Saturday, March 3, 2018

Welcome-Come on in!

What if we welcomed people into our classrooms the way we welcome them into our homes?  Would that make a difference in the the culture of our classrooms and our schools?  What if we approached learning in the same way that we approach a conversation with someone who has stopped by our house to visit?

Front Porch

Think about the front porch at your house.  Does it have plants or flowers? a wreath on the door? decorations? or perhaps some seating?  Are visitors greeted by a welcome mat?  Does it convey, "come on in!"?

As educators do we greet our students on the front porch with a smile, ushering them in for a great day of learning?  In what ways can we make our hallways, doors, and entry ways more welcoming? Does the front porch of our classroom send the right message?  Does it say, "Great things are happening in here--come on in!"

Living Room

In my living room, we have a large sectional couch.  It's comfy and can fit our whole family, our dog, and any number of guests who drop by.  (Sometimes it is also home to Legos, action figures, and random piles of Pokemon cards.)  It says to you, "come in and get cozy".  It's a place where we sit and read books, watch the neighbors pass by outside, or just relax.  It's where we live.

Do classrooms allocate space to living?  Most classrooms I've visited are filled with desks and chairs and filing cabinets, not much space for living.  What message does that send?  There's no living happening in here!  No space or time to get comfy.

How might we re-arrange our classrooms to reflect our homes? 


They say the kitchen is the heart of a home.  It's the place where families gather during the holidays, sharing stories, and a meal together.  It's the place where culinary creativity meets collaboration, communication, and critical thinking. 

In my house, we often find ourselves around the kitchen island, talking, snacking, doing homework.  It is our central hub for almost everything.  Pull up a stool or stand and chat as dad cooks.  There's room for everyone. 

Where does this exist within our classrooms?  A place to gather, talk, plan, create.  Do students have a spot to stand with peers, have conversations, and make something?

Sometimes the kitchen gets messy.  Too much clutter or a recipe gone wrong.  Education is messy, too.  Do we have a space in our classroom where messy learning is encouraged?  Lots of schools are creating makerspaces for messy learning, a place to foster creativity and innovation in meaningful ways.  How is that mindset reflected within your classroom space?

Welcome Home 

Our homes are personal spaces.  It's where build our most important relationships and raise our children.  We are doing those things in school, too.  We are building relationships with our students and learning with them in a space that often feels nothing like home.  Let's consider the ways that we can welcome students into our classrooms the way that we welcome guests into our homes.  How can we renovate our learning spaces so that they say--Welcome.  Come on in! 

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Why I Never Follow the Directions

I know you've been there.

Sitting in the middle of the floor surrounded by furniture pieces, screws, tools, etc.

For many people this is the ultimate frustration.  Trying to follow the often poorly written directions to assemble some bookcase or complicated children's toy.  If you've opened up a box and found something that looks like this, the you know exactly what I mean.
I think that companies are figuring out how much their directions can cause stress for people.  See below.  Is this really telling me that I will need a beverage to complete this assembly of this item?

So, I just don't follow the directions.  I may take a look at the pictures.  I consider the steps and 99% of the time, I do just fine (much to my husband's dismay).  I've put new tile in our bathroom floor, put together new bar stools, and countless numbers of my sons' toys--all without directions. 

When I stop to think about it---I don't really follow the directions for a lot of things.  When I'm travelling I often create my own path.  When I'm cooking, I add my own touch to it.  Why do I need to follow along with what someone else has said?  

It's that rebel in me that embraces innovation in education.  I LOVE the unknown nature Maker Education and the improvisation that often goes into design thinking challenges.  I LOVE chasing the curiosities of students into new uncharted waters.  I LOVE trying new strategies or new tools that might create a new spark for learners.

Consider this: a student opens a robotics kit and follows each step in the sequence resulting in a cool, functioning robot.  That's great.  I am sure that the learner gained new knowledge through the process and enjoyed their new learning.

But what if students figured it out for themselves.  What if they inventoried all the parts, pondered their complexities, and took a shot at it on their own--without the directions. (Gasp!) Imagine the meaningful learning that might come from a project without directions.  This is where the sparks of innovation fly!

In schools, we have a conflict.  We are direction-oriented.  Don't get me wrong, I want my children to do well in school, but does that mean they will always have to follow the directions? I hope not.  I want them to have the chance to tinker and explore without boundaries.  I want them to to try and fail and try again.  Schools founded on compliance do not foster creativity.  

