A Staff That Serves

So, I often write about the incredible school I call home and the people and things that make it such an incredible place. So often, these “things” are collections of moments; some so small and seemingly inconsequential that you might actually not even notice them if you weren’t paying attention. And I try to pay attention. Because other times those moments are great big things that happen — the type of things that cause one to be filled with inspiration and appreciation for the people who are creating them. So I try to pay attention because quite frankly, I don’t want to miss a single tiny or big moment.  I don’t want to miss them because this incredible school, with the incredible people who make these incredible moments happen, really must be shared. Last night, I experienced another of those moments. This one was part of one of those great big moments we have here, one that deserves it’s own post.

For a little backstory, two years ago couple of teachers got together with some students and formed a club called “The Giving Tree“. The club meets monthly to volunteer in the community.  Here is a feature story about this club. Last night the club had one of those events. We went out at 6pm and, for a couple of hours, we helped the “Feed the Hungry” campaign. This is a national campaign and we sorted and packed meal kits which will be delivered to places like Haiti, Dominican Republic, Kentucky…all over the world. There were about 40 of us there, including staff, students and a few parents as well.


All the credit for these moments, these acts of love and service, go to the wonderful educators that plan and organize them and inspire so many of us to get involved as well. What a difference these teachers are making in the lives of so many others…including myself.

I can’t tell you what a blessing it is to stand together as a group and serve others. It was such a great opportunity to make a difference that had nothing at all to do with school, but everything to do with school. What I mean by that is, there is just something special about working together like this. We laughed, we packed, we got tired, we danced (there was music) and we celebrated as we announced the completion of each box we filled with meals.  All in all, we helped pack enough food to feed aroud 35,000 people. And we did it as a group. A family.

We have had the opportunity to get involved in so many other activities like this as a staff, some as part of the club and some not.  Making cards for veterans at the local assisted living facility. Helping at the local food bank. Working on a house with Habitat for Humanity.  This is a school that serves.  Those moments are big, but inside those big moments are the small, tiny ones. The ones that make you smile. The ones that make you feel like you are a part of something very special; something unique. Something bigger than each of us. We are a staff that serves. That loves. That cares. That makes a difference inside and outside of school.

We are a staff that thrives on making moments and celebrating life. Do you think this spills over into the campus? The kids? The classrooms? What about instruction? Lesson design? Collaboration? You better believe it does. But, those incredible moments I will save for another post….




The Teacher in Me

“Why are you writing a lesson plan? You’re an administrator now!” “I know, but I have a lesson to teach Friday and I had this great idea….I guess it’s just the teacher in me”.

That conversation happened at home the other day. I am in my third year as an Assistant Principal and I can tell you without a doubt that I am in love with my role on our campus. There are so many hats to wear and I find myself involved in so many different things. From scheduling to testing, from curriculum to classroom observations, and yes, even things like dismissal duty and textbooks make this the most unique and compelling job I have ever had. The one constant is that none of my days will be the same and I never know what is coming next! But there is one part of my job – one new facet – that is the so near and dear to my heart and I have only just started doing it this year:  Teaching.

So, we have an incredible and dynamic group of teachers who work their tails off with our students. Every day I pop in on a lesson or observe a teacher at work and I am telling you for a fact that these folks would put me to shame as a teacher (and I taught for 15 years!) But even in a building of experts, sometimes it seems like there are never enough hands and we always welcome more rolled up sleeves to help support our kids! So one day, I asked a couple of our teachers if I could work with a group of students who needed some additional time and instruction in reading. My “lunch bunch” was soon born! We met once a week and we read Roald Dahl’s The Witches. We read, we talked, we inferred, we predicted…and we had a blast together! This was such a wonderful time for me because I got to reach back into my “teacher” roots and once again be involved directly with instruction and the other “love of my life” job – teaching kids.

book club

Right now, I have a math “lunch bunch” and we work on their facts and basic concepts. I have been having a blast with this group of kiddos and really value this time with them. I find myself online looking up resources and ideas I can use with my group and asking them at the end of our lesson about their ideas for our next session. A teacher brought me a DVD that we can use during our time together with some very neat learning activities! I found myself really anticipating the day we could finally pop that baby in the DVD payer and get to work!


Before becoming an AP, and even since becoming an AP,  I have found myself researching, asking questions, and learning all I can about the “must do’s” of an effective AP.  I, like so many other APs, am committed to doing the best possible job of supporting my principal and teachers,  and helping lead our campus in the development and execution of a shared vision. Our role is unique, interesting, and important! But I think if I were to share with you a “must do”, it would be to stay involved with teaching and working with kids in some way. Along with having lunch with kids and sitting and talking with them during class visits, this is another great way to build relationships with students in the building. I also think it really enhances my role as an administrator. One thing I never want to do is lose touch with the teacher in me. Not to mention it just makes me a more joyful leader and person.

Being in education is truly an awesome way to spend a life.

Education, Uncategorized

Spring Reflections

Screen Shot 2016-03-03 at 6.27.01 PM

Well, the excitement is in the air. Spring Break is right around the corner, and while this is always a welcome break, it also ushers in a very hectic time!  Just to give you an idea, here is a quick run down of what may be on an administrator’s plate come Spring (and I am sure you could add to this list for your own campus):

  • State Assessments
  • Finalizing Teacher Appraisals
  • Kindergarten Parent Meetings
  • Spring Carnival
  • Book Fair
  • Various Music Programs
  • Employee Recognition Banquet
  • End of Year Volunteer Brunch
  • End of Year Textbook Inventory
  • SSI/Grade Placement Meetings
  • Finalizing ARD/504 Meetings

That pretty much captures the “big things” that I can think of off the top  of my head, which must occur alongside the “little” things that are just part of day to day school. For me, what sometimes gets lost during hectic times like this is dedicated time for reflection. If you also have trouble staying focused and dedicating time for reflection during this busy season, read on and maybe this will be beneficial to you, too!

