Saturday, September 27, 2014

When the Seasons Change

It has been quite a while since my last post.  August and September brought a flurry of activity and new beginnings. The start of a new school year is always busy and exhausting, but in a good way.   I know that those first weeks of school set the tone for the entire year, so I purposefully plan for lessons that establish community and foster collaboration which my students can build upon as the year progresses.  By the end of the first week of school, my voice was scratchy and my throat was sore from all the conversations with my students. With several weeks now behind us and our Google accounts set up and going, I am looking forward to some exciting projects ahead!  
There is a refreshing breeze blowing in the air. Yes, there is the cooler breeze of fall beginning to seep in here and there.  However, there is a hint of something more blowing in our area.  A change of a different kind.  For some, it is a refreshing breath of fresh air, but for others it brings an unsettled feeling and a sense of unfamiliarity with many unknowns.  State Superintendent Dr. Tommy Bice recently started his "The Future of Public Education" tour throughout the state of Alabama.  At these events he has spoken about Plan 2020, Alabama College and Career Ready Standards, student testing and the role of parental and community involvement.   Although I haven't had the chance to hear him speak in person, I have read several articles and watched the recording of one of these events.  In my opinion, it is an exciting time in education! The ALSDE press release for the tour quoted Dr. Bice as saying, "We are no longer preparing children to take a test, rather, we are teaching them how to think and solve problems using real world application. In essence, we are redefining the high school graduate."  He encourages educators to be innovative, creative and to get out of our comfort zones. He uses words like "imagine" and "risks" when he speaks to educators.  For me, this shift in the direction of education feels like a refreshing, cool breeze after a long, hot summer.  I feel like the future is bright, and we have been granted permission to take the lead in our classrooms.  We have been given back our voice and the encouragement to do the same for our students.  
However, the conversations among educators has been a mix of positive and negative.  For some people, change is scary even if it is for the better.  Sometimes people cling to their "normal" even when that "normal" is no longer working.  So how do we move forward?  How do we embrace this shift in the mindset of education? 
I have referred many times to the lessons I learned from my nephew Colton during his 7 year battle with cancer.  When our family learned of his diagnosis, we were in unfamiliar territory, to say the least.  We realized that life as we knew it would never be the same.  At that point, we had the choice to move ahead with a positive outlook or have a complete "come apart" and become paralyzed with fear.  There were probably times of both, but ultimately Colton was our best example of moving forward with a positive outlook during a time of uncertainty.  Some days were better than others, but he inspired us to make the best of each day because he was determined to give it all he had.  Life is all about changes.  When we are faced with these times of transition and change, we can choose to embrace it and make the most of it, or we can choose to fight it every step of the way and miss out on the opportunity to grow and learn from the experience. Either way, the changes occur. As much as we may love a certain season of the year or a season in our life, it will not last forever. Seasons change, and children grow up.  So, just like my nephew Colton, I'm going to choose to have a positive outlook on what the future holds for education.  Some days will be better than others, some plans and lessons will go better than others, and some outcomes will be better than others.  In the end, hopefully we will have an educational system that is better, stronger and built upon the needs and best interests of our students.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Velvet Box: Sharing Your Treasures

