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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A Pebble On My Path

My world has been completely flipped upside down, inside out and all-around since June 4th when I accepted my position at PLAEA as the newest instructional technology consultant. The ride, so far, has been incredible. My brain hurts at the end of the day (literally, I’ve had more headaches than ever – I blame the computer screen), my knowledge of apps/software/programs/extensions/etc. has ballooned, my colleague bucket went from 20-some to 280-some (and that’s just the agency, it does not count my school administrators, teachers and students), and you can find me going to bed smiling almost every night. I am confident that I am on the correct path.

This week I had the pleasure of researching and preparing for a presentation on digital story-telling. The topic isn’t completely new to me, only fairly.  Last year, when I wore the hat of an elementary computer teacher, I had my second graders write a digital story on their iPads in conjunction with a classroom project. Time constraints come with teaching full time and  I didn’t have the time to research the latest and greatest app. I committed to the first “good” app I saw in the App Store and went to town. In hindsight, there are many different things I would have done with that unit (like finding a better app) but overall, the unit was a success and I would encourage teachers to explore the possibilities of digital story-telling.

Through my recent digital story-telling presentation prep I came up with an equation:

Designing + creating + presenting =

  • Research Skills: documenting the story, finding/analyzing information
  • Writing Skills: developing a story/point of view
  • Organization Skills: managing the project, materials, and timeline
  • Technology Skills: learning to use a variety of tools 
  • Presentation Skills: deciding on how to present your story
  • Interview Skills: finding sources and questions for interviews
  • Interpersonal Skills: group-work dynamics and deciding roles
  • Problem-Solving Skills: decision making at all stages of the project
  • Assessment Skills: increase knowledge when critiquing their own and others’ projects

Pretty incredible equation, huh? All that with one simple implementation.  I know, for some it might not seem simple, you might have limited technological experience, but for most, this is very do-able. For those others that might be “less-techy”? Dive in, try it – you can’t break an app (mom, did you get that?;-)

My crazy, flipped upside down world landed me on this path and digital story-telling research is just a pebble. What happens when you take a pebble and put it with a bunch of others? Eventually they will lead to something….



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First and Last

#itecIA 2015  In. The. Books.

First one for me, not the last. However, it will most likely be the last ITEC conference I will attend as an audience member solely. My future will include presenting (background on me: I have never presented outside the safety and security of my old school). My colleagues are great presenters – they have set a high bar.  I will do my best to do right by my team with future presentations.

It was very interesting meeting and seeing all of the different people at this conference. Similarly to a classroom, there are many different backgrounds, abilities and attitudes. I took full advantage of being an audience member but also keeping a keen eye for what the presenters said, did and included for information on their slides. Very informative on many levels.

Everyone seemed to be very welcoming and I do look forward to building many relationships. Technology can connect people around the globe, which is amazing, incredible and so necessary in our society. Consequently, it can also be isolating at times (a large portion of your work day spent in front of a screen and not physically interacting with people). I am realizing the piece I have been missing the past couple of months since packing up my classroom-people in their physical form-I will just have to feed that need at conferences and meet-ups.  Like, mondo feed. Like, all-you-can-eat buffet.

Okay, I’m putting down the fork from ITEC and will pick it back up, well, tomorrow at our statewide bi-annual AEA meetup! An oasis of physical beings this week, yee-haw!

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My First Maker Day!

IMG_1246I have recently experienced my first maker experience in a school.  What a sight to be seen!  I had read about them, I had visited a large maker faire but had never witnessed it at work in the hallowed halls of a school.  The engagement of students was incredible.  IMG_1233Collaboration between kids was breath taking and the creativity, oh my!

What is a maker experience in a school?  It began with the maker movement which is, in a nutshell, a combining of inventors/tinkerers/designers and technology.  The popularity of the movement within schools might be fueled by needing more tactile, physical attributes of science and engineering pursuits to engage young students (without losing them in a screen).  Some schools have devoted areas, blank canvases, IMG_1239stocked with all sorts of supplies for designing, building, creating and inventing.  Other schools opt for a one/two/three day event where regular school stops and “making” starts.  Students rotate through different stations, each one focusing on one or more core concepts but always allowing for authentic work and personal choice.  This is an awesome step for schools shifting from traditional teacher-led classrooms.  These maker spaces turn students to the center of their learning experience.

