13 March 2017

It's not all about the content or the grades or the assignments...

Over the course of my 17 years teaching, I have never been about the grades or the assignments, homeworks or tests. I am about the content simply because it's my passion however, I have to come to realize that none of these have helped me forge the relationships that I have with anyone in my school.  To some extent (and some to a lesser extent), all of the above have a place throughout my day and in my career. Building relationships is paramount. Something I tell my students is that if they leave my room knowing more than they did the class before, then I've done my job and they've done theirs. Not everything is measurable and we need to take pride in our personal progress because that is different for each learner in your class.  If they feel that you value process over product, they'll know you care about them as learners. This sets up your classroom to be a safe environment for them to share and take risks and be themselves and it makes you more than just their teacher.  So many students feel comfortable telling me about their lives (and not just my own students) because they know that you value them and that you'll take the time to listen, even if you do get off topic for a minute or two.  As far as I'm concerned, there's no such thing as being on task 100% of the time and it's ok. You and your students will get so much more out of your education (yes, we can learn from each other) if you can be flexible and find a balance between content, grades and building relationships.

12 March 2017

School and learning NOT School vs. Learning

My thoughts on George Couros' School vs. Learning

While I do agree with the differences laid out nicely in George's image below, I do have to say that I am not sure that I would see school as negatively as it can be portrayed.  I think in a perfect, utopian world, school and learning are so intertwined that you cannot pull them apart so easily. Maybe it can get there if more teachers were in it for the passion and not the paycheck. Maybe it would help if more administrators encouraged risk-taking and more teachers availed themselves to a great #PLN that would help them be more innovative.  I am not sure that this can happen in our lifetime but I am optimistic that if we can effect change now, some of our students will someday become the educators that make it happen.  Plant the seeds, give them plenty of nourishment and let's see what we can accomplish. Hopefully, we could see a future when we say school and learning instead of school vs. learning.

What if we rewrote some of this to have school not be against learning but together with education?  In order to not make this post lengthy, I will only look at a few points from the image below and would love to hear comments from readers! What struck you? Do you agree? Disagree?


"School is scheduled at certain times. Learning can happen any time, all of the time.

What if it read instead: Although your hours in school are set, teachers spark your learning to continue beyond their hours and their classrooms so that you never stop learning.


"School is about giving your information. Learning is about you making your own connections."

What if it read instead: School opens the doors to information through all who participate- teachers and students alike- to encourage you to make your own connections, creating a deeper, more relevant understanding.


"School is about finding information on something prescribed to you. Learning is about exploring your passions and interests."

What if it read instead: School provides information on various topics so as to open the eyes of its learners so that they may delve deeper and explore passions and interests they may not have been exposed to yet."

I think my goal is to make school not the enemy but the spark that ignites the passions and innovation in our students.  Thoughts?


The concluding part II of the The Innovator's Mindset  presents the reader with some really thought-provoking What if questions.  One of these that really had me thinking was "What if we hired people who did not look at teaching as a "career" but as a "passion"?  As I read this question, I immediately began to think of what my school could look like if that was one of the top questions on the minds of those involved in the hiring process. I imagine students going from class to class excited, engaged and ready to learn.  When you think of teaching as your "job", it definitely comes across to the students that way.  Teachers who are just going through the motions, teaching on autopilot one ditto at a time are really doing our students a disservice. When you are passionate about what you do, it's easier to inspire others. I think it communicates that you not only are knowledgeable in your subject area and enjoy it, but you also have a need to share it with your students, which in turns sends a message to them that you are invested in them.

A second question that resonated with me was "What if we empowered students to make a difference in the world today and in the future?"  It has become increasingly apparent to me that when you set the tone to ensure a safe classroom environment where students feel comfortable sharing without fear and are treated with mutual respect, it will serve them in all aspects of their lives.  If fostered from the early grades and reinforced throughout their academic career, I believe it creates an atmosphere where real learning can take place.

One last note on this What if concept.  Last year, I read Warren Berger's A More Beautiful Question and this reminded me of how questioning can be one of the most important tools for creating innovators.  In his book, he says that there are three steps in questioning, Why? What if? How? I think these could easily be applied to education and to an innovator's mindset.  

