Category Archives: innovative teaching

Meet Me in the Middle

Middle School Mindset:  Connecting with Students through Engagement, Trust, Respect, and Opportunities

Recently, one of my blog readers made a comment on one of my posts.  I hope that she doesn’t mind, but it has been swirling in my head for a few weeks:

I am curious how you got your students to start thinking about their hopes and dreams. I find this to be a hard concept with middle schoolers. Any advice??

I was having trouble answering the question because in the 17 years that I’ve been teaching middle schoolers, I haven’t come across this situation.  So I’ve been wondering why.  I do ask my students to write about their hopes and dreams, their identity, where they are from, what they believe, who makes a difference to them, and I push them to think about what is right, tolerance and acceptance, forgiveness and justice, as well as broken, realized, and dreams deferred.  Every time they rise to the occasion and are able to explore their truth within the walls of my classroom. How do I know this?  I see them “go there” through their words, the emotion that sometimes overcomes them, and when I’m sitting in my pj’s on the weekend sobbing while reading their latest memoir chapters.

In really thinking about the dynamics of my classroom for the past 17 years, and the strong connections I still have with many of my students, I believe I have my “sentence”:  She connects with students by trusting them, by respecting them, by engaging them, and by giving them opportunities to find their own truth, passions, and identity.  If you haven’t written your sentence yet (or have your students write their own sentences), watch Dan Pink’s video below:

Ok, so it is more than a sentence.  It is a mindset.  I am from the mindset that middle school kids are people too, so I treat them that way.  I value their opinions, I think they can handle tough topics, I believe in them…I respect them.  I also laugh with them…a lot.  This mindset has helped me create a classroom culture of respect and equality that has become integral to teaching in learning within the four walls of the room, within the school campus, and within the digital spaces we have created together.   I believe in pushing them to be passionate about life and learning while taking pride in their work.  It is easy not to care when you are 13.  It is also easy to just cover the curriculum.  When the lines of learner and teacher are blurred, both sides become invested…this give and take is the key to the middle school mindset.

A few weeks ago, two boys were arguing about how much work I give went sort of like this:

Student A: Mrs. Pal, you give us so much homework.

Student B:  Dude, no she doesn’t, you just can’t manage your time.

Student A:  But it is soooooo much.

Student B:  Just follow her little deadlines…she makes small little due dates so you don’t have so much work.

Student A: (whining noise)

Student B:  It is so easy. Mrs. Pal sets it up so it isn’t hard.  It’s like Mrs. Pal teaches you to walk while still holding your hand.

Me:  tears (he gets it)

So how do I get students thinking about their hopes and dreams?  I ask them.  I share with them. And I give them the opportunity to only share with me.  They are free to push themselves, but I will always be there as a safety net…and they know it.  I will always meet them in the middle.

Down the Digital Rabbit Hole


I’ve wanted to incorporate Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland into my 8th grade class for several years now.  The theme for my class is Identity:  Who are you? Certainly, Alice’s search for self would fit perfectly into my curriculum.  I needed a perfect storm of interest and tech savvy students to experience Alice in the way I envisioned it.

This year, I piloted Google Apps for Education in my classes.  My assignments became virtually paperless and I encouraged the use of Google Sites with a heavy emphasis on collaboration in Google Docs.  These students far exceeded what I imagined to be possible with using Google.  It became second nature to them…their “go to” tool for all written and collaborative projects.  They thrived on the instant feedback I could give them at any time of day…or night.  They became better writers, thinkers, and creators of digital content. This was the group that was ready to jump down the digital rabbit hole with me.

My idea for this project has morphed and changed over the course of a year and a half.  It began with Christian Long’s Educon 2.2 virtual conference on using blogging with the Alice Project.  I followed his students’ work and was amazed at what they were achieving, but…they were in high school…I’m working with 8th graders.  So, I kept it in the back of my head until I saw a post on the English Companion Ning by Jim Burke where he was exploring the idea of a digital essay….that was it…that was going to be the vehicle in which my students would explore Wonderland!  Now, I needed to figure out how to execute the reading, discussion, and digital essay process of learning.