Recently, I began reading “A Reflective Planning Journal for School Leaders” by Olaf Jorgenson. At the end of this post, I will include more information on it in case you want to check it out. I just recently got this book, so I confess to having only read the February and beginning of March sections (the book is divided by months). I must say though, I am really enjoying this book. Not only does it contain quotes and inspirational vignettes from other leaders (always a plus for me), but it also includes weekly reflective questions with places to stop and jot down your own ideas and thoughts. I have worked ahead a little, mainly because the March section is really on point (he mentioned many of the things in my own list above) and provides various ideas for maintaining your balance during this time. To give you an idea of the format, here is a look at the current pages I am working through:


So right away you can see where he prompts the reader to think about some ways to stay focused during this busy time. For example, he asks, “What do you do differently in the busy spring months to balance your workload and maintain visibility…”?  What a great question to reflect on!

So when I think about balancing my workload, I think about organization first. I guess I think about that first because the more organized I can be, the more efficient I am. Last year, for example, I had a white board installed on one wall which I use when arranging and rearranging testing groups during spring testing. I like it because, at a glance, I can look and see timelines approaching as well as who I have assigned to do what, and when. I also like to section off various places in my office for the different tasks that are going on simultaneously during this time. For example, the “cart” on the long wall is for turning in benchmark materials, making it easy for me to wheel it down to the testing room when I am ready to scan and put away this material.


Other things, such as taking time to get out of the office and breaking my day into “chunks” with manageable pieces are also great ways to stay relaxed and productive. One of my favorite places lately is our newly revamped outdoor garden! This area has been made awesome this year and the kids are doing a great job at planting and caring for this space.  We have a pump for the pond now and a butterfly garden will soon be in full bloom! I have been out a few times this week, hanging out with the kids and just seeing how excited they are. Sure, it goes to visibility, but mainly it’s just fun and I love to be out there with them. Here is a look at that space:

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One of the interesting questions asked in the book was about support staff and what we do to recognize them and lift them up during this particularly busy time. Good question! One that I need to spend some time thinking about. Little things make a big difference.

I also find that stopping and writing on this blog is a MAJOR way that I reflect, maintain balance and stay focused. I have a lot of entries that are not even published yet because I have not done any editing or revising to them— and they may never be published here. Still, writing is always a great way for me personally to keep focused, stay clear-headed, and reflect.

This book is really pretty cool and I like that it provides some reflection and brainstorming structure. I am  once again reminded of the importance of making time to just be with my own thoughts, capture my ideas, and find balance in my busy days.  Sometimes the things we think we have no time for, might actually be some of the most important things.

Do you have any reflection tools that you use? If so, I’d love to hear about them in the comments! If you might like to check out the book I am using, here is the information:


Jorgenson, Olaf. A Reflective Planning Journal for School Leaders. Thousand Oaks: Corwin, 2008. Print.


Why Me, Here, Now?

berryLast week was our district’s leadership conference and the learning centered around the word “thrive“.  For our keynote, we were honored to hear Dr. Bertice Berry  speak about servant leadership. During this address, she said something that really resonated with me and, judging from our district conference hashtag, many others as well:

Walk with purpose and you will collide with destiny.

I thought about that remark. I thought about the word “thrive” and what it means for our school community. For my relationships. For me. To help us focus in, we were asked to take a few minutes and ask ourselves:

Why me, here, now?

Think about that question for a moment. It’s not as easy one to answer, is it? In fact, it requires a great deal of self-awareness to begin thinking in terms of one’s purpose. For instance, I might start by asking what service I am able to provide– here, and now– that will help both my campus and district thrive. What can I do to help my relationships thrive?

This will be my second year as an Assistant Principal. Last year, my goal was to survive. It was really that simple. Don’t get me wrong, I still have so much to learn. But this year, I want to really focus in on the service I am providing.

And I don’t want to just “do my job”. I want the job I do, to help our campus, and our district, thrive.

I am going to start by asking myself this simple question every day: Why me, here, now?

Look at this tweet that went out one day during the conference:

Relationships. Communication. Empowerment. Trust. Indeed these are the types of things one might find in a thriving organization. In thriving relationships. In a thriving life. So why me, here, and now? How can I contribute to a thriving culture at my school? I believe that to lead, one must serve. So what service do can I provide this year, at my campus, in my district? How can that service help the students and staff thrive? How can it help me thrive?

Here are some more thoughts that I discovered in the hashtag stream that I want to share with you:

These thoughts…how do they shape the ideas I have about purpose? About thriving? About helping others thrive? I am only just now beginning to discover.

I also enjoyed this visual of what “thriving” organizations look like:

And finally, I want to remember this simple piece of advice, given by our Superintendent:

Leave the place better than you found it.

Service. Purpose. Thrive.  The words float around in my mind as I begin getting ready for the upcoming year. Delivering textbooks to classrooms. Checking in with teachers who are starting to put their rooms together. Helping my principal prepare for our upcoming staff development.

Why me, here, now?

These are some things I am thinking about as I get ready for the new year. Perhaps you are thinking about them, as well.


