Sunday, January 29, 2017

Will you accept me to your world?

In my non-teaching life, I spend time weekly with a group of students who have moved to this country as refugees.  One of them wrote the following poem for a school assignment.  I found it incredibly moving and wanted to amplify her voice!  This is shared without any edits, with her permission.

I am a girl without a past or without country. Will you accept  me to your world ? 

I wonder what will happen to my future and to world, will there be peace? Will I be able to to have my own country? 

I hear a crying from my people asking for help. Why is it silence? Maybe they were suppose to cry like that?

I see a hope that’s coming through or maybe there really is no hope for  them. 

I want to be a helper to my people. Someone who they can look up to, someone who they admire a lot. 

I pretended like everything was ok, but really I want be like any other kids who belong to their own world. 

I feel scared because people might laugh at me the way my culture is. 

I worry that someday I might not be able to have my own country back and I might be lost in world that I don’t call home.

I cry for my people because they are being chased from their home.

I dream that someday I will be able to have my own country and help my people.

I am a girl without a past or without country. Will you accept me to your world? 

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Ideas for Adapting/Modifying BreakoutEDU Games

If you've experimented with BreakoutEDU, you can probably relate to one of these situations:

"I want to do this game, but my students haven't learned this one skill yet."
"I want to play this game in my class, but I don't have the right locks or supplies."
"This game looks cool, but it's too easy for my students."
"I want to run this game with my students, but this website is blocked for students in my district."

Never fear - you can iterate, modify, and adapt these games for your students!  Below are some ideas on how to do this, though this is by no means a comprehensive list - use your creativity!

*Disclaimer: If you modify a game, please do not post it publicly without explicit permission from the creator, and always give credit where credit is due.  For more information, please see the BreakoutEDU Game Creator Bill of Rights.

If the game is too hard...make it easier!

  • Remove a few clues/locks to make it shorter and more straightforward.
  • Adjust reading comprehension levels by creating your own text for students with the same information or highlighting relevant information for them to read.
  • Take away any distractors.
  • Create a new math problem with functions that they know how to do that results in the same answer.
  • Use stickers, icons, or words to make it clear which clue goes with which lock.
  • Change the clue AND combination of a lock to make it simpler.
  • Use clues that involve more concrete, physical skills (jigsaw puzzles, putting papers in order) rather than abstract clues.
  • Prep your students by doing warm-ups that teach them a skill they will need to know in order to solve the breakout (such as using a cipher).
  • Hide items in easier-to-find places.

If the game is too easy...make it harder!

  • Add a couple of locks or another layer of clues to make it longer and more complex.  For example, rather than just finding the key, you could create another task that they need to complete before looking for the key.
  • Adjust reading comprehension levels by creating your own text for students with the same information, but at a higher reading level.
  • Add more distractors.
  • Create a new math problem with more complex math functions that results in the same answer.
  • Remove any hints that let students know which clues correspond with which lock.
  • Change the clue AND combination of a lock to make it more challenging.
  • Use clues that involve more abstract thinking skills and require students to put multiple clues together to solve one lock.
  • Hide things in harder-to-find places

If you don't have the right locks/supplies...improvise with what you do have!

  • Create simple ciphers to change one clue type to another.
    • Example: If you do not have the right letters, create a key where A = Z, B = Y, etc to match the letters you have available.
    • Example: If you do not have the right type of lock, create a key where up = 12, right = 3, down = 6, and left = 9 to change a directional clue to a number clue, or vice versa.
  • Use the Locks app or Google Forms with validation to act as locks if you do not have the physical lock.  For more information on creating a "locked" Google Form, see this video via the website.
  • If you do not have invisible ink or a black light, make your own or use white crayon/colored pencil as a substitute.
  • If you do not have extra lock boxes, use envelopes, pencil cases, computer bags, instrument cases (as long as the instrument is protected!), etc - anything that has two zippers will work!
  • If you are missing a file, see if you can devise a way for students to get the same information they will need through a clue you create.

If a website is blocked in your district...find another way to give students the clue!

