Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Our Maker Mindset

There is no greater joy than watching children create something. Whether the creating is done solo or in a group, thinking is visible. You can see the “wheels turning”. Hands-on work requires trial and error. If something doesn’t work, a child doesn’t stop working, but instead tries something else without prompting.

Making is a natural gift we each possess. We are all makers, talented in different ways.

I love telling stories of my own boys, so here is one of their making adventures.

On a weekend day, I decided it was time to clean the garage. I enlisted my boys to help in the project. They were not thrilled with the thought of cleaning the garage, so I told them after they helped me move “stuff”, they could play. We cleared out as much “stuff” as we could, piling it into our driveway, so I could rearrange and clean up shelves and sweep the entire garage. While I did that, my boys “discovered” the cardboard.

Our cardboard recycling pile was quite large at that time. A few big boxes from my Amazon Dash purchases of paper towels and toilet paper had accumulated. As I worked, I saw my boys gather these boxes in a pile and start talking. I didn’t hear the conversation, just saw it in action. All of a sudden, my oldest had his legs in two boxes, the other two helping him “suit up”. I kept working, not interfering or guiding, and let the making take place.

While I worked, so did they. They planned, talked, gathered, and worked. A few times, the two youngest would veer off to hit some golf balls into the yard while my oldest worked, cutting and taping. “Mom, do we have more duct tape?” I found another roll in the garage and off they went again.

While I steadily cleaned and organized the garage, the boys worked on their creation as well. Engaged. Trial and error. No tears, but diligence in solving a problem.

Before I knew it, I heard the laughter and squeals. I turned around to find my son had transformed into a cardboard robot. Nothing fancy. Pure pride shining through. Each boy had to try on the robot suit, and when it didn’t quite fit my youngest, they made adjustments to make it work. “Mom, look at us! We are robots!” Of course, I had to take their picture!

Watching them work on this one project made me reflect on our maker mindset. My boys “make” all of the time, whether it is a game or a storyline they are acting out, they are making. There might not always be an end product to put on the refrigerator or hang in the hallway, but their projects are always worth attention. Making flows through their veins, and as their mother and as an educator, it is my duty to not only encourage their making, but foster it.

At home, my boys’ making is free to their will usually. They make what they want, design it from what they can find, and problem-solve their way through any issues that arise. This is a wonderful way for my kids to discover the possibilities, find their own solutions, and create their own projects.

A couple of years ago at our school, we created a really cool Makerspace. It was a team effort, starting from gutting our old computer lab to building a flexible space for collaboration. We put in materials from all around the school, purchased some cool tools, gadgets, and materials, and kids started making. To begin, it was a novelty. Today, it is something much different.

Each day, I spend time in the Makerspace with kids. It is the best way to start my day. I talk with kids, work with kids, make with kids, and listen to kids as they create and collaborate on their projects. It is awesome to share about the transformation that took place, and now even more exciting to share about our student makerspace team and the awesome curriculum ties we are building. Why? Because now it is not just about a space. It is a mindset we are instilling within the culture of our school.

Yes, it is great to say, “We have a Makerspace in our elementary school.” But it is even better to share how the concept of this space is now infiltrating our instruction, becoming a part of our learning culture, and a mindset that is found in our students and adults in the school. What is even better than that is when parents and community members drop off materials and say, “I know your kids can create something with this.” We all see the possibilities. We come together, pull together our resources so we empower the maker within our children.

Making is a mindset, not a space. It is our job to ensure our students have the opportunities and time to make. Play and making should not escape our schools. Too often in recent years, it has. We need to bring it back. It is within these experiences embedded in play, making, trial and error, problem-solving, and critical thinking that kids build relevance and rigor into the curriculum. So much of what we teach today can and should be done through the element of “doing”. Kids need to experience it if we want them to not only remember it, but transfer the knowledge and apply it to something new. These are life skills, not fluff done a few times per year.

As a leader, it is my duty to empower those around me. I want to empower them to try new things, problem-solving and taking risks. Making supports this. I want to empower my students to create and think through their own solutions. I model and am part of the culture of this. That is why I open the makerspace every morning. When a leader values making by modeling and engaging with it in the daily routine, the rest of the school culture takes note, building from this and taking it to new heights. If a leader not only believes it is important, but models the way, then the culture of the maker mindset will set in.

