Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Considering the Purpose...All Sorts of New Questions

I've had the pleasure of hearing Shelley Moore speak twice and one of biggest takeaways has been when she speaks about PURPOSE. What's the purpose of a student being in a class that they are in? When I work with teachers and advocate for students, I make sure the teacher understands the PURPOSE in a student being in their class. Once we have this common understanding expectations, grading and planning becomes so much more clear.

My district is on Spring Break this week but the week before we had our first five days of virtual learning. I'm feeling so challenged right now.

For a student with significant mental health issues, autism and an intellectual disability - what is her purpose of being in 20th Century American History, Biology or Art now? Two weeks ago, it was to build academic stamina and be able to participate in classroom activities while practicing self-regulation techniques. It was to practice turn taking in group activities with her peers. It was to practice writing and reading graphs or find information on infographics. She has a 1:1 assistant to help promote these goals but also be in close proximity when she verbalizes she needs a break or when behavioral outbursts occur - and they do at least once a day.

Now she's at home and participating in Google Meet video chats with assistants and me throughout her day. Gone are the peers in an academic environment. Gone are the group activities. Gone is the highly structured day. We have 10 weeks of school left, what's her new purpose of being in these  classes? I have materials and activities that are at her independent level because she needs to be independent. There's only so much cueing that can effectively happen during a Google Meet so I'm worried I'm not giving her any access to grade level materials.

I was pleased when I heard that some of her Best Buddies and classmates had been reaching out and she had been FaceTiming with them. When I hear that, I feel that her social PURPOSE had been successful...but what's her purpose now? COVID-19 has now created a situation that we can't even worry about, "least restrictive environment" because everyone's environment is home but I wonder am I creating a situation where her curriculum is more representative of what she'd be getting if she was in a self-contained environment? Then, I go back to the reality that she needs to be independent with her curriculum requirements so they aren't the same as if she had peers next to her to provide cues...then I ask why does it even matter because academic content was never really her purpose?

It's a heartbreaking circular argument that I'm having with myself and trust me, there have been a lot of tears. I probably just need to breathe and admit we're all doing the best we can right now.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Relationships, Motivation and Passion Projects

The concluding project or activity in our co-taught Physics class is a Personal Physics Project. Students are given one 84 minute class period a week for about the last seven weeks of class to work on it. They can pick anything they want to do as long as it falls into one of these three categories:

1) Learn to build/make something
2) Carry out an experiment
3) Deep research

All the projects involve some of the NGSS Science and Engineering standards and students are required to maintain their digital portfolio documenting progress, maintaining notes/research, reflection and creating a product to share with a community audience. There are multiple opportunities to connect with teachers to have questions answered and have thinking pushed. These check-ins have been fun for me this year. After one check-in with a student I learned she was struggling to find a good, final resource. Twenty minutes later she was FaceTiming with my cousin who was in Switzerland. I was able to hook another student up with an emergency room RN for a FaceTime interview. Helping students connect with experts is very rewarding for me.

One student, James, initially picked deep research on dreams. I'll admit it, I talked him out of the topic for a couple of reasons. First, deep research isn't an area that he's going to excel in. Reading and writing are not areas that he lists as strengths in his Learner Profile. He's excited and passionate about wrestling and video games. And second, he enjoyed the Sphero Chariot building project we completed in November so much and wanted to do something like that again. James must have deep respect for me because it took very little nudging for him to switch his topic. We were still early in the project when he switched his topic to designing his own video game controller. He made up for lost work time quickly. In fact, I've never seen that level of motivation from him.