In preparing students for high school, I need them to have a strong understanding of literary elements and how to analyze a piece of literature.  It is not something easily taught or learned, but I wanted to use Alice as the opportunity to experience and analyze literature with my students.  But…I needed a place to begin…a commonality..something that would grab my students…(enter Tim Burton).  Before even opening Alice, I decided to use Tim Burton’s version of Alice in Wonderland to teach a little about symbolism, annotation, and themes.  My students used this Google Doc to begin to look at the familiar movie in a different way.  Note:  I know Tim’s version is not true to the text, and I made that perfectly clear to my students…I used it for the sake of comparison later on and interest in the beginning of the unit.

If you haven’t read Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, it is a difficult text to get through although it is considered a children’s story.  I made the executive decision to just focus on the first book, and not Through the Looking Glass due to the level of difficulty in analysis for 8th graders.  In order to ease the text reading experience, I used a combination of The Annotated Alice and the audio version played through my smartboard.  My students would listen, follow along in the text, and take notes on a Google Doc entitled:  Exploring Literary Elements Through Wonderland.  I designed this document using the principles from Smith & Wilhelm’s Fresh Takes on Teaching Literary Elements.  I wish I had video of this part of the project…students were actively reading and engaged in the text.  They were listening and then following the annotations in the text while noting their own analysis in Google Docs.  I was asking them to look at literature in a way they were not used to, but they took the challenge by choosing a character to focus on, noting setting as physical, temporal, & social/psychological, examining third person limited omniscient point of view, searching for themes and big pictures, and finding sense in the nonsense of Carroll’s poetry.  My students became literary detectives…searching for meaning and clues in the text…they were analyzing literature!

The next part was really driven by my students.  They wanted to watch the movie they were so familiar with.  They sat and watched (and sang along) as they looked for similarities and differences between the text and the movie using this Google Doc.  I would laugh as they would yell at the screen that a part wasn’t in the book or the movie wasn’t following the text!  Some students even had the text in front of them as they tried to follow along.

I decided to make their final project…a digital essay…their final exam.  I gave them the assignment 2 weeks before the final and allowed them to prep for it in any way they needed to.  The digital essay is outlined here.  On the final exam day, they would have an hour and a half to compose their essay on their individual pages within the Google Site for the project.  For most, it meant they were putting together pieces they had been working on for the past two weeks.  Preparation was the key to pulling this off in a short time period.  What I got as a final product astounded me…I had pages of items that looked and read like Wikipedia entries that were dynamic visually with images and video.  The pages made note of references for books, movies, images, and video.  My students did it…they learned how to analyze literature, movies, and created a digital essay to authentically express their knowledge.

Click the image below to go to our class digital essay Google Site:

Down The Rabbit Hole

Click below to see an exemplary digital essay from the project:

Corinne   Down The Rabbit Hole

Now it is time for me to reflect on this project.  I want to take what worked best and improve upon it next year, and I want to examine potential pitfalls with upcoming classes.  I’m excited to see how next year’s class will approach learning in the digital rabbit hole!

So, what’s on your wall?


A few weeks ago, I received an email from Teaching Tolerance with a subject line that read:  What’s on your wall?  I opened it and read the following:

Every classroom has a personality. You can often see it just by walking in. The doorway, walls, and bulletin boards are all decorated to let students know the teacher cares.

Many educators work hard to create that just-right presentation. They know decorating classrooms is an art form. We know it, too. That’s why we’d like to recognize the teachers who do it well. We’re planning to show some of the best classroom decorations in the 20th anniversary issue of Teaching Tolerance magazine, coming out this fall.

Send us photos of your classroom decorations. Keep in mind that we’re looking for themes tied to tolerance, such as civil rights, bullying, racism, women’s issues, fighting stereotypes, religious freedom, economic disparities, disability and sexual orientation.

