Saturday, December 21, 2013

A Challenge to Reveal

As I start my winter break, I have time to thoughtfully respond to a challenge that has been handed to me by both Rhoni McFarlane (@rhonimcfarlane) and Andrew Sharos (@AndrewSharosAPT). Never one to pass up a challenge, especially by two amazingly gifted educators, I am happy to reveal a little bit of myself to the world on this blog post.


  1. Acknowledge the nominating blogger.
  2. Share 11 random facts about yourself.
  3. Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger has created for you.
  4. List 11 bloggers. They should be bloggers you believe deserve a little recognition and a little blogging love!
  5. Post 11 questions for the bloggers you nominate to answer and let all the bloggers know they've been nominated. (You cannot nominate the blogger who nominated you.)
11 Random Facts About Me
  1. My pinky fingers are crooked, pointed inwards at about a 45 degree angle. I am bow fingered. 
  2. When I was 6, my mom vacuumed my hair up in a cleaning frenzy. It took her about forty-five minutes to unwind the vacuum from my scalp. Surprisingly there was minimal physical or physiological damage done. 
  3. I attended four different high schools and had a quick stint with home schooling.
  4. I have stood inside the prison cells of Nelson Mandela and Gandhi. 
  5. When I was 18 I had my palms read by a gypsy women. She told me I would marry a man in the military who wears a blue uniform, and he would be “ahead of me in many years.” My husband spent 10 years the Air Force and is 9 years older than me... 
  6. I hate being scared. More than that though, I hate when I am falsely frightened. The only thing worse than feeling fear is realizing you are not really being attacked, having your home broken into, or about to see a ghost, but that you are just a wimp. 
  7. Stars are one of the most beautiful things I could ever imagine seeing. 
  8. I turned down an opportunity to live and teach in India when I received a job offer to teach in Baltimore City. I still have mixed feelings about that decision.
  9. I am incapable of staying awake through an entire movie.
  10. I hate cold weather. I do not care for the seasons changing. I just want warm weather all year round.
  11. I am addicted to caffeine. I drink between 4-6 cups of coffee during my work day. I drink red bull on my commute home. I am unwilling to critically look at this habit with any level of honesty or acknowledge how excessive this may be.

Rhoni and Andrew's Questions

1. Where is somewhere you have always wanted to travel?
I have always wanted to travel to India, Peru, The Galapagos Islands, and New Mexico.

2. What is something you keep that you should really throw out?
I have a pair of suede Adidas Gallezes that I purchased as a senior in high school. I will probably wear them until the the soles have holes. That hasn't happened yet...

3. What do you wish you did more of?
I wish I traveled more often.

4. Who is someone that you are grateful for but never tell them enough?
My sister. She is brilliant and beautiful. I am not good at communicating my gratitude to her.

5. What is your favorite quote about education?
"Create the things you wish existed." 
(This is really just a quote about life, but I think it applies to my views on education as well)

6. What are you most passionate about in life?
I am most passionate about connections and relationships. The people in my life, our conversations and connections, these things passionately drive and inspire me. I find myself yearning to build better connections, small and large, every day of my life. 

7. What is your favorite Sunday activity?
Family dinner with my parents, siblings, and our significant others. 

8. Who inspires you the most?
Recently, Amber Johnson, my teaching neighbor. She is one of the most gifted teachers I have ever met. She pushes my thinking, models extraordinary love for our students, and is one of the most creative thinkers I know. Plus, she is just a fantastic woman, great listener, and makes me laugh. I strive be better in all these areas, and she inspires that growth in me.

9. What advice would you give to someone interviewing for a job?
Be confident. If you are sitting in the interview chair, the company has already decided they like you. Prove them right!

10. What will classrooms look like in 20 years?
In 20 years I hope classrooms will are a thing of the past. I hope learning will be mobil and experience-based, taking place in the world in which we actually live. I hope schools will enable kids to learn in a variety of spaces that do not resemble our current classroom, but are more of a large home or community center.

11. Most significant historical event/sporting moment you've seen "live" in person?
The events of 9/11 are, unfortunately, the most significant historical event I have lived through. I was 15 years old and, to this day, I still have trouble communicating my emotions and reactions to those events.

Your Turn to Reveal

Below are 11 educators/bloggers that I am challenging to answer my questions.  I have nothing but respect for this group of people, and I hope they will reveal a little bit more about themselves with their posts!

11. Matt Goode

My Questions for You

I have to admit, I am cheating here. These questions were created by Ms. Johnson's 6th grade humanity students during their unit "What does it mean to be human?"  These are the big, beautiful questions our students are asking, so I figured it wouldn't hurt for us to try and figure out a few of them here. Good luck!

1. What was an experience that changed your life?
2. If you could go back in time, what would you change?
3. Have you ever been heartbroken?
4. What keeps you going in life?
5. What is something that you are not proud of?
6. If you were able to do something good for the world, what would it be?
7. What age do you think was your best age? Do you think you would want to be that age again?
8. What was the most painful moment in your life?
9. Are you proud of yourself?
10. If you could have something back, what would it be?
11. What’s happening in the world that you are completely against?

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Beauty in Sharing

"It is with you that I discover me."

The world is full of beauty. All around us there are magnificent wonders to take in, scaled both small and large. Often, I miss the small moments. Call it oversight, call me absent minded. Usually, I am just too consumed with my own concerns to see what is in front of me at any given moment. 

