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Thursday, December 31, 2015

Another One Bites the Dust

photo Pixabay CC/NA
It had been a terrible mix of freezing rain, sleet, snow, and rain all day. When I stepped out in the morning, the sleet felt like little stinging needles on my cheeks. Coming down hard early,  it never let up, just changed form. From sleet to shower-glass like coating of ice, to pouring down 'sideways rain'.

Since I was on break and the fact that some porch pirates had stolen a package off of my front porch while I was doing dishes earlier in the week, I was keenly aware of when my postal carrier was most likely arriving at my doorstep. When I saw him approaching our porch, my intent was to minimize the carriers exposure to the elements and relatedly my mail, to the bucket-filling rain. I was not expecting the response.

The carrier handed me my mail and then called me by name. Not the name on the envelope, "Mr Johnson" I was still processing the seemingly out of place recognition. It was similar to when you encounter a student in the grocery store or street fair. Out of context or a familiar surrounding, recognizing a student, parent, or co-worker is not always instantaneous or a given.

The voice was familiar, but the face mask, thermal hat, and zipped high collared coat didn't give me any hints as to who certainly knew me. Even after his bearded face was revealed, it took me a second to register the letter carrier's self-identification.

A former classmate in our Transition to Teaching cohort and a co-worker at my first school. After my first year, he was to take over my first-grade class and I moved to his fourth-grade class at the request of our administrators. I left the charter school shortly before the start of the new school year to join a larger, more stable district. I saw him a couple of years later at a meet-and-greet for  conference presenters where he was playing  keys for the night. Teaching and loving it.

A gifted and kind teacher, I assumed he was picking up some extra work during the holidays. I was wrong. We lost another one. A teacher who couldn't hold on. I don't know what the specific reason was, but it really doesn't matter.

We lost another one. To the Post Office. A teacher who would rather work in the rain, sleet, and snow, and on this day all in the same day, than suffer through the low pay, disrespect, shifting priorities from politicians, and high-stakes testing.

We lost another one. It breaks my teacher heart.

Thanks for reading.

Follow me on Twitter @YourKidsTeacher

Sunday, December 27, 2015

"I'll hold my own hand."

The photographer was trying to find the shot. The one that separates amateurs and professionals. The difference between a snapshot and photo is small; an elusive detail that comes from years of experience and thousands of throw away shots. In the days of 35mm film, the old rule of thumb was that if you got one "keeper", a shot worth printing, out of a 36 exposure roll you were coming out ahead. Digital photography allows today's photographer the freedom to just keep shooting. Capture the moment then sort 'em out later, but taking a good photo still requires a good setup, subject, and a trained eye.

Today's subjects were growing a little weary of the photog's seemingly constant requests to turn, shift, look to the left/right/up/down, and tricks to conjure up a memorable smile. Dressed in their "Sunday best", the two girls-five and seven, would have much rather been somewhere, anywhere, playing and doing 5-year/7-yr old stuff.

Instead, as the photo session was winding down, the older girl was being asked to do something that seemed foreign to her. "Only" seven, she already possessed an uncommon sense of independence.

"Hold your sister hand"

A glance to her younger sister and quick moment of reflection.

"I'll hold my own hand."

A remarkable statement. The response was without defiance or stubbornness, but stated with confidence and assuredness. She realized, and clearly had been taught, that it was not only okay, but expected that she state her preferences. Isn't this how we want our kids to think? Don't we want them to become self sufficient and recognize that they can be independent thinkers?

Hopefully this first grader will land in a classroom where her differences are respected; a classroom not based in compliance or where the classroom culture supports the teacher's comfort zone and work flow. A classroom where she doesn't have to ask permission to sharpen her pencil.

Hopefully her assignments will give her choices on how she demonstrates her learning. A classroom environment where she doesn't have to worry about a behavior report for "non-compliance" or a "zero" if she doesn't complete the assignment the way in which her teacher prescribes.

Let this child keep shooting, she's a keeper.

Follow me on Twitter @YourKidsTeacher

Thanks to Mrs. Freeman who told me the story behind this picture in her office as she graciously gave me time on her last day, retiring,  after being an educator for 35+ years.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Sphero SPRK Lightning Lab

I've been a fan of  Sphero, both their Robot and the Company, for a couple of years. The robot is a magnet for kids and the company is a magnet for great people. Last Spring, Danielle and Lauren opened Sphero's doors to Room 216 as we (with Noah Geisel) pioneered a Periscope virtual field trip of Sphero's HQ and work spaces in Boulder, CO. A great experience for sure.

The little "app enabled ball that does it all" really does. So much more than a toy, the Sphero line of robots are a great way for kids to learn basic coding, collaboration, and problem solving skills. I particularly like the way that it gets my 6th grade girls excited about coding, creating, and problem solving. Besides, they are a ton of fun. It is a vital part of #Room216's maker space.

A couple of months ago I was asked by the Sphero folks if I'd be interested in helping them use and test their new SPRK Lightning Lab website & app? Interested? Uh, yeah! I couldn't wait to get started. The new interactive platform, designed for kids, parents, and teachers, promised some great additions to an already compelling Sphero app quiver.

The new app/platform allows users to create, publish, and share new Sphero content with a global community. The app allows users to download and run other people's programs, comment, and remix for their own creations. You are able to cloud save programs and access them with other devices as it syncs and makes your creations available to you anywhere.

I've beta-tested for the last few weeks and really love it! The SPRK Lighting Lab site is easy to navigate and intuitive to use. I could immediately see how useful the site and app would be in helping to demonstrate and teach some of the learning objectives that are part of our science standards. I published a couple of activities and shared them with my fellow SPRK Lightning Lab Innovators. As a diverse group, it was great to see what they had created as well. The activities my kids and I created are located here.

Teachers can create compelling activities using text, pictures, as well videos to guide students towards the learning objective. Creators can choose themes (awesomely, prank is a theme!), subject, tie-in NGSS or CCSS standards, activity duration, and grade level range. Teachers (Instructors) can then create steps and add resources to each step of the activity to make a compelling lesson. Teachers can add as many steps as necessary, but I think it's best to keep it around 5-7.

