Thursday, July 31, 2014

Not the "Same Old, Same Old"

My husband brought in the mail, like he does every day, and said that I'd gotten a letter from my school. I figured it was the usual - an agenda for the "back to school" plan as I start back to work this coming Monday. I opened the letter after supper and was ready for a check list of "to do" items or a "get ready for..."paragraph. I was pleasantly surprised that it was instead a thank you letter. I am not even kidding.

It's not that I was never thanked in my teaching career, but my current school takes the time to thank the staff and does it OFTEN. I am not used to this and it still takes me by surprise. I smiled and smiled and smiled more as I read the letter. I read the letter three times and then handed it to my husband so he could read it. He was even more excited than I. My son held his hand out, as he was curious what the obvious displays of happiness was all about, and wanted to read the letter as well.

It contained the "year-end metrics" that my school keeps track of throughout the year, but also reminded that the administration knows that we staff members made many more gains and made huge contributions that do not show up in these "metrics" and thanked me (and other staff members, as I'm sure they received it too) for the hard work and dedication to our school.

I always tell my children and my students, "One thing you can never over do is thanking someone." One thank you certainly goes a long way. It's SO nice to be appreciated; I can hardly put it into words.

Thank you. Really.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Count Your Blessings - Often

I am once again reminded that I am SO blessed! I just got done with dinner out with my girlfriends - girlfriends I've had since 3rd grade. I am so fortunate that we all live within an hour of one another and that we can make this happen. We call ourselves the "Fake Homemakers." There are actual "real" homemakers groups that meet monthly and discuss <insert something worthwhile and homemaker-ish>. We call ourselves "fake" since we are not sanctioned by the county (rebels), nor do we follow any rules. Our focus is simple: be together.

My circle of friends has gone through a time of many hardships. We've helped each other through job changes, divorces, deaths of parents, close family members and even children. These events lead us to the epiphany that things happen in life and that we never know how long we will have the gift of one another. We made a pact to get together on a monthly basis, but with no rules.

If we meet at someone's house, that is fine. We can eat off the best china, or paper plates. We can order in, or have a potluck. We can can cook a meal for the group or just have snacks. We'd like for it to be a "mommies' night out" but we'd rather you came with your kids versus staying home. In the past, we've had "field trips" and have gone places together. Some months, we bring optional "door prizes" which usually amounts to Christmas napkins in February or 4th of July decorations in August. (Tonight I got two cute pads of paper and a ring.)

All too often, life gets going in a whirlwind and we forget to just sit back, look around, and be thankful for the abundance that we have.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

It’s All About Relationships

Being a teacher involves much more than teaching. It is not just the art of disseminating knowledge, but rather building relationships. Students learn best when positive relationships are formed between them and their teachers.

Being an online or “virtual” teacher makes those relationships all the more important. Tony Baldasaro, aka @tonybaldasaro, told me once that [three of] the most important things in virtual education are relationships, relationships, relationships. He is spot on. At the beginning of August, a month before school begins, I begin reaching out to my students and their families via phone and email. I want to make connections with my students as soon as possible, but I also want to strengthen and maintain those connections. Remind helps me do this, and do it well, if I may say so myself.

Meeting students and parents “where they are” makes communication seamless and authentic. Using Remind’s safe and convenient messaging service most definitely meets people where they are - which is most likely on their mobile devices. Students and parents may choose to receive text (SMS) messages or push notifications if using the Remind app. They may also choose to receive emails, if that suits them best. (I will tell you, however, that email is approaching the popularity of smoke signals. Yes really.) With my school’s internal email system, students and parents have to log in and GO TO IT, whereas a text or push notification COMES TO THEM. This might seem trivial to those of us who are uber connected, but it’s huge to those who are not.

I introduce Remind to my students and families during my first contact with them. Letting my students know that I wish to be in touch with them as often as possible lets them know I care about them and also about their success in school. Letting parents know that I want to be in touch with them as often as possible helps establish the vital partnership between school and home that is needed to make virtual schooling successful.

In August, I “schedule ahead” reminders for the entire year, which is also a bonus for me when I receive my own messages. I love this feature! As the year goes I send messages with class reminders, meeting reminders, due dates, and sometimes just some “happy thoughts” to let my kiddos know I’m thinking about them. Using the feature that allows one to send a message to just three people at minimum allows me to be more specific when I need to be, like for sending birthday wishes. (I still send snail mail cards, because we all love to get those) Another benefit is that students and parents can now create their own accounts and use the Remind app to keep track of their messages, especially when more than one of their teachers uses it. (No worries as Remind is COPPA-friendly for students under 13.)

