Top Tech Ideas from #IDEA2020

On February 25th, I had the honor to attend the Illinois Digital Educator’s Alliance (IDEA) IDEAcon 2020 conference. I came back home to Fremd High School motivated and inspired by the dynamic educators I met, networked with and learned from. Here are some of the highlights I’m excited to share➡➡➡

Keynote – Teach Boldy: Using EdTech for Social Good with Dr. Jennifer Williams and co-presenters Billy Spicer, Carolyn Skibba and David Chan

“To ‘teach boldy’ may mean that we take action, or it may mean that we simply listen without judgement. To build a culture grounded in inquiry and discourse, we need to guide our students so that they build on questions, seek out experts, and become confident individuals who are comfortable with imperfection and change.” ~Jennifer Williams in Teach Boldly: Using EdTech for Social Good

I really looked forward to this keynote since I previously purchased Teach Boldly: Using EdTech for Social Good by Dr. Williams and already connect with Dr. Williams perspective of students as creators and creative problem solvers! Along with my AP Language & Composition PLT, we ask students to team up into small groups research on and create a potential solution for a current, controversial issue. As a final step to the project, I challenge students to create an action plan for their solution that includes reaching out to local organizations and/or experts in the field of their study. Dr. William’s book is filled with real-life application ideas like these! Her keynote presentation, like her book, was filled with real-life ideas for empowering students to actuate change with projects that help them share their voices with authentic audiences. With classroom examples from Billy, Carolyn and David, Jennifer reinforced the power technology has to amplify and spread student stories beyond classroom walls. Students are already leveraging technology to creatively problem-solve in the classroom; Williams challenges us to empower our students to take edtech a step further and execute on their solutions. This was the perfect start to our day at IDEA’s jam-packed conference all about offering means to make that easier for teachers to do just that.

A few of the sessions I had the chance to attend . . .

Ready.Set.Play.  A Beginner’s Guide to Gamifying PD with Stefanie Crawford (Dunlap CUSD 323, Instructional Coach)

After attending last year’s ICE conference session, “Epic Hack Battles of Teaching” by Vernon Hills Science teachers Brandon Watters and Chris Wolf, I immediately marked this one to attend. Last year, inspired from Watter’s and Wolf’s “epic hack” format, our own professional development team created an ed hack session on cultivating positive culture in the classroom; so, I was excited to see what PD ideas Stephanie would be sharing to bring back to the PD team this year. What I found to be so great about Stephanie’s ideas are the vast amount of choice involved teachers as well as an element of friendly game competition!

Stefanie utilizes a gamify approach to PD to motivate teachers while still focusing on building and district goals. The approach includes activities teachers can incorporate into their own instructional planning, thus offering opportunity to engage in their own learning while discovering new means to assist students to do the same. Here are a few of Stefanie’s inspiring ideas:

  • CLUE 123” = Teachers throughout the school are organized into teams. Teams have the semester (or year) to choose activities through an online choice board presented in the theme of the CLUE game. Each square on the board offers a different activity worth a certain amount of points. At the end of the semester or year, the team with the most points wins a recognition prize. Choices include everything from submitting an idea to build school unity, completing a short online tutorial for learning a new skill, using a district database to research a question, or checking out a resource and sharing the way you used it in the classroom. Gamifying PD this way provides teachers choices with some friendly competition mixed in to motivate. I appreciate the allowance to complete activities at their own pace too! It seems to eliminate the time crunch pressure for sure.
  • Reading Bingo = Again offering varied choices, teachers choose articles, journals, professional development books and recreational books to read as offered on an online Bingo board. Teachers are challenged to read something they may not normally choose to read (i.e. a book outside of their preferred genre). As with Clue, teachers complete activities at their own pace while earning points for playing. This seems to be a really cool way to spawn productive conversation between colleagues! And, teachers always wish for more time to read all of the awesome resources available to us. What a great incentive to do that!
  • Idea Flood Challenges” – These are online challenges offered each month for teachers to simply share ideas on a given topic. Stefanie’s district has an added caveat to this – teachers share their ideas in the form of sketch-notes, while being offered resources and tutorials to learn how to sketch-note. This is all voluntary and offered, again, for an extended period of time. What I like about this is it gets teachers thinking outside the box, taking notes, perhaps learning something new outside of their comfort zone and engaging with their ideas …. and isn’t that what we ask our students to do?

**Stefanie had more great ideas that I took notes on during her session. These are just the highlights!!**

Engaging All Students with Creative Student Voice Activities with Steve Wick (Neuqua Valley High School Science Teacher) and Melissa Wilson (Neuqua Valley High School Assistant Principal)

After happily following Steve Wick on Twitter for quite a few years, I was excited to meet the man behind “Wicked EdTech” and learn what his sessions are all about! I was lucky to attend one in which he presented alongside his co-teacher Melissa Wilson, former English teacher and current Assistant Principal at Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville. I walked away with many resources for integrating technology across all content areas that I’ll be sharing with both my building and department! Melissa and Steve shared resources and samples lessons for students to creatively voice their original work or responsibly repurpose digital resources into new creations. Here’s some of the engaging tools Steve and Melissa shared:

  • Quick Draw with Google – This is a game built with AI machine learning. Players are prompted to sketch an object on a 20-second clock using the mouse or touchscreen. While the player doodles, the neural network throws out its best guesses of the subject, stopping mid-sketch if it guesses correctly. Try it and turn your sound up! It’s kind of addicting, especially for someone like me who can’t draw. There are many ways this could be incorporated in the classroom … I see this as a useful tool for ELL students, reviewing vocabulary. It would also make for a positive entrance or exit activity. As an English teacher, I’m excited to share an example Melissa offered where, as her former students read The Crucible, she had them creating a GOOGLE DRAWING that illustrates a situation within the book along with addressing an aspect of humanity that is being challenged from the situation chosen. While not QUICK DRAW, this is a great example of leveraging tech to allow students a different way to communicate their interpretations of what they read.
  • Google Applied Digital Skills – This is a free online curriculum that Google provides, accessible to either individuals or teachers for a classroom setting. The project-based units help students practice career-building digital skills using Google’s G Suite for Education applications. Everything from creating “If Then” stories, designing an infographic, finding credible sources online to scheduling emails for goal-setting. These are real-life application skills to help prepare students with skills they’ll likely use outside of high school. Melissa shared another example here. Using the “If Then” digital applied skills, students created interactive narrative stories with Slides that allowed readers to choose optional alternate endings via hyperlinks. Students were practicing their narrative skills while simultaneously leveraging technology to layer their stories with alternate endings!
  • Pear Deck – This is a live slides presentation tool that works with Google Slides or PowerPoint, allowing students to see the slides on their own devices as the teacher works with the master slides. With Pear Deck, interactive slides can be added to solicit feedback, do a quick formative check, or just see how your students are feeling that day. For instance, you can have students write a short answer essay for immediate feedback, circle answers in real time, vote in a poll, draw, and more. I’ve used this already at all levels in my classes. I’m excited to share more with colleagues!
  • UnSplash – It’s the little things! Unsplash is not only a source for copyright free amazingly beautiful photos but one can submit his/her/their own safe photos for sharing. What I like best about this site is the simple categories the photos are divided into (such as current events!) for accessibility. As an added bonus, the UnSplash Chrome extension makes opening up a new tab on your laptop or iPad a more aesthetically pleasing task; a new photograph opens and fills the screen with new tab openings.

