It’s About the Challenges…










With school beginning in a few short weeks, it was time to send a welcome email to my new families. I smiled as I created the new distribution list in my Gmail account, as I’ve had the pleasure of working with several of these families before, when I taught their older children. Shortly after I sent the email, I got a response from one of these families. They’ve had some issues with their little one, and wanted to pass along their feelings about the year ahead. The note said,

I hope he matures a lot this year, and learns to focus. He has a lot of potential if he controls his frustration and concentrates. He’s going to be a challenge, but I know how great you are at getting the best out of your students.

I appreciated the compliment, but also felt there was almost an apologetic tone to the note. Their older child was “easy” – very bright, very sociable, very responsible. It seemed they were almost feeling guilty that they were sending this “challenge” my way. They were clearly hopeful, though, both that I would recognize his potential and be able to help him grow this year.

I’ve seen this little guy come up through the ranks… I’ve noticed how bright he is, and more importantly, I’ve seen the issues that must be addressed before I send him on to middle school next year. I honestly can’t wait to have him in my class. I really want a shot at helping this kid. I think I can make a difference.

Then it struck me. Isn’t THIS what teaching is about? The challenges? There is no greater joy than when I can successfully solve the puzzle of a particular child and find a way to reach them. Would I even enjoy an entire class of “easy” students? How much work is necessary with a child who is already motivated, bright, and eager to learn?

No… Little guys like this are what make me look forward to each year in the classroom – the opportunity to discover the hidden gifts in each child, or help them work through difficult academic, emotional, or social issues. The joy in helping each child feel confident and capable. It won’t be easy… There will be some tough love, lots of parent contact… and no guarantee of success. But maybe this child is suddenly at that crucial time when things can turn around with the right balance of high expectations and loving support. I’m up for the challenge.

I AM A TEACHER. I love, I care, and I’m willing to take the time with your child to make this his or her best year ever. That’s all it really takes…

Wishing a rewarding year of challenges and joys to all of my fellow teachers across the globe. We are so fortunate to be able to do what we love, and love what we do…



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Constructing Creativity in the Classroom

I just finished reading a stimulating article by Laura Seargeant Richardson, The Kaleidoscope Mind: Some Easy Ways to Teach Creativity, published in The Atlantic magazine. Richardson’s article was a breath of fresh air, focusing on the ability to train the mind to view the world not just in a different way, but in manydifferent ways. She writes

The term kaleidoscope is Greek and is loosely interpreted as “an observer of beautiful forms.” So what, then, is a kaleidoscope mind? The Hans family would say it’s “a type of mind that is agile, flexible, self-aware, and informed by a diversity of experiences.” It’s a mind that is “able to perceive any given situation from a multitude of perspectives at will — selecting from a rich repertoire of lenses or frameworks.” They would say that a kaleidoscope mind is playful, and it must be able to “see patterns, connections, and relationships that more rigid minds miss.” And they would say that a kaleidoscope mind can be taught. I would agree.

I agree as well. I have coached an Odyssey of the Mind team for five years now, and I’ve seen evidence that creativity is definitely a skill that can (and should) be taught. In fact, in a post about the benefits of Odyssey, I said just that. I confessed that I didn’t always think so . . .

Originally, I thought kids either “had it” or didn’t when this type of thinking was involved. Yet, in almost 5 years of coaching Odyssey of the Mind, I’ve seen that this type of thinking can indeed be developed.

So how is it done? Like strengthening any muscle, you must exercise it – stretch it – challenge it. Here are a couple of the exercises I have used with my team of elementary kids:

What is it?

Take an ordinary, everyday object, such as a CD, and pass it around. As of that moment, it is no longer a CD. What is it? A mirror? A headlight or wheel on a cardboard car? The sequins on a huge disco ball? A Frisbee? A skating rink for ants? The rotor on a gyroscope? Sir Ken Robinson explored this a bit in his RSA Animate – Changing Education Paradigms. He says: How many uses can you think of for a paper clip? Most people might come with 10 or 15. People who are good at this might come with 200. And they do so by saying things like, “Well, could the paper clip be 200 feet tall and be made of foam rubber?”

Things that  _____.