In the SPRK Lightning Lab App, students use block-based programming, to program their robot to do almost anything. If you create an account, you can seamlessly share and save programs between the app and the website for use in activities. A particularly nice feature for teachers is the ability to place notes for instructors. These teaching tips or project notes are only available to users that are signed in as instructors, which will helps teacher guide students without giving them the answer to a problem within the activity.

Teacher can share lessons with others around the world by making their programs public or just shareable with their class. You can also explore and try out what others have created and modify once you've downloaded them to your device.
Programming on an iPhone/iPod
Programs created on the app also sync with an activities on the SPRK Lightning website and can be set as a default program for any activity created. You can build a program in the SPRK Lightning Lab App, make it public, and then make it available on the activity page to set as the default program for that activity! That functionality gives students, teachers, and other users a great place to start with their program, but also allows them to modify to suite their needs.

When they create an account teachers can create student logins and assign activities within their class. You can track progress in real-time and review student work.

My class uses the class iPod or our iPad-mini with our Sphero, but another great thing about Sphero is their concern for accessibility. The SPRK Lighting Lab App is optimized for the new iPad Pro, a pricey option for most, but also works great with the $40 Amazon Kindle Fire (Nook as well). A great thing! The SPRK Lightning Lab app is available in Android and iOS and is compatible with the Sphero 2.0, Sphero SPRK Edition, and the Ollie.

Of course I had fun helping the Sphero folks out while they developed the app and the website, but when I handed it off to a few of my kids, that's when the fun really started. My 6th graders really took to it and absolutely dove into the different functions and actions that the app made available for programs. Students are able to program lights, sounds, headings, turns, and some of the cooler Sphero Functions like the Raw Motor, X&Y accelerometers that are built into the ball! The options and combinations are limitless and naturally lets the creativity and problem solving come out.

We're incorporating the SPRK Lightning Lab into our week of code activities and is already in regular use during "lunch upstairs" sessions in Room216.

I'm looking forward to getting more of our class involved with the app as our school year progresses and utilizing the classroom features and student tracking.

Great stuff from a great company!

Thanks for reading
I'm on Twitter @YourKidsTeacher

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Innovative? Maybe We Just Like Change.

Back in May of this year, the e-mail started with "Congratulations! We are thrilled to welcome you to the first cohort of TED-Ed Innovative Teachers."

From the TED-Ed site: 

The TED-Ed Innovative Educator (TIE) program is a year-long professional development program for dynamic educators who are dedicated to celebrating the ideas of students and teachers around the world. It’s a global program that connects leaders within TED’s network of over 250,000 teachers. As TED’s on-the-ground education ambassadors and advocates, TED-Ed Innovative Educators engage in two months of digital training and 10 months of leadership and innovation projects.

I still don't understand why I was chosen to be part of this select group. I'm just trying to become better at this thing I do for my kids. I think they deserve that. I owe them that.

Over the next few summer months, I'd participate in bi-monthly video conferences with educators from, and not to use the most overused word in the english language, but literally from all over the world. Every other week I'd turn on the webcam in South Bend, IN and work with educators from Brazil, Poland, Indonesia, South Korea, Canada, the U.S. and others. A true worldwide effort that includes 28 educators in 11 countries. Their ideas on innovation were shared on TED-Ed's blog.

Somewhere along the summer we realized that TED and TED-Ed team were going to bring all of us together in New York City to work together and attend the TEDYouth 2015 Event. I got off the video call that morning and quickly messaged some of my 'tweeps' in a "did I hear that right?" effort to clarify the "did I hear, what I just think I heard?" I had, and for the next couple of days my wife had to peel me off of our living room ceiling. 

As I approached the mid-November weekend, I could feel the buzz building on our private Facebook page. Sub-plans, packing, countdowns, and trip to the airport updates were filling the timeline. They first arrival updates starting hitting on Wednesday, Eva was here from Cyprus, Steven from Indonesia was already half way on his 21 hour trip, all of us descending on Tribeca.

I had built some time to explore some New York neighborhoods that I hadn't previously and took in a Rangers game with fellow TIE Nick Provenzano I've posted some of those photos on my Instagram.

On our first morning, most of the TIEs met in the lobby and shortly after a few welcoming hugs and handshakes we found ourselves at the top of the Hugo Hotel. A beautiful space overlooking the river and Manhattan was where we started sharing ideas on what education would look like in 15-20 years. We also had an opportunity to share our TED-Ed Innovation Projects that will amplify student voice and help teachers utilize TED-Ed tools and curated content for their classrooms.
It was here, surrounded by creativity, enthusiasm, floor to ceiling glass walls, sparkling water, and Manhattan, that I began to realize how special this group was. There wasn't an ounce of pretension or ego in the room. The conversations were natural, insightful, and incredibly encouraging. We shared, we laughed, we listened. It was during breakfast that it was clear that we were becoming collaborators not simply colleagues. Friends, not just acquaintances.  
We're All Educators
Whatever our position, whatever our role, the TIEs are all educators. Having a chance to listen, share, and share a space with such a diverse group was simply a transformative experience. I could have spent a week working side-by-side with this group, but I'll settle for a few days. Those few hours were the model on what education should look like.
TED's Chris Anderson

The gang at TEDYouth 2015, Brooklyn Museum - NYC
The gang at the TED offices, NYC. (photo Dian Lofton)
TED-Ed Staff
The TED-Ed staff are amazing. I can't say enough about this group. They bring out our best. They planned for everything and facilitated an incredibly productive gathering. Their forethought, vision, and execution of the weekend's event allowed the TIEs to focus on collaborating, creating, and bonding. Flawless logistics. A great group and on top of that, very nice people! Very.

