Category Archives: Classroom Connections

Obviously Amazing

Credit to Curt Rees, who shared this video on his blog and got me thinking. Watch, then read.

Obvious to you. Amazing to others. from Derek Sivers on Vimeo.

I sat with a colleague the other day and she shared with me that she puts students’ IEP goals on a label, slaps them onto the sheets she writes her conference notes on, and, voila! IEP goals are right there for conferencing.

A true “Why didn’t I think of that?” moment.

Of course, she was nonplussed by the whole thing. After all, all it really was was a sticker on a piece of paper.

That’s the point made in the video, though. Share your ideas, no matter how obvious they seem to you. They aren’t obvious to everyone else!

A group of special educators at my school has decided to start meeting regularly to share these “obvious” ideas in the hopes that we can support and inspire each other. I have not had many opportunities to collaborate with other special ed teachers, so it should be quite beneficial.

Of course, I’m going into it thinking I really don’t have much to share. My ideas are very obvious to me. Maybe, though, they’ll be amazing to the others.

I imagine if I went into every classroom in my school (and there are many, we have 2,000 students), I would gain one “obviously amazing” idea from each teacher.

So, you, out there in the online community, consider the power of your original ideas. We need to hear them so we can benefit. You have amazing ideas. Please share!

These are some wonderful ideas I’ve found in the last few months. They may be obvious to their creators, but they’re amazing to me!

Here is an obviously amazing idea for word walls that I discovered this weekend.

A great collection of obviously amazing ideas for all aspects of the classroom.

Obviously amazing ideas for using specific music for transitions throughout the day. (My kids like the “Mission Impossible” theme song when cleaning the room!)

Some obviously amazing and fun ideas for the first day of school.



Don’t Tell Me What I Can’t Do!

An important lesson from LOST's John Locke: Don't tell me what I can't do!

If you were a fan of the show LOST (personally, I am working through the DVD set at this time), you will remember the season one catchphrase of my favorite character in the series, John Locke. Locke’s eyes would burn anytime someone questioned his abilities. An extremely headstrong and mysterious man, Locke would often explode in anger when people doubted him, screaming, “Don’t tell me what I can’t do!”

And so I sit here, marveling at the fact that my students are beginning to blog independently from home. Why does this inspire me after I’ve seen them type blogs at school?

Well, it’s all about the can-do factor. I think some people might look at their blogs – or their handwritten work – and scoff at the poor spelling of basic words. Indeed, some might even question why students who struggle so mightily to spell should even be *allowed* to blog at all.

Well, like I wrote last week, blogging is a confidence builder. And so I know that when one of my students who still struggles with letter recognition (and therefore spelling, and therefore reading and writing) is putting herself out there on her blog, it’s because she knows she can do it. Bless her heart, she won’t allow her shortcomings to deprive her of the pleasure of writing. Never mind the punctuation errors, either. Her writing is clear enough for all to appreciate, and she will get better.

A reminder that we need to allow our students the benefit of experience to grow and improve and do things on their own terms. Let’s focus on what they can do, and never tell them what they can’t.

10 Reasons Your Students Should Be Blogging

In case you can’t tell by the content of each of my posts this week, my students started blogging on Monday and we are all pretty pumped about it. While I am nowhere near as experienced as some of my inspirations – Greta Sandler, Pernille Ripp, Linda Yollis, and Kathleen Morris, just to name a handful – I have seen enough enthusiasm and possibilities from my students that I feel I can present this list of 10 reasons your students should be blogging.

1. Blogging is a confidence builder. My students are tremendously proud to have their words featured on the internet. There is still a bit of disbelief in their eyes when they open our site and see their name with comments. The fact that they type with their own fingers and have people around the world consider those words important enough to comment makes them feel super special. The more people delivering that message to our students, the better.

2. Blogging is cross-curricular. Blogging is authentic writing and reading. Because it’s authentic, the buy-in is much greater than traditional school experiences in those subjects. But aside from the obvious, blogging helps develop a sense of geography as you learn the places around the world from which commenters and other bloggers write. Comments can be counted, graphed, and worked into word problems (how many more comments did Joey receive than Sandy, etc.) Blogging might even very well become my secret to teaching grammar and the finer points of punctuation that seem to vex students and those who try to teach them. Then there’s the whole digital citizenship element of blogging: students who blog need to learn and be vigilant about internet safety. (I am among the growing crowd that believes we need to embrace teaching technology and how to use it safely, rather than the cohort that only sees the potential dangers).