I didn’t even have to think twice about this.  I immediately went to the butterfly “wall of hope” in my mind.  For the past three years, I have been teaching Holocaust Studies to 7th graders in order to incorporate tolerance and acceptance into the curriculum.  Through literature, short stories, film, and multimedia, my students explore the essential question of:  What is Right?  throughout the year.   In order to teach remembrance and memorial, I use the film Paperclips (2004) to show how a group of students not only learned about the Holocaust, but also created a memorial that would change their lives as well as the lives of the people in their small, rural community.

After watching Paperclips, I read “I Never Saw Another Butterfly”, written in 1942 by Pavel Friedman.

“The Butterfly”

The last, the very last,
So richly, brightly, dazzlingly yellow.
Perhaps if the sun’s tears would sing
against a white stone. . . .

Such, such a yellow
Is carried lightly ‘way up high.
It went away I’m sure because it wished to
kiss the world good-bye.

For seven weeks I’ve lived in here,
Penned up inside this ghetto.
But I have found what I love here.
The dandelions call to me
And the white chestnut branches in the court.
Only I never saw another butterfly.

That butterfly was the last one.
Butterflies don’t live in here,
in the ghetto.

Pavel Friedman 4.6.1942


After discussing the film and the poem, my students decided they would like to take the symbol of a butterfly to represent hope for the 100 surviving children in the Terezin Concentration Camp.  That year, they created 100 butterflies and put them on my wall to represent hope, tolerance, and remembrance.  The following year’s students continued to add to it to create a wall of hope using the symbolic butterfly.  Again, this year’s class wanted to add to it.  I don’t know how many there will be, but it has become an integral part of my room.  Often, people who just see it think it is a pretty display, but one of my students will be quick to explain the true meaning behind the hope and remembrance.  My students are taught to be upstanders through tolerance and acceptance, and this wall is representative of just that.


Extra, Extra…read all about it!


7th Graders Hit the Press with Special Editions about Power and Control!
So, I’ve been MIA. I haven’t been lazy or unmotivated, I’ve been piloting a Google Apps program in my 7th and 8th grade classes. My next post will detail my amazing experience teaching and learning in the Google cloud. For now, I’d like to highlight a favorite collaborative project done completely in Google.

Tolerance and Acceptance drives the 7th grade curriculum. My essential question for the year is What is right? Tolerance and Acceptance is explored through Power and Control, Belonging, and Lessons from the Holocaust in literature, writing, poetry, journalism, and multi media. I chose Animal Farm, by George Orwell to discuss the implications of absolute power and individual control. My students actively read, had heated discussions, and wrote blog posts from the point of view of a character. These are usual occurrences in my classroom when we analyze a class novel…but my students were so engaged that I needed to give them an alternative outlet for their learning…

In thinking about the novel…a fable…I glanced down at my Kindle edition and saw “Animal Farm: A Fairy Story”. I began thinking of fables, then saw the word “fairy”, which brought me to…you guessed it…fairy tale. In my very first year of teaching (16 years ago), I did a fairy tale journalism unit where students worked collaboratively to produce an over-sized newspaper based on a fairy tale. I knew I wanted to adapt this project for Animal Farm and bring it into the 21st Century! Google was the key to doing that!

While designing this project, I thought back to the elements that made my original project successful…creativity, writing skills, and collaboration! Who knew that Google docs, Google presentation, and Google sites would come along to incorporate those original elements from 16 years ago. Before I even introduced the technology aspect of the project, students needed to learn the components of a newspaper, how to write a newspaper article, and what makes a good story. Once I established that, I could get into the nitty gritty project details.

I envisioned a digital newspaper that was created collaboratively with all of the original elements from my fairy tale newspaper which included: newspaper name, lead story, an individual article from each member of the group, editorial, letter to the editor, advice column, comic, and 2 advertisements. The project details can be found here along with detailed writing instructions here. I also provided some extra credit opportunities to add to the group newspapers, which the kids had a ball with! Students were able to work collaboratively using Google presentation and Google docs. They wrote and edited articles in docs and put together their newspaper in presentation. With these Google applications, I was able to “see” who was working on their articles, editing their newspaper, and collaborating in the cloud. This allowed me to be present in each group…even if the group was working at home! This has been a teaching game changer for me. I no longer have to worry if one student did all the work…I can see it with a time and date stamp, a revision history, and a collaborative chat window. I found this has made students more willing to own their work…and be a responsible group member. Although I had this access, I still created a Google form self/group evaluation survey that I used in assessing their project.

