Saturday, June 3, 2017

Summer breeze... makes me feel fine!

Welcome colleagues! Well, it has been QUITE a year! I cannot believe that I survived and that the year actually went by quicker than I thought. Though I had many ups and downs, this was easily the best year of teaching I've ever had. I'm starting to feel like I understand HOW to teach. Ironic considering I'm not teaching history next year...

Since it is the end of the year, I wanted to reflect on my #oneword2017 challenge and also talk about my summer goals.

#oneword2017: I blogged back in January about my New Year's resolutions. One of my #sunchat blogging collaborators mentioned that maybe my word should be self-care. I took that idea and RAN with it! Ever since taking on self-care as my mantra, the past six months have felt magnificent. And it really was little ways that I started taking care of myself which made a big difference. I bought a new Fitbit and have been working out consistently. I made a switch to a low FODMAP diet which has helped with a lot of my health issues (and dropped my "healthy" weight down three pounds). I uploaded my photography to our TV's Chromecast, so our TV is like a photo gallery. I've read 24 books this year, got caught up with Game of Thrones, and am obsessed with The Handmaid's Tale. I've spent quality time with friends this year, visited my sister in Pennsylvania twice, and missed the last two days of school for my nephew's graduation. My self-care goal has changed my mindset for the better!

Part of my self-care regimen for this summer is preparing for my new job. I know that people have messaged me, inquiring about what my new job entails. I will be a part-time broadcasting teacher and part-time technology specialist. As the broadcasting teacher, I am responsible for teaching students to use digital equipment to become engaging storytellers. The select seventh and eighth-grade students are responsible for putting together "Skyview News" once a week. I have BIG shoes to fill, and I am nervous and overwhelmed (but of course excited). I feel like I'm back to my first year of teaching where I was one step ahead of the students, but that's not a bad thing! As the technology specialist, I ensure that desktops, Chromebooks, and iPads in the building are available and ready for the teachers. As far as I know, I will also be responsible for building curriculum and training for the staff (and potentially district staff) so that our school continues to move forward.

Other goals for the summer?

  • I'm presenting for the first time at a Google Summit! I'm presenting on visual essays, which I talked about a couple of weeks ago. I need to put that presentation together... and practice! I despise public speaking, but I have to get over it, right?
  • Take more pictures. Duh. And submit my photos to the Iowa State Fair. They're printed... I just need to MAIL THEM.
  • Build a Google Sheets course as part of the POWER Zone Innovators curriculum. Still figuring out what to teach, but it's always good to get my name out there!
  • Continue to build my educator digital portfolio. If I want my students to see the purpose of their own portfolio, it is only fitting to have an example.
  • Hopefully, take a vacation in July. Maybe Mexico

Thanks for all of the support over this last school year - it's hard to believe that I've been blogging for almost a year! Enjoy your summer, and I'll see you in a couple months... or maybe sooner if I'm feeling inspired :)

And because it's part of my self-care regimen, enjoy this summer playlist... on me!

- Rachel
My Teacherspayteachers website

Saturday, May 27, 2017

"In these trying times..."

Good morning colleagues! I am sitting on my parents' couch, back in Iowa, drinking a cup of coffee on a terribly foggy morning. I am in town for my nephew's graduation from high school... my nephew who was born when I was a little freshman in high school. I'm just getting all the feels!

My nephew attended a local public high school (of course, rival to my high school - Go J-Hawks!) that went through some notable public turmoil over the last two years. As a teacher, I was blown away by what happened. As a former resident, I didn't know the principal or the entire situation, but I knew enough to know that his forced resignation was devastating to the students. He was someone that built relationships with EVERY SINGLE STUDENT in the building of 1600 kids.. The class of 2017 made a decision about their graduation celebration - they did not want to hear a speech from the superintendent, but instead wanted to hear from the people they loved and admired. The students led the graduation, had the interim principal and counselors speak, and they voted on a keynote speaker. The class of 2017 chose Stacey Walker, Washington alum, and the current Linn County District 2 Supervisor.

