Monday, June 23, 2014

The Pirating of Future Problem Solving

     From June 12-15, I had the wonderful opportunity to chaperone four of my Future Problem Solving team to Iowa State University for the International Competition. For those who don't know what Future Problem Solving (FPS) is, here's a short description, taken from

Founded by creativity pioneer, Dr. E. Paul Torrance, Future Problem Solving Program International (FPSPI) stimulates critical and creative thinking skills, encourages students to develop a vision for the future, and prepares students for leadership roles.  Future Problem Solving Program International involves thousands of students annually from Australia, Hong Kong, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, Portugal, Singapore, Turkey, United Kingdom, and the United States.
FPSPI Mission: To develop the ability of young people globally to design and promote positive futures using critical, creative thinking. 

Students are given a topic ahead of time so they can conduct research and brainstorm possible challenges and solutions. Then, on competition day, they read a one-page future (30+ years in the future) scene that's filled with detail and topic-specific vocabulary. The scene ends with a charge statement, which directs the focus of the students' work.  For exactly two hours, the team (four members) works their way through six steps with only a dictionary, pens/pencils, and scratch paper.

The six steps are:
  1. brainstorming 16 challenges (written in correct format)
  2. deciding on one underlying problem (UP) and including all components
  3. brainstorming 16 solutions (written in correct format)
  4. deciding on five criteria (written in correct format)
  5. using a grid to rank order their top eight solutions according to the five criteria, in order to discover their best solution
  6. writing a 3-4 paragraph action plan, incorporating the 5 Ws and H, that details how their best solution to the future scene would be implemented

Since I recently adopted the pirate philosophy, shared by teacher/author Dave Burgess, I realized how closely the FPS experience mirrors the six TLAP components.

P (passion)
     Each level of FPS competition (from qualifying all the way to internationals, or IC) encourages students and coaches to bring passion to their research. However, in his book, Teach Like a Pirate, Dave asserts that teachers aren't always passionate about what they teach. The same can be said about students and their learning. Our topics this year included surveillance society, land transportation, and space.  Although the first one generated the most interest, I'd say the last two were not as exciting to my kids. Although we learned so much about all three topics, my two girls had to fake their passion for our IC topic: space.
     FPS competitions consist of their written booklet and their skit, where teams act out their action plan. As their coach, I decided to generate passion for the IC performance by using some meeting time to share and listen to space-related songs (Rocket Man, The Final Countdown, Supermassive Black Hole) and watch space-related movie trailers (Star wars, Apollo 13, Gravity, E.T.). Of course we researched as much as we could about space in general, but focusing on the skit helped my girls find their personal passion since they enjoy performing. *The result of this passion was a 3rd place finish in the skit portion. Only the top two teams moved on to the finals, but we were pleased with out ranking.

I (immersion)
In order to do well at FPS competitions, teams can't simply focus on their assigned topic; they need to be immersed in it! Not only did we immerse ourselves in space research while we were in our meetings, but I encouraged the students to spend time each day immersing themselves in the vocabulary, the visuals, and the wonder of space. Turning the lights off when we watched trailers, music videos, images of moon landings and solar eclipses helped us tune out the hustle and bustle around us.

At the competition, we couldn't help but be immersed in this topic. Everything was space. We even had an opportunity to listen to a former astronaut talk about his trips to the International Space Station, accompanied by incredible video and images.

R (rapport)
Since this group has been with me for two years, we've had ample time to develop a strong rapport. I started with 31-5th graders last year (which was overwhelming for just one coach). This year, 11 of those students (now 6th graders) took on the challenge. Of the 11, eight continued on to the State Competition. As I mentioned, a lucky four won 1st place at State, qualifying for IC.

We all got to know each other very well during weekly meetings and brainstorming sessions. In the months from State to IC, we met more often and cemented our bond. One of our fundraisers was "duct tape an FPSer to the Wall." Let's say that one helped us "stick" together even more.

The beauty of a 3-day competition out of state is the opportunity it presents to truly get to know each other on a more personal level. We shared experiences, like sleeping down the hall from each other in the dorm, eating all meals in the ISU cafeteria, and walking around the campus on a scavenger hunt (with their moms). It was sad to say goodbye on the final day.

A (ask & analyze)
These two are built into the six steps of FPS. However, the "six word" story that Dave shares on pages 38-42 helped me as a coach give my students full credit for their hard work researching and learning the FPS process. They didn't make it to IC because they are "so smart." They made it because they worked their tails off. In addition, they learned lots from the feedback the judges provided at each stage. Last year, only three of these students made it to State (and none to IC). However, they all learned so much from comments on their written booklets and used that feedback to improve their work and make it farther in the competition this year. I'm overjoyed that all want to continue with FPS in some form, despite the fact that they are too old for the junior division, which I coach. They don't feel like they are "done" with FPS yet.