**These are a sampling of the many ideas and resources Steve and Melissa provided to help equip teachers to engage student voice through a variety of digital creations.**

  • A favorite quote from Steve’s and Melissa’s Slides presentation.

What’s Up Google Doc? with Fried Technology

I’m happy I attended this session. From the moment we all sat down, Brooke Lowery presented quick tricks for GoogleDocs that so many of us could use every day:

A few of my new favorite functionalities of GOOGLE DOCS:

  • Open a new blank page – more quickly by typing, or in the url space bar.  Voila!
  • If you’d like students to have more digital space on their screen without their work spilling on to the next page, and don’t plan on printing:   PageSetUp, PaperSize, Tabloid 11×17 will give them a wider amount of space.

  • For students creating essays with a word minimum or maximum, display word count while typing with one click:-Select All Matching Text & Format Tool after formatting a piece of text to copy all formatting onto a new piece of text (bold, font style, color, etc) without having to individually set up each format:

… and many more tricks including inserting a table of contents into a document, formatting tables, using voice typing  (which I was able to suggest to a student who has a sprained arm!), using the Explore functionality, etc.

Gobs of Google learning going on!

Exploring Mindfulness through Technology with Lauren Beversdorf (Bannockburn Spanish Teacher, Yoga Instructor)

As a practicing yogi, I understand that mindfulness is one of the simplest and single most powerful thing we can do for our well being. I truly appreciated Lauren’s session as she applied mindfulness to the classroom and how ed tech specifically can be leveraged to make one more mindful.

Mindfulness can be defined as practicing attention within the present moment – not anything in the past nor any possibilities for the future – only the present moment. Want to see how mindful you really are?! Take THIS quiz Lauren passed on during her session. It’s a mindfulness survey offered from UC Berkley. It should only take about 3 minutes of your time to take.

As Lauren states, “when it comes to the crazy,turblence-filled flight that is teaching, we’ve got to put our own oxygen mask on.” As teachers, we put the needs of our students first, and it truly is all about the students. That doesn’t change. But putting our needs in check first doesn’t take away from our students; it only helps our ability to be the best teacher (and person) we can be. Mindfullness can reduce stress, improve physical health and improve overall quality of life. AND the best thing about practicing mindfulness is you have all you need within you, and it really doesn’t have to mean taking too much time out of your day.

💚 this late author and her simple but true declaration! (from Lauren’s presentation)

Lauren offers helpful ways to incorporate mindfulness throughout our school day:

    • From How to Train a Wild Elephant– Simple Daily Mindfulness and Practices for Living Life More Fully & Joyfully  by Jan Chozen Bays, MD: Every time you get a phone call, text or notification, stop what you are doing and take THREE breaths before answering. The point is to put purposeful pause in your day. It helps focus, and allows opportunity to be more fully aware of the conversation. After doing this for quite a few days, the goal is for you to do this automaticallyThis one is not tech-related but I had to share. This practical little book includes 50 simple practices like this to easily and quickly incorporate throughout our day.
    • Stop Breathe Think is free to teachers, with 100 mindful activities for teachers and students alike to build resilience and more kindness in our culture.
    • Mindful Schools and Mindfulness without Borders offers curriculum for teachers and schools.
    • The following apps each offer their own unique function. I have almost all of them and will be happy to share more:

The apps Lauren recommends to incorporate mindfulness in our school days

Here’s an inspiring TedTalk Lauren recommends to share with staff, focusing on what we can do to make our lives more meaningful and view stress as something we can overcome with resilience and positive outcomes:

And last but most certainly not least, what is truly great about these conferences is the serendipitous conversations we have with fellow educators we run into. Case in point, I happily ran into Shawn McCusker  in the hallway, on the way to a session. Through our brief conversation, he filled me in on Microsoft’s Immersive Reader a free tool built into Word, OneNote, Outlook, and more. It integrates techniques to improve reading and writing for people regardless of ability through functionalities such as enhanced dictation, programmable font spacing, real-time translation and even Math read aloud. This is a tool I’ll be purposely using myself and sharing with more of my colleagues … all started from a chance, passing conversation at this conference.

💚💛 If you are a part of the Fremd High School family and wish to learn more about any of the items I’ve mentioned above, just let me know. I’ll be happy to talk to you about how any of this can be useful within your own classroom.

So fun to visit Mastery Manager, Pear Deck, Girls Who Code and more at the exhibit hall!

Thank you to IDEA officers and committee members for making this year’s #IDEAcon 2020 an exceptional experience for growing our PLN, gaining resources and learning from an amazingly inspiring group of educators. Special shout out to IDEAcon Conference Committee member Maria Galanis who it was most wonderful to run into. I originally met Maria at an EdCamp hosted by my former school.back in 2014.  Again, it’s the PLN connections that make these conferences so worthwhile and memorable. I really think IDEA outdid themselves this year!! Never have I attended a more jam-packed, worthwhile event. Thank you and I look forward to the digital and real world future connections!

Summer Reading 2019


It would not be summer without summer reading books!! Here are just a few of the titles I’ve read. For more, check out my GoodReads page!

Radical Kindness – The LIfe-Changing Power of Giving and Receiving BY Angela C. Santomero

Written by the co-creator and producer of Blue’s Clues as well as the PBS series Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood and other children’s series, I can wholeheartedly recommend this book to everyone I know – students, colleagues, friends, family …

The book is organized as a brisk, friendly read with practical pointers, reminders and guidance for living more graciously and kindly with one another, Santomero offers worthwhile words on every page about adding more kindness in every aspect of our lives. She talks about the random, small acts to spread kindness such as tucking your chair in whenever you leave a location to the larger acts to spread more kindness in our local and global environment such as getting involved in meaningful movements (and she offers examples). I love Santomero’s section titled “Active Listening 101.” She scribes step-by-step to do’s to be fully present when someone else is speaking. This important communicative skill is too often taken for granted. Children are taught how to speak, read, write from an early age on but very little formal instruction is ever offered on listening. With today’s technology distractions, active listening is more imperative than ever to improve communication and strengthen relationships. I’ll be referring to Radical Kindness again and again.

————————————————————————————————————–Dry BY Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman

Truth be told, I had personal reasons for wanting to read this book. Some of my very dear family members live in Southern California, and I know firsthand of their already imperative need to conserve water and the many residents who scarily ignore that need. Moreover, I met Neal Shusterman when he paid an enjoyable visit to the school where I taught quite a few years back. I enjoyed Unwind immensely but hadn’t read his more current work until now … and this story does not disappoint.

Co-authored with his son (how cool is that?!), this story was a literal page-turner for me. The narrative centers around a disastrous drought that overtakes Southern California, leaving the region with an empty water supply, and follows the plight of a group of teens who ban together to attempt survival. Dry reads as a cautionary tale that is all too possible. What was truly intriguing was the fast yet scarily believable way friendly neighbors turn into dangerous threats within the span of a few calamitous days. The Shustermans develop characters with eery realism and I couldn’t stop reading.


Meet Cute – Some People Are Destined to Meet BY Jennifer L. Armentrout and various authors

This varied collection of “how they met” short stories has something for everyone – romantics and realists alike. Read them all at once or read one at a time. I myself couldn’t put the book down, finished it in two sittings and still could have read more. 

