Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Give Me a Steep Hill!

Although many friends and members of my PLN are runners, I'm more of a bike enthusiast. As long as the Minnesota weather cooperates, I enjoy going for long bike rides on the numerous trails around my neighborhood. Whether I'm with my kids, husband, or just by myself, biking is my preferred outdoor activity.

Yesterday, while on one of those exhilarating solo bike rides, I was pedaling up a long steep hill. Just when I had to stand up to give myself more momentum (and felt maybe I wouldn't make it), I finally reached the top. Now, those of you who bike know the sheer joy of cruising down a hill, wind in your hair, almost feeling like you're flying.

I got to thinking how much these hills relate to my work as a teacher. Whereas flat terrain is like using the teacher's guide (TE), hills are like taking risks and trying new ideas. Flat terrain is teaching the way you've always taught, with a fixed mindset, remaining in your comfort zone.

With a growth mindset, the climbs are much more exciting than flat terrain because they lead to the thrilling cruise down the hill.

Are they difficult? Are they challenging? Are they often lonely?  Yes!

They are never boring, that's for sure. In addition, the momentum they generate for future learning and success can't be quantified.

In the past two years, biking uphill for me included:
  • diving into Twitter and building my PLN, despite a lack of Twitter presence among my school colleagues
  • joining the Global Read Aloud (GRA) when nobody else in my building was involved
  • celebrating International Dot Day for the past two years with only my teaching partner and our students
  • trying out something new to my teaching partner and I, called Genius Hour, and learning as the year went on
  • teaching Kelly Gallagher's Reading Reasons and Six Real-World Writing Purposes with passion and enthusiasm
  • jumping on the TLAP ship and transforming my classroom practices to include hooks and tons of engagement (the only pirate in my building)
  • trying my first (and my building's second) author Skype with Dave Burgess, then following it up with a Skype with author David E. Kelly
  • incorporating Erik Palmer's PVLEGS Speaking and Listening framework (which wasn't part of the curriculum)
  • engaging in weekly Socratic Seminars (with TodaysMeet back channel), the highlight of my week, with only one colleague who realized the benefits for students
Next year, hopefully my hill will get steeper thanks to: more author Skypes, a class Twitter account, Mystery Skype, broadening our GRA involvement through Edmodo and Skype, student online portfolios, and whatever I discover along the way from my fabulous PLN.

Just like a biker builds muscle, teaching with a growth mindset builds confidence. Each hill becomes easier to climb. We look for steeper hills to push ourselves and our students outside their comfort zones and stimulate learning.

Although flat terrain is easier, I'll take another hill any day!

Friday, July 18, 2014

El Deafo and Me

For 20 years, I taught my students as a hearing impaired teacher. No hearing aid, just 80% loss in one ear due to a tragic incident when I was just 22. At the time of the loss (1994), doctors said there was nothing they could do to return the hearing or correct it. They stated that a hearing aid would only amplify the muffled sound in my bad ear. I went back to the audiologist a few times in subsequent years, only to hear the same diagnosis.

Daily life became a bit different. It was difficult to hear in loud situations (or with loud conversation, such as in restaurants). I started tilting my head so that my "good ear" was facing the speaker. Family and friends sat on my "good side" when out in public places.

Since I didn't have total loss, I managed to compensate fairly effectively. I got used to not quite hearing everything people said. I'd repeat what I THOUGHT was said, and check for clarification when it didn't make sense. My inability to hear more than 87% of what was spoken (since my "good ear" compensated for what my "bad ear" couldn't pick up) became my new normal. I was missing so much of the world around me.

Luckily for me, last year I started having wax buildup in my good ear. There were a few scary days when the wax prevented me from hearing at all. I was afraid that would become a permanent situation. After having my ear flushed twice (an uncomfortable, but not painful, experience), I decided to check back with the audiologist to see what he could do. It was 2013 after all, and I was hoping that maybe something would work now.


I was definitely a candidate for a hearing aid. Unlike the main character, Cece, in Cece Bell's new book El Deafo (out in September), mine was so small it was not noticeable unless you looked into my ear canal. After waiting two weeks from the fitting appointment, my hearing aid arrived just in time for the beginning of last school year.

Like Cece, I was amazed at how loud everything sounded! Shuffling papers sounded like metal crushing. Putting away dishes sounded like I was breaking them. My usual television volume needed to be cut in half. I had to ask my husband, "Have our children always been this loud?" (He told me they have.)

The biggest change was in my classroom.

Thirty+ students are loud. Louder than I had ever heard (since my hearing loss occurred only four months after starting my first teaching job).

I had to step out in the hall and ask a colleague to go in my room to see if they were louder than what the collaborative activity required. She said that the noise level was what a typical class sounds like.

I was shocked and saddened by all that I had probably missed my students say over the past twenty years. How many had asked questions I didn't hear? How many comments had I misinterpreted? How many became frustrated and gave up asking or commenting?

When I read El Deafo, I felt like someone understood what it was like for me. Although I was not hearing impaired in K-12 (or even in college), I experienced many of the same emotions as Cece. I didn't have a Phonic Ear around my neck connected by cords to my ears, but I always felt different. I was embarrassed telling people I didn't hear what they said since they were talking into my bad ear. I desperately wanted to go to Happy Hour or social gatherings with my colleagues, but didn't because I knew I would miss too much conversation due to the noise. There was a part of my life I was missing.