3. You can grow your own personal learning network. This was something I didn’t really anticipate, but given how Twitter works, I should have. First, if you do decide to blog with your kids, you’ll need to get them exposure by tweeting at #comments4kids. From there, cool people from around the world will comment, reply, retweet, and share their own students’ blogs. You’ll make connections as a neat little byproduct of your students’ efforts.

4. Increased exposure of your students’ talents in the school. Two days ago I wrote about my colleagues’ interest in the student blogs. Blogging is allowing my students to, in a way, show off to others just how wonderful they are. Administrators have also chimed in in the comments section, praising the kids’ work.

5. Authentic writing for authentic audiences. The writing is authentic because kids are writing about whatever they want. Even if I decide to give them prompts or topics to write about, they know teachers and other students will be reading them – not just me. Again, it’s all about their investment, and no doubt knowing you have an audience waiting with baited breath to read what you have to write is something that motivates.

6. Exposure to today’s technology that students might not otherwise get. Most of my students don’t have computers at home, and in many cases, they will not be heading to the library to blog. So, by bringing out laptops in school and putting them on the web, students are getting an experience they, truly, might never otherwise have. That’s a powerful thing. For now the novelty of blogging is fresh, and as long as school remains the only place for students to blog, I imagine it will remain so.

7. Collaborative experiences. I have five, maybe six computers for 11 students. This sounds like a pretty good ratio, but it still means not everyone can blog at once. In the interest of fairness, kids do sometimes collaborate on blogs. Doing this, they need to decide on a topic, take turns, converse, help each other spell, share the computer, and problem solve. And when reading, it is inspirational to hear one voice joining in another on tricky words, or pointing out errors to further understanding.

8. You can build a writing portfolio for each student on their terms. This is a big one. Assume, as in our writing program, that students publish one piece per month. You wind up with a handful of pieces that are, in general, finished and polished. With a blog, you see daily or weekly progression in writing, which is a much more comprehensive display of growth than the published pieces produced in a traditional manner. In fact, I am in some ways using my students’ earliest blogs as a baseline for what they need to learn both as bloggers and writers. My paras are on board, too: the students need to write as independently as they can so that, come June, we can all look back and say, “Look how far we’ve come.”

9. Blogging levels the playing field for kids who don’t like to write in the traditional way. I have had many kids in my career who hate to write. I’ve had some success giving kids the option of using a pen, but there are plenty of students who just find nothing endearing about moving the hand in different shapes to produce letters and words. Stick a computer in front of them, though, and now you’re really speaking their language. Blogging and typing are both writing, and let’s be honest, our world is transitioning to a place where handwriting will someday be obsolete, anyway.

10. Blogging creates instant engagement. Blogging is novel to young learners, and because I don’t assign a value to what they do, there is plenty of motivation to continue. While I have my own motivations for students to blog, in their eyes it’s just something fun. They don’t realize they are doing exactly what I need them to do – writing, reading, learning. Choice plays a big role in this, too. I am able to assess and teach them using whatever they choose to write about.

If you aren’t yet blogging with your students, I hope you at least begin to consider it. If you are a seasoned veteran of student blogging, please tell me what reasons I missed. Why else must students be blogging? Please share in the comments section.

Opening the Blogger’s Cafe

Last year, within the first six weeks of school, two students drew a  cherished paper from the (since retired) prize box: a certificate entitling them and a friend to lunch with me. Horrible human being that I am, I pushed it off until the middle of June, when I finally told the kids it’d be a good time to eat together.

So as a way to ensure that I don’t treat this year’s students so heinously, and to capitalize on students’ newly discovered love for blogging, I am opening the Blogger’s Cafe on Monday. Four days out of the week, I will give students the opportunity to eat with me and blog.

This is a plan that may be met with disbelief by some, but I am committed to making sure all students have a chance to blog. Since we can’t take whole afternoons as often as we have, and since so few students have computers at home, lunchtime seems like the best time.

I will circulate a sign-up sheet on Fridays on which students choose the day they want to blog in the Cafe and will welcome them and their lunch for about half an hour worth of blogging. In small groups, I will be able to address some of the intricacies of typing (such as how to use the shift key) and some of the finer points of blogging (like how to comment on someone else’s work).

As a byproduct of breaking bread together, I will also foster stronger bonds with the kids. I am all about this.

It may seem strange to give up four lunches a week, but for now, I think it’s a good idea. After all, it will eventually help kids gain independence and improvement in their blogging, which is a yearlong goal for me.

