Monthly Archives: September 2013

Engagement, Learning, and Technology

How do we, as teachers, use technology in ways that improve opportunities for student learning in our classrooms?  Now in our second year with 1:1 iPads, this question is always on our minds.  My teaching partner and I are always thinking about ways to increase student engagement and participation in all aspects of the classroom–in line with our beliefs that engagement and participation play an important role in learning.  Sometimes those ideas involve our iPads–and somethings they don’t, we are always considering student learning rather than iPad use as the goal.  Paula over at Amplifying Minds wrote earlier today about the role technology should or could play in enabling learning.

This week we experimented with using the app educreations as a tool during our morning calendar time to encourage more interaction and participation.  My immediate observation is that more students can share their mathematical equation generation since the white board feature allows students and teachers to see many more attempts than were available orally.  And the novelty factor is certainly at work–students are interested in using the iPad, so there is more immediate engagement.  I do realize we could do a similar process using our actual handheld white boards and markers–messier, but similar.

I’m also seeing students use different aspects of the educreations app for their equation generation–the typing feature, the writing feature, a variety of colors…  (And it’s way less messy than the markers!) I feel like this is just the tip of the iceberg of possibilities, and I suspect that students will show us more ways to use this tool.

And an added bonus was reported back to me…a guest teacher who worked for my teaching partner on Wednesday using this new tool in our classroom implemented this strategy in another classroom later this week.  She was quite excited about the success and engagement the students experienced, and proud of her own ability to implement a new strategy with the students.


Sometimes it take a new tool, like the 1:1 iPads to push our thinking about ways to modify our own teaching strategies…to move out of comfort zones and try new ways of working with and engaging students.  I don’t have any illusions that this particular strategy being a ground-breaking innovation in learning, but even small steps can improve the learning experience for students.  We just have to keep moving forward…and be open to experimentation and listen to student ideas about innovation as well!

How are you supporting and enhancing student learning in your classroom?

A Question? A Story?

I took the long way home from work today.  It is also a scenic route with beautiful vistas of the ocean bathed in the early evening sun, signature Torrey Pines gracing the center planters, and stop signs at regular intervals instead of evening freeway rush hour traffic.

My photography this week, scaly is the prompt, has not been terribly inspired.  I’ve been busy–too many meetings and not enough time to immerse myself in the projects that need attention, and require thoughtful time to get them done.

So on my way home, on this scenic route, I made a short detour thinking I remembered a piece of public art that just might fit my scaly search.  But the statue I remembered wasn’t there…so I drove a bit further and saw this house.


What?  What are all these poles for?  If you look closely you’ll see they have little flags on them. Is this construction of some sort?  Installation art?  A way to keep the birds away?

I think this photo would make a great writing prompt!  What story do you see?

Building Rhythms

As we enter the fourth week of school, I can feel the rhythm settling in.  It’s not the dulling thrum of never-changing routine, but the strong heartbeat of a community in progress.  You might think that because two thirds of our students remain the same each year, that the beginning of the year would be seamless.  But in fact, we feel the transition even with so much remaining the same.

Each year students take on a new role in the classroom. Those veteran third graders, who have already spent two years in the classroom with us, are figuring out just how to be a classroom and school leader.  They are considering how to provide support to their younger classmates while still maintaining their emerging “cool” image…not an easy balancing act!  Second graders, who used to be those “little kids,” are wrestling with stepping up to the demands of the being in the middle–no longer needing as much support, and yet grappling with no longer being the youngest.  And our brand new first graders have spent the last several weeks trying to figure out what it means to be a part of our multiage class.  A place with a history–a legacy of shared learning that pops up regularly, and they feel left out of.  They are learning to work with others, to accept help from their older peers, and to risk adding their contributions to our classroom learning.

This week feels like the turning point.  We are feeling like a cohesive community learning together.  Students are taking risks, supporting each other, and settling in…with the calm hum of learning-in-progress filling the room.

I can feel the rhythm building and soon the melody will come into focus.  I look forward to our voices blending and harmonizing as we grow together.

I love these moments of teaching.

Too Much of an Interesting Thing…

When I first spied the mushroom in my front yard I saw it as a photo opportunity.  I watched it grow, seeming to magnify right before my eyes.  I watched it for days until I found it kicked across the yard one morning–and then, once it was turn upside down, I captured what I had missed by looking at only the outside surface with my camera.

The following week I noticed a few more mushrooms growing in my lawn.  Again, I watched them grow…this time with some “portholes” to look inside and see what was beneath the surface.  I got out my macro lens and worked to capture my secret view of the underside of the mushroom.

And then this morning it seemed that an entire forest of mushrooms has exploded on my lawn!  One was so round and on a tall stem…looking almost like a lollipop.  When I got home–late (meeting and then traffic)–that forest had ballooned, each mushroom doubling in size from this morning.  And while my photos don’t really capture the drama of the growth, my eyes registered it.


And now I’m thinking that these fascinating mushrooms are becoming a problem.  What started as an interesting novelty has become a bit of an eyesore.  Just where do these mushrooms come from?  What effect do they have on my lawn?  How do they multiply?  What is making them thrive in my lawn?  And now…how do I get rid of them?

