A Place for Wonder

I have heard Georgia Heard speak about her passion for teaching poetry to children and it inspired me to write some poetry of my own. When I heard she had written a new book with Jennifer McDonough, I was intrigued. I began reading it the day I received it in the mail.

A Place for Wonder, Reading and Writing Nonfiction in the Primary Grades, explores the importance of classrooms that encourage curiosity and discovery. What seems like such a simple thing can be easily overlooked if teachers don't consciously provide a place for exploration and wonder as well as integrating habitudes of curiosity into their curriculum.

What I liked about this book, was that it wasn't simply a "how-to" recipe for teaching nonfiction. Don't get me wrong, the lessons, directions and artifact photos are there for you to use and implement in your own classroom, but there is also a lot of thoughts between Georgia and Jennifer about how they came to their ideas and decisions. Reading their after-lesson reflections was what made their work even more powerful. It really helped me understand and visualize their classroom work.

Curiosity and wonder seems like a natural fit for science lessons, but I really would like to see more of it infused in lessons across the curriculum and through the grades. Georgia and Jennifer aren't the only ones talking about teaching curiosity. A recent blog post by Angela Maiers shows her conversation with literacy coaches about looking for evidence of curiosity in classrooms.

Do you have a classroom environment that supports curiosity? What kinds of things do you do?


Kicking off with a Wiki

Last year, we taught teachers at our elementary school how to use blogs, wikis and other web 2.0 tools to work and teach. We gave teachers choices about when to adopt their use and how they would use them. This school year, we felt like it was important to embed technology use in everything that we could, where technology was the best tool to use. Putting our money where our mouth is, so to speak. So when summer planning began, we considered our tools...

In years past, teachers were given binders containing the faculty handbook and essential schedules and forms they would need at the start and throughout the year. As the year went on, updates were placed in mailboxes or emailed to teachers.

Last year, we purchased a flash drive for each teacher with all of this information pre-loaded, but then still had to email out updates and hope that the most recent file was the one saved.

This year, we decided to keep all pertinent forms, schedules and information on a faculty & staff wiki. We kept the wiki private because it has teacher addresses and phone numbers as well as other sensitive information, but everyone was invited to join so they could upload when needed.
I even managed to convince my principal to film a little welcome message to everyone. I used Pinnacle to put it together. It is embedded on the home page of our wiki. Our school theme this year is prominently featured. I'll let you watch to find out more about it:

The wiki has had many additional benefits we never considered. Here are some examples:

* Instead of turning in meeting agendas, teachers can upload a copy to the wiki for documentation.
* The master calendar that normally is kept in the principal's office is now an embedded google calendar.
* Faculty members that may have not tried to actually use a wiki last year when they learned about them are now having to weekly use and get comfortable with this wiki.
* Our district has limited the size of our email boxes, making it difficult sometimes, to receive powerpoints or other large files. The wiki is a perfect place to store these items for future use.

It seems like the more we use wikis, the more ideas we come up with to use them. We would love to learn how other schools are using them. Please share!


National Educational Computing Conference 2009

Hi everyone! I just got back from the National Educational Computing Conference in Washington, D.C. and I am on learning hangover! What an amazing experience. My colleague, Suzanne Shall, and I blogged all we learned on LIVE from the Creek (our school's professional development blog) and we're not finished yet! So please hop on over there and check out what we learned. We'd love to hear from you.

Plan on ISTE 2010 in Denver, CO this time next year. We hope to see you there!


Ending with the Beginning in Mind

When we started this school year going Around the World in 180 Days on a Virtual Learning Adventure, we kicked it all off by spending the first day back for teachers immersed in technology and it's possibilities. We proceeded to have an amazing year of many firsts and I can honestly say I think everyone grew as a learner. I think everyone has schema for where they are going and what their own personal next step will be regarding technology integration and I hope to support them with their steps through next school year.

My principal, Susan Phillips, always ends the last day of school with an awards luncheon for the teachers. We have a catered lunch at a different location each year and enjoy the downtime with our colleagues. But the part that everyone really looks forward to is Susan reading exceptional letters written to her, recognizing faculty and staff for specific awards and revealing our theme and focus for the next year. Keeping our yearlong theme in mind, she "tech-ed up" our awards in fun, meaningful ways.

