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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Year FOUR, here we come!

It has been an incredible ride. Here we find ourselves at the start of year #4 of the grand 1-to-1 experiment with iPads at our school. This year’s seniors have never known school without having technology at their fingertips. We have found so many ways to use them to change the way students engage with learning. I could say we are now past the “trial stages” and have moved to a level of relative proficiency with using tech throughout our school.

But I won’t say that…. at least, not yet. We still have so much to learn. It is fascinating to watch the freshmen at our school as they discover the tool that their senior counterparts seem to almost take for granted. And there are always those for whom the tool is more of a distraction than a learning tool. We still have a way to go, and we are constantly needing to redirect our efforts to tackle the new “wrinkles” that come along the way.

One such “wrinkle” appeared recently as we were discussing digital citizenship. Seniors take it much more seriously than the ninth graders do. Even so, many of them still apparently perceive themselves as invulnerable to being misjudged by how they represent themselves to others in online settings. Most are blithely unconcerned about privacy. It would almost seem as if they are so used to the transparency (or at least as they perceive it) of the internet that they can’t imagine why they would have anything to “hide” from others. We have had several interesting discussions on this in classroom contexts and I am sure we will have many more.

The second wrinkle this year has been teaching “social cues”. As kids spend more and more time interacting via a screen, it has become even more essential to require them to practice skills that place an emphasis in interactions “face to face”. Some are positively dismal at reading facial and body language while in direct conversation with their peers. Others become even markedly uncomfortable when asked to merely look at the people around them when talking. A rare few will even stubbornly disengage from any situation where one to one live conversation is required! They would rather text than talk! I keep reminding them and myself, that the course we are sharing is called “communications” for a reason and that I must do my utmost to see that ALL the avenues of skills needed are taught and practiced.

So onward and upward… year 4 looks to be as exciting as  year one!

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Want to Sell a Book? Make a Trailer!

My sophomores just finished reading A Separate Peace by John Knowles and as their closing project for the book they made book trailers. If you haven’t checked out the trailer templates in iMovie, they are definitely worth a look! The templates enable kids to create really polished looking 1-2 minute teasers that make it fun to plug a book and create suspense! The students loved making them and did an creative job of making film clips to blend with still photos that built the total concept of the book. Fun and a great way to see them think in terms of multi-media use. I highly recommend these to anyone who is looking to give their students another way to express themselves.


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Heading off to Learn Something New

Going to be at METC2013 tomorrow and presenting there on Wednesday. Each time I go, I am blown away by the sheer volume of things out there to learn. I always try to bring ONE new thing back to my students. Something that they can use to enhance their learning and our work together. This year, I am bedazzled by the number of sectionals talking about 1:1 and the iPad! WOW! What a difference two years has made!

Seems like last February, we were in the first 6 months of our ‘grand transition’ to the iPad and very few people had them. People were coming to “look us over” all the time and to talk about how best to integrate this powerful tool in our classrooms.  Now, while certainly not ubiquitous, they are getting close to that. Imagine…. our students have more computing power in their backpacks than the astronauts of the early Apollo missions had in their rocket ships! That is humbling and a bit scary!

So I am going to METC, always looking for new ways to connect with my kids via this wonderful thing… technology. Will this be the year I learn how to teach an online class? Will this be the year my kids teach me something I will find essential in the future?  Here’s hoping all the answers to those questions is YES!


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Mentors: Guides along the way.

Today’s post is a tad “old school” but I think it has merit and relevance to this 1:1 experience. If I could offer one piece of advice to every teacher I know, young or old, it would be to find a mentor. No matter where one is in this journey we call teaching, mentors are invaluable resources for problem-solving, perspective, and all around helping us “get through”.

Ironically (or not so much), I found my mentor via a Ning I belong to. I have never met this person in “real time” or physically, but he has become my source of inspiration and perspective. His name is Hamilton Salsich and he hails from Mystic, Connecticut. He is a veteran English teacher – much more so than my paltry 30 years, and he has a perspective on teaching that inspires me to always look at things in a different way. To me that is the essence of good mentorship… passing on a positive perspective that helps someone else find their way or adjust their thoughts. (sounds a lot like good teaching, doesn’t it?) Just this morning, Ham’s post on his blog said what I most needed to hear and it clicked. Hopefully, I will pass some of that balance I felt on to the next student or colleague I connect with today.

In light of the technological sea change we are experiencing in our craft of teaching, I think a mentor becomes even more vital. It is likely (and fascinating) that we may find them in the voices of others we encounter in cyberspace as much as in those that share our hallways in our schools. I am contemplating discussing this with my students. A mentor voice needs to be one that speaks in more than 140-character sound bits or a “thumbs up” on a Facebook status. A mentor has some depth and gives us a new awareness of how we are thinking and working. Here’s hoping each of us has such a voice in our professional lives.

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A Word about Note-taking

One question I often get from teachers using the iPad in school is, “What note-taking app do you recommend (or require?!) your students use for class?” This is a tough question because 1) new apps for this purpose are constantly coming on the scene and older apps are always evolving, and 2) I don’t require a specific app for students to use. I figure it is their workflow, their notes, and the app they choose thus has to be their choice. However, I do show them various apps and discuss my evolution as an iPad note-taker.

Now, I don’t want to get anyone’s knickers in a twist here… all the apps I have tried (and still have on my Pad) are each good in their own distinct ways. Here are the ones I have used thus far in my year of iPad teaching… SlingNote, Notesplus, Evernote, Notability. Yep, that’s it, just four… oh, five – if you count Pages… which I use more for productivity than for note-taking and random thinking-on-paper.

And for me the winner is….. drum roll….. Notability! Why? Because it is sort of the “whole package” as far as classroom use is concerned. It will let you type, draw, highlight, file, organize, insert pics and vids, the WHOLE Shabang! I love it.

I began last fall bouncing between EverNote and NotesPlus…and in one of my very early posts on this blog, I heartily endorsed NotesPlus. It’s a good app, even a great app, but it is not Notability. The difference lies in the organizational and storage capabilities of Notability. It is easy and intuitive to use, not at all like the complicated tagging stuff that NotesPlus puts you through. I will be forever grateful to Zack Klug, my colleague who discovered this app and introduced it to me. (another good lesson here, always keep talking with colleagues about new apps!)

As I have mentioned earlier, I went to a paperless workflow with my students. Notability enables me to grade their documents (submitted as PDFs) by writing directly onto them with my stylus (a bit old school, I know) and also allows for me to type onto them at the bottom with more detailed comments. Pages can be added to documents, and they can be sorted, filed, and returned to the students directly from the app. It fits the bill SO nicely.

Outside the classroom, I’ve used its drawing features when I designed my stage set for the Spring play, made charts and visual aides for various things, and even stored my favorite knitting patterns as pdf files on it. It has a synch feature that keeps copies of things I choose on my laptop and has run literally glitch free since the day I purchased it. I would encourage you to check it out if you are looking for a first note-taking/productivity app and go from there. You may need different features than I did, but it is a great place to begin.

Those of you out there already using iPads, I would be excited to hear what your favorite note app is!

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