This is Stacey Walker. Unfortunately, I had to steal this image from Twitter because there is NOT a creative commons sourced image of him! This is not at all surprising as he is from Iowa. *begin sarcasm font* Nobody famous is from Idawahio, right? *end sarcasm font* As I am sitting in the LONGEST graduation I have ever sat through to support my nephew (and I'm silently making fun of the teachers sitting next to the graduates), this man gets up to speak. My niece and I look at his speech and immediately roll our eyes. It is two pages long, single spaced, with what looks like 10 point font.

But when he opened his mouth, my niece said, "He sounds like Barack Obama!" And that he did. I was instantly engaged, impressed, and inspired! What blew me away, even more, was that he graduated from high school in 2006 FOUR YEARS after me.

Even though I have one day left of just teacher check-out, I wanted to inspire the rest of you through your remaining school year. I want this speech to remind you WHY you teach and HOW you influence and motivate your students every day.
This opportunity has caused me to revisit my formative years. Not just those glorious four years I spent in high school, but the time leading up to it as well. I was born to a single mother who raised me and my younger sister on the southeast side of Cedar Rapids... These were the places others referred to as the ghetto. We relied on food stamps and food drives, and other welfare programs just to get by... When (my mother) left that day, I would never see her again... After learning of her death, my sister and I went to live with our grandmother... I stand here today because she lived. 
It is important that I share my story with you this afternoon - the stories of the people whom I hold dear - because I hope you'll do it too one day. I hope that you will pay homage to those in your life - parents, teachers, mentors, coaches, and friends - who helped to get you to this point. No one can do it alone. We all had a little help getting here, and we all will need a whole lot more going forward. 
When you go from place to place, you will be encouraged by friends and caring adults to pursue noble careers... However, I implore you: seek the path that sets your soul on fire. Pursue your truth and your passions, and do good by others in the process, and surely, your life will be one of purpose and satisfaction... (w)e should recommend career paths that align with our values and our passions...
How do we make this happen... The answer is you. All 278 graduating seniors are here today and your peers across the country will soon have the opportunity to put your smarts and your energy to good use and make an impact on your community... Your partisan affiliation will never matter as much as the content of your character. What matters most is what's in your heart.
In these trying times, you are the greatest hope for a better future... We will rely on your curiosity and idealism which will lead to great discovery... This work is difficult. But no one here is asking for a break. That's not what Warriors do. We don't pray for easier lives. We pray to be made stronger women and men. We don't seek easy answers or cliched wisdom. Instead, we seek the challenge of the impossible...  
There is more work to be done in this imperfect world, and we're all relying on you. Let your thoughts - the chief glory of man - and your heart - the vital organ of morality - light your path, forever. 
Go forth, dream big, work hard, and change this world for the better.

"Be the change." I'll see you next week :)

- Rachel
My Teacherspayteachers website

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Visual Essays

Greetings colleagues! I am writing to you this week as I'm finishing up my LAST unit of the school year! In fact, it is my LAST unit as a Social Studies teacher (for now). I recently accepted a job as the broadcasting teacher and technology specialist in my school. I'm excited but super overwhelmed. My job is going to look so different next year that I cannot picture it right now. This summer - it's so close!

But I digress. The unit that we just finished up was over Reconstruction in the United States. Yes, the Civil War is quite significant, but Reconstruction certainly changed the United States for a good 90 years or so, plus has lingering consequences today. To get my students to understand its impact, I had them do the DBQ Project's Reconstruction DBQ while also doing a case study on a modern case of racism (within the last five years). I felt it was important for students to see related connections - it also makes history more relevant!

The culmination of each DBQ is a 5-6 paragraph essay. I'll be honest; it's the end of the year, and I definitely didn't want to grade another essay! So I had my students do what I call a "visual" essay. This is when the students follow the same process as creating an essay, but in the end, they take the writing process and create something visual. The best three applications that I've found for creating visual essays are Piktochart, Spark Page, and Canva. For this unit, my students used Piktochart.

