Check Yourself

I recently had an opportunity to listen to Mr. Kevin Brookhouser’s speak on the 20time Project at the Toronto GAFE Summit. His message: teachers who offer choice can meet learning goals while creating powerful experiences that lead to increased motivation, creativity and divergent critical thinking. Simple yet very profound. I wrote the following thoughts while on my plane ride home.

My teaching career started when I was in high school during a job shadowing experience.  A real-world learning experience inspired me as opposed to memorizing facts and figures in my core subjects…who knew!  Imagine 16-year-old me, I liked music, I was pretty good at it, the music rooms were my second home. When I had the opportunity to mentor someone, it just seemed natural to shadow my band director.  I had my “lightbulb” a-ha moment when I was presented with an opportunity to teach a rhythm lesson to 10-year-old budding percussionist. I helped her through grasping a concept and when she got it, I got it…I want to teach. 

Little did I know, that moment would lead me down a very interesting path in education.  It has been a path that has engrossed me, a path that is unfinished, a path that if you squint hard enough drops off to…where?  

Prior to seeing clarity with the scary (yet awesome) realization that our 21st century educational thoroughfare is being built as we travel it, I taught instrumental music in a very rural and high-poverty school for almost a decade.  I loved it, was good at it, and kids usually liked coming to my class.  Naïve-me thought their engagement in my class was a reflection on my teaching – ha!  I eventually figured out they liked coming to the band room for the same reasons I liked it when I was in high school – they enjoy music, they like playing an instrument, and my classroom felt safe.  One could argue that none of those reasons are because of me.  This is where my mother’s voice pipes up and says, “Now Meredith, they feel safe and secure in your room because you fostered that. They love music because you have inspired them. Etc., etc., etc.” Ok Mom, I’ll take a tiny bit of it but it really comes down to the fact that they felt empowered in my classroom. 

Learners felt safe – check.
Learners felt supported – check.
Learners were given autonomy – check.
Learners were given an authentic audience – check.
Learners were passionate and interested in the content – check.
Learners saw a potential future with the work they completed – check. 

Here’s the kicker – my learners chose to be in my class.  That’s huge. It wasn’t until I was out of the classroom teaching teachers, facilitating professional learning, presenting to all content area educators that I realized most educators don’t get to experience the luxury of being an elective teacher and how absolute key that was to my (accidental) classroom success. 

Now and probably for the rest of my time on this earth, I will encourage all educators (and leaders!) to pattern after or emulate an elective class by giving student voice, choice, and ownership on their learning while also providing some authentic audience and networking outside of the classroom walls.  Technology obviously provides an accessible avenue to achieve this work.

I’ll sign off by asking one simple question: Do you want to take your class?

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A Dedication

This blog post is dedicated to the 2015-2016 Prairie Lakes Area Education Agency Technology Innovation Team.

From my first tweet, I have had a team – my tribe – as a support system through my transformation from a classroom teacher to an instructional technology consultant. In addition to being a general resource for my many, many questions, they truly inspire me. This tribe always strives to #makeitbetter. Their patience with my naivety and ignorance to this new world has been unending. My tribe enveloped me from the beginning and their virtual arms of support are felt every day.

I’d like to give a quick shout-out to these amazing people.

First there’s Scott, alphabetical by last name but also because he’s been my leader. He believes in me, trusts me, guides me, coaches me and shows me possibility. Scott is leaving us for Colorado (Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at the University of Colorado-Denver) but what an impact he’s had on my path and to the education system in Iowa.

Julie would be up next, my “official” AEA-assigned mentor;-) So much more than that. From our first hotel stay together at #ISTE2015, I was impressed by her vast knowledge of educational practices, past and present as well as her keen ability to coach. Textbook definition of mentor is: a person that advises…Julie has done that and then some by enriching our discussions with her deep expertise in such a way that is suitable and helpful to my situation and practices.

Now I would like to talk about Erin…oh, Erin, I will miss you next year (she, too, is leaving the team to explore the path of Instructional Leadership)….she is always so loving and caring, arms (and heart) open for a hug. Erin impresses and inspires daily with her ability to transform written and spoken word into poetry, exquisite word choice that when put together is true beauty. Paired with her awesome ideas on lesson redesign, I could honestly listen to or read her work all day.

Last, but definitely not least is Leslie. CSPAN Fellow, IA Social Studies Teacher of the Year, PBS Innovator, ASCD Emerging Leader, NSBA 20 To Watch, ISTE Emerging Leader…..enough said? No. She’s thoughtful and insightful. Leslie has been my “unofficial” AEA mentor with all things logistical and practical, a role that I’m sure is fairly thankless (“Leslie, what is appropriate to wear to this/that? Leslie, who is this person and what do I need to know about them? Leslie, what are your thoughts on….”) The latter question being the one that I have gotten fascinating responses. She sees potential, articulates her vision exceptionally and always considers the real-world application.

