Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Character Is Who You Are When Nobody Is Watching

Creating positive classroom climate and culture are imperative to a successful school year. I touched on this in my last post, but we're digging deep today. It is easy to lose sight of the importance of climate and culture because of pressures to push out content. Today, I created an opportunity to focus on reminding my students of the importance of learning more than just how to ace an exam or write an ‘A’ paper - Today we focused on being good people.

Yesterday my classes visited the 9/11 Never Forget exhibit that came to our school for the day. It was an experiential learning opportunity in which FDNY and NYPD officers involved in 9/11 gave tours of the traveling exhibit which contains images, videos and information recounting the events of 9/11. Unfortunately, I couldn’t be there with one of my classes but my wonderful teaching assistant was. After class I received this unsettling e-mail from her:  

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Let’s be real: It isn’t an uncommon occurrence for students to act out when a teacher is absent. But after reading that e-mail I felt disappointed and upset in their lack of respect for the adults they interacted with and for one another.

I went to sleep and woke up with this on my mind. I knew I wanted to approach it in a positive and productive way because that is the classroom environment I strive to create. I can’t stress enough how important it is to me to turn negatives into positives. Here’s why: Many of my Special Education students feel that the deck is stacked against them. They have internalized the effects of past teachers giving up on them and have been discouraged because of it. I want to make it clear to my students that I am not those teachers and I will not give up on them.

Fast forward to today. Immediately upon walking into class students saw this quote illuminated from the SMART Board screen:


I asked them to take out a Post-It and reflect on the quote, explain what it means to you and share an example of a time when you exhibited ‘good’ character and ‘bad’ character. I didn’t ask students to share answers like I normally would due to time constraints and circumstance, but I did collect all of their Post-Its and we had a short discussion. I asked, “Does anyone know why I have this particular quote on the board?” at which point some sheepish heads were lowered, some students stared at me in confusion, and one very brave student raised his hand and responded exactly the way I was hoping someone would.

“Is it because of the way that we behaved when you were absent yesterday and how some of us didn’t treat each other or the people running the exhibit with respect?”

That was exactly why. Word for word. Alas, the student that answered is (of course) a mature, honest, do-gooder who thrives on classroom participation and had absolutely no involvement of the missteps of the previous day’s events. But still, it spoke volumes to me that even a well behaved, innocent peer of the misbehaving students picked up on their disrespectful behavior.

I went on to discuss my expectations of their behavior, both when I am present and absent, and the importance of respect. I explained that their behavior is not only a reflection of themselves but also of me. I made it very clear that despite us only knowing each other for one month I have high hopes that each of them will leave my classroom as good people - Not only at the end of the year but today, tomorrow, next week, next month, etc. I challenged them to prove on a daily basis that they are the kind, thoughtful, positive contributors to their community that I know they are capable of being.

At that point in my soapbox speech, I wondered to myself whether or not other teachers make it clear that they truly believe in their students. Do you talk to your students about not only doing well in class but, more importantly, what you expect from them beyond the walls of your classroom? I firmly believe that every single teacher needs to explicitly do this. Before moving on to our next activity, I reminded them that what they put out into the world comes back and reiterated the importance of respect and teamwork.

Tomorrow, to start class off on a lighter note but still reminding them of our discussion from the day before, I am going to show a clip from my all-time favorite TV show - Friday Night Lights.   

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I never really know if what I say ‘sticks’ with my students, but based on the responses I got on some of the Post-Its, today’s mindfulness and self-awareness exercise served as a therapeutic and reflective exercise for all students and I’m counting that as a win. Or at the very least, a positive step in the right direction towards creating the kind of climate and culture I’m hoping for. Until next time: Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose!  


Tuesday, September 22, 2015

My Takeaways from #NJPAECET2 Conference

This past weekend I had the fortune of attending the NJPAECET2 conference (AKA alphabet conference via the #EdJusticeLeague). One of the best parts of the weekend was that the awesome #NJPAECET2 steering committee arranged for food and lodging for the weekend, which allowed participants to truly become immersed in being vulnerable, building face to face connections and growing our PLN. While I would love to share each conversation, experience and session, I’m going to focus on my major takeaways from an inspirational weekend of learning, growing, connecting and fun!

“Is this what wakes you up in the morning and keeps you up at night? It should be because when you’re a teacher every day is game day!”
I wanted to fist pump a rowdy “HELL YES!” in the middle of Principal Kafele’s keynote address when he said those words. He used an analogy where he compared teaching and learning to preparing for a football game. You’ve gotta watch the films to get ready for game day. Then, after the game, you assess, reflect, and make adjustments to improve. His words of wisdom served as a valuable reminder to foster and nourish trust, respect, and a positive rapport with each and every student that walks through the doors of my classroom. This was a common theme throughout my weekend.

