Sunday, February 12, 2017

TCEA 2017

This week, I had the opportunity to attend the TCEA conference at the Austin Convention Center. Once I figured out how to navigate the multiple floors and broad expanse of this venue, I was able to connect with amazing educators and learn a lot of practical ways to help teachers improve technology integration.

The first session I attended was titled, Using GSuite in the STEM classroom. Several teachers in my building are already utilizing components of G Suite in their classrooms, but I was interested in the science focus. We do have a STEM program at our campus, but it only serves one third of our 4th and 5th graders, so I was especially interested in how I might help support ALL of our science teachers. This presentation team took a paper airplane problem and guided us through their district's problem-solving framework. The link to the presentation is here, and I recommend you check it out!

Presenters: @NKeithBlend

Wednesday morning, I had the honor to be part of a #PersonalizedPD panel discussion. This fun group included Jason Bretzmann, author of Personalized PD, Todd Nesloney, author of Kids Deserve It, and Jessica Torres, elementary assistant principal in Waco, Texas. While I remain unclear on why I was asked to join this group, I am so fortunate I had the opportunity. One of the most fun things for me about this group was that I really only knew the other panelists from Twitter. It was a great experience to interact with members of my PLN and they have fantastic insights into personalizing professional development, which has become a passion of mine since I became an Instructional Coach. We used Today's Meet as a backchannel and the audience asked questions. It was a great way to personalize the session so that we talked about the specific needs of the audience. 

                                                         Photo credit: Aaron Hogan

Next up, I attended a session on implementing DreamBox. We are piloting this adaptive numeracy program with our kindergartners soon, so I was interested in hearing more about the details. I appreciated the presentation, but was even more impressed by the conversation I had afterwards with Tim Hudson. We were able to talk math and professional development opportunities. It is rare to get to talk with someone about the work of Catherine Fosnot at a technology conference! For more details on DreamBox, click here.

Of course, it wouldn't be a conference without a little #patioPD. One of the best parts about gatherings such as TCEA is getting to visit with smart, innovative people who are just as passionate about education as I am. I love connecting with people who have different strengths, viewpoints, and experiences. We truly can learn so much from each other.

Thanks so much, TCEA17!

Monday, February 6, 2017

TPT Sale!

Everything in my TPT store will be 28% off on Tuesday and Wednesday! Swing by for a huge sale!

Friday, February 3, 2017

A Squiggly Story

One of the things I miss most about the classroom is reading to children. There is such power in telling a story well, and read-alouds afforded me the opportunity to use all those skills I learned in high school speech and performance classes. An enjoyment of reading, paired with a well-written children's book can set the stage for a host of learning opportunities, as well as (and equally as important) provide a warm, special experience between a teacher and her class.

Read-alouds build classroom community, provide common experiences, provide models for fluency and comprehension, and are just plain fun. Reading Magic by Mem Fox is one of my favorite books for adults that sheds light on the importance of read-alouds. In it, she talks about the classroom read-aloud and how it's ultimate design is to mimic the loving shared reading experience between a child and parent. Over my years as a classroom teacher, I've accidentally been called, "Mom," over a hundred times, and I truly do believe in the power of books that are read aloud by a trusted adult.

Every so often, a read-aloud comes along that makes me ache to have my own classroom again. A Squiggly Story by Andrew Larsen did just that. It came up in my Amazon list of books I should (of course) want to buy and I fell in love with the believable story line, the darling illustrations by Mike Lowery, and the myriad classroom implications. As the co-director of the Central Texas Writing Project, I am always on the hunt for books that highlight and celebrate the writing process of children who are not yet writing conventionally. This book is now one of my very favorites, and I cannot wait to share it with teachers this summer.