Say What You Wanna Say: Blogging

“Nothing’s gonna hurt you, the way the words do, when they sit underneath your skin. Kept on the inside, with no sunlight, sometimes a shadow wins. I wonder what would happen if you say what you wanna say, and let the words fall out. Honestly…I wanna see you be brave”! – Sara Bareiller

The above song really resonates with me, as someone who is not by nature a brave person when it comes to putting myself out there to be judged. I think it is also the perfect song for those who might be considering starting a blog, but are a little intimidated or shy.

Reflection is a powerful thing. One of the best ways I have found for reflecting on my own thoughts, ideas and practices is through blogging. When I decided last year that I wanted to give blogging a shot, I have to admit it was very scary! I thought many times, “What do I have to say that would be so important or interesting to others”? “I am not smart enough, I don’t write well enough, I don’t have anything to talk about that others would care to read…..” Those were (and still are, somewhat) the thoughts that ran through my mind.

I went through a lot of trial and error before finding a way that works for me and settling into a routine. I also learned some basic things that helped make my posts more interesting and helped me to clarify my own thinking.  Below are a few blogging ideas that help me:

1. Selecting a platform. There are many tools out there for setting up and maintaining a blog. I tried different sites and finally I settled on Word Press. It is easy for me to navigate and has a big variety of templates to choose from. It is a free site, but I have since decided to pay for the pro version to give myself a few more choices and perks. But I did stick to the free version for about a year. I also like it because it allows me to include different things such as videos, pictures, and embedded tweets that support my topic — in very simple ways. I am not a computer programmer nor a code writer! So I needed easy.

2. Frequency. How often are you going to write? This varies for everyone depending on your goals. I was very scattered in the beginning and not consistent, but eventually I settled into a routine of weekly. I usually write on the weekend. Sometimes this varies but I do try to be consistent. I have found that people will most likely follow a blog if it is updated regularly. On one hand, I’m not so much concerned with how many people read what I write. But one the other hand, this is not a journal in my nightstand. It is on the web, and I chose to do this because I think sharing with others and receiving feedback from them is very powerful for me as a learner. We tell our students all the time to “keep the reader in mind” when writing; this is no different for me as a blogger. Consistency is an important component for you as a blogger.

3. Choosing A Topic. This is perhaps the biggest area of struggle for me. I love to write, but sometimes I just have no ideas for my blog that week. What I have found is that I need to take time to reflect on my week. What went good? What can I improve on? What did I learn this week? I mean, that is the purpose of writing for me anyway, to reflect. So I can’t just sit down at my laptop and think up a topic without first going through my own reflection process. Throughout the week, I ask myself those questions and jot down my thoughts on paper. From there, a topic emerges that I want to explore more in depth, and that is how my blog ideas come to be.

4. Post Length. When I first began blogging, it was all words. I did break it up into paragraphs, but when you visited my site, you would see nothing but a long essay looking post. Not very inviting. I learned quickly that I needed to be more succinct. I don’t need to take five sentences to express a simple idea. I still struggle with this! One thing that helps me is to write my post, but then save it as a draft. Later, I go back to it, and reread it. I always find places to cut something out or re-word something in a less wordy way. I do not publish until I am satisfied that I have expressed myself in a clear but concise way.

5. Structuring The Post. Words are great, but your readers will want to see other interesting things along the way. Including such elements as video, pictures, or even embedded tweets within your post is a great way to improve the visual appeal and add depth to your writing. For example, when I wrote about choosing my platform, I included a link to the WordPress site, and I included it right on the words WordPress in my sentence. I did this because it adds layers to what I am saying. I am thinking about my reader, and they may want to further investigate it. They can Google it themselves, but it is much more convenient for them if I include the link right there where I am writing about it. One important point: Choose your links carefully. I went through several articles on the web about WordPress, but settled on just linking to the site itself. I think that is the most practical resource to share there.

6. Blog Roll. I follow and read a lot of other blogs. I think it is important to share those resources with my own blog visitors because it points them to other writers and other ideas. Sharing who I read and what blogs I follow tells my readers something about my own style, interests, and thought provokers…which adds substance and transparency. I think if you are going to write a blog and share it, you have to be the real you.

7. Give Credit. If I write a post about an activity I did or a book I read, I include the name of the person that inspired that. I include the author, or the colleague, or the PLN member that first pointed me in that direction. I do this out of courtesy and also because it points my reader to another source of learning and someone to follow up with besides just me. A recent post I wrote was about making #GoodCallsHome, and I included links to the Twitter hashtag as well as to the two people who were the inspiration for me to join the movement.

8. Publicizing Your Blog. The first time I tweeted out a blog post I had written, it was scary! I was opening the door for readers all over the world…would they like it? Would they just ignore it? What if nobody read it or what if I received a negative comment? I had to just be brave and do it. After all, I wanted feedback, and sometimes it can’t all be positive! But that is okay because that’s how we all grow. I learned a couple of important things here. One, I needed to include a few relevant hashtags to make sure my blog post was seen by the right audience. For example, if I am writing about a new technology I tried, I will likely use the #edtech hashtag in my tweet. If I am writing about a pirate lesson (Teach Like A Pirate), I will include the #tlap hashtag. I try not to include more than 3 hashtags in my tweet, because it can look like spam.

I also learned that there are just so many people tweeting out there, and posting a link to my blog one time is not enough. I need to post it a few times, over a few days. I also need to tweet it out at the right times. Some days and times are better than others (I don’t know why but that is what I have discovered). Friday afternoons are a good day/time. Monday nights during prime time are also good. Saturday mornings before noon are exceptional times for me. Tweeting my blog after about 9pm or before 10am (CT) are not.