He determined pretty quick in the process that he might not have the background knowledge or time  to actually design and build his own video game controller but determined he could learn to 3D print one from plans that he found at Thingverse in the amount of time that he had. He independently connected with our FabLab specialist, Mrs. Berna and set up a time to go meet with her to get the 3D printing going. Over break he sanded down his pieces and came back to school ready to keep working on it (this was not a requirement, in fact we are told not to assign homework over breaks). He came back to school, with his pieces in hand, asking if we were going to be working on our projects and expressed disappointment when we worked on the sound and light units. I finally begged him to stop carrying around the pieces because I was afraid he'd was going to lose or break one. James was so motivated to work on this project that he got the written portion completed a full week before it even needed to be drafted.
All that's left is to bring the "guts" of a controller to school and assemble. He had a four day weekend and it wouldn't surprise me if he completes this part on his own at home. On Thursday, of this week, he will bring his x-box to the showcase night and allow visitors to play video games with the controller that he 3D printed. He will confidently answer questions about his process, set backs and what he learned by 3D printing. Participants will not only have the opportunity to speak with him and play his game but also explore the interactive Thinklink he has been working on.

Here are my three big takeaways...
1) It does matter if students like me. I believe we work harder for people we like and I want students to work harder than they realized they could. Cultivating positive and meaningful relationships with students is so important.
2) When students are intrinsically motivated they are successful. Success looks different for everyone. For James, his success looks like being able to independently follow through on contacting a staff member, making multiple appointments in the FabLab, voluntarily working on school work outside of the school day, not losing anything related to this project and meeting project deadlines.
3) All students have the opportunity to excel when they given the opportunity to design their own learning. Genius Hour, Passion Projects, 20% Time...whatever you want to call it has a place in all classrooms at all levels.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

#OneMonthGoals Check-In #2

Our #OneMonthGoals of trying 31 new things is going very well. I'm glad that we made the allowance of being able to double, or sometimes triple up, on new experiences to work ahead. Week nights can sometimes get busy with pick-ups, lessons, practices and not feeling obligated to do something has been a relief. Two weeks ago I posted about #1-8 and here's a recap of new experiences  9-21:

#9:  Brian worked from Valentine Coffee as a break from his routine Colectivo.

#10:  Recipe Roulette:  We tried a new recipe called, Rene's German Marinated Chicken. Brian put it in the crockpot and in retrospect, I don't think that's a good way of cooking chicken. It was pretty dry. I ended up shredding it and adding barbecue sauce.

#11: Logan taught Brian how to play Spiderman on the PS4

#12: Ethan taught me how to play Minecraft. He's a great teacher but I don't think I'll be playing independently anytime soon. One hour of 1:1 time with my son was wonderful and I'll gladly play video games with him if it means we're spending time together.

#13: Recipe Roulette: Ethan made Strawberry Bread and it was delicious!

#14: Recipe Roulette: Pasta, this was yummy. We had some leftovers and it made for a great lunch a few days later. It came from the Binging With Babish cookbook.

#15: New Game for Family Game Night:  I borrowed Century Spice Road from a friend. We really enjoyed this game - so much I'm considering ordering my own copy or adding it to a wishlist. It took a little less than an hour to play and was perfect for a group of 4.

#16: New Game for Brian and I:  Backgammon! I've never played Backgammon before, which is somewhat a surprise because we got the game from my parents as they were cleaning out a closet. I remember seeing the game as a kid but never played it. Brian and I enjoy playing games together so this is a great addition to our 2 person game options.

#17: I learned how to snow blow. This was important to me. November 11 was a rough day. Logan broke a bracket on his braces and needed to go in for a 10 minute appointment which meant I had to take a half day off. Our dog, Arthur, had been sick the day before, couldn't sleep and was in obvious discomfort. I ended up taking him to the emergency ER at 4:00 in the morning after he had spent the last 4 hours pacing up and down our bedroom hallway. To top it all off, it snowed that day. A lot. Brian was traveling for work that week so the snow removal was all up to me because the boys had wrestling practice until 6:30. Around 11:30 I got a call from Brian - panicked he was having a stroke. He handed the phone to his boss who assured me that he'd stay with Brian as an ambulance was coming, he would go to the hospital and keep me up to date as every piece of information became available. I weighed my options and decided that I really needed to just remain calm until more information was available. I had a sick dog and two children - it's not like I could jump in the car and start driving to Cleveland without a fair amount of organizing our life. Not very much time passed before he was diagnosed with Bells Palsy. Even though not life threatening, there is a family history of strokes, at young ages, so he was kept over night at the hospital. That afternoon, as I shoveled all the snow on our long driveway I made the decision that if something ever happened to Brian, the boys and I would move into an apartment or I needed to learn how to use the snow blower.