The Tag Team award went to our PTA President and SAC Chairperson for their year of service and dedication to our school.

The Focused Filters award went to our beginning teachers for wading through (filtering) all that they are responsible for as first year teachers along with the regular responsibilties of classroom teaching.

The Hard Drivers award went to our National Board Certified teachers who received their certification this year. These teachers must amass an abundance of information to successfully achieve the NBCT standing. We had six new teachers (including me) inducted which brings our total to a whopping 22!

The Avid Avatars award went to our Teacher of the Year and Employee of the Year. Like avatars representing the person they are for, these people finely represent their titles and exemplify what a teacher and employee truly should be.

RSS Feeders award went to a group of people that made a difference. We learned this year that the RSS feed was what made a difference in our online contacts. You don't have to go find things online, they come to you! These people came to us with suggestions and help in different capacities that made a true difference in our school.

The Mash Up award went to teachers and staff members who took their knowledge and mashed it up to make new programs and activities that we never knew could exist. These "mash-ups" yielded major amounts of money for charity and birthed new teacher leaders for our school.

The Networkers award went to a group of teachers that "gave back more than they took in". They collaborated online with other classrooms across the world, they used our technology strategies taught through Book of the Month each month and they led their students so that 100% made state standard on assessments.

The Web 2.0 Widgets were faculty choice award. These three teachers were selected because they quickly showed us how technology tools can be easily used and make your classroom a fun place to be.

The Jump Drivers award is the Team award for the best "team" of the year. This year, it was the Foundations Team. They identified a need, early in the year, for an anti-bullying program which they have successfully implemented and plan to continue into the new year.

The Logging Out award was given to all teachers moving away to new opportunities and areas.

The Logging In award is given to new teachers coming to our school for next year.

The most anticipated part of this end of the year luncheon is our new theme video which is shown as we finish our desserts. A pin could drop as the the lights dimmed and we watched:

I'm looking forward to another amazing year at my school. Orchestrating a Symphony of Student Success!


To Homework, or not to Homework...That is the Question

Even after reading thought provoking blog posts by my friends dayle timmons and Silvia Tolisano about homework, I've been pondering whether to share what I have to say about the subject. A few years ago, I probably wouldn't have shared because I know people have such strong opinions about homework. I think I would have argued with my own self several years ago...but personal experience has taught me a lesson.

Most of the years I taught in the classroom, I had this written somewhere on or inside my students' homework folder: Homework is a way of reinforcing what we learn and do in school each day. I truly believed it. I felt like it was a necessary task. I assigned what I deemed appropriate amounts in a variety of subjects and provided rewards...and lost playtime for unfinished work (I'm ashamed to say). Just as I do now as an educator, I only did what I thought was best at the time...

Being a mommy changed my mind about homework.

I have a 19 year old daughter, a 13 year old daughter and a daughter and son that are 5. My oldest daughter sailed through elementary school. Every day, from kindergarten on, she brought home homework that never took her more than 5 or 10 minutes. Frequently, she finished it on the bus on the way home. I never had to study for a single test with her. The most I ever heard about homework was when I had to purchase supplies for a project. I never really thought about it at the time, but now I look back and think...did that really help her? Was that necessary time spent or could she have been doing something better with her time?

My second daughter had a much tougher time in elementary school. I had to sit with her every homework night from kindergarten on to encourage her and prompt her to do her best. By the time she hit fourth grade, it became what I honestly think of as traumatic. She didn't really understand the concepts the first time they were taught, so the evening's practice was totally worthless. I tried my best to review the work with her again, but she was so frustrated, tired and unsure that we inevitably ended up writing a note or talking to the teacher to get extra help. Fortunately, she had great teachers who gave her as much as she needed during the school day to get her through the toughest times. Teachers helped her. Homework didn't.

Now, in middle school, she needs help almost every night to complete pretty meaningless practice work. She frequently says to me, "I'm just not smart," when I tell her to try her best. Many times, I am unable to follow the directions on the assignment myself! Twice this year, she was assigned "seek and find" word puzzles with more than thirty words to find. Not only does it take her a good hour to do something like that, she does not learn the words in the puzzle as she "seeks and finds." She managed to make good grades this year, but I promise you it wasn't due to homework assignments. How do I know this? Because if it weren't for my help and input her homework would have never gotten completed. It was really more my thinking than hers.

