Thursday, December 30, 2010

Building the future, one memory at a time...

I just spent three days doing what I love most! I ate mac and cheese with chicken nuggets, played numerous games that I never won, watched as clutter and crumbs spread throughout my house, and slept barely hanging onto the edge of my bed while feet and arms thrashed me throughout the night. While that may not sound terribly appealing at first glance, add to the picture two charming granddaughters and suddenly you have a recipe for happiness! Our quiet, tidy home was transformed for a few days into a noisy, messy scene full of giggles and joy. They live 150 miles from me, so the opportunities to pamper and spoil them do not come often enough, especially during the school months when we are all so busy. But it is Christmas vacation, so we took advantage of the opportunity! We went to the store and selected their favorite foods for our meals, filled our days with games (Farkle, Find it, and Sorry) and sledding, watched movies together each evening (The Sound of Music, Ramona and Beezus, and A Christmas Carol), and (my personal favorite) snuggled in bed with books to read together before sleeping each night.

Early the morning we were to take them home, I found myself reflecting on a much earlier time in my life. I was drawn back in my memories to childhood days in my grandparent's home on the Oregon coast. I remembered playing endless card games as my grandmother taught my brother and I how to play pinochle and cribbage. There were always yummy foods like gumdrop bars (I still have the green cookie jar she kept them in) and lemon chiffon ice cream, as well as fresh strawberries from my grandfather's garden. In the evenings we watched television together. Our favorite programs were Candid Camera and Gunsmoke. Grandma always slept with us, and I remember reading comic books together before we slept. Living by the Pacific Ocean, there was no snow, of course, but Grandma always took time to take us to the beach to climb the rocks and search for treasures in the sand. It struck me that those memories were the lessons that taught me how to be a grandmother. I live by her example, passing on to my grandchildren the loving care that was shown to me.

Taking time for a child is a greater investment than one could possibly imagine. Each memory and experience is a building block for the future. My grandparents, my parents, my teachers, and other significant adults in my past all influenced the life I would eventually lead. The days spent playing with my granddaughters were not only fun times together, they were the creation of memories that will help shape the future of two children that mean the world to me. The time I spend as a teacher, as well, is time that has the potential to impact the future of the children I teach. I hope my teaching is meaningful enough so that students will reflect on lessons learned in my classroom as they grow to be adults. I hope one day many years from now my grandkids will find themselves playing with their own grandchildren and think of the times they spent with me, building the future, one memory at a time...

Monday, December 20, 2010

Let it snow!!!

It goes without saying that we need snow in Colorado. Without snow we will face drought and wildfires in the summer. Our economy will suffer as well, as we depend on snow seeking visitors to spend in our state. as much as we need it, however, the arrival of snow is not always a positive experience! Roads are slick, dangerous, and sometimes closed. Travel is restricted, delayed, or cancelled for a time. Accumulations require shoveling, plowing, and the sanding of roads. During the storms we live with inconvenience, hard physical labor, and unpredictable outcomes for our plans.

In spite of that, we love snow! It has been late in arriving this year and everyone was complaining, hoping it would arrive before Christmas! Why would anyone wish for the inconvenience, work, and unpredictability of life that snow brings??? Because it is beautiful, of course! Snow transforms the drab late fall landscape into a peaceful world of snowmen, sledding, skiing, and winter energy! Snow provides an excuse to sit inside sipping cocoa while reading a good book by the fire. Snow brings the promise of renewal and green in the months ahead as it will ultimately melt and reveal spring flowers and grass. We need snow.

It goes without saying that we need change in education. Without change we will face drought in success stories and wildfires to put out in our schools as test scores continue to decline. Our children will suffer as well, as they depend on us to provide what they need for the future. As much as we need it, however, the arrival of change is not always a positive experience! Change requires hard work and hours of planning. During the change process we live with inconvenience, hard physical labor, and unpredictable outcomes for our plans.

In spite of that, we need change in education! It is late in arriving as the world is transforming all around us while most schools are stuck in the drab late 20th Century model of learning. Why would anyone wish for the inconvenience, work, and unpredictability of life that educational change will bring??? Because it is exciting and inevitable, of course! Educational change will transform learners into curious, motivated beings, full of renewed energy! As teachers learn to facilitate student inquiry and global projects, students will learn that the world outside the walls of the school is an amazing place to be discovered and experienced! They will learn to be global citizens, communicating and collaborating as they create the future. Educational change will bring the promise of renewal, growth, and success in the years ahead as it will ultimately allow schools to catch up with the transformation of the world. We need change.

