for this fall’s students is; What is One BIG Question you have for this year? My initial reaction as a teacher was, “just one?!” I am constantly asking questions and almost as constantly answering them as a teacher. However, most of the questions that I ask are ones for which I have a basic idea of what the answer should or might be.

My students’ questions are another matter altogether! They sometimes ask me the funniest things. I probably should have written them all down over the years but the days of teacher fly by pretty fast, so that is one thing that I have let slide away into memory. My funniest question was perhaps asked back when I was teaching middle school and one of the 6th graders was trying to use the school pay phone (yes, it was THAT long ago), and he was unsure about how to dial it. So he stood there staring at the phone with it’s traditional numeric dial – like the phone your great granny had long ago. I saw him puzzling at it and offered to assist. He said, “But where are the buttons? What do I do with this wheel?” So I showed him and his reaction was “Wow! That’s neat!” I later had this same student as a high schooler and he and I would still chuckle over the way we first encountered one another.

But back to the one BIG question…. I am trying some new things in my classes this year. One of them is a new approach to modeling writing. And the other involves using the Apple Classroom App as a tool. So my one big question at this point in the year is “Will this new approach work?” but it’s also part and parcel of “How can I enhance the experience of learning to write for my students that will capture their interest and imagination?” So I will wait and see what things my kids will ask me in just 11 more days!! What is one big question you currently have?

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Question 2: Passion

The second question for the start of a school year is: What are you passionate about? At first I thought this question would be relatively easy to answer,  and I mentally went for the “low hanging fruit” of family, faith, and calling.  Easy-peasy, I thought, and then I got to thinking further. How do I evidence this passion in my life? How is it obvious that those things are important to me, that they are things I consider central to who I am and how I live?

Wow, suddenly the question got a lot deeper than making a list. When I complain about summer ending, does that make my passion for teaching sound shallow? When I am too “busy” to go visit my grandkids out of state, am I letting convenience override my passion for family. And there are way too many ways I can appear less than passionate about my faith and practice of it! So my definition of what makes something a “passion” has got to go beyond mere lip-service and lists. What am I willing to make sacrifices for? Who do I put at the top of my priority list in terms of time? Where do I compromise on these things when they clash or make demands of my time and focus? All good questions with no easy-peasy answers!

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I am certain we all have our “little passions” – mine include everything from reading to yarn, from greyhounds to technology, from travel to photography.  There are a myriad of little things that I enjoy doing and experiencing. Things that make life special, unique, and fun. But passion with a capital P is a totally different thing. I am going to enjoy seeing which things my students will pick for themselves. I am willing to bet not one of them will choose school – but I am HOPING more than one of them will choose learning, or reading, or writing. Wouldn’t that be cool?!?

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Question #1 Qualities of a Teacher

The first of the five questions for students is “What are the qualities you look for in a teacher?” I am really interested in hearing what my student will have to say about this one and in attempting my own answer I am tempted to hearken back to my days as a high school student (I think I can recall that -LOL!) but instead I am going to reflect on learning situations I have found myself in as an adult and see how the answer goes from there.

The first quality I look for in a teacher is graciousness. This quality embodies a few other qualities so if it seems as if I am cheating, perhaps I am. Gracious people are warm, patient, and caring. They go the extra mile to make you feel accepted, understood, and included. I think of gracious people in my life and in my past and faces of dear friends come to mind but so do former teachers who welcomed me to sit in their classrooms and talk or professors who invited me to their homes simply because I was a long way from home. A gracious teacher is warmly open to all of his students. He sees their differences as unique ways in which they are special and distinctive. Gracious people listen.

Whew, that covered a lot didn’t it!

The second quality I look for is professionalism. A teacher with this quality knows their subject, teaches in an engaging manner, and carries out the day-to-day management of the classroom in an organized, smooth manner. When this quality is present, you almost don’t notice it. There is an ease and flow to the day in a professional teacher’s classroom. Students know what will happen and feel safe that things will go according to some sort of a plan, even when spontaneous things pop up, there is a calmness to the leader that makes everyone comfortable.

The third quality I look for is honest humor. The teacher wth this can laugh and laughs often but always WITH the students and never AT one of them. However, it’s even better if the teacher can laugh at herself  and share how sometimes life is just a silly and unpredictable thing for all of us. The honest part is included because this has to be genuine. I am sure it varies from teacher to teacher, obviously some of us are more private than others, but as long as it is genuine, it will communicate with the students. It also frees them up to be open to each other. A spirit of true camaraderie is one outgrowth of this quality.

Finally, the fourth quality I look for is open faithfulness. This can be true of a public or a private school teacher, although being in a faith-based school I have a lot more scope in which to share my belief set. Open faithfulness is a willingness to express the faith one holds and the values that one acts on as a result of it. It means that the teacher is willing to share the “why” of how he does things as they link to the faith that he holds. I have many friends who are in the public sector who are able to witness to the faith they hold quite effectively and eloquently simply by being openly faithful, even in settings where “teaching the faith” is not technically allowed.

So those are my four qualities. Am curious what yours might be and what my students will say when I ask them in a couple of weeks.

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Shifting Tides, Setting a Course

Another year will be starting soon and I must apologize for my lack of reflection on this space. However, the summer has provided me with many opportunities to reflect and to do quite a bit of reading. This has sent me back to my blogging and to doing quite a bit of thinking about how I want to structure my classroom for the coming year.