But, I digress, because this really isn't about what is being assigned. This issue to me is: should there be homework at all? I would have to say: NO

The students working above grade level are speeding through their class assignment, the below level students are struggling through and either practicing their work incorrectly or are unable to do the work. What is that teaching either of them? I tried differientiating homework once, and the kids that I felt needed practice the most never did it anyway!

I think that students extending their learning at home needs to come willingly. If they are inspired they will go online and look for more information about what you taught them in class. They'll build their own blog or wiki. They mashup what you have taught them into something new and much more meanful. I can agree with the fact that we may need to provide some tools for home use, such as books at a child's reading level and/or practice activities for a parent to use if they request it. We may even need to spend some time teaching our parents, to help them understand how their children are learning now and what is expected in class.

I've had this conversation with some of my colleagues and we must agree to disagree. I respect their opinion. I have to because I used to have the same opinion. Everytime I ask a teacher why they feel we HAVE to have homework they all have very good reasons. But when I ask them if all of their students do it they all say, "no." And so...are the kids that truly suit those reasons for giving homework really benefitting from the practice work? Does it really "help" kids?

I don't think so. But that's just me. Please feel free to share your thoughts.


Building a Kid PLN

I have always encouraged my 12 year old daughter to blog. In the past she has gone through periods of wanting to write a blog post and periods of not wanting anything to do with blogging. But this year, she has embraced blogging as her personal place to share. I have tried to inspire some of her topics and motivate her, but my influence can only go so far. She looks for comments and cluster map hits. Just like adult bloggers, her audience is important to her.

I explained to her that if you read and comment on other blogs, those blog writers may, in turn, come visit your blog and comment. We set out to find blogs written by kids, for her to read. The few we found weren't up to date, so I put a message out on twitter. Those of us that had some links to share decided it would be nice to have a place to find active kids' blogs to share....so, the Kid Blogs wiki was born!

My daughter's Personal Learning Network (PLN) has begun. I showed my her how to use a Google Reader. It's easy enough for even elementary students. Please utilize this space and spread the word! Kids that are actively blogging need an audience to encourage them. Let's help give it to them!


Bringing Flat Stanley into 2009

Have you heard of Flat Stanley? It was at least eight years ago when I first heard of the Flat Stanley Project. It was probably the first project I ever tried online. In case you haven't heard of it....Flat Stanley is actually a book written by Jeff Brown. In the story, Stanley is flattened by a bulletin board and his family tries to make the best of it by pointing out the advantages to being flat - such as traveling wherever he would like to go in an envelope! The project begins by reading the book aloud to your class, then allowing each student to make their own flat "Stanley" to virtually travel.

When I last participated in this project (around 2001), my second graders eagerly mailed off their Stanleys around the world and waited with anticipation for a return package. We enjoyed receiving the letters and goodies that came back to us and the whole class benefitted from what each "Stanley" learned on his trip.

Recently, my twitter friend Chris Harbeck, asked me to participate in a Flat Stanley project with his children. You see, Chris has twin 7 year old boys and he knew I had twin 5 year olds (boy and a girl). I readily agreed, and soon his envelope of traveling visitors arrived from their long trip from Winnepeg, Canada to my home in Jacksonville, FL.

While the Stanley twins were here with us, we took them around the area and captured as much as we could in photos. In the past, I would have carefully written down all we did in a letter to mail off with copies of the photos. Instead, I uploaded the photos into a voicethread where I could record my twins telling about all they did with their flat visitors. The exciting part about using a voicethread was that the Harbeck twins could then comment back to us about what we said and ask further questions. I think it brought the virtual trip to life. Listen and see what you think:

We still put together a care package to snail mail back to Canada. We wanted the class in Winnepeg to be able to see brochures from sights in the area, have a few shells from our beach and be able to taste the salt water taffy they make so plentifully here. And...the Stanleys needed a way to travel back to their owners!

We had fun bringing the Flat Stanley experience into 2009! Consider participating in this project yourself and make the most of it for your students.


Don't Be a Chicken!

