Sunday, August 17, 2014

What is your "Why"?

What is your "Why"?

As the beginning of the year draws closer and closer, I had the great opportunity to be a part of my building's "Leadership Academy" team. This team has representatives from all grades and areas, and we work to look over our building data (yes...I'm a total data geek! I fully admit and accept that fact! :) We, as a team, use this data to set goals for our upcoming school year. Tough, but extremely rewarding work! I look forward to this every summer!

At our first meeting together this summer, my building leaders shared the following video with us to get our gears moving. Their hope was to help us narrow our building "why":
It's a great "oldie, but goodie" and totally worth the 18 minutes. I saw this during my most recent grad program, and it inspired me to get and read the book: Start With Why by Simon Sinek. It's a wonderful and fast read, and it really helps you reflect on your practice.

It's funny how you can see something at different times in your life and it means something different each time. Seeing the video again (even if it was the 10+ time I have seen's that good) in my current situation, it was wonderful to use it to help me reflect on the "why" of our program in T.E.A.M. Togetherness.

What is our "why" in T.E.A.M. Togetherness? I think if it really came down to it, our first and foremost goal is for our kiddos to show growth. Why do we do what we do?--We believe that all kids can grow. But I think it goes deeper than just the word "grow." We want our kiddos to grow:

  • As learners--we want them to know more than they did before.  
I think most teachers would say that. Who wouldn't, right? But I think it goes even deeper than that. We also want them to grow:
  • As collaborators--we want them to grow their skills and strategies in working together
  • As problem solvers--we want them to grow their thinking and attack any problem they are faced with
  • As questioners--we want them to continually ask questions to learn, to challenge their thinking, and to push the thinking of those around them
  • As failures--we want them to be okay with their failures/mistakes. They can work to grow their thinking and learning from those mistakes and setbacks. Fail FORWARD!
  • As reflectors--we want them to grow in their" thinking about their thinking", set goals, and reflect on their progress
  • As 21st century learners--we want them to grow with and understand the digital tools at their fingertips and the responsibilities that go with them
  • As contributors--we want them to grow in the quality of their contributions to our classroom community, as well as in the world they enter outside of our space
  • As the little, wonderful, individual people that they are--we want them to grow in their own confidence, abilities, and understanding/respect of themselves for WHO THEY ARE--to be proud of that--and to know enough about themselves to use their strengths and weaknesses to their advantage throughout our year together--and in their future lives!
Whew!--That's a lot for that one little word--GROW! I'm sure I could keep going. I'm sure that our thinking will change, too, as the year progresses and those little people push our own thinking with their amazing growth! So, to follow Simon Sinek's bullseye completely through (similar to his Apple model):
  • Our "Why": We are a team that believes all students can show growth
  • Our "How": We will provide them with what they need, when they need it, and give them choice and ownership in the process. All this takes place within...
  • Our "What": Our personalized learning environment...Wanna join us?
Our district has an amazing phrase that I feel truly connects to our "why": Every Student. Every Time. All the Time. This year, our school will have this posted in every classroom and connect it to all that we do and communicate. Could there be an even better message?!--I think not! I absolutely LOVE it!

I feel that we, in T.E.A.M. Togetherness, a personalized learning environment, have that full potential to reach "Every Student. Every Time. All the Time." And our "Why"?-- to help our kiddos grow--in the ways that they need, at the times that they need it.

As you start your own year, I challenge you to think of your own "why"--why do you do what you do? Can you communicate it to your families? Your leaders? Your peers? And most importantly: Your students? When you pull out that thing you've "always done, every year, for the last X years"--ask yourself "why"? and does it match with your foundational "why"? Or is it merely a convenient "what"? Could you change it? Could you make it better? Could you scrap it altogether and start with something more meaningful that truly connects to Every Student. Every Time. All the Time? Feel free to comment below with your own "why"--we'd love to learn with you!


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Classroom Response Systems!

Classroom Response Systems (CRS) are a great way to increase student participation and promote active learning in the classroom. Students can submit answers to questions anonymously via some sort of "clicker". A CRS is not only interactive, it's downright fun! I love them because the students do not feel pressure about getting the right answer, plus the students are provided with immediate feedback. You can use a response system, across subject areas, to activate prior knowledge, maintain student attention throughout a lesson or assess comprehension of a concept after the lesson.