Learning Opportunities 
From brainstorming, creating animation, learning about cutting edge Adobe products, and witnessing genius on stage at TEDYouth, our days were filled with learning. Hard to pick a favorite moment, but creating an animated short video was tremendously rewarding and dream fulfilling. Special thanks to TED-Ed animator Jeremiah Dickey, who not only wields high-tech tools masterfully, but appreciates old-school analog as well. (e.g. Blackwing 302s)
Part of the amazing TED-Ed animation team, Jeremiah Dickey
We're in Good Hands

The official close of the weekend was the TEDYouth 2015 event held at the beautiful Brooklyn Museum. It was the first time in a couple of days that we had some unstructured time and it took the TIEs to figure out what to do with ourselves, which of course led to more exploring and conversations. We were able to take in all of the speaker's exhibits and stands. Including watching the amazing Pixelation project put on by my new best friends, the TED-Ed animators, create this amazing video. Here are some pictures of how it was done. The adult speakers were great, but my favorite talks were the kids. I loved hearing their excitement about the things in their world and plans to make it a better place. Inspiring.
Ishita Kaytal advises us to Don't ask what we want to be when we grow up. Ask what we're doing now" - Photo Ryan Lash (Flickr)
I'm a TIE 
Maybe I was chosen because I'm not afraid to try new things. Maybe innovation is simply not continuing to do something just because we've 'always done it that way." As I said in my Ted-Ed Innovative Educator highlight profile, "innovation is doing what must be done, instead of what has always been done." 

My students and I don't need permission to innovative, we just need to try. Let us fail, let us succeed. 

Thanks to TED-Ed and my innovative friends for letting me do both.

For more looks in on the weekend visit Workshop Photos 
The applications for the next TED-Ed Innovative Educator cohort opens up soon (December, 2015) find out more here

Saturday, October 31, 2015

With a hand raised...

I had seen Ally coming my way for a couple of years. She was frequently the topic of conversation in the hallway and in the teacher break room. A troubled kid with a seemingly awful homelife. Disrespectful and defiant. Consequences didn't have much impact on changing her behavior choices. Ally once told her teacher to, "go ahead and take away recess, my mom will sue you."

She honed her foul mouthed vocabulary online and in person since getting her Facebook page at a much too young 4th grade. She didn't understand limits, because she didn't have any. She was frequently mean and used her meanness to get attention, any attention, that she almost pathologically craved. I talked to her a couple of times in her fourth grade classroom about the choices she was making online with some online interactions that were brought to my attention.

A couple of years before I had her as a student, I had coached her on our school's basketball team. She didn't have a clue to what she was doing and didn't contribute much to our run at the All-city finals, but she was trying. She'd get frustrated, I'd get frustrated, her team got frustrated at her, but I wouldn't let her feel or be on the receiving end of negative. She got too much of that elsewhere.

It wasn't until mid season that I learned how to talk to her. I was giving her pointers on some aspect of her play and I could see the tears start to form in her eyes and her body language was screaming, "let me outta here!" It was that moment that helped me a couple of years later when she was a student in my classroom.

That year, I had a "rough" group. A core of about 7-8 out of 30 that woke up each day and started their plans to disrupt the learning of their peers and get in the way of themselves during that day's lessons. Ally was one of the gang. Her quality of work was horrible. Rushed and minimal, her goal was to put something down on the page and call it done. Whenever she was called on , she would hide her head or shrug her shoulders and wait for me to move on. I tried waiting her out a couple of times, but we'd still be there if I'd stuck to my plan. She had formed her resolve through years of defiant practice.

Ally would get kicked out of specials, mix it up at recess, throw her books, and yell expletives at peers, subs, and other adults in the building. She engaged in behavior that got her suspended three times before Halloween. Never at me however and never in Room 216.

This was a girl in crisis though. I think that her life was chaos and I was certain that the part of her day when she was in Room 216 was the safest that she felt. Discovered by chance, I discovered an out of school incident early in the year that scared the hell out of me. The seriousness of the incident brought me to tears.

We tried to figure each other out over the first couple of months that year, but progress was slow.

Then one day, she raised her hand.

It was a turning point. I looked at her for a second and she looked back at me. We were the only ones in the room who knew what was happening. I called on her, she answered. She looked around to see if everything was okay. It was and she knew it. That raised hand was a big deal. For both of us.

We still had a ways to go and I'm not going to pretend that the rest of the year was dreamy, but we moved forward. She made progress and started to believe in herself a little bit. She learned that she could be in control, that she didn't always have to react or provoke.

She didn't need writeups for for having a hot chocolate on school grounds or chewing gum. She needed to trust someone. She didn't need behavior reports, she needed someone to believe in her.

I raised my hand.

Thanks for reading.
I'm on Twitter: @YourKidsTeacher

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Rejection and Jumping Off a Cliff

In the Spring of 2014, my understanding about relationships and tolerance were transformed. My son and I attended a screening of the unreleased feature-length documentary REJECT. The movie explains how our brains processes social rejection in much the same way that it processes physical pain. For someone who has been cast out or ostracized, there is a truth to the statement "it hurts". The film helps us to understand that belonging, understanding that we matter, and that we are loved by the ones significant to us is the number one influence on our lives as humans. Number one.

REJECT also helps us learn that acceptance is not just a social construct vital to our survival, but essential to our potential as individuals as well.

Student driven, student voice. Brianna introducing the evening. 
Since my initial viewing I have become an advocate of the film and helped spread the word about the various screenings around the country through my twitter and Facebook pages. I wanted other people to have a chance at changing their prism and how they looked at our kids, our relationships, and our world. Find out more about the film REJECT
Closing out a terrific night.
When I got wind that REJECT Director Ruth Thomas-Ruh and her team had launched a kickstater campaign to help pay for the final costs associated with releasing their film, I was all in. I contributed a small amount that allowed me a digital license to show a web version of the film to a small audience during October's Bullying Prevention Month. Those modest plans got our wheels turning, so to speak. So we jumped off the cliff of not-ever-doing-something-like-this-before and started working towards bringing a community-wide screening of REJECT to the greater South Bend area.

