Saturday, December 10, 2016

Hello, colleagues! Sorry that time has gotten away from me, and it has been a few weeks - I meant to blog last week, but was not feeling well. I'm back to normal, and I'm back on my game! This week was a good week in the middle school world. I did a four-day lesson over the Constitution with some activities that I am excited to share with you.

As someone to teaches middle school American history, it is only fair that I present lessons with a neutral political discourse. My students do not need to know my political leanings, so I present both sides of the story. We are currently studying the Constitution, and in today's political climate, it is incredibly important for students to know what their rights are. They know that they have freedom of speech and the right to bear arms... and that's about it. I know that going through the Constitution bit by bit is incredibly annoying. What I did, instead, was utilize three different programs: Actively Learn, Socrative space race, and Adobe Spark Page.

I wanted the students to study the first three Articles of the Constitution, so I uploaded the Articles to Actively Learn with highlighted portions and questions built in (if you have an Actively Learn account, e-mail me at if you want a copy). It was my first time using Actively Learn, and I am now a fan. I've been asking myself why I haven't been using this earlier, especially considering other teachers have been touting how amazing it is. Using Actively Learn isn't any different than having the students read and answer questions, but it's just different. My students were incredibly engaged with the text and were focused during class. The students could not move on to the next question until they answered the previous question, and the students knew that the answer to the question was right above the question. I felt like Actively Learn is a great tool when it comes to primary documents or readings that may be difficult to understand or digest.

I'm not a teacher that needs silence in my classroom, but during Actively Learn, you could hear a pin drop.

The next part of the lesson was to have the students do a "space race" on Socrative. I have done these in the past, and have found that they are better than Kahoot. I would not say the students are more or less excited or engaged, but Socrative forces the students to get the answers correct instead of racing to respond to the question the quickest. I gave the students describing statements about the twenty-seven Amendments of the Constitution, and they had to figure out which Amendment was being described. Again, not a new or super interesting lesson, but the students were figuring out what the Constitution says. The students were engaged with the text and filled out a handout in Notability as they quizzed through Socrative.

The last part of the lesson was to have the students design a Spark Page (my example) about what IS in the Constitution. They took their learning from the previous two lessons and developed a "website" that is visual and compelling. I feel like the students are walking away from this week knowing more about the Constitution than they ever knew previously.

To culminate the Constitution lesson, next week, the students will be accessing the DBQ Project's document-based question "How did the Constitution guard against tyranny?" I have done this DBQ the past three years, and it is one of the toughest DBQs for the students to comprehend. It will be interesting to see if the students better grasp the essential question because of greater prior knowledge.

I have struggled with the Constitution unit every year that I have taught at Skyview. It just never turns out quite like I want. I feel like what I created this year was strong, and I will keep most of the lessons for next year. I think the students comprehended the ideas that I wanted, and I know that they were engaged with the ideas. I'm not sure I could ask more of teenagers learning about an 18th-century primary document.

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

- Rachel
My Teacherspayteachers website

Saturday, November 19, 2016

#satchat gratitude

Happy Saturday everyone! Hopefully, everyone is ready for a restful and relaxing week... as long as you have the week off, right?!

Last night at yoga, we were challenged, when stressed, to think of ways to demonstrate gratitude. As it is Thanksgiving week, I figured it would be apropos to blog about gratitude. It's been a stressful and trying year, so I should be grateful for many, many things.

My husband: Not only do we share love and companionship but we also both teachers. Even though our lives are incredibly taxing and we argue about school, we respect each other enough to be sounding boards. Sometimes we need to bounce ideas off of one another and other times we just need to vent. I can't imagine spending my teaching career with anyone else - no one else quite understands the trials and tribulations of this occupation. I can't imagine being with anyone else as we just understand each other, and have a shared ridiculous amount of love for our furry babies.

My friends: I have many friends that love and support me. Even though we are all stressed out, we can be there for each other when we need it. Sometimes it's for happy hour or a yoga class, or supporting my obsession with the Cubs during the World Series. They are my people and they are my family away from "home."

My family: I miss them dearly every day while I'm out in the Mountain West. It makes me happy to know that they are only a day's drive away if I need to visit. I am glad that I have been able to travel multiple times in the past year to see them. I am lucky that we have a good long distance relationship so that we can celebrate across the phone or internet. I am fortunate to have such good people in my life!

My Twitter family: Even though most are completely random strangers, they've impacted my professional career more than they know. In a time of, usually, awful PD, they've given me new ideas for my classroom and refreshed my excitement for my career. I am so grateful that any time I am down on my job, I go to Twitter for some renewing.

My job: Every job is frustrating and infuriating, not only my own. Sometimes I need to keep that in perspective. Especially considering that I work with some awesome people, have a supportive admin, have the flexibility to make my classroom my own, and have 1:1 devices that spur my creativity. We had a staff meeting this past week with the CEO of D49, and it reminded me how lucky I am to work in a fantastic district. I have a sweet schedule and set-up - I would not be as lucky elsewhere.

I could keep going on and on, but I will leave you with a list of "little" things for which I'm also grateful: Canon EOS 80Ds, espresso machines, Spotify, yoga, Younger, Kindle Paperwhites, avocados, and pickle popcorn.

Thanks for reading! Have a Happy Thanksgiving, and I'll see you in two weeks!

- Rachel
My Teacherspayteachers website

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Stepping out of my comfort zone...

Good EVENING tribe!