While planning the newspapers, I knew this would be a perfect opportunity for a multimedia component to the lesson…a newscast! I will say this…my 7th graders are not shy…they love making videos…and had no problem dressing up as cows, farmers, and reporters! With flip cameras, smartphones, and apple technologies, my students far exceeded my expectations for a newscast. I honestly wanted them to have fun with their newspapers by presenting it in a creative way. What I didn’t realize was how drawn they are to multimedia and how skilled they are in producing it! All I told them was the newscast could be live or video…they were the ones who created story boards, added special effects, used editing software, put in credits…as well as the all important bloopers section! We spent two classes completely engaged in their self produced newscasts!

In order to share all of the collaborative projects, I put together a Google site with all of the newspapers and newscasts from both sections. I won’t be sharing that here since there are student videos, but I will share a few of the completed digital newspapers. This site has allowed me to create a live portfolio for other students to learn from. I can’t wait to see what next year’s class comes up with!

Fostering Thinking, Creativity, and Digital Citizenship Through Blogging


I have been blogging with my students for the past three years.  It has grown and changed in purpose since I started.  I use a secure blogging site for classroms called 21classes, which ensures the privacy that I wanted for my 7th and 8th graders.  Originally, the blog was used as an online notebook for logging reading, creating journals, and posting assignments with an occasional discussion or two about a novel.  I quickly saw the power of using the blog to pre-discuss questions before class.  When my students were allowed the time and structure to pre-think what they were going to say online, I found they were more prepared, engaged, and willing to participate in a discussion during class.

What my blog was lacking was the interactivity created between a blogger and an authentic audience.  Since my blog is secure, I needed to be able to have students be that audience.  But what would they comment on?  I had tried creative writing and journaling in the past on the blog, but it never seemed to be something that sparked a conversation.  Once I read Jim Burke’s What’s the Big Idea? this summer and had a conversation with a colleague, I knew what I was going to do.   If I used Jim’s Big Questions in the back of the book as blog post ideas, I would be putting students in a position to answer a question by creating a conversation.  Each week, I require students to pick one of Jim’s Big Questions and write a 2 paragraph post about it.  They can respond by simply answering the question, creating a narrative story about the question, connecting the question to current events, or using a real life example to make a connection.  Some examples of the questions are:

  • When do you feel most free?
  • Why do we sing?
  • When is it better not to know?
  • Who is the real you?

Once I established the blogging assignment, I needed to focus on the digital citizenship aspect of commenting.  Believe it or not, there is not much out there about teaching commenting skills.  I came across this guest post by Kathleen McGeady on the edublogger about teaching commenting skills and etiquette.  This was exactly what I was looking for!  I adapted her guidelines for my classes and created “How to Comment on a Blog Post”:

How to Comment on a Blog Post

The purpose of commenting on a blog is to start a conversation based on a blog post.  It is a relationship that is created between the poster and the commenter.  Posting on a fellow classmate’s blog is like having a conversation with them in person.  When commenting on a blog post, you should ask yourself if you would say what you wrote on their blog to them face to face…if the answer to that question is no, you should rethink your comment.
  1. Write your comment like a letter by including a greeting, content and a closing.
  2. Always use correct spelling, punctuation, grammar and spacing.
  3. Compliment the writer in a specific way, ask a question or add new information.
  4. Write a relevant comment that is related to the post.
  5. Do not leave a comment like, “Cool post” or “I like ur blog”.  These comments are not conversation catalysts.
  6. If you have a differing opinion than those of the poster, be positive in your delivery of your comment.  You can say things like, “I appreciate your post, and you made some good points, but I think….” or “I enjoyed reading your post about school uniforms.  I can see why many parents and students would like uniforms, but I like to express myself through my clothing….”
  7. Always read over the comment and edit before submitting.
  8. All of your comments will be submitted to me before posting.  Any comment that does not follow these instructions, or is negative or mean spirited will not be posted.  These types of comments can result in being blocked from the blog, which will make completing homework a difficult task.
Example (commenting on a post: What does your name really mean?)