Our goal was to extend the reach of the film, while spreading the word about Erase Meanness' mission.  We secured a venue, found and pid an insurer, energized our volunteers, and started reaching out to everyone we could think of to put people in the seats. We promoted through every avenue we cold think of, including good ol' fashion kiosk flyers and snail-mail and we were thrilled with the turnout. We assembled an expert panel for post-movie discussion and closed out the night with a terrific conversation on how a community can work together to create communities of kindness and inclusion.

Our local Fox affiliate did a great job covering the event as well. Community Members Watch REJECT

I closed out the evening with a call to action.

"We cannot be worried about the perceptions of bullying incident statistics reported in our schools, we must be worried about our kids.

We cannot isolate the bully or address bullying superficially by filling out a form or checking a box in an effort to demonstrate compliance. We must not wait for the toxic words of rejection and meanness to be digested and then treat the symptoms of their poisoning. Communities of kindness are formed by communities of parents, teachers, administrators, and community leaders that work to extend hands of cooperation instead of pointing fingers. We cannot wait and we must not stand-by. We shall start with kindness, always kindness."

We must make sure that every child gets a chance to shine like the sun. Erase. Replace. Be kind." 

A great night.

Eric Johnson
A few of our "Eraser" student activists
(some of this post was cross-posted at Erase Meanness' blog)

Saturday, August 29, 2015

If you ask the question...

Every year, after close to ten months together, I ask my Room 216'rs to write me a letter. Hopefully by that point in the year, they trust me. They would typically have taken 3-4 anonymous surveys and have fully understood that there were no repercussions for their honest feedback. I ask them what they enjoyed and didn't, what I did well, what I can do better?

I don't require letter writers to sign their name and I don't require that everyone write one. This year 27 of 28 wrote me a letter and all of them signed their name. Trust indeed.

I hold on to the letters until late in the summer until it's a little easier to let them go. Something I'm not ready to do when I collect the envelopes in June.

The humidity of August saw me unpacking the boxes that were sealed up in the hot of June, when I realized I hadn't opened 'em up. When I got home from organizing the 2000+ books that make-up our classroom library, I risked some paper cuts and started ripping them open.

The notes were honest. Candid. Some were surprising. Some were not. I knew that I wasn't the right teacher for a couple of them. All the letters will help me become a better teacher.

I always tell my kids, if they figure out a way to forget the criticism and remember the praise, to give me call, because I'd like to know the secret.

I've received feedback from anonymous surveys and 360 feedback processes for the last 20 years, but it's different when you've let down a kid. I asked the question and I'm glad they answered.

It wasn't all disheartening.

One of my kids detailed how she thought I was a little crazy, how my jokes were lame, and how she mostly thought it was the best year of her life. Hopefully a short lived accolade. She thanked me for helping her to realize that she was capable of much more than she ever realized.

I tucked her letter into the book that she wrote during her lunch periods this year and self-published the piece to a hardcover novella. She signed her letter "from the girl who now believes"

If you ask the question...you better be prepared for the answer. I'm glad I asked.

Thanks for reading.
Follow me on Twitter @YourKidsTeacher

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

It Started With A Tweet

Not a frown in the bunch
LaSalle's 6th Grade with Malcolm London and Kevin Coval

Every year has its moment that define that particular class. It's the moment that when you talk about a particular year or student, you reference that event or experience.

This year's keystone memory was LaSalle Elementary's Louder Than A Bomb (LTAB) poetry performances and a visit from some LTAB greats.

I don't think it's a stretch to say that poetry in not at the top of a 6th graders list of favorite subjects. My lessons have improved over the years and I've gotten better at teaching the different types, their structure, their rules and such. But, anyone that knows me, knows that I'm not really a rule follower, which is why I think I like free verse or slam style poetry so much.

The kids love it too. I can't say that the affinity is universal, but it's darn close.

I think the appeal is that they begin to believe that their words matter at this point in our poetry unit. Of course I talk about word choice and sentence construction the entire year, but poetry- especially slam poetry - carries the weight of relevance and meaning.

As we start to explore free verse poems, I share the feature length documentary "Louder Than A Bomb" a film that follows four groups of Chicago area students as they prepare for and compete in the world's largest youth slam competition. It's a remarkable film about some remarkable kids.

The film inspires. My kids see themselves in the movie's compelling characters and can readily identify with Nate, Lamar, Nova, Adam and Nate and others. Their lives are not ideal, majestic, or free from strife, but what my kids see in these kids on screen is that despite having to navigate their age, community, and circumstances, they are doing great things. Great things with words.

I share spoken word free verse poems from the past and the present from Mos Def, Saul Williams, and Malcolm London. This year I had an entirely new resource, The BreakBeat Poets, a chronological anthology of poets edited by:
  • Kevin Coval (Louder Than A Bomb co-founder, poet, author, and Creative Director for Young Chicago Authors) 
  • Nate Marshall (Featured in LTAB, Author, Zell Post-Graduate Fellow at UofM, rapper, and founding member of the poetry collective Dark Noise) 
  • Quraysh Ali Lansana (Poet, author, and faculty member of the Creative Writing Program of the School of the Art Institute and the Red Earth MFA Creative Writing Program at Oklahoma City University). 

The BreakBeat Poets

The collection of poetry (from Haymarket Press' description) 
This is the first poetry anthology by and for the Hip-Hop generation. It is for people who love Hip-Hop, for fans of the culture, for people who've never read a poem, for people who thought poems were only something done by dead white dudes who got lost in a forest, and for poetry heads. This anthology is meant to expand the idea of who a poet is and what a poem is for.

Our class ordered a copy and when we received it, we tweeted Kevin Coval about our excitement. His reply spurred us into action.

We contacted the eminently helpful and patient Tammy Job, Young Chicago Author's School Liaison, set a date, and started our preparations for Kevin and Malcolm London (TED Speaker, 2011 LTAB winner, poet, activist, and educator) to spend the day with #Room216.

We sold candy bars among other means to raise the modest fees to host two of the world's best for a writing workshop. The timeline was tight, but as the end of the year approached, we got it done.