When I started this day, I was completely unsure what I was going to blog about. It was a rough week, friends. I would imagine that each and every one of you (including me) had fires to put out this week. What I needed this weekend was to play catch-up; to grade and lesson plan. What I got instead was attending a conference down south for EdCamp Summit Colorado.

I've always enjoyed attending EdCamps. Whenever I leave, I usually feel overwhelmed with new ideas and thinking, but feel refreshed at the same time because I am around like-minded people. I am around my tribe, my people. So imagine, if you will, my genuine excitement for this weekend. I'm meeting new people, discussing ed and ed tech.

Then imagine my horror when this person walks up on the stage and talks about how he's from an improv group(ish). I had to do improv once for PD at Skyview, and I wanted to slit my throat. I am an introvert at heart and hate looking like a fool in front of anyone. I barely let myself look foolish in front of my close friends and family. It's a curse.

So then imagine my further horror when he tells us that we are doing a group presentation! We have to stand in front of the group, state a problem in education, find a solution, and create a call to action. We are split up into random groups of five where we have to create a Google Slides presentation in thirty minutes.

As we are getting these directions, I am looking for an exit. I am trying to figure out how I can quietly escape the area, hide in my hotel room, and cry myself to sleep. Improv is my personal version of hell, and I CANNOT ESCAPE!

I am incredibly lucky, though. I worked with a fabulous group of ladies. We are looking through the random images that we have to use when one teacher mentions that her students are bringing fart spray to her classroom. Apparently, they have farts in a can, and her students have been spraying this in her classroom. Anyone that teaches middle school knows that flatulence is already an issue, but this was icing. I had never heard this before!

So we think of how we can prevent farting in our classrooms, and find images that best represent our presentation. And we are LAUGHING hysterically. I am so grateful to those women because I was able to get in front of the group without worry. Our Google Slides presentation was hilarious.

The whole point of having Anthony Veneziale at EdCamp Summit was to get us out of our comfort zone, and boy did he do a good job with that! He provided some fascinating research that made me realize that I have to, HAVE to put myself out there. I cannot keep hiding because I have something important to offer my students, my colleagues, and the rest of the world. All of us cannot hide because we are all valuable. So my advice? Stop hiding in the dark.

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

- Rachel
My Teacherspayteachers website

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Week Reflections

Greetings colleagues! After a second week back from break, I am reflecting on how the last two weeks have gone. There are two things that I want to discuss this week: 1) a class exercise that I thought worked well in my classroom and 2) homework.

A QR Codes activity
This past week, I did a mini-lesson that I thought went well. My students are currently learning about the American Revolution. One thing I believe is important for students for context and engagement is connecting past and present. For the past couple of years, I have had the students compare and contrast the American Revolution with a modern revolution; one that took place during the Arab Spring in 2011. I picked four countries that the students could research. These four countries (Syria, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen) still have strife within their nation today.

My mini-lesson activity involved the students going out into the hall for four stations, scanning a QR code that took them to a video, and had them write, at periodic times, on a sheet of paper about the conflict. I had the students write one-word summaries to a) make them get to their point quickly and b) save time. They were not researching these conflicts yet; they just needed to be exposed to what happened. It was a preview activity to get their minds running and their hearts connected.

I think the lesson went well. There were some tech stumbles during my first period, which is, sadly, why they are my guinea pigs! The other three classes were much smoother.

It was interesting to see which country they chose based on the preview activity. I will say that most students chose Yemen to research, and I truly believe it's because of the video that they watched. That video was much more visual than the other three. Now I know I need to find better videos for the other three countries to make sure they are engaged visually. 

Homework outside of school 
I have mentioned throughout my blog this year about my struggles with my current students. One issue that keeps popping up, whether in my class, on my small team, or in eighth grade, is a lack of completing homework. 

I will admit that I am from the camp that could totally do away with homework. I have read numerous articles about countries overseas that have no homework, about the benefit of play, especially at an early age, and how homework provides little benefit in the actual class. 

Part of me, still, cannot let homework go. I will say that I do NOT assign homework nightly as a punishment, nor do I assign regular homework for "practice." My only homework, Monday - Thursday, is flipped learning. Flipped learning, like my mini-lesson this past week, is meant to expose them to the content. Lecturing has little value in the classroom, in my opinion, so the "lectures" happen through videos or readings. I assess their focus and attention through quizzes where they have to pass with 70% proficiency. 

What has been a challenge with this group of students is that they do not want to do flipped learning. It is interesting to listen to them grumble about their classroom grade, yet not see the correlation between avoiding flipped learning and then having a failing grade in my class. Then it can be so enlightening when I hear a student in my class have that lightbulb moment where they say, "I learned that last night through flipped learning!" 

I am not ready to give up flipped learning; it has a purpose in my classroom and is meant more as a support than punishment. I believe that I do not implement flipped learning quite right, and it is still a work in progress. 

Anyway, back to my original rant: my students don't do homework. Period. But they also do not like completing work in my class. Period. If a student does not complete something in class that is due the next day, it becomes homework. So I am seeing this trend of students not working in class, but then not working at home. So they do not complete the assignment and have a low grade in my class. It is this strange catch-22 where I do not know how to help keep my students on track. I try to create engaging (not fun) lessons where they collaborate with each other and have creative opportunities. But even that does not feel like enough. Any advice? 

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

- Rachel
My Teacherspayteachers website

Saturday, October 29, 2016

1:1 iPad Classroom Observations

Good morning colleagues!