In this exercise, you provide a word, and students brainstorm for different ways to use the word. For example, you might ask them to think of things that run. The creative mind will think outside the box and come up with answers such as politicians, water, or refrigerators. They’ll think that you can run your mouth, or get a run in your pantyhose. Then there’s a musical’s run on Broadway, a trait that runs in your family. You can run errands, run a fever, or run out of time…

Richardson wraps up her article with this wonderful quote by biochemist Szent Gyorgyi:

“Discovery consists of seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought.”

A creative, kaleidoscope mind is one that innovates – invents – inspires. It takes what it knows and turns it upside-down, inside-out, and backwards to see what new possibilities and patterns emerge. It will be able to view a problem from many perspectives, and find a solution/design more rigid minds could not.

Have you noticed that these are natural instincts for a child? Hand them a rope and suddenly it becomes a fire hose, a belt, a necklace, a lasso, a shoelace for a giant. Somehow we stifle and restrain their brains, when we should be freeing them to design the future and solve the problems of a 21st century world our black and white brains can’t even imagine.


Originally posted Dec. 8, 2011 at
Edited with love by John Norton.

Image courtesy of Renjith Krishnan, under terms of

















My Year of Teaching Loopily


This blog was posted on the Powerful Learning Practice, Voices From the Learning Revolution Blog. My huge thanks to John Norton for editing my ramblings and making them sound organized and coherent!

The last day of school was very different for me this year. Instead of saying, “Goodbye,” I yelled a cheery, “See you in August!” For the first time, I will be looping with my students and following them into 4th grade.

At first, the thought of spending my summer working through an entirely new curriculum did not appeal to me. I am already teaching two weeks of summer camp and taking two classes toward my master’s degree. I’ll need to change bulletin board ideas, crafts, the books I read aloud and book report projects and come up with some fresh Web 2.0 experiences. So much work!

My boss felt strongly about it, so I did some research on looping and began to see the numerous benefits. It’s not a new practice, and I started to wonder: Why haven’t we done this before?

At the beginning of each year, I spend a great deal of time getting to know my students, discussing classroom rules, and establishing expectations. They are nervous, quiet, and there’s a lag before their wonderful personalities begin to emerge. In addition, I spend the first few weeks working to determine reading levels, learning styles, strengths and weaknesses. I believe we’ll have a much easier start this fall and leap right into the heart of learning.

I spoke to the parents at our final conference in May. They were ecstatic! They are comfortable with my teaching style and expectations. They look forward to a smooth start with no anxiety on the part of their students or themselves about getting used to a completely new learning environment.

Here are the big benefits to looping:

• Those children who need stability will start the year stronger.
• Shy students who finally came out of their shell in March will be more confident.
• I know exactly who they are, what they learned last year, where their strengths and weaknesses lie.
• I can immediately work to individualize the curriculum for my students!

To keep in touch over the summer, my students’ summer reading assignment is simply to write to me and tell me about what they have read. They can mail a letter or email me, letting me know what they thought of each book. I’ve also encouraged them to email photos of vacations or other summer activities. I’m truly excited to maintain these relationships and get right to our most important work when we return to school.

I’m anticipating a great year of learning in my classroom. Although testing is not my primary focus, I think the time we’ll gain and the ability to tailor instruction will yield stronger scores. More to come on that.

Please let me know in the comments if you have looped with a class. Pros and cons? Should this be a regular practice for elementary or middle school students where consistency and stability are paramount? What do I need to know that I might not have yet anticipated?

No More Boxed Lunches!


I spent a while today reading a paper that Will Richardson mentioned in his latest blog. It’s called “The Right to Learn: Identifying Precedents for Sustainable Change“.

The paper talked about the need for a significant change in the essential framework of our schools, allowing learning to be self-directed, and encouraging students to follow their interests and passions.

I thought about the nature of the young child. When we were young, we played wonderful, imaginative games. We taught school to our friends or stuffed animals, pretended to be firefighters or astronauts, played doctor, put on shows where we sang or danced for our friends and family, or put a variety of seeds and plants in a bucket and made magic potions or stews. We imagined what it would be like to teach, be on stage, cook gourmet meals, and heal the sick. But tragically, this period of exploration is short-lived. By third grade (if not sooner) we have squashed that wonderful creativity that came so naturally. I could cry when I see my third graders walking around the playground bored, claiming there’s nothing to do. What have we done??