One might think our tribe is dwindling but these wonderful souls will always be connected and unbroken. States and contracts might divide us but my heart will always feel warm and full when I reflect on our work together this past year. Love to you all.

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The Stage Has Been Set

The stage at Laurens-Marathon Elementary has been set, well – almost. On March 4th they will “attempt” their first MakerDay and the stage in the Old Gym, or Gymnatorium as some have referenced it over the years, will be transformed into….? What? We don’t know! That’s the beauty of a makerspace. Teachers, parents and community members have donated countless supplies and their own time for this opportunity for the students of Laurens-Marathon. It has been an amazing outpour of very needed love and support after a couple of very rough years of budget cuts and staff reductions.

Kurti, Kurti and Fleming stated it best in a feature article for the Teacher Librarian: The Journal for School Library Professionals: “The maker movement in education is built upon the foundation of constructionism, which is the philosophy of hands-on learning through building things. Thus maker education is a branch of constructivist philosophy that views learning as a highly personal endeavor requiring the student, rather than the teacher, to initiate the learning process. In this philosophy of learning, teachers act as a guide for inquiry-based approaches to the development of knowledge and thinking processes. Upon reflection, it is natural to believe that the learner should initiate learning, as it is physically impossible for any teacher to mechanically rearrange and reinforce the physical neuronal pathways developed in the brain during the learning process.”

Wish us luck and if you are in the area of Laurens, Iowa on March 4th, there will be an Open House from 3:30-5:30 that will display…..? What? We don’t know! (I also couldn’t NOT give a plug for our local Pool Committee that has aligned a pancake fundraiser supper in the school lunch room that night as well – support our students and community in one shot!)

Stay tuned – I will be sure to post all the Laurens-Marathon Elementary making throughout the day #LMChargers and #plaea.

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Makeys, Coding, Arduinos OH MY!

I was recently invited to participate in the North Union High School J-Term experience as a guest (really, I was just the AEA lady that brought some fun tech toys to play with:-).  What an absolute wonderful place to be during these freezing, dark days of January!  During these past 2 weeks, the halls were abuzz with work, students were engaged in passion projects and office referrals are almost non-existent.

The stop-“regular”-school-for-two-weeks-and-do-something-innovative experiences are catching. Some schools opt to have the experience as a May-Term, some have transitioned to incorporating 2 experiences/year and some schools have yet to be enlightened. The rigorous learning that is happening at NU during J-Term is Project-Based Learning (PBL). Driving questions are explored which lead to innovative teaching & learning, thus creating a personalized learning experience for all students involved.  I have attempted my first Storify below to capture just a glimpse of some of the magic.


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AAs (Not the Batteries)

We know that Christmas is the battery season (late on Christmas Eve night: “Honey, I swear we had more AAs!”) but I’d like to share another AA Christmas adventure (non-battery related) – student Authenticity and Agency.  Here is a recent personal experience that has proved to me, once again, to keep fighting the good fight with effective technology integration:

My niece got an iPad for Christmas, I was lucky enough to be close by when she first started exploring it’s capabilities. The old me, circa 2013/14, would have, after some research, installed some highly rated and recommended educational game apps for her and let her go solo. The new me, my world having been recently rocked and my eyes opened to possibility, went another route. The camera.

In less than 30 seconds, she (and my daughter, collaboratively – we nixed plugging them both into 2 separate devices) started creating stories and narratives from basic objects around the house via the camera and a simple app (Chatterpix Kids in this case). Immediately we could hear giggling and wonderful 7-year-old conversation (“Let’s try this angle. No, the light is better here” etc.) Within minutes, I witnessed their proud smiles after they presented their masterpieces to their audience, our family. What a sight.

If you are implementing technology (or any student work) in your classroom or at home, think of this story and ask yourself:

  • Is the student work reflective of their interests or passions?
  • Do my students have the opportunity to initiate, be entrepreneurial, be self-directed, and/or go beyond given parameters of the learning task or environment?

If you can resoundingly say “YES!”, awesome – keep going – you’re on the right track. If your answer isn’t an assured “Yes”, awesome – you asked yourself the hard question – you’re still on a right track. Your track to #makeitbetter.

The questions are pulled from trudacot – a discussion protocol intended to help facilitate educator conversations about deeper learning, student agency, and technology integration – Thank you Scott McLeod and Julie Graber!