When I started my blog I planned to post 3 or 4 times a month, but that didn't happen last month. The month of June flew by for me.  My last post was about taking time to refuel and reflect this summer, and I have been doing just that!  I've been reading for pleasure and for school, spending time with family and friends, canning and freezing vegetables from the garden, and doing the everyday "mom stuff".  It has been some much needed downtime.  Now, it's the middle of July and the ideas for the new school year are beginning to take over my thoughts.  July also brings thoughts of my nephew, Colton, because he would have turned 20 years old this month.  During Colton's battle with cancer, he was given a lot of things by people who wanted to do something to brighten his day.  Usually, it was things like toys, games, movies or candy- things that might help take his mind off his situation temporarily.  He kept some of it, but he really loved sharing it with others, especially his candy.  One of my sweetest memories I have of Colton was from the day before he passed away.  He had a red velvet box that he kept Hershey's Kisses or other treats in it by his bed for chocolate "emergencies".  It had been a long night and he was sitting in the recliner with his box of chocolates while his mom and I freshened up his bed.  As we finished and I walked over to him, he reached out his hand and offered me some of his "treasure".  It completely melted my heart! Such a simple act of giving spoke volumes to me!  As much as I didn't want to take his candy, I didn't want to turn down his precious offer.  So I sat down next to him and unwrapped the shiny, foil wrapper as I fought back the tears and tried to smile while I looked at his sweet smile and told him "Thank you."  It was the best Hershey's Kiss I've ever tasted!  It is a memory that I hold close to my heart and one that reminds me not to hold on too tightly to my "treasures" but to always be willing to share them with others, whatever they may be.
As I prepare my classroom and get ready to come together with my colleagues and new students, I look forward to sharing my "treasures" with them; the things that I've learned this summer, my time, my  prayers, whatever I'm able to give.  This is how we build relationships and community.   I believe this is how we grow.  If we take and take and never give back, we can become stagnant.  Just as the Dead Sea is stagnant because it only has water flowing into it and not out of it, we can become stagnant when we don't pass along the knowledge and experiences we've been blessed with.  We need to be willing to give as much as we receive.  This community of sharing is alive and well in education.  I'm blessed to work in an environment where sharing with colleagues is encouraged and welcomed.  This flow of information can also be seen on educational blogs, websites and Twitter.  As I've built my PLN through Twitter over this past year, I've been amazed at how all of them are so willing to share their knowledge and information with others.  They generously pass along their ideas, resources, advice, and information that will help others.  How many other professions do this?  There are so many great resources and ideas that are free for the taking if you just spend some time looking for it and are willing to receive it.  I encourage any educator to create and utilize a Twitter account to help build your own PLN.  Here is a list of a few members of my PLN, my "treasures"that I want to share with others:

Vicki Davis @coolcatteacher
Edudemic @Edudemic
Lisa Johnson @TechChef4u
Nicholas Provenzano @thenerdyteacher
Office of Ed Tech @OfficeOfEdTech
Julie Ramsay @JulieDRamsay
Class Tech Tips @ClassTechTips
edReformer @edReformer
Richars Byrne @iPadWells
Julie Reuter @jgbluedevil  
Med Kharbach @medkh9
Lori Elliot @drlorielliott
Education Radio @BAMRadioNetwork
Jeff Anderson @writeguyjeff
Edutopia @edutopia @RWTnow
NCTE @ncte
Heinemann Publishing @HeinemanPub
Marilee Sprenger @MarileeSprenger
Kasey Bell @ShakeUpLearning www.shakeuplearning
Nerdy Book Club www.nerdybookclub
Sharon Drake @shad
Aimee Bates @a1m33b8s
Michael Fowlkes @arabcitytc

These people are generously passing along their "treasures" with others. So, I encourage you to check them out and then look for opportunities to share your "treasures" with others around you.

"He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.”  John 7:38

Friday, June 6, 2014

Low on Fuel

It was one of those mornings where nothing is easy.  It was the last week of school and exhaustion was trying to overtake me like a relentless enemy.  It had been a great school year that flew by, and the last weeks were going by even faster!  It was as if I was on a treadmill turned on high speed with no off button!  Each year I try to prepare ahead for these whirlwind days that happen at the end of the school year.  There had been grades, surveys, certificates, academic awards, completion ceremonies, classroom parties and a To-Do list that never seemed to get any shorter.  As I got in my car that morning to drive to school, the dreaded low-fuel light flashed on the dashboard.

I knew I was getting low on gas, but I just had not been able to make it to a gas station.  Now, I had to just hope and pray that I would make it to work, and I would go to the gas station right after school.  Which I did, and it all worked out fine, thankfully!  So as the school year comes to an end, this experience made me think about how we can find ourself running on empty in our personal and professional lives.  It is not a fun place to be, so how can we avoid it?  Or, if we don't avoid it, how can we fix it?