(There will be those days when the rain melts the accumulating snow, but the snow will fall again. In Colorado, as in education, it is inevitable.)

Sunday, December 19, 2010

It just takes one...

Inspiring a school district to transform is a big undertaking to say the least. There are many obstacles to change. Is the effort worthwhile? To answer that question, one would have to ask a few others: Are our children worth the time and trouble? Does their future matter?

Our school adopted a children's book as a theme this year. The book is One by Kathryn Otoshi ( ). The book demonstrates how it only takes "one" to make a difference. Our halls are lined with ideas from our students about the things that "one" can do. I would like to add a few.

It only takes one to be an agent of change in education and set transformation in motion.
It only takes one administrator to stop that change.
It only takes one mandated standardized test to suck the life out of teaching.

We do an activity in first and second grade called Making Words. The children are given a set of letters. By moving the letters around they change from word to word. I discovered an interesting possibility with the letters a,e,e,i,c,r,t,v. You can make the word "creative" and with one quick change, have the word "reactive". I would ask which is the more positive word? Which word would you choose to describe the future life of our children? Which is your choice for the future of education?

I took a walk this morning and enjoyed the peaceful, muffled quiet of a walk in the snow. Then it started to rain...

Saturday, December 4, 2010

A Tale of Two Lessons (and a bigger one for me...)

On Friday morning I facilitated two lesson during literacy time in my second grade classroom. The first had been planned for awhile, the second arose rather spontaneously. Interestingly enough, a third lesson evolved... extending my own learning. For years I have devoted December to teaching my second graders about Christmas traditions around the world. We explore where our holiday decorations and customs originated, learn more about geography, and enjoy traditional legends and stories. Friday was our day to learn about Gingerbread houses from Germany, so, of course, we would be reading the story of The Gingerbread Man! My lesson was tied to skills complete with comprehension questions that required the children to write complete sentence answers using story words, capital letters, and ending punctuation. A typical, rather tedious reading assignment for second grade. (We would be creating gingerbread houses with our kindergarten buddies later in the day, however, so the fun was not entirely missing!)

The second lesson came to me the night before as I was reading the local newspaper. Our town is in the midst of great controversy concerning a growing herd of mule deer that reside within our city limits. Although there are many of our residents that delight in seeing the magnificent antlered creatures roaming our streets and resting beneath trees in neighbor's yards, there are also a number of citizens that would choose to rid the town of the beasts that eat our landscaping, possibly carry diseases, and, at times, attack our pets. As I read the most recent letters to the editor of our local paper, I decided to address this problem with my students.

The lesson took no planning or preparation on my part. Everything I needed to facilitate the investigation by my students was already available on the internet. As our morning began, the children were expected to complete any unfinished assignments from the week ("finish up Friday"). As student work was completed, I handed out the original Gingerbread Man story and questions, directing them to independently read and complete the questions using the skills we had been learning for answering comprehension questions. Within a short time, I had a group of students who were finished and ready for a challenge.

I asked the kids if they would like to work on solving a problem for our town. They enthusiastically responded that they would be quite interested in doing that. A short discussion revealed that they were all highly aware of the deer issue and ready to learn. We set up chairs in front of a large computer screen and brought up the website. The site is a new partnership between the Smithsonian, Microsoft Partners in Learning, and TakingITGlobal. I knew there was a recording of a recent webcast on the site that would extend the background of my students. The program was called "Deer in the Forest: Can There Be Too Much of a Good Thing?" with Dr. Bill McShea, Wildlife Ecologist, from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. As the program began, I was, to say the least, surprised at the level of engagement the seven and eight year old children displayed. They were looking at charts, maps, and graphs and listening to a speaker that was addressing many adult listeners. We stopped the recording periodically to make sure the kids were understanding. They were...

"There are 50 kinds of deer in the world." "Some are endangered and there are others that there are too many of." "Herds of deer are growing because there is plenty of food and few predators." "When there are too many deer, some kinds of plants disappear." "When the plants disappear, so do the insects that birds eat, so there are less birds." "People got rid of wolves so people are the biggest predator for deer here." My students were making connections to science lessons from the past. They were discussing habitats, food chains, food webs, predator-prey relationships, and openly applying what they knew to the problem in our town. Most importantly, they were interested and engaged.