I borrowed a kindergarten class at the campus where I am the instructional coach so I would have a chance to try this book out with real children. After reading A Squiggly Story (which the kids LOVED by the way), we brainstormed a list of things that the kids may want to write about. In the book, the main character's older says, "It's easy, just write what you know." During this time, I modeled stretching out words and spelling phonetically since kindergartners often get hung up on writing because they want you to tell them how to spell everything.

I am so thankful I work with teachers who open up their classrooms and share their learners with me. 
I had such a fantastic time in kindergarten this week! 

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Central Texas Google Summit

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend the Hays CISD Central Texas Summit. This great day of learning was held at McCormick Middle School in Hays CISD, a beautiful campus with a design that inspires collaboration, design thinking, and student autonomy. This summit drew educators from all over Central Texas, including Hays, Dripping Springs, Brenham, Austin, and several other districts. 

Kasey Bell delivered the keynote. Kasey’s website and blog,, provides teachers and educators with digital learning resources, tech tips and tricks, and classroom technology integration ideas. This video from her presentation truly showcases the need for today's educators to embrace the idea of change and how teachers must work to meet the needs of the learners that are in our classrooms today.

Cool people I met that you should follow:
Kari Potter
Kelly Garner
Tommy Spall
Ann DeBolt
Amy Mayer

Cool ideas/extensions I learned about that you should know about, too...

The bottom line seems to be this: Educational technology can be leveraged in so many positive ways, but like all change, is going to take a commitment to professional development, access, and real-world application.  

I appreciated the Growth Mindset approach that I heard throughout the day at the Google Summit. 

  • I'm not sure; let's find out. 
  • Does someone in the room know? 
  • Let's ask on Twitter and see what we find out. 

Image source

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Whatever you are...

My niece attends the elementary campus where I am an Instructional Coach. When I picked up my kids at my mom's house the other day, she was there and was drawing a picture for her teacher. I nonchalantly mentioned that I knew her teacher would love it. I also said that since I'm not a classroom teacher anymore, I don't get very many, "love notes," from students.

Two days later, I was in the crosswalk directing before-school traffic (Coaches often perform other duties as assigned) when my niece came to the curb. "Aunt Mandy, I made you this." It turned out the be the very best part of my day, as well as the inspiration for this post.

I am in my second year as a campus Instructional Coach. It is safe to say that I had zero idea what I was doing last year. I read books by Elena Aguilar, Jim Knight, and Jennifer Allen. I tried to be all things to all people, I felt sad when I wasn't well-received, and I doubted my decision to leave the classroom as I struggled with an identity crisis that was expected, but still very difficult. I believed there was an ideal coach, some model that I was searching for, but even though I was committed and read all the right books, I was still very much lost.

Don't get me wrong. I wouldn't count the year a complete loss. I tried really, really hard. I read and researched, advocated for kids, and tried to work with individual teachers and teams to accomplish the goals they had set for themselves and for their students. I modeled lots of lessons and tried to meet the needs of the teachers, the campus, and the district system. But still I wondered...was I trying to be what I thought everyone wanted me to be instead of trusting myself to be what my school really needed?"

The ambiguity of instructional coaching can cause confusion for more than just our students. Countless kiddos at my school think I'm the counselor because she visits their classrooms, too. I had a parent stop me in the hall the other day and ask, "What exactly do  you do here? My son said you were in his room and were a super-nice sub, but his teacher wasn't absent."

One of my favorite Instructional Coaching shirts

The other day, I found this post on an Instructional Coaching blog I follow. When I read it, I immediately agreed with the author, Cory Roffey when he said, 

"Clearly defining your role as an instructional coach takes a strong understanding of the varied and dynamic roles of a coach, but an even stronger understanding of your school site and both are essential in becoming the instructional coach that your school needs."

This year, my school needs support as teachers work to adapt to new administration, a new state accountability system, and new district initiatives. Our teachers and administrators have identified focus areas and I am busier than ever trying to provide support, build relationships, and facilitate a new fact fluency assessment system. 

