Rocks in My Head and “Boy, This Room is Messy!”

I may have had a case of “rocks in my head”!

This past Friday was almost like the “Perfect Storm” in a way.  End of a long week, indoor recess, and a full moon approaching.  Add a declared “FUF” (Finish Up Friday) with about six things to get done during the day and you can probably see where I am heading.  Mrs. Pettyjohn, our librarian, had given me a book called “Rocks in His Head”, and I was totally thinking by about 9:40, that I must have a serious case of rocks in my head.  What was I thinking by trying some of the projects that I was attempting?

As I have previously blogged about, this year, I am trying to have the students more “own the learning” and create stories that stick.  I am trying this particularly right now in science.  We had done a great inquiry lesson on growing crystals.  My resources came from You Tube.  After viewing these resources, I had a brainstorm on having the students create their own “DIY” videos on mineral testing.  So, I set up “home teams” and “expert groups”, based on a model that I use to do when teaching solar homes in 4th grade.  Another one of my goals this year was to flip the classroom in a little bit of a different manner this year; instead of my finding resources for the students to view at home, I wanted to put them in charge of finding these resources.  So, they had an assignment earlier in the week to find good web resources on rocks and minerals and then posting them on a page in Evernote.  This went fairly well, so the “experts” went to work by looking at resources to find out about the specific mineral tests of luster, hardness, streak, and acid testing.

On Friday, since the students had done the research, that they could quickly put together a storyboard, film their DIYs using iPads, and conduct the mineral testing.  However, due to conditions stated in the first paragraph of this blog, this was easier said than done.  The  first slight bottleneck was that some groups had a lot of difficulty deciding who was going to do what with their movies.  I describe this situation as “Applied Open Circle.”  Students need to learn how to compromise and work well with the other students in the room.  Writing the storyboards were also problematic with some groups in making sure all of the students were contributing to this project.  Also compounding the issues were that some of the groups were overwhelmed with the prospect of making an iMovie on the iPads.  They had all made iMovies on the laptops, but some were completely overwhelmed in doing it with a new tool.  Another issue was that I had signed up for the iPads pretty much a good part of the day, but another 5th grade class needed to use them, so the amount of time now decreased to get the project done.

One group in particular was very vocal about their dislike of the iPads for iMovie.  The problem with using the laptops was that we did not have enough digital cameras to go around, so I sought out Ms. Howard.  She was tied up in a meeting.  Our iMovie iPad “expert” was out of the room temporarily, so my main resource was also not available.  At this point, I really thought I had rocks in my head for undertaking this type of project and was debating to myself about whether I should forget about it.  I returned to the room, ready to abandon ship.

But a funny thing happened.  One of the students who had attended the Tech Boot Camp had been taught by his 6th grade mentor Amos, how to do iMovie on the iPad.  He had been helping out several groups with this.  Another group of two boys decided to figure it out themselves.  And then my other expert came back and quickly helped out another two groups.  All the sudden, what had been total chaos was now attainable.  It was time to break for a quick snack before heading for an hour long art class.  After that, we would have one hour to finish the project up.

Looks like a tornado blew through the room

After the students left, I looked around the classroom and couldn’t believe the mess.  On a good day, it usually doesn’t look that great.  But today, it looked as if a tornado had blown through.  Laptops, note papers, mineral samples, testing materials, and pencils lay strewn all over the room.   I knew it was bad when a little third grader walked in and said “Boy this room is messy.”  Messy was an understatement.  A disaster was more like it.

The students returned from art and set right to work, since there was under an hour to go before the iPads were to go to another class.  The groups that wanted to use the laptops figured out how to film without a digital camera.  The groups that were using the iPads kept on going.  And by George, by 1:05, all groups were done with their “first draft”.  We would just have to “fluff and buff” the videos on Monday before putting them up on our You Tube channel.