Principal Kafele also asked us if we were fired up about every child that walks through our door and followed his question up by challenging us to make those students truly feel our passion. I think I did a pretty good job of making my students feel valued during the first week of school by asking relevant and personal questions on a ‘Getting To Know You’ survey (adapted from my best friend Mr. Schoenbart.) I always look for opportunities within my lessons to embed that knowledge and bond with each of my students. It is those personal connections and small touches that give students a feeling of being supported and trusted as they fail forward, take risks, and grow.

Cory Radisch also talked about personal connections in his session, “Creating A Community of Learners with Respect, Routine & Hope.” His words will stay with me for the rest of my teaching career - ‘You’ve gotta reach ‘em before you can teach ‘em.’ We sometimes forget that the children in our classrooms are more than a mere name on a roster or a body in a chair - Our kids are individuals with aspirations and fears. They are motivated by success and love. Cory’s message also reminded me of my favorite TedTalk (Simon Sinek’s ‘Start with Why’). Our students don’t buy into what we teach them but why we do it. Make sure your students know they are supported and loved - Make your passion tangible!

Grappling with things that itch, allowing people to get lost, & answering questions then questioning answers.
When I go to conferences I always try to attend a session that is completely out of my comfort zone. Dave Culberhouse’s session on “Transforming Leadership & Designing Systems of Change” was it for me. His words, videos, and book suggestions (find all 9 million of them in this collaborative conference notes Doc) inspired me to take action on my goal of becoming a more active and involved leader, both in and out of my school. I desperately want the opportunity to ask and grapple with the tough questions.

Speaking of things that itch, there was a lot of talk about equality and bridging divides, both gender and digital. Joyce Valenza spoke about the role of women in #edtech and education. She showed Amy Schumer’s ‘I’m Sorry,’ which was an incredibly powerful moment for myself and many of the strong, intelligent women in the audience.

Then, my brilliant and passionate friend Talia Arbit (who created the greatest quiz of all time) led a fun, interactive discussion session on bridging the digital divide which further reinforced my passions about actively leading and making change.

That time we hung out with Jonathan Rochelle.
This was almost as cool as if I were to have met Taylor Swift - almost. Jonathan was doing a demo on Google Expeditions and we discussed my experience piloting Expeditions in my class last year. I loved seeing the excitement as session participants experienced Expeditions for the very first time! It reminded me of when my own class tried it last year and how seeing their faces light up truly was one of the best days of my teaching career. During the awesome #CoffeeEDU afterward Jonathan even offered to share the #EdTechCalNYNJ on his site and to bring a 3D printed #CoffeeEdu cup to a local #CoffeeEdu! I’d definitely call my @jrochelle experience my major #eduwin of the weekend!  

What did you learn that you can use on Monday?
I try to leave every conference with a Back to School Takeaway - something that I can use and incorporate into my teaching immediately. Yesterday, I showed some of my female students a portion of the Amy Schumer video and we had a discussion about empowerment. Later this week I am going to use https://bingobaker.com/ with my students, which the awesome Justin Schleider showed us during his fun and engaging session on SAMR as PD. Best of all, I taught my husband (he teaches Physical Education and Health) about Justin’s brain break activity of kinesthetic Rock, Paper, Scissor and his students loved it!   

The big takeaway: My tribe.

There was a tangible buzz of excitement and passion for connectivity and everything #edtech throughout the entire weekend. I am going to continue riding this high as I bring a fresh perspective and innovative ideas to my district. While the learning was amazing, the people are what really makes a conference. The nominated attendees and conference presenters at #NJPAECET2 were top notch. Each person I spoke to was kinder and more passionate than the last. There truly was an unmatched vibe of teamwork and camaraderie at this conference that I have never experienced before. I cannot express how thankful I am to the steering committee of the #NJPAECET2 conference for putting together an incredible weekend. I look forward to hopefully being able to present at next year's conference, as this was one of my favorite conferences to date. I truly feel blessed to have such a wonderful tribe of weirdos to call my friends and #PLN!


Friday, September 18, 2015

My 1:1 Chromebook Journey Part 1: Struggles and Successes with Setup + First Projects

Over the past few months I have had the great fortune of meeting and collaborating with many wonderful #edtech companies. When my friend Emily Gover (@edtechjam) at Imagine Easy (ever heard of EasyBib? Yup, that’s them!) reached out to me about writing a guest blog post I was absolutely ecstatic! On Wednesday my post was published and I am thrilled to be able to share my 1:1 Chromebook adventures with my fellow educators. There will be three installments of my Chromebook journey, so stay tuned for more from Room 309 and the inner workings of Mrs. Kennis’s head!