Kahoot!: If you're looking for FUN, this is the option for you. Angela and I recently taught a class about personalized learning, and one of the men in our class introduced us to Kahoot! He created a question set and our class had a ball answering the questions on our own device. Teachers can create quick quizzes/surveys or more in-depth questions. The best part of Kahoot! is that the question sets are easy to make and even easier to respond to. When you launch Kahoot! on your classroom whiteboard, students go to, enter their game pin and start playing! They can do this from any device (iPad, iPod, Chromebook, laptop, etc.) There is no need for kids to create an account to play. Students can take on the leadership role by creating their own Kahoots! to share with fellow classmates. Teachers can use the formative assessments to track student understanding and differentiate instruction accordingly. This game-based learning is highly engaging and a ton of fun for students and teachers! It can be timed, untimed, and they have other options, too, to truly differentiate the learning for your students (we all have those kiddos that take a little longer to process that this could be frustrating for otherwise!) Use this at your next PD and your teachers will have a ball!

Senteo Interactive Response System: I have had a set of these "clickers" in my classroom for years. The kids love using them. SMART Notebook allows you to create question pages within a SMART Notebook file. Students can play anonymously or with a log in option. SMART Exchange also allows you to download a variety of question sets all ready for classroom use.

ExitTicket: This was another great "find" from teaching our class this summer! This app is available through the Google Chrome Store and iTunes. In order to respond students need their own technology. Classroom teachers can create question sets for their students and share them with colleagues. As students answer, their responses are tracked without importing or exporting data. They have different types of question sets depending on the teacher's need. I have not personally used ExitTicket yet, but will definitely be playing around with this option this year.

Do you use a classroom response system with your students? If so, share your thoughts, tips, tricks or favorite ideas! If this is a new idea for you, give it a try. You won't be disappointed!

~ Kate

Monday, August 11, 2014

Meet and Greet

It's that time...the clock is ticking...we are inching closer and closer to the day they return! For us in Elmbrook, that day is "Meet and Greet!"

What is "Meet and Greet"? For us, it is a day the week before school starts where the kiddos come in and meet their teachers. They also have the opportunity to drop off their school supplies and have their class pictures taken. It is usually a whirlwind, fast, HOT, and fun! This year will be a refreshing change of pace, as we are looping with our kiddos, so it will be more of a "reunion" versus "introduction." We can't wait to see our friends again as that evening will mark the beginning of another wonderful year together in T.E.A.M. Togetherness!

"Meet and Greet" does take some preparation, though. Kate and I are what some like to call "Type-A" (What?! ME?! Well...her, too :) Our program has really helped us let go of some of that, because we are no longer "in control" 100% of the time (the kids are). But for evenings like "Meet and Greet," some structure is beneficial.

A Checklist. One of the tools we use to help the time flow more smoothly (and it really helps save time on Day 1) is a checklist for where to put everything! Because we work in a community space, our students do not have their own desk or "seat." We share many of our supplies, but students do have blue bins (the ones we use are out of stock, but they give alternative suggestions) that they house their personal belongings in, a locker, as well as a mailbox. This checklist is inside each students mailbox for them to grab upon arrival:
Link to full PDF of the entire list
Get to Know You Survey. Another great tool that we use is Google Forms. At "Meet and Greet", we have some of our Chromebooks set out with a link to a Google Form up on the screen.
Last year before "Meet & Greet" started. We had 15 total computers set up throughout the space.
Google Forms can be used for ANYTHING...surveys...formative assessments...exit tickets...the possibilities are endless! For "Meet and Greet", we use Google Forms for a "get to know you" survey (or in our case this year..."help us update your info" survey). Every time someone fills out the form, their responses are automatically sent to a spreadsheet. This spreadsheet now houses ALL of that great information in one place for you to access! Here is a screenshot of the survey we used last year along with a link. This form was much more descriptive, as it was the first time we were meeting our families.
This year, we modified our form to be more specific and to separate each parent's e-mail. We found that the results will be clearer and easier to navigate. Here is a link to this year's form.

The second week of school, we host a PIN night (Parent Information Night). It is then that we cover specific curriculum items. We'll post more about that fun evening as we get closer.

What do you do for "Meet and Greet"? Do you have any fun tips and tricks to share?


Sunday, August 10, 2014

Digital Portfolios!

Our students' digital portfolios are a place for them to house artifacts that they feel showcase some of their best work. Last year our students started their portfolios using Google Sites.  We created a template for them to use and they did their best to make it their own. The students introduced themselves with an All About Me page and updated their data page throughout the year. Every few weeks we would have a portfolio "dump" and new artifacts would be added.