The beginning of our Rock Exhibit

After lunch, we had about 30 minutes to finish another item off of our “FUF” list:  to complete our rock museum.  Students had brought in a rock/mineral sample to write about as well as build our own rock/mineral exhibit.  After writing a detailed description on an exhibit card, students had to create a display box.  There was a lot of measuring that needed to be done to create a box with a blue inside and an gray outside.  As students finished up, they eagerly helped out their classmates who were not done yet.  I appointed one student the exhibit’s curator and he enthusiastically set up our museum.  Finished students filed over to view the display and the “Crystal Corner”.  They were proud because they had created it all, they owned it.  My curator said we should keep this area a museum all year.  I think it’s a good idea.

3:15 came and I led the students out into a cool rain.  It had been a long day, but a productive one in many aspects.  I loved how we had two “unsung” heroes who came to the rescue on the iPad iMovie fiasco.  Several students talked about why they persevered was because they, like Winston Churchill, “never, never give up.”  Looking forward to another great week ahead with these students!

At the end of the day, looks like nothing ever happened!

And BTW, here’s the “after” photo.  As a parent said to me years ago, they would much rather see a room like in picture one than one in this picture.  He said, it shows lots of great things going on in a messy room.



The Power of the Digital Refrigerator

Over the first 13 days of school, the students have been learning to make book trailers on a book that they read over summer vacation.  It hasn’t been the smoothest of processes as having to accomplish numerous beginning of the year assessments took precedent.  I started by showing the students some book trailers made by past students.  We talked about the goal of the project was not to write a summary, but to instead try to entice viewers to read by the book by making it exciting and/or suspenseful.  The tool to plan out these book trailers was a sequencing brain frame for their storyboards.  Students needed to have between 10 and 15 “slides”.

So, the project felt like it was dragging until this past Tuesday.  I needed to review each storyboard, and in many cases, needed to send the student back with some direction on revising their first storyboard.  On Tuesday, I was able to give a minilesson on finding

Our iMovie Genius helps out a fellow student

pictures.  I had some help with this; the students who aren’t in band, have been hard at work becoming iMovie geniuses.  So, they also had some good tips for the other students.  By Wednesday, about half of the students had moved onto the iMovie part of the project.  As a teacher, this was extremely hard since I needed to review storyboards and wasn’t able to provide a lot of instruction on iMovie.   But, that’s where the summer “Tech Boot Camp” paid off big time.  One of my new students had taken what she had learned from a now sixth grader and had gone home and spent a lot of time really perfecting iMovie.  So, I set EC5 off to being the iMovie consultant.  She was confident and took her teaching role very seriously.  She was invaluable.  She was able to give quick minilessons to students who had never used iMovie and she was able to problem solve.  So, the morning was very successful due to the help of our iMovie Genius.

The next day, Thursday, I declared this was the last day to get this project done as I needed to move onto new activities in writing and reading.  The room took on a room of seriousness as students were totally engaged in either trying to finish their storyboards, working on iMovie, or putting the finishing touches on by adding music from Incompetech.  I still had a huge line of students clutching laptops.  Now, we were onto the part where I needed to review/edit their movies.  Once the movie passed “muster”, I uploaded the movie onto our YouTube Channel.  When the students reached this point, I think I asked them to just read quietly.  I couldn’t take the time to figure out what the finished students were doing as I had too large a line of students to still edit their movies.  I looked in the back of the room where two students were looking at one of our desktop laptops.  What were they doing, I wondered.

This is were the magic came into play.  What those two girls were doing was that they were looking at our You Tube Channel.  These girls wanted to see what everyone else had done. One of them said,  “It was cool to see what everyone had done.”  Suddenly, the rest of the students as they finished, rushed over to the computers, or stayed with their laptops and were watching each other’s work.  It was a magical moment.  Suddenly these “newbies” weren’t

Looking at a classmate’s book trailer

consumers, but producers.