Some memorable highlights:
– Jennifer Armentrout’s sweet story about finding love from a missing library book 
– Jocelyn Davie’s illustration of beating the statistical odds to meet again (I’d love to see this one as a movie!!)
– Nina LaCour’s piece about two girls meeting via a customer service complaining Tweet! 
– Nicola Yoon’s metaphoric look at breaking up and making up (some great lines to underline here)
– Katie Cotugno’s narrative of two teens hiding out from the police at a party gone wrong 
– Katharine McGee’s futuristic (yet realistic) flirting fun
– Meredith Russo’s transgender transition tale
– Julie Murphy’s surprise on reality dating show contestants 
and more…


Fact Vs. Fiction – Teaching Critical Thinking Skills in the Age of Fake News BY Jennifer LaGarde and Darren Hudgins

I’m so glad I purchased this from ISTE! I will be using it in some manner in each of my classes this year. As the authors write, “… helping our students develop the skills they need to discern fact from fiction, in a world where creating viral content is the first goal and getting the facts right comes second (if at all), is the fundamental skill of citizenry” (7). In a world where fake is taken for fact, it’s more imperative than ever for students to have ample practice with critically questioning, thoroughly researching and articulately discerning between credible and fake news, and weak vs. provable narratives. There are many, many sources linked within this book. I even have a bulletin board idea for commenting with kindness. Stay tuned!

January Rain

This week opened up with a rare January rain day that fell almost all day, reminding me of one of my favorite songs, “January Rain” by David Grey:

It’s a simple soothing song that often makes me stop and smile. This particular rainy January day happened to be my school’s Institute Day before the start of our second semester so the rain lent itself well to my pervading reflective mood as of late. As I excitedly prepped for my students and anticipated seeing them for the first time in a couple of weeks since winter break, I thought back to how they have grown since the start of the year and where I hope they will be by the end of our time together.

Like most teachers, I’m reflective by nature. On a daily basis, after each class, I think about what went well, what didn’t go so well and what I can do to improve for next time to best impact my students’ learning experiences. Sometimes these reflections are merely in my head but many times I write them down, either bullet-pointed lists (I’m a notorious list-maker) or journal narrative form if I really need to think things through.

One of my journals (from Typo)

Over the past three years, I’ve been fervently sharing the benefits of reflection with my AP Language and Composition students, having them write a 1/2 – one page reflection on their writing after each major essay assignment – timed essay responses, narratives, research papers, summative projects, etc. As we analyze the rhetoric of the authors we study, I ask students to begin to look at their own writing with a more critical lense.


Here, a student starts to become more aware of the power of strong, fluid transitions

This idea of having students write about their own writing was first graciously shared with me by my department colleague and friend, Gina Enk, a few years ago. I’ve been practicing it with students ever since. As an example of how I’m currently utilizing reflection in class, here’s a brief synopsis of what I do after students write a timed in-class AP practice prompt:

  1. Within our 50 minute class periods, students hand-write the essay responses to emulate the similar timed, hand-written testing experience.
  2. At the end of the period, they hand in their papers and “let it go.” I tell them to go home and give themselves a well-deserved pat on the back for getting through the essay!
  3. The next day, after I’ve taken a look at (but not yet commented on!) their essays, I pass back the papers and we talk, first in small groups*. Students compare focus points, thesis statements and analyses along with what was easiest and most difficult about that particular prompt.
  4. Each group then shares discoveries with the whole class. We discuss all the numerous decisions we make as writers in the short span of time given, and how to create a clear, concise argument under those constraints while also demonstrating command of our own language.
  5. To spur deeper discussion, we next take a look at sample essay responses that AP provides – looking just as critically with these samples … what worked, what didn’t work for these writers.
  6. Students then take their handwritten essays home, re-type their responses word-for-word, grammar goof for grammar goof. 😊 This act, in and of itself, can be an eye-opening experience!
  7. Finally – and here’s where the magic begins (magic is real, dear friends!) – students write a one-half to one page reflection, based on their own observations and on discoveries made in class. This self-reflection can be difficult for some at first but, as I tell my students, while it will never be easy, it will get easier and initiate growth and more powerful metacognition.
  8. As I sit down to read their essay responses and comment, I LOVE when I scroll down to these reflections and discover students’ observations matching my own observations on their work. To me, this affirms they’re that much closer to mastering the writing skills we focus on!


Here, a student becoming more aware of her audience and appropriate use of diction.

Like building a muscle, students reflections grow stronger and stronger as the year progresses. Initially, responses may read more generally (an “I need to add more detail.” comment evolves to “I should have been more specific about what kind of services should be reduced, which I think I did better at the end of the paragraph but not so well when I introduced the idea at the beginning ” ). My teacher heart grows proud!


Here, this student reflects upon her outline prep she did before writing the essay.

Just as sunshine follows the rain, growth follows reflection. ☀️ It might not be pleasant and there may be some messy puddles to deal with along the way; but, undoubtedly the rain that falls helps growth. And when you live in the Midwest and the rain happens to fall on the rare occasion of January, well, the opportunities that follow are all the more impactful.

*More on my group work in a future post! 💻

#Blessed2018 #Happy2019

I miss blogging! I used to blog quite regularly – on my first website, Grading Girl, and on this site, TLC – Technology, Literacy and Citizenship, home to my professional reflections. (Dare I say I’m contemplating creating another site … perhaps more on that later). I’ve had my students blog regularly, spoke about blogging in the classroom at conferences and taught two courses for teachers in my district on blogging in the classroom. It’s hard to believe, in fact, that this year will mark 10 years since I first began dabbling in writing online!

Writing heals, soothes and strengthens. Writing spurs clearer understandings of ourselves and those around us – especially when we use writing to reflect. Blogging in particular offers an accessible, digital opportunity to share some of those reflections with authentic audiences we might not otherwise reach. And whether that audience consists of one, 10, 200 or 1,000s, the act of writing in itself is a growth opportunity.

This holiday season, I’ve been especially reflective. My family experienced a surprise, major health scare less than a week before Christmas that abruptly reminded me how life can change in an instant, and how we take way too much for granted. I’m very grateful to say that everything turned out positively, a true Christmas miracle really, with my special family member recovering well and growing stronger each day with a smile.