T (transformation)
No, my FPS students didn't "have" to be there. They all willingly signed up for this before-school (some Saturdays) experience. In addition, 11 of them signed up again, knowing all of the hard work that goes into this activity. Some students enjoyed the research, others enjoyed the skits, while others enjoyed the camaraderie with their classmates and the competitions themselves. A few even joined this group because they weren't in my classroom and wanted to have me as a teacher for something. (I was honored.) When I shared the opportunity with all 5th graders back in the fall of 2012, I included all of these aspects in the hopes that at least one of them would stick with different students. Like Dave stated, I reframed the content, value and relevancy to my students' lives.

E (enthusiasm)
This is my portion. My enthusiasm for FPS is what encouraged kids to sign up, what kept them coming to each meeting, and what drove many of them to sign up for a second year. My enthusiasm is what inspired the final four students to desire more FPS. They don't want their experience to just end. These students asked if they could continue with scenario writing or community problem solving (also under the FPS umbrella) because they are thirsty to learn more. They are even willing to help coach my new students instead, if that's a way to continue with the program.

I'm proud to call these students pirates. They have passion, they immerse themselves in learning, they have developed rapport with their teammates, they know how to ask & analyze, they have transformed their learning, and they have oodles of enthusiasm, Who knows where our paths will lead us, but I would love to be their coach/captain for the remainder of their journey. They are a phenomenal group of kids!

Monday, June 9, 2014

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Podium


All of these skills I thought I'd been teaching for the past umpteen years. My students have never had any trouble talking, so of course they could speak. Or so I thought.

Then I read Erik Palmer's book,Well Spoken: Teaching Speaking Skills to All Students, and realized that not only have I failed to teach my students to speak effectively, but I hadn't been teaching them to prepare writing to be spoken aloud.

Sure, I talked about making eye contact and taking deep breaths...about slowing down because we usually speak faster in front of an audience...about practicing in front of a mirror.

My students shared during morning meeting, discussed during literature circles, and read the assigned D.A.R.E. essay in front of the class each spring. However, judging from the bored looks on my students' faces as they listened to the monotony of essays on the day these were read aloud,
I know that my teaching of speaking skills had missed the mark.

However, I've learned from my failure. As B.F. Skinner said, "A failure is not always a mistake, it may simply be the best one can do under the circumstances. The real mistake is to stop trying."
So, keep trying I must!
Back to Erik Palmer's book, which I picked up on recommendation from Kelly Gallagher (who wrote the forward). I read this book, with sections on creating a respectful classroom atmosphere, building a speech with the presentation in mind, and presenting that speech effectively.

I learned about PVLEGS
Eye Contact

This past year, I revamped my teaching to include mindful instruction, modeling, and practice with Erik's ideas. I taught each of the PVLEGS, using many of the activities in the book and on his website,

And we practiced.
We made fools of ourselves and felt uncomfortable at first.
We laughed at the strange mannerisms we discovered once we watched ourselves back on video.
We became more comfortable and willing to try different ways to work on our speaking skills.

We realized that there's a lot more that goes into presenting to an audience (even to our peers) than reading the words a few times and adding a joke or two to lighten the mood.  Even eye contact has a certain finesse, and gestures can be more powerful when added at just the right time.

We practiced our PVLEGS in any way we could. We noticed others' speaking skills (in person and in videos). Our school's morning announcements were a great source of material. Students are surrounded by numerous examples of strong and effective speakers, especially on the internet. I called out specific PVLEGS to look for in advance, or commented on those I noticed afterwards. My students became very comfortable sharing the good and the bad. They also learned how to take critiques and learn from them. There was a wealth of formative assessment to go around.

This spring, I added a listening component when I got my hands on Erik Palmer's new book, Teaching the Core Skills of Speaking and Listening. Yes, my students had learned to listen more effectively when we focused on PVLEGS elements. However, the words in this book encouraged me to include listening lessons in my instruction.

It's not just about students looking at the speaker, nodding and laughing at appropriate spots, or even taking relevant notes. I want my students to listen and truly be engaged in their learning.

Sections in this new book include: collaborating/discussing, listening/media literacy, questioning/reasoning, adapting for the occasion & assessing listening and speaking. I was only able to dabble in these activities in April and May, yet we'd never had richer Socratic Seminars than our final few.

Erik has this to say about speaking and listening, "They are so deeply embedded in so many aspects of our lives that most of us don't think about them much." He goes on to compare these skills to a fish in water. Since it is surrounded by water, a fish doesn't realize its importance and takes it for granted.

I agree with Erik that it's time to change that.

I've brought speaking and listening to the forefront of my teaching, highlighting their use whenever I can. So much emphasis is placed on reading and writing, but speaking and listening have been a largely ignored player in Language Arts planning and instruction.