Friend of #Room216, Rosie Woods (ABC-57, South Bend) previewed the visit with LIVE-Remotes from our School and was very gracious with her time afterward.
Miss Woods did a great job covering the event throughout the broadcast, which featured interviews with my kids and sharing of one of their performances. So thankful for her enthusiasm, energy, and encouragement of my kids. ABC57 News -Hashtag to the Girls Maybe the best part of the story was that she shared an ensemble piece created by four of my 6th grade girls. Kevin Coval when describing their piece said "those girls were spitting fire." True enough.

Malcolm and Kevin were simply fantastic. Despite their stature and accomplishments, not a whiff of pretense or air of superiority. They were extraordinarily approachable and genuine. They were at the end of a long week of travel and we were their last stop before setting foot in their homes, but you felt that they didn't want to leave. Wonderful.

They shared a couple of their own pieces and watched as a few of LaSalle's poets performed their works. As the afternoon progressed, they workshopped generating ideas and organizing them into poems. They taught us how to use words to inspire, words as power, words to cause change. We wrapped up the day with a a quick Q&A and a group picture.

A great day for all!

and a hint of things to come.

And it all started with a tweet. A tweet that helped my kids feel Louder Than A Bomb!

Thanks for reading! Follow me on Twitter @YourKidsTeacher

Some cool guys in this photo. Two outta three is not bad.
Malcolm London (L) Kevin Coval (R)

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Periscope, Robots, Nerf Guns, and a Breakfast Sandwich.

The idea was floated over an overstuffed burrito that I knew I couldn't finish, but had committed to its completion because I didn't have anywhere to put the leftovers. I had only met one of my lunch companions a few hours earlier at breakfast. Noah Geisel and I were both attending the 5-Sigma Educon near Denver, CO, but had never met.  (Next year's conference is scheduled for February 19-21, 2016).

Earlier that day, I had grabbed a Chick-fil-A biscuit sausage sandwich, coffee, and a glass of OJ to begin my conference morning. I quickly realized that breakfast sandwich consumption is made slightly unlikely with one hand. A lone occupant at a nearby table offered a chance to eat a little less awkwardly. Noah and I talked about why we were there, a little about his cool sweater, and exchanged Twitter handles while we ate and prepared for a second cup of coffee. We took a picture in front of the conference's backdrop, even after I called him the wrong name, and then were off to the day's first sessions.

Over lunch Noah and I talked about providing experiences for students that they normally don't get. Experiences that help them understand the world at large and open their life's prism a little wider. Noah started talking about the workspaces at Sphero, a robotics company, that focuses on "connected play" and helps kids understand programming through their products. He knew a couple of guys that worked there and visited their offices. He raved about the location, company's vision, and growth.

Noah described the workspaces and how personalized and diverse they were. A modern workspace that relied on collaboration and creativity was something that I thought my kids would enjoy and learn from. I knew if Sphero was willing, #Room216 would love to spend some time with them.

Up Periscope
Skype was the initial platform for the "visit", but then the Mayweather v Paquiao fight happened in early May. The fight between the two boxers had been on boxing fans wish list for a long time and when it was finally scheduled the pay-per-view prices were right around $100. A little too pricey for many. Millions of people paid, but many watched the fight for free via Periscope, a free live streaming app that allows users to live stream any event in front of their phone.

A number of the people that were watching the fight through pay-per-view also setup a free live-feed broadcast, albeit illegally, from their living rooms. Anyone in the world with the Periscope app could watch. That's when most people heard of the app, including the media, and many of the stories focused on the business losses and how the technology disrupted the pay-per-view business model.

Noah suggested we take this disruptive technology and "flip it" into something positive. We started expanding our game plan to utilize Periscope and turn the static Skype call into something more dynamic and interactive. A virtual field trip.

We came up with a combination of Google Hangout on Air (GHO) and Periscope. Noah would be our Periscope feed and we would be the remote, directing him where to go and what to look at. Dani and Lauren would take us on a virtual tour of Sphero's Corporate offices (Boulder, CO) using their iPads.

Room #216 friend, Rosie Woods of ABC-57 covered the event as part of her station's "Cool Schools" series. Rosie's genuine excitement for the "trip" resulting in a great story and a great memory for my kids.

We started in the lobby, met the digital receptionist, and saw the differences between Sphero's two main products the Ollie and Sphero. Dani and Lauren showed us the Sphero museum, a collection of past product iterations, failures and successes, which included the phone with which President Obama used to work one of the Sphero balls. A highlight for the kids.

We got a great chance to see the design and collaborative spaces of the company's associates where all of the different roles function. We got a chance to talk to coders, video creators, and product testers among others. Dani and Lauren were awesome!

Is that a Nerf Gun?
In Mishawaka (Indiana), we had setup dual screens so that we could watch both the Google Hangout broadcast and the Periscope feed. Three of my 6th graders were piloting the tour from a table in the center of our room, which included all of school's 5th and 6th grades. The three students took turns commenting and asking questions in the chat portion of the GHO, live-tweeting, and sending feedback in Periscope. The trio also had opportunities to ask questions when they were in the 'hotseat' (on camera).

Along with Teched-out, 3-screened multiple computer work spaces, the kids spotted a razor scooter, various toys, stuffed animals, and a nerf-gun. "You can have a nerf gun at work?" They were beginning to understand that today's work places are often much more comfortable and fun than what they may be used to seeing or expect.

The Sphero folks were just tremendous. Every employee we talked to were absolutely generous with their time and commitment to the effort. We concluded the trip by joining their Friday "all company" meeting and said hello to company executives and others that we had not met yet and had a chance one more time to say thank you. It was a highlight of the school year for many of my students.

Towards the end of the field trip, one of my girls asked if there were any "girl engineers" that worked at Spehro? Indiscernible to anyone in Boulder or Mishawaka, that question, from that student was the highlight of the call for me. This is the girl that started the school year making excuses for not understanding things or maybe not giving her best effort with references to her blond hair and "I'm a girl ya know." Now, this girl had taken the lead for this project, threw herself into understanding the basics of coding and took on a big project as a result. She transformed herself during the school year into a serious student who believed in herself and wanted to work towards being an engineer someday. The experience with Sphero and their products solidified that foundation.