We heard about Weebly at the Convening Conference put on by the Institute @ CESA 1 last November. Angela and I were pretty established with our classroom website and the students' portfolios, so we didn't think too much about it until this past summer. As I mentioned in a previous post, I have been blogging for years, but Google Sites does not come easily to me. I find it difficult to navigate and adding to our website was always cumbersome to me. We felt the same frustration from the kids. Because of that, we were looking for a new platform and remembered that someone had mentioned Weebly.

After playing around with it for 30 minutes I knew that it would not only be a better option for us, but also for our students. There are tons of themes/templates to get you started, and the drag and drop interface makes it very easy for adults and kids to use. If you visit the Weebly for Education site you'll see you can manage multiple student sites from one account and their are a variety of easy to use features. As the teacher, you control what is posted and you can be certain that your students' sites are kept private. I also love that you can easily add text, images, slideshows, audio, links, documents and more!

Since we are looping with our students, and our parents are familiar with our classroom website, Angela and I will be continuing to use Google Sites this year. Next year we will move our website to Weebly. Our students, however, will be recreating their digital portfolios this year using Weebly. Here is a sneak peek at an example of a student portfolio. The students will have the opportunity to make it their own, but they will be expected to include the given tabs across the top. Check back throughout the year for updates on their portfolios. I will be sure to post a few student examples once they're up and running. It'll be a great back-to-school activity within the first few weeks!

~ Kate

We're Blogging!

I'm Kate, the other half of T.E.A.M. Togetherness. I have been writing on my personal blog for the last 8 years, but this is my first attempt at sharing professional tips, tricks, and ideas. When Angela told me we were starting a classroom blog I was over-the-moon excited, but a little nervous too.  For starters, I do not consider myself to be the best writer...I write like a speak, usually too fast, without thinking things entirely through. I don't do well with rough drafts and tend to hit "publish" before I reread. With that said, I will try VERY hard to proofread my posts prior to publication (how's that for alliteration!). 

Rewind. I met Angela in August of 2012. She was new to Elmbrook and Swanson. I saw her at our back to school inservice and immediately introduced myself. I had been teaching in the building for 12 years and couldn't imagine how she'd be feeling walking into a brand new school after having an established career in a neighboring district. From the get-go I knew I liked her. She was approachable and very down-to-earth. Plus, truth be told, she had on a darling pair of Levi's and I had to know their number! As the school year started our days were quickly filled with teaching and I didn't see Angela very often. Swanson is a big school- she taught 2nd grade downstairs and I taught 5th grade upstairs. Now you're probably thinking, big deal, but with a school our size and opposite schedules, you don't often run across people. That year though, I made an effort to get to know her. I found some of her handouts in the copy room and I tracked her down begging her for them. She graciously said "Of course!" and from that moment on I would make weekly visits, soon to be daily visits, down to her room. Her 2nd graders freaked me out a bit (they're so little), but in the same breath my 5th graders intimidated her a tad too. 

Towards the end of the school year I found out I would be leaving 5th grade and moving down to 4th. I had taught many years in 4th grade, but had fallen in love with 5th graders. I was apprehensive and very sad to be making the move, but I trusted my administrator and knew deep down that it would be just fine. Status quo just seemed to be easier at the moment. I remember being in the middle of teaching Social Studies when I looked up and saw Angela standing in my doorway. It wasn't a totally unheard of thing for her to be in my room, but when she asked if she could talk to the hallway or maybe the back of the room, I wondered what in the world was going on. Keep in mind, I was in the middle of teaching thirty 5th graders about the Revolutionary War. I sent them on their way to work and stepped aside to speak to Angela. Little did I know in that moment my entire teaching career would change. A split second decision would turn my professional life upside down and send me on a journey that would grow me in ways I didn't know possible. 

When Angela asked me to embark on this adventure I said yes without any hesitation...I had NO idea what the "Uncommittee" was, I could not comprehend what it was that was going on in her head, and to be quite frank, I barely knew the woman. We had spoken at work, she had shared a few student handouts with me, but it's not like I had known her very long. It didn't matter though. I was thrown back to that first inservice day, when I introduced myself and my gut said, "I like her." With a smile from ear to ear, I walked back into my classroom and continued on with my teaching. 