After lunch, we processed what the students were feeling about this experience.  Some of their comments included:

  • “The whole world could see our book trailer and it could go viral.”
  •  “It’s kind of cool to think that people all over the world could see our work.”
  •  “I liked it because you could see your work and others’ work and admire what you did or other people did. You could learn from them.”
  • “It made me really giddy to know that everyone out there could like it or not like it.  We are letting people look at our work, not just other peoples’ work.”
  • “It felt good making a book trailer, anyone in the world who has a computer can see it and maybe it would convince them to read the book.  A book publisher may like it if this convinces people to buy more of that book.”
  • “It feels good to have my book trailer on You Tube, It is really exciting to share something with the whole world.”
  • “When I grow up, I want to be a director, so this is good practice.”
Our youtube channel

As the afternoon went on, and Friday morning and afternoon came and went, students kept on going over to the desktops to see how many views they now had.  This type of “digital refrigerator” that was discussed at BLC12 had come to life in our classroom after 14 days.  I have to admit I feel “giddy” too with this type of response from the students.  This is a great start to our school year for sure!

The Art of Feeding Turtles

Turtle 1029 eyes the pellets

We are lucky to be head-starting two Blanding’s turtle hatchlings once again this year.  And like students, the year three hatchlings are very different from Bowser and Yertle, and Kame and Kachua.  One is overly active, climbing on the log and rocks like a mountain climber scaling the Alps.  The other turtle likes to hang out on the heater, floating there like a small child who is holding onto the dock while practicing their flutter kicks.  Their tails seem much longer than the past hatchlings.  They seem to be getting use to the noise of 22 students in the classroom and are responding to my talking to them when it is quiet in the room.  But the one thing that is very different is that we have had them for ten days and they are not good eaters.

Turtle 1029 eyes the food

This year, when we received the hatchlings, we also received “turtle jello” that Bryan Windmiller made.  Turtle jello consists of  unsweetened gelatin, tuna fish, greens, turtle pellets and sweet potatoes.  The thought was that this mixture would be more appealing to young turtles.  Not our turtles, they swam away from it like it was a predator.  I initially had a lot of water in the tank, but was told to try a very small amount of water.  Still no luck.  I decided to try the straight pellets.  Turtle 1038, the mountain climbing turtle, swan to the direct opposite side of the tank.  Turtle 1029 was mildly interested, but not so to eat.

Almost have it!

As days went on, I became more anxious that they weren’t eating.  I know in the wild, the hatchlings don’t eat until spring, but this experience was different than what I had experienced before.  I had a couple of days that previous hatchlings had not eaten but never a week.  On Thursday afternoon, after the students had left, I tried putting a few pellets in the big aquarium and much to my surprise, turtle 1029 went after a pellet.  I went home that night pretty happy that one of the two tried eating.

On Friday, I received an e-mail from Bryan about “my fussy eaters”.  In addition to trying the “crawfish smelly jelly”, Bryan said I could try:

“Another possible direction is to make up your own batch of turtle jello with something more appetizing than the tuna that I used.  I would try canned salmon, maybe some chopped up earthworms, and if that still doesn’t get them (and yoiu don’t mind) some chopped up frozen baby mice.  Just make up as per the recipe that I attached to the protocols.”  

I decided to take the turtles home and try to do a little more experimenting with Juvenile Aquatic Turtle Diet that I had good experience with Kame.  So, after a walk and a talk about robotics, the turtles loaded were loaded up and came with me to get some more coaxing from me to eat.

So, how is the art of feeding turtles like teaching my 2012 – 2013 students?  Well for the first thing, for the first time since Bowser and Yertle arrived in 2010, I have a class of brand new students.  They all have very distinct personalities.  I need to try some different tricks to teach them since they are different students than the last two years.  The one thing that I really want them to do is to “own the learning.”  But, like feeding these fussy eaters, it will be a process to get to that point.