So, kids, come back Monday. The Blogger’s Cafe will be open for business.

School Celebrities

Aside from the kindness of Twitter friends and family, as well as strangers with whom I had never had contact, one of the coolest things about my students’ first blogging experience was that people in my school also took the time to comment. Within 24 hours of posting our simple first words, seven members of my school’s staff left encouragement for my kids.

The day after our first post, three colleagues asked me at a meeting, “Did you see I left a comment?” I told them I did, and the kids were thrilled by it.

It is truly amazing to see comments come in from around the world. However, it is a different kind of amazing to see colleagues getting excited for my students. It makes the kids feel like they are part of something bigger than our class (which they are) and really gives them the feeling that they matter. (I and my paras promote this message with some effect, but the more who are on board, the better).

Our guidance counselor wrote this:

Hello there, class! Wonderful job on your first blog…I must come by tomorrow and tell you, in person, how proud I am of all of you 🙂 Keep reading, and most of all, keep writing!

Well, she did come by, and the kids were just pleased as punch. Because the guidance counselor showed a genuine interest in what they did, she began sowing the seeds of a fruitful relationship for the year and showed them with no ambiguity how much they matter.

A colleague posted this:

Congratulations Mr. Ray’s class! Maybe you all can teach my second graders how to blog since you’re doing such a great job~ … I know you’re learning so much because you have an AWESOME teacher! Looking forward to reading more posts from you all!

Her enthusiasm was jumping off the screen. Yesterday, we passed this teacher in the halls and she said, ‘Wow! Is this Mr. Ray’s class, the BLOGGERS?” They walked with a bit more pep in their step after being recognized.

Our ESL teacher, who the kids adore, wrote a sweet comment and linked it to what we worked on in school that day:

Hello my friends in Mr. Ray’s class. I am so happy to be working with all of you this year. I am looking forward to a year full of fun and exciting times together. I’ll see you on Wednesday and remember the long A says it’s name “Aaaaaaaaaaa”!

She couldn’t help asking me at 7:50 the next morning if I saw that she left a comment. Naturally, the kids nearly fell apart when they saw her name in the comments section.

A hat tip, too, to our principal, who as the leader of one of the largest schools in the country, is ever busy, but managed to take the time to leave her own words, too:

I am so excited that this year you will be writing comments on your class blog! I am looking forward to reading about what you are doing and learning. Keep on writing 🙂

She actually made her comment when the kids were at lunch. I almost ran down there to show them! When I picked them up, I told them a famous person left a comment. Justin Bieber? Selena Gomez? “Not even Demi Lovato or Barack Obama,” I said. It was our principal, and they were again, over the moon, to discover that important people in the school cared about them.

Though I am not even a week into blogging with students, I already have a crucial piece of advice. Yes, you will easily discover the power of #comments4kids. But don’t underestimate the power of your school community. I shared the blog on Facebook (which brought several comments) and also e-mailed it to administrators.

People in your school should know about the great things your students are doing. Some won’t give it a second thought, but some will. It might in turn inspire them to blog with their kids, or encourage them to pop in one day just to say “You guys are awesome.”

Don’t be afraid to promote your kids!


Bloggers Rise Above

On a day in which my students read through 41 incredible blog comments from at least 22 states and countries combined, I wasn’t about to deprive them the thrill of getting back on the class site and giving it another shot.

Of course, the best laid plans oh so often go to waste.


After taking care of the required work for the afternoon, which was a Common Core baseline task that the kids found extremely difficult (and on which I could not assist), I thought they’d like to have a little release. So they packed up and I gave them the option of blogging or using the science center.

Kids were settling in: magnifying glasses, shells, and rocks were all in hand in the back (along with the bee I killed to save the kids from terror 45 minutes earlier). Computers were whirring to life and kids were sitting down to log in and begin writing their first independent or partner blogs. Everyone was engaged, everyone was excited, and then, everyone was alarmed when…

BONG! BONG! BONG! Hello, fire drill.

Annnnnd away we went. Kids lined up quickly, leaving science specimens and laptops at their places. My main concern was on exiting the building quickly and quietly, but I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the kids who were so excited to be doing these fun things. Being a trooper is part of the M.O. of any solid kid, and thankfully, I’ve got a whole class of them. They took their medicine, swallowed it, and made the most of having their enjoyment taken from them.