I often fall back to old books like old friends when I need guidance or inspiration or a gentle reminder. One of my favorite reads from a few years back is Gretchen Rubin‘s The Happiness Project. (I can’t wait for Gretchen’s latest book coming out very soon!) Early in The Happiness Project, Gretchen talks about articulating overarching commandments to live by to help maintain those specific resolutions we make each year. This idea for creating better versions of ourselves with guiding principles really resonates with me this year. So today, I’m reflecting on 2018’s lessons, surprises and blessings as I look forward to 2019’s daily opportunities. Some of these are principles I’ve already been striving to live by but, upon reflection, I’ve come up with these nine as most important to me right now. Similar to Gretchen Rubin’s philosophy, I think these will help maintain my specific resolutions. I’m sharing this publicly to make myself more accountable … another blogging bonus.✨

My Nine Commandments (no special order):

  1. Be kind. The old adage that everyone is going through something rings true. Being cognizant of that helps spread good will and strengthens relationships.
  2. Be more REAL and approachable. The world needs more real!! Over this past summer, I read Tara Martin’s book, Be Real, and continue to be inspired by her mantra for educating sincerely, from the heart. I’ve since had students create Martin’s awesome #BookSnaps as a fun way to share their independent reading books and am consistently searching for more ways to be real, approachable and open … both in and out of the classroom, at work and home.
  3. Laugh more. Life’s too precious and short to worry. The only things to worry about are those occurrences that side-swipe us so suddenly that we won’t have time to worry … so don’t bother with that which we have no control. Smile and enjoy each day for what it is.
  4. Life can change in an instant. Live presently, enjoy each day. Life proves this truth time and again.
  5. The glass is half (or more) full.
  6. Do what ought to be done. I stole this from Gretchen Rubin’s list but it resonates! Any task undone seems more daunting than it actually is.
  7. Enjoy each step in the process.
  8. Timing matters.
  9. Love is all.

Thank you to Edublogs for continuing to offer a most user-friendly, accessible platform for students and teachers! Thank you to Kathleen Morris for posting and sharing this motivating January Blogging Challenge. Thank you to my PLN friend, Gail Dessler, for inspiring me to actually follow through! It looks like the daily do’s on the calendar really won’t take much time. ↓ Per usual, tasks seem more daunting than they actually are once we set out to complete them.  I’d love for more educators to join us in the process!! Who’s in?!


Finally, I’m delighted to say I will be bringing blogging back this upcoming semester with my students; I’ll have even more reason to post on the benefits of blogging in education!!

Poster from Kathleen Morris –

And as for my 2019 resolutions, here are some of them (no special order)😊:

  1. Tell at least one person a day how grateful I am to know him, her or them.
  2. Hug more.
  3. Drink more water.
  4. Create something every day.
  5. Learn something new each week.
  6. Take on a unique experience each month.
  7. Travel somewhere I’ve never been each year.
  8. Share my passions more to help others.

Summertime Means Perfect PD Reading Time!!

One of my goals for this 2018-2019 school year is to get back to blogging! I enjoyed blogging regularly when I started back in 2009 but my posts have been more sporadic for the past few years. I miss the sharing and reflection! So, jumping off the heels of my very first ISTE conference this summer, I’m motivated to provide my students with as many authentic opportunities to be as positive, participatory and impactful online as possible – blogging will be a significant way I can model that practice.  And what better way to blog in the summer than to reflect on a bit of summer reading . . . I read LOTS this summer, as I always do to continually renew and grow as an educator. Here are just a few books I’ve had the chance to finish so far:

Social LEADia – Moving Students from Digital Citizenship to Digital Leadership by Jennifer Casa-Todd

After finishing Dr. Kristen Mattson’s inspiring book Digital Citizenship in Action ,I gained loads of ideas to weave digital community building activities into students’ daily lives. Building on that excitement, along with inspiration from the entire ISTE Digital Citizenship Network I’m proud and excited to now be a part of, I’m getting my hands on as many resources as I can to help students thrive as participatory, positively impactful citizens. In doing so, I most happily discovered Jennifer Casa-Todd’s book, Social LEADia – Moving Students from Digital Citizenship to Digital Leadership!! 

More #digcit!!! Casa-Todd frames her book around these important central questions:

  • How do we change our position on social media use in school when there seem to be so many barriers to use?
  • What opportunities exist for using social media? How can we provide the appropriate level of guidance? And at what point do we let students navigate these spaces independently?
  • What kinds of conversations should we be having about how social media can influence a child’s positive online presence? At the district level? At the school level? With parents?
  • Is there a new moral imperative to include social media in curriculum, lesson design and professional learning?
  • Is teaching “digital citizenship” even possible without using social media spaces, and should we, at this point move beyond digital citizenship? [Foreword xiv-xv]

This book explores possibilities for each of these great questions, opening up interesting conversations that I look forward to having with colleagues and students. While exploring these topics, Jennifer intersperses ideas with real-life students currently exemplifying digital leadership, which she defines as “using technology and social media to learn and share, to promote important causes, and to positively influence others (Todd 1). Like Dr. Mattson, Jennifer Casa-Todd really emphasizes the community, participatory portion of citizenship. Both books hold a true emphasis on student voice and giving our students more opportunity to utilize their voices not just to create their digital footprints, but to make an impact. It makes sense – in real and digital life, it’s important to not only be static members of a group, but to positively conduct ourselves so that we impact real change for the good of our community. That’s why we’re here!! While reading, I found myself nodding, annotating and doggy-earring pages. I agree whole-heartedly that our students can be strong, powerful digital leaders – and this book is filled with resources for helping them do just that. Many of these ideas can complement our already existing practices while others provide new solutions. Some of my favorite takeaways: cell phone logs to help students be more cognizant of when and why they refer to their phones, an ed tech day during which students demo their knowledge of tech tools, activism vs. slacktivism and how to encourage students to lean more on the active vs. slacking side and so much more!! I’ve got great ideas both for my digital democracy team’s work with students in my school and for students in my own classroom!

Another great use of social media in school!! I’m addicted to Tara M. Martin’s #BookSnaps and I think my students will be too. Here it is with SnapChat!

180 Days – Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Adolescents by Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle


As I have read and own all previous books published by both of these master English teachers, I waited excitedly for this one to be published – it exceeded my anticipation! The premise of this book centers around Gallagher’s and Kittle’s collaborative planning of one glorious school year. Gallagher teaches in California; Kittle teachers in New Hampshire. Despite the distance, they collaborated together to reflect on best practices in teaching both reading and writing. Long distance co-teaching . . . fascinating!! Inspired by the simple, always asked question of and by teachers, “How do you fit it all in?, together they decided what daily, unit and annual practices matter most to empower students to become the most creative, critically-thinking learners they can be. Their decisions are based on what they wonderfully call belief-based instruction – instruction steered by core beliefs stemming from insights of their experiences, observations and discussions. Reading the book felt like a fascinating peek into the heartfelt conversations they had in planning out the year. And having access to the supplementary video clips of these conversations – and live-from-the-classroom lessons – is an amazing resource and fascinating to watch.

There is no question that the teaching of reading and writing goes hand-in-hand as the two communicative skills are naturally intertwined. We become better writers by reading more; we become better readers by writing more – and Gallagher and Kittle solidify that core belief. There are honestly countless take-aways from this book for me: the approaches to peer editing and revisions, the ways to encourage students with notebook writing, the narratives for students as readers and narratives as writers . . . and the list goes on. I will be referring to this book all year long!

Screen Shot 2018-08-05 at 11.53.50 PM

Trying #TaraMMartin ‘s #BookSnaps with Google Slides . . . #180Days #KellyGallagher #PennyKittle

A Novel Approach by Kate Roberts


I am a believer in some form of independent reading in the classroom. Just as I choose these very professional development books that I read on my own, I wish to honor that same privilege for my students. My AP Language and Composition course includes an independent reading component each semester, and my entire Advanced Reading course is focused on students reading as many varied independent books as they can throughout the semester. I see the benefits in my own classrooms but studies consistently reflect these benefits of student choice, and how students become more engaged learners and read more when offered opportunity to choose what interests them. That said, as an English teacher, I am also a believer in the power of a whole-class novel and the collective, collaborative learning, activities and discussion that stem from reading the same anchor text in our core curriculum. In A Novel Approach, Kate Roberts offers new insightful approaches to traditional learning in ways that compliment both whole class and independent learning.