We spent four days going over the DBQ packet. The students analyzed four documents to answer the question, "North or South: who killed Reconstruction?" They completed the DBQ packet by filling out an outline in which they responded to the question with their opinion, and used evidence from the documents to support their answer.

They then took their outline and turned it into a Piktochart.

Did this go well? Yes! It was great for the end of the year, the students appreciated learning about something that connected to present-day, and though the Piktochart iPad app is lacking in some usability, they enjoyed trying a new app and liked the creativity and choices that it offered.

This week I'm encouraging you to try something new, maybe fun, and definitely engaging with your students. Think outside the box and get your students to connect to your content!

Thanks for reading. I'll see you next week :)

- Rachel
My Teacherspayteachers website

Saturday, May 6, 2017

The most beautiful sentences in literature

Hello, colleagues!

Are any of you counting down how many days of school left? No? Me either, although I keep hearing this number whispered in the hallways, "15."

It is times like this that I need a dose of inspiration to make it through. I am currently teaching a unit on Reconstruction, and the students are pretty into it. The students find it fascinating how racist the North was during that era... that it was not just the South hampering Reconstruction efforts. So at least, I hope, I will have their attention (and may just inspire them) for the next two weeks.

Though my class is working through a sound unit, I need more motivation. The weather is too beautiful (Spring fever is alive and well), I am thoroughly exhausted from track season, and the thought of two months of freedom is sucking out my soul. I woke up this morning with these words in my head, "I am, I am, I am." I decided to share with you some beautiful photography and beautiful words to get you through your Saturday, your weekend, or your last few weeks of school.






Namaste. I'll see you in two weeks :)

- Rachel
My Teacherspayteachers website

Saturday, April 29, 2017

You gave students choice... and it bombed... what? It's time for a reflection.

My co-worker and I just finished our cross-curricular project, and boy has it been a unit! We were quite euphoric with how it turned out, and were glad that the project was more of a success than we anticipated. One thing is nagging at the back of my brain - how did giving students choice work? Was THAT successful?

To answer that question, I am going to jump into "story time" and travel back to last summer. Right before the school year began, I attended a GAFE (Google Apps for Education) conference here in Colorado Springs. I was pushed by many of the attendees and presenters (in a good way) to update and elevate my curriculum this current school year. The big "buzz word" was choice: giving students a choice in your classroom. And I believe it, and I believe in it, so I tried to provide my students with choice (to give them a voice). It was a complete and utter failure.

Sometimes I wonder why teachers and teacher bloggers don't talk more about their failures, and, when giving advice, don't always talk about what might go wrong. I feel like I had a preconceived and naive belief about how choice and flexibility would transform my classroom. I would liken this to all the feels that teachers get when watching Robin Williams' speech in A Dead Poet's Society.

That was going to be my classroom this year... I was wrong. What I failed to take into account, and what I was never pushed to question, was who the students were that I had coming into my classroom. My students had eight years of traditional schooling. Often times, in my own opinion, I did not see rigor and high expectations in their previous classes. Students, in the past, did not have the option to make their own choices and did not have the capacity and maturity to make wise decisions on their own. This led to a very rough beginning to the school year (no Robin Williams moments here!) and a lot of reflection about what best meets my students' needs.

So... I gave my students choice... and it bombed. What are the next steps?

Number one: don't give up! So it didn't work this time. Why didn't it work? Figure that out, then don't do that again. It is okay to fail, but do not punish your students if the failure is one you.

Number two: figure out what your students need. Many options or open flexibility can be overwhelming if it has never been an option before. I know that when I start my next school year, I need to survey the students about their previous schooling. This will then drive HOW I teach in my classroom. I can decide how much choice I offer from the start.

Number three: start small to large. Start by giving your students two or three possibilities (not unlimited), then expand from there. I run a more project-based class so I can start with open selection when it comes to a type of project (Slides, Explain Everything, iMovie), then over time, students can have a choice when it comes to topics and content. Ideally, by the end of the year, the students have complete discretion in the classroom to display their voice.