#18: Homemade Tortillas:  YUM! Can we have these everyday?

#19: Recipe Roulette:  Korean Style Beef Tacos from Skinnytaste Fast and Slow cookbook. This was delicious and enjoyed with the homemade tortillas. We will be enjoying this again sometime!

#20: Brian chose Stoney Creek Coffee to work from rather than the normal Colectivo.

#21:  Ethan gave me a bass guitar lesson. I really wish I had a basic understanding of music because he was so excited and I had no idea what he was telling me to do. Ethan has six years of music and three instruments of knowledge to draw from. I have none. He was very patient but I know he was frustrated that I couldn't read music.

Ten more experiences to go!

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

#OneMonthGoals: January 1 - 5 or Experiences 1-8

Here's our first check-in for January #OneMonthGoals

We created a game called, "Recipe Roulette." We picked six cookbooks and numbered them. The cookbooks we will be working out of are:

1) Binging With Babish
2) Pasta Sfoglia
3) Skinnytaste
4) Skinnytaste One and Done
5) Skinnytaste Fast and Slow
6) Community League's 35 Years of Treasured Recipes from Menomonee Falls, WI (this is your typical family favorite cookbook)

To determine what recipe we are going to try we ask our Echo to pick a number between 1-6 and then pick a second number from 1-how ever many pages of recipes are in the book. If the lucky recipe is something we havealready made or it's on a page that doesn't reference a specific recipe we ask for a new random number.

January 1:  Recipe Roulette
Loaded "Nacho" Potato Skins from book #3
This recipe is definitely a keeper. The filling is a turkey chili made of ground turkey, refried beans, crushed tomatoes, onion, garlic and an assortment of spices. We topped with cheese, sour cream, jalapeƱos and green onions.

January 2: Break from Routine 
Brian went to a different Colectivo to work. When you work from home, you develop a strict routine. This was a huge break in routine for him!

January 3:  Recipe Roulette
Book #1 and page 303 were chosen by our Alexa so that means we made cannolis from the Binging with Babish cookbook. This was the first time I've ever made cannolis and we took a big shortcut by purchasing the shells rather than making them from scratch...which was really the bulk of the recipe. The filling was tasty but I think I over filled the shells. My sons were only mildly impressed and ate about 3/4 of their cannoli. To be fair, this isn't the sort of dessert they'd normally enjoy and with wrestling season in full swing, they are eating abnormally healthy.

January 4:  We realized that if we wanted to do this as much as a family we will need to use the weekends to work ahead on new experiences. As I was organizing meals for the week, making sure there is someone to do the dropping off/picking up of our children, I realized this goal was going to be very challenging since we have a very busy week coming up. So, the goal has been revised to: 31 NEW EXPERIENCES THIS MONTH

New Experience #4:  Grocery shopped at a new store
We might be the only people in southeastern Wisconsin who don't shop at Woodman's. Going to a new grocery store on a Saturday probably wasn't the best idea. We found the store to be too big, too many choices and too many people. The carts are gigantic so that added to the general feeling of too many people. 

New Experience #5:  Dinner at Balistreri's 
This is a regional favorite and a consistent winner of, "Best of...." awards. We had never been there despite living in the same town as this restaurant. The wait was long for a table but worth it. It was probably the best thin crust pizza I've had. We'll go back!

New Experience #6:  Recipe Roulette
Slow Cooker Italian Sausage and White Bean Soup with Escarole from Book #5 Skinnytaste Fast and Slow...this is going to be my lunch for the week. I'm really looking forward to this, it smelled amazing and the small amount I tried was delicious.