As in 180 Days, Roberts practical plans and strategies can be implemented in my classrooms immediately, this year. Roberts offers simple, practical ways to map out units without causing extra work, to design mini-lessons along the way and to differentiate learning to pinpoint students’ individual struggles. She offers methods for annotation, grouping, discussions and assessments to emphasize students’ thinking. I love the bookmarks for students to track their reading and the teacher bookmarks to target quick strategies. I also appreciate Roberts extension of her whole-novel discussion with the idea of launching book clubs and more student choice to foster the independent, empowered learners we want each of our students to be. A Novel Approach, in other words, was a perfect compliment to my PD collection this summer.

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And with Google Drawings – #ANovelApproach #KateRoberts #BooksSnaps #TaraMMartin

EdTech for the K-12 Classroom – ISTE Readings on How, When and Why to Use Technology


I snatched this book at #ISTE18, and I gotta feelin’ I’ll be referring to it LOTS this year as an ed tech coach and as a teacher! It’s a compilation of readings, video links and other resources from ISTE to help educators foster learning in their classrooms and schools. First, the ISTE standards are discussed along with ways to empower teachers while reflecting those standards. Next, the book offers methods to support community and help teachers leverage technology to collaborate together most effectively. I appreciate the important differences between differentiated, individualized and personalized learning that are outlined well in the book. And, finally, this serves as a wonderful reference to tools, apps and platforms that teachers and administrators can utilize to support that learning. The key message I truly gain after reading this is that technology is not meant to be used simply to replace manual practices and make life easier BUT to help make learning better . . . to help facilitate creation, critical thinking, problem-solving and collaboration (school, community and global) among peers, colleagues, schools, districts and beyond. In other words, just as the sub-title identifies, it’s not just a how-to manual, it’s a how/when/why reference!


And another #BookSnaps with Snapchat – #ISTE #EDTECHfortheK12Classroom #TaraMMartin

This week, my school district officially opens up the new school year with institute days and students gracing our halls the following Monday –  I couldn’t be more excited!! Each new school year feels like a wonderful fresh start, and reading books like these throughout the summer is always a perfectly enjoyable way to grow. I can’t wait to converse with colleagues, greet the students and put some of these ideas into practice!! It’s going to be the best year yet, I can feel it!!☺️

p.s. My pd reading is not done, by any means – stay tuned for more book synopses coming soon!

Book Review: DIGITAL CITIZENSHIP IN ACTION by Dr. Kristen Mattson

After eagerly snatching this book at last week’s #ISTE18 conference, I just finished Digital Citizenship in Action by Dr. Kristen Mattson, and am so motivated!!


Dr. Mattson refreshingly frames her approach to digital citizenship around a very positive, student-centered narrative that aligns with the positive vision my school’s digital democracy team, Viking Network, initiated last year! Each succinct chapter first offers summary of a current, more traditional approach to digital citizenship followed by Kristen’s offering of a more participatory approach that extends the definition of digital citizenship from a set of conduct rules to follow to empowering skills that guide students to actively contribute to their digital communities. I believe approaching digital citizenship this way is crucial in today’s society to help our students grow to become responsible community members who give back to their communities while working toward social justice and equity. Furthermore, practicing these skills online will undoubtedly spill over into their real lives (RL . . . as Kristen pens).

In each chapter, Kristen includes suggested activities, that would work integrated within any content area or digital citizenship curriculum, along with “spotlight” stories of students, teachers and school leaders who’ve successfully implemented innovative ideas that embrace participatory citizenship. I love reading the amazing success stories for inspiration . . . some names and stories of which I recognize from my Twitter PLN!! My favorite part of the chapters, though, may be Kristen’s “You Can Do It!” where she ends with encouragement and quick, attainable methods to put our own ideas into action.

Here is just a sampling of the countless snippets in each chapter that I find useful, intriguing and motivating:

Chapter 1: Creating Spaces for Digital Citizenship – I found the “Digital Citizen Survey” for students that categorizes questions into three parts – Access, Online Activity, Skill Level – to be a useful activity to spawn student discussion and reflection on their current online experiences. This could be a great way to gain some data about students’ digital lives at the beginning of a program or school year.

Chapter 2: Acknowledging Student Voice in Digital SpacesI love the idea Kristen presents in this chapter of a collaboration-based curriculum where students work with staff to develop curricular resources. Students creating short videos, their own Google Slide presentations and lessons on what it means to be digitally responsible is a fantastic way to empower student responsibility in itself.

Chapter 3: Helping Students Understand Their Roles in Digital CommunitiesThe “Consume or Contribute” activity seems like a fun way to raise student awareness on the type of impact (big or small, positive or negative) their various forms of digital communication can make. This activity is a perfect way to get students thinking before they post! (and I like that it gets them moving and actively engaged).

Chapter 4: Participating through Respectful Discourse: Love, love, love the effective vs. ineffective online discussion real examples and charts . . . I see MUCH classroom use for this as well as potential school use for Viking Network to share.

Chapter 5: Networking to Make Meaningful ConnectionsKristen lists five simple steps for students to find and connect with their own digital PLNs – how cool is that?! She offers ways to connect with a broader community . . . . something I am definitely interested in having students do more of this year!

Chapter 6: Making Contributions that Matter:  ❤this quote: “Students cannot be what they cannot see, so make sure to show them plenty of examples of citizens coming together to make an impact in their local and digital communities” (96). This last chapter is chock full of ways to get students excited about and involved in participatory digital work that will make a positive, real impact. The suggestions are versatile enough to be tailored as simply or involved as we need. Kristen offers real platforms and projects to implement.

Shout out to Tara M. Martin for her awesome online tutorials on #booksnaps!!

My head is spinning with implementation ideas that I can’t wait to share with my colleagues and team! There are practical applications for students, teachers and school leaders alike – within individual classrooms and whole schools. Digital Citizenship in Action is a must for every professional development library. It will help arm students with one of the most necessary college and career ready skills  – to become clearly communicative, responsible, active ,members of the society they are about to enter and positively impact!


Top Ten #ISTE18 TakeAways

Where to begin?! I am truly grateful to have been given the amazing opportunity by my school district to attend my first International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference this past week, held here at McCormick Place in Chicago. I was very excited when I first learned I was going but even more appreciative after attending and experiencing first-hand the invaluable connections and immense resources. I’m quite certain I made some new lasting relationships with colleagues, and have loads of material and ideas to bring back to school. Here are just some of my highlights:

  1. Presenting William Fremd High School’s #TeacherTakeover Social Media Event: My school’s Digital Democracy team, Viking Network, had the privilege of taking part in a learner-centered collaboration with The Teacher’s Guild, an innovative community bringing teachers together, and was chosen as a favorite to speak at #ISTE18 in the “Digital Citizenship & Design Thinking: Build Ideas for your Classroom session! I was honored to represent Fremd at #ISTE18 and share amongst long-distance colleagues! The room full of fellow educators truly inspired me with their earnest feedback and inquiries about building school culture and empowering students through positive social media usage!  It was such an uplifting, worthwhile experience to connect with everyone including Alysha English of The Teacher’s Guild as well as other collaboration favorites I admire very much, like Katey Hileman and Gail Desler. (who I met later at ISTE‘s #DigCit PLN meeting!). I know we will keep in touch and continue learning from each other. If interested, the #TeacherTakeover presentation is available HERE.

