Wednesday, December 4, 2013

A Change Will Do You Good

I've noticed working from home how important a change in environment can be to my processing ability and motivation. I try to spend at least two days a week outside of my home working environment. On weeks that I don't manage to do that--for whatever reasons--I can feel the pressure of monotony overwhelming me. My productivity falters and I struggle to focus on any particular task. This is especially true the longer I am in the environment. For example, after a week in Colorado on vacation, I had no problem staying focused at home for an entire week. The week after that first week back, I needed to get out.

Changes in environment are good. They don't need to be permanent, but you do need to mix up the routine to sustain productivity. Even if you aren't doing work in the changed environment, mixing it up will affect your overall productivity when you get back to work. Now, we can't take vacations whenever we want and travel to different cities or countries to get away from it all. But we can make an effort to mix it up regularly so that we don't find ourselves stuck in a rut. Here are five ways to mix up your teaching days to increase working productivity.

  1. Find a new place to eat lunch. Plan it with colleagues or for some alone time, but eat somewhere different once a week.
  2. Use a different hallway. If you make trips to the office, teacher workroom, mailboxes, bathroom, or anywhere else in the school, try challenging yourself to use a different route every time you go. Never go the same way twice in a row.
  3. Come in earlier, leave earlier/ come in later,stay later. Change the time you are in school. Have a day where you come in early or stay late to do that extra work. Or, if you usually stay until all of your work is done, try taking it home one night a week. Mix up that work routine.
  4. Holiday seasons are the perfect time to take twenty minutes to mix it up. Go window shopping (or real shopping) at stores you wouldn't normally go to. Check out a comic book store, play the newest video game at Best Buy, or find a local bookstore to browse. If you take once a week to go somewhere you've never been, you'll feel revitalized...even if the store was not at all for you.
  5. Find alternate spaces for your class. In warm weather, do class outside. In cold weather, use the library, gym, computer lab, or stage to have your class mix it up. Students benefit in productivity in mixing up the routine as well. You might even consider swapping classrooms with another teacher or even swapping classes. While you may not feel that the mix up day itself was productive, the next few days will make up for it. [Don't mix it up on Fridays since you'll lose all productivity benefits over the weekend.]
Remember, change can keep you out of a slump. And in the immortal words of Dr. Seuss, "When you're in a slump, you're not in for much fun. Unslumping yourself is not easily done."--Oh, The Places You'll Go!

So find a way to mix up that routine. Even the smallest things can make a world of difference.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Dr. Seuss-Style

I subscribe to a writer whose inspirational posts I find rewarding and thoughtful. Last week, James Clear posted an article about Dr. Seuss' writing strategy called The Weird Strategy Dr. Seuss Used to Create his Greatest Work. It's about the bet Dr. Seuss made to write a children's book using only 50 different words and how there is great creative value in limitations and restrictions. That best-selling book of course was Green Eggs and Ham. Over a few days, I found myself thinking about the implications of this idea on the lives of teachers. We have time restrictions galore, but I wondered how--in a world of more, more, more--we could use material/physical restrictions to maximize our teaching creativity.

In my younger years, I used to move a lot. I've lived in various cities in Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and I even spent a year in Las Vegas. One thing you learn from moving so much is to use the experience to condense and refocus. In particular, my move to Las Vegas was a filtering experience. I moved with only a van-full of personal possessions. It was an opportunity to really whittle down the nonessentials and determine what it was that I really needed to keep with me. (Luckily, I wasn't attached to any big pieces of furniture. I could not make that move with only a van-full of items now.) The experience of "cleaning house" was liberating, and I felt open to a world of new learning experiences and possibilities. It also helped me recall some valuable memories that were buried under piles of the mundane.

I had a similar experience a few years ago when I changed classrooms. I took the time to filter through materials and focus on what to keep and what to get rid of. Getting rid of the clutter helped me regain my focus and course correct my teaching.  I had boxes of materials for projects that I hadn't done since my second year teaching--Gone! I had old lessons plans from classes I would never teach again--Trashed! I even found a crate full of student papers that I couldn't bear to throw away because they had worked so hard--those kids have since graduated!

Let's face it, teachers are packrats. We keep student work, we print off possible lessons, we get great ideas but never see them through. We get free materials (or can't resist shopping at back-to-school prices) and think we'll eventually find a use for them. We have lessons or strategies that we've used for a long time without seeing the same positive results we may have initially experienced, but we can't bear to get rid of them. We hoard; we're hoarders. And it's all of these things pressing down on us that keep us from being creative. They are distractions and the best thing we can do is scale down to eliminate them.

