Celebrating 10 Years Teaching!


Tomorrow I start my tenth year of being in the field of education.  I realize that to the titans of teaching, this is just a blink of an eye. But for me, it has been, and probably will continue to be a real journey.  Seeing as it is past ten o’clock, the night before school, here are just three things I have learned.

While I know my students still want to hear my stories, I found that they are much more excited to tell me their own and use technology to discover those of people in far off places. 

I once had to teach in a stairwell because the door on my classroom took a half-day to fix.  It may have been one of my favorite days teaching. I realized that it was the content of the class, our singing, skits, and games that made the class inspiring and memorable, not the posters of Spain.

When I started teaching, I thought that because I loved it so much, I would always be happy doing the work associated with it. I probably figured out, after the first day of student teaching that this wouldn’t always be the case. But, it wasn’t until recently, that I came to terms with the fact that most of the time, doing something you love involves a lot of work, time, and effort.  Just because that work isn’t fun or engaging, doesn’t mean you aren’t doing what you love. 

Here’s to another school year. May it be as adventurous as the last ten!





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Mr. Jeff Yordy, horticulture team, and the facts of life

photo by: Josh Acocella & Chloe Valtos

Soccer was the thing to do in the suburbs in the 80s and 90s. It was a strange sport for me to play. I didn’t like to run, (which I’ve covered elsewhere on this blog) so I was the goalie. Unfortunately, I was also afraid of getting hit by the ball.  Frankly, it’s amazing that I played all the way through my sophomore year of high school.

When I finally quit soccer, I did something really unexpected and super nerdy. I joined the horticulture team. Our coach Mr. Yordy wasn’t the kind of guy who looked like he’d be into plants and flowers. He was a football coach and coached us like elite athletes. At the end of each three-hour practice, we would have a mini competition where we were scored on a written exam, plant identification, and judging of plants. Our final scores were posted publically and our progress graphed next to that of our teammates for all two thousand students at our school to see. At the end of the regular season (see I told you this was like a sport) only the top eight team members would advance to complete for a spot on the State team.

My first year, I didn’t make the cut. It wasn’t my first bout with competitive failure, but it stung.  The next season, with Mr. Yordy’s encouragement I spent every lunch period  working on horticulture. I would go to the science offices and he would give me a horticulture related task. Could you imagine helping a student, who wasn’t even in one of your academic classes, for no extra pay, every single lunch period for four months? Mr. Yordy had the patience of a saint, he never once shirked from his promise to help.

The end of the next season came and I was at least in the top three. I made it to the finals and discovered that only five people got to complete at State. One person would be eliminated the week before we left and two people the night before the competition. I was infuriated! After all that work and I wasn’t guaranteed to even compete. I survived the first elimination and made the four-hour trip to the University of Illinois for the competition. In the end, after an epic midnight hour, one hundred plant identification competition, two more were eliminated and I was chosen to compete on the team.

Even though I completed, and our team won State the next day, I was still really conflicted about Mr. Yordy’s methods. Why did it all have to be so stressful and uncertain? It wasn’t until I was out of academia that I understood the lesson he was try to teach us. Simply put, it was that life can be stressful and even if you work hard there are no guarantees.  Of course he taught me all sorts of other things like, how loving plants was awesome, how to steal tree cuttings from private property, and how to work hard. But I think I’m most grateful for him being the first teacher to teach me the facts of life. Mr. Yordy passed away today. He will be missed.

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Discovering blind spots in the classroom

Eyes wide shut Notebook

There is a game called Eagle Eye. One person is the Eagle and everyone else hides where they can see Eagle with at least one eye. Eagle’s job is to spot as many people as they can. After each round, the hidden people must move ten feet closer. I have actually played this game where the hider comes within five feet of Eagle and still is not spotted. While it is fun in the game not to be spotted, how horrible to be the student who is repeatedly overlooked. Increasing awareness of the degree of your interaction with students, is an excellent and easy way to demonstrate positive classroom leadership.

Here are a few ideas to discover your own blind spots:

Draw a diagram of your classroom. Divide the classroom into sections. Have a colleague or even your students mark down how many times your look or visit that section over the course of a class period.

Look at a class roster. For each student, write three adjectives. You may come to some students for whom just getting one adjective down is a struggle.

If you keep a standard grade book, highlight students who routinely score in the B+/A- range. Think about last time you spent individual time with that student. I know my attention to was always drawn to the overachieving or those who struggled.

Ask your students what they think! A simple Google survey, at least for a more mature crowd, would be a simple way of finding out if a student feels left out and how they would like to see your interaction with them change.