Each month, my principal rolls out a new Book of the Month to the faculty. The Book of the Month is a common piece of literature that every student in the school reads to create common dialogue among students and teachers. Teachers frequently share or post what they are doing with the Book of the Month on their bulletin board, or on their class blog.

This month we're kicking it up a notch! We love seeing what other students in our building are doing, but we'd really love to see what other kids around the world do as response to literature after reading this book. Anything goes!

Willing to participate? We're looking for preschool through sixth grade classes to add one post on our Big Chickens blog! Here's all you have to do:

* Read the book Big Chickens Written by: Leslie Helakoski
* Do some kind of activity in response to reading this book.
* Email me and request an invite to the Big Chickens blog (please include your name, email, grade you teach, school name and where you are from)
* Accept your invite and add your post to the blog

If you are unable to participate or don't teach elementary ages, please visit the blog and give us some feedback. The kids would so appreciate hearing from their audience.

"We have chicken power. We have chicken brains. We have chicken guts." - Big Chickens by: Leslie Helakoski


A Visit with Seedlings!

This week, my principal and I were fortunate enough to be invited to speak on SEEDLINGS.

My GTA friends Cheryl Oakes and Alice Barr as well as my new friend, Bob Sprankle hosted a lively conversation regarding the role my principal has taken as technology leader at our school and the ways that I support technology work at our school.

If you'd like to have a listen. Go here :)
Thanks Cheryl, Alice and Bob providing us this opportunity. We had fun!


Engaging the Eye Generation

I hope you've had a chance to preview Johanna Riddle's new book, Engaging the Eye Generation - Visual Literacy Strategies for the K-5 Classroom. Today, she's visiting here as the last stop on her blog tour. I had some colleagues and readers email me some questions for Johanna after previewing her book and I have so enjoyed the experience of reading her work I really wanted you to meet Johanna virtually! So, Johanna agreed to let me record a Skype conversation for my readers. I hope you'll take the time to watch it. It's well worth your time!

Johanna Riddle - Engaging the Eye Generation from Melanie Holtsman on Vimeo.

To read more about Johanna and Engaging the Eye Generation, you may want to visit the first three stops of the tour:
March 3: Archipelago
March 6: Teching Around the Web 2.0
March 9: Technology in the Middle

Thank you Johanna and Stenhouse for making this tour possible and giving the readers of Once Upon a Teacher such an opportunity. I can't wait to hear what you think!


The Eyes Have It

If you haven't faced it yet, it's time to take a good look at the students you're teaching. Students sitting in classrooms today are members of the Eye Generation. These students are multi-taskers of their digital, visual tools such as cell phones, ipods, computers and television. They transition from tool to tool without interruption of thought passively taking in their environment's visuals. These students need to be taught to critically examine the images they are encountering on a daily basis in order to come to important conclusions.

In her new book, Engaging the Eye Generation, Johanna Riddle shares her visual literacy strategies for teaching in the K-5 classroom.

Her entire book is available for FREE DOWNLOAD here.

Our friends at Stenhouse Publishers have invited the readers of Once Upon a Teacher to participate in a conversation with author, Johanna Riddle about her new book. What an opportunity! Being able to ask Johanna something about her book or just about teaching visual literacy strategies. And she will answer! Let's take advantage of it.

In her book, Johanna challenges us to all consider a broader view of literacy. Consider the following eight essential categories of literacy in today's knowledge-based society:

* Basic Literacy: The language and mathematics skills needed to function successfully on the job.
* Scientific Literacy: The ability to understand scientific concepts and processes to make good personal and social decisions.
* Economic
Literacy: The ability to identify and analyze the advantages and disadvantages of public policies and economic conditions.
* Technological Literacy: The ability to understand and use the tools of technology to reach identified objectives.
* Visual Literacy: The ability to "interpret, use, and create visual media in ways that advance thinking, decision making, communication, and learning."
* Information Literacy: The knowledge and skills necessary to find, analyze, and synthesize information using technology.
* Mulicultural Literacy: The ability to understand and respect differences among cultures.
* Global Awareness: The ability to understand the world's interconnections. (Weis 2004)

Our conversation with Johanna will be posted on March 13th, so now is the time to send me your questions, wonderings or reflections. Please use the comment section of this post or email me to let me know what you think. Let's dig in and really think about how we're addressing the needs of our 21st Century Learners. Free learning, instant access to material and questions answered...what are you waiting for?!?