Have you ever asked a teenager what their interests or passions are? How many graduating seniors do you know that have no idea what they want to do with their lives, or what they want to study? All they know is what has been fed to them at school – They have never had the opportunity to explore or try different things, so they have no idea what their interests or passions are!

In our current system we are delivering every child an education. This amounts to feeding them a boxed lunch education that is the same for every child regardless of talent, ability, personality, interest, or background. Do we leave any time or opportunity for them to focus on the things that interest them? If we don’t give students this “right to learn”, we shouldn’t be surprised when they reach high school or college and have no idea what they want to do with their lives…

The world has changed. Facts and information are available 24/7 with a quick Internet search. Our students must know how to channel this technology, and become creative, innovative problem solvers that can make significant contributions to the new world. The boxed lunch has gone bad and is no longer nourishing. The time for change has come.

My question is this – How do we change the current framework of our schools to meet the needs of our students? What can schools do to start moving in this direction? How do we bring back the freedom to think, explore, and discover?

What Motivates You?


At the beginning of this school year, I submitted an “application” of sorts to be considered for a new team at our school. A “Digital Learning Team” was being formed, with only 6 faculty members that would participate in the Powerful Learning Practice (PLP) program. We attended a kickoff in Dallas in September, attended several Elluminate sessions, and are wrapping up the year by creating an action research project for our faculty. We’ll celebrate the year and share what we’ve learned back in Dallas next month. I was honored to have been chosen for this team, and have put many hours into learning and growing this year to improve my teaching and to help lead others.

As a “student” I’ve stepped into some very new territory and learned to use a plethora of new tools! I also began writing this blog, created a Google Reader, and became active on Twitter. Collaboration and sharing are two of the most important concepts I have embraced this year. I have also begun to value creativity and innovation more than ever before. These concepts define 21st Century Learning for me: COLLABORATION, SHARING, CREATIVITY, and INNOVATION.

What best motivates me to work these crazy hours, learn new programs and create accounts for each student, write a regular blog, keep up with an RSS reader, Twitter, and two Nings? I can answer that question in two words: POSITIVE FEEDBACK. It’s embarrassing, but I’m a glutton for it. Here are just a few examples…

Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, co-founder of the PLP program, cross-posted one of my blogs on the PLP blog. She tweeted a link to another one of my blogs with the hashtag of the NAIS conference she was attending. She has a HUGE following, and was recommending that people read MY blog!! I was beside myself for days…

• I attended a social event at my school last weekend, and the Associate Head of our school told me how impressed she was with what I had learned this year. I went back to my table and beamed…

• I created an Xtranormal movie to be used as part of the introduction to our action research project, and tweeted a link to Susan Carter Morgan for feedback. Within ten minutes she tweeted back with an enthusiastic positive response, AND put a link to the movie on her! on Educational Professional Development. Suddenly the three hours I spent creating the movie were all worth it…

Ok, this sounds like it belongs in Will Richardson’s “Shameless Self-Promotion Department” now, but that’s not the point… The point is that positive feedback is incredibly motivational. I knew this… but suddenly when it was me, I got it.

I’ve worked with my 3rd graders this year to help them see the benefits of collaboration, sharing, creativity, and innovation. One thing we have done is to learn how to use Storybird and Glogster to produce creative stories and posters, and most importantly, share them with others. My students love these sites, and frequently use their free time at home to create new stories and posters. This is one BIG selling point for Web 2.0 – I’ve never had students working voluntarily at home on the weekends!! I take care to leave a positive comment on anything new they’ve created so they know I’ve seen it, and am proud of them! They love getting feedback from each other as well. It motivates them to keep trying and pushes them to produce higher quality results, hoping for more positive comments. What more could I ask for??

On the wall behind my desk is a piece of art that says simply, “Inspire”. When I am in the front of the room teaching, I can see it behind my students – It reminds me what I am there to do. To inspire – to motivate – to encourage. Positive feedback may be the most important tool I use.

21st Century Revelation – It’s Not About Me…


The other day I was thinking about what an incredibly different year this has been for me. I didn’t make a career change, a school change, a grade level change, or even a room change. So why on earth has this year been unlike any other? For the first time, my job isn’t only about MY students, MY lesson plans, or MY goals. Friends, I know it’s shocking (you can only imagine how hard it was to swallow), but it’s not all about ME!