Don’t be too hard on yourself when you collect your data. Set small objectives to increase your awareness each day. At the end of two weeks, go through the list above and see how you have improved.

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A Call to Build Unshakable Girls


photo by: mmlolek

Some of the most fit and beautiful women I know belong to my gym. Should a civilian defense corps ever be needed, these women, clad in bright pink Lululemon, could obliterate the enemy with one swift cross punch and a flip of their luxurious hair. Still, despite the warrior goddess outer appearance, it’s a different story in the locker room. Women stare at themselves disgustedly in the mirror, they find fat to pinch or a wrinkle that should be smoothed. At the same time, a nasty repetitive internal dialog repeats. Questions like,  “Am I good enough?”  “Am I pretty enough?” and “Do people actually like me?,” are definitively answered, “no.” It may be read as weak for me to admit that I am not immune to this thought pattern. But, I’m fairly confident that on most days, especially Valentine’s day, a majority of the female population has these doubts about themselves. I do not stand alone in my insecurity. What makes matters worse, is that often times the outside world seems confirms these doubts. As adults it’s a boyfriends suggesting you, “slim down” or a colleague’s surprise that you were able to obtain a certain job.

I know that women and girls are not born feeling this way about themselves or care what about other’s perceptions. If you asked a group of preschoolers, “Who thinks they are beautiful?” Every kids hand would be up in the air. “Who thinks they are smart?,” would result in two hands up in the air and waving. Regardless of whose fault it is for the decline in girls’ self-image, as educators, we are presented with an amazing opportunity and responsibility to help all of our girls build a positive and unshakable inner-self. While I don’t think we can stop the demon dialog, a strong inner-self is a solid offense against it.

I wish I knew how we were suppose to accomplish this. Some girls may respond to encouragement in areas which are usually dominated by boys. Sports also offer a great venue to extend one’s concept of self. Yet, I feel that there is a danger in these external validations. What happens when they don’t score perfectly on the Chemistry test? Or when they don’t score the winning goal? The solution may be complex than just throwing a Goldieblox product and Title IX at our girls. We, especially female teachers, need to target the issue of reduced self-image directly. We need to speak with our girls (in age appropriate ways) about our own experiences and create channels for dialog to help them understand and bolster their own. When we take that dark inner dialog out into the open, only then can it become a conversation for changing the future.

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Using Nature as a Guide to Life and Teaching

Hibernating  Polar Bear

image by: Don O’Brien

In my neighborhood in Chicago, there is bar that has free pinball and arcade games. I’m not talking about one or two dusty games shoved into a grimy corner. They have about fifty games ranging from RoboCop to a tournament pinball version of Lord of the Rings. It reminds me of hanging out with my brother and cousin and watching them play Mortal Kombat.  Except instead of being in my aunt’s basement, it’s a bar. This past summer was the first for the bar. With the heat and the longer nights came a new crowd. Gone were the nerdy programmers and down-to-earth midwestern types.  The place had turned into a giant frat house. Long past midnight, a line snaked around the block just to get in. A fleet of bouncers routinely threw people out. Needless to say, I avoided the place and lamented the fratty victory.

After having spent the semester teaching in Michigan, I just returned to Chicago to find a delightful surprise. Everything is back to mellow nerdville at the bar. While I was surprised to find things restored, I really shouldn’t have been. It is wintertime. Of course the energy of the place changed.

I think we often try and push past the cues that seasons naturally give us. We try to rev up energy and start new projects. Maybe by doing so, we are just making things harder for everyone. Winter, at least in places where it gets cold, is a time for contemplation and self-reflection. It is a time to see how far we have come and how much further we still wish to go. Winter does not mean a complete shutdown of productivity. Quite the contrary. It is when the hard work gets done.  In the depths of winter, animals such as a Whitetail doe are pregnant and preparing to give birth in the Spring. So use winter as a time for hard work, to delve deeper into topics, to make space for your students to have solitude and reflect. Then when spring comes, it will be time shed light on and celebrate what has been cultivated in the darkness of winter.

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A Puppy in Your Lesson Plans

For as long as I can remember, which is probably the mile run on the Presidential Fitness Test, I’ve hated running. I became a swimmer perhaps for the sole purpose distance myself from even the idea of running.  Despite my extreme hate for it, I still think of running as something I should be able to do. I mean, you’ve seen the apocalyptic movies, only the fast runners survive. You don’t see a whole lot of people swimming away to safety. So, with this conviction, I set out to do…nothing. For years, I made half-hearted attempts to jog. But, after a bit, I always returned to the pool.