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The Art of APEX

Earlier this week I had an opportunity to visit an extremely forward thinking school in the Des Moines area, Waukee APEX (Aspiring Professional Experience). After circling the downtown block with the correct address several times, I finally committed to parking… “Really? This is the school?” There was no school signage, business people were going in and out, and there wasn’t a student in sight (at least, upon first assumption). My world was about to be rocked. Inside was, indeed, a business. Most of the people I saw were employees but mixed in were junior and senior students from the Waukee school district, dressed and definitely acting the part of an employee.  Their “classroom” is housed the business space of DLR Group and without prior knowledge, one would think of these young individuals as paid employees doing regular work.  They was 17 students, an instructor and a buzz of activity. This particular course was Designing Communication Solutions which is within the APEX Business, Technology & Communications Strand (other strands can be found here). Throughout the semester, these students are paired with businesses to complete requested projects and work for a few hours every afternoon instead of attending conventional, bell-to-bell classes.  I would normally put air quotes around work but I can’t, they are doing real, actual work for real, actual businesses.  They have clients to consult and deadlines to meet. Sounds familiar – like my job – but they are high school students. LOVE!

Through inquiry-based learning and authentic experiences, students build skills in key areas: productivity/accountability, complex communication, critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and flexibility/adaptability. They are featured below (graphic art/design credit: Brandon Vacco, APEX Student).Screen Shot 2015-12-09 at 12.33.09 PM

As a mother, educator, community member and regular ‘ol human being – I want this opportunity for ALL kids. Rural or urban. Small or large district. Financially stable or financially struggling. How do we make this happen? If you are a parent, ask your child’s teacher what real-world applications are happening in your their classroom. Volunteer your business or expertise if you see a fit.  If you are an educator, keep doing awesome things but #makeitbetter – there is always room for improvement. If you see an opportunity to work outside the 4 walls of your classroom, take it! Only good can come from students seeing the relevance and real-world application of the work they are doing in their classroom. And if you are removed from the local educational institution for whatever reason (kids have graduated, etc.) – get back in there, attend a school board meeting, ask questions, offer your services, listen, volunteer, be active! It takes a village.

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Girls Who Code

Computers are not going away, therefore, computer programming jobs are not going away. Currently there are 586,982 open computing jobs nationwide. These jobs are growing at two times the national average. 57% of all bachelor’s degrees are earned by women. Narrow the field to computer science and only 12% of those degrees are awarded to women. We need to even that playing field.

Senior VP at Google, Susan Wojcicki is quoted saying, “Learning to code makes kids feel empowered, creative, and confident. If we want our young women to retain these traits into adulthood, a great option is to expose them to computer programming in their youth.” YES! Agreed on all accounts.

How? As a mother of 4 and 7-year-old daughters, Anna and Elsa gets them every time. As an educator, I might use someone like Karlie Kloss (model and entrepreneur) and Made with Code to spark some interest. As an instructional technology consultant, I would suggest finding an avenue such as an after/before school coding club for girls similar to what Barrington High.

Whatever route you find the most appropriate for your situation, remember “Learning to code is useful no matter what your career ambitions are.” (Arianna Huffington, founder of The Huffington Post). It teaches you how to think. It’s hard to argue that that’s not a necessary job requirement!


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Fame Thanks to Facebook

Ok, so I’m not going to be completely famous but I will be featured in a national aired commercial come January, meet and work with a celebrity and be picked up by a chauffeur (he/she will even have my name on a card!) at LAX tomorrow morning…this is a domino effect that started with a Facebook post a few months ago.

Back Story: I have always been overweight – size 16 when I graduated high school, size 18 when I married and a size 20 after 2 kiddos. I decided in July of 2013 to lose 25 pounds. I enlisted the help of Atkins (I love meat – low carb appealed to me). Fast forward to now, I’ve lost and kept off 108 pounds for over a PicMonkey Collageyear. Once I adopted the Atkins “lifestyle” (I hate the word diet and I will eat this way for the rest of my life), there was no going back. It was for me – I have more energy, I feel good, and I actually attempted to jog which has turned into a 15 mile a week addiction. I don’t want to say it was easy but it was easier than I originally thought it would, hence going past the 25-pound goal. A couple of months ago the Atkins Facebook Page advertised for success stories/before-after pictures (there was a drawing of some sort). I took 3 minutes out of my day, posted my pics/story, checked back a week later and found out I didn’t win the drawing. Oh well. Those things don’t happen to regular people anyway, right?!