Winter break is the perfect time for a mini scale down. Challenge yourself: get rid of half of the stuff in your classroom that is not being used right now. What, half??? Yes, half. Filter it out, keep the exceptional, and scrap the rest. Give yourself a chance to get creative. Or, if that doesn't work for you because you just can't bear the thought of throwing things away (hoarder! it takes one to know one) then pick one thing--lesson, material, whatever--and figure out a way to use it the first week you come back from break. Better yet, make a list of all the things you haven't used, and figure out how to use them, one per week. If they are just sitting there--and this goes for ideas, too--then they're taking up space. Get rid of the clutter and find the creativity. Use it or lose it.

If a masterwork of children's literature is the result of limiting oneself to writing with only 50 different words, imagine what you can do by scaling down your classroom clutter. In the process of selecting the best materials, strategies, and lessons from the results of years of collecting, you might just find--or create!-a teaching gem.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Step Back

Anyone who follows this blog knows that this past weekend, a tornado threw a tree through my roof while I was in the house. In fact, I was standing about ten feet away on my way to the safety of the basement. I'm shown again why perspective matters and why tunnel vision is a dangerous habit.

Since I work from home, I spend a lot of time in my house. Now that the power is back on, I'm writing from the comfort of my living room...the same living room that a tree penetrated just four days ago. While I recognize that my loss is small compared to the dozens of mature trees ripped from my father-in-law's or the devastation seen on the news, the most significant thing that I've lost is the sense of safety I used to feel here.

I love my house. It's the perfect house for me. It has been instrumental in restoring my balance and efficacy and creating a supportive, safe environment from which I can write and consult professionally. Until I had this house, there was too much uncertainty and self-doubt for me to have taken this (big and scary) step. But being in this house has let me grow into the person I am, and for that reason, I love this house and all the memories that my husband and dogs have made for me here. It is home, a feeling that I'd been missing for a while.

So you can appreciate that every time I look up at the ripped-through barn siding, exposed insulation, and shattered frame board, it feels like a personal violation. When I'm alone, the otherwise normal creaking and settling becomes ominous and I can't remember every crack in the century-old support barn beams to know if any of those cracks are new.  If I stare at the ceiling too long, I see shifts and stretches; I can almost feel the inevitable crash of the rest of the roof caving in, the constriction in my chest merely precognition.

Of course, none of those things are real. I never noticed the cracks in the beams because I tend not to notice those things. The ceiling isn't cracking in microbursts, waiting seditiously until I'm standing under it to fully release. The boards aren't pulling away from the plywood in miniscule increments that only I can see. I'm not Chicken Little...the sky is just fine.

But sitting all alone, it's too easy to build metaphors and craft nefarious symbols from the situation. I recognize that it's my creative mind's way of preparing me for any possibility, that to think it through makes it less plausible or maybe just more conscionable. I feel myself preparing to process the next trauma, but I'm not sure that I'm processing this one. I feel on high alert, so I force myself to distraction with meaninglessness. Unfortunately, that means that I'm spending an inordinate amount of time with nonsense which makes me feel less productive and sends me into a downward symbolic spiral where the roof becomes my life and the tree the tornado tossed is some bizarre occurrence that I couldn't possibly prepare for.

So, I step back. I step out. I go beyond. I'm not looking at this from a new perspective; I'm choosing to look at different things. Things that have nothing to do with physical damage and destruction. I'm checking out the Global Education conference online, I'm making connections and building my professional network, I'm thinking about next steps in my career and how to make those happen. I'm doing the small things that get you big places.

Hitting reset on my thought spiral is no easy task, but I'm doing it. Every time that I think to look up but don't is a win for me. It's not denial of what has happened, but a shift in the fatalistic mindset that trauma breeds trauma and the other shoe will drop. No thank you. I'll stick to progress and possibility.

I hope we get this hole fixed soon.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013


With a resolution in its infancy to write in this blog every Monday and Wednesday, missing yesterday's post may seem like an epic fail. Really? I just made this goal last week. How could I miss a post after such a recent declaration to the world? Well, sometimes life happens.

If you live in the Midwest, you know that the weather can be...persnickety. What started as an unusually beautiful 68 degree day in November turned devastating for many in the Michiana area. A tornado touched down in several places causing massive power outages and general destruction, including throwing a tree through the roof of my house as I stood just ten feet away.