After the Secret Life Series, I was very inspired by the impact running had on people’s lives.  I thought, well, I’ve reached that age where women freak out and start running marathons and taking two-hour spin classes. Maybe it’s time to try again. I enlisted the help of an app and my very willing dog. I ended up doing the majority the runs at a small park, chasing and being chased by her. When other dogs would show up, I would run a large circle around them playing. We looked, at best, insane. Week after week, in the rain and snow, we ran. I can’t say that running itself actually got any easier, but at least with an entertaining dog, it was bearable.

On the Saturday before my final training run, my dog was mortally wounded while we were on a hike. Unable to face our beloved park, I chose to run around an indoor track. It was one of the most depressing things I’ve ever done and was glad that my running venture was over. Or so I thought. My sister (a nearly professional tri-athlete who doesn’t even start to get warmed up after a 5k) offered to keep me company on a 5k race. I accepted because, despite my sadness, it seemed strange to in effect, study for a test that I was never going to take. During the race, I cried and stopped not because I was tired, but to pet dogs. Eventually I did actually finish the race! I’m not sure if I will continue running. I still am not the hugest fan of the sport. But I’m glad I know I can do it. I glad that I found a way, after all these years to become a runner.

As an educator, this whole experience pushes me to think harder about, how do we make the unbearable yet important, at least bearable? Within every arduous topic, we must strive to find the puppy that will keep our students interested enough to help them learn what is important. And even when that puppy cannot be found, we must jog next to them and support them the best we can, to help them finish the race.

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The Secret Life of Successful Educators: Pernille Ripp–Big Family Bigger Heart

All educators are busy. I don’t know a single one who finishes the day and says, “I have way too much time on my hands.” In my opinion though, there is a certain class of educators, who have somehow located the twenty fifth and sixth hour of the day. Pernille Ripp safely falls into this category. I have always been fascinated by Pernille’s ability to seemingly do everything at once. Pernille, is a fifth grade teacher, founder of the Global Read Aloud, prolific writer and blogger, and mother to three young children (with one on the way!).

Simply put…how do you do it? How do you have so much going on in your life (family, school, blogs, etc) and still maintain some quotient of sanity?
Simply put, I don’t know.  There are great days and then there are days where I feel like I am not enough in any place.  I wish I could say that it is all a matter of priorities and making it work but that is BS.  Staying on top of it requires a ton of work, attention, and concentration and it can be absolutely mindblowingly draining.  BUT!  I love it and so I do it.  And I have to be busy or I would go crazy, me on maternity leave is not a fun person to be around.

What has been the most surprising gift that parenting has given to you in relationship to the work you do?
That I get what it means to send your kid off to strangers.  Thea just started school and it was big moment of trust and worry to me.  I kept wondering if her teacher would “get” her or even like her.  We have been so lucky for her to have a great first year of school but I worry about having teachers that won’t like her.  I want to make sure that all the kids that enter my room are given a fair chance and feel loved and respected because of that.  

What is one tip that you would give to teachers who are new to being a parent teacher?
To really use their own experiences as a parent and that unconditional love and try to pull that into the classroom.  I always look at a student and remember that they are someone’s child first and foremost and that they may act completely different with their parents.  Kids deserve to be loved by their parents and by their teachers.

With so much going on with having a family, How do you maintain and build positive relationships with your real life colleagues?
It is limited but the moments I do have with them I make count.  My 5th grade team and I try to have lunch together every day even if just for 10 minutes.  My extended teams I try to stop by their rooms, have coffee, or even have dinner with.  We text, we call and we Facebook to stay in touch too.  I also try to go to school functions to see my students and my colleagues.  We have to have each other’s back and feel that we have someone we can go to in the school when we need to.  I am very lucky with the people I work with and the relationships I have been able to build.  

In what ways has parenting confirmed, challenged and/or changed your pedagogical approach?
It has confirmed my belief that parents always have good intentions when they bring something negative to our attention, and also that they probably put a great deal of thought into it before they did.  It has also confirmed the need for limited homework and changing the way education is done.  Families deserve to have a life outside of school as much as teachers do.  

You can find more of Pernille on Twitter and on her blogs The Style Teacher and Blogging through the Fourth Dimension

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The Secret Life of Successful Educators: Lyn Hilt Family First

After nine years in the classroom, Lyn Hilt transitioned to the principal’s office. I met Lyn when she was in the crux of her principalship. Her blog, The Principal’s Post, was a regular companion for me, when I struggled to understand my own administrators. So…you can imagine my surprise when five years into being my go-to principal, she left her Post. It seemed that along with her career success, Lyn had also been blessed with the title of “Mom.”
As one who is deeply steeped in the Mystique, I respected, but still struggled to understand Lyn’s decision to transition from elementary school principal to part-time instructional technology integrator. I asked Lyn for this interview because I think that her decision to focus more on her family was brave and bold. I also believe the the work/family balance weighs particularly heavy on new mothers.