Sharing Fremd High School’s #TeacherTakeover at ISTE18 “Digital Citizenship & Design Thinking” session

2. Sitting in a research paper session with Dr. Kristen Mattson sharing her dissertation, “Moving Beyond Personal Responsibility: A Critical Discourse Analysis of Digital Citizenship Curricula: There were many of us at a smaller table setting, affording opportunity to informally chat on our pedagogical beliefs about the incorporation of digital citizenship in our classrooms and schools. I was super excited to meet Dr. Mattson after following her tweets, and her book was literally sitting in my “Wish List” on Amazon to purchase. Glad I snagged one before it sold out the next day at ISTE. I just started reading, and already have take-aways within Chapter 1.  I can’t wait to share with the team back at school, and gain more inspiration from Kristen!

Side note: the educational world is powerfully small – one of us sitting in the session was an educator from West Leyden (my mom’s alma mater!) who just happens to also be a Fremd parent. I have to say I truly enjoyed making the connections at ISTE!

3. Joining ISTE’s #DigCit PLN On the last morning of the conference, I excitedly walked into a room full of like-minded educators who came together to meet and share ideas for empowering our students to be participatory, empowered digital (and RL!) citizens. There, I met some wonderful new #digcit colleagues like Nancy Watson and chatted again with Dr. Kristen Mattson. I had the chance to share a little bit about Viking Network‘s first year in creating #digcit awareness amongst our students, and can’t wait to get more involved!

At ISTE”s #DigCit PLN meeting

Check out ISTE’s #DigCitCommit Moment for more highlights (thank you, ISTE, for including my tweet amongst so many great #digcitcommit declarations).

4. Re-joining Illinois Computing Educators (ICE): – I was a previous happy member of this local ISTE affiliate, and spoke at the 2014 ICE annual conference about Blogging in the Classroom, but hadn’t renewed my membership in a couple of years. I’m glad I did, and look forward to participating and giving back to our local community! 

5. Joining the ISTE EdTech Coaches Network: I just found out at #ISTE18 that my application to become one of my school’s technology coaches next year was accepted, and I couldn’t be more excited! Integrating technology to best help students create, learn and grow is another passion of mine, and I can’t wait to help my colleagues in every way I can. Soooo the first place I went after finding out was upstairs to ISTE’S EdTech Coaches playground!!! The playground areas at ISTE are set up as fun destinations to gain loads of resources in a small amount of space and time. Ed tech specialists were gathered amongst various tables and small groups, offering snippets of resources in moments.


#ISTE18 Playground

6. Meeting some of my idols: When creating my program agenda, I sifted through the ISTE program, searching for EdTech superstars I’ve been following on Twitter.

I was eager to hear Shaelynn Farnsworth and Web20Classroom speak about Differentiation: Meeting the Diverse Needs of of Learners with Technology., and was lucky to chat with Shaelynn afterward for a few minutes for advice. Thank you, Shaelynn!! Your resources are always useful – you’re inspiring!!

with Shaelynn Farnsworth

I combed through the exhibit hall to make it in time to see Alice Keeler speak about “Pulling the Paragraph” in Google Docs. Thank you, Alice! Your tech tips are indispensable! And the selfies were fun!! Check out a previous blog I wrote about one of Alice’s book HERE.

with Alice Keeler

And  . . .

Eric Curts, Matt Miller, Vicki Davis, Kasey Bell

7. Watching Vicki Davis,Kasey Bell,Matt Miller and Eric Curts share their best Tech Tips during “Goog Smacked” . . . sitting third row center:. I seriously didn’t stop taking notes all hour except to take a couple pics (oh, and catch a “Shake Up Learning” t-shirt from Kasey Bell!!). . . these four superstars shared one after the other after the other. If you blinked, you missed something. Thank you to each of you for an hour well-spent!!

8.Listening to Keynote Speakers Andy Weir, author, former software engineer; Katie Martin, Ph.D., education leader, teacher and author; Michael Cohen, designer, educator and creativity instigator. I sat down that Tuesday morning and felt sincerely grateful to be sitting in that auditorium, and have opportunity to hear these incredibly inspirational educators. Below is something from Katie Martin’s presentation that resonated with me. I just ordered her book, Learner-Center Innovation, and can’t wait to dive in and gain more inspiration from her!

Check out Katie’s ISTE moment on Twitter HERE for more (thank you, Katie, for including my tweet!):

Katie Martin – just one of many resonating moments for me

9. Creating at Apple’s #EveryoneCanCreate station: Many thanks to Tricia Fuglestad for letting me know about this! (another fun connection: Tricia was the first person I met at ISTE, standing in line for coffee . . . she’s an award-winning, impactful art teacher who student taught at Fremd!) Apple set up an interactive mural set up encouraging attendees to draw and play. Yours truly is not an artist by any means so I opted to sketch a “Post Positive” reminder instead just to try out Tayasui Sketches I will say, though, that I already downloaded the app; it’s super easy to use and I can see its value for student use for projects or posts!


10. Scavenging around the exhibit hall: I walked away from the exhibit hall with an armful of information from a slew of ed tech vendors – Alexa in the Classroom (this is so interesting to me!), Google for Education, Apple, new digital research platforms, student portfolio platforms, digital writing platforms . . . the list goes on. Swag is always fun – especially when it includes items that I can bring back to share with my colleagues!


Honestly, my biggest takeaway has been the invaluable connections – it’s the conversations I had the chance to have with both local and distant colleagues that inspire me the most. Like it or not, our digital life is fast becoming as much a part of our world as our real life (or RL, as I often heard at ISTE). Now more than ever, it’s important to work together as we empower our students to be participatory, proactive citizens – both digitally and IRL!

Writers Week 2017

I am honored and lucky to work at Fremd High School – where great things happen every day, where students inspire with their eagerness to learn while teachers touch lives with their passions and knowledge. One particular week I feel blessed to be a part of is Writers Week. Founded twenty-three years by now retired English teachers Gary Anderson and Tony Romano, and now tirelessly run by English teachers Gina Enk and Russ Anderson, Writers Week is an annual celebration of writing during which professional writers, students and faculty share their stories to help us better understand writing and authors. It offers wonderful opportunity for students to make the connection between what we do in the classroom and the outside world they are preparing for. Writers Week always inspires my students to write more and I’m inspired write along with them!

The following is just a taste of the many, many memorable moments that stick out in my mind of Writers Week 23. For a complete video archive of each period, each day, visit the Writers Week video archive HERE. Writers Week certainly inspired me to write more, and what better way to start than with Writers Week itself!!


Months before, students are invited to submit their writing to share during Writers Week. Every year, many, many students stand bravely in front of the auditorium filled with their peers and teachers. One of my own AP Language students shared her Indian culture and passion for dance while a beautiful video of her recital played behind her as she read; and, another of my Expository Composition students shared a comical rhyming “roast,” as well as her “This I Believe” essay – two proud teacher moments for me! So many students disclosed bravely – one talked about overcoming cancer, another about getting over her grandmother’s death, another revealed she suffered from social anxiety while another shared her love for her favorite stuffed animal. Such courageous sharing going on!