However, a leader cannot do it alone. I know our makerspace did not come together because of me. The team pulled this together. We had discussions, shared ideas, and now that the makerspace is a daily part of our school, the team is modeling the way for others, sharing resources and co-teaching with other classes to bring making into their classrooms. It is a team effort. Making is a mindset. Not just a space used every once in awhile.

Our job as educators is to ensure our kids have the opportunities to grow for their future. There is a maker in all of us. It needs fostered and developed so that we apply the skills and knowledge we learn to something new. Making is not about a space we create in our school with cool tools and gadgets. It is a mindset we instill in what we do to help our students AND our adults build for the future.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017


I admit it. I’m addicted. I’m a Solitaire junkie.

Solitaire was the first card game my dad taught me. I learned it the “old-fashioned” way, with cards. I remember playing for hours. I wanted to win the game. I would “see” the card I need and try everything in my power to make that card appear.

Today, I typically play the game on my phone, although now I’m the one teaching my boys the “old-fashioned” way. There is just something about the feel of the cards, counting, flipping, moving them around on the table or floor that makes it all the more fun.

Now, though, I play the game to wind down from the day.  It’s not all about winning the game, even though that is a nice, added bonus! While I love reading, writing, or tweeting late in the evening, I have found that would keep my mind racing well into the wee hours of the night. After reading a chapter in a great book, I would find myself jumping up out of bed with a thought or idea, and never really making it back to the sound sleep I once had before.

There would be evenings as well where I was so tired that I found myself falling asleep with my computer on my lap, or the book folded up in my hands. I was not giving the attention or thought to what I was doing if I was in that state of mind either.

So, about 4-5 months ago, right before bed, instead of picking up a book or turning on my laptop, I flipped on my phone and found Solitaire. Just 5 minutes of iPhone Solitaire did the trick to put my mind at rest from school thoughts so that I could get a better night’s sleep.

Sleep is still too short, but now, I am not waking in the middle of the night to a thought or idea I just read. I am not still contemplating a Twitter chat topic or blog post. While all of these are awesome and amazing, and I still glean so much from them, I have discovered that just 5 minutes of winding down is imperative to help me clear my mind. Mindful leadership begins with taking care of oneself. If I don’t do this as a leader, I am not at my best for those around me.

Whether it is an iPhone game of Solitaire, or another activity for someone else, every person needs to find their niche to wind down from the day. Our days are busy. Our minds race. My to-do list grows. But unless I find a moment to calm from it all, my anxiety soars and productivity plummets.

Just 5 minutes is all it takes. And each morning when I wake up for a new day, my Solitaire addiction is worth it.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Better Together

I often hear and say the phrase, “We are better together”. I truly believe this to be true, and when I come across a story that exemplifies this phrase, I take note, jotting it down to share with others.

At our house in the country, we have a wood burner that we use to heat the house during the winter. It is a wonderful, warm heat, and well worth the work it takes to heat the home. Last year, we were not quite sure how much wood we would use, and so we did what we could throughout the winter to chop wood and buy a few chords of wood here or there to make due. This year though, we are much more aware of how much wood we need to heat our house, and so we saved our money and bought some chords of wood to be prepared before winter hits.

These past couple of weeks, we ordered 6 chords of wood, giving us time to stack the wood and get ourselves set before any cold weather ever comes our way. When it is dropped off, it is dumped from truck in a huge pile, and the family all pitches in to get the job done.

This weekend, it was time to stack the wood, but all the boys were a bit tired, suffering from small summer colds, so my husband and I went out to stack the wood ourselves. We had beautiful weather - not too warm, a nice breeze, and a few clouds every once in a while to break up the sun. Pandora played our favorite Journey station, and we sang a few tunes while we worked. We worked for about an hour, almost finishing one chord, moving it from a pile in the grass to a nice stack next to the wood burner.

All of a sudden, I looked up from my work and noticed our oldest, Alex, on his way out, putting on his gloves. He didn’t say a thing, just picked up a piece of wood and started helping. The team just kept on trucking, making great progress on the chords of wood sitting in our yard. Not many words were said; it was a well-oiled machine of pitching in together to get a job done.

With the three of us working, we got the chords of wood stacked much faster than when it was just two of us. But as soon as we were done, another chord of wood was delivered, the last one for the weekend. For my husband and I, we were tired and my knee was hurting badly. And so, it was time for the ENTIRE team to get to work.

With a little coaxing, all 5 of us were out there, one more chord of wood to go. Music blaring, we were an assembly line of wood stackers. What took my husband and I a little over an hour to stack one chord, with all 5 of us working, we got it done in about 40 minutes. Teamwork works. It is not just more hands on deck getting the work done. It feels good to work together as a team for a common goal.