This past year, with my hearing aid, I felt like I was part of the world again. It's amazing how many situations I used to avoid because they made it difficult for me to hear and carry on conversations. When wearing my hearing aid, I catch almost every word and don't have to sit in a certain spot or angle my head to hear what's being said. I know the hearing aid is in, but nobody else does unless I tell them. It has made such a difference, especially with my students.

We need diverse books like El Deafo so students and teachers like Cece and me can relate to characters in books. We need to read books about situations like our own. I am excited to have a copy of El Deafo in my classroom library (and our school's media center) so students can read Cece's story and gain insight into someone's different life experience.

Thank you, Cece Bell. We need THIS diverse book!

Sunday, July 6, 2014

How Twitter is like NBC's "The Voice"

I've been thinking about this a lot lately.

What I love about the show, "The Voice," is that it allows contestants to be judged on the quality of their voice alone. The audience can see them, but the four judges have their chairs turned around and cannot.

When these brave (and lucky) souls open their mouths to sing, the judges either turn around in support of their vocal talent or they don't. It doesn't matter what they look like or what they're wearing. It doesn't matter if they can dance or not (although it sometimes negatively affects their singing).

They make it onto a judge's team based solely on the music they offer.

How refreshing!

When I first joined Twitter one year ago, it was like auditioning for The Voice.

Nobody could see me (except a small profile picture). Nobody could hear me talk. Nobody could see me teach. They couldn't see my classroom or my students. They couldn't see my messy house (although it's cleaner in the summer months).

Through Twitter, I was able to share only what I chose to share. At first, I was careful to only tweet out my best thoughts and ideas. I was trying desperately to make a great first impression. This is similar to a competitor on The Voice. They walk on stage and sing the best they know how. If they make it on a judge's team (and therefore, make it on the show), they can challenge themselves and try different styles.

All that the members of my PLN can judge me on are my tweets. Do they offer a new idea or perspective? Are they in line with their own thinking? Do my tweets challenge their thinking? Do they link to other's awesome ideas? Do they demonstrate my positive feelings toward their ideas?

Once the number of followers increased and I "made it" on the Twitter "show," I shared a little more of myself. I felt more comfortable offering a divergent opinion or sharing my own ideas (even pictures and videos of my students). I joined chats and tweeted out opinions that may have differed from my peers. I have experienced huge professional growth over the past year, as do most of the contestants on The Voice.

Maybe this is why I like the show so much. All contestants have the unique opportunity to be judged only on the song they choose to share. Then, they have the support of the judges, the fans, and the show to push themselves as artists.

My tweets are like my song. My PLN members are my judges and fans.

Thanks to my wonderful PLN for choosing me to take a spot on your team. I have never regretted my decision to choose any of you as part of mine.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Reach out!

Who would have thought some friendly banter would lead to a respectful, collegial friendship?

A few months ago, I was involved in a Twitter chat during a playoff game between the MN Wild and the Chicago Blackhawks.

Friendly "banter" was exchanged via tweets between a teacher/Blackhawk fan and myself (a Minnesotan & Wild fan by default).

That Blackhawk fan was Greg Armamentos, or @dashthebook.

I believe the Blackhawks won that game, and they went on to play in the semi-final game.
However, that's not what matters.

I discovered that Greg had recently published a book, so I looked it up on Amazon and placed my order.  He started writing it with his students, which is awesome. Also, he self-published (like Dave Burgess), which I admired. It arrived a few days later, and I quickly read it from cover to cover.

It was an incredible story-one that I shared with a few students before the end of the school year. Greg has since sent a signed copy of his book to my school (so I can keep that one and put the other in my classroom library). Thanks to Greg's generosity, my new students can look forward to a Skype visit from Greg (the author) this fall.

The story doesn't end there.

As the school year wound down, another Twitter teacher Ben Kuhlman (@bkuhl2you) issued a challenge called #10summerblogs. Greg jumped in (although he and Ben already had blogs), which encouraged me to give it a try. I had wanted to blog for a while, but this was the push I needed to get started.

Greg was the inspiration for one of my posts about validation (needing our backs scratched). He reminded me that we all (students and teachers) have something worthwhile to say. I was encouraged to share my unique voice with the larger Twitter community.

Every time I publish a new post, Greg is there with kind words and support. He does this with all #10summerblogs participants, as well as authors of books he adores.

Thanks to him, I have read more blogs from wonderful Twitter teachers, and I have enjoyed new books like Circa Now and Dash. I even braved my first time moderating a twitter chat (#5thchat) with an author I admire- Erik Palmer. It was a phenomenal experience!

During a recent Twins game against the White Sox, our friendly rivalry was ignited again. This time it was the MN team (Twins) who won that series, despite currently trailing the Sox in our division.

Although this seems like a tribute to Greg (and he's humble enough not to need it), it's really a post about how you never know what can happen when you reach out on Twitter. When you connect with other educators who share a similar passion. Even when you give them a hard time about their sports team.

Who knew that some friendly banter about the Wild and Blackhawks would lead to a Twitter friendship that inspires and supports me as an educator?

Make sure to reach out and connect. You never know the great people you'll meet.