All joking aside… I feel like I’ve had a 21st century revelation. My participation in Powerful Learning Practice (PLP) has shown me the power of collaboration. This has been an intoxicating experience! I’ll admit it – I started out a “lurker” as Will Richardson would say… I developed my PLN, and started reading blogs, tweets, and ning posts. But I remember Will wagging his index finger at us at the PLP Kick-Off in Dallas way back in September, telling us it wasn’t fair just to lurk – We had to contribute. What did I have to contribute??

Well here we are, six months later, and I feel like maybe I’m finally getting it. I’m getting a ton of good resources and ideas from teachers all over the globe – but I’m not sitting on them! I think we’re called upon to be channels for this information. I’m always on the lookout for things my colleagues can use. My boss was looking for information on a Digital Citizenship curriculum, so I’ve been sending things her way when I find them. Today she put out a request to our team to find instructional materials for the recent events in Japan. My division head has encouraged us to learn more about reading and writing workshops. Our PLP team is looking for web 2.0 tools to share that will help teachers integrate technology and really make a difference in instruction… The list goes on.

So what does this mean? It means I’m spending a pretty serious chunk of time each day cruising my Twitter feed and reading blogs!


But it also means that I’m not only learning and hopefully improving my impact in the classroom… Hopefully I’m serving a greater good, and giving back to those in my PLN that have given so much to me. I’m more likely to ask a teacher if I can observe a lesson, pick someone’s brain on a new idea, or ask advice on a student situation. I’m not afraid to admit I don’t know it all and consider myself fortunate to work with incredibly talented colleagues from whom there is much I can learn. Together we are so much stronger than we are alone!

Odyssey of the Mind


Use the word TAN in a sentence.

My khaki pants are TAN.   – Not bad.

I got a sunTAN at the beach.  – Better.

Behave, or I’ll TAN your hide!  – Excellent!

I ate a TANgerine with lunch today.   – BINGO!!

Ohhh, I get it!  That could take us on another TANgent.  Have you ever played with TANagrams?  I saw an oranguTAN at the zoo!!  You get the idea.  🙂

If you’ve ever coached Odyssey of the Mind, you recognize this as a “Spontaneous” exercise.  The Spontaneous component of Odyssey is a quick thinking, out-of-the-box, high pressure activity that pushes kids for creative or humorous answers with only a minute or two to think.  Other spontaneous problems involve the team building a tower or bridge out of things like spaghetti, straws, marshmallows, toothpicks, etc.  Originally, I thought kids either “had it” or didn’t when this type of thinking was involved.  Yet, in almost 5 years of coaching Odyssey of the Mind, I’ve seen that this type of thinking can indeed be developed.

Odyssey of the Mind is all about problem solving.  In addition to spontaneous problems, the team has to create an 8-minute skit that solves a problem, and meets a number of specific criteria.  They are responsible for writing the skit, creating all the props, costumes, and backdrops, and keeping track that they stay within the allotted budget.

Haven’t heard of Odyssey?  I encourage you to take a look  If you haven’t yet noticed, one of the greatest things about Odyssey of the Mind is that it is right in line with the skills we are cultivating in our 21st Century Learners.  Innovation – Creative Thinking – Problem Solving.  These are the skills that will make our students successful in the real world.  Check it out…  Odyssey team members excel in –

Adaptability and Managing Complexity: The ability to modify one’s thinking, attitude, or behavior to be better suited to current or future environments; and the ability to handle multiple goals, tasks, and inputs, while understanding and adhering to constraints of time, resources, and systems.

Curiosity: The desire to know or the spark of interest that leads to inquiry.

Creativity: The act of bringing something into existence that is genuinely new and original.

Risk Taking: The willingness to make mistakes, or tackle extremely challenging problems without obvious solutions, such that one’s personal growth, integrity, or accomplishments are enhanced.

Higher-Order Thinking and Sound Reasoning:  The cognitive processes of analysis, comparison, inference and interpretation, evaluation, and synthesis applied to a range of academic domains and problem-solving contexts.

While students create solutions and compete, they develop…

Global Competitiveness and Understanding – Meeting teams from around the world at World Finals.