Final word about tweeting out your post: I tag a few people in my tweet and here is how I decide whom to include: If I mentioned someone, or if what I have written about is a topic that I think a certain member(s) of my PLN would enjoy reading, or is similar to what a certain person often writes/thinks about, I will tag them. I do not tag people just for the hope that they will retweet it. I think that is dis-ingenuous. That being said, it makes me happy when my post announcement is retweeted because it will be seen by people who might not otherwise see my own tweet, so it is a good thing and I do appreciate it. But I try not to abuse that or take advantage of my PLN in that way.

9. Give Your Readers Tools. When I set my blog up, I learned that I needed to include a way for my readers to share with others and to give me feedback in simple and quick ways. Make sure you turn on comments! When I receive a comment on a piece, I try to reply to it in a timely manner, thanking them for their input and thoughts on what I have written. I think two-way communication is so important here because I am hoping to open a door for conversation. Of course, there have been a lot of my posts that have received zero comments, and that is okay. I made peace with that. I just decided that the post must have just been so great that nobody has anything to add! HA! Also, it is helpful to include a few tools for the reader to make reading and sharing easy. I have a button where readers can follow my blog, getting updates automatically when I post. There are tools where readers can share it on Twitter or other social media very easily.

9. Patience. When I first starting blogging, hardly anyone read it. I did not receive many comments either. After a while though, my readership grew. Now, I have people who follow my blog from all over the world, and they receive an email when I update it. If they enjoyed the post, they share it with others, tweet it, comment on it….but this took a lot of time. Be prepared to feel like you are just writing for yourself and nobody is reading it, and that is okay. It will come with time.

10. About Those Comments. Be careful what you wish for! Just kidding (kind of). Most of my posts have been well received, but there have been a few that received some negative feedback. At first I was mortified! But then I realized that this type of thing is just another way to push my thinking, to open my mind up to alternative views and shed a light on different perspectives, and so I now embrace all my feedback, both positive and otherwise. You just cannot write a blog where everyone in the world is going to agree with all you say; we are all different. If you really want the feedback and you want your blog to be a true way for you to reflect, share, learn and grow, then you have to be prepared for some humbling moments! My PLN is incredible and they inspire me daily, but they also challenge my thinking and they point out things I could improve upon or ideas I had not considered. They champion me when I am doing something great, but they also will very quickly throw up a stop sign or call me on the carpet.  I value this. And my willingness to put myself out there for it is just…well, necessary.


So that’s it, my top ten tips for getting started with blogging. There is a lot more and you will discover that as you go along.  I think the biggest piece of advice is to just be brave and go for it. “Let your words be anything but empty”… How big is your brave?


Five Ideas For Creating A Classroom Community


I love the above video “Have A Seat-Make A Friend”, from Soul Pancake. No matter what type of teaching system we are in, be it self contained, team teaching, or departmentalized, creating a community of learners is one of the most important things we can do. Research has shown again and again that students will not open themselves up to learning, or contributing to the learning community, unless they feel safe, respected, and valued.

Building relationships is the key to our work with students, and we strive to help support strong student-to-student relationships as well. As I continue to think about the importance of students feeling connected to the school community (recent post is here), I wanted to share five simple ideas for building and sustaining an authentic classroom community:

1. Celebrate Uniqueness.

Each student brings unique perspectives and ideas to our classrooms. By getting to know our students, and what intrinsically drives them, we can highlight their individual strengths and perspectives.

diversity tree with quote

I will sometimes ask my students what things are on their bucket list; it’s a great way I’ve found to not only learn about them, but a good way for them to make connections with other kids. We often watch Kid President videos, and through these we have some great conversations which help to build one very important thing: how each of our unique selves are striving for the same common ground. This is a powerful way to model a love of diversity. By posing questions, inviting unique ideas and asking simple “How do you see it?” questions, we open the door for students to feel valued for who they are, individually.

2. Value Mistakes.

The closing of a lesson is a great opportunity to showcase mistakes as valuable learning tools. Often I purposely bring a mistake to our closing sessions. I will ask students to share a mistake they made, and how they worked through it. I identify these instances during the work period and plan them into the closing, so that I am not just highlighting those who got something right, but those who hit a snag! If the mistake hasn’t been worked out, often times that opens the door to rich discussions and collaboration around that mistake. Priceless! This is a simple way to put power behind the words and authentically show the value of mistakes as an important part of the learning process. Being transparent and owning my own mistakes is also a great way to do this. I share mistakes often and freely!

3. Honor Student Voice.

We are wise to give students a voice that matters in our instructional design and assessment processes. Allowing for a variety of ways to show learning is one way to give students a voice in their own learning. Another way is to solicit feedback from students on our own practices. I recently did this here and it was a great learning experience for me! It also solidified to students that their voice mattered, not only by giving me this feedback, but watching me make adjustments based on what I learned from them. Differentiation and allowing for student choice are further ways we can honor student voice in our classrooms. Finally, providing multiple opportunities for students to give feedback to one another builds trust, and trust is a key for a flourishing community. Students celebrate, push, question, and honor each other through each interaction they have. I recently came across this tool from @teachheath and I think it is really useful for strengthening student dialogue (and building a trusting environment):


4. Identify Experts.

We all have students who excel in different areas; set them up as experts! Our schools are full of students waiting to be dubbed the go-to for all things math, or writing, or football, or technology, or good reads, or….you get the idea. Not only does this allow them to experience the joy of helping others, it also pushes their own thinking. When we can teach someone else, we truly own the learning. Championing our students’ gifts and setting up our classrooms so that those gifts are sought after is a great way to help create an inspiring classroom community. It is also a powerful way to build collaboration within the community; removing me from “knowledge keeper” status and allowing students to truly learn with and through each other. My teaching has taken on greater depth as I have handed over the “expert” hat to my kids, and after all- I am no expert! I enjoy the freedom of being able to listen and learn from them. Maria Montesorri said, “The children are now working as if I did not exist”. I strive for that every day, because the learning is better and the community is stronger when we are all learning from one another.