So, I offer this scenario:

Why are our schools failing our students?
What if we could change this?
How could we use our innovator's mindset to do so?

05 March 2017

Am I innovative?

I get how innovation is defined as new and better but I am struggling to find a way that I can define what I do as innovative. I always thought that I was pretty innovative because I never conformed to anyone else's curriculum. I have always painstakingly designed my own curriculum because I felt as if simply following someone else's would not be me. I believe that in order for me to be the best teacher for my students, I have to be me.  I cannot be Mr. So-and-so. I always say that we all have different teaching styles and that's ok.  It doesn't make one way better or worse, just different.  I believe that being your true self and sharing your own passions in your teaching will make the connections you make with your students stronger and more authentic.

That said, I am struggling with the idea that although I may be doing things in a new and better way from how I previously did makes them innovative in my field.  Even though I feel like I am always looking for ways to be better and make my mark in my career, I have a hard time believe that I might be the only one to have come up with an idea.  I often feel as if there must  be other educators doing what I'm doing and that I'm not that  special. A good teacher, sure, but cutting edge- debatable.

Here's an idea that I had and really I just adapted from another activity that I found in a book. In learning a new language, communication is king.  To that end, it is important to offer the students opportunities to use their new language in an authentic way.  Meeting new people is inevitable and so often we have our students engage in a dialogue in which they ask each other's names, where they live, how old they are etc.  This is usually boring because in most cases, these kids have been together for years and so they know their names already, everyone is more or less the same age and they all live in the same town. Result = answers are all almost identical. I came across an activity in which students were given a worksheet with different people from different areas and had different ages. They had to pretend to be these people and simply fill in the worksheet.  Ok, so that was better because they had to pay more attention to names, ages and where people lived and it increased their vocabulary but it still seemed a little boring. What I did was tell the students that they were going to be given a new identity and had to meet and greet with everyone in the room. The worksheet didn't have as many different characters as students as I had, so I created additional ones. Each student was given a slip of paper with their new identity and was asked not to share the details until they were asked specific questions. They all had a worksheet with only names and then had to fill in the rest of the details as they "met" each other. This activity was a big hit.  After this informal meet-and-greet, I did the same activity in a formal setting so they would know how to interact in different social settings and I included different nationalities and professions to add to their vocabulary.  Can this be defined as innovative? On a personal level, I would say yes. But I'm not so convinced nobody else ever had this idea so I really don't know if I could take the credit.

Even though I may not feel like I can apply for membership in the Elite Innovator's club, I do feel that I do have many qualities of an Innovator's Mindset.  Some I think I can easily attribute to myself are:

1 - Empathetic - I think that I often put myself into my students' shoes because I always say that I wouldn't ask them to do something I wouldn't do myself.  I often offer examples of what I might be looking for, using previous student work and my own. I tell them to take my work and make it better because I know they can.

2 - Risk Taker -  I have many times thrown out an entire unit plan because something came up a class discussion or in the news that seemed to be more relevant to my students and so I rebuild a unit.  I will try anything at least once if I think my class can benefit from it. If it doesn't work out, it was only one day, my kids won't be ruined and it's not just a learning process for them!

3 - Networked - Although I have had some reservations about technology and social media, one of my classes a few years ago walked me through the whole set up process of Twitter and showed me how it worked and I have them to thank for all the educators I have connected with. It has proven to be an invaluable tool and I don't know what I'd do without it now.

4 - Reflective - This characteristic has served me well. Being able to look back on what worked, what tanked and what was ok but could have been great if I only did x,y, or z has helped me become more organized, more in tune with my students and most of all made me realize that I'm also human.

Can I claim Innovator status yet? Not sure. If we're being honest, the best I could say is maybe but I still have a ways to go.

27 February 2017

Sharing vs. Bragging

Sharing v. Bragging

This evening, when I came home from work, my wife and I were having a conversation about successful teachers and the recognition that may accompany this success. We are both teachers, both passionate about our career but both with VERY different personas. I am usually very vocal about just about anything and I love to share while my wife prefers "not to make waves" - whatever that means. She has a much more quiet demeanor and is more reluctant to share with just anybody. 