  • First thing's first, you can often ask your IT department to whitelist certain sites that are automatically blocked through filters.
  • If the website is unblocked for teachers, consider signing on to a few devices so students can access it (if you feel comfortable with this).
  • If you cannot access the clue, print it out and hide it somewhere in the room.  If it is a jigsaw puzzle, cut it into pieces and hide the different pieces in different places!
  • If there are Google files that students cannot access because they were created outside of your domain, open the document on your account and click on File-->Make a Copy. Use that link instead.  This way, the file is in your name and originates in your domain.
  • If it is a digital breakout, create a new site in your name and copy the documents there.  This is a little more time-intensive than some of the other options listed above.
  • Reach out to the game creator, and ask if they can send you the file(s) in another format (PDF?) that can be accessed on your network.  Many creators are happy to help!

The beauty of BreakoutEDU games is that they can be adapted to fit the needs of your specific class.  How have you modified games to fit your needs?  Please leave other ideas in the comments!

Saturday, January 21, 2017

In Their Words #3: What I'm Working On

As a part of my reflection and growth as a teacher, I regularly ask students for feedback.  This series documents some of the more profound statements that students have made and my reflections on their thoughts.

It's powerful to ask for students' feedback, but if nothing ever happens after that, is it really worth it?  As a part of this exercise, my students wrote a bit about what would make class even better.  I was pleased to see that I got very few responses like, "Let us do our homework in class so we never have to take anything home," and many more that were things that were actually feasible.  As a result, I wanted to choose a few things to focus on improving in my teaching this semester.

There were three overarching themes that became my action points for improvement:

"I think it would be better if she played string instruments with each individual instrument."

I enjoy playing with and modeling for my students, but usually I end up playing on piano (because I can play more than one part at once) or singing (because I can move around the room and have my hands free).  This made me realize, though, that some learning is lost when students aren't seeing and hearing an exact model of what they are playing.  I have been much more conscious of pulling out a violin or cello to play with them lately.  I even got some nice reinforcement when a student wrote to me, saying that she has understood the parts much better since I've been playing on string instruments!

"Spend equal time with all instruments. She spends most time on Violins and some time on cello/bass/viola."

Okay, true story, I tend to spend more time in rehearsal with sections that either 1) have more tricky parts or 2) are struggling more with their music.  Often, that ends up being my violins.  This comment made me reflect on how I am paying attention to each section in rehearsal and giving them something to work on, even if it is basic notes for my violins and dynamics or bow distribution for my other sections.  I have also tried to be more explicit with my students about my thinking during rehearsal - saying something like, "Cellos, you have whole notes here, so do we need to go over this?  No?  Okay, I'm going to work with violins for a minute."  Even if it does not change the fact that I am working with one section more, hopefully it will help my other groups feel less neglected if I check in with them.

"I think that it would be great if she had something some of the class could do while she's working on specific parts with a different section."

Many of the comments along these lines suggested having a computer program or activity that students could work on while I am working with another section.  Music teachers - if you have ever used anything like this, I would love to hear about it!  My struggle is that, often, I am only working with a specific section for 1-2 minutes at a time, and the transition between different activities would take too long.  What I can do, however, is make sure I give students something to do such as pizz, finger, air-bow, or look ahead to a different section.  I have tried to be more conscious of this in our first few weeks back!

Feedback is important, and I want to be continually improving on my craft.  None of these suggestions were brand new ideas to me - rather, they were reminders of strategies that I can use during class.  Hearing what the students want has helped focus my planning and thinking during class.  And as I have been making changes, I have been explicit with the students about hearing what they said in their surveys and trying to put some of that into action.  I want them to see that they have a voice in our class!  This process has been fantastic with my evaluator, as well - our conversation is so much richer when the voices of the students help drive the improvement process!  I am not advocating for students completely driving the class, but as the main consumers of our teaching, don't they deserve the chance to express their thoughts and have them heard?

I am not perfect, and am always looking for areas to improve in my teaching.  My students helped me see how to better meet their needs, and their requests have become my goals for this semester.  Do your students get the opportunity to express what would help them be more successful in class?  Do you act on their feedback?

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Multi-Age BreakoutEDU

When I'm not in school, one of the things I do is spend some time hanging out with/supporting some incredible families who have also become good friends.  They also happen to have come to the USA as refugees.  I always plan some kind of fun activity for our annual Christmas party, and I knew that this year, I wanted them to experience a BreakoutEDU game.

