Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Balance Doesn't Exist

Work/life balance is a silly question, just as work/food balance or work/breathing balance is - Seth Godin

Motherhood is an amazing and beautiful thing, but it's also really hard and humbling. As I write this at 4:30am, one of my kids just cried and my train of thought was interrupted. That’s kind of just how life is these days - Always on the precipice of a great idea or breakthrough and then my brilliant thoughts coming to an abrupt halt and I’m reminded that I need to make a bottle, fold laundry, read a chapter of a book, change someone's diaper, make a meal. Some of this - okay, probably a lot of it - is self imposed pressure, but it’s hard not to feel like I constantly need to make To Do lists and be doing something productive with every free moment in my day. For me, a lot of it is pressure to stay relevant in today’s culture and climate.

This past summer I pushed past the immense guilt of leaving my 2 year old and two month old for a weekend and, with the encouragement of my husband, went to ISTE in Philadelphia. One of the first conversations I had there was with a dear friend, Heidi Bernasconi, who is a dedicated, brilliant, and creative Science teacher in my district. She is also a mother and an inspirational pioneer in the AR/VR space. Throughout our conversation, we talked about how it feels impossibly hard to strike a balance between having a positive and influential presence on social media while also being a great mom, teacher, wife, etc. Personally, I don’t believe balance exists. Once I wrapped my head around not forcing myself to strike this unachievable balance in all of the various hats I wear, I felt less pressured to exist in each and every one of those spaces in the perfect capacity. Some days I need to be 100% mom. Other days, I have the space to be 30% teacher, 30% gym rat, 30% mom, 10% lazy and unproductive. These identities are fluid, as is the effort and energy I can put towards them. I’ve stopped trying to equally disperse my time among each role and started embracing the things that feed my soul and align with my values.

Another thing that Heidi and I discussed is how difficult it feels to stay relevant as a woman and working mother in an ever-evolving space such as ed-tech and Twitter, where there is an almost constant pressure to create content to have skin in the game. Time is now more scarce than ever before. For the foreseeable future, I imagine there will continue to be more on my plate as my kids near school age and become involved in various activities. Some mornings I’m fine with a 4:30am start but other mornings are going to be filled with toddler pillow fights and early morning ‘reading picnics.’ And I’m learning to be okay with the fact that not every moment of every day has to be a hustle. I will contribute to this space whatever I can whenever I can without worrying about an unrealistic balance. Even as I’m writing this, I know I am the type of person to put undue pressure and stress on myself to strive for perfection in every role that I occupy, but I’m still learning to be okay with being good enough instead of perfect.

You will soon understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other four balls — family, health, friends, and spirit — are made of glass. If you drop one of these, they will be irrevocably scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged, or even shattered. They will never be the same.” ―Brian Dyson

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Love Them Even When They Fall Apart

“Remember, everyone in the classroom has a story that leads to misbehavior or defiance. Nine times out of 10, the story behind the misbehavior won't make you angry; it will break your heart.” 
- Annette Breaux: 

This quote is posted on the back of the staff lounge door at the Special Education summer school where I work. It reminds me that every single student I interact with has a story so much deeper than what I can possibly see or understand based on my 45 minutes per day with them. It is the phrase that forces me to breathe and think before reacting to a misbehavior. It is the very necessary pause that I need when faced with a challenging student.

I had parent teacher conferences yesterday. I usually don’t get too many parents, but the conversations I had were powerful and insightful. They added another layer to how I view my students. Hearing their stories, struggles and successes reminds me that kids enter our classrooms with so much weight on their shoulders. I so badly want to be and provide a safe space for them to let down their guards and exhale. The truth is that it can be incredibly taxing to keep it together all day. I see it with my two year old son. His teachers tell us that he is well behaved and how well he listens to directions. They say he is always patient and calm. Meanwhile at home, I see tantrums and whining and typical two year old behavior that, after a long day of ‘performing’ and keeping it together myself, gets under my skin. But then I realized that it’s simply human nature to keep it together until we are safe to fall apart. As humans, we have a tendency to show our undesirable traits to the people we trust the most. It’s part of unconditional love - You accept your children, students, spouses, friends on their beautiful days but also (and especially) their ugly ones.