This past week I was fortunate to visit three middle schools in the St. Vrain Valley School District. Almost the entire district has 1:1 devices (except for class sets in the elementary), encompassing 55 schools with about 32,000 students. All secondary students use iPad minis. I am lucky regardless as I have been a 1:1 iPad teacher for the last five years. The reason why I visited these schools is to see how the devices are utilized in an entire 1:1 school.

What I saw was eye-opening.

1. The district has their act together.  Because they are such a large community, they had to plan for the implementation well before they purchased or even decided what devices to use. The teachers had time to use the devices before they used them in the classroom. The teachers get training from instructional technology coordinators and learning technology coaches. There is a common language among the district, so while visiting three different schools, the teachers and students said very similar things. Posters across the schools were also similar. Most importantly, they have a shared vision. As we visited classrooms, it seemed like every teacher was on board with the vision. It made me realize that District 49 needs to find a cohesive vision that does not change every year. And as we continue to use 1:1 devices, we need to be transparent and get the community on board. I do not feel like there is enough communication about why there are iPad teams at Skyview and how learning with the iPads is supposed to be purposeful and meaningful for the students' current and future education and future occupations. 

2. The three schools were not any more advanced than my classroom. Most of the classrooms that we visited were simple substitution (on the SAMR model). I was disappointed that I did not see "more" - more student choice, more collaboration, more critical thinking. To be fair, we all have days where we have those typical, boring traditional lessons. But it was hard to see so many students listening to a teacher talk when they all have an iPad Mini in front of them. To be fair, I saw limited student disengagement which was exciting. And I think every student that we talked to was excited to have that device in front of them at all times.

3. There is inconsistency in every school. Some classrooms were better than others. At Trail Ridge Middle School, we saw two math classes that collaborate every day during Science class. It was fascinating as the two classes worked together to use both Math and Science concepts to create space shuttles for their space unit. Those students were so engaged that they did not even notice when we walked into the classroom. Then there were classes where the teacher lectured in the front of the room with the lesson on the front screen. The students were "grouped," but there was no discussion between them. There were some lost opportunities in a few rooms.

4. It's important for a student to explain what they know, but... there still has to be a point to what they are learning. I watched some students sit through classes that were not engaging, and when I asked them a question, they would dive into a spiel about their objective and what they were studying (but totally not answering my question). It felt like they had been coached and were not demonstrating learned knowledge and skills.

In the end, I was grateful to visit these classrooms and would love to do more observations in the future. I may also need to be a slight stalker and contact some of these teachers to potentially collaborate. There are exciting prospects on the horizon!

Some other things I pulled from observations:
 I loved this poster from a teacher's classroom. It's letting Ss and Ts know that phones are a part of students' world, and as a teacher, you respect that.

 I thought this was a great checklist handout. I know it's traditional and simple, but I think this would be beneficial for goal setting for the class AND staying on task throughout an extended project. I use checkpoints to keep Ss focused, but this would take it to another level.

 I loved at this 1:1 school that ALL posters in the hallway used QR codes. It's not anything groundbreaking, but it makes it clear to the Ss that the devices will be used. All QR codes let to Google Forms for the students to fill out. Many teachers also had #observeme posters, but they also included a QR code that let to a Google Form for an observer to lead feedback. Brilliant!

 In another classroom, the teacher had the students use post-it notes to put down goals for the day. It was simple but effective. The teacher kept asking the students about their goal and what they still had to do. The Ss had to reflect throughout class which was impressive.

 I loved that a teacher used risers to make one table a standing table. I've been reading about teachers getting rid of their teacher desk, and after seeing this, I think I am going to get rid of mine. My desk is literally full of crap that I rarely use, so why do I have it?! I have been looking at a table from Ikea that I could raise with bed risers. My plan is to use the table as both my teacher desk AND as a great place to converse with Ss. 

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

- Rachel
My Teacherspayteachers website

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Historical Wanderings

Hello, colleagues! I have returned from my East Coast trip and am still processing my vacation! I was lucky enough to have one of my sisters move to Eastern Pennsylvania. She is close to Philadelphia and Washington DC, two cities I have never visited. It is rather embarrassing to admit this as I am an American history teacher! Our district has a modified year-round schedule (nine weeks on, two weeks off), so we get a two-week break in the middle of October. It is the most fantastic break in the schedule! Flights tend to be relatively cheap, so my husband and I were able to fly directly to Philadelphia round trip for less than $300. Trust me; this is a steal.

We spent a day in Philadelphia, two days in Washington DC, and a day at Gettysburg. It was an amazing experience! I appreciated these places more as an adult because I could provide context for myself - I knew the magnitude of these places and felt honored to be there.

As I walked around, I asked myself (and talked about it out loud to my husband and family) if I could imagine bringing my students to PA and DC. One of my colleagues takes students to different locations around the world - taking them to the East Coast would be easier, right? It can't be that hard, right?!

While we toured, I saw many school groups out and about. The common thread through each set of students: they were loud and were running around like chickens with their heads cut off. The teacher in me (and my husband) wanted to yell at them for their disrespect. I also wanted to talk to their leader and ask what on earth they were doing. But as I thought about it, I wondered if I could do any better with my students. Could I get my students to care about these places? If so, how? What does it take to get students to connect to the past?