My audience was about 16 kids, ranging from preschool-12th grade, including one who is deaf.  After looking through the different holiday options, I settled on Reindeer Games.  I know it's on the easier side, but this group has never experienced a breakout before, and while their English language skills are developing, I did not want to use something that required a lot of inferring things based on language.  I also tried to stay away from anything that required a lot of background knowledge, since the background knowledge they have built up is quite different than what many American students would know.
Solving the final clue
In the setup, I used two boxes and put similar locks on each one (I have enough extra locks to do this).  I divided the kids into three teams, each with a variety of ages, and set them free!

This game ended up being just the right difficulty for them - they had to work hard and overcome the urge to give up a few times, but it wasn't so frustrating that they couldn't do it.  Kids of all ages were able to contribute in different ways.  One of the most fun things, though, was watching the parents get in on the action!  They have had very different life experiences, and many have not experienced formal education, especially in regards to the English language.  It didn't stop them from pointing out things to the students and shining those black lights all around the room!  It was fun to see them interact with their kids to solve a puzzle and experience something new alongside their students!

I wish I had taken a video of when they got the boxes open - the cheers and screams were amazing!  I usually don't put prizes in the box at school, but for this Christmas party, I had their party favors (some fun holiday gear/photo booth items) in there.  Once again, the adults were just as excited as the kids were.

Most of us made it into this picture!

These families are so special to me, and I'm glad I was able to share my recent educational obsession with them.  I was nervous about how it would go at first, but it ended up being a rousing success.  I had several of my team members comment that this was the best Christmas activity they have seen, because it required them to think, work together, and engage while having a blast!  

My encouragement to you: don't be afraid to think outside the box or try games with multi-age groups or parents.  It's so much fun, and allows families to relate in a different way!

Saturday, January 14, 2017

From Noise to Quiet

A few months ago, in church, my pastor preached a sermon entitled "From Noise to Quiet".  The notion made me smile - quiet?  What's that?  As any teacher knows, especially those of us who teach music, that is a nearly non-existent thing in our work!  And, if you are anything like me, those after school hours are also filled with activity - whether it is with our families, friends, or even fun activities for ourselves, our lives tend to move at such a fast pace that time and space for reflection is nonexistent.  I think of quiet not only as the absence of sound - it also encompasses taking a break from the "noise" of life.

Making room for quiet is hard for me - it's a discipline.  It's not something I'm that comfortable with.  It is hard to put aside my to-do list, turn off my electronics, slow my brain down from it's million-miles-an-hour-pace and just stop.  After about ten minutes, I get antsy and want to do something.  And yet, the more I fill my time up, the more I find myself needing that "decompression" time (whether I acknowledge it or not).  When I don't get it, I am not at my best - it's as simple as that.

Here are some ways I've built quiet into my life:

  • Early morning quiet time: I get up crazy early in the morning (around 4am on a normal school day - yes, I'm a morning person) to just spend some time preparing for the day.  I journal about my thoughts and anything that happened in the previous 24 hours.  Being a person of faith, this time also includes reading my Bible and praying.  This helps me start each day as a new day, not hanging onto anything that happened in the past.
  • Exercise: Part of the reason I get up so early is that I swim or go for a walk every (work) morning.  I love this time - not only is it good for my physical health, but my mental health as well.  While I am pushing my body, my mind is left free to wander and further process my thoughts or dream about the future.  Many of my best ideas come to me when I am exercising!
  • Sleeping in: I try to give myself at least one morning every week (usually Saturday) to sleep in as late as I want!  Since I normally wake up so early, I don't actually sleep in very late - but I stay in bed, relax, and just rest.  Giving myself permission to not get up right away is a great way to find time for quiet in my life.
  • Riding the bus: As funny as this sounds, I have really enjoyed riding public transportation as a way to slow my life down and create space for quiet.  It is a time where I am not hooked up to wi-fi, so there is not a lot of feeling guilty about what I'm not accomplishing on my checklist.  Sometimes I make conversation with random people, sometimes I have to wait at the bus stop for awhile, and sometimes I have to walk a bit to get where I am going.  All of these activities remind me to slow down and be present in the moment.
Finding quiet in my life is a continual struggle, and I don't think that will ever change, but I am committed to finding small pockets of it wherever I go!

How do you make space for quiet into your life?

Thursday, January 5, 2017

In Their Words #2: Smile!