THAT's why we do these things. To give a kid a glimpse of what's possible.

Feel free to watch some of our experience at Sphero Corporate Virtual Field Trip.
Next Time
At the time, we weren't aware of anyone attempting something like this on this scale using the technologies and anytime you pioneer something like this there is bound to be a large bit of learning that happens.  The start was little clumsy, but once we got going it smoothed out considerably. During our debriefing call the following week, Noah and I identified a couple of things that we'd like to improve on and we'll pass on our learnings if you would like to try something like this in your classroom.

  1. The use of an external microphone for the devices would improve sound quality tremendously. Despite testing the connection and sound the day before, there were times when either end of the feeds were sure if we could hear each other. Those doubts limited the interaction between the parties a little. The device microphones were not powerful enough to capture the voices of the participants and don't do a sufficient job of eliminating ambient sounds in both locations. 
  2. Test the stuff in the environment where the event will take place. As I mentioned, we tested the connection and equipment the day before the event, but not in the location where we gathered the following day. The larger room necessitated some adjustments on the fly during the call and caused me some unnecessary hot flashes. 
  3. Have the tour guides practice holding the devices and delivering a quality video image. If the guides have access to a quality monopod, it would help make their job a little easier, while providing a more stable image.
  4. Have both ends of the feed monitor and respond to the the chat features in GHO and Periscope. the chat features allow for questions to be asked without interrupting whomever is speaking.
  5. and/or disable comments in Periscope. Anyone with the Periscope can watch the broadcast, which means anyone can comment, unless you click the icon that turns off or limits comments completely or to only people that follow you on Periscope. While we didn't have any problems during the actual events, there were some profanities thrown our way in the test the day before. Ahhh, the internets.
If you have any questions on how to set up your own Periscope field trip, let me know. I'd be happy to help. You can find me on Twitter @YourKidsTeacher

Thanks for reading!

Friday, July 10, 2015

A Year Later

July 11th, 2014.

A Friday.

I was about 9 minutes from home after an easy and relatively short ride.

The address on the ambulance report read 51804 Lilac.

From the seconds after the first drops of blood started to stain my chinstrap I wouldn't remember anything from the next 4.5 hours.

I'm pretty sure that my helmet and the three places where it broke apart to disperse the impact, saved my life. It was the second time a helmet proved its usefulness in three years.

No memory of Paramedics, Policeman, Cat-Scans, X-rays, or being stitched up. All these things were pieced together later or told to me by loved ones.

The first thing I remember is seeing my wife of twenty years at the foot of the hospital bed. She said that all of a sudden I looked different. I was smiling. I remember being very happy to see her, but I didn't quite know why yet.

The spontaneous crying, a side effect of a concussion, subsided over time. So too the forgetfulness or the gaps in processing information. I still can't find my watch that I put somewhere around Christmastime. My students didn't seem to notice, or were at least polite enough not to say anything, when I would just lose my train of thought during lessons. I knew.

The rehab on my shoulder returned me to almost 100%. I now refer to it as my $2000 shoulder. I can now reach above my head without assistance from my right arm or with pain. The scars remain, but if I don't shave for a couple of days, you'll never notice. I see 'em

At the widest, man and machine are only 44cm wide. I just need drivers to give me a few centimeters more I guess. I just needed a little more patience from the driver that seemingly was too inconvenienced by a 10 second delay to pass safely.

It took me a while to start riding regularly again. Every subsequent turn of the cranks sounded like madness.

I've been riding for 25 years and I was scared every-time I clipped in. The part of my DNA that liked to ride seemed mutated. Uncomfortable and anxious, I couldn't seem to ride a straight line.

I went for a ride today. It felt good. Fate can stick it.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Open Letter to My Room 216'er Freshman

Dear former Room 216’er and class of 2019,

You’re about to become a freshman and I just wanted to let you know that I’m still rooting for you.!

I think that the middle school years are the toughest school years to get through, they certainly were for me. High school is really the time where you learn about yourself and what things interest you. High school helps you lay a foundation for the 5-10 years after graduation or at least starts you down the path of your choosing. Choose wisely.

My 10th grade teacher was one of my favorite all-time teachers. She made, yes made, me read George Orwell’s Animal Farm for her class. It changed my life. The study of that book made me realize that even though I was fairly smart, I wasn’t really working all that hard and I needed to change. I don’t remember her name, but I will never forget what she taught me.

I truly believe that grades don’t matter much. I’d much rather have kids focus on learning. It makes me happy when a student wants to learn about something because they’re curious about something. When they want to learn and understand something, not just because it will get them a better grade. It’s not your fault. We, the adults in your life, have trained you to chase the letter. We give you ribbons, clothes, video games, and cash for good grades. Nobody ever gives you recognition for learning something hard and doing your best. It’s a shame. Grades don’t matter, until high school that is. The organizations and institutions that will let you in or keep you out after graduation put a heavy emphasis on the grades you receive, not the person you can become. Don’t coast. Do your best. Everyday, every assignment. Please keep your eye on your grade point, but make sure you’re learning as well. I hope that makes sense.

Worry about the learning and not the letter.

You’re going to be surrounded by kids that are making choices that diminish their spirit or potential over the next four years. Stay away from them. You don’t owe anyone a thing if they are only going to tear you down, hold you back, or put you in a bad place.

Erase the meanness in your life and replace it with kindness.

I mean that with all my heart.

I hope I get a glimpse of what you’ll become over the next four years, but even if I don’t, I want you to know that I think you are terrific and capable of great things. You and your class of 6th graders hold a special place in my heart. I loved being part of your personal story for those ten months. Always know that I believe in you and that you matter.

You have greatness inside you. Find a way to bring it out.

From your 6th grade teacher, all my best.