That night, we celebrated with Dairy Queen. A job well done.

Better together. When we work together, not only are we more efficient in our work, but we do a better job in the end.

I think back to a couple of years ago when our school started its work and conversation on establishing power standards in reading, writing, and math. If one person did this work, it would have not been efficient. It would have not been effective. And there would definitely not have been the empowerment and buy-in into the process and the outcome that was inevitably created through the process. We were truly better together, sharing thoughts and ideas, discussing experiences and knowledge, and building a vertical alignment of skills that we wanted for our students.

We were better together.

I think to my PLN, this plethora of ideas and knowledge on social media. My closest educator PLN friends are people I trust, with only a few I have met, but who I lean on for advice, ideas, and knowledge on how we all can become better together. Whether it is listening to their brilliance on Voxer or reading their tweets and blogs, I learn from them, and know in my heart that being connected means we are better together.

Being an educator is not a career of isolation. And while we all have time for reflection by ourselves, we grow together so we are better for our kids. We collaborate, work together to achieve a common goal, and share our knowledge with one another. Better together is not just a phrase; it is a way of life.

As a new school year is about to begin, I am excited for the opportunity to become better together, as we work together toward our vision of focusing on our instruction and growth as a school. We truly are better together for our kids!

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Back to School Meetings...Inspiring or Procedural?

It is time to go back to school, which means staff meetings. Are these exciting or procedural? Inspirational, or a long list of things to do?

A few years ago, the staff meetings I prepared were ridiculously long. I greatly apologize to any teacher who has sat through them. I would spend two weeks preparing the presentation, incorporating inspirational videos and quotes, filling in policies and procedures where I could. I would make copies of sign-off sheets, sign-up sheets, and schedules galore. While I tried to excite and inspire my staff, I mostly covered the housekeeping and required sign-offs, taking nearly 2-3 hours of their time on the first staff day.

I didn’t know any differently. I just created what I used to sit through as a teacher. However, that is no excuse. Just because that is the method of the past, doesn't mean it is best today, right? And, time is precious. Do I want my teachers preparing for their students or listening to me? That is not a hard question to answer.

So, I had to make a change. On the first days of school, teachers want and need to be in their classrooms getting ready for the start of school.  Their first impression with students and parents is just as important as the first staff meeting’s first impression. In addition, this is valuable time to continue the collaborative processes with colleagues in their teams.

Ultimately, I needed to make better use of the time during the first staff days, however, we still want to meet as a staff to bring together our vision and drive for the new school year.

So, how can we maximize time, cover all we need to cover with policies, procedures, and vision, and still inspire and create excitement for the upcoming school year?

Flip it.

I have seen teachers use this method, and the results are outstanding. Not only are students engaged, asking questions, and getting the help they need, but the use of time can be more effective and efficient.

And so, for the past couple of years, I have been trying to use the time with my staff differently, allocating more time on discussion and reflection, building our vision together, thus spending less time on procedures and policies.

Today, I flip all policy and procedural information at the beginning of the year, making videos and Google Forms for sign-offs. The videos are beautifully integrated into the Google Form, making it easy for teachers to watch and complete. I screencast staff handbook information as well, plus some important reminders as we start school. I load everything in Google Classroom and give teachers a month to complete it all, taking care of all those required duties and expectations. It is not lost in email, but always in a location that is easy to find.

Even more than that, within one of the forms, I provide a space for questions. If a staff member has a question, they can type it there privately, and I will respond privately to them by either stopping by their classroom or emailing the answer.

I have found so many advantages of flipping information for my staff, not only using this strategy at the beginning of the school year, but I use it throughout the year to front-load discussion meetings, send housekeeping information out each month, and create how-to videos when we start something new. It has saved time for all, but more importantly, it has transformed our staff meetings into collaborative discussions.

This switch was about a change in culture, not about a cool tool. I used a strategy to better make use of the time we have as a staff, intentionally making time for what is truly important - our collective growth to be our best for our students.

While it was a change at first, now this is deeply embedded in the culture of our school. I have watched this strategy transform our classrooms as well, with information delivered via video to our students, so they can watch it multiple times, so more time is spent on creating, making, building, and doing, and less on sitting and listening to a teacher. This is so exciting to see!

We are making better use of our time - inside and outside the classroom - to grow and learn together, young and old. One simple act has transformed our school, and I know more simple acts like this will continue to do so.