Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Makerspace: First Grade Style

George Couros, the Idaho Coaching Network, and Twitter have me thinking about creativity this year. 

Couros, author of The Innovator's Mindset, says, "What we learn is not as important as what we create from what we learn." 

The Idaho Coaching Network is reminding me that the goal of school is not for students to get better at school. It's transfer. It's allowing and expecting students to do something with their learning that reaches beyond the walls of the classroom.

Twitter is daring me to think about #makerspaces, like this one that's been up and running in my room for almost two months now.

While Makerspaces can be technology-based, they don't have to be. So first I asked parents for donations. (See my letter below.) They responded brilliantly and continue to send in items. I believe the students must be encouraging them since I only asked for donations the one time. It's important to continually add items though since the materials are consumable.

Two students visit the Makerspace during Daily 5 each day. Those two students forgo all the independent parts of Daily 5 except for guided reading. (I wholeheartedly believe in Daily 5, but I can make a compromise and allow each student to take one day off every few weeks.) The time spent creating typically equates to about 45 minutes, which is more then enough time.

Since I'm making this up as I go, I decided to make the first Makerspace round exploratory. The only thing I asked students to do was create a plan first. Making a plan based on available materials and then sticking to it is not a natural skill for young learners. Neither is stopping when there's still time available. Adding, adding, and adding is more natural. We've continually discussed the fact that if you keep adding, your creation will turn into a monster. (Yet even the monsters are celebrated.) 

This is one student's plan.

a person

a house

a bell
At the end of the day, the two students who visited the Makerspace then have an opportunity to present their creations to the class. (In the future, I'm contemplating how technology might come into play with the presentation piece.)

After each student visited the Makerspace once, we started round two. The only change I made was a requirement to write about their creation when they finished. I think I left this too wide open and should have offered more scaffolds though.

This is one student's plan and reflection.

I'm planning to start round three after Christmas break. This time the students will have a STEM task to tackle at the Makerspace in addition to the planning and reflection writing pieces. I love the fact that students can have opportunities to explore freely but also be challenged by specific tasks. 

I'm pleased with what the Makerspace has offered my students so far. 
  • They practice growth mindset in a real way.
  • They create.
  • They problem solve.
  • They learn to plan and revise. (I love the connection to writing.)
  • They present.
  • They're engaged and talk positively about their experiences. (One boy asked a student from another classroom if she had a Makerspace too, and then went on to explain what he was doing.)

By the way, I have Legos in my Makerspace, but suprisingly the kids aren't interested in them. I can only assume it's because they want to cut, glue, tape, make, and take something home that they created from scratch, which is not something kids typically get to do at school.

If you're interested in reading more about Makerspaces, here's a useful article. I'll continue to share bits and pieces of my journey here on my blog. Even though it feels like I'm fumbling my way through this experience and know I'll find ways to make it ten times better in the future, I'm so glad I've taken on the challenge. I believe my students are too.

P.S. Come join me on Facebook at my teacher page. Click on the graphic to find me.

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Friday, December 9, 2016

O Christmas Tree

I tried a new Christmas project today that did not disappoint. It was easy to prepare.
It helped kids use their brain growers: optimism, flexibility, resilience, and persistence.
Not a single project looked exactly like another.

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Saturday, November 19, 2016

Saturday Sayings: It's Not Always Easy

It's not always easy, but it's important. 

I mysteriously created this saying this year. I decided it was smart enough to repeat, so my students hear it often. In reflection, I'm realizing that maybe in the past I've given my students the wrong impression. 

Have I inadvertenly caused them to believe that working with others is easy? 

Doing the right thing when no one is watching is a piece of cake? 

Listening to their heart will always feel natural? 

These are huge misconceptions, based alone on the fact we adults manage to struggle with these same issues.

Yet I'm not letting them off the hook. I'm still going to teach my students about integrity, cooperation, character, mindset, and numerous other qualities. I'm raising the bar high, helping them exercise and develop the right muscles for doing the right thing even when it's not convenient. Though a few already make it look kind of easy, I know life will challenge them all and hand them all sorts of opportunities and reasons to not do the right thing. It will take years of practice to get this right, so we'd better start now. 