This fall, I look forward to getting started right away. Yes, my students will talk a lot in my classroom! However, they will also discover how to speak and to truly listen to each other.

What a gift I will be giving them!

Palmer, E. (2014). Teaching the core skills of listening & Speaking.Alexandria, VA: ASCD
Palmer, E. (2011). Well Spoken: Teaching speaking to all students. Portland, ME: Stenhouse  Publishers.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Passing on the Liebster Award Honor


I just received word that a treasured member of my PLN nominated me (and four other bloggers) for a Liebster Award. This blogger (and teacher/father/author/runner) who nominated me, Greg Armamentos, shared that bloggers give the award to each other to "recognize and promote blogs that inspire and enrich us." I am honored my this nomination as validation of the importance of my voice.

Here are the Liebster Award rules:
A. List 11 Facts about yourself.
B. Answer the 11 questions put forward by whoever nominated you.
C. Ask 11 new questions to 5+ bloggers. They must have less than 200 followers on Bloglovin’ (or their preferred blog site). You cannot re-nominate the blog that nominated you.
D. Go to their blogs and inform them that they have been nominated!

11 Facts about me:
  1. I have been married to my wonderful husband 18 years ago tomorrow (June 8th). Happy anniversary, honey!
  2. I have a 16-year old son who creates fabulous art, just started driving and got his first job at the neighborhood gas station today. My daughter will soon be 13, and is a beautiful dancer.
  3. My first three years of teaching were in the Ysleta District in El Paso, Texas. I loved the weather, the children (1st and 2nd grade), and the beautiful mountains (and sunsets).
  4. My favorite book of all time is still The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, and my favorite movie is Sixteen Candles. I had the biggest crush on Jake!
  5. I am a huge Minnesota Twins fan, and have a life-size poster of Joe Mauer in my classroom (as well as a Joe Mauer doll and Joe Mauer on a stick). He's kind of our class mascot.
  6. I love all kinds of music. Despite the fact that I can't sing in tune, remember the lyrics to almost every song I've ever heard more than a few times (even songs from my favorite decade-the 80s).
  7. If it isn't obvious by my profile picture, I respect and admire teacher/author Kelly Gallagher. He inspires me to be a better teacher of Reading and Writing (English), and is one of the reasons I plan to get my Secondary English license and teach High School English in the near future.
  8. I love to talk! No, seriously, I could talk all day. Once, while driving down to my parents' house in Arkansas, the call dropped and I continued to talk for about 10 miles before I realized there was nobody on the line. My husband usually falls asleep to the sweet sounds of my voice.
  9. I am a reality TV junkie (mainly music shows like The Voice and American Idol). There's something about watching young men and women follow their dreams that gets me every time. I call it my "fluff TV" and watch it to decompress after stressful days. Sometimes it's refreshing not to follow a deep, complicated plot.
  10. I am living in the wrong state. I despise the cold weather of MN (and anywhere north). When I graduated from college, I immediately moved to Texas, claiming it would be a cold day you-know-where before I would ever live in MN again. Who would have known that my now-husband would follow me down there, propose, and drag me back up here to live by our families. (We met in college.) Eighteen years later, I'm still here...
  11. My long-term goal is to move to some quaint little town in a warm state and teach at a local college. The idea of shaping and inspiring a young energetic crop of teachers motivates me. For now, I will continue to hone my craft and gather the wealth of experience needed to feel confident passing it on to others.
The 11 questions asked of me by Greg:
1. Tell us how you were drawn into teaching.
There's nothing else I wanted to do. I know it's cliché, but it's the truth. My older sister and I played school with our younger brother. Funny-she's an administrator now.
2. Tell us about one of the teachers who impacted you as a child.
My 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Geistfeld, was also my Future Problem Solving coach. She was such a smart lady who loved challenging her students. Now, 30+ years later, I am a 5th grade teacher and a Future Problem Solving coach, taking my team to the International Competition in Ames, Iowa next week. It's like I have become Mrs. Geistfeld.
3. If you could only read 5 books to your class, which would you choose?

Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea
Top Ten Ways to Ruin the First Day of School by Ken Derby
A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd
4. Your greatest accomplishment is…
Being happily married and raising two wonderful children! No matter what else I do in my life, nothing gives me greater pleasure.
5. Most interesting teacher appreciation gift you have received was…
This year, I received a jar filled with sand, water, and seashells. The card accompanying the gift stated, "You're the best teacher in the ocean! But since I can't give you the whole ocean, I'll give you as much as I can." Where others might just see sediment, I see the sentiment!
6. You have been asked to share to at a national teachers conference. You’re discussing…
I'd be discussing real-world writing and deeper reading, as well as the importance of teaching speaking and listening skills. Of course, my co-presenters would be Kelly Gallagher and Erik Palmer (and I'd be wearing an eye patch and bandana).
7. New construction has begun in your town. You hope they are building a new…
Nothing...they are already building a huge housing development around our beautiful library. I miss the wilderness that used to surround this building when my kids and I would bike up the path every week in the summer to check out new books.
8. One biography you’d love to recommend is…
The Ben Carson Story
9. When you were a student, teachers most likely thought you ….
They would have thought I was a model student (because I was). I loved school, homework and reading.
10. Three songs on your iPod to share are…
(oldie but goodie) Dance With My Father by Luther Vandross
Classic by MKTO
Say Something by A Great Big World
11. The question I should have asked you is…
Which careers do you hope your children choose?