What stood out to me was:
1. The teacher had thirty or more students with them at any given time. Often, it was more than fifty.
2. The teacher had the students move at their individual pace
3. The teacher often stood to the side away from the students

I decided that if I took students out east, it would be a select group of students (preferably twenty or less). I would not attempt to take all kids because one person cannot adequately monitor nor connect with a large group of students. Secondly, I would not just watch my students; I would guide them through the exhibits and locations and would guide them with a purpose. I'm not sure I would give them a handout, but I would have tasks for them and activities that help them connect. Students relate to others through feelings and emotions, so they have to have some context to understand the magnitude of why they were there. Third, I would pick select locations based on what my students study in the classroom. For example, I would skip the Vietnam Memorial as we only study early American history. That is a memorial that the tour groups seemed to struggle with the most - they ran around, talked loudly, and Snapchatted while I watched a woman leave a gift for her deceased father while sobbing. There was no connection between those kids and what was happening around them.

In the end, I had a fantastic trip. I was able to see some incredible locations, learned some new things about history, and get some great photos. I am incredibly grateful for my journey out east. I am also thankful that I was able to see those tour groups so that I will think carefully about classroom field trips in the future.

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

- Rachel
My Teacherspayteachers website

Interested in purchasing my photography? Check out my store on Redbubble.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Fall Foliage

Good morning colleagues! Fall break has just landed in my district and I have the next two weeks off of school. After ten weeks of school, my brain is pretty fried. With the week that I had, I am burned out of education right now. Instead, I am going to post some images of pretty fall foliage from here in Colorado. Enjoy :)

Thanks for viewing! Interested in purchasing my photography? Check out my store on Redbubble.

I'm out and about for the next two weeks, so my next blog will be in three weeks!

- Rachel
My Teacherspayteachers website

Saturday, October 1, 2016

The value of an A

Good morning colleagues! Yesterday was the end of first quarter, so as always, the students were scrambling to get their grades up by the end. "The scramble" is nothing new; I have seen it every year that I've taught. What WAS new this year was that 1) my overall grades were lower than previous years and 2) more students than before were asking in the last week how to get an A in my class.

"The scramble" led to a conversation with a colleague about grades. My colleague had most of these students last year, so I wondered how her grades were. Overall, her grades were similar. The difference was that she did not have our "honors" students last year. Currently, their first B is in my class, and now I'm feeling the pressure. Do I curve assignments to ensure that students have an A? Are my grading procedures too hard? Or are my students even working at an A-level? What IS the value of an A?

I am not entirely sure from where the pressure is coming. The administration team has not had a conversation with me about having too few As, but I am waiting for that conversation to happen. I have only had slight pressure from one parent, so we will see how that goes next week. Most of the pressure is coming from the students. In general, I do think that this pressure is unfair. My class is challenging because students have to think in a different way, the thinking is very gray instead of black and white (which is DOK level 1), and students do not get 100% for turning in an assignment. I am trying to off-set the "challenge" of my class by trying something different with grading. On large projects, I am not putting a final grade on the rubric. Instead, I am marking where they are on the proficiency scale. I then Screencastify myself giving them feedback. Once the students access my comments, they can redo the assignment. My goal is to get students to proficient (*hint* this is an A). I am also allowing students to revise, actually, any assignment except for flipped learning.

I noticed that this group of students has a "one and done" mentality. They do not want to redo an assignment because they think that they did it right the first time. Students are telling me that my rubrics are too open-ended; they want to know EXACTLY how to get an A. They want my rubrics to be entirely black and white because they have used these type of rubrics in the past. But when I watch my students redo an assignment, they will change one or two things, then expect that they will get an A. I am not sure if my students understand that they have to work for an A. An A means advanced; if a student is getting As (or 100%) on "gray" assignments, then that student should also be advanced on state and national assessments.

The student may not get an A right away, but that is why the revising process exists. It is not about needing extra credit. Instead, it is about finding where one went wrong, making a change, and improving their assignment AND their learning. There is a jump in learning from seventh to eighth grade as there SHOULD be. Every year should be more challenging than the previous. The student, will at first, struggle. If the student does not have to exert themselves, and already knows how to do everything, then I am doing the child a disservice. I am not doing my job. I am not getting them ready for the real world. The real world is not black and white. There are many shades of gray. I have to help them learn how to wade through the gray.

This whole grading dilemma might be my biggest call for standards-based grading in my district. Grades should have meaning. Students should be able to understand their education, and where they stand on the scale of objectives and standards. Students should not be playing the game of school points.

So how can I get my colleagues on board? Where do I go from here?

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

- Rachel
My Teacherspayteachers website

Saturday, September 17, 2016

A week with DBQs

Greetings colleagues! This week in my classroom we worked on the Jamestown DBQ. For those of you that may not know, a DBQ is a document-based question. Five years ago, I was trained by the DBQ Project. Ever since then, I have been in love with DBQs. DBQs are very beneficial for students: they are analyzing primary and secondary sources, they look at one's point of view, they create inferences, and importantly (for me) the materials are all pre-made! I have seen success with students using DBQ materials and will use them in any classroom that I ever have.

As I have said in previous posts, my current students do not have the same drive or work ethic that I have seen in past years. I knew that how I have used DBQs in the past would not quite work. The staff was trained in Kagan strategies a couple of weeks ago, so I thought I would attempt some of their strategies with the DBQ materials. 

Numbered Heads Together: The students picked a number (1-4) in their groups. They answered their questions individually, then presented their response to the group. They had to explain where they got the answer, and everyone had to agree before they wrote down the answer. Was this successful? The students liked this one the "best," but I think that's because it was the easiest. The students tried to use this strategy every time we answered questions. I didn't care for this approach as much because the students did not put in much effort. It did, however, hold the students accountable for answering at least one question. Every student was engaged in the task, but it was compliance more than engagement.