But I'd better let them know something and repeat it often.

It's not always easy, but it's important.

P.S. If you'd like some new Christmas music, check out the CD my cousin and I have recently released here.

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Sunday, November 13, 2016


Whether you like it or not, it's almost that time of year when Christmas music becomes the norm. If you're one of those people who enjoys a change of musical scenery for one month out of the year, you might be interested in adding this CD to your Christmas collection.

Evermore is my cousin's and my latest Christmas CD. We're both teachers who love to teach and sing, and we'd love to share our singing with you. This album features well-known Christmas songs as well as some worshipful music that we've written. 

You can download the CD here, but if you'd like a real copy, we'd prefer to send you one instead of using the CD site. Just let me know, and I'd love to make that happen. 

Merry early Christmas!

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Saturday, October 29, 2016

Saturday Sayings: Just Because it Works

"I have no original thoughts of my own." I periodically borrow this phrase from my cousin David. I suppose those words are not altogether true, but I do often rely on the wisdom of mentors who seem way smarter than I could ever be. Having said that, the phrase below is actually mine. 

Just because it works doesn't mean it's good for kids.

I'd like to define "works." I imagine most stakeholders would equate "works" with acceptable test scores. If the numbers are good, then the instruction must have been also and kids are in good shape for the future. Herein lies the misconception. If children score well but the methods used don't inspire them, then it was definitely not in their best interest and they are essentially no better off than before instruction began. 

I believe it's possible to drag a class of students to good scores while leaving them blind to the joys of learning. I could most likely spend the majority of my day killing and drilling my students to good fluency reading scores with pure phonics, isolated sight words, decodable reading passages,  meaningless worksheets or activities, and then topping it off with pointless homework without them really ever learning the joys of time spent listening and interacting with amazing read-alouds or reading independently or in partnerships or in book clubs with real live books in their hands. These students might get good fluency scores, but they won't be in love with books and most likely quite the opposite will be true.

As Burgess says, building a love of learning in our students takes priority over anything else, and our instruction must reflect that. What indeed are we nurturing? 

Great test scores or students? 

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Saturday, October 22, 2016

Saturday Sayings: Building Bridges

I'm a bridge builder. When I tell my mathematicians "Don't let yourself freeze up. You have strategies you know how to use," I'm building a bridge, since I'd already used that same language in reading workshop. When I say, "Christopher, thanks for throwing away your candy wrapper. Our new clean-up crew will so appreciate how you take care of trash," I'm building a bridge because the day before a crew from our class spontaneously started cleaning up the playground at recess. 

My day is a giant web of bridges. I'm constantly making connects between ideas, words, actions, learning, and even students. These connections add invaluable layers of meaning to the learning, inviting all participants to cross over to new understandings and application. In other words, bridges increase sticking power.

I'm intrigued by the realization that though building bridges is pivotal to my teaching, I'm rarely intentional about it. I've never written these connections in my lesson plans. Nor have I jotted them down on my palm for easy access before the day begins. (As if I'd ever write on my hand.) I seem to create connections subconsciously. It happens in a split second. In the moment, I seemingly know what connection to make and how to make it, like I did in the above examples. This happens all throughout the day. 

I don't want to give the impression that I'm a master at connections and have no room for improvement. Intentionality is a must, so I should be challenging myself to view bridge-building in a more purposeful context. I would imagine we all should think more purposefully whether making connections comes naturally or not. If recycling ideas and content in repeated and sometimes unexpected ways helps make our teaching stick and increases student understanding, it's something worth thinking more intentionally about.

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Saturday, October 8, 2016

Saturday Sayings: Cool to Ask Questions

This year I'm part of a cohort of Idaho teachers called The Coaching Network. We met for the first time in early August for three days of professional development. As I sat and soaked up all I could from our four coaches, I also took mental notes about the quality teaching strategies they were using. I'm learning from all four coaches, but I found myself latching on to a consistent strategy used by one of them in particular. She repeatedly said these words:

What questions do you have about...?