5. Scaffold Learning.

None of us is ever going to be completely able in all experiences. We continue learning all our life, and don’t we scaffold for ourselves all the time? I know when I am making a new dish, or creating a piece of Mixed Media Art, I am always seeking input and feedback from those around me. I also need scaffolding, such as the recipe, or a picture next to it which is even better! I consult my artist friends for help on something I am trying to create, such as a textured background, and some of my earlier pieces took a great deal of scaffolding. When we honor the learning and maintain the integrity of the lesson, while scaffolding our students’ steps on their mastery journey, we set each other up for successes. And success builds success. By carefully scaffolding to their strengths and needs, we have engaged each student in that lesson. Day after day, this helps build an environment that supports risk-taking and nurtures feelings of being safe, understood, and included.

Creating a community is perhaps the most important thing we can do, not only to support and drive student achievement, but to support the social and emotional needs of the whole child.  But let’s don’t stop there! We can also use these same ideas as we build our staff communities.

What ideas do you have for building a classroom and/or school community? I’d love to hear your thoughts!



Self-Contained Classrooms: Day Designers


I am a self-contained teacher. Although I don’t really like the term self-contained. It sounds too much like working all alone, shut off from the rest of the world.  I actually prefer the term “Day Designer”.  I design days, through each content area. Much cooler. Teachers who teach one subject often tell me they would never want to be self-contained, for a variety of reasons. Some of them are:

I have 6 subjects and 3 STAAR tests. Three out of five days, I am either at grade-level PLC, Math planning with the math team, or LA planning with the LA team.  Teaching all subjects requires one to be a sort of Jack (or Jill) of all trades; having a firm grasp on each content area and the state assessments that align with them. So why do I prefer this? It’s simple. I don’t teach content, I teach kids. For me, this is the best way to do that.

I know several teachers who are currently considering a move to self-contained classrooms, or their administrators are.  So I wanted to share my experiences and some of the good stuff you can find in this type of arrangement:


I get to know my students much better when I have them all day. We develop a close bond, and I am keenly aware of their strengths and weaknesses. And I don’t just mean academically. I know personal strengths. Learning strengths. Learning struggles. I get to know them in their entirety rather than just “as a math student” or “as a reader”. I know them as learners. We just happen to learn all subjects. Because of this, I am able to design extensions and interventions that provide just the right support each of my student’s need. Because I am so aware of their needs, I am better able to target, manage, and follow them. Learning is much more personal.  The students develop a very close knit community, and truly form a classroom family.  They freely question, commend, and challenge each other-without prodding or prompting from me-and a sense of safety and inclusion is felt not only by us, but visitors to our classroom as well. I have supported the development of this type of climate in departmentalized and team-teaching systems as well, but I would have to say it seems to be just a little bit different-more pronounced- in the SC class.


I am able to adjust my schedule in such a way that learning isn’t bound to a clock. At any given time, you might see a group of students engaged in a writing conference, another group collaborating on a challenging math problem, a small group with me engaged in a reading mini-lesson, a few students blogging about their science lesson yesterday, a book club in the back of the room…We learn throughout the day in a way that makes the content meaningful, relevant, and connected. Just because it is a certain time doesn’t mean we are all engaged in the same content. Such a time fixation is a system for departmentalization and I’m not sure it’s relevant for the self-contained classroom.

This is usually the point where departmentalized teachers become very nervous. In fact, it does require me to do more follow up and individual check-ins. It also requires a good set of rituals, routines, and procedures in place to make sure student’s are staying engaged and on task. There are times when they are not, and then we have to address it. But most of the time, we are.


Some say that there is no way they would want to plan for all the different subjects. Even with good, strong team planning, one still must tinker with and tailor the plan to capture the “how” for their own classroom and students. But really, it is much easier for me than you think! I am able to fully integrate content. We engage in writing and reading during math and science. We engage in PBL units or projects that encompass multiple subject areas and actually spend less time on some things than otherwise. Integrated content helps to reinforce concepts and helps children retain material. Cross-curricular units are much easier to design and facilitate because I know exactly what we are doing in each content area.  More importantly, I know where each student is in each content area. I can use this to front load or spiral back. I am able to bring to departmental meetings an awareness of current units of study in the other content areas and ideas for time-savers and cross-curricular connections.

Time and Tool Management Skills

We are now fully 1:1 in my classroom; each student has their own device and it resides on their desk or in their own charging area. They have customized their desktop, built their bookmarks, and are completely free to use their device to facilitate their learning throughout the day. I specifically did not establish any control over this, other than our digital citizenship lessons that we have. I wanted them to make mistakes so that we could learn from them how to best manage our time and tools. And yes, they did!

Now, my students will power up when they need to look up additional information or decide to present their essay using a form of technology…This is not controlled by me, and I think it has really empowered them to become independent learners. Many times I have students finish their writing assignment early, only to go get on their device to continue working on a lesson for math. That’s difficult in departmentalized situations. We have established norms, and we revisit and revise those as we go along and learning opportunities present themselves, but as a general rule, they are encouraged to be self-driven. An important goal for me is that my students come to recognize when- and how- to take advantages of both time and available tools to support their learning. They won’t develop those skills if I am the one dictating what, when, where and how to use them. And so the self-contained setting affords us the freedom to experiment, make mistakes, and learn how we as individuals can best manage our tools and time.