Team Stand 'n Share: The students picked a number (1-4) in their groups. They answered their questions individually, then met with other students in the class with the same number. They shared out their answer and made sure that they all agreed. One student (whose birthday was closest to that day) shared out to the class. Was this successful? I liked this strategy better than numbered heads together because the students had to share out and ensure they had the right answer. The students had the right answers across the board. Knowing the students had the right answer was a nice change of pace. Again, every student was engaged in the task, but it was compliance more than engagement.

Find the Truth: This was my take on find the fiction. I created a multiple choice quiz on Schoology with possible answers to the question. They had to figure out which one was the right answer and write the answer down. Was this successful? The students also liked this strategy because it provided them with multiple choice answers (SHOCKING!). I liked this method for the document that they were analyzing because it was number heavy/math heavy. There were trick answers built in so it required them to do their math right to get the right answer. I had only one student put the answers into the quiz (the other students had a different task). This strategy led to many discussions with some groups, but in other groups, the quiz taker ended up just taking the quiz on his/her own. The quiz taker was chosen by random, so that was a little frustrating. We just need to keep doing these procedures, and I need to make sure my directions are clear.

Quiz-Quiz-Trade: I created cards with questions and answers from the DBQ materials. Students found a partner, they quizzed each other, traded cards, then found a new partner. I had them repeat five times. Was this successful? I wish all of my classes weren't over thirty! I have two classes over 35, and this strategy was not very successful. They clustered in one spot, and most of the groups did not follow the task at hand (they talked about whatever they wanted). I almost feel like I needed to have dots on the floor where they had to stand (or needed a larger area to work). In my classes of 21-22, the strategy worked fine. The students were spread out and were on task. I did like the strategy as it was a valuable review of the information. The students were outlining their essay, so I was hoping a reminder of the information would be helpful as they worked, plus they got up and out of their seats after working for thirty minutes.

I think the Kagan strategies were a good start, but I still saw some aggravating student behavior that I hadn't seen before. I saw some students completely check out. They were excellent at pretending to work but then waited until we went over the answers as a class and wrote their answers down. It was evident to me that the students have to be held accountable for every question. While talking with a colleague she mentioned uploading the DBQ materials to Actively Learn. This is an intriguing idea that I will pursue on the next DBQ. Now, let's just see how the final essays turn out!

Thanks for reading! I'll be out of town next weekend, so I'll see you two weeks :)

- Rachel
My Teacherspayteachers website
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Saturday, September 10, 2016

Reflections on Unit 1

Greetings colleagues!

I am starting off this morning a little rough as I received bad news last night. A few years ago, I joined a class called Teaching American History (sponsored by a federal grant for history teachers). It met once a month on Tuesday nights. The classes were long and sometimes stressful as I always had school work to do. But, in the end, I met some amazing teachers from throughout the city who have become lifelong colleagues and friends. TAH classes were led by Bill Virden, a former history professor from up north. Bill believed in me as a teacher, which very few people had prior. Bill saw my potential and helped nurture that potential through his classes. The best professional development that I have ever received was through TAH sessions. We have not had class in three (!) years now, and I miss these people all of the time. I last saw Bill this summer, and we had a fantastic chat. But last night, I got a text message telling me he passed away. I am forever grateful, and I will miss Bill.

But on to the rest of my blog post, reflections about my first unit: pre-colonization. I just finished unit 1 on Thursday and felt like I needed to reflect on how the unit worked. To start, I look at what my original plan was. Over the summer, I went to ISTE and GAFE (here in the Springs). I was inspired to give students a choice, use flexible seating in my classroom, and utilize the QFT Process. My first unit was pre-colonization, so I picked two QFocuses: 1) American Indians changed the history of the United States and 2) The Age of Exploration changed the history of the United States. Students would follow the QFT Process and create questions about those two QFocuses. The students would then find their investigation engaging and interesting, and would be inspired to research (though during separate weeks of each other). By examining their questions, they would find interest in the topic and would be engrossed in my classroom. That would lead them to create a "demonstration of learning" using an application on their iPad. 

What went wrong? Because I tried something new, I failed to see how horribly this would all go wrong. My usual teacher foresight was missing :( I have different students than last year, and I knew my students would be unlike last year's students, but I did not realize what a difference that would be. My students did not engage with the content, and I think it was due to non-interesting QFocuses and my flexible seating. My students also lack strong work ethic which we were told, now, by many former teachers, counselors, and administrators. My teaching style is also different than most previous classes which led to confusion and frustration. 

Even though I feel like that unit went horribly, horribly wrong, there was a silver lining. I got to my students at their almost worst. I saw what happened when they got frustrated, and I got to see, though it wasn't fun at all, how terribly they could treat me when they felt discouraged and defeated. It was pretty dreadful for all of us. 

What changes did I make? As the unit went on, I realized I needed more support for my students. I needed clearer transparency in my directions. I also needed to simplify my procedures and structures. I had the students answer two QFocuses separately, so I was able to make some changes from first to second QFocus. I made more handouts with clearer direction. I also forced them to use the same application on the second demonstration of learning instead of letting them pick their iPad app. After going to Day 1 Kagan training, I also realized that I could let my students pick their type of seat, but they did not yet have the maturity to choose the location. I put them into Kagan learning groups which separated many a friend. Grouping helped with my classroom management issue. 

What will I do differently with this unit next year? I will not let students sit where they want, and will put the students into groups. I liked how I did the second QFocus better than the first so that I would use the same structure and procedures with both QFocuses. I will find research online for my students to start, to give them an idea of what type of research they would be doing. I will create guided notes for my SPED students, as they struggled with open-ended research. I would also find activities to add into my daily lessons instead of giving them so much free research time. My issue was that my last year's students could handle open-ended research whereas this group of students cannot.