I'm not ashamed to say I screamed when an 18-inch piece of barn siding flew past my head as I headed for cover in the basement. Needless to say, my forgetfulness in posting yesterday--with a trip to the State Farm agent, shopping for a generator, cleaning up the inside of the house, and getting a contractor to remove the tree and cover the gaping hole in the roof--is understandable.


The tasks involved in cleaning up this type of chaotic event give you time to process and find the life lessons. So, here are the things that I learned (or remembered to know) from this craziness.

  1. I chose the very best husband in the world (for me). I don't want to imply other people's husbands are not "the best." But my husband is the perfect person for me and I was reminded of it during the tornado. We were watching TV and the wind starting picking up. I ignored it (as I tend to do with anything that might be scary if I think about it too obsessively). My husband did not. He didn't panic, but he was definitely paying attention. He recognized exactly when the wind outside was not normal and sent me down to the basement.
  2. Part Two of "I chose the best husband." Not only did he send me down to the basement, but he immediately ran to the bedroom where the dogs were napping in their cages. When my husband and I first met, he wasn't much of a dog person. But because I love dogs, he agreed to become a dog person. Over the years, he has developed a deep affection for our puppies and I learned in this crisis that it wasn't just an act. He loves our dogs...enough to instinctively run for them despite the dangers. When I called my dad later and told him the story, his first response was that next time we should leave the dogs. My husband's response to that ("yeah, right") makes him exactly the husband that I need.
  3. The attitude from which you approach a problem makes all the difference. With the immediate danger passed, but the power out and the wind still howling, we decided to spend the night in the basement--just in case. We blew up air mattresses, brought down the blankets, flashlights, bottled water, computers, and cell phones, and set up camp. And "camp" is exactly how I thought of it. We were camping in the basement. We got all snuggled up and continued watching movies until the computer's battery ran out. It was fun and a nice distraction from worrying about the big hole in the roof. By focusing on the fun part, I made it through the ordeal without falling apart.
  4. Devastating is all about perspective. It doesn't diminish your loss, but it helps you appreciate the level of severity and appropriateness of your reaction when you step outside of your own small world and see what else is out there. A hole in our roof and no power is terrible. But my father-in-law actually had the tornado touch down on his property. Twenty-five year old pines that he and his family planted together had their tops ripped off or were completely uprooted. He lost over forty mature trees and has tens of thousands of dollars of cleanup, for which his insurance will cover only $500. He was lucky that the house--where he and his wife were protected in the basement--wasn't touched. The tornado was right there in full force and could have easily leveled the house with them in it. Perspective.

5. Last, but not least--there are many ways to deal with problems and the "standard" response won't work for everyone. When we went to the insurance company, they said that since our house was uninhabitable, they would pay to put us up in a hotel for as long as the hole was in our roof and the power was out.  But we have dogs. We didn't want to kennel our dogs after such a crazy experience and live out of a hotel for who knows how long. Once the roof was covered, we decided that we'd rather just rough it at our house. No power or running water, but we live on a creek (for toilet flushing) and we bought a small generator (probably not covered by insurance) for light, electronics charging, and TV. So yes, I have to put a pot of water on the grill and use my French press for coffee. And yes, I have to keep running to the barn for wood to burn in the fireplace. And yes, we are sleeping on the couch in front of that fire, which is the only source of heat. And yes, we wash our dishes and brush our teeth with bottled water and use the shower at the gym. But we are home, and we are together, and we make it work; we count our blessings and treat it like an impromptu adventure. So I learned that we can solve problems together and that "together" (including dogs) is what works best for us. Roughing it doesn't have to be so rough, as long as you meet your most basic needs. Our most basic need is being together...that and satellite TV.

So, I didn't write yesterday. Instead, I experienced life and the aftermath of chaos. And I learned to remember some things that, if not forgotten, are important to hold in the front of my mind to appreciate the amazing gifts I possess.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Technology is a Tool...

One of the tag lines in my digital writing workshops is "Technology is a tool; it matters how we use it." The idea is that teachers shouldn't use technology just to fill an ISTE standard or say they use technology. As a tool, there are ways to use technology that make sense and ways that don't. You don't try to cut a piece of wood with a hammer. Tools have specific uses and purposes, and while creativity can often help you use tools for slightly altered purposes, essentially tools are made to perform a specific function.

I got a question from a teacher that made me rethink my tag line. She wanted her students to use a technology tool for a project that she created. She had a description, rubric, and great models using the technology tool for students to view before starting. Here is what made me rethink my tag line:
1. She wanted her students to do the project the next day and she still had questions about the tool.
2. She wanted the project finished in one day and her students had never used the tool before.
3. She had never used the tool herself.
I have no doubt that this teacher had a great assignment, thoughtfully constructed with an assessment rubric that would guide her students in the cognitive processes involved and models that demonstrated excellent work. But she forgot one vital element. She didn't teach her students how to use the tool.