My Liebster Nominations:
I am nominating 5 of my blogger friends from the #10summerblogs challenge, which inspired me to start blogging. In the words of one of my daughter's favorite songs from High School Musical, "We're All in This Together."

Here are my 11 questions of these bloggers:
  1. How would you describe your teaching (or leadership) style?
  2. What is one piece of advice you would give your younger self?
  3. What is your favorite quote, and why is it meaningful to you?
  4. Describe one "do-over" you'd like to have.
  5. Who is your favorite sports team?
  6. Which author would you most like to meet, and what is one question you would ask him/her?
  7. Name a book that you could read again and again and discover something new?
  8. What is your guilty pleasure? Why?
  9. Which song do you like to crank up really loud and either sing or dance to it?
  10. What is one career accomplishment you still have?
  11. Name one activity/hobby you do today that you have been doing since you were a child (and you can't say reading). What motivates you to continue?


Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Everyone Needs Their Backs Scratched Once in a While

Well, I had every intention of writing a post about how Twitter has influenced my teaching, or how it is the best PD out there. However, it seems like everyone and their brother is singing Twitter's praises.
I intended to write about a topic that touched a nerve with a dear member of my Twitter PLN. That topic is measuring up.

However, this post is not about measuring up.

Yes, this post is about Twitter, but it is not focused on self-deprecating feelings.

Twitter has been incredible professional development, but it has offered something better.

That's validation.

I've spent a lot of years wondering if what I've been doing and how I've been teaching has value. Our profession is not one where we brag or boast about our lessons or successes. We often shy away from tooting our horns.

Dave Burgess commented in the May 5th #tlap chat, "We often forget to give ourselves credit for our accomplishments and brush off compliments." This was the beginning of the question that generated the fewest tweets, "How do you celebrate your own successes?"  Dave later tweeted that teachers need to work on this and it's ok to celebrate.

That leads me to Twitter validation. Until joining Twitter last year, I lacked validation for my efforts. Sure, I knew that I was doing great things for my students. I heard from parents, and could see successes on the faces of my students. However, I was missing something...validation from the teacher community. This makes sense because I rarely shared with my peers the great things I was doing in my classroom.

When I became more involved with Twitter, I was surprised how easy peer validation can be. I was reading tweets (and viewing posts and examples) about the most amazing ideas. With the click of a button, I could validate these educator's efforts and celebrate their successes. I enjoyed reading about the various ways educators from around the world were engaging their students and making learning fun.

Once I joined Twitter chats and started sharing my own ideas and strategies, I was overwhelmed with comments, favorites and retweets. Many followed me, and I started following them. I sought out other educators to add to my PLN who taught like me and pushed me to become better.

I consider Twitter to be a mutual admiration society. There is no hierarchy of educators in this community...only sharing and celebrating with peers. I learn from educators in all positions, and from all areas of the world. The best part: they also learn from me. Little old me from Brooklyn Park, MN. I can affect change in classrooms on the other side of the world. One simple idea I have in the middle of the night can turn into an amazing experience that can be shared and replicated on a much larger scale.

Three years ago, a high school English colleague and I started presenting at a summer literacy institute for district educators. We presented on TPFASTT, SOAPSTone, DIDLS, Socratic Seminar and Six Thinking Hats. So far, we have reached about 250 district educators.

Next week, we'll share blogging (Kidblogs), PVLEGS, Teach Like a Pirate hooks, Notice and Note Signposts, and adding TodaysMeet as a back channel for Socratic Seminar. This year, our umbrella is deepening literary discussions and increasing student engagement. We have about 50 4th-6th grade teachers signed up.

Although I thrive on the "in person" feedback we receive after our sessions, I have a greater appreciation for the bursts of feedback I receive after tweeting about an idea. This is especially true during Twitter chats, when my PLN is simultaneously at their computers...all of us searching for an idea or comment to spark an interest and affect change that will positively impact our students.

No, educators don't teach for the accolades. However, it sure is nice to feel validated by one's peers.

This validation runs rampant in the Twitter community.  I enjoy scratching the backs of my PLN, but I also enjoy having my back scratched once in a while.

Thanks to all of you wonderful educators!
We make each other better.
Let's celebrate our successes.