Intellectual Curiosity
– Finding information needed to solve the problem, and choose a problem and idea that is personally exciting.

Interpersonal and Collaborative Skills/Communication
– Team work – consensus, collaboration, communication.  Understanding and valuing the power of diversity within the team.  Understanding personal strengths and weaknesses.

Problem Solving & Creative and Critical Thinking
– Analyzing complex open-ended real world problems.  Identifying challenges within the problem.  Brainstorming possible technical solutions.  Brainstorming possible thematic and artistic solutions.

Evaluating potential solutions
– How creative is this solution? Will other teams have thought of this? Spontaneous-training your mind to generate creative solutions by analyzing and evaluating your ideas and learning to use targeted thinking strategies.

– No Outside Assistance rule.  Team generated research, solutions and decision making.  Select potential solutions using scoring criteria.  Planning for tournaments.

Authentic Assessment,  Accountability,  and Adaptability
– Team reflection on effectiveness during spontaneous practice.  Team reflection on tournament results.  Planning and refining for future tournaments.  Create/test/improve/re-test best solutions.

Team Picture

I am passionate about Odyssey of the Mind, and I love our kids!!  We practice after school once a week, and every Saturday for 3 hours from September until our regional competition in February.  My team has been fortunate, making it to World Finals in 2007, and again last year in 2010.  A great deal of that success is due to the fact that we are teaching these skills every day at my school, and our kids love the challenge.  I’m grateful to have been a part of some of their fondest memories and success stories.

Free2Learn Fridays

learning1I’m not sure why the graphic you see here appeals to me, except that the overall shape looks like a brain to me…  I see individuals in a colorful, inviting place, on their own path, taking the time to explore and discover.   I want this to be my classroom!

Today was a pretty awesome day in 3rd grade…  The best part was that I had no idea what was coming.  It was entirely spontaneous!  In our Morning Meeting, we talked about what we were going to learn today, and a student asked me if we were going to learn about something that is not part of our studies.  This launched a wonderful discussion about learning that was too good to pass up…  I reminded them of a journal topic a while back, asking them to think about what they would like to learn.

I’ll admit here that I had truly intended to schedule some time for them to pursue these “passions”.  Unfortunately, things got busy, and it seemed there was never time to go exploring…  I felt I had to maintain a strict pace in our core subjects.  We never got to it.

Today we took the time.  We talked in more depth about the things they might want to learn that were not taught at school – The topics ranged from animals to authors to historic events to inventions…  I ignored my lesson plans, dropped everything, and got the laptops.

I can honestly say that I have never seen my students so enthusiastic about learning.  The freedom they felt to explore any topic was overwhelming at first, but soon they felt like they could tackle anything!  They quickly learned how to follow links from kid-safe search engines, and were off and running.  I walked around and saw a Roald Dahl website, a video about flying cars, a National Geographic site on monkeys, a math game using coins, biography information on soccer player Steven Gerrard…  Kids started getting up and checking out what others were finding, then going back to explore.  Before I knew it, over an hour had flown by and it was almost time for P.E.!  At 10:30 I delivered them to P.E., and collapsed in my desk chair exhausted, yet exhilarated.

This prompted a decision to formally incorporate student-driven learning into my curriculum, now known as “Free2Learn Fridays”!  For one hour on Friday morning, we will take the time to explore and learn.  Students will be held accountable, and will be asked to share or write about what they have learned.  I showed them my Diigo page of bookmarks, and we’ll learn to keep track of their favorite sites on a class Diigo account.  So cool.

The fun didn’t end there.  When I picked the kids up from P.E., I found them in small groups on the gym floor.  I soon found that our P.E. teacher had charged them with creating a game!  They were busy recording the materials needed, rules for play, and other important information.  When finished, the groups had to take their “proposal” to the P.E. teacher and explain their game.  They will get to try the games and make any necessary modifications.  The final game rules will be published and kept for them to play in class.  What a great creative activity!

I’m excited about these great steps we are taking.  This quote I found sums it up quite nicely:

“You can teach a student a lesson for a day; but if you can teach him to learn by creating curiosity, he will continue the learning process as long as he lives.” ~Clay P. Bedford

What Do You Want to Learn Today?