What will I do differently on this next unit? Again, I will not utilize as much flexible research and will try to provide more research links ahead of time. I will add controlled daily activities to break up free research time. In this unit, students are going to create group projects, so that may help some of my lower students as well. I am happy with my Kagan groupings, so I will keep them for this unit also.

What I am struggling with is that how I am transitioning into teaching my students this year is against everything that I learned this summer and wanted to incorporate into my classroom. There is no easy answer, and I have to do what is best for my students. But I know how they need to learn, and they are currently rebelling against it. I just have to scaffold in these "new" ideas slowly instead of creating such a different and rapid transition from their prior learning.  Here's hoping that it works.

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

- Rachel
My Teacherspayteachers website
Donate a Google Cardboard to my classroom!

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Changing your Mindset

Last weekend I was scrolling Twitter when I came across a post from Alice Keeler.
One thing that Alice mentions is not jumping into the deep end (which I am known to do with disastrous results). Within that post, she also talks about changing mindset, which reminded me of a question I get often at Skyview:
How do you know all of this?
The teachers that ask me this question do not realize how much I love and am invested in tech. This started at an early age. Like many people my age, Apple IIe computers were installed in schools. My small, tiny elementary school had a full lab of computers, and we all LOVED computer time. I still have fond memories of The Oregon Trail, but even more love for the Munchers series. I also enjoyed Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego (although I was terrible at it). As I got older, and the computers changed, I still enjoyed using them, and to be honest, in weird ways. At home, we didn't have the Internet, but I would practice typing on computers and designing banners using old software. Eventually, in high school, we got a new computer and installed AOL. I think computers became an addiction at an early age! I've just always loved being on computers and always wanted to know more about them and work with them. At Luther, which had quite a progressive educational department, I learned how to use computers in my curriculum. It instilled in me to take risks, try new things, and to stay current with my students and the world.

So this brings me back to the original question, "How do you know all of this?" It's just that I'm always on or around a computer, and if I don't know something, I look it up and figure it out. Tech is just my thing. I never had to change my technology mindset. I was lucky enough to be surrounded by technology from an early age, I like technology, and I was taught to be a risk-taker teacher in college. But I have had to overcome some roadblocks along the way, and realized while justifying to others about why I wouldn't change that these roadblocks were ridiculous and I just needed to change my mind.

So how do we get other teachers to change their mindset? What advice do I have? There are a lot of websites, blogs, and posts about changing one's mindset, but I thought these six steps (from Myrkothum) provided the best advice. So here is what I have to say about these six steps:

Where do I get information for best practices and 21st century skills? Twitter and blogs. I have been on my professional Twitter for two years now, and it has been the best place to get best information. I only follow people that are like-minded and are using Twitter professionally. This keeps my Twitter feed clear and ensures that I am seeing the information that I want to see. Once I started blogging, I use Twitter to find blogs of like-minded people. Just recently, Mari, a teacher in California (@MsVenturino) started a #sunchatblogger Twitter group, so I am even more focused on getting the best information!
Once I followed people on Twitter and blogs to get the best information, I have started "copying" (really role modeling) them. I am taking what they say to heart because I know that they believe that they are using best practices for children. Are they getting results? Yes. So that means I should be using their methods in my classroom.
I had to do that this summer. I kept hearing over and over, "Why aren't you giving students choice?" I had to look at what was stopping me, and when I was able to get over that hurdle, I stopped questioning it. As someone who has always been a bit different in the classroom, it made no sense for me to be hitting these hurdles. I had to examine my current beliefs! (And had to change my mindset!)
We have to do this yearly with our evaluation. This year I really took my evaluation to heart as I wanted to focus more on reflection with my students (and myself). That's when I finally decided to write a blog to be more reflective, and to really think about education and my classroom. That then ties into the next piece... 
I have felt stifled at Skyview for awhile, which I have not kept a secret. That is why I created a professional Twitter, and realized that there are like-minded people around the world! I could say how I felt about education and what I was thinking about a classroom topic... and people agreed with me! Now I am blogging which is still scary to me. But people are reading my blog each week (I see an uptick every Saturday - people are waiting for my next blog post!!!) and they are either interested in what I am thinking or like what I have to say. That is scary and new for someone whose voice was never cared for in the place that she worked. 
Haters gonna hate. That's just how it is. Do what you think is best for your students. If it works, others will follow. That's when your mindset becomes the culture.
Thanks for reading! I'll see you next week :)

- Rachel
My Teacherspayteachers website
Donate a Google Cardboard to my classroom!

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Thinking Qs.

Good morning colleagues!

As many have figured out (or just assumed), I am having a rough start to my school year. I am still trying to pinpoint what is causing me stress, but something that stands out, that is nagging me at the back of my brain, is "Why is this so hard?" I am still trying to figure it out, but I'm wondering if it comes back to how we get kids to think. I am stepping outside of my box with the QFT Process. In theory, it would make the kids think and process through their thoughts. In action, the kids are frustrated and are somewhat refusing to think. This leads me to have more questions than answers.
  • How can students think for themselves? 
  • Why don't students care about their education? 
  • How can we help? 
  • What can we change?
One very frustrated afternoon, I did what every person does in America, and I Googled it. "How do we get kids to think?" And Google gave me a lot of results; results from Edutopia, ASCD, Teaching Channel, Teach Thought... Then I thought to myself, how do teachers even have time to figure this out?! But my stubborn little self started reading some articles, and I stumbled across a great quote.
When grown-ups tell them how something works, kids don't question it. They act as if the adults have told them everything they need to know, and afterwards the children show less evidence of critical thinking (Bonawitz et al 2011; Buchsbaum et al 2011). 
The crazy thing is that I know this. And I've been trying to make my kids question, and think, and write, but it's sort of been to no avail. They have been taught their entire lives NOT to question, so when they aren't spoon-fed, they rebel. These mini-rebellions this year have been driving me crazy!