During my recent “first”, I facilitated three different stations: Sphero Chariot Racing, Cardboard Creation and littleBits for Big Brains.  Each session was designed around the following framework (a shoutout to my teammate Erin Olson for her expertise!):

  • Explanation (less than 5 minutes)
  • Brainstorm/Think time (5 minutes)
  • Create (20-30 minutes)
  • Reflect/Share (10 minutes)
  • Revision (10-15 minutes)
  • Celebrate/Final Reflect (10-15 minutes)

The above framework  guided the kids perfectly (and me too!). I was nearly brought to tears towards the end of the second day… IMG_1256the level of engagement and concentration while the students were creating with the littleBits circuitry was off-the-charts INCREDIBLE!  I have been around the block, I have taught for almost a decade and let me assure you, this maker movement is something to pay attention to.  I believe (hope, pray, wish, desire, crave) this is the future of our education.  Kids central, kids creating, kids IMG_1254problem-solving, kids engaged, kids interested, kids collaborating, kids designing, kids planning, kids active.

Kids. Loving. Learning.

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Building Blocks

The internet is blowing up with first-day-of-school selfies and stories on social media, reflections of the past year, and wishes for the coming year (not to mention back-to-school marketing to test your self control).  My household is is the full throes as well.  Our youngest daughter has started preschool at our local school and with that, lots of firsts have ensued.  My husband and I had an opportunity to “slow start” with her for 1/2 a day.  During these three hours we went over classroom procedures and familiarized ourselves with her room and routine.  As a parent, it was an assuring experience.  I now know my child is safe and engaged.  I can picture what activities she will be doing for the next 179 school days.

IMG_0993As an educator, I had mixed emotions throughout the morning.  Let me explain: there are amazing, fantastic experiences being offered in our preschool classrooms across the nation.  Children can explore cooperative play, verbalize ideas and act out realistic situations in the Home Play Area.  Children can plan, observe, compare, make predictions, and discover at the Science Area.  Children build self confidence, learn cause & effect, are creative and have an avenue for emotional expression at the Art Area.  And the list goes on and on with the Writing Area, Block Area, Listening Area, Puzzle Area, Library Area, and Sensory Area.  Each space offers in-depth exploration and enquiry while the students are always central to their learning which is using essential tools and skills necessary for a 4-year-old to be successful.

If my child is exposed to all these rich experiences then why do I have mixed emotions as an educator?  Sadly, these experiences will wane throughout her elementary and secondary school movement. The magic will go away, the excitement will fade.  Real-world experiences are replaced by the next test.  Projects will be replaced by reports or Powerpoints that are assigned by the teacher, probably driven by state standards coverage, and these papers or projects will never see the light of day outside the classroom.  Kids will do (or not do) homework for a grade.  The grade will go in the gradebook and at the end of the quarter or semester that student will get an A, B, C, D or F.  Ok – but what did the student learn?  What will they take from their learning to contribute to our society?  What real-world skills were honed?  Did memorizing those dates and names teach them anything?  Can what they are taught be easily Googled?  If so, we failed.  We are failing.  Our educational system is failing by the lack of change in an ever-changing technological world.

Somewhere between preschool and 12th grade our focus shifts from what’s actually important to what seems like it’s important.  The poem Just Playing by Anita Wadley is a good reminder.

Fellow educators – let’s keep playing, let’s keep advocating for play – our kids deserve that much.

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Recipe for Magic


(1) nephew, age 15

(1) daughter, age 6

(1) Mr. Pibb, sustenance for teenage-boy when snarky-ness ensues

(1) Lego Mindstorms, EV3 package

(1) Pandora station, recommend: classic rock or an 80’s station (teenage boy needs to have autonomy with music choice)

Directions: Provide ingredients, a workspace and a gentle push.  Step back and enjoy.

Nutrition: Natural learning occurs on many levels.  Engagement in the activity occurs without prompts for all parties involved (including the chef).  Focus, collaboration, problem-solving and excitement happen simultaneously between ages.  All this with a bonus nourishment of learning to code…..or, rather, coding to learn.

Chef’s Notes: I highly recommend cooking up some of this pure, absolute magic.  You are in for a treat!

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