By the time the fire drill ended and we were back in our room, we literally had 10 minutes left in the day before we had to dismiss. Kids wanted to write. Kids wanted to investigate. So I set the timer, told them they had just 10 minutes to finish, and watched the magic happen. The bloggers only got out a couple of sentences each, but they made sense, they were around a topic, and they loved doing it.

Remember when I wrote my kids would have trouble finding the right keys on the keyboard? Well, they did. But, sorry, we’re not allowing that to be a deterrent. Friends helped eachother find the D key, and when it came down to crunch time, I had the kids who needed it dictate to me so I could type. No big deal!

Because of their resiliency and resolve, four of my students published their first blogs today. The conditions were not ideal, but thankfully the kids are. They made it happen.

Blogs are published and ready for your comments, if you feel like making a 3rd grader smile today!

#Comments4Kids is Totally Legit

Students collaborated to write their first blog post.

At the end of the day, we sat as a class (huddled around my laptop because the SMART Board is lacking some components) to write our first blog. Kids were excited to share information about our class. Some were eager to type, others felt more comfortable dictating, and still others just came along for the ride. You can read our first blog by clicking here.

I told the kids that I was going to share it with my teacher friends around the world and maybe some of them would write a note to us, or, in blogspeak, comment. My idea was to hit up some of my closer Twitter friends and ask them if they could find time to say something. I also wanted to make my first foray into the oft-revered #comments4kids.

When I got home, I tweeted that my class worked on their first blog post and would love comments. Of course I added the hashtag #comments4kids. I knew I’d be able to rely on my friends, but it was the kindness of strangers that overwhelmed me. As I write this, there are 22 comments (37 at publication), the vast majority from people I never heard of, from places as far as Scotland or as close as New Jersey.

The #comments4kids hashtag is a must for anyone who is blogging with their students. In just a matter of hours, I collected a variety of comments to work through with my kids, during which we can touch on geography, grammar, and more. What a fantastic tool for making our world smaller and helping kids learn about what happens outside their classroom!

The Beginning of Our Great Blogging Adventure

I will confess that as I prepare to introduce my students to the wonders of blogging, I am nervous about how they will take to it, being that it is such a reading and writing-intensive experience.

In my mind’s eye, I see students struggling to find the right keys on the keyboard, worrying about their spelling, failing to read what others write with lack of picture supports, frustrating at the interface of the blog. I see the whole thing blowing up in my face.

What is wrong with me? Maybe I should choose to see the following:

  • Students faces beaming with incredulous pride when they each receive their first comment, which we read and celebrate together as a class.
  • Incredible excitement at seeing their original work displayed on the internet for all to see.
  • Early struggles typing and spelling replaced by future successes.
  • Different colors dotting our U.S. and world maps, showing where our visitors are writing from.
  • Kids taking a chance to write independently from home, putting their imperfect selves out there with self-confidence.
  • A community strengthened by the shared experience of blogging and students who become more attuned global citizens.
This should be a great adventure and a wonderful learning experience for all of us. I hope I have the fortitude to allow it to happen as it should…

Trying Something New

I was talking with my good buddy Pernille Ripp Thursday night about her selection as a Great American Teach Off finalist for a $10,000 prize as the most innovative educator in America. She was looking for some help as to what she could talk about that made her innovative or inspirational to peers. I was in the middle of writing Friday’s math lesson at that moment, and I pointed out that very often (as was the case Thursday night), when I sit down to write plans now, my first question is, “What would this look like in Pernille’s classroom?”

In that vein, I taught a lesson on Friday that was as student-driven as any I’ve done this year. We transitioned from 10s and 1s place value to 100s, and in the spirit of wanting this year to be less about me and more about the kids, I presented a challenge to solve a problem without assistance from adults.

I split the class into 3 groups (Side note: These groups were determined not so much by math ability but by personalities. I’d like to try to avoid delineations that become, to the students, about who is smart versus who is dumb).

I displayed three base 10 blocks: a one, a ten, and a hundred and posed the question: “How are these related?”  Each group received 10 ones, 10 tens, and one 100. I told them they had about 15 minutes to work with their group to try to figure out how the blocks were related, and that at the end, someone from each group would present the findings to the class.

At first, students were rather possessive. Each group’s members decided to take a certain number of blocks, and at this point they were playing with them more than anything. Once my para and I impressed upon them that they needed to put all their blocks together and figure out an answer to the question, things started happening.