Any normal teacher with thick skin would have brushed this off, but I internalized this statement and tried to figure out why she was saying this and how I could make changes so students wouldn't say this. Why were they rebelling against me not lecturing and telling them the answer? Have they never had a teacher do this?

So I reflected on what I've done so far this year, what has worked, and what hasn't. Then I stumbled across another post that said something interesting, and sort of groundbreaking for me.
Of course, there are limited ways in which it is possible to learn things from others. Others can often help us get started. They can frequently point to or model the way. They can create environments, which help shorten the "figuring out" process. The anchor point is this. There is no way to teach what requires understanding so as to eliminate the "figuring out" process for the learner. When a teaching mode attempts to by-pass the processes by which each person individually figures things out, a mere illusion of learning takes place. When students do not engage in intellectual labor, they do not meaningfully learn; their learning is falsified. (The Critical Thinking Community)
I think the struggles have been due to me creating an environment that is not supportive enough (almost too open-ended) to let them figure out how to think. Students will get frustrated and will struggle, but there has to be a healthy balance, and my classroom is not balanced. I did try to add in more supports while questioning and researching this week, as it seemed to help. It's tough because the students this year are very different than last year, and I am trying new things that I haven't done before, so I don't have any answers and am figuring it out as I go. 

I'm guessing that more experienced teachers would tell me to survey my students for feedback. The problem is these kids are frustrated, and I worry what they will say. I do not have thick skin and internalize the negative comments, and I struggle with seeing the real feedback. I almost feel like I need a feedback manager who can wade through the comments for me!

I'm still thinking this year through. I like where the QFT Process is going, but I need to figure out how to make it less monotonous and engage the students while secretly making them think. I know that I am doing what's best for students in the long run, but it is a challenge to get them to see the big picture. Let's hope that this coming week is another step forward.

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

- Rachel
My Teacherspayteachers website
Donate a Google Cardboard to my classroom!

Saturday, August 20, 2016


Good morning colleagues! I am apologizing now for not writing a full blog this morning. I got home last night (i.e. this morning) at 2 am from the Cubs v. Rockies baseball game at Coors Field. My brain feels like it's being squeezed in a juicer, so I'm just going to leave you pictures from last night instead. Go Cubs!

My husband and I before the game (before the temperature dropped to 48 degrees Fahrenheit).
The reason for the 90 minute delay. 

Thank goodness for delicious caramel macchiatos at 8 pm. It helped us make the drive back at 1 am.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

40 hour work weeks???

Good morning colleagues! I was scrolling through Twitter this week when I stumbled across a post about teachers saving time.

I thought the article was quite good, and it made me think about how I've learned to save time over the last ten years of teaching. 

Once I started teaching with iPads, my work life balance went completely out the window. I felt like my teaching career was going down the drain (i.e. I had concerns that I was going to get fired), so I put more time and effort into my job to be the best teacher I could be. That meant that I was working 10-11 hours a day through lesson prep, teaching, and grading/feedback. I was trying to do it all, and I was burning myself out quickly. I really had to take a good look at what I was doing to find a healthy balance and cut out what I didn't NEED to be doing anymore. Having 1:1 technology in my classroom worked in my favor to make these changes. 

This last week, I was still working 10 hour days, but that was because of meeting with teachers who needed support in their class. Hopefully this next week slows down. But here are some things that I'm doing to support myself in having a life outside of my profession. 

  1. This summer, I finalize my flipped learning. Part of this was to get it posted on Teachers Pay Teachers, but part of it was to simplify my life. I realized that I was having the students take quizzes, create sketchnotes, post reading discussions... and I couldn't keep up with all of the grading. The reason I was doing flipped learning was to ensure that students were accessing content information, and a quiz could easily tell me if they were paying attention. Schoology quizzes aren't perfect, but they work fine for what I need and it grades the quizzes automatically. Problem. Solved. Now I just do a quick check every morning to make sure students are completing the quizzes, and then send weekly missing assignment notices and D/F e-mails to keep parents informed (Infinite Campus is not the best, but their messenger functionality is top notch! Such a time saver!). Keeping parents informed is incredibly important as it sets a tone that I communicate with parents and care about my students.
  2. I've started using Socrative in the classroom a lot! I've heard of Socrative for five years now, but never understood the hype and never really gave it a shot. Last year, I would use Kahoot as a formative assessment, but ISTE and GAFE hit home why Kahoot is not all that great. Yes, it is fun, and I will still use it for fun in my class, but some students are slower processors. Why am I punishing them for not being a fast clicker? Anyway, Socrative is amazing as I can do quick checks or exit tickets, or can do full on quizzes or a Space Race. I can then download reports of their answers, and now I am in the process of moving the information to a massive Google Sheet to show their growth over a unit. I am finally figuring out how to progress monitor, and have data that I can show my evaluator!
The blog post also listed five ways to save time, so I thought I would break those down as well.
1) Eliminate unintentional breaks.