Number four: take your time. If you realize that students still don't have the maturity to have choice, then do not give them that option. Make sure they are ready to move to the next step. Do not set up your students to fail.

As I said at the beginning, now that I've done this big project at the end of the year, was giving choice beneficial?


It was due to my failures at the beginning of the year and reflecting upon WHY there was failure. It was also dependent on me slowly adding in more choice as the year went on. I also feel like we gave students good options when it came to historical figures and project presentation options for this unit. 

Was it perfectly successful? No, not quite. Both my colleague and I learned a lot doing this project for the first time and have discussed changes that we will make. We still saw students choose the easy options, and I still need to figure out why they didn't want to push themselves. 

But I can see how choice works in my classroom and am excited to see it work even better next year. Keep the faith! Thanks for reading. I'll see you next week :)

- Rachel
My Teacherspayteachers website

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Moving away from mindless

Hello, colleagues!

I read an excellent blog post from Bill Ferriter. It really made me think about my curriculum; what is worthwhile and what is mindless. 
"Inane tasks are the norm rather than the exception to the rule in the lives of students. It’s reading truncated excerpts of obscure non-fiction works and answering multiple choice question after multiple choice question. It’s solving questions 14-33 on page 86 of the textbook and showing your work. It’s making YET another PowerPoint for YET another class — and then delivering YET another five minute presentation to your peers on some topic that you are going to forget before the end of the month. Worse yet, inspiring tasks are like white rhinoceroses: Oddities that are rarely seen, long remembered, and hunted by darn near everyone."
I have to say - no one is complete at perfecting their curriculum. No one "has it down" and no one is doing it right all the time. Every teacher knows that at some point, there will be mindless tasks in the classroom. But as Bill said it, it should be an exception instead of the norm. 

So this morning I was thinking about how I can change mindless tasks in American history into something greater. 
  • While learning about the federal government of the US, instead of just learning about the differences between a Presidential Proclamation and an Executive Order, have the students read and analyze two important documents: Presidential Proclamation No. 2537 and Executive Order 13769. Have students watch interviews with those interred in Japanese-American internment camps during World War II and with green card holders who were turned away at the airport in 2017. Then have students blog, create a Twitter thread, or design a Snapchat Discover story about how the federal government impacts an "everyday" American citizen.
  • Instead of making students memorize the fifty US states and capitals, have the students pick five states they have never visited. Students then use Yelp and TripAdvisor to see what they can do if they visit the capital. Students then design five interactive Google Maps with the five places they would visit in that city with information, reviews, and photographs.
  • When studying American Indians, instead of mapping the geographic cultures and doing a Venn Diagram on the similarities and differences, talk to students about how the Plains tribes would use every part of the buffalo in their lives. Talk about how each part was used, and if you have a local museum (like the Pioneers Museum), bring in artifacts for demonstration purposes. Then have students keep track of everything that they throw away for a week. Give students the opportunity to brainstorm and work together to repurpose the waste into something they could use in their daily life, or how they could remove that waste completely from their lives.
In the end, I think the goal of teaching is to interest and motivate our students. This does not happen every day, and it does not happen all the time. I deal with 110 beings every day, plus myself, and we have emotions and home lives that sometimes get in the way. However, if we can move them away from the mindless more often than not, then I think we're doing all right.

Thanks for reading. I'll see you next week :)

- Rachel
My Teacherspayteachers website

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Thinking outside the box

Good morning colleagues!

My class is currently one week deep into a cross-curricular American Civil War project with Language Arts. The students have done some overarching research on important historical figures during the war, found the characteristic that this person best exemplifies, and have started designing their "improvement hour" project.

Yesterday I had the students fill out a Google Form about how they are doing on their project, and any stumbles that they had. I used the data results to guide the students needing to be spoken with immediately, which students I could meet with that day, and which students I could meet with the next day. It allowed me to prioritize my conference order.

One student had this answer, and it made me pause.

