Collaboration = Convergence of Ideas

I have written about Convergence before. It’s a 2-day professional development conference sponsored by my current school district, Wake County Public Schools (WCPSS). The name is not happenstance. defines the act of converging as meeting “in a point or line; inclin[ing] towards each other, as lines that are not parallel.”   WCPSS Convergence brings together library media and technology teachers across the vast school system to share with and learn from each other. It is clear Spring Convergence 2017 is focused on collaboration.

Almost every session I attended today used collaboration as its core whether the collaboration was virtual (Google Drive & Classroom) or the keynote address by Chris Barton and Don Tate about their collaborative efforts in creating the book Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions.

I, too, presented about collaboration with my “batty” partner-in-crime, Krista Brinchek. Krista and I collaborated on a unit with 4th and 5th graders. Students learned about bat conversation and white nose syndrome in Science specials class with Mrs. Brinchek. In library, students learned how to conduct research, determine important information, cite resources, and use Google Classroom while researching general information about bats and their habitats. Our unit hit the next level when Christy Bigelow, technology teacher, incorporated 3-D modeling having students create 3-D models of bats using geometric shapes.

Today’s presentation, titled “Does Collaboration Make You ‘Batty’?” was fun to create and present because my collaborative partners make it so. We allow each other to dream an idea then help one another bring the idea to fruition. Part of today’s session allowed attendees the opportunity to think about and note drivers and barriers to collaboration. It is clear collaboration can happen within any organization if adults allow it.   Teachers are not silos. They work best in groups holding each other accountable and pushing one another outside of comfortable spaces. The session ended with an opportunity for attendees to share their successful collaboration stories. This was my chance to learn from those to whom I had been presenting. I now have ideas to implement!

As the name implies, I believe Convergence is about building relationships, trusting others, and bending my instruction to others’ best practices and successes. My presentation is linked here for you to view. If you have any collaboration ideas, and especially if you have success stories to share or how you overcame barriers, please share in the comments below. I want to continue my learning.

Photo credit:  @stacydarwin

Thanking a Teacher

A recent Twitter trend is reaching out to a former teacher who made a positive impact on you and saying “Thank You”.   I often thank back to those who taught me and wonder how they influenced my journey becoming a teacher myself. Reflecting, I think about which teachers I would have enjoyed working with and which ones I would want my son to have a teacher if he could time travel to do so. I contemplate which ones I would want to avoid. Then the memories swirl and blur leaving me with less an impression on each teacher individually rather becoming focused on specific experiences, lessons, activities, and field trips.

While I can name almost all of my teachers and have great admiration for each of them, I am uniquely drawn to two for various yet eerily similar reasons. The impression of both teachers that has stuck with me over some 30+ years is focusing on each learner individually.

I will start with Mrs. King, my fourth grade teacher at Windsor Park Elementary. I cannot tell you how she looked, how old she probably was, or even much of the relationship we shared. I was a good student in her class earning all As and one solitary B (why did I get THAT ONE B to ruin a perfect run?). But I do remember she allowed us to work at our own pace.   Early finishers always had additional learning experiences in which to choose. And depending on the weather and I’m sure other factors, early finishers could play. Yes, we could actually play.   Most of the time, the play was outside because our classroom opened directly onto our school’s small wooden playground. Imagine the motivation to complete work quickly in order to earn extra recess time! But it wasn’t finishing the assignments quickly. I remember always taking my work to Mrs. King and talking with her about it as she looked over it. If the work was not completed correctly, I returned to my desk to figure out where I went wrong and how I should redo it.

Sure there was some competition in the class and as one of the students earning really high marks, I didn’t always have to watch my classmates go outside one by one. But I do remember when I did not complete an assignment correctly by myself the first try being encouraged by Mrs. King to work with others, compare answers, discuss, and try again. As I sit here, I realize we, the students, must have talked a lot in her class. We talked to her about our work. We talked to each other about our work. And as students came outside to play, we talked about how easy or how difficult the assignment was and which part we needed to do again to be able to get outside. So while my motivator was playing on the tire swing, I actually learned through collaboration and communication long before they were part of the 21st Century 4Cs!