New Experience #7:  Recipe Roulette  
Polenta, Rock Shrimp, Peperoncini, & Brown Butter from Book #2 Pasta Sfoglia  
This was so good and easy! We will absolutely make this polenta again. While I've made polenta before, this was a little different with the slices of garlic and pepper flakes. We've also never used butter like this with polenta. The boys weren't as big fans of it as Brian and I were but this wasn't surprising. I've made polenta before and they tolerate it - not love it. 

New Experience #8:  Dragon Fruit.  Ethan suggested we buy a dragon fruit. It was fine...I'm guessing if it was fresh and local it would have been more tasty. It was sort of like a tasteless kiwi.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019


Last fall I was enjoying a beautiful fall day with my friends Adam and Michael and discussing Michael's recent #OneMonthGoals personal challenge. For the month of October he challenged himself to eat vegetarian and was considering a minimalist challenge for November. This intrigued me. The way it would work is that on the first day one item is given away/thrown away/donated. On the second day, two items need to go, on the third day three items are gone and it continues until day 30 when 30 items need to be eliminated. On my drive home, I thought more about this and decided I'd present it to my husband, Brian. I wouldn't say our house is cluttered but it was definitely time to clean some closets and cabinets.

Brian was 100% on board and we set up a few ground rules as we set out to eliminate 465 items from our house:

1) We allowed ourselves to work ahead. So, if on a weekend we wanted to get rid of 100 items we checked off multiple days. This was helpful because weekdays can get busy and I knew we wouldn't be successful if we set out to clean a closet at 9:00 at night.
2)  There was a large bag of clothing that I had been carrying around in my trunk for weeks and I wasn't going to unpack it to see how many items were being given away. Instead, we'd allow bags to be weighed and count that. If I remember correctly, the bag was 8 pounds so we counted that for Nov. 8. The weighing option came in handy when throwing away pens, pencils, markers and all the other random items or pieces of paper that were in a junk drawer. It seemed like a more honest way of doing things.
3) We didn't need to purge together. We could work independently and log it on the calendar that was on the refrigerator.

The first half of the month was pretty easy and as it turned out the last half of the month wasn't bad either. In fact, we were so successful that we are planning on doing this challenge again in April because we didn't even touch the garage and I'm sure there's plenty to be discarded in there.

For the month of January, our family has decided to do a challenge together. We're calling it the Try Something New challenge. Everyday, someone in our family needs to try something new. Sometimes we'll do it as a family, sometimes it might be just one person. We've already picked two recipes to try this week, borrowed a game we've never played and created a long list of ideas to draw from all month.

I think it's going to be a great month!

Saturday, November 16, 2019

How Do Personalized Learning and Student Liberation Intersect?

A few days ago, this tweet came up in my notifications. 
At first I was stunned that I even got tagged (because look at the other names that got tagged) and then I started to ponder the question. One of the most important pieces of personalized learning for me is that we need to know our learners. There isn't one right way to get to know your learners - it could be through Learner Profiles, Passion Pages, on going reflections, conversations...the list goes on. Knowing our learners goes beyond what they are interested in and includes how they WANT to learn. It's that last point that is tricky sometimes because not every student can articulate how they want to learn.

Developing learner agency is a critical piece for me when we talk about personalized learning. As a high school Special Ed teacher, we talk a lot about self-advocacy as a critical skill for post-secondary success. But what happens when learners don't even know what they need to advocate for? That's why student agency is so important. As teachers, we need to provide opportunities for students to learn what works for them in a classroom and then reflect on what works and what doesn't. Many students struggle with the metacognitive skill of reflection so it's an important one to practice. I've really come to love the reflection prompts from Tony Vincent and have started using these regularly.