Eric Johnson - LaSalle Elementary
Twitter: @YourKidsTeacher

Saturday, April 11, 2015

She held his hand...

photo by Melvin E Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/50521389@N08/

The pair spent part of their first day together opening their wedding presents over brunch. Family and friends had gathered to continue wishing them the best that fortune could offer. Rarely sitting next to each other during the hustled morning, as each still tended to their respective family members, she would still catch him staring at her. A glance he would never tire of.

Adjacent chairs helped ease the opening of the stacks of gifts. Care was taken to track the giver, so that the generosity could be appreciated when time permitted. During some brief breaks in the seemingly endless unwrapping, she held his hand...

With an 'oomph', the rented Lincoln Town Car's trunk was successfully closed like a road vacation suitcase. Out of space, the overflow gifts were displaced to the backseat. Goodbyes were said, kisses given, tears were released, and then the pair drove away toward their new life together.

Once on the highway, the miles passed without tally as she held his hand...

Even though they approached the incident at highway cruising speed, the terrible scene unfolded in slow-motion. It wasn't immediately clear what had occurred, but something had gone horribly wrong. Cars were stopped off to both sides of the highway. People were running towards the debris field and beyond. There were no sirens, they were miles away from where anyone could hear them. The groom joined the scene and for the first time in his married existence, he lost track of his wife.

The SUV had rolled in violence multiple times and was far removed from the road from where it once traveled in a predictable straight line. Every rotation of the vehicle resulted in its contents being sprayed without concern for their importance. The vehicle's energy was expended in luggage, papers, and car parts. The scattershot of debris created a macabre path along the highway's slope towards the tree line and came to an abrupt end. The newlywed groom's stomach suddenly felt hollow when he realized that the vehicle's occupants had not been wearing their seat belts.

The male passenger was in distress. Bleeding, immobile, and screaming, he needed to be moved from the spot from where he landed after ejection. The newlywed joined another and they carefully moved him to a more secure spot. The larger crowd gathered their collective strength to lift the vehicle just enough so that the female occupant could be released from the crush of the vehicle. They made a vain attempt to check for life, while the man screamed into the ear of the groom. The newlywed couldn't answer the broken voiced plea "where's my wife, where's my wife?" It was the saddest thing he had ever heard and wouldn't be trumped until his own shriek at the death of his mother years later.

The people trained to deal with these things and their equipment were soon to arrive and there was nothing further for the amateurs to do. The couple got back into their overstuffed car, looked at each other and cried. The scene would remain in his mind's eye and forever remind him how lucky he was. The remainder of the trip was mostly silent as they tried to process the destruction and reconcile the contrast between their happiness and the suddenness of tragedy, as she held his hand...

Sometimes when they're driving, he'll reach over and touch her arm. Just to be sure. Sure that she's there. Sure that she's safe. An assurance to her that he loves her.

Through hospital crash carts, mortgage signings, and their son getting on his first bus, she held his hand...

Through the frightening and the sublime, the marvelous and mundane, through victories and defeats. Through promotions and job losses at the hands of hacks. Through the boring and exhilarating, emergency rooms, and rock concerts. Through everything for 28 years, she's held his hand...

The one who holds me up when I want to fall down. She's held my hand for the past 28 years. To my everything, Happy Anniversary.

With all that I am, I love you Lisa.

Thanks for reading, Eric

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Fighting For Their Lives

photo: PhotoPin (attribution below)

My students. Our students.

Our kids. Your kids.

The police described the home's conditions as a house in "complete disarray."

Don't talk me about letting a child explore their passions when they get home as if that is all they have to worry about.

"No working plumbing", let that sink in for a minute...

I don't care what you're point on Twitter is, if your point isn't the kids.

"They (police) found the kids wrapped in coats and an open oven for heat."

Don't talk to me about grit.

"a meth lab was found"

I don't want to hear about how you can't open up the world for your students with technology, because you don't have enough or the "wrong" device.

"No food"

I'm mad. I'm sad. They're all our kids. Give one a hug today.

My twenty-nine kids have twenty-nine  stories on how they arrived at Room 216's door. I can't control what happens when my kids leave the four walls of our school. I do know that for some of them, too many of them, that our class and school,  is the safest they will be all day. I can give them that.

Some of these kids are fighting for their lives. So am I.

Thanks for reading.
I'm on Twitter @YourKidsTeacher

Photo:photo credit: GE Oven Dials (left) via photopin (license)

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Edu Conferences, Woodstock, & Physicists

@MrJohnsonsGnome tagged along to the 5-Sigma Edu Con
Do you wonder about what people were thinking at the beginning of a revolution? Have you ever been at the genesis of greatness? Had a moment when you say to someone that "I was there" and your statement created an instant reaction of envy and wonderment in the listener?

My 10th grade literature teacher attended Woodstock and had the pictures to prove it. He never dwelled on his attendance and never passed on the salacious details sophomores desired, but he occasionally referred to it as a transformative event in his life. The days long concert opened his eyes to what was possible, what his generation could aspire to. The event challenged his assumptions and changed the way that he would view things through his life's prism from there on out. 

The 5-Sigma Education Conference promised the same. A chance to interact with visionary educators, to see what true inquiry learning looked like, and a better understanding of how to assess the whole child. Transformative indeed.


Unlike so many conferences that I've attended, 5-Sigma was not focused on discovering the latest whiz-bang tech tool or teaching trick for the classroom, but on sharing, learning, and communicating. Focused on discovery and innovation, educators from all over the U.S. ascended (Denver is 5280 ft up ya know) to Centennial, Colorado to Anastasis Academy, the conference location. Traveling upwards seemed appropriate.

We started off the opening morning with Chick-Fil-A breakfast sandwiches and within minutes I had made a new friend, and despite using the wrong name to request a picture against the conference backdrop , we continued our conversation over lunch.  (follow Noah Geisel, formerly aka to me as "Seth", an innovator) While eating and talking I noticed how the Anastasis students, wearing matching t-shirts, were scurrying about and how they were gathering in diverse groups. They weren't clustering in age groups as you would expect, but students of all levels were talking and interacting together. It reminded me of a gathering of cousins. Nobody had told them to stick together. They were choosing to gather in this way. It was clear that this school was different.