What was the reaction of your school, friends, and family when you decided to move away from being a principal?
Those closest to me were not surprised. Five years into it, my professional confidants knew that the principalship was draining me, baby or no baby. To be honest, I was looking for a different role and other opportunities before we found out I was pregnant. I think many of my students were surprised, simply because they’re small children and probably don’t understand the complex decisions a working woman needs to make. Many of the younger kiddos still ask me if I’m their principal when they see me in the building! I received many words of encouragement from co-workers, parents, and community members after I announced I’d be taking leave for the remainder of the year after my son was born. The remarks of many women reassured me I made the right decision: “Enjoy this time,” “It goes so fast,” “It’s so nice you’re able to stay home with him!” It was the right decision for me and our family.

Did your decision surprise you?
Not for a second. As long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a mommy. It has always been my wish to stay home and raise my kid(s). I likely would have made the same decision had I been in a different position or occupation. Thankfully my husband was supportive of this decision and we were able to adjust to life on one income during my leave. I realize not all women have that option.

It seems like what you wanted to get out of life changed. How has your definition of happiness and success changed?
I struggle sometimes (and, admittedly, I’m a tad bit jealous) when I see my colleagues in the Twitterverse traveling here, there, and everywhere, presenting at conferences, finding the time to network with others, when obviously it’s no longer easy for me to pick up and go, nor do I want to be away from home for extended periods of time. I know I probably lost some opportunities to present or be involved in various “connected ed” endeavors, but right now, my duties as Mom are infinitely more important.

What advice would you give to women who have high careers aspirations who are struggling to reconcile those with having a family?  
It’s sad, but true: everyone will judge you, no matter which path you choose, no matter how wonderfully you think you’ve balanced everything. So mentally prepare for that. You’ll never feel like you’re good enough in any capacity. Women are so hard on themselves! Your friends and family will offer advice. Working women think, “It must be nice to stay home all day,” and stay-at-home moms think, “I wonder if the kids even know what their working mother looks like?”
Know yourself and your strengths and limits. Don’t be afraid to work with your employer to design opportunities that can help you best serve the company/organization. I would not have been doing my school or my child any favors had I returned full-time to the principalship. I know there are plenty of principals with young children, but I knew I would crumble under the intense demands of administration, constant at-home work time, early and late hours, etc. I would have been miserable, and it would have made my family miserable.
Don’t rule out working from home, but seriously consider if you have the dedication to work from home successfully. It’s extremely demanding, more so than I ever anticipated. A few months after my son was born, I had some at-home work commitments that I completed during nap times and after bed at night. It was exhausting. The home/work lines blurred constantly. Again, some women perfect this role. Just listen to yourself and what you know will work best for you and your family.
So, in August I returned to work, but my instructional technology coaching assignment is part-time. I love the freedom this schedule provides and the fact that I have many interrupted days at home with my son. When I’m in schools, I enjoy working with teachers and students and can focus on my work. When I return home, I can dole out hugs and kisses and snuggles and focus on any take-home work (minimal amounts of it compared to my administrative role) after bedtime. I try to spend a healthy amount of time at home disconnected.

In what ways has being a parent changed or confirmed your pedagogical understanding and practices?
As a principal, my philosophy was very much “kids first.” I spent a lot of time with students who didn’t “fit the mold,” who needed adult support and guidance to help them learn how to make more positive choices, and who needed a lot more love in their lives. I’m not sure my philosophies have changed much since becoming a parent, because I always felt as though it was our role as principals and teachers to protect and help grow our students as if they were our own children. I hope very much my son’s future school community embraces those same ideals.

You can find more of Lyn on Twitter and on her blog Learning in Technicolor

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The Secret Life of Successful Educators: Josh Allen at the Intersection of Tech and Family Life

Josh Allen is an Instructional Technology Facilitator at Papillion-La Vista schools in Nebraska. He is an organizer of EdCamp Omaha and on the Board of Directors of the Nebraska Educational Technology Association. Josh is also the joyful father of three ridiculously cute kids. In this interview, Josh shares some of his insights on technology, family and work/life balance.