Back to the question posed in the tweet; How do personalized learning and student liberation intersect?  Assuming that I'm interpreting the question correctly, Paul is asking if complete student freedom in their education is personalized learning. I don't think so. Personalized learning for me means that my learners understand how they learn best and are given opportunities to practice concepts in that way. Personalized learning for me means that learners have opportunities to design their own assessment options to meet their needs but also have opportunities to challenge themselves. Personalized learning means that there is a continuous cycle of feedback from the teacher to the student but also the student to the teacher. Teachers use that feedback to drive instruction and make future decisions about instruction. Teachers are still driving the curriculum but there is voice and choice within the context of the class.

So Paul, did I answer the question?

Monday, September 23, 2019

"Innovate Inside the Box" Book Study, Week 1: Building Learner Agency and Defining Success

This year, my position changed. From my perspective, it’s been for the better. As a result of the change, I have been given the opportunity to pursue interests that I haven’t felt I was able to in the past because there just wasn’t time. At first, I wasn’t exactly sure what to do with this change. I started to make a mental list of all the things professionally I’ve struggled with over the last five years and defined some goals for myself. One of them is to actually blog. I’ve had plenty of false starts over the years mainly because at the end of the day I was tired. I had nothing left to give to the profession and had to put all my energy into my family and relationship with others. I’m not finding myself stretched as thin as I was before and can now focus on reading more, writing more and seeking out/accepting more speaking opportunities. For the first time in awhile, I’m excited about working on me as a professional. It’s time to do something amazing.

While participating in an online book study may not be one person’s definition of amazing, it’s something I never allowed myself to do in the past. So, it’s pretty amazing to me. The, “Innovate Inside the Box” book study came at a great time. Not only am I reading and not thinking about 100 other things I felt I should be doing, I am also finding the encouragement to blog. It’s a double win.

About midway through Chapter 2 of, “Innovate Inside the Box,” I came across this passage:

If we really want students to guide their own path and lead happy and healthy lives, this will require us to define success differently. Rather than approach students with a deficit mentality, we must look for and build on their unique strengths and talents and help them acquire the skills, knowledge, and mindsets they need to see themselves as full of possibility.

This passage resonated with me for two reasons. The first being that I work really hard in my own practice to develop learner agency. Students need to understand who they are learners so they can forge their own path to lead happy and healthy lives. Schools need to embrace the learners’ strengths and foster growth rather than trying to remediate a deficit. Now, being a Special Ed teacher I feel as though every IEP I write goes against this belief. There are somethings I can’t change and paperwork is one of them. However, how IEP meetings are run and the atmosphere created is entirely within my control. I recently wrote a blog post for Make Learning Personal that addresses this very issue. This post outlines my process of using Learner Profiles to develop learner agency and how I use them in student led IEP meetings. This is how I get students involved in their own planning and goal setting.

The second reason this passage resonated with me is success looks different for all students. Here is a brief summary of two students who have very different definitions of success.

I have a student who has recently returned from a five month residential stay in a mental health facility. Not only are mental health issues a concern the student also has an intellectual disability, autism, reactive attachment disorder and trauma. She’s also a student who loves dogs, documentaries, socializing, cooking and learning about other places. Right now, success for her will be learning how to form trusting relationships with people (especially adults) and learning how to self-regulate her emotions/behavior. That skill is far more important to her future than any reading comprehension strategy or math process I can teach her right now. Her success is going to be difficult, if not impossible to grade. 

I have a former student who played drums and planned on being in a band after high school. I never felt that school embraced his interests. When writing his post secondary plan I felt pressured from other team members to focus on a Plan B since Plan A was to, quite literally, play drums in a heavy metal band. This guy did not go to college as his Plan B stated and the school prepared him for. Instead, he has traveled to Europe and all over the United States in several different bands, performed at large music festivals when drummers were needed and has served as a studio drummer for recording acts. Not a single follow up survey on graduates that was done identified him as a success. If you want to check him out on Twitter or Instagram @mitchondrums.

Success looks different for every individual and as teachers we need to know our learners and help nurture their strengths. Classroom practices, like using Learner Profiles, passion projects, 20% time, and choice opportunities for practice and assessment options are all ways teachers can help students build agency AND help them define what success looks like for them.