While my precious, thoughtful niece may still have no idea I what I do, and as I struggle through the ultimate identity crisis, I take comfort in the idea that I can learn from my mistakes, set goals and work to attain them, and that every day, something happens that makes me so happy to be exactly who and where I am. 

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Keeping it simple when it's not...

Late October is a really hard time for teachers. The newness of back-to-school has worn off, the crayons aren't quite as pointy, and the reality of the task that lies ahead can seem downright overwhelming. Add on new district and campus initiatives, involvement in your own kids' activities, and all the allergies (I'm in Texas) and it can get just plain brutal.

I was in a team leader meeting this past week and our principal had us take out a notecard and list anything on the card that was a change from last year. "What are you currently dealing with that is new?" Here are just a few things that I scrawled out:

  • New administration
  • New lesson plan expectations
  • New state teacher appraisal system
  • New student login information (they had FINALLY learned them!)
Here are a few things my colleagues wrote down:
  • New baby
  • New teammate
  • New levels of accountability
  • New system for PLCs
  • New math fact fluency guidelines
  • New behavior unit on campus
The average number of items on the card was around 15. Fifteen?! No wonder things are feeling a little bit stressful. The task was NOT to list everything you actually do. She only asked us to write down what we do that is NEW. Just as surely as Benjamin Franklin's famous quote about death and taxes, in schools across this country, the only thing I know for sure is that things will change. The curriculum will change, the administrators will change, the current, "best practice," of the day will change. There will be new programs, new initiatives, new technology, and new kids. There will be new leaders, new state standards, new areas of focus, and new high stakes tests. 

As an Instructional Coach, I try desperately to limit the noise for teachers so they can focus on what is truly important. There are times, however, that my coaching colleagues and I feel like when teachers see us, what they really see is more work. A new coaching goal for myself is to keep my mouth shut, listen to what teachers are REALLY saying, and to draw on my knowledge, my experience, and my resources to match educators with whom or what they really need.

I was talking to a teacher yesterday whom I wholeheartedly respect. She was talking about how she has had to make a conscious effort to stop reading teacher books now that school has started because she knows it will make her want to change her already successful systems to try the latest new thing. Great teachers are always looking for better ways to reach students, but when we constantly change our approach, sometimes we cannot truly know the effects. I thought it was so brilliant of her to recognize the need to slow down, work on deep implementation as opposed to surface willingness, and to truly focus on the needs of her students and herself.

I recently attended Crucial Conversations training which is designed to help people have productive, valuable conversations when the stakes are high. In teaching, the stakes are always high because children are involved. There are three things that must be present for the conversation to be considered crucial:
  1. Differing opinions (Never happens in education, right?!)
  2. High stakes 
  3. Strong emotions
One of my biggest take-aways from this training is that we often tell ourselves (inaccurate) stories about people and situations that directly influence how we respond when we feel threatened. As I reflected on this training and the recent conversations I have had with teachers, I think the story we are telling ourselves is that we are inadequate. If I am supposed to teach this way now, what does that mean for the kids I taught last year, or the last 20 years? Was I doing it wrong? Are you saying that if I do it this way, I'm now better than I was yesterday? Was that teaching not valuable? Did kids not learn? Do you think I'm not good at what I do?

During another recent conversation with two fourth grade teachers, they were asking about how we can possibly teach the state standards to the depth that is necessary in a workshop model. They were saying they KNOW that it is best for kids, but were struggling with the logistics of different genres, varying reading levels, a fixed timeline, time in text, and RTI expectations. As I listened to their conversation, I was struck with how well they teach. All they could focus on was how they were not doing it right, and all I could focus on was that they were. Even just having the conversation showed that they were honest and reflective, were meeting the needs of a broad range of learners, that they cared about their kids as readers and not just as test scores, and that they wanted to do their job so well. 