Recently, I was given a challenge: Find something beautiful that is right in front of you. My perspective shifted as I was observing my everyday world. I began to see beautiful things all around me. Things I looked at everyday, for years, took on a new shape. I was taken aback by the small details I had been missing for so long. The colors in a mural. The architecture on the church out my window. The sky over the park. How could I have missed so much for so long? 

Once I began to see the world around me, something strange happened within me. I was unable to keep this beauty to myself. I felt compelled to share my view with the people around me. This beauty, quiet and divine, was incomplete left in my hands, yet grew in strength when given away to another. Together, when shared, the stunning knowledge and observations of the world around us multiples. 

In our connected world, let us not forget to see the beauty in our own spaces. The small moments of smiles, nature, thoughts shared, and laughter. What is your perspective in your daily life and is it beautiful enough to share with others? What small details are you missing? What is left overlooked that is shinning to be seen?

As the craziness of the winter holidays rushes us through our days, I will vow to take time slow down, to pay attention to the small moments. In these moments, I will be selfless enough to reach out and give it away to another. It is through sharing that true beauty is revealed, pure hearts are shown, and we are able to learn the most about our own humanity.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Building a Village #SAVMP

As teachers, we cannot educate our kids alone. I am often awed when I think about how limited my own experiences are, and how important it is to bring varying points of view into my own students' learning. My students and I are lucky to be surrounded by such a diverse population within our school and community.

One of our greatest resources is the wide-range of perspectives our parents can bring to our school community. As a middle school teacher, it isn't often we get parent volunteers in our classrooms, as this is often mortifying for our adolescents. But, our school is really great at engaging parents outside of the classroom.

Last week we hosted two major events that attracted a lot of parents. The first, our annual Reading Night, invited parents to learn about reading strategies they could use at home with their children. This was completely organized by rum teachers, but the students were really at the center of the event. The teachers and students worked with parents to guide them through fun and powerful fluency-building activities that could be used at home.

For the middle school portion of this evening, we have four times as many students as parents for the session. The students demonstrated our readers theater and repeated reading strategies. They answered parent questions and guided them through the lessons. It was amazing to see our students engage with adults with such confidence.
PPPCS Reading Night
Two days later we hosted our school's first ever Astronomy Night. This event was very special because it was nurtured out of our FedEx Professional Development Day. Our science teacher, and novice astronomer, wanted to marry his passion for space and our schools amazing Sky Lab open roof-top space. Thus, Astronomy Night was born.

This event attracted enough people to completely fill our science lab. For two hours parents and children rotated through the never-dying line to look at the moon through a telescope. Many people there told me this was the first time they had looked at anything in the night's sky through a telescope. Children and adults alike were in awe of the power of both technology and our natural universe.

PPPCS Astronomy Night
At a time in history when we have more information and resources available than ever before, we need not overlook the power that comes from gathering a community together. Parents are the most powerful force in our students lives. They love them more than we will ever be able to, so we must partner with them to help foster experiences and growth in our kids. We must help grow our parents through new experiences, support them in learning, and guide them in helping our students in all areas of life.

How are we encouraging parents to grow alongside their children? How do we empower our parents to be a connected resource for our school community? How we provide opportunities for our village to build an unshakable foundation in the vision of supporting our students? If your school lacks parental involvement, how do you tap into your parents' collective passions to build a village and strengthen learning?

As we move into the holiday season, remember that parents often need support and encouragement just as much as our students. Offering opportunities to bring parents together, build community, and connect people can have an intense impact on the work we all do with our kids. Remember that a kind word, a short note, and smile and invitation to be part of something bigger can provide opportunities to cement a foundation of strength for our families.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Thinning the Walls of Our Hearts

It is almost inconceivable when I think about the uniqueness of my school. Our story, our growth, our mission, every person involved in growing our kids. Every aspect of Patterson Park Public Charter School is deeply rooted in what is best for our students and the community we serve. At the foundation of this is the belief in educating the whole child. The heart and soul of what we do surrounds a mission that strives to reach the emotional, academic, physical, and creative needs of our children. I cannot imagine working towards a greater mission for my students.

Last week I traveled to Philadelphia with our 8th graders. The expectation is that our grade-level teams plan at least one thematically-connected field each quarter for our students. Needless to say, we take field trips pretty seriously around PPPCS. So, we packed the kids up onto the bus at 6am and headed across state lines. 

It felt good, traveling with my students and being out of the building. Field trips are always fun, but something about this trip felt different. This particular trip involved a much smaller group of students, just half of the 8th grade class, which equalled about 24 kids. It was also a trip that correlated with social studies content, as we were walking in the footsteps of our Founding Fathers that day. Thematically, the trip addressed our first quarter theme of "Breaking Traditions," but I was a little out of my elements. I felt excited to learn right along with my students. 

What I learned during this trip was not just content, it was experiential and it was powerful.

As we smoothly road along to Philly, we threw a movie and the kids immediately settled in. Some watching the screens, some listening to music, others quietly having discussions with friends. The bus was almost silent. Anyone that has ever been on a bus with twenty-four 8th graders can attest to the strangeness of the situation I am describing. It was calm, peaceful, and we road in ease.

At we moved out of Maryland, the sun began to rise. Crossing a large bridge, the sunrise beamed into the bus. I quickly grabbed my phone to snap a picture of the beautiful scene. As I turned to share my love for this sight with the kids, I saw something striking- we were all doing the same thing. The kids had grabbed their phones and were taking pictures of the scene in front of them. I felt so connected my students sharing this moment and reaction to beauty. 

