A PLN Connection…11 years in the making!


Each time you make the conscious effort to follow someone, you do it for a reason…at least I do.  For over a year, I have been building my PLN (personal learning network) on twitter with educators, principals, edtech people, or basically anyone that I think I can learn from in education.  I spent time following conferences, attending virtual conferences, following blogs, joining nings, and participating in a variety of chats to connect with people across the world who are passionate about the world of education.  Professionally, I have learned more this way in the past year than I have in any grad class or professional development workshop.  In my opinion, online collaborative learning is the most individualized and inspiring instruction a person in education can get.

Along the way, I’ve met some people that I have truly connected with.  I think of them as my colleagues and wouldn’t hesitate for them to write me a letter of recommendation…they know me that well.  One of those people is Lisa Dabbs (@teachingwthsoul).


Lisa immediately embraced me in the beginning of my twitter experience.  She encouraged me, retweeted my tweets, asked about me if  I hadn’t been on twitter for a few days, commented on my blog, and even began deeper conversations with me over emails.  I think of Lisa as a mentor…someone that I look up to.  I am a few months away from finishing my Master’s in Educational Leadership and my PA Principal’s Certificate.  Lisa has made a career of being an educational leader and was a principal for many years.  I love her strong, open, and caring leadership style.  You can easily pick up on that if you follow her on twitter or read her blog.  Over this past year, these little connections have connected us.  Not only would I call Lisa a colleague, but I would call her a friend.

Now…here’s where things get interesting…

grandpa erin visit 098

Two weeks ago, my Dad and my 17-year-old sister were visiting from California.  The above picture is the moment just before my sister and I realized that we had this unbelievable connection with Lisa.  This is how it looked on twitter:


lisa 1


YES!! Yes, she was her principal!  You can imagine the look on my sister’s face as she was watching this bizarre exchange happen in front of her!  She could not even fathom how her sister in Pennsylvania could be friends with her elementary school principal!  To tell you the truth,  Lisa and I were more than a little freaked out about the situation! After the initial shock, we had a really nice conversation about Erin as a little kid and now a girl on the brink of adulthood…connecting to her childhood through her sister and twitter.  Erin had a fun time remembering things that really made an impact on her…a lot that was Lisa’s doing.  She remembered the caring environment, the multicultural inclusion, the murals on the walls of the school depicting children from around the world, and…her favorite memory…raising the most money for the jump rope for heart contest.  Interestingly enough, I remember sending Erin a check to support her in her jump rope-a-thon.  Here she is when she was in first grade with Lisa on that very day:

Erin - Allendale 001

The connections that we choose to make on twitter are not just random.  We connect with those that we want to learn from, we want to learn with, or want to teach and encourage.  This experience has reminded me just how connected we can be as educators.  Not only have I learned from Lisa on twitter, but my sister learned through her leadership, the teachers she hired, the murals on the wall, and from her heart and soul.  Lisa not only teaches with soul, she shares that soul…that passion…with everyone around her, regardless if it is in the real world or in the virtual world.  For those who think learning or socializing online is cold, isolating, and perhaps even de-humanized, all I can do is encourage them to try it.  Those of us who participate and learn from it daily are transparent…there is no digital divide…we are who we are regardless of the format.  Thank you, Lisa, for reminding me how it is possible to have real connections, friendships, and experiences even if you live 3,000 miles apart!

How do you define a great teacher?


Come on, you remember your favorite teacher…you remember their name…you remember the grade…you remember how you felt in their classroom.  So…what was so great about them?  My last post was about remembering a time when you felt like you really learned in school, which made me think about the people who were behind those learning opportunities.  Mrs. Edleman and Mr. Tucker were great teachers…interestingly enough, the two learning experiences I talked about in my four question exercise were designed by these two teachers.  Could it be that engaging students in authentic learning allows for great teaching and learning?

How do you define a great teacher?

  • Is it the college they went to or the degrees they hold?
  • Is it their certifications or the school district they teach in?
  • Perhaps it is their ability to teach to the standards or their classes have the highest test scores?
  • Perhaps it is the content knowledge they bestow upon students?

Or maybe you could define a great teacher by…

  • Student growth while in their class
  • Experiences that will be remembered years after
  • Engagement of students on a daily basis
  • Instilling curiosity, creativity, and learning into their lesson design
  • Their ability to collaborate and learn from other teachers
  • Making connections for students through subjects and technology integration…and making connections with each student
  • Learning as much from their students as their students learn from them

When I think back to Mrs. Edleman and Mr. Tucker, I have no clue where they went to college, what degrees they held, what kind of certification they had, or how they ranked in their classes with standardized testing.  I do, however, remember learning, growing, being curious and engaged…the feeling I had when I was in their room…you know, those invisible things that are hard to measure?  We measure teachers by tangible, testable things because it is easy.  As teachers, we have been striving to create authentic assessments for our students, so how about doing the same for teachers? Let’s redefine teaching and focus on those invisible elements by creating portfolios of our work, lessons, videos of projects, student samples, parent letters, and reflection from students…they’ll define a great teacher for you.

While mulling this post over, I received a letter in the mail from my youngest’s first grade teacher.  I can tell you that she is a great teacher.  Why? Because she connected to, supported, and challenged my high functioning autism spectrum little guy.  This is an excerpt of what she wrote:

I wish I could find the words to describe what an honor it was to have the opportunity to teach your son this year.  We have laughed together, learned together and grown together.  He has taught me many things about teaching and life and will always hold a very special place in my heart. His determination to do well, his kind and gentle heart, sense of humor and handsome little smile will undoubtedly take him very far in his life ahead.