I've been seeing many articles addressing teacher burnout but haven't felt led to read them because honestly, I feel more excited about teaching than ever before.  The integration of technology in my classroom and my PLN on Twitter have reenergized and inspired me to dig deeper and push myself to try new things.  I'm definitely not in a teaching rut, just more like needing some time to "refuel" before the next "road trip" with a new batch of kiddos.  But for some teachers, this may not be the case.  Maybe your year was so challenging and stressful that you are questioning your career choice.  Maybe some of the things you tried to accomplish with your students just didn't work out the way you planned and caused you to become discouraged.  Maybe you are exhausted from the professional expectations or demands on you and don't feel supported or equipped to meet them.  We each have different personal and professional situations that can cause us to run on fumes at times.  As a teacher, how can we avoid or fix the situation when our low fuel light is flashing?  Here are some things that my morning drive on low fuel made me think about:

1.  Listen to the warning signs:  Just like how I knew I was getting low on gas, we know when we are functioning on overload and wearing down.  Sometimes there is no other option than to just keep going, but eventually we all have to address the situation.  Try not to wait until the warning light comes on and the situation becomes serious.  A car is not going to get you anywhere without gas.  As teachers, we are not able to get our students where they need to be if we are not properly "fueled" for the task.  Listen to that inner voice when it tells you to slow down and take some time for yourself.

2.  Plan ahead:  I am a planner by nature.  Maybe I over plan some things, but I feel like much stress and anxiety can be avoided with a little planning.  I could have avoided the stress I felt that morning driving to school with the low fuel light staring at me.  Some things can't be avoided and unexpected things happen, but a little planning ahead can go a long way.  As teachers, if we plan ahead for stressful times like the end of the school year, we can be more relaxed and better able to enjoy the experience.

3.  Make it a priority:  For days, I knew I was getting low on gas, but I allowed other things to be more important.  I didn't make stopping at a gas station a priority and the outcome could have been serious.  I could have been stranded on the road that morning on my way to work.  Not a fun situation to find yourself dealing with!  As teachers, we have to make taking care of ourself a priority.  Yes, we are in a career of service to others.  We look after the needs of each of our students day after day.  In order to do that to the best of our ability, we must make it a priority to take care of ourself, so that we don't run out of gas along the way.

4.  Find the fuel you need:  The only thing that was going to help me that morning on my way to school was a gas station with the proper fuel for my car.  They are on just about every corner in my small town.  Some have better quality fuel than others, but sometimes anything is better than nothing!  As teachers, we need to know what fuels us.  What reenergizes and reinvigorates you?  For some people that is some quiet and relaxing time.  For others, it is being with people who are uplifting and inspiring.  And for some people, creating something or doing something different than what they normally do is what refuels them.  It may something extravagant or simple, but find whatever fuel you need to keep you going on your teaching journey.  

5.  Ask for help:  I could have asked my husband or sons to take my car to get it filled up with gas.  If I had run out of gas completely that morning, I would have been forced to call one of them for help.  That would not have been ideal, but that is what family and friends are supposed to do for each other.  As teachers, sometimes we need to swallow our pride and ask for help.  It is okay to not always have it together or know the answer.  We tell our students this, so we need to allow it for ourself.  That help may come in a conversation with a colleague who can relate to your situation, or it may come from someone in your Personal Learning Network that can help with specific needs as an educator.  Either way, embrace the help of others and be willing to help someone else who may be "running low" on fuel.

This summer I plan to refuel in many different ways.  Spending time with friends and family, getting reorganized at home and school, taking a trip or two, and reading and learning both professionally and personally.  As a teacher, I hope you will use this well-deserved time to refuel.  Here are a few professional resources that might reinvigorate and inspire you for the next school year: - A great selection of podcasts from leading educators. - A tremendous source of podcasts for educators. - Great resources and offerings from a trusted publishing company.

summer.html#.U5G47BagvLQ - I would love to go to this camp in Maine, but I will settle for his online PD opportunities. - I love Thinglink! I signed up for this and can't wait to learn more! - A great article for dealing with burnout.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Backchanneling Isn't Just For the Classroom