As we made our way through Philly, we had so much to do and see. It was an action packed day. Our social studies teacher was thoughtful and strategic in his planning for us. We viewed the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, Constitution Hall, the Benjamin Franklin Museum, in addition to some guided tours. We got to explore our country's powerful and foundational history, that which our freedom's rest upon. It was a great day of learning.

In reflecting upon this trip, though, it felt deeper than all those things mentioned above. It felt stronger and more meaningful. For me, I was a learner among learner on this trip. I smiles, laughed, and complained right along with the kids. At one point during the trip, we sat through a lesson about archaeology. I was very in tune to my students and my own habits throughout the presentation. When the kids were excited and engaged, so was I. When the content was a little too heavy, we felt bored. When a student cracked a joke at something the presenter said, I'm pretty sure I laughed the loudest and was the most disruptive. 

I am just like my students. I learn like them. I am amazed like them. I am bored like them. I am hungry when they get hungry. We laugh at the same things and find beauty in the same places.

When I allow myself to collide with my students, breaking down barriers created by knowing everything and I take an attitude of a learner, I discovered more about myself than I ever expected. When we experience the world together, we experience connections that did not exist before. I was always the trusted adult on that trip, I guided and led the way. Even then, a few key kids were better at directions than me and made sure we really went the right way. 

I came away from this trip with such an immense respect for my students and colleagues. We engaged in an experience that allowed me to trust and embrace others' strengths, see so much beauty, and learn more about myself and others.

How are we allowing ourselves and our students to learn about the world around us? What experiences are we giving our students, and are we fully engaging in them ourselves? What are our students teaching us? What can we learn from them? Are we leaving our own isolated world of the classroom often enough to be stunned by the beauty that surrounds us? What are we learning to learn?

Moving forward, I will remember that the experience is more important than the answers. The feelings are more important than the content. Our actions together lead to greater understanding, trust, and connections based upon our individual needs and strength. I will strive to thin the walls of not only my classroom, but my heart. When my heart is open is when the real learning happens. Let's open our hearts together and discover a deeper truth about ourselves and our world.

Monday, November 4, 2013

When Devastation and Hope Collide

(Photo by Richard Shaw)
At times, we all struggle. The weight of our combined responsibilities and expectations can seem too much. The thought of completing even the simplest tasks can be daunting. We feel sensitive and take things way too personally. Everyone around us appears to be gliding through life with great ease, while we are floundering to keep our noses above the waterline. At times, life is just tough.

These scenarios can apply to anyone. The smiling teacher next door or the students we teach. Sometimes, the struggle is obvious and shines like a naked light bulb in an empty room. Other times, the situations are more hidden, illusive, even unknown to the people around us. The scariest can be when you realize someone has been struggling for miles, right in front of you on the same journey, yet you were blind to their pain.

As the days get shorter and darker, as winter creeps in and the air is cold, I am reminded that people are not always as they seem. There is very real pain that lies within many of us, pain that we often do not reveal easily or willingly. For our students, it often bubbles to the surface through undesirable behaviors that are dealt with in frustration and consequences, all devoid of hope.

How do we recognize this pain? How do we help? What hope can we bring to those that feel deep, personal devastation, even if it is fleeting? Do we stop when we think someone isn't acting like themself and take a moment to offer a partner in exploring the hope that lies at the end of each of our struggles? Or, do we busy through the day only worried about ourselves and our own lives?

Let us not forgot the hope that the human connection brings. Being in tune to the feelings, emotions, and actions of those in your care, and those you care about, can be the most powerful hope you can offer. A moment to check-in, say hello, look deeply into another's face and search for their feelings at that moment. A moment to offer your attention to explore and listen if there is something more to be expressed.

As we move into this holiday season, a time that may bring more pain than joy for some of our families and friends, I will take time to observe fully and acknowledge openly the feelings of others. I will try, in moments of my struggle, to find the place where devastation and hope collide, crash together, bring light into the darkness. I challenge you to be this light in another's life, and to accept the light of others when you feel such darkness. Because together we can do that which we cannot do alone.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Missing the Mark

(Photo shared by Allan MacVicar)

Grading is my least favorite part of teaching. Truthfully, I kind of hate grades altogether. But before I get myself in trouble, let me lay out what is really going on here.

I absolutely love to read my students' work. I get giddy over their projects. I stay up late reading through their blogs and marveling at their individual, unique voices shining through in each post. I find honesty, vulnerability, and truth in what my students produce in my class; I just hate assigning a grade to it.

This got me thinking tonight, as I was grading, what these grades really mean for our students, and the inequalities grades create. It is a intellectual measurement we put on children, based around knowledge and information they should know. Sometimes, it is tied to what they should produce. "By the end of grade 7, students will be able to..." 

What if this was the same for physical development? A certain height, weight, body frame, all predetermined based on one's age. I, for one, would have failed every single grade after elementary school. This is not an exact apples to apples comparisons, but I am hoping you are getting where I am going here.

I have engaged in a number of chats and conversations in the last week with a focus around making learning personal. This hits home for me as I work to nurture my students in their own, self-directed learning. They are all so different, in every single way. How can I possibly expect them to all line up at the end of the year and pan-out the same? This seems fundamentally unfair, dishonest, and just poor practice to try and mold them and stretch them to all be the same. 