Great teachers do these types of things…they are not just a teacher, they are a part of the classroom community.  They teach, they learn, they lead, they reflect, and they grow every year with every child that walks through their doorway.  A great teacher is ultimately defined by the expectations placed upon the person defining them.  It is different for everyone…we are, in fact, individuals.  We can, however, focus on that invisible element…that intangible…to give each student in our classes a great experience.  After all, it isn’t about the greatness of the teacher, but the greatness experienced every day by every student and every teacher.  Next time you hear a student (or your child) say, “I had a GREAT day at school!” smile and remember what that really means.

The Four Question Exercise

I’m currently reading 21st Century Skills: Learning For Life In Our Times by Bernie Trilling & Charles Fadel. The book starts out with this four question exercise:

Here are my answers:

Question #1: 20 years ago, I was 17. I had just graduated high school and was off to Rosemont College with an electric word processor with a single sentence screen. Although we had a computer lab, students didn’t go there to write papers. We typed on word processors and wrote things out by hand. We had pay phones in the hallways instead of phones in our rooms. How did I ever survive without a constant line of communication?

20 years from now, the world will be a different place. I have seen so much change in the past 20 years regarding technology, that I cannot even begin to imagine that world in the future. I’m sure everyone will have a smartphone type handheld device and regular computers and laptops will be the dinosaur that my cool word processor had become.

Question #2: Students will need to be tech savvy, problem solvers, cooperative learners, travelers, multi lingual, creative, innovative, and be able to manipulate, sort, and filter an enormous amount of data.

Question #3: There are several learning experiences that I clearly remember. In first grade, the King Tut exhibit was coming to the United States. My teacher immersed us in everything King Tut. We read books, acted out plays, made costumes, and even made toilet paper mummies out of each other. Another was a science fair project in 7th grade. My parents were not the type to do my projects for me, so I was on my own. I loved being in control of my own learning and having choice in it. I didn’t want to do a typical baking soda volcano, so I rigged a pump that spewed spaghetti sauce out of it! I won 3rd place…all on my own.

Question #4: Wow. Learning would be a rich, dynamic experience…it would be what I strive for in my classroom every day. Students would be engaged in their learning..making choices, solving problems, and being leaders. I find it interesting that my most memorable learning experiences as a child were project based and integrated. I learned the most in these situations…I was engaged learning about King Tut and Volcanoes. I firmly believe that engagement is the key to true learning. Why? Because if you aren’t engaged in learning…are you really learning anything?

I think every parent, teacher, and administrator should ask themselves these four questions.  I’m betting the old saying “…the way I was taught was good enough for me…I’m a successful person…” would be quickly squashed.  Go ahead…remember that time you were truly engaged in school and ask yourself if that is how your students feel on a daily basis.  If they don’t, then find that engagement key and unlock the door to true learning for you and your students.

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 http://kindle.amazon.com 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.

student projects 2010 002 student projects 2010 003 student projects 2010 017

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?

student projects 2010 063

student projects 2010 065

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.

Oh, Canada! 2010


Should I begin with the overnight bus ride on Monday?  Or maybe I could start with the snow storm on Tuesday? Hmm…I could start backwards and talk about the 14 hour bus ride back during the day and the 2 hour stop at the border patrol….

I could talk about teachers falling asleep, students falling asleep, and even tour guides falling asleep.

I could talk about being completely annoyed by 25 tired, cranky, hormonal 13 year olds.

Cirque du Soleil Totem…now that could be an amazing piece of writing!

Or maybe I could talk about the food…oh the food…pucapuca, breakfast, sugar shack, chez marie, spaghtini… Mr. Bennett falling in love with maple butter and bread and the other chaperones eating cake that was so good that it brought tears to their eyes.

I could focus on the Sugar Shack, where our kids put aside their differences, let down their guards, and became a family.

What about Anne-Sophie, our tour guide, with her energy and enthusiasm for life?

I could highlight the moments of calm and inner peace that we felt at St. Anne’s and Notre Dame.

I could attempt to reflect on those funny moments…the ones that had us laughing so hard that we were crying, but you wouldn’t get it anyway.

Maybe I could talk about the last 2 hours on the bus on the ride home where one student had the ability to break down the walls of the entire grade by saying what needed to be said in an honest, emotional, and thoughtful way.  When those walls came down, the tears were flowing…reflection, healing, and bonding had begun.

…but…I won’t.  There are no words to describe this trip or the emotions that come with it.  This is my 6th year chaperoning, and the power of  it never ceases to amaze me.  Those memories are sacred and unique to each class.  They are a special moment in life for all of the people on the trip.  Thank you, class of 2010, for allowing me to be a part of your memories.

This is the itinerary for the trip followed by video from the Sugar Shack as well as a photo video memoir of the trip.  Enjoy.

Au revoir, class of 2010! C’est Malade!

One Thing

One Thing 2010

I recently showed my 8th graders a photography project by Susan Mullally entitled, “What I Keep”.  This photo essay collection sparked a discussion about what we value most.  I asked them all to bring in one thing that they would keep if they could only keep one thing.  It could be symbolic, real, or a photo.  I brought in a jar of sea glass that my gram and I had collected throughout my childhood.  Inside is a card that reads:

Dear Megan,

This shell and sea glass collection is now yours.  I treasure the memory of the happy days we spent together collecting them on the shore of Ship Ahoy beach.

Happy Birthday

Love Gram

We talked about the fact that it is not about the object, but the memories that were created around the object.  Today they brought in their objects and I photographed them by the beloved “Winnie the Pooh” tree on our campus.  I loved seeing what they brought in and hearing the stories that came with it.  I also loved showing my students how one thing and one picture can tell a story without one word.