Classroom Ownership

The desks are “theirs”, the lockers, the anchor charts, the reading nooks, the tables…all theirs. My students feel an ownership over the physical space, which I think helps build an ownership over their own learning and how they go about it. Radically different from just “visiting” my room for an hour and a half. I think this subtle shift in thinking is important. The physical space is often an area we overlook, but I think it really helps build ownership when they are not sharing it with another class. At least, that seems to have been my experience when it comes to elementary students.

Some other bonuses: We don’t lose time packing up and switching classes; I am able to arrange for extra learning opportunities designed to enhance their critical thinking, motivation, and “connectedness” to the global community. For example, this year my students have participated in an Hour of Code, Genius Hour, and even a Google Hangout with some computer designers. We’ve read about the start up of Khan Academy and generated a list of traits that were instrumental in seeing this creation flourish, including visionary thinking, problem solving, patience, and service to others. We make connections with and highlight these traits often in our classroom. Now, we are reading biographies and generating our own list of “Habits of Successful People”, employing these throughout our day, in whatever content area we are working in. Because I have the opportunity to design learning experiences within each subject area, I can make sure to highlight, reinforce and include opportunity for the development of these habits.  If I were not the math teacher, would I have even had reason to explore an online learning startup company with them? Not likely. Would they have recognized the same “innovative” mindset in both “Mr. Khan” and “Pa”, the father in a historical fiction book we are currently reading? Making it a point to spend time on such things in one area just seems to make things so much more meaningful and real to them in other areas. I have found the self-contained setting to be a great opportunity to do this.

I have tried to find research into the effectiveness of self-contained vs. departmentalized settings in the elementary classroom, in which areas, and to what extent. I found exactly none.   At least none since 1965.  I immediately think of the following quote by Toni Morrison, “If there is something you want to read, and it isn’t yet written, you must write it yourself”. And so, that’s a current “hmmm” I have.

There are positives around being departmentalized, teaming, and being self-contained, and each has merit. I have been a teacher in all three types of classrooms, and I would say that without a doubt, this design has been the most rewarding.  I think my fourth graders would agree!

What about you? Are you departmentalized or self-contained? Which type of structure do you prefer, and why?


4th Grade Writing Battles Begin!


My students have been working hard on their writing this year. We are currently perfecting our skills in the area of expository writing. As we head into Black History Month, as well as our upcoming Alamo unit, we’ve been reading and learning about people that are considered heroes. We have had great conversations about traits that a hero embodies, and began identifying heroes in our own lives. We have explored ideas such as empathy, courage, belief, truths, strength, love, peace, and wisdom.  We have read about people, we have listened to songs with hidden lyrical references (U2’s Pride), and we have had very deep conversations on how other people can have such powerful impacts on the world, and on each other. We then looked inward and considered our own unique “hero” traits and possibilities!

My students were then asked to write about a person they consider a hero, in expository form.

We revised and edited as we went along this past week, learning about different strategies such as: beginning with a quote, powerful conclusions, creative transitions, and voice.  We also continue working on our conventions (our weakest area) and supporting details.  Now that they have published their final Hero Expository Writing, my students are ready for our next Teach Like A Pirate experience:

The 4th Grade Epic Hero Expository Writing Battle!

For this experience I will use several hooks. I’m wearing camo tomorrow to kick off this unit. I will have this battle music playing as they enter the room 🙂

The room will be divided into East vs. West, and gear (essays, rubrics, highlighters) will be distributed. Gold coins will be given to each victor as we go through the battle phases. After much thinking, looking for ideas, discussing possibilities with my twitter PLN, and consulting with my Army veteran son, I am (finally) prepared to share our upcoming experience.  Feel free to use this in any way you see fit!

                       The Mission/Prompt: “Write About Someone You Consider a Hero”

The day you’ve trained for all year is upon us.  All of your learning about what traits embody a hero has come down to this. The class has been divided into 2 brigades-The East vs The West. Each of you will be assigned to a brigade. Within those brigades, you will be deployed to one of three battalions. You will determine your names. Choose wisely, as the winner’s camp will be bestowed the honor of being our First Epic Expository Writing victors!

Armed with our Hero Expository Essays, and persuasive skills, essays will battle head to head for victory in each category on our writing rubric. You will not battle your own paper, but rather, one that fate has thrown your way! Be advised: You must collaborate and be able to JUSTIFY the awarding of each battle victory based on merit and skill-citing our rubric as evidence of victory. Let it be noted that throughout the battles, a paper will never cross paths with it’s original writer.

Phase 1: Preparation for Battle

Papers have been collected and divided among two brigades. Now,  3 Battalions (4 students each)  will be deployed through each brigade. You will become experts on the papers you hold, scoring each paper on EACH SECTION of our writing rubric. Papers will engage in one-on-one combat for the victory in each category. These battles will determine the victors in each of 6 categories on our rubric:

  • Content & Critical Thinking
  •  Introductions & Conclusions  
  • Fluency/Transitions
  • Topic Sentences & Details
  • Voice and Word Choice
  • Conventions

Note: It is possible for a paper to win multiple battles; however,  a stronger brigade will be formed if each paper in each battalion can secure at least one victory.