I believe that you are the maker of your own destiny and if you want something, you must go after it. I'm not just talking about material items. In fact, I think that material things are much lower on my list of wants. One example of something I want is to be the best teacher that I can be for me and for my students.  To that end, I am always looking for great ideas that I can use in my classroom, connecting with other educators who share my mindset and reflecting on my practice. 

This year, my school has begun a new program that has its roots in project based learning. I, being a language teacher, jumped at the chance to be a part of the program. So far, things are going really well and although I was supposed to be using this approach with certain classes, I couldn't help but do it in all of my classes. I am very fortunate to have a very supportive administration - from the very top down. I don't think that happens often.  

It has been extremely beneficial to share with other teachers in the program but also with those who are not. I have been so excited about what I've been doing in the classroom, that I can't wait to share with the other language teachers in my department and with my administration. So far, I don't think that I have given the impression that I am better than others because I think that my enthusiasm and passion conveys that we can do more with our students and I am hoping it will open a dialogue between colleagues so that they can also share with me their successes. In the end, it's about the students and honing our craft- not about who's better, more traditional or too progressive. We all have something to bring to the table but the dialogue has to start somewhere and everyone should know that their ideas are just as welcome. Lead by example, right?

Back to my wife. She had begun watching a series on Netflix called The Kindness Diaries by Leon Logothetis. She tells me that I need to watch. I do, and I'm hooked. I can't help tearing up throughout each episode but can't get enough. If you haven't watched this series yet, put it on your must-see list! It has made me appreciate on an ever deeper level everything I have and the life I live.  I immediately followed Leon on Twitter and let him know how great I thought his idea was. I couldn't help but want to let him know, even if I don't get a retweet or a like- I just think he should get the praise he deserves. So, a few days later, Leon tweets that he'll come to your school or business and I'm thinking "How AMAZING would that be!?" And like that, I tweet at him and before you know it, I've entered a dialogue with him! I hope that we can make this happen.  I tell my wife and she immediately has an awesome idea that we should start a project that is rooted throughout our entire district called Commitment to Kindness. I tell her I hope she's ready for some recognition because my mind is already racing ahead to having a teacher in each of our schools head up the initiative and she has to be the one in her school.  Since she won't "toot her own horn", I'm doing it for her. 

Sometimes we're afraid if we share ideas that they'll come across as bragging or that if we go above and beyond what we're doing that our colleagues will think we're trying to make them look bad.  I've heard of some teachers talking about another saying how she's always requested by parents and it's not right. I know that this particular teacher does what she does because she's passionate about certain things not to show anyone up.  Maybe her way isn't your way. Maybe her passion isn't yours.  If you're jealous, ask yourself why.  We all can be ourselves and be amazing and communicate that with our students. It would be boring if all the teachers were the same anyhow.  

I logged onto the first episode of #IMMOOC tonight and this very topic was brought up by a fellow viewer that it prompted me to write this post.  I feel that I share with good intentions.  I believe that the way you present something with passion and enthusiasm should be inspiring not showing off. If people feel that you're doing it to gain more recognition than them but your intentions are good, it really is on them. We all can share in the spotlight when we have a common goal. If we can share without fear of judgement, imagine all the ideas we could have in our arsenal! 

31 October 2016

How do I make something "fit" into my curriculum and effect change?

I have been struggling with something for a while at my school.  First of all, I'd like to say that my school probably has one of the nicest population of students.  Everyday, I see examples of acceptance of others for who they are.  I have witnessed first-hand a so-called "jock" speak with an autistic student asking him how his day was going and then hug him.  For the most part, students can dress as they like and almost no one will give them a second glance.  This is what makes me proud to work in this building.  

However, there have been some tensions with our recent immigrant population.  For some reason, many students are unable to put themselves in the shoes of these recent immigrants and this impending election has not made things any easier.  It has only brought out more hatred.  The overwhelming majority of our immigrants are from Latin America and have been the topic of discussion amongst many of the mainstream population.  I have had to reprimand some students for voicing in class that these "Spanish kids" are trouble, are screwing them out of work or college opportunities or just generally rude.  "They're always talking in Spanish in the hallways" or "They always stay together" are comments often made.  This has not been just since one of our presidential candidates has clearly voiced racist opinions in an effort to make our country great again.  This has been for a while and maybe it's just a little heightened since then.