We moved to the board where we wrote the problem and listed the facts we had just discovered. Next would come the search for a solution. The students partnered up and began to search the internet for ideas. Their search revealed that this problem is not limited to Craig, Colorado. They found articles about the same exact situation in towns in Oregon, New Jersey, Michigan, and Connecticut. The people in those towns were struggling with the same issues we are facing today. After reading, we came together again to discuss what we learned. The students had many ideas of how to solve the problem. One suggested building a large fence around our town (like the Woodland Indian stockades they had learned about). Another suggested locking up all the livestock, pets, and people, then turning lose wolves in our town to kill the deer. Yet another student suggested hunting the deer and giving the meat to poor people.

We did not solve the problem, but the children learned facts about it that they will take home and share. They thought critically and applied their thinking. They listened, discussed, read, comprehended, applied their thinking in creative ways. They learned.

The lesson for me? That happened at the end of the day. After lunch, we moved on to math, emailing Santa, and making gingerbread houses with our kindergarten buddies. Great fun and a marvelous end to another week of school. As we lined up to go home and the children licked the last bits of frosting from their fingers, guess what they wanted to talk about? "Mrs. Arnett, I have another idea for what to do about the deer..." and the discussion began again. I have no doubt that when their parents asked them what they learned today that the answer was not the typical "nothing..." I have no doubt that the students who took part in the lesson about the deer will have great discussions at home this weekend about the issue. I have no doubt that we will still be talking about it in class next week. My lesson? Don't underestimate the thinking ability of small children. Don't limit their learning to the same old things we have always done. Yes, they love Santa and frosting, but they also love to be challenged and be respected for their thoughts.

If you have read my earlier blogs, you will understand when I say, "The bridge to nowhere is back under construction...."

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Further Lessons from Cape Town...

I took one picture from the window of my hotel room at the Southern Sun Waterfront in Cape Town, South Africa. I looked out that window several times each day. If I had taken the photo a little more to the left, you would have seen Lion's Head... a little more to the right, the giant Waterfront ferris wheel. Either photo would have been more interesting than the one I took. Sometimes, however, the most important things are hidden in the least likely places. As it turns out, this photo holds a lesson that applies in every way to the most important lessons I learned in Cape Town.

I had to crop the picture to see an enlargement of a puzzling structure. A pair of highway bridges that ended right in front of my hotel. According to a tour guide, the bridges have stood unfinished for 40 years... a road to nowhere... I have searched the internet for an explanation, but find only speculation and questions. Did they run out of money? Was it poor planning? One site explained that after the project began, it may have been determined that the elevated road would block the view. Whatever the reason, an enormous amount of money was obviously poured into a project with absolutely no return... ever.

The bridges have taken on new meaning now that I have returned home and to my classroom. They are a symbol for me of what has happened with technology in our district, and I suspect, districts around the country. Our schools have invested a tremendous amount of money into technology. Our district is equipment rich. There are multiple computers in every classroom, mobile and stationary labs, classrooms equipped with Smartboards, projectors, and document cameras. We have the "stuff" and the network to support it. We have the capability to connect our students to the world! All we have to do is cross the bridge. But, at least for the moment, that is a "bridge to nowhere" in many classrooms. Technology is used mostly for email, online games and tests, data collection, and word processing. Why?

The explanation came to me in another lesson from Cape Town. Just outside the modern city filled with beautiful, affluent neighborhoods, you will find sprawling shanty towns.

A tour guide explained to us that the government is trying to create better housing for the residents of the shanty towns, but that many people resist. Moving to the upgraded housing means paying rent and utilities, hard work and added responsibilities. Many would rather stay in the shanties even though moving may bring comfort and advantages to their lives. Even with the opportunity right in front of them, many refuse to change.

It strikes me that there is a comparison to teachers and the journey into 21st century teaching. The tools needed are right at their fingertips, present in the classrooms and throughout the schools. But to use the tools to meet the 21st century demands of communication, collaboration, and creativity as it relates to the global community is hard work and added responsibility. Many would rather stay in their current comfort zone even though moving ahead would bring advantages to their students. Even with the opportunity right in front of them, many refuse to change.