I've realized that I cannot have much going on in the background when I work. I definitely CANNOT have the tv on as background noise because I will watch whatever's on tv. The best thing for me (and my coffee addiction, but not my wallet) is to go to a coffee shop and work for 3-4 hours. This also ties in to #5 below as I have a set time where I work.
2) Figure out The Main Thing and do it first.

I'm pretty bad at this one as I do all of the simple tasks first to avoid what I really need to get done. The big thing that I procrastinate the most at is grading, so I need to make sure grading gets done at school and use weekend time to plan for the next week of school. I have started to schedule meetings with people, so I don't let them do a "fly by" to my classroom to ask me a question. "Need video, blogging, Google help? Let's find a time this week for you to come by." This way I am using my plan time for what I need. And if a teacher doesn't want to schedule that time, then the question probably was not that important. AND this sets boundaries with my colleagues so they know I am not always available (plus I am not an instructional coach anyway!)
3) Work ahead by batching and avoid multi-tasking unless the work is mindless.

I am pretty inefficient with batching work. The best example of this is that I leave my e-mail open all day and reply to e-mails as soon as I can. I need to close my e-mail so that I reply to all e-mails at the beginning or end of the day where I'm focused on the task at hand: e-mailing.
4) Look for innovative ways to relax any standards that create unnecessary work.

I am a perfectionist when it comes to my classroom and curriculum, so I need to relax my standards. Step one for this this year was to allow flexible seating and make my students clean up the classroom at the end of each day. I do not need to do this for my students - they can be responsible for moving a chair to a stack in the classroom, or putting a yoga ball under the table. AND not everything has to be perfect at all times; I have to decide what the priority is and focus on that.
5) Use scheduling to create boundaries around your time.

I am started working on this last year, and am trying to amp it up this year. I told myself, leave school at 4. 7 am - 4 pm is a 9 hour day. I don't need to work more than 9 hours a day. I will have days where I leave later, but I should not have to take more than 9 hours to get a task done. That requires me to create boundaries with my colleagues, and requires me to schedule weekend time to get extra work done, but I need to have free time myself. I am a teacher, but that is not the only thing that I am. 
Wow, this was a rather lengthy post, but I felt like it was important for me to think about the changes I am making and how I am growing as a teacher. I hope some of this advice is useful, and some of these thoughts spark some ideas for your own classroom. 

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

- Rachel
My Teacherspayteachers website
Donate a Google Cardboard to my classroom!

Saturday, August 6, 2016

First Week Recap

Good morning! It has been an EXHAUSTING week as it was the first full week of school! Welcome back to Skyview! Because I am so tired, I struggled with coming up for a blog topic this week. I figured a recap of my week would be best, to try to reflect on how everything went. 

As I blogged last week, I was quite excited to try flexible seating in my classroom. To NO ONE'S SURPRISE, my students ate it up. The first day, I had them switching seats every 5-10 minutes to try all of the the different seating options. They actually did not care for trying all of the options (because I think they didn't want to move), but in the end, it was better that they did because some of the students are picking new seats every day. I have found that the students like the yoga balls, so I may have to purchase more further down the road. They like the big fluffy floor pillows, and some of them use the pillows with the camping chairs. I need to find a way to get donations, or tell the students that they can bring in more seating options too. Yesterday, I ended up taking 18 desks and chairs out of my classroom (I don't think my janitor was too happy about them all being out in the hall after school). My room looks quite large and rather empty, which is exciting! I kept an extra four desks in my classroom as I am going to lower the legs so they can sit on the floor and use a desk. Many students may prefer that option, so we will see how it goes over the next couple of weeks. 

I do think I will have a bit of a hill climb when it comes to using QFT (Question Formulation Technique) with these students. I'm not sure how the students will react to it. My classroom tends to be a bit different than other classrooms at Skyview, and I'm not sure how much choice they've had over the years. I worry that having such an open-ended curriculum will throw them for a loop, and they will react badly. But, if things are not going well, I know that I need to provide structure and support. 

I think we do have good students this year. We're both feeling each other out, and I think my students are trying to determine if I am being genuine and sincere. Middle school students usually wait for the inevitable (i.e. bad) to happen, so I think they're waiting for me to "flip". 

It has also been a great week for my mentee and myself. I know I haven't talked about my mentee much, but we had communicated a bit over the summer, so I was pleasantly surprised to have him as a mentee. We are communicating very well. I am trying to provide support in any way that I can, and he's great about coming to me when he needs something and he's been asking a lot of questions. Starting your first year of teaching is super stressful, so I'm just trying to help out when he needs it. I don't want to overwhelm him, but I think we already have a good enough relationship that he'll tell me when he just needs time and not help. 

I'm also excited for all of the new teachers in the building! We have a number of new staff members and a handful of student teachers. Their excitement and eagerness are spreading through the school and I feel like the culture of SMS is changing (slowly, but steadily). It's exciting for me because I feel like I'm helping change the way. It's a good feeling. 

My other big excitement is that my 10 Google Cardboards are on their way to my classroom! They're supposed to be delivered next Saturday (but the building will be closed), so I should get them on Monday, August 15th. When I went to purchase them on Thursday, I noticed that instead of paying $15 each, I could get two for $25! I posted only social media, and got another $75 in donations. That was a nice boost for the end of my work week :) I can't wait for my students to try Cardboard in the classroom. I hope that it's exciting and interesting for them!

I can't think of much else other than that I have a lot of work to do this weekend, and the cat sitting on my lap and the cup of coffee next to me are helping me stay focused. 

Enjoy your weekend and Go USA! I'll see you next week :)

- Rachel
My Teacherspayteachers website
Donate a Google Cardboard to my classroom!