First of all, I love your picture blog, The Allens in Pictures. What inspired you to start it and how do you maintain it so well?
I think I started in 2009 as a way to keep all of the relatives up to date on the kids. Picture a day blogs were kind of a cool fad back then. My wife and I both have iPhones, so our Photo Stream syncs so I don’t always have to be the one taking pictures.  I now only spend a couple minutes a day from my phone. I see others that have a theme for the day or week. I just catch a glimpse of what happened that day. It’s usually nothing glamorous, but it’s our day. It’s never something I push on people, but it’s funny when someone at work comes and mentions it. Just this morning someone commented about our youngest starting to walk, which was our picture yesterday. I enjoy the feedback I get from friends and family. I’m not sure my Grandma would let me stop at this point.

Also, are there any techie devices or apps do you use that help you be a better family man/parent? Could any of these be applied successfully in the classroom?
Lately, I’ve been talking with quite a few people (some may be getting sick of it) about the website If This, Then That (IFTTT, http://ifttt.com). You create “recipes” that let web services talk to each other. On a personal level, I have created a recipe so that anytime I use the hashtag “#mykids” on Instagram, a copy of the picture and description is sent to Flickr. Earlier this month, the Nebraska Educational Technology Association (NETA) held it’s first fall conference in conjunction with another state group. I am on the NETA Board of Directors. I set up a similar recipe where anytime I used the conference hashtag in Instagram, the picture and description posted to the NETA Facebook page (of which I’m an admin).

For educational purposes, it’s a great way for schools who utilize a variety of web services and/or social media to get those to talk to each other. It seems parents are on Facebook and students are on Twitter. IFTTT is one way to get a message to multiple platforms to communicate with multiple audiences wherever they are. There are also recipes for Evernote, Pocket, Google Drive, Calendar and Mail, among others. IFTTT works with over 70 different services. So no matter where your school is technology wise, you will probably be able to find something to help save you time. It’s a simple way to create automated workflows and backups between the things you are already using. I love browsing through their website to see what others have created and get ideas on how I can be using the web smarter.

Do you think you think it is possible to achieve a balance between work and family life? How do you go about trying to achieve it?
Is it possible? Yes. Is it easy? Absolutely not. The blessing and the curse of so much new technology is how easy it is to stay connected. Jeff Utecht has a great image on the Stages of PLN adoption. As technology has evolved and I’ve gotten a better understanding of what an Instructional Technology Facilitator is supposed to do, I’ve also added three kids to my life. I haven’t always been very good about achieving a work-home balance. Because technology is always at my fingertips, I have to sometimes make a conscious effort to put the phone or iPad down. I think I’ve made it to Step 4 (Perspective) on Utecht’s image. I still have my phone near me to take pictures of the kids, but I do a better job of leaving work until work time…or when the kids go to bed.

I’ve been participating in a book group with some other men from my church. In two different books, we heard the same story about how a father wrote in his journal that a day spent with his kid fishing. No fish were caught, so the father considered it a wasted day. But the son talked about how wonderful that day was for the rest of his life because of all the things they talked about and the focused time he got from his dad. I replay that story in my head almost daily. Playing cars with my son may seem like a waste of time to me, but it could have a huge influence on him. I may not realize the impact in that moment. I may not realize it that year. While I need to work to support my family, I also need to support them with my time. And not in the same room, checking my phone. Kids pick up on that quickly. Spend time in the moment with your kids. Care about what they care about, even if you don’t. As both a teacher and a parent, I feel spending time as a family can be the most important thing parents can do for their kids.

In what ways has parenting confirmed, challenged and/or changed your approach to technology in schools?
I’m not sure that parenting has changed the way I think about technology. I think I have a little more heightened awareness for monitoring student use at home and cyber bullying. My kids are still pretty young (oldest just entered kindergarten), but I’ve started thinking more about how we’ll handle those two issues specifically as they get older. As I watch my kids learn on our iPad, it definitely does confirm that, with proper guidance, there are lots of engaging ways for kids to learn. I hear people complain about the games kids play on devices. Well, who puts those games on there? We are very intentional about what goes on our iPad. We still read physical books and our kids love drawing on paper, but more importantly, we give them options for how they want to learn. As an educator, that’s all I’ve ever wanted for students.

You can find more of Josh on Twitter and on his blog Technology Fridge

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The Secret Life of Successful Educators: Top 10 #Edupups

The theme for next week’s,  Secret Life of Successful Educator Series is family. I am always amazed by how outstanding educators manage the work family balance. I’m really excited to share these interviews with you. They range in topic from, the pull on women to be a double success in the workplace and at home, to practical advice on how to leverage technology to be a more productive parent and teacher.

In the meantime, here is an awesome collection of #edupups. I honestly believe that behind every successful educator there is a cute dog. Enjoy!

p.s. Want your precious pup included? Upload their photo to this gdrive folder: http://goo.gl/lx5fcS

Posted in Secret Life of Successful Educators Interview Series | 3 Comments