Have spent the quite a lot of time reading The Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros in the recent weeks. It was “assigned” as a faculty read by our administrator and while it might not have been a book I would have gravitated to on my own, it has been a very good read for a variety of reasons. The first thing that immediately struck me about the book is the author’s ability to ask questions. He lays out definitions of what innovation can look like in a classroom and then challenges the reader to extend that to everything that could potentially occur between not only teacher and student but between administrators and faculty, teacher to teacher, and even between schools. His vision of what technology’s role in this involves is that of accelerating the process and providing a medium for sharing information in ways that have never before been possible. However, he maintains that having an innovative mindset transcends technology and is a way of approaching ideas and making school something much more than pouring facts into students’ heads and hoping some stay there.


As a teacher in the humanities, I have always felt this, and Couros’s book really resonated with me. Literature has the ability to speak to us down the ages and transcends time. I have always felt that if a person can develop a deep love for reading and writing that they can become anything they wish to become and can go anywhere they dream of going. Affirming this, I ask myself the question, how do I best help my students learn to value reading and reflection in this fast-paced, technology-flooded world that they inhabit? Which things about learning are timeless and enduring and what new ways of learning are going to be beneficial in the years to come?

I follow George Couros on Twitter and yesterday he posed 5 questions to ask students at the beginning of a school year. IMG_9774

I am planning to ask my students these questions and in the days leading up to school, I plan to ask them of myself as well. Maybe you will want to think about them too. I am intrigued about the things they ask me to focus upon.

You may or may not have noticed that I have changed the title of my blog. It started 6 years ago as my school was becoming a 1:1 iPad school and was called Teaching in a New Frontier. I felt like a pioneer in those days, doing tons of new things with my students with a fantastic new tool that I could use in so many exciting ways. Now entering our 7th year with this device, I still see it as a way to enable kids to go far beyond the boundaries of the textbook and as a marvelous device for writing, sharing, and collaboration. But this year I want to focus closely on the connections between myself and the students. I want to think deeply about what is happening in the dynamics of learning with them. So the blog, like the technology I use, is changing. Hope you find yourself changing and learning in new ways this year too.

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Plans and dreams

Each August I start to plan what I want to do in the upcoming school year. Many things that I do stay similar to previous years, but if I ever had to repeat exactly what I did last year I would probably have to quit the profession. So while I may teach a certain novel or a particular style of writing with my students every year, something new has to come into play as well.

This year I am exploring three things:

1. Mindfulness. Since I teach in a parochial school, you would think spiritual self-awareness would be a no-brainer as it is a huge part of what we do in devotional time and such. And it is to some degree. However, I see the students rush into my classroom at the top of each block and they seem so stirred up. I want to find a way to get them to pause, take a deep breath (or 10) and to focus on what their purpose for being in class today will be. I am thinking that 1-3 minutes spent in quiet and in focusing could be very valuable. Have been doing a lot of reading on the benefits of quiet contemplation of a task before actually diving in. Visualizing the work, centering the mind, these are all going to be pretty important to my students— and to me.

2. Homework. I hate homework – I hate giving it, I hate grading it. And I know my students hate it too. I am exploring how to banish it. Does that mean my kids won’t do anything English related while at home? No. I am hoping they will find a quiet spot to read, maybe some will keep a journal, maybe others will blog. I am hoping we can find ways to NOT make it a drudge. There is the potential for “turf loss” here… should I risk it? What if I cut out homework and the teacher down the hall piles on 30 minutes more in their subject and my kids don’t read. What about accountability? This brings me to the next area.

3. Grades. I am more and more convinced if you reduce everything to a percentage in life all you do is create people who become adept at “playing the numbers game”. With a move toward greater and greater focus on knowing HOW to learn, think, and question… shouldn’t we be building this into how we assign a “grade” to things. That said, I am considering having my students keep a portfolio and at midterm and end of term they will need to defend what their “grade” should be. They will have their test data, their papers, and their participation information, and we will sit down together and come up with a number for how they think they did. Could be pretty exciting come about late October, couldn’t it?

So if any of you teacher types out there have some ideas for me in these areas, please comment or tweet to me your thoughts!

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Pokemon GO! and Gameificaton of Life

This week as I prepare to start year SIX of teaching in a tech-savvy school, we saw the arrival of a new thing on the horizon. A little app called PokemonGo! hit the phones and tablets of thousands of game crazy folks who wanted to relive a little of their childhood in real time.

Touted as a game that would get nerds to “go outside and play” this made me wonder. What is it about “play” and playfulness that has such an allure to us as humans? Why do we need to play? What is it that lights up in our minds when we do so? I am fascinated that one of our earliest behaviors as children stays with us all the way through life. People love to play!

These folks playing Pokemon were not just being stupid running around town and gathering up points and whatever else that game offers. They were also interacting socially, imagining that there was “something real” out there that they could “find” and having a whale of a good time. It was fun to watch them do it, too!  I am beginning to wonder if we couldn’t extend our “play” and its allure into other more serious aspects of human life. What problems could we solve if we made them “fun” to tackle?

Last year, I learned about an app called “Classcraft” that I used with my students in order to gameify our time together. For the most part, they LOVED it! They rarely let me forget a day of linking to the portal and adding to their XP, HP, or levels. It was amazing to see how a silly little game could spark the interest of even the most aloof high school sophomore or senior. I am going to expand on it this year. Trying to offer it to all my students and to do some more building on the idea of having fun while learning. Probably won’t be nearly as cool as PokemonGo! but maybe will add just a spark of fun to what has to happen in school. We’ll see!

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