It would be unfair to place all the blame on the teachers, however. There is another lesson to learn from the road to nowhere. Why would a costly project be allowed to be abandoned with no return for the investment? Why was planning not done to see it through? That is again, not unlike technology adoptions in our schools. Money has been spent for equipment. Teams of teachers have been sent to expensive conferences and training. Substitutes have been paid to cover classrooms while selected teachers worked together on developing standards and goals for 21st Century skills. Stipends are paid to a team of teachers to support instructional technology in the classrooms. But the spending and commitment stop there. There is no time during the school day allowed for the other teachers to learn and develop skills. Technology training is expected to take place on a teacher's own unpaid time after school. Less than rarely is inservice or staff development time allocated to technology or 21st century skills. That sends a clear message from the administration to the staff that those things are not important.

We have an opportunity in our district. This year we planned an early release time for students on Friday afternoons to allow for collaborative work among teachers. It is my hope and dream that interested teachers will be allowed to use that paid time to form professional learning communities aimed at increasing innovative teaching strategies in our schools. Teachers are already dealing with more than they can handle, and they are certainly not overpaid professionals. If the money spent on technology is to be more than a "bridge to nowhere", the administration will have to make it a priority. It's time to pay the teachers to complete the bridge! Those in charge will have to communicate the expectation, allow paid time for teachers to develop skills and collaborate, and watch what happens to student motivation and learning when the bridge begins to span the world.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Look Both Ways...

Friday was the last day of the World-Wide Innovative Education Forum in Cape Town. I began the morning with an early dash to the Convention Center hoping to get a few minutes of internet time before the crowds arrived and the internet service went down. As I arrived at the busy intersection I would have to cross, I realized that the signal lights were not working. They were all blinking red. A quick glance up the sidewalk revealed the approach of two other teachers. I decided that a group would have an easier time getting across the busy street so I waited for them. I knew that one did not speak English, so I pointed to the blinking light and looked to my left to make sure it was safe to step into the street. Luckily, before I actually completed a step into the path of a car, one of the other teachers said, "Look to the right. Good advice for Americans!" The cars in South Africa drive on the opposite side of the road from here. A week had not been long enough to break my old habits! I still chuckle about the moment, but the true significance of his observation only came to me as I thought about my experiences in Cape Town.
I went to the forum with one major goal: to learn ways to inspire more teachers to incorporate technology and innovation in their teaching. Interestingly enough, I found out through discussions with other attendees that many people traveled from places around the world with the very same goal. It became apparent that what we were really seeking was an easy path to 21st Century education for all students. That path, however, is not an easy one and my experience at the intersection opened my eyes to a major obstacle.
If crossing into the 21st Century with education is an intersection, we as educators need to look both ways before we cross. I think that right now, we are looking only one way. We continue to do the same things we have always done, even though the world is changing around us. Perhaps we need to stop looking where we have been and look in the other direction to see what is coming before it runs over the top of us and passes us by.
Our closing keynote speaker, John West-Burnham, posed the question: Are we innovating to improve or to transform? His analogy of the caterpillar and butterfly opened my eyes to the true nature of the challenge we face. You can glue wings to a caterpillar, but you will still have only a caterpillar. A butterfly requires a transformation that takes time and patience.

Although simple in its message there is a powerful lesson to be learned from his words. We are always looking for ways to just improve our school, but we never really try anything truly different that will make lasting and meaningful change. It is time to begin the transformation.

I find myself back where I was when I first began writing this blog over a year ago. My head is buzzing with new ideas that I need to make sense of. I'm ready for the challenge and can't wait to share the energy and excitement I feel about this right now. My first challenge will be to teach others to look both ways.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Opportunities and Possibilities...