Teacher Two, I will call Ms. Algebra. Ashamedly, I cannot remember her name at all. Part of me wants to call her Mrs. King but really what are the odds? Ms. Algebra taught my 10th grade Algebra II class at Garinger High School. It was somewhat a remedial Algebra II class because we did not have Trigonometry included. I was one of a handful 10th graders in the class. Mostly it was comprised of upperclassmen. Our classroom was too small for the number of students. Some students sat at the extra tables and at least one student sat at her desk. Ms. Algebra always stood at the overhead (do you remember that piece of historic technology?). What stands out in my mind about her is every Friday she wore the school’s sweatshirt. She always celebrated and encouraged school spirit. But more than her spirit, I remember a speech and subsequent change in her teaching style. The memory is vague on the specific assessment or assignments leading up to the speech.

Yet, I remember her sitting on a stool with the overhead turned off. She apologized. That is how she started her speech. She apologized to us. She said she had neglected to teach us correctly because we were not showing any understanding of algebra. She said something was wrong and together we would fix it. She told us that beginning that day, we were starting the school year over in her class. We were going back to the first lesson and get as far as we could by the end of the year. But math is foundational and we needed the foundation of algebra before continuing. She forced us to commit to her we would do our best.

Ms. Algebra assigned us seats and put us in heterogeneous groups. She would present part of the lesson or teach a mathematical skill/step. Then we had to teach each other. Those in the groups who were stronger with the skill retaught the group first. I was that person for my group. Then we listened as others in the group taught the skill. We clarified for each other misconceptions. I can only speak for me. The previous two school years I struggled through advanced math classes and felt very uncomfortable and unsure about math ability. Yet, in Ms. Algebra’s class, I found my voice. We did not finish the textbook that year. But I thoroughly understood what I had learned and it set me to have two remaining successful years of advanced math in 11th and 12th grades.

These two teachers forced their students to talk. Through communication, I became a better student. This challenges me now.   I do not believe in a quiet library and am often met with side eyes and uncertain glances from more traditional teachers and parents. But I am a talker and I want my students talking. But I realize I have been allowing talking for talking’s sake. Mrs. King and Ms. Algebra allowed talking for understanding’s sake. I need to remember and set my practice on these two teacher’s example. Maybe in 30+ years, one of my students will not remember my name but remember the communication I required in the library forcing deeper learning and understanding.

Find Your Tribe: They are your wind, energy, and dreams.


Dreamers, realists, doers, thinkers…people are grouped into categories. These labels have a ring of truth but most often one person is a mixture of all types. In Launch Cycle by John Spencer and A.J. Juliani, the first chapters outline the types of teachers within a school building. The premise is it takes all types to create a well-rounded instructional program and enact systematic educational change.

Much like the various types, my small “tribe” at Taylor had a mixture. While all groups and my relationships to each group mattered, it was the small tribe that gave me wings. The music and art teachers comprised this tribe. Much like when the architect, engineer, and artist collaborate, the three of us dreamed, designed, and built.

The relationship mattered because we found common allies who were not afraid to challenge the status quo of education. We saw a greater vision and understood for it to become reality, large and small changes were needed. The tribe began with art and music collaborating. I was already a friend with them so they would run ideas by me for my input.   When I saw how I could support their dreams, I jumped aboard their ship.

Some of the plans only impacted our individual programs. More often than not, the dreams were wide scale. Something seemingly insignificant as tweaking the master schedule for the next school year has huge rippling effects throughout the building. It touches core principles and beliefs of teachers. To change the master schedule required important, tactful steps.

School dreams only become reality with administrator support. Our tribe never dreamed anything without plotting out the entire approach and presenting information including all possible pros and cons, along with human impacts, to our principal. In many ways, he was our tribal leader. Our sage was the ITRT. Their wise council moved our vision to either become reality or go back for rethinking. Our tribe never accepted “no”. We tolerated and understood “not right now”.

A functional tribe understands its impact. Our tribe was a force. Much like a hurricane, our force grew when we were fueled by one another. The more we allowed each other space to dream, the greater our dreams became. The bigger our dreams, the larger instructional impact we would have.

Our tribe identified and understood unproductive dreams and instructional changes. Those ideas never were spoken to our principal. Sometimes, they were addressed with our ITRT to see if there were tweaks to make the dreams plausible. Because we tolerated each ideas, we happily agreed with one of our tribe members who pumped the breaks.