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Time For A Divorce: 5 Tips for Successful Co-Teaching


I just got married and I’m already talking divorce?! Co-teaching divorce, that is. It is never easy to admit failure, especially after putting in significant effort to make something work. I can’t really say whether co-teaching is like a marriage, as I’ve only been married for 53 wonderful, beautiful days (which explains my very long absence from the beloved danikennis.com - previously PancakePD - blog!), but I want to start the 2015 blogging school year with a major edu-win by sharing my co-teaching story and five tips for creating a successful co-teaching environment.  

Over the past six years, I have been the Special Education teacher in two failed co-taught 9th grade Social Studies classes. Despite the multitude of co-teaching ‘how to’ courses in my undergraduate (GO HOOSIERS!) and graduate schooling, as well as numerous in-service workshops, I continually felt as though my skills and knowledge were underutilized and that my role had become more of a glorified Teaching Assistant than a true co-teacher. While a lack of common planning time certainly made things difficult, my co-teachers and I differed in our teaching philosophies and classroom management approaches. I felt stifled because I desperately wanted to contribute strategies and ideas that I felt would benefit the variety of student needs in the classroom.

Now for the edu-win…
At the end of last year, I approached my supervisors about wanting to be in co-teaching environments with opportunities to take on a more proactive and involved role. Luckily, my bravery paid off! This year I have been placed in two new co-taught classes with new co-teachers. I feel extremely lucky because these new teachers, Brian and Danielle, happen to be two of my closest friends and biggest role models - both of which have contributed to success thus far. After only two weeks of school I already feel a renewed sense of enthusiasm towards co-teaching and have been more productive and involved than years prior.  

Why It Works: Tips for Successful Co-Teaching...
  1. Communicate, communicate, communicate! My first few years of co-teaching were also my very first years of teaching in general. I was overwhelmed and unsure of my style or voice as a brand new teacher. I felt anxious and intimidated to approach the regular education teachers about ideas and changes I wanted to implement. This year before school began I sat down with each of my co-teachers and we discussed our clear-cut visions for the school year. We made sure to discuss policies on bathroom use, homework, grading, cell phone and technology use in order to show students that we are truly a team with a common vision and shared classroom management strategies.

  1. Make Time: Delegate a time each week specifically for planning with your co-teacher(s). Decide what topics you will each be teaching and exactly how you will be doing it. Whether before or after school, during lunch, or even on Google Hangout or text message if you are strapped for time, this is a key element to incorporating each teacher’s voice, goals, values and visions into the collaborative teaching environment.

  1. Reflect: After each day or lesson, take time to consider what went well and what needs improvement. Teaching is typically a solo trade, however, co-teaching allows the opportunity for collaboration that we so often crave. This is a great time to bounce ideas off of someone and discuss best practices. During these conversations I like to use Evernote to keep track of changes or notes during these conversations so that when I have more time I can go back and address them.
  1. Find a model that works for you: Focus on each teacher’s strengths and figure out the best way to incorporate these assets into your co-taught classroom. For example, I am the technology coach in my school and Brian happens to be excellent at leading lively student-driven discussions. Last week we maximized both of our talents in the classroom to facilitate collaborative student-led group projects using GAFE tools. Similarly, Danielle’s strengths are organization and teaching study skills. She and I have adjusted our lessons to build in time to teach these skills to our students as they work on various assignments.   

  1. Mind your language: ‘We’ and ‘us’ should be an integral part of your vocabulary in a co-taught setting, never ‘I’, ‘me’, or ‘my’. This may seem to be a minute detail but it is crucial to show students that both teachers are equal in their roles as classroom teachers. It truly fosters a sense of collaboration and unity, as I mentioned before. A simple way do this is to make sure that both teacher’s names are on the syllabus or to have both names listed on Google Classroom.  

As far as I can tell, there are many parallels between nurturing a relationship with a co-teacher and a spouse. I absolutely adore my husband and feel thankful for the strong bond that we have built over many years. Our bond, much like that between my co-teachers and myself, have been built on a solid foundation of friendship, respect, and continued communication. The same applies to building a lasting and successful co-teaching situation. I look forward to further reflecting on my co-teaching experience as the year goes on. Please feel free to share your tips and stories on successful co-teaching situations you have been in!