As I continually reflect upon what my students learn and produce, I am reminded daily how powerful their own personal learning stories are, how much they can tell us if we just ask them to explain. We learn about their fears, struggles, passions, and strengths. We can see how they learn, not just what they have retained. Our students are fostering these stories through blogs and portfolios, hosted on student-created websites. 

My analogy? Their sites are their learning homes. They take pride in their home, build it up over time, make it their own. Each home tells a special story of the people that live there, their history, their dreams. These homes are a safe place to explore unknown spaces and reflect upon where we have traveled so far. 

So here I am grading papers when there are voices to be heard and shared... 

In this space, I will try to validate the journey of each of my students by knowing and nurturing each one of their learning stories. With each I will listen carefully, care deeply, and share widely. I will acknowledge I but a small part of this story, yet the role I play is hugely important.

If we really value our students and their voices, how are we helping them tell their story? Where are they housing their voices? Are they heard? How do we validate and help grow our kids on their own path and not the predetermined one marked by someone that has never seen their faces or looked into their eyes? 

Saturday, October 26, 2013

A Week at Warped Speed

(Photo by Richard Shaw)
The last week has swept me up and carried me along at warped speed. It was full of travel, conversations, connections, some disappointments, and lots of smiles. It only seems appropriate to now take some time for reflection.

Last Friday, I left Maryland before sunrise to travel to the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia. My colleagues and I were welcomes openingly into their school to observe the unique learning environment and practices students and teacher engage in daily. SLA is amazing example of student-driven, Project-Based Learning. We spent the day visiting classrooms, talking with students and teachers, and engaging in the very natural learning that takes place here.

Sitting down with Chris Lehmann was one of the highlights of this trip. If you have never spent time in Chris' openoffice, it is hard to explain the experience fully. Chris addresses every single student that passes his office (the doors are open on both sides to allow full access for everyone). He says hello, compliments, and encourages everyone. His love for people was felt when we talked with students and teachers alike. To quote one, "Working for Chris is the best thing that could ever happen to anyone." It takes an amazing leader to make individuals feels so special, yet at the same time build such a strong, collaborative community.

After our visit, my colleague and I continued up the coast to New Jersey. Here, we attended #Edscape, hosted by Eric Sheninger and New Milford High School. Not only did we attend amazing sessions, we had the privilege of hearing George Couros speak as the keynote. On top of that, I met up with a many people I had connected with previously and made some new friends. The learning, the connections, the heart and soul of the event, it was all so much more than I expected. I left for home feeling so incredibly grateful for the learning and conversations I was able to have with some of the most visionary people in education. 

I traveled back to Maryland and the week carried me along, but I was brought back to conversation that I had with George over the summer at ISTE. He asked me what I would change after listening to a speaker. I am often brought back to this question when reflecting upon experiences. I have engaged with some of the most important, forward-thinking visionaries in education. What have I learned? What did I take away? What will change?

The change for me, this time, is not to make any big changes. As I visited SLA and talked to so many different educators, I realized I am on the right track. I saw so many of own practices and my students' habits in the students and classrooms at SLA. I offered my own connected educator experience and shared the story of our school at Edscape. I showed others how we design our own curriculum, offer our students amazingly relevant learning experiences, and bragged all about our kids and teachers. 

I realized, for the first time, that it is time to just give these new practices a chance to become natural. I was encouraged and supported. The change for me is to not add anything new. The change becomes perfecting the craft of implementing everything that is currently new. My change, will be to not change everything, but to sit comfortably in the new that already exists, looking to how we can now improve and get better in this current space.

In an age when change and evolution of culture is happening so quickly, when do we stop and narrow our focus? How do we balance change and relevance with the chance to practice and do something well? As teachers, is there a space where both these thing exist? In trying to navigate this slippery slope, we must always ask what is best for our students, reflect upon the decisions and progress we have made, and always keep our eye on our goals.

As I reflect on these experiences, I will be mindful of what is happening now with my teaching and my students. We will change and grow as the world around us evolves, but we do this with purpose, never comprising the practices we have made current commitments to. 

We will be thoughtful in what we currently practice, ensuring that we are not locking into everything new, passing idea. We will focus on the important learning and growth taking place currently, always being open to the change that is best for us. When the time is right we will embrace that change. Right now, we sit mindful in our current learning space.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Power of Autonomy

(Photo by John Hendrixson)

Releasing control can be hardest thing in the world. As a teacher, I want to plan, prep, prepare, and ensure that everything is perfectly in place to make certain my classes run smoothly and my students are successful.  Calm, productive, engaged, that is what we all want for our students, right?

In the past few years, I have embraced a different approach to teaching. It can still be calm, we are productive, and students are engaged in learning.  Although, most of the time, it is a little messy.  We make noise and we make a mess. We talk, think, chart ideas, argue, debate, draft, dispose, and create. My students are able to explore the process of learning and discovery, mostly without my help. I am available to provide guidance and direction, but mostly I just support them, encouraging them to feel confident enough to push their thinking and challenge one another to be better.

This happens with autonomy, allowing students to explore without tight restrictions. With autonomy and control over their learning process, students are empowered to learn like real people, in the real world, learning about real things that matter. This is where passion is born.

This past week, I learned how powerful this notion of autonomy is for adults, not just my students. We brought this approach to our professional development with our first FedEx Day. Teachers and staff could work on a project completely of their own choosing, the only two rules being it had to benefit students and they had to deliver something at the end of the day.