Every misbehavior has a story. It is our responsibility as educators and parents to love them fiercely even when they fall apart. Show them how to safely identify and navigate the emotions so that we are equipping them with strategies they can employ in the future.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Part I: Getting Uncomfortable To Create Change

I keep seeing and hearing the phrase ‘Change The World’ in some capacity in everything that I consume. It’s happened enough times now that I am finally taking a minute to stop and listen to the universe. The phrase is present in conversations I have, books I’m reading (as I am writing this I turned my head to the book sitting next to me - Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds - and the back cover says, ‘How You Gon’ Change The World?’), and podcasts I’m listening to. It has a deeper meaning for me than just being a cheesy cliche. During my first year of teaching when I lived at home with my parents, every morning before I left for work my dad would shout, “Love you, change someone’s life today!” He still continues to say it to me to this day and it is something that I carry with me all the time.

Last year was the first year that I can say with 100% certainty that I changed the lives of the fifteen amazing special education students in my class. I had my best teaching year yet because I focused on the needs, interests and strengths of my kids rather than simply getting through curriculum. We did collaborative projects, had powerful and important conversations, and focused a lot on reflection and social emotional work. Fast forward to this year where I’m teaching a class of only four students - a monumental challenge that I have managed to make successful thus far. Even though they are ‘only four’ students, having them in my class is an opportunity to change four more lives.

But I want to make change on a bigger scale than just in my classroom. I want to change my school, community, and beyond. And I want to do it NOW. But I often feel trapped within my current system, situation, and school. I’m ready for a big change in a big way. I want to surround myself with like-minded people who have the same goals. While there are small pockets of progressive and forward thinking educators at my school, we are in the minority. So, in an effort to feel more connected and try to make change, I joined two school committees this year - the SEL (social emotional learning) committee and the Instructional Rounds committee (colleague observations).

At this week’s Instructional Rounds meeting, we discussed goals and next steps, which are to continue collecting data to explore questioning in classes on the part of both teachers and students. Last year’s observation data showed that there was very little higher level questioning being done in most classes. As we were having this conversation about the next round of research and observation, I vocalized my concerns: If we are aware that this is a weakness, wouldn’t our time be better spent brainstorming ways to remedy these issues rather than continuing to collect data? Shouldn’t we be turning inward and observing each other and then focusing on helping one another change and improve our instruction? The response I got made me grind my teeth in frustration. In short: Change is scary and we don’t want to rock the boat with an already apprehensive and resistant staff.

While I understand that there is a time and place for methodical, paced change, something more drastic needs to happen to truly shift culture and create long lasting positive change. Being courageous and getting uncomfortable is the only way that we are going to make these changes. The danger in slow & steady is that it is safe. It is not disruptive or bold enough to create truly innovative change. We can't expect different results by doing the same thing we've always done. So I will forge forward and continue to innovate within my own student-centered classroom while searching for additional ways to create a bigger positive impact in the not so distant future.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

The Phrase That Changed Everything

There is always good to be found in any challenging situation. My father is the king of silver linings and I inherited from him the ability to find the light and the lesson everywhere I go. But thinking this way requires a shift in mindset and flipping a situation on its head and looking for the upside is not always easy. I was only able to truly embrace this in talking to my two best friends, Adam and Katie, on Voxer.

Every day on my commute to and from work, the three of us share stories about our lives - Work, marriage, kids, goals and struggles. We listen and give advice, and through these conversations I have come to realize that Voxing has become something of a therapy session. In our three years of talking on Voxer, I noticed one specific phrase that Katie uses when offering advice. It’s the phrase that flipped the switch in my brain and completely shifted my line of thinking:

When asking for advice about an argument I had with my husband over how we dealt with our two year old’s tantrum, her response was: How lucky are we to have husbands who are our equals? How lucky are we to have husbands who are so dedicated to raising our children with us? When I was stressing out over how to execute a demo lesson, her response was: How lucky are you to have this opportunity to present a lesson at such an incredibly reputable and successful school district? And when my kids were sick and the washing machine broke all in the same week (it felt very dramatic at the time), she told me: How lucky are you to have a profession that allows you the time and flexibility to come home and meet the repair man after work?