Dear Susie,
I really enjoyed your post about what your name means to you.  Do you think that your parents named you for those reasons as well?  To me, my name is my identity.  It doesn’t matter if it came from my Aunt Sally.  Sally, to me, is a soccer player, a sister, a good friend, and a person who loves her friends and her family.  It isn’t just a name…it is me.  Thank you for making me think about what my name means to me.

Once I taught students how to comment on a blog post by modeling and practicing as a group, they were ready to start commenting. I keep Popsicle sticks in my room with student names on them to create groups and partners. I decided to use them to partner up students for commenting instead of letting them pick their own. Once I establish good commenting skills, I will give them more freedom, but I wanted to ensure that each student wrote a comment and received a comment without it being a popularity contest. My students are living in the facebook/im/texting world, so their instincts are to act the way they do in those arenas in the world of education. My hope is that by teaching them how to be good digital citizens within our classroom cloud, they will apply those lessons elsewhere.

At this point, they have written and commented on 3 posts, and I am amazed at their enthusiasm for the assignment. My students are looking forward to seeing their comments and are responding back to the person who posted. If a blog comment does not a conversation catalyst, or does not follow the commenting procedure, the student is asked to edit it and resubmit. Since I’m doing this during class time, I have the ability to quickly catch a problem and redirect it. The surprising part is that I have not had to make any suggestions except ask an occasional kid or two to read their post to make sure they are sparking a conversation. They are having deep conversations about Big Questions with students they might not normally speak to. In a few weeks, I will be allowing them to comment within the other grade in the class, and then open it up between the 7th and 8th grade. I believe by taking time to teach good blogging and commenting skills, the students are learning valuable lessons about thinking, creativity, and digital citizenship.

Here is an example from one of my 7th grade classes:

Blog Entry #3: Why should we keep trying?

Why should we keep trying? I think that this is a very important question to ask ourselves . I think that we should keep trying during tough situations and when we are trying to reach a certain goal. Trying is very important. If you try hard and never give up, you can achieve almost anything you set your mind to. Trying almost never fails you to reach your goals and get you out of situations. If you try hard in all that you do, you will probably succeed. If you fail your test, try to learn your mistakes. Try to understand it better and see what you can fix in the future. If you try hard, most likely you will succeed.
Trying hard is very important in life. For me, I try hard to earn good grades to go onto my high school application. If I try hard and get good grades this year, my high school application will look nice. It’s the same with any new sport or instrument you play. If you try hard, you will get better at it whatever sport or instrument you are playing. I’ve been playing piano for 8 years now and I try hard to play more advanced pieces. I’ve played softball for 2 years. I’m not the best pitcher, but I know that if I just keep trying, then I will be able to pitch more accurately.
Whatever you do, keep trying. You have to push yourself to never give up until you reach your goal. Keep trying when you are in difficult times. You know if you try hard, then you will be able to stick it out to the end. So try, try, try!

Dear Student X,
I thoroughly enjoyed your piece on why we should try. I think you bring up some valuable points. What is the most advanced piece you can play on the piano? I have also been playing an instrument for a large span of time, and I know that trying is important in music. I also try to get good grades for high school. Keep it up!
Your Friend,
Student Y

Active Reading: Using Kindle to Engage Learners


I’ve been a reader my whole life…  I think it goes without saying that I love technology as well.  I got my Kindle in early April of 2009.  I was not one of those people who was afraid of the e-reader because it didn’t “smell like a book”. So,  I immediately fell in love with it and found myself reading more than I ever have.  Why?  Because my entire library was accessible.  Any book that I wanted to read was at my fingertips waiting to be read.  I actually read 28 books last summer…  I wasn’t having a contest with myself, it is just what happened.  I would find myself pulling out my kindle any time I had a free moment.  I know for a fact that I would not have read that many books in print form.  Print books are too bulky and heavy, and don’t just slip into my purse.  For me, the Kindle is the ultimate accessory.