Early morning update:  As my husband was leaving for work, he came back into the house saying, “The fairies are having a field day at our house!”  I looked out the door…the mushrooms are enormous this morning!  They ballooned overnight–and the biggest among them are between 6 and 8 inches across.  Here’s a picture trying to capture the magnitude.  (The photos don’t really capture the size adequately!)


A #Scratchy Week

Taking photos of textures is tricky.  It’s easy to find smooth and rough…and even scratchy. But it’s much more challenging to compose an interesting photo that also highlights the texture intended.  For the last several months I have been working to push out of my comfort zone and NOT photograph the most obvious  thing associated with any given prompt.  This week was no different.

Here is a collage of my first 6 days (in random order thanks to the app collageit) of scratchy.


Monday’s photo was a scratchy old fence that I see on my way to work.  I’ve been eyeing this ramshackle construction for a while, waiting for the perfect time to capture its dilapidated beauty.  Tuesday I was in the school garden and couldn’t resist the scratchy pumpkin stems. Wednesday was probably technically cheating since I used scratching rather than scratchy to describe a student hard at work with writing…and scratching out ideas!  Thursday I was back to my mushrooms…and using my macro lens to capture the scratchy texture on the underside. Friday I played with shooting a tree through a screen to create the scratchy texture.  Saturday I used this snail–whose slow pace allowed me to capture it as it crept across the scratchy sidewalk in front of my house.  And I love my Sunday photo…the scratchy spine of an aloe plant with a spiderweb attached, highlighted by the use of the vintique app.

aloe w:web

It’s always a little bittersweet to move from one prompt to the next as I start to see the world anew.  It always seems to take a week to really see and notice the prompt in interesting ways.

How was your scratchy week?  Today I began to look at my world through the scaly lens, who knows what the week will bring…

Birds on a Wire: Connections and Interconnections

I often ask my students to make connections.  Connections between books we read.  Connections between things that happen at school and at home.  Connections between our math lessons and our social studies lessons.  And I find myself constantly making connections.

A couple of weeks ago our garden teacher introduced the word interconnected along with the word ecosystem.  His emphasis was that the garden is an ecosystem where the plants and animals…all the living things are interconnected.  When something happens to one, there is an impact on the others.

This morning in the New York Times Magazine I read an article about emotional intelligence and its impact on student learning and success.  While the article debated methods of providing instruction in emotional intelligence, it had me thinking about the microcosm of the classroom and other communities of practice in my life.  Our actions and attitudes impact those around us–whether we intend it or not.

When I arrived at the beach this afternoon for a short walk, I noticed a whole line of birds on a power wire.  I felt compelled to capture this image with my camera–even knowing that my iPhone is not the best tool for capturing images at a distance.  I walked as close as I could get and snapped the birds from a few different angles.

birds on a wire

In some ways these birds remind me of the idea of interconnections. Some fly into an open space on the wire, others fly off.  They are all sharing the same space, with the movement of one impacting all the birds in some way.

Like the birds on the wire, each student in the classroom has an impact on the others.  We are both interconnected and interdependent.  As a result, as teachers it is important to consider students’ emotional well-being and help them learn to handle conflict, stress, frustration, and disappointment.  These skills are not in our Common Core Standards and are not tested on annual standardized testing measures.  But they matter…to all of us.

I don’t have convincing data-based evidence that attention to students’ emotional needs will result in successful, well-adjusted adults–but I know it can’t hurt.  Students who learn to build consensus in group work can carry that skill beyond the classroom.  When conflicts can be resolved with words and compromise rather than fists and tears, we all benefit.  Students who have strategies and tools to manage difficult situations will be better equipped to deal with the obstacles that life deals them.

In the garden, in my classroom…and on the wire, interconnectedness means our actions and decisions impact those around us.  And in our increasingly connected global society, we are all birds on a wire.

What do you do to support your own emotional well-being?  How do you help build the interpersonal skills of the young people in your life?

Some Macro Play

I love using my macro lens on my iPhone…but it’s not easy.  I have to take my case off and attach the lens to the magnetic ring…so I don’t take macro shots spontaneously, I have to think about using this lens and make the necessary preparations.

I definitely have days when I feel at a loss for what to photograph.  Things feel ordinary…or I feel like I have already taken those same shots some other day.  Today I headed out to my backyard with plans to sit in the shade and read for a while.  But when I headed out there, I noticed the aloe plant that has gone crazy!  It started as a small house plant…and now is obviously loving the growing conditions in the back yard!  This week on #sdawpphotovoices our photo-a-day focus is #scratchy…and what could be scratchier than aloe spines?  I took a photo with my regular lens…and then headed inside to attach my macro lens.

I love the way the sun behind the plant makes the spine tips glow!

In the same big pot with the aloe there is also a cactus that outgrew its tiny indoor pot and ended up in the backyard.  The long, thin, needle-like spines create interesting flower-like patterns.  I love that the top spines are a brilliant yellow, creating a beautiful sunburst!