Pretty much, without fail, she would ask that question after she finished teaching or giving directions. The frequent use of this phrase let me know it was cool to ask my own questions, to ask for clarification, or to admit a misunderstanding. 

I also made note of her wording. Whereas in my classroom the phrase would sound more like, "Do you have any questions?" there is an element of intentionality in her wording that though subtle, seems important and powerful. The assumption is that asking questions is not only welcome but expected. 

After hearing her ask this question repeatedly throughout our three days together, I made myself a goal to do the same for my own students. I can say I've done a fairly decent job and plan on making it a habit, as it is with my coach. When given the chance, even first graders have insightful questions to ask, and learning that it's cool to ask questions is the message I want them to hear loud and clear. 

P.S. I now have a Facebook page. Click on the graphic to come say hi. :)

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Saturday, October 1, 2016

Saturday Sayings: Find Your People

There's a lot of talk about tribe these days. Last year I relied on mine. I was in a place of frustration and doubt, that in my eyes, overshadowed my 21 years of experience. 

When I couldn't see the forest for the trees, my tribe offered perspective. 

When I needed to vent, they listened. 

When I needed to cry, they let me and hugged on me as well.

But they never left me as is. 

They couldn't alter my situation or manipulate my circumstances, but they repeatedly spoke truth into my life, that at the time was nearly impossible to recognize on my own.

I remember a particular poignant and inspiring moment about halfway through the school year when my cousin Laurie offered me a completely different perspective to consider. It didn't change my circumstances, but it began a gradual work of healing in my heart and mind. Following this conversation, maybe within a month's time, I woke one morning after another frustrating classroom situation to a revelation of my own. It felt like a breath of fresh air. Again, my situation didn't change, but my burden felt lighter. Without a tribe that was offering me a different outlook, I doubt I would have been in the right place to receive my own revelation in a time when I needed it the most.

I told a group of new teachers at an orientation meeting this Fall to find their tribe. The same advice could be offered to teachers with countless years of experience. We must all find our people. Who are yours? 

P.S. I now have a Facebook page. Click on the link to say hi. :)

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Saturday, September 24, 2016

Identity Day

Thursday was an exciting day in Miss McMorrow's first grade class. It was Identity Day. We all shared our identities, which I explained as our passions. I learned some new and valuable things about my kiddos. 

I wasn't exactly sure how to tackle the format, but I think my system worked pretty well. While the class sat on the floor, the presenter shared and then asked for questions. For the sake of time, the audience was allowed two questions. After every fourth presenter, the class was then allowed to visit any of those four, ask additional questions, make comments, and look more closely at any visuals the presenter brought. I put a limit as to how many kids could visit a presenter at a time for various reasons. Smaller groups equal better crowd control, and it ensured that all four presenters would always have an audience. I gave a signal when it was time to switch and visit another presenter. Then we'd repeat the process with four new presenters.

I have George Couros, author of The Innovator's Mindset, to thank for our special day. First off, his book is an inspiring one. Read it. Secondly, considering the time of year, I kept my version of Identity Day fairly simple, but I invite you to read how Couros' whole school participates in Identity Day here and here. His posts will help you catch the vision. 

This is the letter I created for parents.

From sewing to art to horses to Legos. These things motivate and inspire my learners. Now how can I use their passions in the classroom? This is my challenge.

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Saturday, September 17, 2016

Saturday Sayings: User Stories

Who are the users represented in your classroom? No doubt you have a unique set.

Here are a few of mine.
  • the active student
  • the special needs student
  • the advanced student
  • the reluctant student

I'm in a program this year called the Idaho Coaching Network which supports teacher leaders specifically in the areas of ELA and Literacy. The coaches have prompted us to think about our users when designing units. 

Who are my users? 
What will my users want to get out of this unit?
How do I best meet their needs?

Yet the most enlightening part of this conversation came when I was asked to consider user stories. Here is the user story template. 

As a (role) student I want (feature or practice) so that (benefit).