As I've thought about what I want for my writing and why I'm sharing it, many thoughts swirl around in my mind.  Do I want this to be a place where I share about my life as a teacher or about my personal life as a wife and mom?  As an educator, I have been on a two-year journey trying to ride this "wave" of technology, and it has been exciting and overwhelming at the same time.  I have also been on a personal journey since 2012 while grieving the loss of my nephew and dealing with how that has impacted those closest to me.  These two areas of my life go hand in hand.  I cannot separate the two because they are so intertwined.  Therefore, I can't separate my writing into one area or the other.  They both make up who I am and what I believe.  This time in my life has shaped who I am as an educator and who I am as a person.

This brings me to the use of backchanneling in the classroom.  I have been doing some professional reading about using backchannels and informal assessment tools with my students.  I have tried several different ones like Padlet, Socrative and TodaysMeet.  Student feedback is another way to think about it, but in the world of technology we now have digital tools available to more easily meet the diverse learning styles of our students.  In the traditional classroom setting, the teacher might initiate a discussion with students about a topic or their opinion about something being learned in order to gage their understanding.  In this setting, the same students are usually the first to offer a response.  While the more reserved or introspective student does not respond at all which is a valuable loss to the classroom dynamic.  This type of student needs time to "mull it over" before responding.  He or she needs time to figure out what they believe and how to express or verbalize it to others.  In many areas of teaching, technology can give every student a voice, and this is what I love the most about using these tools in the classroom.  It is not just the iPad or device in and of itself, but what that device allows every student the opportunity to say and create in their own way and in their own time.  For example, Padlet can be used to pose a question to students and be left open for responses for as long as the teacher chooses.  This allows even the most shy or reserved student time to share a response which gives them a voice and an identity.

As I've learned more about the use of backchanneling in the classroom, it has made me think more about the significance of the past two years of my life.  Sometimes in life we have to take a few steps back in order to move forward.  Grief is universal; yet, at the same time, it is very personal and individual.  Each person deals with grief in a different way.  Some people are like that student who is always the first to speak when the class is asked for feedback.  I am not like that student.  These past two years have been a time of "back channeling" of sorts for me.  I've had to take the time to "mull over" the life-changing events of the last two years in order to verbalize all that it has taught me and how it has shaped my beliefs about life.  I tend to think long and hard about things before I am able to share my thoughts with others.  My nephew Colton was like that in many ways.  He was not usually the first to speak up or give his opinion.  He was a deep thinker and soaked up everything around him.  So when he did voice his opinions or thoughts, they were usually right on target.  His discernment of the character and sincerity of others was beyond his years.  I valued his thoughts and opinions.  We as teachers, need to show our students that we value their thoughts and opinions.  Implementing backchanneling in a thoughtful and organic manner with your students does just that.  Through the digital conversations exchanged with backchanneling, we can make connections, build relationships and create community in our classrooms.  We can move forward, learn and grow.

So, now that I have read and experimented with backchanneling on my own, I realize the importance of  it not only in the classroom, but in life.  Take the time, however long it takes you as an individual, to ponder and process the information or the experience until you are ready to give it a voice that can be shared so that others can learn from it, relate to it or simply... hear it.  This weekend, as we celebrate and honor the lives of those who sacrificed everything for our country, slow down and allow yourself time to backchannel; think about what you've learned and what you believe.  Then, give it a voice in the manner that you choose and allow it to be shared with others.  Just like in a classroom setting, this will allow you to make connections, build relationships and create community with others.  This is how we move forward.  This is how we learn.  This is how we grow.