Once each battalion has declared a winner for each of 6 categories, these papers will now battle against the 2 other battalions.  You will come together with the other battalions at this point. You must be an expert on your winners and the rubric, and be able to justify  each paper on merit. You must also be able to listen to the reasons behind other selections. At this point it is no longer about battalion winners—you want to find Brigade Winners.

At the end of each battle, the Brigade will emerge with 6 battle winners, one for each rubric section.

Phase 2: In phase 2 of this mission, the two brigades will go head to head as they each defend and justify  papers. Focus on the skill each paper represents in each writing strand using our rubric. You must provide justification both verbally and in writing for each paper you are defending. You are now battling for overall writing effectiveness-skill in each category.

Phase 3: We will celebrate as an “army of writers”  our victors in all categories, as well as the overall winning papers.  You will have justified and decided upon 6 overall winners. From here we will enter the Ultimate Battle: As a class, we will now enter a round-robin tournament, pour over these 6 papers and rubrics, and determine 4 Epic Battle Winners. These 4 will demonstrate skill in all of the writing rubric categories.  They will be bestowed the honor of being named an:

Epic Hero Expository Writer.

As such, these 4 victors will be spotlighted on our upcoming Standard Based Bulletin Board. Selected by the class for their skill and merit, you as classmates will have chosen our SBBB spotlighted work, and written justification defending each paper that meets the standard for expository writing. These will be the commentaries that will be posted next to each victor on the board, so write a compelling and thorough justifications!

Phase 4: Personal Battle Reflections:

1) How did this activity challenge your critical thinking skills?

2) What did you learn about the craft of writing as a result of this activity?

3) What new goals will you now set for your own writing?

At the end of this battle, you will each be epic heroes–battle-tested and eager for the next quest. In a most honorable of fashion, we will celebrate, reflect, and set further goals.

Good Luck To You All-Let The Battles Begin!


Pictures courtesy of:

Sheila. quill.jpg. June 2009. Pics4Learning. 2 Feb 2014 <http://pics.tech4learning.com&gt;

Keeney, Carolyn. shield.jpg. 1-Apr. Pics4Learning. 2 Feb 2014 <http://pics.tech4learning.com>


Measuring 21st Century Skills In The Elementary Classroom


I’m often asked to share my strategies for developing integrated units that incorporate 21st century skills. An upcoming PBL I’m developing is on The Alamo. It will blend content areas while building 21st century skills and promoting family involvement.

Giving students opportunities to develop and refine their 21st century skills is something most of us see as paramount to learning in today’s classroom. Where many struggle is not with the “why” but with the “how”. One of the most successful ways I’ve found for doing this has come through integration of curriculum and grabbing ahold of Problem Based Learning. When I talk about integration, I mean that in terms of not only content, but 21st century skills as well. I intentionally plan and integrate these for one simple reason:

What Gets Measured Gets Done.

It’s important that students have the ongoing opportunity to develop and refine these skills. They also need  the opportunity to examine their progress in specific 21st century skills and reflect on how they are progressing over time. Here are four of my rubrics used to measure these skills: 21st Century Skills Rubrics

For this unit, I’m going to bring in:

Collaboration, problem solving,  technology literacy, and public speaking.

Each will be measured throughout  the unit in the form of self, peer, and coach (me) evaluations.

Now let’s take a look at  how I develop integrated units. I will also share my plans for my upcoming PBL as well.

Backward Design Intended Outcomes

 I start with identifying what specific content knowledge and skills are coming up each six weeks, and what students need to know at the end of each respective course unit. This is perhaps the “heaviest” part of the process. I’ll use my own upcoming units as an example here.

Social Studies: Understand the significance of the events leading up to the Alamo, and it’s impact.
Language Arts: Develop and refine skills in reading and analyzing nonfiction text. Develop and refine writing skills and produce an expository essay that includes descriptive details to support a main idea..
Math: Understand and manipulate fractions and decimals, and their relatedness. Understand 3D shapes and identify attributes.
Science: Identify forms of energy and understand interactions, pathways, conversions.

I have specific learning outcomes identified for each content area (though here I am just giving you a brief synopsis of the content covered). I also have formatives and summatives identified so I know where we are going. I can now plan out how to get there.

How And Where To Integrate

 Now that I have my concepts identified, I move on to how and where. Quickly we can see a connection here with Social Studies and Language Arts. So I will start there. I know that, throughout the Alamo unit, I want to include opportunities for literacy skills in nonfiction genres. Here is how I will embed this throughout:

  • Primary and Secondary Sources. I will use autobiographies, letters, journals, and our Social Studies textbook as the mentor texts during Reading Workshop. Mini lessons will center on nonfiction reading strategies.
  • We will examine quotes found in letters and journals to interpret meaning, context, and also find synonyms. Rewrite pleas from today’s perspective.
  • Media. We will critically examine a movie poster promoting the film “The Alamo”, and discuss the impact of the chosen colors, taglines, and images.
  • Writing Workshop will be used to provide instruction on effective expository writing strategies, with opportunities to respond to Alamo related prompts, journaling, letter writing, persuasive debate, and cause and effect essays.

Math.  We are working with fractions and decimals, while continuing to spiral in measurement concepts and move into 3D shapes and attributes. How can I use the Alamo unit to support this learning?

  • We will learn about the number of soldiers and ratios between armies.
  • Money as it relates to this historical period.
  • Proportions.
  • Fractions of time.
  • Comparison of rifle and musket range of fire (200 yards/70 yards) and conversion.
  • Examine 3D shapes and attributes found in pictorial representations of Spanish missions.
  • Suggest and design upgrades to the Alamo layout.