I’ve been thinking a great deal about what it means to teach our kids to be “self-learners”.   We talk about wanting kids to be able to pursue their passion.  Did I even know what my students’ passions were??  One day last week I decided to find out.  In the morning, the students found a journal prompt on the front board.  It said, “If you could learn about any subject, what would it be?  Is there something you want to know more about that we do not study at school?  How do you think  you could learn more about it?”

My 3rd graders were temporarily baffled.  They needed more information.  Should it be a subject, like Math or English?  Should it be a person?  Could it be a sport?  Could they really learn about ANYTHING??  I told them there were no wrong answers.  They were free to tell me about absolutely any topic or person they were interested in learning about. 

It wasn’t long before the room fell silent.  Suddenly, they were writing.  Could they learn about more than one thing?  I encouraged them to pick just one or two topics.  When they finished, I asked them to bring me their journals.  Slowly, they came to my desk with their journals.  They were timid, as though they were revealing a secret no one else knew.  They wanted to know if their answers were “ok”.  The results astounded me.   Here are some of the things my 8 and 9 year olds are curious about:

Russian language and culture
Ocean biology
Greek and Roman mythology
How the brain works
Haiti, and how things are since the earthquake
Steven Gerrard (soccer player)
The periodic table of elements
Civil War history
The behavior of dogs and cats
Civilization timeline – Who were the first people?
The Hope Diamond – Is it cursed?
How the body works and what it can do

Wow.  Now what???  Suddenly it felt very important to allow my students the freedom to pursue their quest for knowledge!  What good was it just to ask?  I spent some time looking for appropriate search engines, and found some great sites.  Here is a short list: (web search for kids by librarians) (search engine with word cloud) (Google safe search) (a cool australian search engine)

This week, I plan to bring in the laptops, and turn them loose.  I want them to learn how to be safe on the Internet, and how to find the information they want from reliable sources.  I want them to realize the vast resource at their fingertips, and encourage them to pursue their passions.  I want them to see how their curiosity can lead to learning.  I think they’ll be excited at the possibilities ahead…

What It’s All About…

It’s been a rough week.  Yeah, I know it’s only Tuesday, but sometimes, that’s how it goes, you know?  Yet even when other “issues” weigh me down, the TEACHING part of teaching is what gives me the greatest joy and satisfaction I’ve ever known.

While watching Education Nation this past Sunday, I heard something I’ve always believed at my very core:  Teaching is a calling.  When I am in the classroom with my students, I feel with every part of my being that I am where I am intended to be.

Today was a perfect example.  I was up late last night, with more than one reason to feel frustrated and discouraged.  Although I was plenty tired, the anxiety kept me from sleeping well.  I walked into school in the pouring rain, my shoes completely soaked, only to find I’d left my car lights on.  Really?!?  To say the least, my mood was somewhat less than positive.

But there is something about the anticipation on those young faces, and although I can’t really comprehend it, the genuine joy they seem to have to see me each morning…  Who could be grumpy??  Twenty beautiful children came into my room, settled into their morning routine, and gave me faith that there was still good in the world.  You know, maybe I just love teaching because it’s SUCH an ego trip…  There’s nothing like feeling so loved and needed by a whole room of adorable faces each day.  I’m renewed by their enthusiasm and humbled by their intuitive questions – “Mrs. Grayson, if leaves have broad surfaces with holes to take in sunlight and oxygen, how do pine trees do it with those skinny needles?”

The day was going well, but it was still raining…  Even though we had an amazing moment where we turned off the lights, opened the window, and closed our eyes to listen to the rain storm, let’s face it — there is nothing like indoor recess to put a damper (pun intended) on your day.   Trying to keep 20 restless 8 and 9 year olds relatively quiet and engaged in a space too small for them is not my idea of a good time.

Once again, I was blown away.  Before I knew it, my class had settled into small groups – one using connecting cubes to spell names, one building beautiful designs with pattern blocks, and yet another stacking dominoes (and not fighting when someone accidentally set the falling dominoes in motion too soon!).  A group was making up their own card game, while another worked on drawing pictures to tell a story.  Utopia??  Quite possibly.

In the quick realization that this might NEVER happen again, I ran for my camera to capture the moment – 

A loving, laughing, learning classroom – When I’m there, nothing else matters.