This relationship made us all better instructors. As a dreamer, I am always imagining what can happen in the future and constantly looking for improvements. I become bored when work is the same day after day, year after year. This tribe ensured it never was boring.

The Dynamic Duo: Librarians and Instructional Technology Facilitators

School librarians and Instructional Technology Resource Teacher (ITRT) are islands within their school buildings. Most schools have 1 of each. The librarians and ITFs in these buildings are the lucky to have a counterpart. Some schools only have 1 person to do both jobs! How lonely this must be. The luckiest of all, are schools that have larger teams with more than one librarian and/or ITF.

My Batman to Robin was Ena Wood, former ITRT in Arlington Public Schools (APS). We were truly the “Dynamic Duo.” Ena’s supportive shoulder, guiding thoughts, and listening ears served to be invaluable to my career. Actually, Ena had a large impact in me teaching at Taylor Elementary School in APS. She knew of me through common connections. When an opportunity arrived for me to transfer, she encouraged me to apply. When I was hired, she served as my unofficial mentor. This mentorship grew into a true symbiotic relationship that helped one another grow personally and professionally.

The key to this relationship is that we understand what it is like to be a “silo” or “island” in our school. Her focus was professional development and increasing the effective use of instructional technology while mine was similar in terms of information literacy. We saw the connectedness of our programs. As the school population grew and classroom/office space shrunk, we contemplated moving Ena’s office into the library.

She subbed for me teaching library skills when I was absent. I served as her back up for technology support. We met at least weekly but rarely in a formal capacity. We made sure to eat lunch together no less than once a month. Our friendly informal rapport allowed for greater free flowing ideas. During these “chats” we planned professional development, lessons, and the vision information and technology literacy’s impact to our school.

But just as importantly, we helped one another personally. We shared our personal lives with each other. Serving as counselors and confidants, we ensured appropriate work-home life balance. Having someone at work to share and celebrate home life helped me focus at work and focus on home when each needed it most.

Our Dynamic Duo collaborated to present at ISTE and VAASL (then VEMA). We helped create and implement many APS I-Safe initiatives. But our impact at Taylor was vast. Together, we shaped the school’s technology and library programming. We served on our school’s leadership teams, helped design the school wide instructional focus, and challenged and supported all teachers and students.

We challenged one another as well. When one of us noticed a sign of boredom or static growth in the other, we talked about it. I encouraged her to take leadership roles in the district and state. She encouraged me to get my administration degree. We wrote letters of reference for one another as we pursued other career opportunities or were nominated for awards. This relationship matters to me. Librarians and ITRTs who do not have this same type of relationship, please do yourself a favor and start talking. Start collaborating. Start building trust. Your relationship (or lack there of) matters to each other and to your school community.

Relationships Matter Series

Relationships are key to functioning civilizations. Schools focus on PLCs and other teaming factors to help teachers grow and increase educational effectiveness. Throughout my career I have always built relationships with teaming partners, administrators, parents, and students. These relationships challenged me and made me a better educator. I want to take time to highlight some of my key relationships. Within this series I will not address student to teacher or teacher to administrator relationships. These topics are well covered within the educational world. They matter and have mattered to me. However, I want to focus on the relationship teams I have purposefully sought so I could be a better teacher.

These relationships came both naturally and were forced. I have always found the best relationships to teeter on the edge between comfort and chaos. In that small space is growth, learning, and excelling. Relationships take work to survive. Without these relationships, I would not be where I am in my career: physically and emotionally.

The relationships I will highlight have all come during my time as a librarian. My relationships as a classroom teacher were—and still are—important. I feel like they transcended into the relationships within this series.

I look forward to learning about others’ professional relationships. Leave a comment or find me online to drop a note.

Day 2–For the love of the game: Breakout EDU

I love games. Growing up, my family’s summer beach trips were spent playing in the ocean all day and then playing games all night back at the house.   The games were often card based. My family had an affinity to “Spoons” where you pass cards around from person to person and then someone stealthily (or not so) takes a spoon from the middle of the table. Once a spoon has been taken, it is important to quickly grab a spoon before everyone else. It’s almost a card version of musical chairs. The last person without a spoon gets a letter. Once a person has spelled the word SPOONS, that person is out of the game.