I'm an Italian teacher, not a Spanish teacher. However, I have respect for and love language- even the crazy English language with all it's exceptions to the rules and silent letters or mutating sounds.  I was searching for a way to make relations between our mainstream population and our immigrant population better. I have tried in my class when some of those statements were made to point out some things that seem obvious to me but less than to these students.  For one, I tried to have them imagine that they were put into a high school in a foreign country, with no prior knowledge of the language.  There would, of course, be classes in that language for them and other Americans.  I asked them, "Who would you hang out with?" and "What language would you speak in the hallways?" Listen, high school is difficult enough.  Add being an immigrant, often out of your control, to that and I think you've got yourself a pretty stressful time in an adolescent's life.  

Beyond lecturing and trying to point out what was obvious to me, I didn't have a clue as to how to make a difference and include my students.  I thought to myself, "This would be so much easier if I was a Spanish teacher."  I thought maybe do a social experiment outside of the classroom with some of my students as volunteers.  

Then, I picked up a book by chance, A More Beautiful Question by Warren Berger.  I was researching project-based learning because I am always trying to make my teaching more effective and relevant. His book talks about how great ideas for medicine or inventions or teaching have come from a question.  There might not be a Netflix, Amazon or Polaroid if the creators didn't ask themselves a question.  I struggled a little to see how this could work for me in my classroom where my students had limited proficiency in the language. And then, like had happened for many others outlined in the book, I had an a-ha moment.

I was working on my family ancestry this summer.  It was something that I had been interested in for a while.  I knew a lot about some parts of my family but hardly anything about others.  I started to build my tree and contact cousins and ask questions. I was sitting at a Starbucks, waiting for my kids' soccer camp to end, scrolling through hundreds of online birth certificates, death certificates and marriage certificates, that I was frankly surprised were available online from a small town in Southern Italy, when it hit me. Sometimes, you need a distraction to bring your mind back to the right place.  

I usually have my college-level students read an introduction to a book about Italian immigration. It was mostly because I felt it was really well-written and it's an important part of history for Italians and Americans.  The piece details the immigration time period from the late 1880s until the early 1950s.  I thought I would add after the reading, a personal experience.  I would tell them that my grandfather had come from Poland when he was just 18 years old.  I would recount the story of my grandmother and her immigration experience.  She came from Italy in 1951, leaving behind my mother and grandfather, to start a better life for her family.  Her story could be a novel in it's own right.  I would tell my class how this impacted my life and how I wouldn't have what I have if my family hadn't been brave enough to come here from Europe and start new lives. I owe my freedoms and education to them.  Then, my students would complete their own ancestry project and they would tell the story of their family.  Finally, I would arrange for my students to meet and interview some of the immigrant students.  The hope is to help them have empathy and maybe change the culture of my school.

How can I help change the culture of my school? How can I get students to have empathy for recent immigrants in our community? What if I used a reading on early immigration and an ancestry project to help change the minds of my students regarding the immigrant population of our school?  These were my questions.

So far, we have read the early immigration piece and I think students were a little upset to hear how the Italians were treated when they came here.  I asked them to think about that and think about how it is different for the immigrants in our school. What is the same? What is different? The scary thing is that it's 2016 and a lot isn't different.  When you think of the word Italian, you probably think of fashion, Ferrari or pizza. All great things but not so long ago, Italians, like many groups before them, were looked down on and mistreated. It took a few generations before Italian became synonymous with all things good and then Italian-Americans could be proud. Could this happen with our new immigrant populations?  Just for good measure, my students will be visiting the NYC Tenement Museum this week to see exactly how immigrants lived in the early 1900s. 

My students agreed to interview the immigrant students and last week brainstormed questions we could ask them.  This Thursday, we will be interviewing them and I am nervous and excited.  I think that this could be the change. I was recently watching a video in which teenagers who admitted to texting and driving met face-to-face with a girl who lost both of her parents and was seriously injured herself because another motorist was texting. Sitting face-to-face, many of these teenagers broke down.  It is hard to deny things or not have compassion when you have direct contact.  It is my hope that these interviews will provoke similar reactions. Maybe when we hear their stories first-hand, we will have more of an appreciation and maybe we can help bring them in instead of push them out.  