I have been using Remind since the day it was available, and I’ve loved watching it evolve into what is has become today. It is by far one of the most important communication tools I use and my most favorite app. I’ve never been accused of “over communicating” with my families but rather have received words of thanks all year long as my students and their families feel very informed, but also very connected. And that’s what it’s all about - being connected.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Forgetting the Golden Rule = Clash of the Humans

I am more and more amazed at what people think, and then say or even post on social media. Some may be saying the same about me after reading this post, but whatever, because mine is a message of tolerance and acceptance not one of "My way is better than yours" or "I was here first."

My hometown has experienced a transition of population over the last twenty years or so. People from far away places, with alternate beliefs and ways of life have moved into the area. I think this is a good thing, but many disagree and loudly so. These people are called "Ridgers" or "Hippies" by their so-called haters. They call themselves "Progressives." Many came to Viroqua, WI seeking out the advantages of having access to a Waldorf education in a small town setting. Plus, I live in "the driftless area" meaning that the glaciers did not come through here, leaving the beautiful landscape of green rolling hills and coulees. Visitors often say how they'd love to live here.

My little town was going down the path to becoming a ghost town or at least with an abandoned Main Street. Can you guess whether or not we have a Wal-Mart? Of course we do. That's the first sign of a dying town. It's like when sitcoms will bring in a new child to the family to try reviving the series. It usually only lasts for a short while. People think that Wal-Mart will save the day since now we have access to cheap (in both senses of the word) food and clothing. Residents are then bewildered when the family-run businesses of our Main Street were closing their doors as they cannot compete with WalMart's pricing. I'm happy to say I have not shopped there since 2/11/11 as I try to support the locally run businesses, but I digress.

The newer residents of the area have influenced many changes for the good that people seem to overlook or forget about like a food co-op, several new businesses on the Main Street, a community theatre organization, and some new restaurants. If it were not for many of the newer residents bringing life back into our downtown, it would be a long line of empty buildings.

This lead me to think about the same thing in schools. What if your child were to be "the new kid" and he or she dressed differently, spoke differently, liked different foods, or had a different religious belief? Would you want your child to be treated like the outcast or to be welcomed into the group? Would you like your child's uniquenesses to be seen as assets or problems? Would you want your child labeled with a derogatory name? I think we know the answers to these obvious questions. We were all taught the Golden Rule when were were younger, but it often leaves the forefronts of our minds. We all need to be reminded of it; some of us more often than others. We need to ask ourselves, "Why do we treat others as we would never want to be treated?"

If we were all named Jenny, had blonde hair and blue eyes, measured 5'7" and agreed on everything, wouldn't the world be a boring place? I think so.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

How Well Do We Interact with Our Stakeholders?

Today, I helped conduct part of a market study at my local Food Co-op as one of my duties of being on the Board of Directors. We are working on our vision and deciding what steps to take in the future. We're seeking out opinions from the owner-members since it is THEIR food co-op and therefore, what they want matters. This got me thinking: How well do we do this in schools?

Parents, students, and community members are also "owner-members" for our schools. Do we ask what their vision is or the direction in which they'd like to see the school go? I am not familiar with many schools that do this. If there are schools in my area that do this, they're not telling the story. It should not just be the school board, or the administration or school employees who make these decisions for the school. Stakeholders should not have to come to a monthly school board meeting in order to share thoughts; their thoughts should be sought out on a regular basis throughout the school year. This means more often than the one open house at the beginning of the year or the two parent-teacher conferences during the year. The more engaged families and the community are in our schools, the more likely students are to succeed. Students need to see that people care and that they are watching.

Schools are not only missing out on opportunities for feedback, but also for compliments. My experience is that, for the most part, families seem pleased with the schools in this area. Is someone seeking input from stakeholders at sporting events or fine arts productions?  If more people were encouraged to share their thoughts, opinions and insight on a regular basis, many hands would make light work.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

My Biggest Secret as a Teacher

"Lean in closely," I'd say. My eyes would shift to my peripheral vision on each side to check for eavesdroppers and then I'd whisper, "I'm not a reader."

I hated that I didn't read. I could handle 86-page Judy Blume books, but nothing else could hold my attention. If it wasn't a magazine article, it was too long. I wanted to read the John Grisham novels, but I'd instead have my husband read them and then fill me in afterwards. I figured that I'd watch the movie, so I wasn't missing out on anything. I never understood it when people said that the book was MUCH better than the movie. How could that be? For a person in her 30s with a Master's degree, one would expect more.