Family beach week was also when I learned how to play Rook. Rook involves bidding on hands, relying on partners, and winning rounds. It’s important to win the points you need but not to carry around points you don’t. Much like Spades or Hearts, Rook involves trump cards with the ultimate trump card of the Rook itself. It is fun. It is strategic. And at midnight, it can be downright funny.

As a fan of games, especially those that involve strategy, solving puzzles, and unraveling mysteries, I have always wanted to participate in a “break out room.” Getting locked in a giant puzzle room, working with others to solve the mystery to get out, sounds like the geeky, crazy fun that I would enjoy and probably laugh until I spewed Diet Dr. Pepper or hyperventilate (whichever comes first). So when I first started noticing so many teachers Tweeting about Breakout EDU boxes, I was immediately intrigued.

Breakout EDU is a boxed version of break out rooms. There are a series of locks—some keyed, some combination—to unlock. Finding the clues to the combinations is the trick to breaking out of, or in reality breaking into, the box. On the welcome page to their website, Breakout EDU states:

Breakout EDU games teach critical thinking, teamwork, complex problem solving, and can be used in all content areas. We created this Breakout EDU Kit to get you going and hopefully answer questions you might have.

Over the past year, I have read about the box, watched videos of teachers setting up their rooms, and followed teachers Tweeting about their experiences. Recently, I asked my principal if we could purchase a few boxes for our school. The awesome administrator she is not only responded with a “Yes!” but upped my request by many more boxes!

The boxes arrived just after Winter Break. I dug through the website, found a scenario I wanted to try with my 4th grade students and set to work. So far, I am halfway through using this scenario with all 4th grade classes and I’ve learned a lot from just two experiences. First, I learned that while some puzzles seem easy to me because I have all the knowledge, even if the solution is blatantly obvious, the locks themselves could be tricky for students to navigate. Due to my class schedule, I have attempted to teach about the box and run a breakout within one 45-minute session. Having no prior experience with Breakout EDU or other break out games is the first real hurdle students must overcome. Thus secondly, I have learned to adapt some puzzles to make them easier for students. Understanding your students is essential when using a set of banked games and scenarios.

Most importantly, I learned that it really does work best when the groups are smaller but not too small. So far, all the groups that have successfully broken out have been comprised of 5 members. My four member groups seem to get stuck at the beginning seemingly overwhelmed where to start. My six, seven, and eight person groups have all spiraled into battles for control struggling to listen or not listen to all members’ viewpoints. But the 5 member groups rarely breakdown. When they have, it’s been quick. Maybe it is because there are short balances of power. Even with human nature wanting to break into dyads, there is a middle person swinging back and forth serving as fulcrum for groupthink.

But based on my very limited experience with Breakout EDU so far, the best part is witnessing students take control of their learning. I set up the scenario, stage the room, and assemble the locks. But once the box and materials are in their hands, they literally control their destiny. I walk around listening and observing. I offer a hint when the group unanimously agrees to hand in a “Hint Card”. But the teaching and learning is all theirs.   The most significant piece is observing groups that did not successfully break out still talking afterwards about the scenario and stating facts discovered and learned. Even today, one student made a connection between the scenario used for Breakout EDU over a week ago and a television show he watched last night. He sought me out today to share with me his connection. I have not been as successful building a relationship with this student as I have with many of his classmates. His excitement today was infectious and I feel like he and I will have a better relationship going forward. I know he is a leader and has great potential. I was trying to find a common connection between us. Now, I see that Breakout EDU has laid the groundwork for our connection.

The 30-day blog challenge recommends day two’s blog posting focus on technology I hope to incorporate into my teaching. Some people may not view Breakout EDU as technology because it’s not a computer or digital. However, it can incorporate devices and it can easily be used online in digital Breakout EDU format.

Breakout EDU looks like a game. And maybe it really is just a game at its core. But it is much more. It is engaging. It is challenging. It is rooted in communication, collaboration, and critical thinking. It is any curriculum you need it to be. But mostly, it is fun.