A student of mine asked me if these students would interview them and I hadn't thought of it but in that moment, I was like, "Gina, that's genius!" After our interviews, the immigrant students will do the same.  They will brainstorm questions to ask my students and we will conduct a second round of interviews.  I am looking forward to this! I am so glad that I found a way for this to "fit" into my curriculum.  

16 January 2016

New Year, new teaching

New Year, new teaching...

One of my New Year's resolutions was to improve my teaching.  Even though I have been teaching 16 years, I am always looking to improve upon what I've done in the past.  Friends of mine have said, "after all these years, you should just be able to teach auto-pilot" or similar statements.  I have re-used projects or even some lessons but I every weekend, without fail, I sit down and plan for the week.  I want to stay current, fresh, relevant and I don't want to be bored.

Something new that I've tried this year was a QR Code Scavenger Hunt.  I don't remember to whom I owe the credit for this.  I think that it was the result of networking on Twitter or from someone's blog. I wish I could thank the person who created it because my students are having such a great time with it! Basically, what I have done was to create an initial QR code which has clues to where they can find the other QR codes throughout the school.  The clues are all in the target language.  In teams, the students run (some, literally) through the school to find the other codes.  Each code they scan has information they must find or a task like taking a selfie of the whole group with a certain administrator or food. I have used the QR Reader app on my phone to create the codes as well as ClassTools.net's QR Code Treasure Hunt.  Here are some pics from a recent scavenger hunt. You can even scan my code to see what I used!


I am so grateful to my students from a few years ago who set me up on Twitter. Before Twitter, I would do what I was used to doing in order to prepare for my classes--scour the internet for research, articles and ideas.  That was time consuming (even if it was worth it).  Enter my period 5 class insisting that I make a Twitter account.  I've been hooked ever since.  Now, I follow some great educators and take part in some awesome chats like #reflectiveteacher and #langchat.  It has never been easier to network ideas (if there is a better way- let me know!)

I'm excited to start using some of the new ideas that have been shared. I'm looking forward to implementing some tools like ClassTools.net's Random Name Picker and using Twitter to have students chat.  My love of music helped me to learn language more than many other activities and I try to bring music into my classroom any chance I get.  I have done the standard cloze-type activities where student fill in missing words they hear.  I have analyzed songs with students, translated parts of a song or had students make music videos.  I even use music videos as #twextracredit.  (#twextracredit is my way of giving my students extra credit through Twitter.) This year, I have tried to be more creative having students go on a scavenger hunt within a song.  I give them lyrics to a song, play the song continuously and ask them to find certain items like verbs, tenses, synonyms/antonyms, certain vocabulary terms and so on.  Basically whatever I can pull out that ranges in difficulty level.  I have had students work together and separately and usually reward the first to find all items.  It's a fun way to have students look closer at language, hear authentic language and for me to share my favorite artists with them.  I use songs in my Kahoots that usually give a clue if they're paying attention closely.  I'm always looking for ideas and would like to thank @SraSpanglish for her blog posts, especially the one on Pop Song Practice. Nice to have some new fresh ideas.

One idea I'm especially excited about didn't require me to go far or even sign in to Twitter. An advantage of being married to another teacher is that you get to bounce ideas off one another all the time.  My wife is an elementary school special ed teacher and recently we were talking about ideas to improve our teaching and she was saying that she wanted to give her students the opportunity to teach their classmates about things they enjoyed.  What an awesome idea! Even though my students might be a bit beyond show-and-tell, the idea is great.  I'm hoping to implement a version of this where my students will submit to me a topic they would like to teach the class about- sports, music, dance, whatever- and will prepare a mini lesson in the target language. I will work with them separately (in and out of the class) to prepare and each student will have their time at least once during the year. 

Another idea I'd like to "steal" is that my wife's students have written their own "books" and she keeps them in her library.  When students have free reading time, they love to read their classmates' books. How cool is this! Now my wheels are turning...  

I'm already feeling motivated to get going on improving my teaching. That's one resolution being worked on and this post is another-dedicate more time to my blog. Feeling accomplished! 
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