Looking forward to the conversation...


From PLN to P-L-A-N for Moving our School Forward

Recently, I read a blog post by Steve Dembo asking, "Is joining a PLN bad for morale?" I was captivated by his examples of situations where educators got hyper-connected with a Personal Learning Network (PLN) online, which, in different circumstances led them to greener pastures.

I can certainly understand where this could happen. I've worked in schools that were not the best for my morale and I did move on, but I HAD to share in my comment to Steve that there is an example of another possibility. That example is my story:

In the Spring of 2007, I began reading a few blogs related to education. My favorite blog was by Rachel Boyd, a primary classroom teacher in New Zealand. I felt like by reading her blog, I was peeking inside what was happening in her classroom. I loved the idea, but didn't really think that I could do it until I saw a file Rachel had attached in the sidebar of her blog. It was titled "How to Start a Blog". Five minutes later, I was blogging! I couldn't believe how easy it was! I also noticed that several of the bloggers I followed were on something called twitter, so I joined to find out all about it. My personal PLN was born.

As the last few weeks of school rolled by before summer, I thought I'd offer to show anyone who was interested how to blog so I sent an email out to my colleagues. About 5 teachers met with me and started their blogs. So that handful of teachers and I blogged last school year. As the year went by we began talking about different ways to use blogs: class news, student work, coaching teachers, highlighting best practice and information dissemination. Other teachers became interested in starting blogs. My principal was very impressed with our work and started her own blog for the faculty. In retrospect, I think that was our turning point. I continued seeking out new ideas and learning about Web 2.0 tools through my PLN in blogs and on twitter.

This school year we kicked off the year with a new theme: Around the World in 180 Days, A Virtual Learning Adventure. The first commitment my principal made to technology was releasing me full time from the classroom to create a new position at our school, Instructional Technology Coach. We planned our first day back for teachers as a showcase for the possibilities for the year. My principal purchased the book Web 2.0 New Schools, New Tools for the entire faculty as well as a wristband flash drive. I contacted a member of my PLN, Jeff Utecht, to ask if he would mind skyping in to our first day session to speak a few minutes about why technology was so important to harness for our students. I watched my faculty coworkers look at the big screen in awe as this charismatic educator spoke to them from late in the evening in Manilla about how technology connects us all. It was a day full of fun, learning and new ideas. We were reborn as a faculty.

Where are we now, in the last half of the year? We have over 50 blogs on our faculty. (Which can be found on our website) My principal blogs, our instructional coaches blog, we have a blog for new teachers, grade level teams blogging, resource teacher blogs, many classroom blogs, school mascot blog, a conference blog and a teacher recognition blog. It's a blog BONANZA! Teachers are also using wikis to share their work.

How does this all pertain to my PLN and the PLN of some of my colleagues? Almost EVERYTHING we learned to do was due to our PLN. We techno-evangelized and the work is being embraced on our faculty. Now I realize that this is not the case for many, but I think it sends an important message that CHANGE IS POSSIBLE!

I am still hyper-connected. I power up at work in the morning and spend my 15 - 20 minutes on twitter, checking replies from the night before, joining in on conversations of the day and adding what is going on in my work. This week alone I learned how to record a skype call and learned some more about copyright. Not many are ready to join me on that journey, but my PLN turned me on to Facebook where I have begun connecting with over 35 faculty members there already! That's what I love about being connected with so many educators, there is always a new idea, always something new to learn and always someone to support you as you try to build a PLN for your workplace.

That's my story, what's yours?


Critical Friends

I had to to do it. I've seen several blogs sporting their mosaic of twitter friends, so I know it's nothing new...but I love it because most of the twitter profile pictures are the faces of the actual people I'm connecting with on twitter.

I get lovingly ribbed from time to time here at work about "those twitter people" I talk to, but I couldn't professionally grow the way that I have in the past year without twitter. I learn from my "twits" through their "tweets" and I have over 300 people all over the world that I can ask questions.....AND get answers!

Thank you, twitter friends, for helping me grow as an educator. I hope that I can return the favor in the future. <3

Get your twitter mosaic here.