I’ve never seen a more polite, supportive audience of peers through all of this. Students shared lessons learned – one talked about finding that “firework moment” in which you learn and grow, one declared that bad days make good days even better, while another told stories from teaching preschool depicting how little kids say the darnedest things. One of the co-editors of The Logue, the school newspaper I co-advise, eloquently spoke of Muslim contributions to the U.S. and the fact that many are simply scared of what they don’t know  . . to which she received a standing ovation!! Unbelievable, goose-bump moment!  I could go on . . . . over fifty students spoke throughout the course of the five days.

This year, students were lucky to here from a former student as well. Erin Dismeier, a 2009 grad and radio broadcast producer came to speak to students about writing for the radio, and how different that is. Students had a chance to hear a sampling of her actual broadcasts! It’s important for students to see the success of alumni who started out like them.


In addition to the students, faculty takes part in the sharing. Virtually every department in the school has been represented with teachers sharing their own writing. It’s eye-opening for students to see that their science or P.E. or math teachers write too! This year, for instance, science teacher Brad Graba shared the importance of being scientifically literate, business teacher Brittany Seivers illustrated – through her own personal story – how we are all going through something but that’s what ultimately unites us, and world language teacher Andrea Fritz shared own writing inspired by her mom. And having her parents there was very touching for the students, I might add. Of course, it wouldn’t be Writers Week without English teachers writing: Eric Schaeffer shared a re-count of when he courageously took part in Running with the Bulls in Pamplona; Grant Dawson shared his two-week jury duty experience, English t.a. Torie Eldridge told about overcoming the death of her mom, Marilyn Berdick wrote a fun story about the Cubs (and sang!); Jaclyn Han recited her own versions of Encyclopedia of Me and Russ Anderson wrote about sharing his love for the Cubs with his own children. The unbelievable amount of sharing going on during this week is like at no other school.

Moreover, Fremd students have been lucky to have a chance to hear from three retired English teachers, coming back to share in the writing celebration. Gary Anderson, co-founder of Writers Week, has never missed a year of presenting. For his 23rd year, he bravely disclosed about his strained relationship with his own father. Tony Romano, co-founder of Writers Week, previewed a few chapters of his third, new book to be published, and Kevin Breuner recited one of his stories titled “Original Sin,” a story from his youth playing golf. The different perspectives the students gain about writing . . . about life . . . .  is something they will remember for a long time.

Professional Writers:

Mary Fons:  Mary Fons is a regular Writers Week favorite. She is a writer, quilter, designer and teaches a storytelling class at the University of Chicago.  Students and faculty alike adore and are inspired by her as she shares her knowledge of storytelling. I am especially impressed with her willingness to put herself out there, to write what she knows and feels and live with passion – this is fabulous for students to see! One challenge she offered students is to write lipograms, a composition in which the writer intentionally omits a particular letter of the alphabet. What a way to challenge the writing muscles! 

Rebecca Makkai: Rebecca Makkai is a fictional writer, with works including the short story collection, Music in Wartime and The Hundred-Year House, a novel about the secrets of an old-money family. She shared her own insight into storytelling and writing, pointing out that the best stories are ones in which characters change both internally and externally. Hearing a professional author talk about the story arc solidifies for the students what they practice within their own classroom writing.

Taylor Mali: Taylor Mali has been to Fremd’s Writers Week numerous times but this was my first time seeing him live – and I left inspired! We read poetry in class, we have the kids write poetry but, man, to have them hear poetry being read from the poet himself is exciting for kids. Mali orally interpreted quite a few of his poems, including “What Teachers Make” (per the request of a student in the audience), and interestingly declared that teaching is a lot like poetry – both instruct and entertain. He’s got a good point . . . we’re not just there to teach the content but to relate to students in such a way that they buy in, that they see connections, that they see want to learn.

AJ Pine: Amy Pine is a former English teacher at Fremd High School and a published new adult author of four different series of novels. As she herself indicated to her audience at WW, what we do in the classroom does connect to life outside – and what better way to see that then through the success of one of the student’s own former teachers. Amy talked about everything from the importance of digital citizenship to how to be disciplined enough to sit down and write a book.

Tyehimba Jess: Tyehimba Jess, acclaimed poet and author of Leadbelly and Ollo, shared a number of his pieces, including a concrete sonnet, a sonnet that visually conveys the meaning of the piece the graphic arrangement of the words themselves, as well as an intriguing crown of sonnets, a sequence of sonnets usually addressing one subject or person. The preceding and succeeding sonnets are linked by repeating the last line of the preceding sonnet to the first line of the succeeding. What was most fascinating about Tyehimba’s sequence is that the sequence makes complete sense no matter the order of the reading of the sonnets: up and down, left to right, diagonally. Now that is a challenge . . . one of my colleagues was so inspired, he started to write his own sonnet sequence to his wife for Valentine’d Day.

Jeremy McCarter: Jeremy McCarter enthralled students with the story of how his book Hamilton: The Revolution came into being born. As he stated at one point, ideas waiting to come out of our brains and into realization is like feeling “super pregnant” with ideas inside of us growing and waiting to become real. And while success may sometimes look fore-ordained, it’s not. What seems to come together well is only through hard work along with many trials and tribulations. McCarter recommends reading Stephen Sondheim’s Finishing the Hat for further writing inspiration. The premise of the book is “content dictates form” . . . we can’t prejudge how to achieve something until we know what we want to achieve. It is only then we can start to take the steps to achieve that something. So true.

Students running up to meet Andrew McCarty, co-author of

Students running up to meet Jeremy McCarter, co-author of Hamilton: The Revolution

G Neri : YA author G Neri, author of the popular graphic novel, Yummy, spoke of the importance of reading fiction to gain empathy. Something he said that still resonates with me is “When you start to open up to opportunities, opportunity opens up to you.” This is so very true – the more open you are, the more opportunities come your way. Students need to hear this, and hearing it from someone other than their usual teachers makes it even more impactful.

Joe Meno and Billy Lombardo: Joe Meno is Chicago fiction author and playwright; Billy Lombardo is a Chicago fiction author and educator. For two class periods, the two writers shared their writing and had a unique personal conversation about writing as they sat side-by-side on the stage. They asked each other questions before inviting students to do the same. Students thoughtful questions attested to the audience interest.

The above are just a sampling of the many, many inspiring, impactful moments of Writers Week. I did not list every presenter, just a sampling. Every period of every day brought more learning, more insight, more inspiration for students and teachers alike. Day after day, students left chatting about what they just saw on stage . . . left inspired to write a bit more and inspired to read a bit more. Bottom line, Writers Week makes us all a bit more nice to each other, a bit more glad to do what we get to do every day in the classroom – share our own passions for reading and writing with our students.



An Old Girl and The Sea – a.k.a. What I did over Summer 2016

We are all connected by our love of travel!

This year, my family splurged on an 8-day trip to Cuba for my mother’s birthday. I took advantage of the opportunity and planned for a unique educational exposition I would never forget!