Don’t get me wrong, it is important to acknowledge and process the emotions of each situation, but at the conclusion of our conversations is always the inevitable ‘How Lucky Are We’ statement that reshapes the scenario and puts things into perspective.

So here's my task for you: Next time you are faced with an overwhelming challenge, try to temporarily step away from the messy emotions and dig deep to figure out what the bigger lesson might be. Ask yourself the 'How lucky am I...' question and take a few deep breaths, understanding that eventually all the pieces will fall into place.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Everyone Deserves A Cheering Section

“Every Kid Needs A Champion.” This is the first thing written at the top of my syllabus. It comes from this TED talk by Rita Pierson:

At yesterday's conference, George Couros made me rethink those words... What about, “Everyone deserves a cheering section”? As teachers, if we are only giving our students one teacher to connect with over the course of their day or year, that isn’t nearly enough. Every single one of us needs to be fostering meaningful connections and building relationships with our students - and with each other. As I sat in George’s sessions and talked with him during lunch, I was reminded of the tremendous power we all have to impact each other’s lives. Every conversation or interaction we have with another person is an opportunity to connect, grow and learn. George changed the entire course of my day by offering to have a conversation with me. He listened, asked questions, and offered advice. So much so, that I felt supported and encouraged enough to finally step outside of my comfort zone and write my first blog post in years! Relationships are truly everything.

At the intersection of relationship building and learning is social emotional work. I went to a few great sessions yesterday on this topic. While I am just beginning to dip my toes into the water of RULER and Marc Brackett’s work, on the most basic level we can all agree that emotions are complex and often messy. To build stronger relationships and guide our students in becoming excellent people, we have a responsibility to help them identify & unpack their emotions. Hopefully, this will lead to meaningful connections, deeper learning, and a stronger sense of self. I want to be the first person in the cheering section for each and every one of my students. I firmly believe there is something to love and admire in every single kid in my classroom. 

Moving forward, I plan to blog regularly (every Wednesday) and share my own stories through the encouragement of my own personal cheering section. By blogging, I am hoping to flesh out my own passions while connecting with those of you who are my cheerleaders - or anyone in need of a cheerleader of their own. I am here to support and encourage you! Thank you to my biggest supporter right now, George Couros, whose words of advice and encouragement were exactly what I desperately needed at a pivotal time. Thank you, George, for giving me the push to start writing again. See you all next Wednesday!

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Google Classroom: Scheduling Posts

Has anyone else been waiting since Google Classroom's inception for this update?! Users asked and the Google team listened. Google Classroom users no longer have to save assignments, announcements, and questions as drafts - It is now possible to schedule a specific date and time to release them into your Stream!


This new Google Classroom feature makes it incredibly easy to stay organized and plan ahead in your lessons. Previously, teachers were required to manually go into Classroom and ‘release’ work to each class at the exact time that they wanted students to access them. The new scheduled post feature eliminates the need for that! Teachers can choose a date from a drop down menu and then type in a specific time for release on any assignment, announcement, or question.

What are the drawbacks?
  • The new schedule posts feature does not yet have the ability to post to/release to multiple classes at the same time, rather users will need to reuse post to do this.
  • There is not currently a drop down feature for scheduling specific times for release.
  • Scheduling posts is currently only available on the web platform and is not yet available in the Google Classroom phone app.

For me, the benefits of this new feature definitely outweigh the drawbacks for teachers like myself that are sometimes forgetful but like to plan ahead. It also provides that peace of mind in knowing that assignments have been queued up and are ready to go exactly when I'll be needing them. Any additional functionality or tool that allows me to save valuable time and clicks is definitely a real win in my book! What do you think of the new feature? What is still missing or needs to be changed?