Here is an example of our Padlet about their favorite 6th grade memories:

Backchannel Resources:

Sunday, May 11, 2014

It's Just Mud: A Special Mother's Day Story

So, the design on the Relay for Life T-shirts that I was selling has a very special story behind it.  I unexpectedly shared it with an audience at Relay for Life, and I've decided it is too good not to share with others.  It is a powerfully, bittersweet story about love and loss; an ugly-beautiful moment that moves and inspires people.  It is not my story or about me.  It is his story and about how his life continues to move people to want to live better, do more and love unconditionally.  On January 2, 2012, my nephew Colton Evans, passed away after a long, hard-fought battle with brain cancer.  His 7 1/2 year battle with cancer was long and painful, but he never complained.  He was a very special person who inspired and taught others more in his 17 years than most people will in a lifetime.  He loved to laugh, watch movies, play with dogs of any kind and eat chocolate.  I have so many special memories of Colton, including his outlook on life that was well beyond his age.  Colton loved to have fun and make people laugh.  Even his cancer treatments didn't stop him from carrying on and living life to the fullest.  Not too long after Colton was diagnosed, he went with his mom to watch his big brother’s football game.  His radiation and chemotherapy treatments had made him very weak, so they watched the game from their van.  That was fine with him.  He was just glad to be there instead of at the hospital for a change.  While resting in the van, Colton watched as some kids were laughing and playing in some nearby mud puddles.  Each time they ran back and forth through the muddy water, their clothes and shoes became stained darker and darker.  His mom could tell he wished he could join them, but he never complained.  While he was watching them, the mother of one of the little girls came over to her and was obviously not happy with her for getting her shoes muddy and wet.  The little girl cried as her mother led her away from the mud puddles and the fun experience with her friends.  As the mom and daughter walked away, Colton asked his mom why that mother was so mad at her daughter.  Colton’s mom attempted to explained to him that the mom did not want her daughter to get her shoes dirty.  However, this simple explanation did not make any sense to him.  So, Colton looked at his mom in serious disbelief and said with great wisdom, “It’s just a little mud, Mom.  It will wash off.”  Her heart broke into pieces.  Hearing those simple words from her own child completely overwhelmed her.  Colton’s mom held back tears as she agreed with him and took in the irony and wisdom of the moment.  Oh, how she wished that her little boy could run through those puddles and get muddy too!  She would have given anything at that moment if he had the strength to run through puddles and get his shoes muddy!  This story reminds us all that we should not let the little things in life that are not really important rob us of our joy.  We should appreciate every moment we are given and not worry about getting a little “muddy” sometimes.  Life is too short to worry about a little mud here and there!  So if you get the chance...get your shoes muddy and be grateful for the experience!  Colton would want you to!

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Stepping Out of My Comfort Zone

Last night I did something completely out of my comfort zone. I spoke on stage to an audience about something that I had not expected or planned!  How did THAT happen?!  I was at our local Relay for Life event helping my sister sell t-shirts for the C-Team and the next thing I knew she had talked me into explaining the design on the shirts in one of the Relay team contests.  I wanted to give her a million reasons why I didn't want to do it or couldn't do it, but something inside me said to be as brave as Colton was during his battle with cancer and do it for him.  His story is too good not to share with others!  And isn't that what life is about?  Sharing our stories with others so we can connect and relate to one another.  I don't remember much of what I said because I was too busy telling myself not to cry and to just keep breathing.  But in the end, I did it and was still alive to tell about it!  Sometimes there are moments in life that make us feel like we can't take the next step; we may feel like we are not capable or good enough.  Fear of failure can rob us of growing, learning, or making a connection with someone.  As a classroom teacher, I want my students to take risks with their learning, to create and share their stories, and make connections with others.  I tell them to just write down what they are thinking and not to get too worried about the mistakes or typos.  How can I expect this of my students if I'm not willing to do it myself?  Because of this realization, I've decided to share not only Colton's story, but my own.  Not because I think I have in-depth insight or knowledge, but because I don't want the fear of failure to keep me from growing, learning and making connections with others.  My hope for this blog is to be a place where I can share some of the life lessons that Colton taught me and how they shape me as a person and as an educator.  The design on the Tshirt that I shared with the Relay for Life audience was "It's Just Mud."  A simple saying with a powerful story behind it that inspired everyone who knew Colton.  This is the story that I shared with the audience last night and the story that inspired the title of this blog.  I will once again push aside the fear of failure and "what ifs" and share his story here with others because...
it is too good not to share.