Monday, December 29, 2008

Blogging Made Easy

I love blogging... so why don't I have any more blog entries than I do? My last entry was written on September 20th, which was eons ago. I'm always thinking of blog topics, but never when I have time to write and usually when I'm away from my computer.

Another mental block for me is that, believe it or not, I enjoy writing my blog entries on paper. Expository writing flows easily when I'm typing, but the kind of reflective writing I do in my blog seems more suited to pen and paper. I guess I just haven't arrived in the digital world yet - or have I?

This Christmas my husband gave me a gift that allows me to blog on paper and then transfer my writing to a computer via an SD memory card - without me having to type one word! Right now I’m on a 5-hour flight to California and the seats are so tightly packed that I have no room to open my computer. But I do have room for my new DigiMemo L2 notepad! I write on real paper with a real pen that has real ink - really cool! After I transfer my writing to digital format, I can save it to read later or use the handwriting recognition software to convert it to Rich Text or graphic format. With a few clicks I can create a Word document from something I wrote in pen on paper. After it's in Word format, I can edit it and work with it as I would any other Word document.

It may seem like just another digital toy, but it's proving to be quite useful. I'm currently trying to finish my book, Mastering Math Facts, and I have been able to do quite a bit of writing today on the plane. Now I just need to transfer it to digital format and import it into my book document which will take me far less time than having to type it from written notes. And I can think of so many more uses for my new DigiMemo notepad! When I attend workshops and conferences, I like to take lots of notes. Unfortunately, most of my notes end up in the trash can because I don't have an organized system for storing them and accessing them later. Problem solved! Now I can take notes, transfer them to my computer, and store them in folders just as I do with my word processed documents!

Want to learn more? Check out the link shown on the right. My DigiMemo pad was purchased at Amazon, and it arrived in a few days in perfect condition. I also received the ACECAD portfolio which is essential for keeping all my paraphernalia together (special pen, USB cord, SD card, etc). Put it on your wish list now!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Goal Setting Update

Just this week I found out that three articles I recently wrote about goal setting were published as a series on Education World. I felt honored that Ed World accepted them because I've recommended their website for years and I think it's a great resource. The series is called Goal Setting 101 and it starts with the article called Understanding the Process.

Now for my own goal setting project . . . it looks like our Smartboard is definitely within reach! We have $920 in actual donations and about $300 in money that has been pledged to us. The Smartboard will be about $1050, so as soon a little more money is in I can arrange for one to be ordered. We still have to raise money for an Elmo and an LCD projector, but in the meantime I'm borrowing equipment from the media center. I'm so excited, and I know my students will be excited when we have enough money in our account to pay for the Smartboard. We've been having fun with an Air Liner slate in the meantime, but it can be unreliable and difficult to use.

What's interesting is that the goal-setting process my class followed was the exact process I described in Goal Setting 101. We set our class goal of getting a Smartboard and came up with an action plan. We decided to call our project Smartboards 4 Smart Kids and put up a webpage where people could donate with credit cards. The kids also made posters and talked to their parents and other family members about the project. We visualized having a Smartboard in our room, and we had faith that the money would be donated. It really works! I love the fact that my students are learning that when you set a goal for yourself and believe in it, your dreams really can come true!

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Smart Teaching

Smartboards and other interactive whiteboards are hot items in schools these days. If you’ve ever seen one demonstrated, it’s hard not to get excited about them! Last year my class was located in a “hut” or portable classroom behind the school. It was an interesting experience, and it wasn’t all bad. However, one difficult aspect was being isolated from technology. I wanted a Smartboard, but I knew that even if I could get a grant or raise money, the school system would not install it in a portable classroom. So my goal was to get into the building this year and figure out some way to get a Smartboard and learn to use it. The first part of my wish was granted over the summer and I moved into my new classroom. Now I’m working on the second part of the goal.

During the first week of school I talked to my new 4th grade class about the idea of trying to get a Smartboard for our classroom. Many of them had been in classes with Smartboards or seen them demonstrated, and they were excited about the idea of having one in our room, too. So we set a class goal of raising money for a Smartboard system (Smartboard, LCD projector, and Elmo) and we drafted an action plan describing how we plan to accomplish that goal. The first part of the plan involved me setting up a website for donations. We are calling our project Smartboards 4 Smart Kids, and I set up a webpage with that URL ( It looks like it will take about $2,500 to purchase the full system, but we are not discouraged. We have already received almost $500 in donations and we’ve only had the site up for a week. We have other steps in our action plan if needed, but we hope to get enough money just through donations. (Hint, hint!)

Being the positive thinker that I am, I’m already envisioning my brand new Smartboard installed in my room and ready to go! I’ve downloaded the Smartboard Notebook software and have been exploring what it can do. I’m planning to take a 10-hour course on Smartboard use that’s offered in my district, and I’ve been checking out Smartboard websites and tools. (As a side note, I know that there are other interactive whiteboards out there, but my district will only install and support Smartboards so that limits my options.)