About three weeks ago, I received an email from a marketing coordinator at Atkins inquiring on my story they had read on Facebook. I called them back and found out that they were interested in possibly shooting me in a commercial. No joke! We set up a Skype interview for the next week with the head honcho andI went about my business. I figured it was a long shot, they mentioned there were several interviews and they would choose 3 people. I thought I was lucky just to be asked for an interview.  Long story, short: They picked me!  I will be on a plane to California tomorrow morning – clothes fittings, interviews, car service, and a commercial shoot during the remainder of the week.  All started from a quick post on social media.

If you’re still reading, having endured all my selfish fame talk, I ask one thing of you: if you are faced with a parent, a teacher, an administrator, ANYONE that brushes off the power of social media (in the classroom or not) – please share my story. Imagine how a couple clicks of the mouse could transform someone else? Good or bad…



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Ad HoC

Leslie Pralle-Keehn and I have been working on a 6-week blog series leading up to the Hour of Code in December. Here is the second installment recently published on our team page RethinkRedesign:

This week we would like to share some awesome resources for the upcoming Hour of Code during Computer Science week, December 7th-13th. Hopefully, you have heard of Hour of Code (HoC), want to be involved and have started planning your specific event(s) at your school/community. As of today there are 97,227 events planned in 180+ countries. To say least, there are a lot of online resources available. We would like to help your planning process as you are sifting through the vast world wide web. Below are age-specific resources you might want to consider with a couple of notables:   

PreschoolBotLogic, web-based and geared for very young users, web-based, full curriculum available

1stScratchJr, app available on iTunes or Google play

2ndDiscovery Education, free samples and paid version

3rdHopscotch, app available on iTunes, make your own games

4thBlockly, series of games, when finished, players are ready to use conventional text-based languages

5thScratch, create interactive games and stories and share online

6thSnap!, build-your-own-blocks feature

7thStarwars, Build the galaxy with JavaScript

8thComputerCraftEDU, programmable turtle robots to Minecraft

9thKhan Academy – HTLM/CSS Webpages, (webpage creation inspired)

10thCodecademy, (multiple interest inspired)

11thTinkercad, (3D-printing inspired)

12thSonic Pi (music inspired)

Obviously there are TONS more out there…the above are ones we have either had personal experience with or seen/heard awesome student success stories. We would like to invite you to comment below with any additional “must have’s” that are missing. Our list is ever-evolving and we are all about: #makeitbetter !

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Win at BIG

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to tour an amazing school. Yesterday, I met some incredibly talented kids doing unbelievable work. Yesterday, I saw the future. Today, and this day forward, I will share their story in hopes we can move in this direction as an educational system. Iowa BIG knocks down the traditional walls of school and follows this mantra: Let your passions drive you to do something great and be open to building authentic relationships and teams. -Dr. Trace Pickering, Co-Creator & Associate Superintendent.

Iowa Big in Cedar Rapids, was started in 2012 as somewhat of an unorthodox experiment. Three years later and octupled in size, it is bursting with student success that needs to be shared. Something is working very, very well in this fully competency-based model. Below is a breakdown of the differences between the BIG model and traditional or “regular” school:

The Iowa BIG Model: The Current K12 Model:
-Content is delivered on demand as a project requires.

-Students are measured individually against the Iowa CORE, Common CORE, and NGSS.

-21st century and employability skills are embedded in every student’s experience.

-Curriculum comes from business, nonprofit, and government agencies in the form of projects, problems and initiatives.

-Responds directly to needs in the economy by embedding students in the economy.

-Personalized educational experience to honor student goals.

-Focus on service and entrepreneurialism.

-Subjects are integrated as they appear in the adult world – content is contextualized for deeper learning.

-Learning centers on fundamental tenet of core subjects like economics and computer programing.

-Designed to prepare citizens for the information-age world.

-Focuses on delivery of specific content.

-Curriculum is often standardized and legitimized by historical use.

-Content is delivered on a pre-determined schedule.

-Focuses majority of efforts on preparing students for college.

-Subjects are separated from one another for ease of scheduling and management.

-Students are clustered by age and ability level for efficiency purposes.

-Designed to prepare citizens for an industrial-age world. 

Who doesn’t want the Iowa BIG column for our children?! Is what they do in Cedar Rapids the perfect solution for all schools and should our educational system do a complete overhaul? No and the leaders at BIG would agree. Should we start the discussion and movement towards a VERSION of this model in our schools? YES! It will look very different in rural communities and that’s okay, it should. Cookie-cutter is not what the BIG idea is. If we keep our focus on offering students an opportunity to follow their passions and interests, integrate the community to use the student’s learning in context to the real world, and integrate subjects just like they are used and referenced in the real world it will be a win:win for everyone, especially our students.


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