I believe that we are slowly moving away from this model of compliance and towards a more innovative vision for our schools.  But until things truly change in education, I'm going to skip the directions, keep taking risks, and carving out my own creative path.  

Sunday, January 28, 2018

3 Word Design Challenges

Ignite maker learning in just 3 words.

If you are like most teachers, you are always looking for ways to new engage your students.  Active engagement leads to student learning.  So, how can spark engagement in just 3 words?

The inclusion of engineering design challenges is becoming a part of many classrooms.  Those who embrace the Maker Mindset carefully craft hands-on tasks that will get learners thinking, collaborating, and creating. Developing effective prompts for design challenges can take time and imagination.  I've boiled it down to some 3-word challenges that you can take, adapt, and use in your classroom tomorrow!

Some are specific to engineering certain structures or adding components to an existing design.  Other are more general and could be used for open-ended tasks of any kind.

  • Hack a Toy
  • Build a Bridge
  • Drop an Egg
  • Create a Game
  • Re-purpose a Box
  • Can it Float? 

While these examples are pretty straight-forward, some prompts may require a little more explanation.

Team design challenges have become pretty popular for getting learner thinking critically and solving problems.  These challenges can be done with students or adults with everyday materials.
  • Two Concurrent Towers
    • Give each team a bag of random materials.  Something that can serve as a surface (Styrofoam cup, cardboard scrap), a structure (plastic fork, Popsicle stick) and a connector (pipe cleaners, straws)  Given the materials provided, build two concurrent towers.  You can create additional challenges within the challenge by informing teams that the towers can't use the same exact materials for each tower.  Or at one point in the challenge, you could stop the groups and allow one member from each team to go and steal one item from another table, causing teams to rethink their plan.
  • Ship a Chip
    • As an alternative to the egg drop challenge, teams will need to carefully pack and ship one potato chip to another location with the goal of keeping the chip perfectly intact.  Choose clean recyclable materials including bubble wrap, duct tape, tissue paper, plastic wrap, etc.  If you need a partner school to ship you chip to--please contact me.  We'd be happy to exchange in this challenge with you!
  • Make it Move
    • Again, using some general materials, challenge teams to create a vehicle that can roll across the floor.  Possible materials include index cards, straws, paper clips, Lifesaver candy (or other wheel-like option).  For those who need more explicit directions, check out PBS Kids .
If you are looking for a techy-themed challenge, try these 3-word challenges that require a few more materials.  

  • Create Wiggle Art
    • Using a 3 volt motor, some AAA batteries and a battery pack with wires, teams can create a vibrating bot that, when markers are attached, can create some wiggle art.  You'll also need a plastic cup or other plastic recyclables and some tape.  Here's one version from Lemon Lime Adventures.
  • Shed Some Light
    • Using the bot you created in the prior challenge, add a feature using LED lights.  How can you get your bot to shed some light adding a coin cell battery and pack? 
If you are more of a bookworm, there are design challenges for you and your students too.  
  • A New Setting
    • Reading a good book with your students?  Have them consider how the story would be different if it was in a different setting?  The wild, wild, west.  Undersea.  In a galaxy far, far away.  In the jungle.  Can your students write about it?  SURE, but let's have them create it instead.  Maker challenges can support creativity and collaboration while developing literacy skills, too!
  • Design a Solution 
    • Every great story has a character with a problem that needs solved.  Students can design a solution to help your favorite children's literature character.  Clifford can't get to Emily Elizabeth fast enough, create a vehicle for him.  Charlotte's Web is too sticky, design a new home for her.  Ramona can't take another minute with Beezus, build her a secret clubhouse.  The possibilities for story connections are endless!  Check out my website STEAM Makers for more great ideas.  
I'm sure there are tons of other 3-word challenges out there.  Please share yours! 

Sunday, January 7, 2018

No More Sitting in Auditoriums: 3 Ideas for Remaking Professional Learning

Raise your hand if you are tired of sitting in auditoriums listening to someone lecture for your school district in-service.  OK, now that everyone's hand is up, ask yourself--why, in 2018, is this still happening?  With all that we know about engaging learners (students and teachers) why aren't we infusing more meaningful work into our professional learning?