These ordinary cactus almost look like exotic sea creatures when you get close!  My attention turned to the lavender plant–the one I wrote about here–that was almost killed due to neglect! The plant continues to improve, although it is not in full bloom right now. There are a couple of beautiful blossoms…and some buds developing.

And I wasn’t quite done…I noticed a “volunteer” plant–one that planted itself in a pot of dirt on the edge of the patio.  It was green, but in the last week it has turned to a rusty red-orange color.  I’m not sure if it is dying…or if it is a natural cycle of growth for this plant.

All of these photos are unedited…and I love the colors and the way the sun creates glow.

I decided to take one last photo…of a spiderweb down in a hole where my husband is fixing the sprinkler.  As I moved my lens in close, the web began to glow, catching the sun.


Playing with my macro lens today helped me see the ordinary things in my backyard in a new way.  The colors popped, the patterns emerged, and the light created beauty that’s hard to see without looking closely.  And, as I always notice, opportunities to play and make help me find my creativity and the fun that is so often right in front of me.  And best of all, all this noticing piques my curiosity and wonder at the world around me.

Have you taken time to play today?

Looking Beneath the Surface

I suspect my neighbors thought I was crazy as I crawled around the lawn in my skirt when I got home from work today.  I had spotted some new mushrooms growing this morning and noticed that one had a hole where you can see through to the inside.

After unloading my work bag and feeding my cats, I attached the macro lens to my iphone and set out to get a closer look at the underside of the mushrooms.  One had been kicked over and lay with the underside exposed.  It was already turning brown on the exposed texture that is in such contrast to the smooth outside surface.


And then I got down on my hands and knees to look through the hole along the edge of the mushroom top.  I peered through first with my eye…and then with the lens of my camera trying to capture the interesting layers I spied beneath the surface.


These mushrooms remind me that what I see on the surface doesn’t always capture the complexity of what lies beneath.  My classroom is like that too.  There is so much about each of my students that isn’t visible unless I take the time to bend down and look carefully beneath the surface.  And sometimes I need a special tool, like my macro lens, to bring those interesting layers into focus.  Sometimes that tool is those informal conversations that I have with the students near me as we walk in lines.  Other times it is the opportunity to listen into a discussion a small group is having about a math concept or a story we have read.  Oftentimes it is through my students’ writing that I learn the most.  Their stories reveal their interests and their experiences…and show me what they know about reading and writing and science and sometimes even math and social studies.  Looking at a piece of student writing is like looking at the underside of a mushroom.  When you take the time to get beyond the surface, there are layers and layers that unfold and reveal new information that helps me know my students and helps me help them learn.

What have you learned from a student lately?

Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge: #113texts

When we select books to read in our classroom we begin with well-written books about topics we want to address as part of our instruction.  Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox is a lovely, well-written book that has been around for a long time.  (Published in 1989)


This book is about a young boy who lives next door to an old folks home and has made friends with the old people who live there.  One of his best friends–Miss Nancy, who has four names just like him, seems to be losing her memory.  When Wilfred Gordon hears this he goes to the other residents asking what a memory is.  Their responses:  something warm, as precious as gold, makes you laugh, makes you cry…prompt Wilfred Gordon to go home and find these for Miss Nancy.  He collects his interpretation of these things called memories into a basket to share with Miss Nancy.  When Miss Nancy unpacks the hen’s egg, seashells, puppet, and football she begins to tell the stories she remembers when she examines each object.

We started the school year a few weeks ago reading this book as a way of demonstrating the power of things to elicit stories and memories.  We asked students to bring in an object or artifact that represented something important or special to them and/or their families.

In addition to using this book to teach the concept of object-based thinking and writing, we also used it this week as a mentor text for writing.  We like to “mine” the books we have read for interesting sentences to help our students broaden their understanding of sentences, grammar, and conventions.  As our first mentor sentence of the school year we looked for a sentence that was accessible to our first graders and still “meaty” enough for our more accomplished writers.

We decided on this sentence:

He admired Mr. Drysdale who had a voice like a giant.

Asking our students what they noticed, we were able to identify the use of the simile (a voice like a giant), proper nouns (names), and pronouns (he).  We also talked about the verb admired as well as the basics like the use of a capital letter at the beginning of the sentence and period at the end.  After a couple of examples of how we might follow the pattern of this sentence from Mem Fox, students set off to write their own sentence following the pattern.


Here are a couple of examples:

First grader, E, wrote: I love my bunnies because they love me.

Second grader, B, wrote: He loved his dog Milo even though he shedded on him if he brushed onto him.

Third grader, C, wrote: I admire LEGO makers who have a way of making awesome sets.

And another third grader, M, wrote: The people love to watch Emily who surfed the waves that were as tall as mountains.

You can see that not all students were including the simile…yet.  But all were able to expand a sentence similar to the way Mem Fox did in her sentence.

There are many other ways to use Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge as a mentor text.  Mentor texts are all around us, as close as those classroom bookshelves.  Take a close looks at some of your old favorite read alouds, you’ll be surprised at all the opportunities to use them as writing mentors!