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Google Expeditions - Behind the Scenes: Part 2

IMG_2193.JPGIn Behind The Scenes: Google Expeditions: Part 1, I explained my school’s relationship with Google and how I created an Expedition at the Google headquarters in NYC back in 2015. After the Google engineers worked their magic and created the expeditions, it was time to pilot in the classroom with students while engineers and employees from Google observed. In hyping up an already awesome day and creating a true experience for my students, I challenged them to dress up as tourists. I even made them fake passports with their names and pictures on it, which they loved! It made the entire experience that much more authentic, enjoyable, and memorable.

Many of the students in my Special Ed classes struggle with engagement, motivation, and communication, in addition to behavioral, emotional and learning disabilities. However, on Pilot Day when students looked into the Cardboard and a chorus of ‘OH MY GOSH’ filled the room, 100% of them were engaged and immediately drawn into the lesson for the entire class period! To facilitate a valuable learning experience, the day before Expeditions was spent reviewing major architectural themes and accomplishments from the Classical Greek and Roman civilizations, comparing and contrasting it to the art and architecture of the Middle Ages. Taking the time to build and focus on that knowledge was crucial in seamlessly implementing Expeditions and facilitating rich and meaningful connections with content material.
Screenshot 2016-04-19 at 9.44.14 AM.png
Fake passport with student picture, name and a message from Captain Raskin! (My maiden name)

As the lesson continued we alternated between using the viewfinder to look at images and asking/answering discussion questions that I had pre-made based on each specific site on the Expedition. The ‘Pause’ feature on the tablet proved to be invaluable, as it allowed me to refocus my students and draw them back to the topic despite the high levels of excitement and energy in the room. With that said, it was incredibly powerful to watch students connecting with the imagery on the screen and to observe their excitement as they saw tangible evidence from the topics we had discussed.

Some of their responses included:

”Look! There are arches and columns, just like what we learned about in Ancient Greece!” 
“This is the coolest thing I’ve ever done! I want to learn like this every day!” 
“I love this, but I really wish there could be video and sound.”

Then Google asked my students for feedback. Knowing that their opinions were being listened to and valued had each and every student participating on a level that was unprecedented. It served as a reminder of how essential it is to elevate student voice and empowerment within my classroom on a regular basis. I was blown away with the feedback they provided especially students who were typically reserved and quiet. They suggested adding video, a head strap to the Cardboard viewfinder, a voiceover or guide for each slide, music, and they requested the ability to create their own Expeditions. This last suggestion was what students were most passionate about, which comes up in just about every session I run on Expeditions.

ISTE 2015 in Philadelphia.
Since the pilot, I have been fortunate enough to continue my work with Expeditions. Last June, I attended ISTE with Google and presented numerous sessions on Expeditions. It was absolutely amazing to see educators and adults from all over the world step into virtual reality for the first time. Then, in the fall, I attended the ECET2 conference in which the incredible Jonathan Rochelle was leading a session on Expeditions. I chimed in and asked, "Do you have an Expedition on the Middle Ages? I made that!" A few months later JR and I presented together at a conference in New Jersey, which was truly an awesome experience! More recently my school has continued working with Google to facilitate the Expeditions Pioneer Program within my district in which students in grades K-12 (and staff!) got to try out Expeditions and, of course, loved it.
Jonathan Rochelle and I presenting together on Google Expeditions.

In a completely ironic timing of events, as I write this I just had one of last year’s students stop by my class to say hi. He told me, ‘Exactly one year ago today was the best day of school ever! It was Google Expeditions day and I will never forget how much fun that was!’ Knowing that I (well, really Google) provided my students with a memorable learning experience that stayed with them is what school is all about! Virtual reality experiences such as Google Expeditions and other #edtech resources can be powerful supplemental tools that afford our students with interactive, hands-on experiences that redefine what school is and should be. 

Reader challenge: A question to ponder, blog, talk, or tweet about...
How do you think #GoogleExpeditions & #edtech have redefined what school is and should be?