Not to worry--there are lots of leaders out there who are hacking the traditional professional development model in favor of hands-on learning opportunities that are collaborative and fun!  As I think about planning for some upcoming PD days in the new year I remember what it was like to sit in those auditorium seats as a teacher. I think about how easy it was to disengage, catch up on some reading, or play on my phone. We've all been there.  Instead of draining our educators, let's take advantage of our time together and re-energize our teams during this cold and dreary time of year.

These three ideas might be the shift you need to plan professional learning that fuels your team.

Make it Hands-On
Over the course of the last year, our district has provided opportunities for teachers to learn skills in Maker Education that can be used to enhance instruction in their classrooms.  Through our work with the Beaver County Innovation & Learning Consortium we have shared professional learning with two other area school districts.  Our teams spent time learning about creating LED Wearables, using Virtual Reality in the classroom, and programming with robots through Bird Brain Technology . Hands-on learning engages teachers and creates practical applications to new learning.

Bring Teams Together
Try a team design challenge.  With all that schools districts are doing to promote critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity with our students, we can't forget about developing this within our teachers.  Going out of your comfort zones may be easier with friends and colleagues to support you.  So build those spaghetti towers and tin foil boats! Work as a team to solve problems and learn together.

Connect it to Curriculum
Last spring, we opened our first elementary makerspace.  YAY!  In order to build capacity within our teachers, we offered workshops over the summer where teachers could come into the space and learn a new skill.  While the skills in isolation were valuable, we also took time to connect this new learning to children's literature.  Elementary teachers learned how to solder and weave.  They became cardboard connoisseurs.  Some collaborated on maker activities that connected to the Global Read Aloud.  Others considered how their makerspace learning would enhance a story in their reading series or their favorite children's book.  They explored ways that this hands-on learning fit into the existing curriculum.

So, whether you shake things up with a rock, paper, scissors tournament or a scavenger hunt, let's get our teams active and engaged during in-service.  And while we are at it---can we call in-service something else? (I've never been a fan of that term.)

Consider how you might build camaraderie and bring teams together for some fun in the new year.  Be sure that the professional learning aligns with the curriculum so that teachers can see exactly where the new learning fits in and equip them with some new skills to revitalize their lessons.

No more sitting and listening to lectures.  Let's flip the traditional model of in-service (blah) training and remake our professional learning!

Need help with planning some upcoming professional learning?  Is your team looking to engage teachers in hands-on workshops that build creativity and collaboration?  Check out my workshops at   I'm booking now for summer workshops and keynotes.

Monday, January 1, 2018


OK, so it killed the cat--but curiosity is where great ideas start!

New ideas fuel me.  I get excited to share ideas and talk with other educators about what fuels them.

Sometimes its contagious the way ideas can flow when you surround yourself with curious, innovative people.  So, I've decided that my #oneword for 2018 is CURIOSITY.

In my role as a school district leader, I hope to cultivate curiosity within the schools that I work in--with our teachers, our leaders, and most definitely with our students. 

I wonder:  How might I support passions and new learning?  How might I share new opportunities for growth with teachers?  How might I provide resources for innovative projects for students?

I will say YES to ideas that empower teachers and learners.  I will work to push my own thinking and the thinking of others. 

I hope to cultivate curiosity in myself.  I want to take the time to pursue the things I'm curious about (and not feel guilty about it).  I want to read more, travel more.  I want to spend time talking with people who I can learn from and grow with.  If there is something I was to learn more about--I'm gonna do it!

I hope to cultivate curiosity within my own children.  Active boys, almost 4 and 6 years old, my kids are interested in everything.  They love reading books, building with cardboard, trying out "science experiments", and have already learned some basics of coding.  (You think their mom is into STEAM maybe?? 😊)  My hope is that they never lose that spark!  I hope that new ideas are ignited from their wonderings and that they stay ever-curious.

As I move into this new year.  I will pursue the spark of new ideas.  I will chase my curiosities and encourage you to do the same.

Happy New Year! 

Friday, December 29, 2017

It's All About Relationships

As I reflect on 2017, I think about all of  the people who have I have connected with this year.  Whether meeting an "Edu Hero" or a long awaited face-to-face conversation with a Twitter friend, I am lifted up by the connections that I have with inspiring and supportive people.  Face-to-face conversations with friends and colleagues or long-distance email exchanges, it really is all about the relationships.