I have never seen our staff so excited during a professional development. They loved having autonomy, were empowered by making their own choices and managing their own time, and inspired by what others were doing. We collaborated and created.  Then we shared. What more could you hope for from a smart and dedicated teaching staff?

(FedEx Day comments from staff, board members, and parents)

Like my students, our staff exceeded my expectations. They took full advantage of this time to work on new projects, develop and build new things, and design opportunities for our students. No one told them what to create, which allowed teachers to focus on something they were invested in and passionate. Most worked on something that had been rattling around in their brain for a while and just never had time or space to make a reality.

In reflecting upon this experience, and the joys and struggles of providing autonomy to my students, I have realized that it takes a level of courage to say, "I trust that your ideas are better suited for you than my plan for you. I trust you to take charge. I trust you to be great." I think this is why people love to engage in self-directed learning. They are suddenly valued, their ideas and plans trusted, their products validated. 

So what did I learn? Our schools must provide teachers the time and space to collaborate and inspire one another. If you do not have a staff that is able to be explode when giving autonomy, you need to reevaluate your hiring process and the people you are trusting with our kids. I learned that when given the chance to inspire one another to be great, our staff will work their butts off to ensure everyone is successful, supported, and encouraged in their own creative process.

I learned there is a paradox at work here. When given autonomy, we build community.

What are you expecting from your students and staff? Are you giving them the space to be amazing? Or do you control and direct their creativity and productivity, only to find the results are lackluster? Even bigger, are you brave enough to relinquish your own expectations and allow the people around you to release their talents? How are you empowering the people around you, students and adults alike, to inspire one another without restrictions?

In a world that is unpredictable and ever-changing, we grasp to shreds of our lives that can be molded and controlled. It is human nature and it makes us feel safe. In a world that is unpredictable, though, we must walk the road together, being willing to push one another to grow and change. Let's take a moment to explore what is unscripted and beautiful about our ideas. Let's get messy. Let's have the courage to trust the greatness in each one us. Let's create something wonderful together!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Self-Management #SAVMP

(Image Shared by Entertainment World)

I am notorious for taking on too much. I say yes too easily. My schedule becomes full without me even realizing it is happening. Part of  the problem is that I view everything I am excited about as a priority, so I make time for new commitments. I am a big picture thinker, and sometimes I forget to think about the details involved when I agree to be part of exciting new initiatives. The other part of the problem is I am willing sacrifice my personal time and passions to accommodate my professional responsibilities.

Not smart.

A large part of being a successful educator is learning how to effectively manage your time. It means knowing how to utilize time in school and time outside of school. It is a delicate balancing act, one which I usually find myself teetering over one edge or the other. This year, especially, has been one of great personal sacrifice. As things were added to my plate, the items pushed to the edges were the things I held most sacred, my relationships and my passions.

Again, dangerous territory.

I recognize that when you dedicate all of your time to your professional life, you lose perspective. For me, I become disenchanted and lose patience. This is the breeding ground for burnout. This is where people begin to give up. Or, worse, just become a negative presence.

So, how do we manage it all?

I recently (...yesterday) asked this exact question to my assistant principal. She is, hands-down, the most organized and productive person I have ever met. I admire her ability to categorize and conquer all tasks, and she does everything with impressive completion. I have never once seen her do anything remotely resembling the wasting of time, energy, or resources, and her outcomes are a testament to this. She is my time-management role model.

Her advice? Ditch the To Do list. Assign dates and times to every task that is a priority. Put them immediately on the calendar and then complete them when their time arises. Until then, don't stress about any one task. I am assuming this is not isolated to professional priorities, but personal as well. The focus should be on completing tasks and productivity with certain time frames. If there is no more time on the calendar, you either need to say no, or replace something that already exists.

Pretty smart, huh?

Going forward, I am also reminded to "Be Gentle With Myself." I will strive to achieve some semblance of balance is all areas of my life.  When I manage my time well, I can then manage myself better. I will not forget that my students suffer when I am not at my best, and that is not acceptable. I will prioritize for my healthiness and our happiness.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

A Shared Vision

(Photo by William M. Ferrirter)

Recently, I have made some new friends. They are a lot like me but much smarter and way more talented than me. They know how to do really cool stuff and have skills I do not possess. We hang out and share our ideas. They inspire me and make me feel valued. They help me work out tough decisions and push my thinking so I can be better at teaching, and really, better at life.

Most of these people I have never met in real life. We live in different time zones, different countries, different continents. Yet I know them and their dreams, thier hopes, and what they love. They have shared their words, voices, and hopes with me, and encouraged me to do the same with them. After hanging out, I am left grinning because I know my heart has found partners in learning. We have a shared vision.

This is more than being a connected educator. This is about being a friend, an advocate, a coach, a teacher. With a shared vision comes common ground, caring hearts, and the expectation of greatness. These are the people that help raise the bar for who I am as a teacher, a leader, and a friend. They drive me to do better for my students and for myself. They do this by believing in me and waiting for me to share my experiences.

In a world where we compartmentalize and categorize, I encourage you to break the barriers and demolish the walls. Reach out and get to know people. Make connections, then nurture them because they mean something. Caring does not last one month. Connections are not contained to conferences. Inspiration should be ongoing, not momentary. Relationships that happen in isolation of your real life are, in fact, fake.