Here’s where I need some help from other teachers. I want to learn how to create great lessons that use the interactive capabilities of the Smartboard. I’m probably not looking in the right places, but all I’ve seen so far are links to cool interactive websites that you can project on the Smartboard. However, instructional time in the classroom is limited, I am not convinced that those websites offer any advantage over high quality teaching without a Smartboard. Yes, the Smartboard is very motivating and it will captivate any observer’s attention, but I want MORE! I want to use my Smartboard in ways that will improve teaching and learning on a more fundamental level. I want the Smartboard to become an indispensable tool for teaching the way an overhead projector used to be for me - something that allows me to be a better teacher, rather than a cool toy that I use briefly before reverting to my old ways. I want to see some examples of Smartboard lessons, not just websites. I want to know how to use a Smartboard in different subjects like math, reading, social studies, and science. I need some step-by-step examples of ways to use the Smartboard to take students to a higher level as critical thinkers or to engage them in rigorous learning. I want to go from "using" a Smartboard, to "smart teaching".

So if you have any "Smart Teaching" lessons to share, or you know of any resources that would help me learn to use a Smartboard effectively, please share!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Journey to Success

I’m been back at work for a few days, and it’s been fun setting up my new classroom and planning how I will use technology this year. I’m particularly excited because I have an intern (student teacher) who is very enthusiastic and full of ideas. Her name is Lindsay Jeter, and I’m really looking forward to working with her. It’s been years since I had a student teacher, but the last one I had was wonderful. We worked as a team, and it was as if our students had two teachers instead of one. I expect that Lindsay and I will work just as well together. To me, student teachers who are enthusiastic and open-minded are like a breath of fresh air to a veteran teacher!

Today I am enjoying a leisurely morning before going to school. This evening we have Open House from 4 to 6 p.m. so I can report to work a little late. Part of me wants to rush off and get to school because I do have a lot to do, but the other part of me wants to linger over breakfast and do a little blogging first. I’m on out my deck which overlooks my backyard and the trees beyond, and I love hearing the birds chirping to start the day. Enjoying a leisurely breakfast on the deck will be a thing of the past next week, so I want to enjoy it today!

My thoughts this morning are on meeting my new students tonight. I’m so glad we have Open House a few days before school because I do enjoy meeting my kids before the big day and seeing their excitement. Our students probably don’t realize that teachers can be just as nervous about meeting their new students as they are about meeting us! I try very hard to keep myself in a state of ignorance about my students until I meet them in person. I don’t want to talk to other teachers about them, and I definitely don’t want to look into their cumulative records for more information. I know that teachers are often encouraged to look in those files before the children arrive, but I just can’t make myself do it. My feeling is that if there’s something really serious in that file, I will probably already know about the child or someone (social worker or guidance counselor) will let me know. Other than that, I just want to remain ignorant so I can form my own impressions. I don’t want to know in advance that a certain child has learning disabilities or another child is “gifted.” I just want to see my students as individuals and let them become who they were meant to be, without labels of any kind. Yes, I know that I will eventually have to learn the labels attached to their names, but by that time I will already know them personally and the labels won’t mean much.

I also try to remind myself that if I do end up with a child who has a reputation for being “difficult,” it doesn’t mean that they will be difficult in my classroom. Often those children have a quirky sense of humor or a keen intelligence that’s masked by poor social skills or undesirable behaviors. I’ve learned that if I can find the little spark that makes each child so special, any difficult behaviors disappear or become more manageable. Perhaps I will be the teacher who helps put this “difficult” child on the road to success. In fact, that’s our school theme this year – Journey to Success! I guess we need to be the travel agents who find the right journey to success for each of our students!

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Time for Technology?

I love new technology, but I have to admit that I’m beginning to feel a little overwhelmed by the rate at which things are changing! I just don’t feel that I have time to explore all the new resources available to me, but I’m realizing that I need to find time to check things out. Our students are certainly jumping into Web 2.0 technology, and I’m intrigued by the possibilities that these applications open up for me and my students. So this is going to be the “year of technology” for me! One of my goals is to raise money for a Smartboard and learn to integrate it into my teaching. Another is to figure out the whole social networking scene. I’ve created a Facebook page, I’m on, and I’ve started this blog. Now what?! Maybe you can help! How can I find time to explore all the new technology and still teach kids? What's important to learn, and what's just interesting? Please share your thoughts with me by adding a comment to this blog post.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Let the Adventure Begin!

Last year my husband and I bought two kayaks, and we love paddling the Lumber River here in North Carolina. It’s a peaceful, quiet river, and within moments of starting each trip, it’s as if we have left civilization behind. The section of the river we paddle is narrow and winding, full of twists and turns, and we never know what we might find around the next bend.

One thing I love about kayaking is the way I can think through things as I paddle along quietly. I’m away from my computer and all of the hectic activity that fills my life at home, and my mind just drifts quietly from thought to thought. With school starting in just a few weeks, the end of summer vacation is on my mind. I do love summer with its freedom and time to relax, but I’m also looking forward to a new school year. I can’t imagine being anything else but a teacher!