“The gladdest moment in human life, me thinks, is a departure into unknown lands.” ~Sir Richard Burton

It’s an eye-opening experience to visit a third-world, underdeveloped country. It puts the modernized stress we place on ourselves into much-needed perspective. Everything in Cuba is contently old-fashioned. For instance, you won’t find an American car newer than a 1962 model (one result from the 1962 U.S. embargo against Cuba).  Mind you, those cars are in pristine condition as pride in ownership runs rampant.


As a high school English teacher, I was especially excited to visit Ernest Hemingway’s old stomping grounds and his home in Cuba, where he resided for more than 20 years. His sailboat, Pilar, that he fished on many times not unlike the protagonist in his novella The Old Man and the Sea, still sits decaying off a Caribbean coast. (Fun fact: Ernest’s widow, Mary, wanted to have it sunk so no one could use it again, but Cuban government red tape prevented that from happening). Where allowed, I took pictures to show my students. For instance, we spent quite a bit of time talking to the owner of Hemingway’s favorite restaurant, LA BODEGUITA DEL MEDIO, who explained how Hemingway’s family, including granddaughter Mariel, still come by when visiting Cuba. Interestingly, a Cuban resident who overheard our conversation that I’m an English teacher, proceeded to show me pictures around the restaurant of other Spanish poets who’ve frequented there. Just a great example of the congeniality of Cuba.




Hemingway’s grandson

Hemingway's granddaughter

Hemingway’s granddaughter

Mario Beneditti, poet

Mario Beneditti, poet

Miguel Bonasso, screenwriter

Miguel Bonasso, screenwriter











They say everything happens for a reason. Now I know why I never read  The Old Man and the Sea before . . . because I had to read it in its authentic setting!!! Let me just say that lying on a serene, peaceful beach off the Caribbean coast, staring at the very sea in which Santiago’s fishing adventures take place was awe-inspiring. For the record, Hemingway did not write Old Man in Cuba – he actually wrote that in another beautiful setting, the Bahamas. Nevertheless, living for over twenty years ten miles out of Havana had an impact on Hemingway’s writing. I will never forget reading that book in that location. Imagine what an assignment it would be to require students read a book within the setting illustrated within that book!! Safe settings only, of course. One of the main benefits of reading is our ability to experience faraway cultures we may not otherwise have the chance to.


Besides learning more about Hemingway, our trip to Cuba included visits to Museum of the Revolution, breathtaking cathedrals, baseball games and music. We also took a 3-hour bike tour for a unique perspective of the outskirts of Havana. We saw military sites, memorial monuments, the Colon Cemetery (no pictures allowed!), and dedicated parks and forest preserves.


Obama loosened travel restrictions to Cuba in September 2015 and, in doing so, he expanded for travelers who have a humanitarian or educational purpose. We have to get visas, but that extra effort is worth it. The president’s visit to Cuba in March 2016 additionally lead the way for further congenial relations.


Plaza de la Catedral

Although the United States’ past relationship with Cuba may have portrayed the country as unsafe for travel, it is extremely safe. We talked extensively to Cuban residents and officials who reiterate that Cuba’s crime statistics indicate that it’s one of the safest countries in the world. We walked off the beaten path a few times and felt completely safe and welcome. Just brush up on your Spanish as English is not the dominant language.


Communication outside of Cuba was a challenge. There is no cellular data. Wi-Fi is available only at certain hotels, and even that has many time and site restrictions too. Honestly, it was wonderful to see local people always socializing, always out and about, even very late into the evening . . . simply talking. No hunched shoulders behind screens!! One other small but very significant detail – travelers used to modern necessities need to bring their own of everything – and I do mean everything (toilet paper, anyone?). Stores are far and few between, and those that exist hold limited supplies; but, the local artisans selling their handmade unique art will make you forget the “necessities” we choose to spend our money on.


on the Prado

The food was delicious and fresh. Cubans eat well with what their Earth provides. Seafood, sweet potatoes and plantains are plentiful.


Who knows how Cuba might change radically within the next few years. Will pro-America slogans start to emerge? Will signs of capitalism bring more goods and services? Signs point to yes but I’m blessed to have had the unique opportunity to venture forth now, to experience Cuba at its most authentic. The world is our authentic classroom.

“Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.” ~Gustave Flaubert

BOOK REVIEW: Teach Like a Pirate

I look forward to reading on plane rides. I have family on the West Coast so I fly frequently and like to make use of air time. This summer, one of the books that renewed my motivation the most was Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess. His candid, honest passion provided the perfect prelude to begin the new school year.

While I never had the honor of meeting and attending one of Mr. Burgess’s seminars, I imagine he writes like he speaks because the book reads as if he were standing in the room enthusiastically cheering on his readers. I bookmarked, highlighted and noted a number of his sentences that I’ll undoubtedly refer to throughout the year ahead.


The book is divided into three parts: In Part I. Burgess defines his philosophy, what the difference between passion and enthusiasm is to him, and how teachers can best utilize both to motivate students to learn. In Part II, Dave offers hooks to add to any content to raise student interest along with brainstorming questions to help teachers elevate engagement for even the most mundane lesson plan. In Part III, final instructions and thoughts are given to translate the words in this book into our own classrooms.

One thing that Dave Burgess advocates is to incorporate your personal passions into the classroom as much as you can. This got me thinking, “What am I already doing to share my personal passions to model learning enjoyment, and what more can I do for students to see that class content connects to real world interests?”

Supplementary text, articles, videos and artifacts I am constantly on the lookout for new supplementary material for my students to study in conjunction with our main curricular units. Common Core advocates the use of mentor texts, and I cannot agree more. I recently started new Diigo and Feedly accounts to help me curate and keep track of resources.

Blogging in the classroom. I enjoy blogging as a venue to share my own writing. This year, in fact, I was hired by my podiatrist to write professionally on his website. In class, this will be the fourth year incorporating blogging into the curriculum for my students. Each school year is a bit different, depending on the kids and what we are reading, but students always appreciate and benefit from writing for authentic audiences along with gaining those digital skills. See a previous POST on my blogging in the classroom experiences.

Fitness: I frequent the gym five or six times a week, and believe mental cognition is connected to our motor abilities. I sometimes have my students stand up and warm-up with arm circles, knee steps, even jumping jacks to get the blood and brain waves flowing as we begin class. I also use ‘building brain muscle’ analogies frequently as we learn new ideas. Here’s a post I recently wrote about “Fitness for Educators.”

Cooking – Preparing new recipes in the kitchen is therapeutic to me, and I read cookbooks from cover to cover as if they are novels. Over the summer, I purchased an Easy Bake Oven that looks very different from the one I owned as a child. I’m either giving it to my five-year old niece OR – if I get brave enough – bringing it to class to bake cookies during writing or reading sessions, to give students that fresh-out-of-the-oven comfort as they work. I originally spotted this idea in Alice Keeler’s blog post, “10 Easy Things to Try in Your Classroom in 2015.” Alice Keeler is a professional development educator I connect with on my PLN.

These are just a few of the many new ventures I’d like to try this year. Reading Teach Like a Pirate renewed my sense of wonder and excitement as I contemplated new things to try in class to continually improve myself as a teacher. Educators, if you are looking for a book to renew your inspiration or energy, this is the one to read. I have yet to read a professional development book as passionate as this one. Go ahead, dare to walk the plank and teach like a pirate! The water below is with a school of eager souls who truly WANT to learn and be inspired.