Here's an analogy, and you can ask a shop teacher if this is accurate. An industrial arts teacher assigns a birdhouse for students to make. She has a great rubric, a detailed assignment with a list of all the requirements, and several excellent models for students to view. She discusses all the most important features of a birdhouse and even offers some idea generating activities to help students design their birdhouse. After making sure everyone has all of their questions answered about the assignment itself and a blueprint ready to craft, she directs them to the floor where all the construction tools are and tells them they have one day to complete their birdhouse. But students don't begin working. They've never used a hammer or saw before. Anybody see the problem here?

Modern adolescents are great at learning to use new technology tools. We see the results all the time. But those are the results of learning that we see. We interpret that to mean that our students will inherently be able to use new technology tools, and that is wildly inaccurate. What we don't see is the process, mentoring, social motivation, and time spent by these kids in actually learning the tools. If you strip away the structure of how they typically learn to use new technology, teens aren't any better at figuring out new tools than anyone else. Worse than adults, perhaps, because they have fewer strategies for working through frustration.

Also, assuming all technology tools are easy to use, intuitive, or accessible is detrimental. There are no standardized rules for building technology tools.  So learning new tools is like learning a new language or a new art medium--some commonalities may occur, but unless you have experience with a lot of tools of the same nature, you're going to struggle at first. It takes time to learn new things--especially tools. Technology tools in particular have more features than are strictly needed, so they are harder to learn to use efficiently.

Finally, consider the types of technology tools teens use regularly and what their purposes are. Teens learn social, sharing tools or game/simulation tools. Teachers are asking them to learn cognitive processing tools. Teens learn their choice tools for entertainment purposes and the negative consequences of failing to learn these tools are negligible. Teachers ask students to learn tools to complete other learning tasks and the consequences for failure are severe. We ask them to learn a new tool in order to process new information. That's a double learning whammy. Plus, the result of success in learning the new tool is more work, which may be a disincentive for many students.

There are several things that make learning new technology tools either easy or difficult.
1. The time available to practice, play, and learn
2. The consequences of failure and the results of success 
3. The motivation behind learning the new tool
4. The mentoring structure in place
5.  The purpose of the tool
6. The similarity to known technology tools
7. The complexity and number of features
8. The accessibility and ease of use

When you use a new technology tool in your classroom, assign a throwaway assignment that focuses only on using the tool. All of the cognitive processes of learning new course content and skills should be eliminated. Content should be easily accessible by all students and the only assessment should be participation. The more complex the technology tool--that is, the more available features--the more time students need to play with the tool to learn it. Consider mini projects that boost grades after a unit of study so that the material and content is fresh and easily accessible, or "all about me" projects that use students' lives as the content.

When including technology tools for students to use, think about those qualities listed above that make learning new tools easy or hard. Support student learning of these tools by offering time to play with the tool and learn its features, a strong mentor structure--that means either you learn the tool, ask a student to become an expert beforehand, or find a forum for students to consult--and no negative consequences (aka "bad grades") for students the first time they've encountered the tool.

No industrial arts teacher would ask students to construct a project without first letting them familiarize themselves with the tools needed. No kindergarten teacher would ask a student to write a sentence before they learn to hold a pencil. Technology is a tool. No teacher should asks students to use a technology tool that they've never used before without first letting them figure out how to use it.

My new tag line: "Technology is a matters if you know how to use it."




Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Falling Off the Wagon...and Climbing Back On a (Slightly) Different One

I've been busy.

It's no excuse, but it's true. I've been working hard to publish a second book, QRevolution, which is available for preorder through Smashwords. I've been hosting live webinars every Tuesday and Thursday on technology tools for digital literacy, recording those webinars, and publishing them on my website. I've been creating the outline for my next book and developing ideas for three more books. I've been busy.

And yet...

One of my goals for this first year of being an author was IS to blog about the connections I make between all of the many things I read, view, and research and being a teacher. It's important that I maintain that goal, but as I look at my blog publishing, I haven't posted since September. Unacceptable!

So, in the spirit of cutting myself some slack and recognizing that I'm not perfect, I'm going to revise my goal and work to meet it. Instead of writing every day, I need to back off the blogging a bit. Since I'm already planning and presenting webinars on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I'll plan to blog every Monday and Wednesday with the option of adding Friday on weeks when I have something valuable to share.