For the past year, I’ve used my Kindle in a passive form, flipping the pages while reading the latest in tech ed, great YA fiction, historical fiction, or an engrossing memoir.  I was actively reading in my head by forming questions, thinking about character development, and making predictions.  It was not until the recent 2.5.2 update that this process changed for me…

I have become an active reader with a real product that can be manipulated and used in the future.  What I have always done in my head is now organized, sequenced, and cited allowing me to design lessons, write papers, create tweets, or do whatever I wish with it.   Below is an example of the highlights and notes that I took while reading Staying Fat For Sarah Byrnes, by Chris Crutcher this past week:



The process is so simple…I can’t believe I haven’t taken advantage of it until now!

  1. Press down on the 5 way controller and push to the right to highlight.
  2. If you want to tweet your highlight, press alt and back arrow after you highlight.
  3. Begin typing to add a note.
  4. Go to to view your highlights and notes on your laptop or view them on your kindle under “my notes and highlights”.

The beauty of this are the options that you have online.  You can view your books in flashcard view or book view, while accessing your books and highlights.  You can even view popular highlights by other Kindle users!


I do not read the same anymore. I have documented my learning. I have documented my process of reading and learning. I have shared my learning with others.  Imagine the implications for students….

  • Students thinking about reading while they are reading
  • Students accessing their thoughts online
  • Students sharing their thoughts about reading online, in class, anywhere…
  • Students doing  reading “homework” actively
  • Students engaged in reading
  • Students prepared for discussions with digital notes
  • Students using citations in research correctly because the citation is embedded in the highlight or note they took
  • Students learning from other students and teachers about their reading processes
  • Students logging their reading without leaving the book
  • Students creating a digital portfolio of the novels they have read

The possibilities are endless… with Kindle prices dropping quickly, as well as free apps on droid, blackberry, iphone, ipad, itouch, mac, & pc students will be able to access this technology freely and equally. The tag line on the Amazon Kindle site is:  Read, Review, Remember…what a novel idea! I love the notion of bringing an age old process into the 21st century!

Living Memoirs: A Biography Project


How do you teach the biography genre without it being boring and mundane?  You have students choose someone they are passionate about…someone who has made a difference…someone that will keep them engaged for a trimester long project.  You also have them become the person, become a journalist, as well as a designer.

The living memoir project was created to cover a variety of writing skills for seventh grade.  The following are the components of the project:

  • Research:  Students use noodletools to collect information about their person from websites, books, magazines, newspapers, videos, etc.
  • Diary Entries:  In order to make the memoir seem authentic, students write 3 diary entries from 3 different times in their life.
  • Friendly Letter & Business Letter:  Research is vital to writing these letters.  Students need to decide who they are writing to and why while following strict letter writing guidelines.
  • Newspaper Article:  Students learn the parts of the newspaper, how to write a newspaper article, and how to format it properly.
  • Epitaph:  Students use their imaginations to create a “gravestone” along with an epitaph that has a quote that represents their person.  Yes, even if they aren’t dead yet, they get an epitaph!  Some students write the date of death in the year 3000 because they don’t want to “jinx” them!
  • Obituary:  Students hone in on those journalism skills they learned when they were writing their newspaper article to create an obituary that includes a charity their person would have wanted donations to go to.
  • Commemorative Stamp:  Students have fun designing (and pricing) a commemorative stamp that the US Postal System would be happy to use!
  • Photos and Captions:  Every memoir needs photos along with a description of the event.
  • My Contributions to the World:  This is an essay written in first person, as their biography choice, that describes what contributions they have made to the world.   It is a traditional 3-5 paragraph essay.
  • Dear Reader Letter:  This is a reflective piece written by the student to anyone that reads their project.  It is their chance to explain why they chose their person, some interesting facts that they learned, as well as the time and effort spent and if they would do anything differently if they were to do it again.