This summer, I attended the International Literacy Association Annual Conference in Orlando.  What a jam-packed agenda!  The biggest names in reading were there--truly amazing to listen to so many experts (Fletcher, Richardson, Ripp).  What was even better was meeting some of my Twitter friends in person.  Sean Farnum @magicpantsjones and Jennifer Williams @JenWilliamsEDU were even more friendly and motivating than I could've imagined.  With a big hug from each, it reinforced the importance of a digital #PLN.

This fall I had the pleasure of being a part of a mentoring project with a fellow Compelled Tribe member, Jodie Pierpoint  Talk about a go-getter!  She has orchestrated a phenomenal match up of aspiring administrators and experienced school leaders.  With Twitter chats and webinars, she is facilitating some amazing work.  I am happy to serve as a mentor working with a talented up-and-coming school leader.

With mentoring in mind, I am thankful for the ongoing support I have received from from an accomplished author who reached out to me several years ago after I reviewed one of her books.  Since then, Cathie West and I have corresponded via email about the ups and downs of being a writer.  Though we have never met, her always positive outlook and encouraging words keep me pursuing my love of writing.

Earlier this month, I attended a state conference.  I love presenting at conferences, as I get the opportunity to talk with others about my passion for STEAM and Maker Education.  But with a conference theme of innovative practices, I was grateful to meet some truly remarkable innovators in our field.  Randy Ziegenfuss @ziegeran and Lynn Fuini-Hetten @lfuinihetten shared the awesome work in their school district.  After participating in their podcast earlier this year, it was great to meet in person.  A session on innovative PD with Rich Czyz @RACzyz was a must-see.  High energy and great ideas, meeting Rich was a a highlight of the conference.  I couldn't possibly forget the show-stopper of the conference George Couros @gcouros .  He was incredible!  Honest, inspiring, funny, and encouraging.  It was so great to meet him, after following his work for so many years.

At the conference, I was joined by a team from our district, as well as other educators in our county.  The time spent at the conference strengthened our relationships and allowed us to build new friendships.  Over the course of several days, we talked, learned, and laughed together, which is after all a foundation for a great relationship.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Your Best Self: The Power of a Learning Network

This week I had lunch with a group of teachers from 3 neighboring school districts.  The group is a part of a consortium of educators working in our county to support creativity and innovation in our classrooms.  We had just finished a classroom visit where an eclectic team of teachers planned a lesson together and one implemented it while the co-creators observed.  (Think “lesson study”, but a hacked version that better met the needs of our team.)

The team reflected on the lesson, highlighting the evidence of learning from the students who were engaged in a variety of tasks, all centered on the holidays.  The students collaborated, used technology to research, and discussed their learning.  They persevered through some challenges which resulted in the creation of a cool hands-on project.  Some students succeeded quickly, where others failed and tried again.  Some worked cooperatively, while other worked alone.  Students had voice and choice in where they sat and who they worked with.  It was a very positive visit for all involved, but it was the reflection from the teachers that made it all worth it.  

Over lunch, the team described the way that they worked together as educators.  (This hacked lesson study was a part of a 2 month project with multiple classroom visits.)  They shared how they had texted each other last night with a new twist on the lesson.  They talked about their plans for what they wanted to do next.  They wondered about the possibilities of a classroom swap.  Their enthusiasm was truly infectious!

Keep in mind, these aren’t teachers who knew each other well or were friends outside of this project.  These are teachers from three very different school districts, all teaching completely different subjects and grade levels—elementary, middle school social studies, high school English, and high school biology.  They were assigned to a group to participate in this professional learning endeavor through our consortium, but somehow have come together to become an innovative thinking powerhouse.

The team gushed about the energy they felt during the morning’s lesson.  They marveled over the skills and empowerment that the students demonstrated during the lesson.  They begged (pretty much) to continue working together because they loved the opportunity to visit each other’s classrooms and share insights on how to improve their instruction.  They confessed that they wouldn’t want to work on any other team—that their placement on this team felt so right.  They asked to take on a leadership role within our consortium and were overjoyed at the thought of being able to mentor new teachers coming into the project in the New Year.  They continued to brainstorm ideas and talk about things they wanted to pursue together.  Professional learning is their passion.

As their colleague and “coach”, I am amazed at their drive to become better educators.  I am ecstatic about the possibilities for these teachers to be leaders and learners, but I think one teacher summed it up best when she said:

“When I’m with this team, I’m my best self!”

And that my friends, is the power of a professional learning network.  As you reflect on 2017 and consider what you will accomplish in 2018, I hope that you surround yourself with a team that helps you to become your best self.