Does My Library Program Model Global Literacy? (repost from 2016)

It is a snow day (or more specifically an ice day) for my district.  Which means, I am home, planning lessons, cleaning out email, learning from #ncsnowchat, and reflecting on my teaching.  I’m in the process of putting together a large research process unit and activity for 4th and 5th grade.  While I should spend my afternoon delving in the curriculum and ensuring standards are in the project, I am reflecting on my library program and it’s importance to the school.  In particular, I am thinking about a question posed by one of our district library coordinators.  Just as I sitting down to eat lunch, I looked at my phone.  There in my Twitter feed was this profound question:  How does your school library program model global literacy at your school?  So much for digestion and a quality nap I had planned.   Work on my unit has also ceased.  My mind is swirling with am I doing enough and have I designed my library program to model global literacy?

In order to quiet my mind, I need research.  Off to ALA’s (American Library globelightAssociation) website I go.  There I find two articles that have begun to frame this question for me:  The ParentAdvocate Toolkit and Who School Librarians Are and Learning4Life.  According to the former, school librarians empower students to become:

  • Critical thinkers
  • Enthusiastic readers
  • Skillful researchers
  • Ethical users of information

It is easy for me to check off each one saying of course I do that but do I really?  I need to further examine my instruction.  At staff meetings, teachers in my building are presenting how they infuse the 4Cs (Collaboration, Communication, Creativity, and Critical Thinking) into instruction.  When I look at my instruction, I easily can see how I’ve embedded the first 3 Cs.  But I need to better target critical thinking not just relying that it comes as a byproduct from higher order questioning or a particular research project.  The unit I am currently designing focuses on helping students to better evaluate research tools, hone research skills, determine appropriateness and application of information, and teaches ethical use.  Therefore it does hit on Critical Thinking.  But as I build the unit’s mini-lessons and formative assessments, I need to ensure I am targeting critical thinking.  My previous school had created definitions and posters for each of the 4Cs as applied to our school’s STEM focus.  Pointing to the posters helped me remind students and myself the importance of thinking critically.  While I cannot use those posters, I can create a visual to help me to teach the 4Cs—especially critical thinking—as I go through this research unit.

As already mentioned, this new unit hits squarely into cultivating skillful researchers and ethically using information.  I believe these are strengths within my typical instruction and can often be found infused within my lessons.

That leaves enthusiastic readers.  While I have not ventured to genre-fying the library and I am not sure if I agree with the process, I do have some special collections.  Certainly, Mr. Dewey would be unhappy with my library shelves and design.  The shelves are messy because I am a “close enough” shelver.  This means weather is in the “weather section” but believe when I tell you 551.5 and 551.6 are completely mixed and I am embarrassed to discuss the 560s.  But Dewey would not like my “popular series” or “graphic novels” sections.  I have pulled particular and more popular books for these sections.  Yes, I have heard they are “gateways” to more enriching literature but who is to say these books are not already enriching?  I want my students to have quick and easy access to books they want.  This is an on demand generation.  My library needs to help and it does.  But I know I need to help students find the other 80% of the collection more easily.  I need to create better signage and teach browsing.  But in the meantime, I know they are reading and using the library.

So I realize that I can technically check off each of the four areas but I know that I have more work in each area.  As a teacher-librarian, I know we never stop learning, growing, improving and I have much to learn, grow, and improve.  This is certainly true when I broaden the term “literacy” to go beyond books.  There are so many tools and resources online.  The amount is suffocating if I were to constantly jump from one to another to the next new thing.  But I know that I have developed patterns and habits.  Even with this unit I am currently creating.  As I build it and find resources to introduce to students, I need to remember to not rely on my “old standbys” but look for something that helps me grow and learn as well.  I need to think about what skills my students already have and what skills I want to cultivate.  So they will not receive paper for this unit.  All handouts will be Google Docs, their work will also be in Google Docs.  Students will use my website to find all web resources and library catalog.  And as I write this reflection, I realize I need to allow time for creative expression.  At the end of the unit, I want student groups to indicate which resource they found to be most useful and why it is to them.  I now envision students using an online tool to create a visual or presentation to share with the class and beyond.  While I am globally connected, I want to give my students the opportunity to be as well.  This unit might be the first step.OK, so I am inspired!  A spark is lit to ensure this unit hits the 4 areas ALA and incorporates communication literacy and visual literacy in a presentation.  I need to plan.

Please share any thoughts or ways in which your library is a model for global literacy at your school?

Image from wikimedia commons