Science. We are going to identify forms of energy and how they interact with matter. I will include:

  • Potential and kinetic energy as it relates to gunpowder, cannons, and firewood.
  • Thermal energy.
  • Sound energy as we listen to replays of music used during this battle.

Social Studies. We will examine key players, dates, and locations. We will consider events leading up to the battle, and impact on future events. Students will uncover the significance of this historical event and take a virtual tour of the site using Google Earth  tour.

Ongoing Formatives
Planned throughout in each content area to measure progress on specific content skills as well as 21st century skills. Ongoing feedback allows students to refine and improve in each strand. The Alamo PBL includes benchmarks along the way which are related to both content and 21st century skills. As an example: Students can improve on a grade in Social Studies by improving on a 21st century skill, such as their current level of performance in the area of collaboration.


The Driving Question
In creating a Problem Based Learning unit, I start with looking at the standard. I then develop a driving question. This is the most difficult part of the task. It’s also the most critical. We want students to not only know what they are learning, but internalize and be able to articulate why they are learning it. The DQ is written ultimately for the students. The question will fuel understanding if it’s written well, articulates the standards, and includes a motivation to learn. It can promote ownership and guide students as they move through to unit. It also needs to include a community connection. I use a “tubric” to help me do this. Here is a video on that:

Here’s my DQ:

Why did the American public popularize the Alamo and how might this legacy apply to my own life?

Now, this is the over-arching DQ. Throughout the unit there are Learning Targets which are written to help them ultimately answer that driving question. Here are questions that will be embedded in this PBL:

What were the issues leading up to this battle, and why were they important?
How did those issues impact decisions that were made?
What might I have done had I been involved in this event? What are the issues that drive that decision?

What are some suggestions I might make if I were in a position to affect change?
How can we share our impressions of the Alamo battle with a larger audience?
How do members of my family approach decion-making situations?

Though they will be incorporated throughout, the above DQ’s are where I will specifically embed those 21st century skills I will assess within this unit. I will leave much to student choice as far as designing their final products is concerned. However, I will provide structured choices for them to consider and work with them to identify appropriate avenues for demonstrating their learning. I also have identified required products along the way to help build capacity and to assess 21st century skills. Each week, the four identified 21st century skills will be assessed through these required activities:

Week One

Collaborate in book clubs using texts centered on the event and players involved, such as biographies
Compare/Contrast presentation essay on two key players
Measurement and Conversion/Time/ Fractions

Week Two:

Digital descriptive timelines
Decision Making Brace Map  presentation
Journal entries from different perspectives/problems/solutions (will continue throughout)

Week Three:

Character trait analysis
Student-chosen problem and it’s impact: Cause and Effect presentation Graphic Organizers
Critical writing on energy conversion in science
Collaborate to design a movie poster for an Alamo film. They will decide on a tagline, colors, and actors who they imagine would portray main and supporting characters. These will include critical writing on the reasons behind their selections.

Week Four:

Student-chosen problem and it’s impact: Cause and Effect Graphic Organizers
Impact of different energy sources on the events of the Alamo/presentation
Fraction and decimal conversion practice with Alamo facts and figures we uncover

Week Five:

Students collaborate to produce a news broadcast of a self-selected problem and it’s impact on events
4 Corner Stance with critical writing to defend a position
Shared Classroom Debate with Public Speaking Skills

Week Six:

Collaborate and submit suggested upgrades to Alamo design and layout
Expository Essay: An Important Decision I Have Faced

The final product needs to answer the driving question. These will make excellent artifacts for our Standards Based Bulletin Board as well. For more on SBBB’s embraced by my district, visit this link.

Guiding Options for Final Products:

Web page design
Student-produced documentaries on a chosen Alamo figure
Artwork depicting important events and/or people
Digital Biographical sketches
Reenactments, student-written plays
Poetry anthologies related to the significance of the Alamo/events
Personal analysis through persuasive essay
Resource curation on Pinterest or Live Binder
Creation of games (can be 2d or 3D)
Blueprint design of the Alamo, accompanied by student built model to scale. Includes Legacy Snapshots, which are written supporting documents placed on the model
Produce and direct a Public Service Announcement
Lyric writing/music to accompany a scene

Each will allow for problem solving, collaborating, and public speaking/sharing work.  By choosing an option above, or by following their own inventive ideas,  we can leverage student passions, which always become top-notch products! Each product must be submitted in digital form for uploading to student’s ePortfolio. This will allow for sharing of work with a global audience. Students will include a written reflection on the product, it’s significance to the student, and what was learned through the creation of that product. Each student will also be encouraged to provide ongoing feedback to their peers both during the learning and on the final product. Weekly projects can also be uploaded to ePortfolios, with students selecting the artifacts to share globally.

Community/Family Impact
Students will talk with their families about how they approach big decisions and collect this information. They will explore with their family different strategies for making decisions and short/long term goals. These will be compiled into a class “family advice” book that students can refer to when facing their own “big decisions”. I think this will be a great way to open home communication and provide students with a variety of diverse viewpoints.

Throughout this six week unit, there will be specific mini-lessons and common assessments as written in our curriculum. The backdrop for our day to day learning and connections will be Alamo PBL.

All in all, I’m looking at a great opportunity to develop my students 21st Century Skills, integrate curriculum for deeper understanding through a PBL, and promote family involvement with building decision making skills. So I am very excited heading into the 4th six weeks!

For more on PBL and integrated curriculum, visit here. Visit the Buck Institute for Education for further research based information on PBL.

SBBB informative PDF link that I referenced originated via NISD website.