For example, when considering my active students, I wrote their user story like this:

As an active student I want to move and create so that I can learn and think better.

Each user has their own story, and the challenge is to keep their stories in mind when planning our time with those users. I believe it's worth taking the time to write their stories down and then think deeply how to meet their needs in a practical way throughout our teaching. I know I'm guilty at times of teaching to the elusive average student, who by the way doesn't even exist, while there are students around the edges who need an open door to content. They need a teacher who is aware of their needs and has provided a way to access the curriculum. As Couros suggests, it's wise to think about the learning from their perspective. 

Who are your users and what's their perspective?

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Sunday, September 11, 2016

PR is Real

Public relations in the classroom is a real thing, especially at the beginning of the year. It's hard to please everyone, but I work hard to make a good impression with parents. It's my job to get them on my side as soon as possible which often requires some sacrifice of both time and money, but I know parents notice.

They notice the phone call I make to them before school even starts.

They notice the personalized post card I send to their child before the year begins.

They notice the apple and note I give them at Back to School Night.

They notice the balloon I leave at their child's desk when they meet me for the first time.

They notice the fact that I update our class website daily and add pictures and descriptions of what their child is doing each day.

As the year starts and parents notice the extra things I'm willing to do to make them comfortable with this person who will watch over their child for the next nine months, I'm essentially making deposits to their account. In fact, before school even starts, their accounts are accumulating with positive reasons to trust me. Along the way though, when I make an error or there's some kind of misunderstanding or an issue arises and it feels like a withdrawal is being made, most parents are more likely to show an extra amount of grace because their accounts were already full. This is less likely to happen with an empty account or one running low on funds, and it usually results in a deficit.

So the little extra things we teachers do for the benefit of our parents during the craziest time of the year when there are already a million things on our plates are worth doing. Don't stop, teachers. Parents are important players in this game, and we want them playing for us and not against. 

What types of deposits are you making?

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Saturday, September 3, 2016


Yesterday while reading Watch Me Throw The Ball by Mo Willems, the substitute next door slipped into the hall and quietly closed her classroom door, because there's only one way to read Watch Me Throw The Ball -- with enthusiasm! I actually considered the door closing to be quite a compliment, and it wouldn't be the first time a teacher's door has done that during one of my read-alouds. 

It's my job to make every book I read aloud come to life, even if that means people down the hall wonder why someone's screaming. "Oh yeah, Miss McMorrow must be reading to her kids again." Once I place that book into some basket on the floor or shelf, I want it to call the name of every little person who heard me read it. That doesn't happen without some passion from the first reader -- me.

I've been a believer of the importance of the teacher's role as a reading salesman for a long long while. This year though I've been throwing my weight into that role. I ramped up the number of daily read-alouds during the first few weeks of school. I checked out over 30 irresistible books from the library. I put 20 of them into a large box on the first day of school with a sign that said Do Not Open (until Friday). And I told the new teacher I'm mentoring about this all-important role she's taking on. If our students can't help but want to read because of how over the top we are about books and our love for them, they'll be more apt to try to be readers, even when it's not easy.

This morning I read a post by Kylene Beers that puts the exclamation point on the end of everything I've been thinking and doing. I love the way she talks about increasing "wantability" before increasing "readability." Read this post. It's short, brilliant, and worth your while.

Wouldn't it be really cool if all our school hallways were filled with the sounds of teachers reading aloud to their kids? Maybe we'd also have more classrooms filled with kids who want to read those same books themselves.

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Friday, September 2, 2016

Drive Them Crazy

My kids found this envelope hanging from the ceiling on Tuesday.

Dave Burgess would say that mystery and anticipation are effective teaching tools that we should use to hook our students. There's no reason why we can't drive them crazy -- crazy enough that they want to come back for more. That's the effect this envelope had with my kids. It's the kind of stuff they talk about at home. I know, because one of my parents even mentioned it.