So, gently, I coax both my students and my turtles.  Little by little, I see both becoming more comfortable with me.  They both have their own distinct styles.  I have to put behind me how my past turtles ate and my past students learned.  On Friday, I declared it to be “FUF” short for Finish Up Friday.  There were four assignments I wanted to get done heading into next week.  After the students came in on Friday morning, I asked them what they thought “FUF” stood for.  One student thought it meant “fun”.  I responded that “There’s no time for fun in fifth grade.”  One boy’s eyes lit up and said, “Fifth grade is a lot of fun.”  My heart melted a bit.  Later that day, another student came up  and showed me what he and his partner had done regarding an air, soil and water contamination project.  On their own, they had taken an iPad and wrote their notes on Evernote, completely independent.  They were already starting to own their learning.  While I sat correcting their multiplication fact quizzes on Thursday night, I was struck at the rapid improvement in a week’s time.  Clearly these new students take learning pretty seriously.  I admire their work ethic and will work even harder to be the best teacher I can be for them.

Got It!

So Saturday came and I tried talking and encouraging the hatchlings to eat.  1029 clearly is now eating pellets.  1038 still is not interested in the pellets, despite climbing up the rocks and the floating log in their “home” tank.  While buying the juvenile turtle formula for them, I did spy the frozen mice.  I hope it doesn’t come to that, but if it needs to happen, I will do it.  Just like I will do with my new students.  I will do whatever I have to do to engage them fully in their learning.  New turtles and new students.  It’s going to be a fun year!


The two hatchlings enjoying a Sunday morning breakfast.

Post Script:  On Sunday, I tried a new “trick” to try and feed the turtles.  I noticed that when feeding 1029 in the tank, the turtle liked to hang onto the floating plants to grab the food.  So, I put both turtles into a small feeding tank, added some floating green plants and added a few pellets.  Suddenly, my not so interested in eating turtle began to snap at the pellets.  Finally success!  1038 also seemed to enjoy some of the turtle diet as well.  As I sit down to plan for the upcoming week, I look forward to trying out some new tricks with my new students as well.

BLC12: More Questions and Stories

BLC 12:  More “Questions” and “Stories”

This summer, I was once again fortunate to be given the opportunity to attend the BLC (Building Learning Communities) annual conference in Boston.  These three days are chock full of incredible speakers, great ideas, and a pace that is life in the fast lane to say the least.  There is no lunch break and you can pretty much count on going full throttle ahead from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.  And as a good conference should do, it raised more questions in my head on how to do things differently for my students in the coming school year.  If I had to describe BLC12 in two words, it would be “stories” and “questions”. 

In fact, coming into BLC12, I had a lot of questions.   When you switch grade levels as I did the past year, you are basically one step ahead of the students all year in learning the new curriculum.  I was blessed with having the same students for a second year in a row, so at least I did not have that learning curve.  But, with having the same students, we had a very close relationship and they were not happy with some of the approaches I was taking with the curriculum.  We were skimming the surface in content areas, the assessments were not performance based, and the pace was very quick in order to finish all the content.  I had already spent some time doing some reading this summer by Jeff Utecht, who I had heard during my first trip to BLC in 2010.  Some of the articles that stuck with me were “Flipping History” ( , “The Evolution of the Lecture” ( and “Lecture as Content Delivery is Dead” ( to help me with some of my questions.   Jeff spoke about lectures that “don’t deliver content, but instead inspire, tell stories, and push ideas.”  So, coming into July 18th, I had a lot of questions on how to better engage my students, how to integrate their questions more into the learning, and how to use stories more effectively, both by myself and my students.  A pretty tall order to fill in three short days.