When I assigned reading to my students, I'd only give them a few pages, as at their age that's all I could handle successfully. When I was a student, if my teacher assigned an entire chapter to my class, I'd totally skip it. Who knows how much of  U.S. history I still do not know; how embarrassing.

One of my beloved friends and former colleagues, Jennifer Malphy (@jmalphy), inspired me by piquing my curiosity about so many books. She is so gifted with regard to finding and keeping up-to-date on young adult novels and getting middle schoolers to start reading and keep reading. So goes the theory, "You are what you teach," I was essentially a middle school girl who wanted to read but wasn't an avid reader and didn't know what to choose or where to begin.  She, being as interested in technology as I am, explored Nooks with me. She for the school library, and I for personal use. I decided while being a self-proclaimed "gadget girl," purchasing an eReader might be the answer to my problem. Jen had been researching about the successful use of them in school libraries.

After I purchased a Nook for myself, I also bought them for my own children, who already liked to read. I implemented them into my Science and Social Studies classes instead of using textbooks. I brought my family's Nooks to school, as well as my iPad and iPod touch with the Nook app. I was also fortunate to have some to borrow from the library, as Jen had purchased eReaders by then. It was an amazing transformation I saw in my classroom. Students who were reluctant readers would read and even volunteer to read aloud. Students would put their heads together with ANY other student and happily share a device, as I didn't have enough to be 1:1. Everyone in my classroom was engaged in reading! I was so happy with the result and I've since shared this with other teachers, encouraging them to use eRaeders in their classrooms.

I am happy to say that I've now read more in the last five years than in all my years before that put together. I've burrowed in and lost hours of time with my nose "in a Nook." The first movie I saw after reading the book was "Eat, Pray, Love." And I finally get to say, "The book WAS better than the movie."

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Being By Myself Doesn't Equate to Being Alone

I'm on day 2 of +Akevy Greenblatt 's 30 day blog challenge, and I'm still up for it. :)

I've been thinking about my drive to be connected and my every-growing love of solitude and how they should be at opposite ends of the gamut, but are they really?

I work essentially "alone" in my home office for eleven months of the year, and being a very social person, people often ask me, "Aren't you lonely being home alone all day long?" I usually answer with a laugh, because I actually have the freedom to be much more connected while working at home than I did while working in my former "brick and mortar" school. Besides talking with my students and their families via Blackboard and phone, I have several social media tools accessible to me.

I now have the ability to check my Twitter feed every so often and keep in touch with educators from all over the world. Twitter was blocked at my previous school. I'm a member of some group chats and can reach out to those fellow educators as well, but phones were deemed "off limits" from 7:30am to 3:30pm except for our "30 minute duty-free lunch." Over the summer, I've become a member of a few Voxer groups, and I've added professional contacts to my Facebook friends, which previously has only consisted of personal friends and relatives and I look forward to those connections continuing into the school year.

Since my current school is a charter school and all of the 2,200 students are there by choice, there is a different emphasis on reaching out to the world. We have a PR person on staff and coordinate special online and face-to-face events to get the word out of the great things that we do. In a day and age of school branding becoming ever popular in addition to Wisconsin's school choice option for families, I'd think that telling one's story would remove the blocking of social media, but that's just my opinion. I am just happy to say that I am connected.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Challenge Begins

I started a blog, because that's the thing to do - share ideas, get feelings and experiences "out there" or at least documented. Well, I've had lots of ideas and feelings and experiences, but not much documentation of them beyond the 140 character limit of Twitter.

For some reason, I psych myself out of blogging before I even begin. I have ideas in my head and think, "Who will care about that?" or "How will that be lengthy enough to bother with?" In my head, I know that blogging is for ME and that the topic or length do not matter, but when it comes to putting pen to paper, or fingers to the keyboard rather, it has not happened much. I read others' blogs and think, "I have that same thought and could have written the same thing." or "Wow, that was short but good." I've heard +Josh Stumpenhorst aka @stumpteacher, relate it to his daily running routine he's established. If he can run for hundreds and hundreds of days in a row, then I can certainly blog a bit more often.

Enter +Akevy Greenblatt, aka @akevy613, with his 30 day blog post challenge. Just in the last two days, he's inspired me and pushed me to push myself to get back on the "blogging horse." We even might be guest bloggers on each other's blogs in the future for a change of pace and to help establish some camaraderie.

I love a challenge! Game on, Akevy and check you rear view mirror, Josh.