So before lunch on Wednesday, I Dave Burgessed the  actual opening of the envelope just to drive them a bit more batty. (And yes, I just turned Dave Burgess into a verb.) Even though I could reach the envelope, I pretended I couldn't. "Sorry...guys...I...can'" Reaching, grasping but no luck. (It was a fine performance.) "Stand up straight! Get on your tippy toes!" they called out. So once I miraculously got our envelope, I had to draw out the suspense a bit longer with a few more antics. I just might have silently read the letter inside, letting out a few gasps with a look of astonishment on my face before quietly folding up the letter and sliding it back into the envelope. Yep, I really did that, and their reactions were exactly what I hoped for.

I finally did read the letter out loud. Wednesday was National Eat Outside day, so it let them know we were going outside to eat lunch in the grass. 

I'm searching for more ways to Dave Burgess my days and drive my kids crazy! 

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Saturday, August 27, 2016

Books are Irresistible

This summer I had the privilege of hearing Dave Burgess speak about teaching like a pirate. I'd already read his book and was a fan, but hearing him in person brought his message to life. If you've ever sat in one of his audiences, you know what I mean. It's quite memorable. 

So this year I'm aiming to teach more and more like a pirate as I think of my students and how to bridge the gap between their motivations, interests and the curriculum. At the same time, I want to ramp up my sales pitch for reading. I always say the prevention of the summer slide starts on day one. 

On the first day of school, my students found a large box in my room with an important sign attached.

I actually didn't hear too much about the box throughout the week, but on Friday morning Kellen's first words to me were about that box. I also heard from some parents that it was a topic of conversation and anticipation at home. Score!

I made a big deal of the reveal. It was practically a Christmas morning moment. After the opening, I read a few titles to wet their appetite, like Dinosaur vs. The Potty or Vegetables in Underwear. (I was very intentional about the types of books I chose for the box.) The kids responded just like I'd hoped with squeals and laughter. I've a feeling there were some who might have been slightly disappointed that there wasn't indeed a kitty inside, but I'm hoping that my sales pitch is having an affect, even if I can't tell yet.

Then I tried some book speed dating with them. Although it wasn't a fail, it didn't go as beautifully as I had envisioned in my head. I cut it short but gathered some good information nonetheless. I definitely got a good feel for who my readers are. I also noticed those whose interest and stamina are weak. 

Next week, I'll begin reading those books for read-aloud. I imagine some of them will become future favorites, and even my reluctant little ones will begin to experience the fact that books are irresistible.

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Saturday, August 13, 2016

Saturday Sayings: Reflective and Effective

My cousin Kevin, vice-principal and educator extraordinaire, has been asking the following question during interviews at his school. What is the most important quality of an effective teacher? His favorite answer is "reflective." I like it as well. A reflective teacher should never lose their effectiveness because they'll constantly be asking the right questions to that "better way." Our conversation about this particular teacher quality and my recent summer reads inspired me to venture into the new year with four reflective questions on my radar.

I can't help but think of the unexamined wallpaper that Donalyn Miller challenges teachers to think about in The Book Whisperer. No matter where the practice originated, whether I was taught that way, a mentor teacher suggested it, it came from across the hall, or it's the way I've always done it, I must ask "Why?" If the answer doesn't align with what's best for the children, then the wallpaper's coming down.

What if?
This question hasn't been part of my reflective repertoire  before, but I love the possibilities it offers for students and for teachers. It challenges me to think outside of my comfort zone and perceived limitations. What if (fill in the blank)?

What's best for kids?
It's really the bottom line, isn't it? It's why we all do what we do day in and day out. Todd Nesloney and Adam Welcome remind us in Kids Deserve It! that "Schools don't exist so adults can have jobs. Schools exist for students." It seems like the most obvious statement ever, but if I truly believe it, then my daily practice had better prove so.

What is best for this kid?
This question obviously takes the previous one to the next  level. I must remember that every child deserves to have this question answered on their behalf. There's no giving up on anyone.

There's such a varied number of questions we teachers could be asking ourselves. Whether I've listed your favorites or not isn't necessarily the point. The point is be effective by being reflective. Our kids deserve our best, and we must continually seek it. What will you be asking yourself this year? 

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