As a part of my reflection and growth as a teacher, I regularly ask students for feedback.  This series documents some of the more profound statements that students have made and my reflections on their thoughts.

This week brought the end of winter break, and the start of a new semester of school.  And can I be honest?  It's hard to return from break!  I love my students, but I also love sleeping in, spending time with friends and family, and having time to pursue other creative pursuits.  This year, I had the opportunity to exercise my #OneWord2017 - LEAD - right away as I helped facilitate two staff meetings about some controversial and tension-filled subjects.  I was still feeling pretty unsettled from these meetings when the bell rang and students began filing in.  At that moment, my mind flashed back to a couple of the comments students had written in their feedback:

"I really like that she is very energetic, and always in a good mood."

"I don't know how I would make it every morning without your contagious smile and energy.  Your enthusiasm makes any day into a good day."

Now, let me be clear.  I am not always in a good mood.  I don't always have tons of energy.  A lot of the time, I'm employing the "fake it till you make it" strategy.

But yesterday morning, like so many other mornings, I had to make a choice.  I had to put all of the other stuff behind me (at least for a time) so I could focus on my students.  And, especially for my 1st period kids, I knew that the way I started this class could really set the tone for the rest of their day.  So I took a deep breath, smiled, and welcomed all of my students back.  I told them how happy I was to see them, and how I missed them over break.  And then, as they came up to get tuned, I tried to ask each and every one of them something about their break.

It was exhausting.

But it was worth it.

You never know how your attitude will impact everyone else in the room.  You never know who might be relying on your smile.  It's such a simple thing.  Don't underestimate the power you have to change a kid's day!

*I hesitated in sharing these students' comments, because I don't want this to be about me.  Rather, it's about the important role teachers play in students' lives and how the smallest things can make a huge impact!  This reminder has given me strength when I'm not feeling ready for the day to begin, and I hope it can do the same for you.  Kids are watching - we can lead by smiling and setting the tone for a great day in our classes!

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Reflections and #OneWord 2017

Welcome 2017!  I have never really been one for New Year resolutions, and although the #OneWord idea intrigued me, nothing really stuck out at me and I figured I'd just sit this one out.  After I'd made that decision, though, a word kept sneaking up on me...

But first, some reflection...

I know, I'm holding you in suspense!  This word is really grown out of my previous year, and I think it's important to take the time to look back and reflect on where I have been.  At this time last year, I was so stressed out.  Certain things about the way my district & school were heading did not line up with what I believe educationally, and I felt like I was in a constant fight to protect what I believe is best for kids.  That wore me down, and despite my attempts to stay positive and enthusiastic, I felt like I was heading into the lion's den each day.

The year went on, and things started to get better.  Certain ideas in my district began turning around, and I caught a breath of fresh air.  I got accepted to my principal preparation program, which started this summer.  I also joined Twitter and got involved in several amazing communities of educators!  It was exactly the rejuvenation I needed, and this fall was one of the best semesters of my teaching career!

And now, my #OneWord...

I have always loved teaching, loved connecting, and loved learning from other people, but tend to stay in the background and play a supporting role.  Starting this blog was a big step for me - putting my thoughts out there, without knowing who might read them?  I've grown more confident in my ability to share, although it is still not the easiest thing for me.  This next year, for 2017, my #OneWord is:


In so many ways, I have been stepping into more and more leadership roles, and while it's scary, I am determined to try to lead well!
  • I want to lead out in loving those around me - kids and adults!
  • I want to be a lead encourager and recognize when I see others doing great things.
  • I want to lead by asking the tough questions and being brave enough to challenge assumptions when needed.
  • I want to lead in the way that I spend my time at school AND my time at home (balance)!
  • I want to lead in the way I spend time in prayer, in peace, and in quiet to keep me centered as I go about my days.
  • I want to grow more confident in the way I lead when talking to adults, through presentations, PD, and other opportunities.
  • I want to lead a life worth following.  Not because I'm perfect or because everyone has to be like me, but because people watch what you say and what you do, and I want my life to be consistent with my message.
Leader.  In many ways, it's out of my comfort zone, and it makes me nervous to put this out there because I know that means accountability!  But I also know that this is what I am being called to, and it will be worth it!  Thank you, everyone who has encouraged me to step up and step out - I'm excited to see what this year brings!