From Google Images


One of the recurring themes during the conference was “The First Five Days” and the importance of establishing a culture in your classroom during those first five days.  Greg Whitby from Sydney Australia spoke about the importance of finding out “what’s your story?”  Marco Torres followed that introduction by discussing about what matters the most to students is a relationship between students and teachers.  What are the students passionate about?  What matters to them?  After this keynote, I went to a session by Marco Torres called “Lights…Camera…Learn!”  As a longtime fan of creating videos in the classroom, this type of media can definitely tell many different stories.  Some new story ideas that I may try as a result of this session would be to try the trailers in iMovie to create a teaser about coming events in the classroom, to create a “First Five Days” movie about what is important to the student, create a “One Day” 30 second video, and a math video.

From that session, I then went to a session called “Gaming in the Classroom” that was conducted by Michael Beilharz.  Using Minecraft, a video game in the classroom, his students created video stories about cities and time periods in history.  This would be another way for students to demonstrate their learning utilizing  a technology that they find very appealing.

While these two sessions focused on using stories in your classroom, the last session of the day, “iSchool Initiative:  Becoming a Mobile Learner” was an incredible story.  Travis Allen, a mere 20 year old, is the President and CEO of the iSchool Initiative.  This entirely student run company is based on the premise to inspire students to become lifelong learners.   Travis spoke about as a learner, it was important for students to be able to find, filter, and apply.  Students do not want to just memorize information; it is more valuable to find the information yourself and apply it than to be told the information.  Travis also had a pretty great strategy for a 20 year old on what you can do to change the world:

  • Work hard, fail a lot, but learn more.
  • Have an absolute love of learning.  This leads to a life of significance.
  • Lead the way.  You can’t always change others, but you can change yourself.

I felt that Travis’s story was really inspiring and it fell into my theory about children being the “Seekers of Knowledge.”  This was an awesome story to end day one.

On Day Two, the “stories” theme continued.  I went to a session called “Storyfinding” by Darren Kuroptwa.  His talk reminded me of what Jeff Utecht had written about

Integrating stories into the classroom.   Darren spoke of how students react to the line “Once upon a time…” and how important it is to make our teaching sticky and our students learning sticky.  He spoke about that adding a picture to a fact increases the ability to remember the information dramatically.  You can tell an awesome story with just one photo.   You want a mundane subject to become a story that is worth watching or learning about.   Darren showed a video of how to make walking up a flight of stairs at a subway station interesting (  In teaching, we need to search out way is a Trojan horse for learning, it opens the door to let in all types of learning.”  We need to look at the history of the subjects that we teach, collect stories, and find out about the personalities of the people that you are teaching.  I also took away that this year, I am going to assign one student a day to write about what we learned in math – to tell the story of that day in math so that we have a running journal on what we learned in math throughout the year.

In another session, “Teaching Empathy Through Literature and the Web”, I learned about to extend the stories that children are reading in the classroom.  By doing this, it would create a richer experience for students as they are reading.  Photopeach ( is another resource to create digital stories.  A great suggestion on how to expose students to different stories is to have the students create book trailers, then have them running on a flat screen television to promote kids to read more.

Through these sessions and by doing some other reading this summer, I feel that I need to integrate more stories into my everyday teaching.  It is important to know your students’ stories, for the teacher to tell more stories, and for the students to also create stories to display their knowledge.  So, storytelling will be one of my own goals for the upcoming school year.

from Google images


On Day One of BLC, I attended “A Flipped Classroom” which was presented by Aaron Sams.  Mr. Sams and his teaching partner were one of the first teachers to “flip” their classroom.  After doing some flipping myself with my partner this past year, I had a lot of questions about this approach.  We utilized Discovery Education videos for our students to watch at home on a variety of topics.  However, I learned that Sams and his colleague create their own videos as he feels that students prefer to hear the teacher’s voice.  He also raised the point that the videos can be used at different times in the learning process.  They can be used to engage and inspire students and kick start a unit.  They also could be used in the middle of a unit after the students have done some inquiry about a topic.  But what I found really intriguing was the concept of Universal Design Learning.  In this type of model, the teacher needs to give the students multiple ways of doing things and they can demonstrate, using different means of what they learned.  I wondered how this could be used in a classroom where the current trends seem to be moving towards common assessments where all students take the same test.  I was also questioning the teacher being the creator of all of the “flipped” content.  I had wanted to have the students find more content last year.  I remember when my students went nuts finding articles and resources about Blanding’s turtles.  How could I engage them more in finding resources to support learning?  A question to ponder for sure.