Who are you sharing your vision with? How are you respecting and cultivating lasting relationships with people that will understand, support, and challenge your ideas. How can we first connect- but then travel the distance with our like-minded friends?

I will commit to share my vision honestly with those that share my common space, finding those that want to journey the same road as me. I will hold tight to the people that search out my heart, meet my students, and push my ideas into greatness. I will help build these connections into a culture of sharing and learning. Let us work to craft this culture of connected people into a family.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013


(Photo Shared by Mzacha)

nothing goes as planned.
Even when you cross all the T's and dot all the I's.

Some days,
you think too fast and speak too soon.
Even when you try to catch the words,
it is too late to pull them back.

Some moments,
you just cannot find the right space to stand.
The the noise and the mess and the time and the walls run together and nothing feels right.

Some hours,
the hands stand still and speed-on at the same time.
Even when you think and stare and blink you cannot make it stop,
or go,
or make sense.

the way you act in the moment is not who you really are.
Even when it happens twice and you already apologized.

Some days
are just meant to end.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Inspiring Greatness #SAVMP

(Photo by Richard Shaw)

This week I had the absolute pleasure of spending time with my little brother. He is 20 years-old and absolutely brilliant. He is also at his second college in two years and amazingly uninspired. He recounted his college experience to me as boring, completely scripted and guided, and leaving him without any chance or opportunity to think critically. He's an English major and feels like everything he is asked to know or do in class he could teach to himself using the Internet and common sense.

This is a tragic story of a bright mind being snuffed out and crushed down by education. I just keep asking myself how this is even possible. Why do students, at all levels if education, consistently feel voiceless and disengaged?

Immediately after this conversation with my brother, I participated in a Google Hangout organized by Jimmy Casas. Everyone that participated was connected through our involvement in the School Admin Virtual Mentor Program. Together, we discussed our own leadership goals and strengths, and visions for our students and schools. I walked away with my heart completely filled with joy and inspired to reflect on how I could push myself to be a better leader in every aspect of my professional life. I felt like I had struck gold by just being allowed to causally engage with some of these great leaders in educations.

My interactions with the #SAVMP participants have left me with a unique feeling of inspiration. It is the same feeling I get from connecting with talented educators. The feeling that I can push myself to be better because others have shared their own struggles and successes. It was a conversation with George Couros that dug me out of a blogging hiatus and helped springboard me into being a connected educator. When I think about the resources and conversations on twitter, the blog posts, the community of learners and leaders, I keep wondering how is it possible that there are so many visionaries and forward-thinking leaders in the world, yet my own brother is left questioning the role and purpose of education in his own life?

In light of the juxtaposition of these experiences, one heart-breaking and one heart-filling, I am forced to reflect on how I will inspire greatness in the people around me. How can I help others be brave enough to share their unique strengths? In and outside of my school community, how do I help others genuinely believe in, and act upon, their own greatness?

I want to inspire everyone around me to be great. With my students, staff, friends, and family, I will strive to know what they love and help encourage and foster that passion. I will be honest and reflective in a role, always willing to look at how I can be a better motivator. I will work towards finding my own sources of inspiration, thus modeling the drive and motivation that comes from letting yourself become fully immersed in what you love. I will help others be great.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Developing the Professional #SAVMP

I was probably in my third year of teaching before I experienced any formal professional development that was both meaningful and relevant. Every year I sat through numerous sessions that involved someone at the district level reading a PowerPoint to a group of teachers, usually in a cramped and ridiculously uncomfortable classroom.  I remember early in my career sitting on a radiator (there were no seats left in the room) in a classroom that was 100 degrees, watching cockroaches run in and out of the slats upon which I was sitting.

Needless to say, I didn't gain much from these sessions. I realized quickly that if I wanted to develop as a teacher I would have to make connections and find outside resources. I had a tight group of English teachers in my first-year cohort and we shared ideas and lessons regularly. I also began to "steal" from teachers that shared their lessons online and had class websites. It was like hitting gold when I could get a glimpse into someone else's classroom.

It wasn't until my fourth year of teaching that I began working at a school that tapped into the talents of its own staff. My current school, Patterson Park Public Charter School, ran almost 100% of our PD's in-house, meaning staff got choices and were empowered to facilitate sessions they felt would be meaningful. We also dedicate one afternoon each week to PD. Students leave early on this day and the staff engage in a wide range of development experiences.

In helping my school think through what professional development could be, and working over the summer with An Estuary, a professional development startup based in Baltimore, I have grown to believe that teachers should be in charge of developing themselves as professionals. In the words of Shelly Blake-Plock, "Teachers should control their development because teachers actually matter." Shelly and his team really started to change my views on what PD could be if we just connected teachers and enabled them to take charge of their own learning in meaningful ways.

The greatest form of development I have found as a professional has been through the connections I have made with other teachers and administrators. Through Twitter, I have been fortunate enough to be exposed to so many different ideas and people, all of which have shaped my own teaching practices. I have learned more from being connected to these people than I have from any class or PD session I have attended. I am exposed to articles, studies, videos, chats, and blogs that serve as the most powerful form of personal and professional development. 

These experiences, and my Professional Learning Network, has changed my teaching, and my overall attitude towards the profession, in powerful ways. Building these relationships allows me to share what I am doing with people that care about me and my students. They cheer us on, help us when we fall, and push our thinking so we can be better tomorrow. 