The students are given the components, they are taught the skills necessary to complete the assigned parts, but they are not told how to present their project…it is totally up to them!  This year I had a bicycle tire, a powerpoint, a fish tank, a bike, several old trunks, scrapbooks, pamphlets, and even a larger than life Cat in the Hat!

I believe by giving students choice with some guidelines as well as having an open ended design, it allows students the freedom and flexibility they need in order to be engaged.   Student engagement is essential to the learning process…it is actually the bottom line…if you don’t have student engagement, how do you have effective teaching and learning?

Click here for supporting files.

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Who am I? Identity Portfolio


The theme for 8th grade is simply:  identity.  Students explore identity through forgiveness and justice, immigration, and making a difference.  Each novel, poem, short story, and writing piece is carefully chosen with identity in mind.  The assignments were designed to make them question who they are and what they stand for.  This year, I had my students create an identity portfolio from all of their writing pieces.  Why?  Because later in life they will be able to look back and reflect on who they were in 8th grade…because sometimes we forget…

The following pieces were included in their identity portfolios:

  • Bio Poem:  A fun reflection in prose.
  • Forgiveness Personal Narrative:  After reading The Sunflower by Simon Weisenthal, students question their ability to forgive.  They reflect on a time when they had to forgive someone or someone had to forgive them in a personal narrative.
  • I’m From Poem:  This poem is based on George Ella Lyon’s piece.  Students create their own poems, a collective poem, and a digital story based on it found here.
  • What’s Your Story?:  A creative writing project in which students designed a 3 dimensional object reflecting all of their heritages along with a story of how it came to be.
  • This I Believe:  A personal belief statement essay in 350-500 words.  Click here to view the entire project.
  • Six Words:  Students were challenged to create a story in six words using a visual and words.
  • Make a Difference Project Personal Reflective Paper:  A reflection piece about their year long project.
  • One Thing Photo Essay:  In a photo essay, students were asked to be photographed with the one thing they value most.
  • Bucket List: Students created a list of 50 things they would like to accomplish before their time is up.
  • Memory Letter:  Students wrote a heart felt letter to someone that is important to them with specific memories tied to it.
  • Graduation Speech:  Each student wrote a graduation speech to reflect on their years at Montgomery.

Students had the option of presenting their portfolio any way that they wanted in order to reflect their own personal identity and personalities.  I had scrapbooks, boxes, handmade books, binders, suitcases, and even an entire bookshelf of work created and written over the past three years with me.  These projects overwhelmed me.  When you see all that a student has accomplished within a year, how they have progressed, and what they have discovered about themselves is a humbling experience.  Many tears were shed as I flipped through each page.  I thought I knew these kids, but I learned something new about each and every student. This was the first year that I did this portfolio project, and I honestly think it is one of the most important things that they have done for me all year.  I hope that they will dig into their closets years from now and discover who they were in 2010, what their hopes and dreams for the future were, and are reminded of that amazing time in life when they asked themselves on a daily basis:  Who am I?

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student projects 2010 066

Saying goodbye. Starting anew. Graduation 2010.


Each year, my 8th graders write a graduation speech.  It is not optional.  Everyone does it.  Why?  Because it gives them a chance to reflect back on their time at school.  Some of them have been at Montgomery since they were three, and some of them have spent just one year with us.  Each one of them has memories that they have created regardless of the time spent here.  It is a time for my students to say what they need to say, thank who they need to thank, and, in some cases, make amends and honor each other.  This year, the speeches varied from a symbolic school bus ride, steps to writing a graduation speech, lessons learned, and a heartfelt story about a young man realizing what he had gained and what he was losing.  The students are ready to move on.  They have chosen their graduation speaker.  All that is left is to say goodbye.  But, I’ll save that for Friday….

I’ve chosen a quote from each graduate’s speech to create the video above and the slideshow below. Grab your tissues…

New teacher job description: “I am an equal.”