How many times do we set goals and, when we get busy, fail to follow through? What happens to those goals? Sometimes we need to just forgive the fail and get back to them. Sometimes we need to reevaluate and alter them to better fit our schedule. In this case, blogging every day was too much. Since I didn't want to write nonsense, I had to find things to write about. I realized that I really only had two or three insightful connections every week, and I was forcing myself to find more. Not only did that make my writing feel forced, but I was spending time and energy on things that were distracting me from my other goals.

How can this help teachers? Ask yourself--how many times have you set goals that ended up being unreasonable, unattainable, or took up too much of our valuable time without returning that value to us in a sense of accomplishment?

Goals should make us feel successful when accomplished, not put upon to even consider doing. When your goals don't give back in a sense of satisfaction, it's time to think about why you're doing them. The same thing applies to teaching, in the biggest sense. You should feel that your teaching is fulfilling, satisfying, and gratifying. That doesn't mean it's not challenging or even frustrating at times. But your overall sense of accomplishment should outweigh any negatives.

If it doesn't, it's time to think about why you're doing it. It may be that you could use some new strategies or a different class or grade because you're bored, not intellectually challenged, or stuck in a rut. It may be that you are focusing too much on the negatives and failing to appreciate the positives, in which case you should step back and try to see your career from another perspective.

I know that I had a memorable moment in my last year of teaching. I just couldn't feel satisfied with my job--at all. Finally, I took a step back to figure out exactly what was keeping me feeling disgruntled. When I saw my teaching from my students' perspectives, I realized the issue--I didn't like the novel I was teaching from--at all. I didn't want to read it, talk about it, think about it. It was a novel chosen by another teacher and in the spirit of collegiality, I'd agreed to teach it. Nothing about the unit I'd created was inspired or even interesting. It had no "me" in it, and I just couldn't feel satisfied. Once I figured that out, I could fix the issue. 

Now, step that back even further. What satisfaction do your students get from what they are learning? Interesting, thoughtful,personally connected activities will satisfy most students. If they are dissatisfied, it might be that they can't find the "me" for themselves. Try discussions, opinion polls, anticipation guides, and forums to help students find the relevance of your teaching.

For more teaching ideas with technology, visit my website at

[It feels good to be back!]

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Art of Asking

Every once in a while, you experience another person's perspective in such a clear way that it guides you in reflecting upon your life, your character, and your biases. Amanda Palmer's TED Talk is such an experience. Her life and her philosophy and her presence contrast so sharply with mine, and yet, I feel as if she is speaking directly to me during her talk, and connecting directly to things that I've been working to develop in my own personality. Amanda Palmer is my guide for asking; whenever I get nervous about the idea of asking for something that I need, I think about what she says, and how she values asking as an art form and social connector.

I've spent a lot of time working on things that I didn't have a real passion for, mostly because I felt that I had to. It was part of my job. Even the things that you know are good, necessary, or profitable don't always come easy or enjoyably. The problem with these necessary things that we don't like to do is that they can sometimes overwhelm the enjoyable experiences so that all you end up doing is the annoying stuff that you hate. All of a sudden, work has become a string of things you hate to do and no time for the stuff you love, the stuff you got into teaching for in the first place, the stuff that makes you feel motivated and energized and invincible.
So here's the hack of the day. First, find the things that take up time, that you don't like. Then, ask yourself: do I need to be the one to do this? Could someone else do this for me? If so, who and what would they get out of it? Students are a great source of help for very little effort. Sometimes the thing they want most is to spend some time with you. I've had students volunteer to clean my room, put up bulletin boards, sort papers, organize my bookshelves, and even make posters. All of those things need to be done, but I don't have the time, patience, or motivation to get them all done in a timely fashion. If you can't find volunteers who want to hang out, you might offer food or other "gifts." I've gotten a surprising response from offering their pick of books from my shelf--I've got some great books. You might also offer incentives like a day in the computer lab or trip to the library, an extra bathroom pass, getting out of class three minutes early (a winner for the class before lunch or the last period of the day), having an extra day to turn in a project, or getting to skip a quiz or homework assignment of their choice.

Take a minute--outside in the sunshine, or sipping coffee in the morning--to think about the things that you don't like about your job, or things that take up more time than you have to do them. Is there someone else who can do those things for you? Who, and what incentives would they be happy accepting? If you can eliminate some tasks from your day that bog you down, you'll feel better and more productive. If you can ask for help, you can create a bond with your helper. Win-win. Just ask.