Recently, I also started playing around with an app called Sanderling. This is an amazing tool for someone like me, a teacher that is constantly doing development activities outside of my school and classroom. I tweet about this stuff, talk to staff, and blog about it, but I have never actually tracked my progress. This tool enables me to create projects and log my activities in a field journal. I can connect with others that are interested in working on the same projects, create lists, and reflect on activities I engage in along the way.

We all benefit, we all learn, and we all grow.

What this really comes down to is the power we all have to develop each other. Our voices are important. Our experiences offer change and hope. Our failures guide us into success when we share with others. Teaching can be lonely and isolating. Sharing opens our doors and breaks down the walls. What we do each day is important and we need to show the world. Teaching together yields better results than teaching alone. On a personal note, it has also helped me build some of the most amazing friendships with people that truly care about me and my students, and that I deeply care about in return. 

Does it get much better than that?

Whose voices do you listen to when crafting development experiences? Are you giving teachers and staff what they need, or are you forcing square pegs into round holes? When designing PD for teachers, are you tapping into the talents of your staff, thus empowering them to share something special about their own work with others? Do you treat your staff as professionals that are smart and talented enough to have autonomy and develop their own professional needs?

When thinking about developing the professionals around you, listen to what they need, both individually and collectively. Empower your staff to share with one another and the world outside of their classrooms. Encourage them to disseminate their own talents and knowledge, as it will lift them up and help them grow.

Monday, September 23, 2013

A Matter of the Heart

Photo by KB
Every once in while I am slapped in the face with reality. Something so real and so sobering takes place that I lose my breath for a moment. I become startled and I panic. Sometimes it is these experience that force me to look at myself, or give me the courage to help others grow. Mostly, though, these moments are just uncomfortable until I have time to process them privately.

Recently, I had a few of these moments in quick succession. The first came from a student. Our team organized a rather larger meeting with this student out of both concern and frustration. She struggled through a rather uncomfortable meeting with more adults than could fit at a small conference table. She was shut-down, withdrawn. We questioned whether or not we would ever reach her. At the end of the week, when my students wrote weekly "appreciations" in advisory, she handed this to me on the way out the door.

The second instance came with a very different experience. Over the last month, I have had the privilege of working with two colleagues to build soap-box carts with our kids. These are both science teachers, one of which teaches in our elementary school so I barely knew him, having never found any opportunity to collaborate with him up until this point.  I watched these teachers passionately embrace this project and our students. They worked late into the evenings to prepare these carts for the community race. This was a labor of love, and their energy and enthusiasm was contagious. 

On a Saturday, this teacher invited students, staff, parents (even my mother showed up!), and administrators to his home to celebrate the completion of these carts before the race. We ate, laughed, and cheered our kids on as they pushed these carts down the racecourse hill. This teacher brought a community together and I left feeling so full of joy and happiness.

Both these situations, though drastically different in emotions, reminded me so clearly about the needs of the heart. Whether it be students, parents, or teachers, we all need care, support, and love. We yearn to be part of something larger, something more substantial than our own selves and day-to-day routines. Sometimes our hearts are full and sometimes our hearts are sad, but that doesn't change the need we have to reveal ourselves to those around us, as frightening as this can be.  

In reflecting, I am forced to ask myself how open my heart is to the people around me. How accepting am I when others open up themselves to me? When I am full of sadness or doubt, can I be honest enough to accept help? When I am pushed and challenged to change for the better, can I trust the hearts of others to guide me?

As I walk through this year, I will strive to be a bit kinder, a little more gentle with others' hearts. We are fragile and we are delicate, even when it does not appear so on the outside. When I see sadness I will try to offer compassion; when I see struggle I will try to offer hope. When I see opportunity, I will try to open this offer to our others. 

If we work to protect each other's hearts, we will work to sustain ourselves and others through all matters, big and small. These will be the instances that ultimately build the foundation for change. 

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Talking With a Tiger (#SAVMP)

(Photo by Richard Shaw)
Over the summer, my colleagues and I engaged in a three-day training course in order to prepare to implement the Tribes Learning Communities into our school's curriculum. All staff members were invited with the goal of having our full staff embrace this unique culture and community focused process.

During these three days we were guided through the process of Tribes by being immersed in the activities and building our own Tribe Communities. The first part of this process is building inclusion, and our staff opened up to one another through a number of guided activities. As we moved into the second and third day, our instructor challenged us with more difficult situations, causing us to move outside of our comfort zones and deal with difficult issues and have tough conversations.

On the third day, we were asked to look around the room at a number of papers taped around the room. Each piece of paper was labeled with one animal. These included a dove, owl, turtle, and tiger. We were asked to reflect upon how we deal with conflict and place ourselves in the animal group that matched our conflict resolution style.

Everyone milled about quietly, as if we had to think hard about where we belonged before finding our stops. I had no questions about my place. I walked to the tiger corner. One other woman joined me in this corner. I felt a little embarrassed to be placing myself in this category. It was, by far, the most aggressive animal option. It was also the most dangerous and unpredictable animal. But I also knew it was exactly the animal that would describe me, and not just in the area of conflict resolution. Trying to justify belonging in any other group would be a lie and everyone would know it.

There is no shame in being a tiger. I am passionately driven to speak my mind and I am not the least bit afraid of conflict. I will happily challenge ideas and engage in tough conversations when others challenge me. I enjoy when my thinking is stretched and my perspective is changed. I actually wish that more people would be willing to have challenging conversations without the fear of being wrong, or at least with the openness to have their own notions altered.