Challenging Assumptions

I wasn't planning on looking for a tissue within the first 5 minutes of the conference kickoff, but Anastasis student, Isabella and her spoken word poem "Hibernation" brought many to tears with her wonderful words. It was the first of many student voices conference attendees would hear over the next few days.

Anastasis Academy and 5-Sigma Founder, Kelly Tenkely, then asked us to challenge our assumptions over the next few days. Asking,  
  • What labels have you been carrying around with you?
  • To examine how many layers there were between educators and their students?
  • That we recognize that most education reform is "surface level stuff" 
  • That we engage failure.
  • Attendees to participate in the meaningful.
Our name badges (innovative in and of themselves) only contained our first name. Titles didn't matter at 5-Sigma. We were all learners and there was no need to create walls of prestige and importance to impede what we could learn.  Kelly's words set the tone and theme of the Conference and challenged us to take what we were to learn and act because, "They (students) can't wait for us to get it right." 

Ranfranz Davis delivered the opening keynote and told her story as well as some of her student's inspirational stories, while asking attendees to give their students a reason to explore something they're passionate about. Explore the content through the lesson of what they love. She told the stories of Braeden and Edgar who learned to learn that "I cannot give up until I learned this thing." Rafranz told these tales to help those in the room understand "that the test is not a definition of who these students are." They are more, so much more.


The sessions were relaxed, but amazing nonetheless.  Learning doesn't have to stressful. The flow of the conference was such that there was much time to talk to before and after to the amazing people assembled. The vibe, to use a Woodstock era term, was relaxed and that atmosphere contributed to everyone being approachable and open to conversations. I met so many amazing people before, during, and after sessions that the presentations really were secondary to the learning and relationships being formed in between. 

I had the fortune to attend sessions given by the amazing and inspiring, Shelly Au, and learned about his artistry, amazing journey and how to tell a story with images. Tim Kaegi and Colin Reynolds shared the innovative things they are doing with their kids in their respective classrooms. You never knew who you were going to be learning with at these sessions, because the titles and achievements were secondary to what we were learning together. You were just sitting down with a Shelly, Christian, Kelly, or a Jen
Longtime friends and new alike.

Panel Discussions

The Panels were extraordinary. Not only because they included Anastasis' wonderful student voices, but because we had a chance to hear from the Academy's parent's, alumni, and teachers. They talked about their community and purpose together in learning. These students, current and former alike talked with great affinity of how they learned how to learn and how they adjusted to the freedom of inquiry to learn meaningfully. The teachers have an uncommon understanding of what it means to reach the whole child. The teachers lead them towards leaning something of importance, something that is meaningful.

There are no grades. The students are engaged, not just producing. In the words of one student, "there is so much to learn." From an alumni, "I love this school because you're taught how to think, not what to think."

"they (Anastasis' teachers) taught me how to love to learn"

Some of my other favorite student statements. 
  • "I'm happy to be a nerd, at least I can think"
  • "Do I know everything I need to know? "Yes, because I know how to think" 
  • "We're all change makers, if we move our feet"
  • "I was who I was, not someone who was a grade"
  • "I like this school because I can be myself" (this student's energy lit up the room)


Community is a big, no huge, part of the learning atmosphere at Anastasis. The students and educators talked about how it was such a integral part of their culture. They do everything together. Lunch, recess, morning walks, projects, etc. It started to dawn on me that that sense of community was why the children came together so naturally on day one

There are no distinctions or curriculum labels to divide students and teachers into learning silos and therefore no structures to keep them apart.

The community forms naturally, but it is not by accident. From "Detox Week" to the end of the year, through Edu Ventures and service projects, these students and teachers learn together. A learning community. Teachers visit each student's home before the start of the school year and they find out how the students learn best with innovative games (that I hope that Kelly makes available to the world someday soon) Great time and care is spent to create a special environment and to make each child feel special, because "when they feel special, their attitude changes."

Time to Go

The closing keynote was delivered by Christian Long and I can only say that I feel lucky to have been in the room. I didn't realize until about 15 minutes into our conversation the day before that Christian was our closing keynote. Intense, but personable. Passionate, but measured. He also seemed to pull off the same pants that my 12-yr old students (not to mention my 17 yr-old son) make fun of.  

I briefly had a chance to continue the conversation later at dinner the evening of day one and I was really transformed by the conversation. Christian is visionary in the way he looks at learning spaces and learning. His wisdom is something that will continue to enhance my teaching for a very long time. 

Some of his thoughts during his talk:
  • "The hard part of what we do is whether or not in 10 yrs anyone will care about what you've done."
  • "When in doubt, create the conditions"
  • "We don't need the right stuff, we need the right mindset"
  • "We taught the kid to leap, but we never taught them how to land"
  • "Titles, position, allow someone in the room to stand in opposition"
  • "The center of the endeavor should be the person, not the object"
  • "The hard things should be hard"
  • "We love you, we love that you did this thing, but you can't expect the world to come to you. That's where quality matters"
Physicists use 5-Sigma to signify that there is only one chance in over two-million occurrences that the occurrence would occur randomly. It's a statement or declaration for discovery and means that something special has happened. With a 99.999996% confidence level or certainly without much of a doubt, something special happened at the first 5-Sigma Conference. If we ever cross paths, ask me how it was, I can't wait to watch your jaw drop.

Thanks for reading.
Follow me on Twitter @YourKidsTeacher

On a personal note

I don't know if I'll ever understand why I was the beneficiary of Kelly Tenkely and Michelle Baldwin's and my PLN when we asked our followers to fund my flight to the inaugural 5-Sigma Edu Conference, but it's nice to be wanted. Thank you for all of the contributions and RTs that made attendance possible. Special thanks to the Baldwin household for being such great hosts for my stay. Generosity defined. It was an extraordinary experience, given to me by extraordinary educators. I am grateful beyond words.