As a paddled along, I reflected that each school year is like another trip down the Lumber River. It’s the same river, yet it’s always different. Sometimes the water is so high that it rises over its banks, and other days it’s so low that we have to navigate around stumps and trees, frequently getting out to drag our kayaks over obstacles. Teaching is like that for me, and I would go crazy if I had a job where every day was the same. One reason I love teaching is that each day is different, and I can never predict exactly what is going to happen next. In the same way that I can get ready for a river trip, I can plan and prepare for teaching, but I have to meet each obstacle as I encounter it, using my creativity to overcome problems. Sometimes I have to paddle furiously to battle against the current, and other times I can just drift along, enjoying the ride. No matter what, each day in the classroom is an adventure! Let the adventure begin!

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Savoring the Struggle

I’ve recently been reading To Understand: New Horizons in Reading Comprehension, a wonderful book by Ellin Keene, co-author of Mosaic of Thought (see book link at right). I’m taking longer to read this book than I do with most because the ideas are so profound that I need to spend time thinking about each chapter and reflecting on it before I move on. One chapter that resonates with me is “To Savor the Struggle.” Ellin suggests that one of the greatest gifts we can give students is the experience of having to struggle to understand an idea. She offers several examples of great writers and artists who have conquered adversity and who have, in fact, been empowered by those very struggles. She suggests that by encouraging children to tackle intellectual challenges, we show them that they can do more and become more than they ever dreamed possible. Wow!

Reading her words brings to mind an experience I observed in my classroom at the end of the year. I had just returned from attending a Marcy Cook math workshop and was introducing some of the center activities I had picked up during the session. The activities involved using “number tiles” to solve problems in creative ways. Marcy’s activities are like brainteasers because the solutions require some work and aren’t readily apparent. I thought the students would enjoy them, so I was shocked when I heard several children whining (yes, whining!) that the activity was too hard! I realized that over the years I have learned to break every math lesson down into bite-sized pieces and students don’t even have to “chew” to get the lesson!

Using Mastery Learning makes math easy, but now the question is, “Should I be making it that easy?” Is it important for kids to struggle? I have to say that I agree with Ellin Keene and I really do see the value in struggle. Not struggling to the point of frustration and giving up, but the kind of struggle that’s encouraged and supported as a way for students to stretch their boundaries and surpass their limitations. How can students learn to be persistent in the face of difficulties if we never allow them to struggle? I have found that sometimes the brightest children are the ones who cave in at the first sign of difficulty. In the classroom, everything has been easy and nothing has ever been a struggle, so when they do encounter difficulties they want to give up. The key is to support them through those struggles so they emerge with an even greater sense of their own strength. We have to let them know that even though the task is challenging, we know they can handle it if they are willing to think creatively and persist in their efforts.

So where does that leave me as I approach a new school year? Will I give up using Mastery Learning in math? No way! I wouldn’t be doing my job as a teacher if I let students struggle through every math concept without support, and Mastery Learning gives me the tools to differentiate instruction. However, I realize that I also need to provide plenty of opportunities for problem solving, especially problems that are challenging and require creative thinking. I need to let kids know that I believe in their ability to figure things out on their own instead of always jumping in to bail them out when they get stuck.

I think the value of struggle would be a great topic to address in my morning meetings with students. Perhaps if kids get comfortable sharing their own struggles, other students will learn view difficulties in a new way. I will definitely start off the year with lots of brainteasers and fun types of challenges to encourage creative thinking. Any other ideas or thoughts about savoring the struggle? Add your voice to mine!

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Finding My Voice

As I write my first blog entry, I realize that I’m embarking on a new endeavor. I have used blogs for specific purposes and projects, but never just as a place to express myself and my views. When I decided start a blog as a form of personal expression, I immediately began worrying about what I should name my blog. I thought about what I might want to accomplish with this blog and brainstormed a list of possible names, but nothing seemed just right. As an educator, I knew I would be writing about educational topics and I felt that the title should reflect that, but nothing clicked. Then I realized that I don’t really want to accomplish anything at all. I just want a place to explore my thinking on a variety of issues. I’ve always found writing to be a creative process. It’s almost as if I create my own reality as I write! Ideas seem to take on a life of their own as they flow through me and onto the paper (or into cyberspace!) I’m an avid reader, and when I read inspirational books, I like working through those ideas and making them my own. Since I love teaching, I often find ways to connect what I’m reading with what I’m doing in the classroom. Therefore, this blog will probably have a highly educational focus. Yet I want to be free to explore whatever thoughts come to mind, so I’ve settled on the very simple title of “Laura’s Voice.” It’s not meant to be the voice of authority or the voice of an expert, - it’s just me sharing my thoughts. I’m going to fight the urge to be a perfectionist about this and just let the ideas flow freely. I invite others to read my blog and add their voices to mine!