As I circulated, I noticed one group laying the tens atop the hundred, noticing that you could arrange the pieces in such a way that they created two equal stacks. From here, they were able to, with my assistance, talk about: 1) how many tens make a hundred and 2) how many ones make a hundred. This was a highly desired outcome and I was, truth be told, quite pleasantly surprised that they grasped this concept with only minimal support. That the student who is typically the best at math was silent throughout this and two girls who typically struggle were the ones explaining was just unexpectedly delicious gravy.

(Another side note: I expected the better math student to dominate the group, but either he was confused or disinterested – I go with the latter based on his work later in the lesson. So be it, look at the way it allowed those two girls to shine.)

The other groups were following suit, and each group had a clear cut reporter who articulated to me the logic behind their argument.

I walked on my cloud back to the meeting area and brought the kids over and asked the first group to present. That group’s reporter sat in the share chair and used the magnetic blocks to model his group’s work. Wow, it was awesome. We never talked about how to “teach” like that, but there he was, doing it like a pro. Yes, he needed some guidance, but so what? He’s 8.

He explained how ten tens are the same as one hundred, and demonstrated by counting by 10s to 100, then counting each 1 in the hundreds piece. Then he pushed the tens together and laid them directly above the hundred, demonstrating that they were the same.

When I commented that they didn’t look the same, I did so to throw him off. I wanted to force him to further explain his thinking. Though he had lined them up perfectly, they were not the same width, so he had some doubt. I asked, “Are they really the same?” He thought, looked, and said, “No.” “But you just told us they are! Which is it?” Then he thought again. It seemed he was backing away from his original claim that ten tens equaled 100. But then, he realized, yes, they were the same, because ten tens are 100. The kids by and large gave him their full attention and a nice round of applause when he finished. It was really genuine and inspiring.

One of the first nuggets that Pernille put in my head when we first began collaborating was that I need to stop worrying about what my kids can’t do and start thinking about what they can. This was when we were planning our WisconsiNewYork class collaboration and I was concerned about how my kids would take to Skyping with hers. Her words were right then and they are right now. I need to trust my kids and believe in their capabilities being more than what I assume. This will empower them, give them confidence, and allow them to continue to teach me.

Baby Steps in a Grassroots Movement

As I listened to the presentations at the Reform Symposium Conference last weekend, one of my most common personal wonderings was, “Why are my school and city not in on RSCON, too?” This question evolved into, “What is it going to take for others at my school to join the wave and take the plunge into a PLN?” Eventually, I began to wonder this: “How can I make it happen?”

I thought about my involvement in my Personal Learning Network and realized it would never have evolved into what it is today if not for Twitter. Twitter was the reason I started a blog. Twitter was how I came to discover Mike Harrison (the first teacher I ever followed and connected with; I had originally intended Twitter as a platform for my photography, so getting in touch with Mike was significant, as it became the start of what my Twitter use has evolved into). Twitter was how I found out about the second Reform Symposium, which became an impetus for me to reach out to someone who has since become an absolute go-to in my PLN.

Twitter, for me, is the lifeblood of my experience online as an educator.

So, in wondering how I could expose my colleagues to all the wonderful opportunities online, it was obvious: get them on Twitter.

Last week, I circulated a Google Doc survey that many people completed, giving me a snapshot of the educator’s experience of Twitter as a professional development tool. I wasn’t surprised by the multitudinous benefits people wrote about. In fact, the responses validated my mission: with 24-hour professional development opportunities right at your fingertips and a wealth of ever-changing information, if you have a desire to improve as an educator and benefit your students, you can no longer afford to be offline.

I sent an e-mail to my principal letting her know of my involvement in Twitter and the various ways in which I’ve used it as a springboard to the other wonderful resources on the web. I wrote about my experiences collaborating with other educators for my own benefit and for the benefit of my students.

She was intrigued. In her reply, she asked that I come in before the start of the school year so we can figure out the school’s first steps towards bringing people into the fold.

Now I’m working on a presentation to share with my colleagues, and brainstorming possible in-house professional development I hope to give about Twitter. I’m envisioning colleagues – not all, but many – developing their own PLN, finding their own niches, contributing in their own ways, and collectively moving us all toward a place where we are better educators and our students reap the benefits. It’s a bit of a grassroots idea for my school, and it’s exciting to imagine the possibilities.

I don’t pretend that my goal isn’t ambitious. Surely I will encounter skepticism. I was once a skeptic myself, frequently remarking about Twitter, “I don’t care what Ashton Kutcher ate for breakfast.”

But I was misguided. The truth is simple. For anyone serious about adding to their repertoire of growth opportunities, Twitter is a must.