I work with some of the most amazing, caring, committed teachers out there. In schools all across this country, teachers are working themselves to the limits of burnout to balance what is being asked of them with what they know is right. In an ocean of ever-changing ideas, research, and initiatives, I want to help teachers identify what their state standards are asking them to do, what timeline their district has given them to do it, and what is best for kids. My daughter happens to be in the class of one of the teachers having the reader's workshop conversation above. I e-mailed her later and hope it resonates with other teachers who are fighting the good fight.

From a parent perspective, you are doing more than, "good things." My daughter is a tough nut to crack and she would take a bullet for you. She's independently motivated to work on reading and math, and is talking about social studies concepts like never before. She talks about experiments, the fun she is having, dance parties, and loves school.

You did that. 

Highly effective teachers always spend more mental energy on what isn't going well, but from my vantage point, and in her eyes, you are the best around.

My kids have been taught by the most caring and committed teachers. I am so fortunate to work with a building full of thinkers, reflectors, and teachers that put kids first. The stakes are high and our emotions are strong. When our viewpoints differ, let us focus on a mutual outcome. 
What is best for kids? 

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Writer's Workshop: The Power of the Pencil

"And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don't believe in magic will never find it." — Roald Dahl

As an elementary teacher and instructional coach, one of the things I have heard over and over is how overwhelming it is for teachers to set up a Writer’s Workshop.  This structure, researched by many, including Donald Graves, Donald Murray, and Lucy Calkins, provides students with a predictable routine for writing instruction that includes a mini-lesson and extended time for students to write. During the workshop time, the teacher will confer with individuals and small groups and the students will spend time prewriting, drafting, editing, revising, and publishing.

One of the most important things for teachers to understand is that Writer’s Workshop is not WHAT you teach, it is the framework that is in place for the writing block. Once students understand the predictable structure of this sacred time, the teacher will utilize district curriculum and pacing guides, state standards, and the needs of students to dictate what is taught in mini-lessons. Teachers may utilize mentor texts, model writing in front of children, pair students for peer-editing and revision, and provide varied opportunities for publishing.

Structure of a Writer’s Workshop
Mini-lesson (about 15 minutes)
*Focused lesson on a single topic usually taken from your state standards or district curriculum
*Adjust for the needs of your students
*May include examining a mentor text or teacher modeling
Writing time (20-45 minutes*)
*Students write
*Kids may work individually and/or partnerships
*Teacher will confer with individuals or may pull small groups that need targeted writing instruction
*Students may also be working on different stages of the writing process during this time: drafting, editing, revising, publishing, etc.
Sharing/Wrap-up (5-10 minutes)
*Students may share writing in partners, groups, or with the entire class
*Teacher may share writing
*Reiterate teaching point from mini-lesson
*Depending on your students

There are many resources for setting up this time, but teachers should utilize the following components to ensure the most effective environment for a daily writing routine.

Purpose: Above all, children need authentic reasons to write. When kids know their writing will be viewed by their classmates, others in their school, and even online, they have an innate desire to do their best because they know it is not just busy work. When teachers present writing lessons, they can build on kids’ unique experiences, their hopes and dreams, and their questions to spark purposeful reasons to write. Patricia Cunningham and Richard Allington say, “Children who are successful at becoming literate view reading and writing as authentic activities from which they get information and pleasure, and by which they communicate with others.”

Environment: Intentional teachers will set up a classroom environment that supports independence and literacy connections to daily life, grade-level content, and authentic writing opportunities. Children should be surrounded by meaningful labels, charts, and literature from a broad range of genres. This access should include print books and technology resources and should reflect a developmentally appropriate range of literacy opportunities. A first grade print-rich environment will differ tremendously from that of a sophomore English class, but both teachers will think through ways to establish an environment that is engaging and mirrors their students’ real lives as readers and authors. As students are introduced to new types of writing, multiple examples of mentor texts that support the structure should be available for kids to read and emulate. For further examples of literacy-rich environments, click here.