Though what she said is both encouraging and discouraging, I am happy for a few things. I am glad that I saved a project like this for the fourth quarter. Though my classroom style is not typical, my school is quite traditional. It took a lot of breaking down walls and barriers this year to get my kids ready. A project like this would have bombed in the first quarter. I am happy that I am doing this project at all. Those that read my blog often know that I am not having the best year. I refused to let myself get in the way of me having my students do something that benefits their present and future. I am glad that I am giving my students something with many choices. They are getting to decide what they do and how they do it. I had a quick spark of inspiration last week and also added that the students combine their project with something they are passionate about. I have seen more "buy-in" as the project as gone on.
I am happy that I have this on my wall. I never pointed it out to students, but I've been pointing it out a lot this past week (especially the "this is too hard"). I said to one student, "I know you never look at it." He said, "Actually, I've looked at it a lot." Boom! I consider that a win :)

I think where I'm going with all of this is that this project has been reassuring. I am glad that I decided to elevate the Civil War unit. It is a challenge, but it is pushing my students outside the box and is forcing them to think in ways that they might not have thought before. This is authentic 21st-century learning that demonstrates the relevance of history while preparing them for the future. This has been the most creative, innovative unit that I've created, and I am proud of my students, my teammate, and myself.

Thanks for reading. I'll see you next week :)

- Rachel
My Teacherspayteachers website

Sunday, April 9, 2017


Greetings colleagues!

I was browsing Feedly when I stumbled across a post from Katie, a 7th grade English teacher, talking about what you are currently listening to, eating, etc. I thought this would make for an interesting post!

Reading: The Girl who Came Home: I'm only about a third of the way through this, but it's an interesting concept. There are two plotlines intertwined. The first part is a flashback to 1912 as a young Irish woman, Maggie, travels on the Titanic to the United States. She is joining family there and is planning on starting a better life. The second plot line deals with her great-granddaughter Grace in the "present-day" of 1982. I don't regularly read many non-fiction history texts during the school year as I deal with history every day. It is, however, a nice change of pace to read historical fiction that is well-written.

Watching: I just finished both Big Little Lies and got caught up on Game of Thrones, so I'm in a post-tv watching funk! I need to get caught up on season nine of Doctor Who before season ten starts in a few weeks!

Eating: It's 9:45 am Mountain time, so I just ate my "go-to" breakfast: southwestern eggs, rice, Cholula, mustard, avocado, and a little bit of cheese. It's my go-to breakfast because I can make it quickly, it's filling, and it tastes good (at least to my tastebuds).

Listening: As I'm blogging, I'm listening to my movie score soundtrack. Whenever I do anything school related, I cannot listen to anything with words. I'm too observant to not pay attention to my surroundings, so it either has to be silent where I am working, or the only sound is music with no words!

Loving: I recently bought a Charge 2 Fitbit, and I am LOVING it! I had a Fitbit in the past, but it was part of the recall because many people (including myself) were burned by the material. So I switched to a Garmin Vivofit. I've had it for the last three years, so I wanted something new and flashy! It is more interactive, plus the Fitbit community is pretty impressive. I have many friends here and family back home that have them, so we're in constant competition with each other. I enjoy the continuous heart rate monitor, the silent reminders (including a move reminder every hour), and that I can start different types of workouts (hikes, yoga, treadmill, weights).

Planning: One thing that I'm planning right now is getting my master's degree. I am still in the early stages, but I know I want my masters in educational/instructional technology. It just makes sense based on where I am in my career, where my focus has been the last couple of years, and where I see myself headed in the future.

Waiting: I am currently waiting on May 25th. This is not because it is my last day of school, but it's because it is the day my nephew is graduating from high school! My school district believes in family first, so I was hesitant to ask to be absent for the last two days of school. That is usually a big "no no" in school districts, but I was pleasantly surprised that my principal was supportive of my absence. I am quite excited to head back to Iowa and see my family, and celebrate with them for four days!

So there you go - you just got a little insight into my #currently moments! Thanks for reading. I'll see you next week :)

- Rachel
My Teacherspayteachers website