After this experience in training, someone close to me forced me to look at myself a little deeper. He stated, "Being a tiger is fine. The problem is, you're a tiger when you don't need to be."  


Upon reflection, I know that there is a lot of truth in that statement. I also know that in every community, each member brings unique and special qualities to the table. Sometimes, you really need a tiger. In other instances, the wise owl or peaceful dove will drive the best results. We all bring our own fire and, in turn, each member can learn from the others' strengths.

In a school where all members are encouraged to have voice, sometimes the most important thing to do is listen. When your leaders encourage pushback and critical feedback, you must also embrace the compromise and understanding. Tough conversations must be bred from mutual respect and understanding, wise observation, and quiet reflection.

Ultimately, the tiger in me has a powerful place in the conversations and decisions we make as a school community. But truthfully, those conversations are more complex than just pushing back and being critical. At the foundation, we must build trust and respect, so that everyone is encouraged, at some point, to be a tiger or the capacity to be the dove.

When the conversations get tough, where do you fall? Are you able to challenge and stretch the thinking of others through passionate dialogue, or are you more of an observer and wise listener? When dealing with conflict, what qualities do you bring to your team?  What could you learn from the leaders around you about critical conversations? How can we ensure that everyone in our community has a voice and is empowered to use it?

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Second Guessing...

This is a year of new experiences. New curriculum. New standards. New vision and mission for our school. And a new mindset for me as a teacher. I spent some time reflecting upon who and what I need to be as a teacher, and why I teach. I gave myself permission to find my passions and indulge in my own loves in life.

I had big plans for my students this year, and I set the bar pretty high for myself.  Even when fear crept in, I believed in my plan and plowed forward thoughtfully and purposefully.

One of the new elements we added this year is Genius Hour.  I introduced it the first week of school. The students were so excited and our room was abuzz with ideas. This was when something confusing happened, something I don't remember it ever happening before. I was bombarded with a question. It was different for each student, but it in essence they were all asking the same thing.

Each student started with, "Can I..." Some couldn't bear to make eye contact. Others
grimaced as they asked. All displayed some emotion that would not be associated with joy, but instead anxiety or fear. They were opening up and they were so scared I would deny them their own ideas and passions.

I met each of these students with affirmative answers, reassurance, excitement, and awe. I loved all their ideas and they needed to know their passions were validated. But it was getting out of control! Every student was second guessing themselves. They lacked confidence in their own interests. All I could do was express my love for their ideas and help them think through the brainstorming process. I watch their eyes and faces light up when I did not deny them, but instead engaged them.

I gave the students a proposal form to help them organize their ideas. They asked if they had to wait until next Friday to get started, and of course I told them they could get started right away. We have time in class on Friday set aside only for Genius Hour, and unfortunately the next Friday I was out of the building and the class had a sub.

As the third Friday rolled around, my heart was so worried they would have forgotten their great ideas and we would have to start from scratch. I quietly asked if anyone wanted to meet with me to discuss their proposal and project ideas. Almost all of the students raised their hands. I actually stood with my mouth hanging open. I was filled with hope and joy that this was working.

I had second guessed myself and this process, but my students pushed forwarded because they did not second guess me. They trusted the process, and therefore took matters into their own hands.

I met with more than half my class, literally howling in excitement over their ideas. Each project was so unique! So special, so thoughtful. So much better than anything I could have planned for them to learn. They had resources, notes, interviews, timelines, and materials. They did not even need me.

Afterwards, while I was privately reflecting on this experience, I remembered a TED talk I had watched over a year ago. Sugata Mitra's talk, The Child-Driven Education, is profound and powerful. 

Mitra hits on two ideas that seem to be deeply related to this experience I am having with my students. He says, "If students have interest, then learning will happen." It was clear to me that my students were engaged in this process because they had interest, not because I told them to get something done.

There is also this notion that when adults step aside, students will rise to the challenge. I had left my students to devise their own plans and ideas. I showed them I trusted them, and I wholeheartedly communicated that I knew, without doubt, their ideas were beautiful and worthy of sharing. They did not second guess me, and they stopped second guessing themselves.

My favorite idea from this talk is by far the role of the grandmother. "Stand behind them and admire them," Mitra's says.  This was all I had to do to ignite the spark in these students. I praised, admired, and nurtured each one of their "Can I..." questions until they naturally morphed them into "I will..." statements.

As Mitra's closes out his talk with the idea of self-organizing systems, I continue to think about how I can create and cultivate this type of learning environment everyday. What is my role, and how to I help grow these amazing learning systems- the ones where I am not in charge but simply a person that nurtures my students and guides them. If it could look and feel the way it did last Friday, then I am willing to do anything to get us there.

As I go into a new week with my students, I will be paying close attention to where they, and I, are seconding guessing our abilities. I will pay close attention to where I can offer admiration, hope, confidence, and love to my students thoughts and ideas. I will help them see their own ideas and passions are powerful and worthy.  Together, we will move to a self-organizing system of learning where all my students can be engaged and thrive.

What great passions and ideas have you squashed down because you seconded guessed yourself? Where did you stop exploring because you let someone else devalue your ideas? In turn, how can you display admiration for the people around you this week? When your students and staff trust you enough to share their ideas, what is your reaction to them? Do you second guess them or do you inspire them?