On Day Two, Alan November’s talk “Who Owns the Learning?” further created more questions for me.  Alan is a master at creating chaos in my mind (in a good way) and this talk certainly accomplished that.    In this talk, Alan continually emphasized that students need to own more of the learning.  Some of his questions were:

  • What does it mean to own the learning?
  • Who is working harder – the teacher or the students?
  • Who should be working harder?
  • How can we shift the workload?  What can we off-load?

All of these are really great questions, questions that should be talked about as a faculty and as a system.  According to November, “Owning the learning does not mean that you are not teaching to the standards.  You are also not teaching to a test.  It is all about control and the shift of control from the teacher to the students.  Students should be finding their own answers as well as asking themselves deeper and deeper questions.”   I also found November’s suggestion about teacher evaluations really intriguing.  He said that when an evaluation is being done, the teacher should be asked to leave the room.  The evaluator should see if the students are self-directed without the teacher being present, that everything is still operational, and that learning does not stop jut because the teacher is not present in the classroom.   In November’s talk, he also discussed that kids need to be able to effectively use search engines.  He talked about Google’s own customized search engine, as well as Diigo, where students can read information and build their own customized library.  Students should be introducing content as well as being peer instructors, and have a global voice.  In this type of environment, students will truly “own their learning” and as Kuroptwa said, it will make the learning “sticky.”  I am a true believer in having kids own their own learning and November’s talk re-emphasized that point as well as put some good questions into my own thinking on how to continue to do this better with my students.

Day Three brought another session that raised a lot of questions about my own practice.  In “Creating 21st Century Assignments:  Self-Paced Mastery Learning in a Flipped Digital Environment”, Garth Holman and Mike Pennington described an environment where team teaching took place 40 miles apart; where students created their own knowledge; where students were more concerned about learning than grades; and where wrote the essential questions that guided their learning.  This talk almost seemed like the perfect culmination of all of the talks that I have highlighted in this post.  These two teachers created a vessel (a wiki) where the students built their own resources.  There was autonomous mastery learning where students move through at their own pace (seems much like the Parker Charter School model).  I loved how they stated that you “want to instill passion, it is much greater than just knowing facts.  You want students to think beyond facts.”    The students would move through a web-quest from a certain point of view.  I tried this during our colony unit, where each pair represented a specific colony and it worked well.  Students would blog about their learning as they went along and they had “blog buddies”.  They too utilized Diigo (I need to ask my CCHS media specialist friend for a good primer on this!) to build their own learning networks.  I loved how they had the students develop all of the big questions.  I have used this technique when I use to do topic work as well as during our past two DPC projects and it works really well since the students have developed the questions, they own them.  This talk was really wonderful and I left it by thanking both presenters and then thinking how I could replicate this type of learning in my fifth grade classroom.

So, as usual, I left BLC completely drained, but brimming with questions.  Here’s my To-Do List to ponder on the summer days I have left:

  • How can my classroom be “flipped” where it is more in control of the students?
  • How can I better integrate stories into my curriculum that excites the students to independently want to learn more about the topic?
  • What is Universal Design Learning and how can we use this strategy in our classrooms?
  • With a new class coming in, what can I do during “The First Five Days”’ to really set the tone for a year of “Questions” and “Stories”?
  • How does one cover all the content while creating a learning community that is built on student questions?

I have to give kudos to BLC 12 for once again causing me to walk away with more questions than answers on how to create a true learning community for my classroom.  “Questions” and “Stories” will indeed be my theme of the coming year.