Nurture: In college, I read a book by Mem Fox that changed the trajectory of my thoughts as a teacher and a writer. In her book Radical Reflections, Fox writes, “I think we tend to forget about this element of relationships when we teach writing. Are we aware of how much our students dread having their writing knocked back? Do we trample on their vulnerability when they limp in, unarmed, from the battlefield? It’s hard to keep in mind the painful wounds of battle and the importance of friendship unless you’ve been wounded yourself. Teachers of writing who have been soldiers themselves, engaged in a writing battle, must be able to empathize more closely with the comrades in their classrooms than teachers who are merely war correspondents at the hotel bar, as it were, watching the battle from a safe distance, declining to get in there themselves and write.”

This quote changed me. As a teacher consultant for the Central Texas Writing Project and an elementary classroom teacher, I have been able to see first-hand how powerful it is when a teacher writes alongside his/her students. It communicates camaraderie and understanding. It shows student writers that the teacher is willing to be vulnerable and engage in a writing struggle. It requires teachers to look for supportive and nurturing ways to provide targeted feedback to students that will improve writing instruction and ultimately, student performance. The definition of the word nurture is, “To care for and encourage the growth or development of…” This clearly doesn’t mean we are always sunshiny and never hold students accountable for growth and grammar. It means that we meet each student writer where they are and find targeted ways to help them develop into accomplished, capable authors.

Coach: Writing development doesn’t just happen. Intentional teachers will observe their students in order to look for what kids already do well and what they need today to be a better writer tomorrow. Building on those individual strengths helps children at all stages of writing development grow as authors. If a group of students needs work on a similar writing goal the teacher may decide to pull a small group for a quick review of a particular skill. An advanced writer may need a gentle nudge from a teacher to discover a new writing technique, to find ways to add details to their writing, or be explicitly taught how to use a rubric to self-monitor their own writing. Coaching can be done by the teacher and also by the students, once proper expectations are in place. Click here for a student-made video about peer conferencing.

Integrated: It is my hope that time will be devoted to Writer’s Workshop each day, but it is crucial that the writing process be integrated into all aspects of the school experience. Writing skills may be taught in isolation, but will be transferred more naturally if they are woven into the daily fabric of math, reading, technology, science, and social studies instruction. Students may write to solidify scientific understandings and write to publish articles about important social studies figures. They may write a blog to explain connections with popular literature and to share books with peers. Technology should be leveraged to give students an authentic audience to share their work across the campus, the district, and the country. Today’s educational culture is shifting toward student choice, maker opportunities, and collaboration. Writer’s Workshop is a necessary complement to this kind of teaching, and should be celebrated as a way to reflect and connect student ideas and learning across content areas. For practical ideas about Writer’s Workshop and Makerspaces, click here.

Linked to Life: Want to know a secret? Kids are smart. It takes the average 7 year-old and 7th grader about 7 seconds to realize that a teacher has asked him/her to do busy work. In today’s society, kids are desperate for connection. Educators must find ways to use this need to our advantage and to improve student self-esteem and student performance in the process. Is there an issue that students care about? Write letters and deliver them instead of writing fake letters and hanging them in the hall. Do the kids see something in the library or their school they like or wonder about? Have them write notes to the students and teachers in other grades and ask questions. Do they need to ask for clarification, broaden their understanding of a topic, or disagree about something? Writing is the way that this generation of students communicates with peers and a broad global audience. Our online presence is strengthened when we write well, connect with others, and pay attention to spelling, grammar, and appropriate content. All of these skills are necessary and can be taught in the context of real-life applications of content in a caring classroom environment.

The PENCIL may seem to have lost some of its power in this age of technology. Whether students wield a Ticonderoga, a Chromebook, or an iPhone as their tool, the power they have as authors has never been more real. Brave teachers will find authentic, meaningful ways to hold on to the fundamentals of sound writing instruction as they navigate an evolving culture of technology application and worthwhile writing opportunities for all students.