My journey to Cape Town, South Africa is underway and I find myself with plenty of time for reflection. 31 hours of travel time to be exact! If you had told me a year ago that I would be sitting in the airport in Washington, DC today, waiting to board a plane to South Africa, I would have said you were crazy! But, here I am and it occurs to me that it was always a possibility, as are all the events of our lives, dependent on actions, decisions, and choices made every day by each and every one of us. This, sure to be one of the highlights of my life on this earth, came to be because of choices I made in my life. I chose to change careers late in my life and complete the teaching degree that I had left behind with an early marriage. I chose to devote a great deal of time teaching myself how to use technology. I chose to spend personal time creating online experiences for my students. I chose to be friends with Rawya and become involved in activities that were challenging, but rewarding.
The wonder of technology has always fascinated me. I often think of all the signals in the air sending cell phone calls, emails, text messages, video conferences, and media here, there, and everywhere each and every second. I don't have any idea how it works but I like to imagine it in the air around me! With the appropriate device I can capture those signals to send and receive communications. There are opportunities around us every moment as well. As a teacher, I spend a tremendous amount of time planning and preparing to teach young children about academics and the world. Taking time to explore the opportunities is often difficult and time-consuming. But... if I had decided searching for an epal was too much work... if I had decided not to participate in projects with Rawya... if I had viewed filling out applications for contests as being too time-consuming... if I had made some simple choices rather than the more difficult ones, I would not be sitting here today. Ironically, the more tough tasks I took on, the easier they became, and the rewards are amazing.
This morning I realized that my responsibility for finding opportunities and possibilities does not end with myself. Perhaps my greatest task is opening the world of opportunity and possibility to my young students. I want them to see the rewards of choosing the tough road rather than always the easy way. I want them to see that hard work pays off and can take them places they have only dreamed of. I want to inspire my children and my co-workers to open their minds and hearts to the opportunities that abound.
I saw the world out the window differently today. In the past, looking from the window of an airplane I have always focused on looking down. Tiny farm lands, forests, and lakes have captured my eye and I have marveled at how they look from the eye of a bird! Today, I found my eyes looking outward instead, to the horizon. Suddenly, it wasn't what I could see below me that caught my interest, it was instead what I couldn't see. I could imagine the curve of this great planet below me and the land that was below the horizon. Instead of the world seeming smaller, it was suddenly gigantic and I realized for the first time what a tiny portion of it I have seen and experienced. I am filled with awe at the realization that I am traveling halfway around the planet to places I have only dreamed of.
In the Grand Junction airport this morning, a man saw my passport and asked me where I was going. As I told him about my trip, he shook my hand, congratulated me, thanked me for being an educator, and then he laughed. He remarked that the people at the forum would not realize how amazing it was that the teacher representing the United State of America at the World-Wide forum comes from tiny Craig, Colorado! I had to laugh as well. It is amazing and that is the miracle of networking on the internet. We all come from the world and that is all that really matters. This is the opportunity of a lifetime. I am humbled by the possibility.

By the way... a teacher from South Africa who will be attending the event told me there is a teacher who will represent a part of Africa, who has no electricity in her school. She had to transport her students to a place where they could access computers to complete her project! The tough choices pay off! Hard work has rewards!

Thursday, August 5, 2010


I just reread my posts from a year ago and have goosebumps. It is absolutely beyond my wildest expectation what has taken place in the past year. To sum it up... magnificent success!! My students formed relationships with children in places around the world. They became experts at manipulating the earth on their ipods and they now speak easily of far away places. Families were able to watch our work throughout the year. I formed friendships and learned from people I had never met. Enough? Probably... All? Not even close...

One of my first graders had to travel to Boston Children's Hospital for open heart surgery this year. We discovered that she would be less than an hour from our friends in New Hampshire. We used a KMZ file on Google Earth to follow the path of the ducks in Make Way for Ducklings in Boston so she would recognize names and landmarks while she was there. She spotted the Charles River as she flew into Boston before surgery. After her surgery we skyped with her so she could sit in on our class and reading group. Technology made a little girl's scary experience so much easier.

My friend in Beirut, Rawya, and I entered the Epals Ambassador contest and won! Amazing! Most amazing was our collaboration from a distance to complete the application and video at the last minute to enter.

That was so much fun, Rawya suggested we enter another contest to attend the 2010 Microsoft US Innovative Education Forum. We had only two days, so once again, we worked on the application from our own sides of the planet. It was posted and we waited. No word. Finally a call came that there was interest in our application but a few questions. The worst news was that even if we were selected, Rawya would be unable to attend because it was so expensive to fly her from Lebanon. Oh, well. Again there was no word until one week before the forum. I received a call that we had been selected, but had not been contacted. Was I still interested? Of course, but there was a new twist. I let the people from Microsoft know that just by coincidence, Rawya happened to be in Los Angeles visiting her brother. They agreed to fly her to Washington, DC to attend the forum! The rest is like a dream. We met at the airport and spent three wonderful days together in DC. If that was not enough, we won the contest and are now headed to Cape Town, South Africa, in October to represent the United States at the World-wide Innovative Education Forum!

My life is filled with wonder and awe at the power of technology in our lives. If all that were not enough, the most amazing thing happened this morning. In my second posting to this blog I mentioned a teacher in Australia that I had lost touch with years ago. Here come the goosebumps again. This morning I had a message waiting on epals. The very same teacher had just located me there and was wondering if I remembered her. She is back to teaching first grade and wants to pal for the coming school year... It doesn't get much better than all of this!