A few weeks ago, I attended a workshop run by Alan November of November Learning and ADVIS (The Association of Delaware Valley Independent Schools).  I was lucky enough to be able to bring two of my 8th grade students to be a part of my learning experience.  We had just gotten back from Canada, so we were all exhausted, but excited to be doing something outside of the classroom together.  Imagine that…learning outside the classroom with students?

Alan whisked off my students and put them to work using a google doc to collaborate with other students to create notes for everyone that attended the conference.  This is what they came up with.  While they were busy being engaged, I was backchanneling the conference on twitter.  I have virtually attended many events and conferences by following live bloggers,tweeters, ustream, and elluminate rooms.  It is amazing what a rich experience you can have sitting in your pajamas while expanding your professional development.  I wanted to give that experience to teachers that could not attend the Alan November conference.  Here is the archive notebook of my tweets from that day.

Right before the morning break, a discussion about mapping conversations and the Harkness table came up.  I am lucky enough to have a Harkness table in my room, so I quickly located an image and tweeted it out:



After I did this, I went down to the podium to introduce myself to Alan.  I told him that I was backchanneling the conference, so he had me pull up my twitter account on the larger-than-life screen behind me.  As I was showing him what I was doing, he clicked the last tweet that I had posted about the Harkness table.  What transpired next happened so quickly that I didn’t even really have time to process it.  As I was explaining the difference between learning in a traditional classroom on the left and the Harkness table on the right, he turned to me and said:

Alan: What is your role?

Me:  In the classroom?

Alan: Yes.

Me: I am an equal.

Little did I know that those four words were going to change the rest of the course of my day.  Alan told me that he has never in 30 years heard that as a teacher job description.  He told me that I would be presenting for the next ten minutes about Harkness and Twitter…he also wanted to have lunch with me!  Oh my, what had I gotten myself into?  As I was standing at the podium, Alan began talking about the role of a teacher in the classroom in the 21st century.  As I was setting up on his laptop to present, I quick checked my twitter feed and saw this:


When Alan turned the mic over to me, I talked about the Harkness table and twitter…I even combined them to refer to Twitter as a virtual Harkness table.  People who don’t understand twitter think that it is a one way conversation.  Twitter is anything but that.  It is a conversation within your Personal Learning Network (PLN)…your group of educators that you have chosen to be a part of your daily professional development.  I would argue that #edchat is the greatest example of a virtual Harkness table where educators vote on topics and have real time discussions on Tuesdays at noon and seven.  By the end of my conversation, I had new followers on Twitter that were joining in on the conversation as well as people tweeting for the first time.  The twitter feed changed for the rest of the day.  It was active and had now engaged not only the people in the room, but their followers as well.

So…back to that equal thing…

I went back to my seat exhilarated from having the opportunity to present in front of 200+ people, and from being recognized by Alan.  I sat back down and began to process what happened…but the phrase that came out of my mouth kept milling around in my head “I am an equal”.  I was taught during a time period when teachers were the gatekeepers of knowledge.  They were the all knowing, and you were lucky to have their knowledge bestowed upon you.  I can tell you right now that this system did not work for me as a student.  I knew at a very young age that this was not what teaching and learning is all about.  I knew that I would become a teacher and do things differently…so I did.

So what does being an equal mean? To me, it means having an equal role in the classroom.  Sometimes I’m running the show…sometimes they are running the show.  I believe in authentic, student centered learning where students are engaged in the process of learning.  Each student’s process and outcome are different, but they have all been exposed to a balanced curriculum that challenges them to stretch themselves creatively, emotionally, and collaboratively.  If we are truly teaching process, and not focusing on the product, students become equal…they transform themselves from learners to leaders.  They understand that the journey is just as important as the destination…isn’t that what we believe as teachers?   By creating a classroom culture where the foundation is mutual respect, responsibility, and equality, both students and teachers become truly engaged in the process of teaching and learning.  It becomes a dynamic and vibrant place to be…a place where students want to learn and grow, and a place where teachers are inspired to learn and grow.  It is a place where I am an equal…a place where we are all teachers, learners, and leaders.