In the next few weeks, as news of our idea spread throughout the staff, I was faced with a lot of people who were apprehensive and questioned my decision. One teammate kept asking me if I knew what I was getting myself in to. My response every time was, "No, I have no idea...but I don't care. It's going to be great. I just know it." Now, as we start Year Two, I am confident saying that it was THE BEST decision I have made professionally. My excitement for teaching is back and I look forward to teaching each day. I have grown so much as a teacher over the last year, and I am confident that this year will be even better! 

Thank you, Angela for asking me to join you on this journey! I am forever grateful. 

~ Kate

The Birth of a T.E.A.M.

Now that we've started this blogging journey, we should probably back up a little to the "birth" of T.E.A.M. Togetherness.

After 11 years of teaching in one amazing district, I had the tremendous fortune of joining my current district. I have tremendous respect for the new senior leaders and would follow them anywhere. When they took their new positions, I, too, applied, and was accepted.

In January of 2013, our senior leadership developed a new initiative called "The Uncommittee." The purpose was to rethink instructional practices and explore innovation. They invited teachers from throughout the district to be a part of the first cohort. We partnered with the amazing Jim Rickabaugh at The Institute at CESA #1, and visited schools and districts around us that were successfully implementing personalized learning. We observed, learned, and brainstormed our own ideas to bring to our district. In April, we were given the opportunity to write our own proposals for funding.

I approached Kate with my hair-brained idea, and without hesitation, she agreed. She didn't know details. She didn't know the plan. She simply trusted me and agreed. I can never thank her enough for that. From that one encounter, our partnership was born.

Our Plan
We teach in a very traditional district. Change was going to be tough. Sometimes unwelcome. Sometimes viewed by others as "crazy." Knowing that, we decided to go as "crazy" as possible!
1. Knock down a wall between two classrooms to create one shared learning space
2. Share 50+ 4th graders
3. Recreate the space to not include desks or seating for each student. Include unique layouts that provide alternative seating options for students to choose from
4. One-to-one technology via Google Chromebooks
5. Utilize inquiry, project-based learning, collaboration, and student interest to drive instruction
6. Students share and reflect upon learning using digital portfolios and weekly goal setting.
7. and more!
The wall finally came down mid-August 2013
The summer of 2013 was spent planning, stressing, planning some more, meeting with our new 4th grade team, stressing, and finally stressing. Communication with families was critical, but we will save that for a future blog post.

Ultimately, it all came together (by the skin of our teeth) and we met our 50 wonderful darlings at the end of August.

We have so much to share about our first year in T.E.A.M. Togetherness (which, of course, I won't do all in one post!) The ups, the downs, and the in betweens. We are now looping with our kiddos to 5th grade for the 2014-2015 school year. We will be continuing our journey and sharing our work. Thanks for learning along with us.


The beginning...

So, it began on a Sunday. I've had this idea stewing around in my head for a while...BLOGGING. I follow so many amazing educational leaders on Twitter and that other thing called "the world wide inter web." Their blogs teach me new things every day and help me reflect on my own practices. They move me. They make me aspire to be a better educator. The help me feel connected--that I'm not alone in my crazy thinking about change. These people...these "strangers" from around the world...impact my life. We live in a truly tremendous age where this kind of learning is possible.

Which brings me to my own work. I am so fortunate to do what I do--to LOVE what I do. I am so fortunate that what I do helps people rethink their own practices in my small corner of the world. I didn't set out with that intention. It was a the most amazing "accident." And because of what I do, people around my teaching partner and I are always asking us to share our work...and we do...just not in such a public format. But what if? What if we could have a more widespread impact? What if we could be the ones to make a difference to others half a world away? Could I be so brazen as to think so? To take that risk?

Blogging?  ME?!?  I'll admit it...I'm a little worried about this. I'm nervous. I'm anxious. I also don't show my fear well. It makes me very uncomfortable. It makes me fallible.  But I read a quote once that said "It's only when I'm truly scared, that I know I'm being audacious enough." (Thanks @AngelaMaiers). So, I figured...why not take the leap? I'll put myself out there. I'll do something that makes me uncomfortable. I'll try my best to help "change the world" one blog at a time (what a lofty hope... :)
Thankfully, my amazing "work wife", Kate, has fully supported my flavor of "crazy", and has blogging experience, herself. She'll be contributing to our journey, as well, which gives me some added comfort.

So, here I am. Welcome to the blogger world! I hope you accept me. I hope you find our work useful. I hope I can make mistakes. I hope that this entire process helps me grow, connect, and evolve in ways I didn't know before. So, THANKS, for taking this risk with me.