Choice Boards

It’s always nice to feel validation for the time and energy you’re putting into something. In education, validation can often be difficult to find by looking anywhere other than directly into the eyes of your students, and even then, it isn’t always on the surface. I subscribe to a blog by AJ Juliani, an author in education who I have come to strongly respect and whose opinions always seem to mirror my own. His blog this week highlighted the use of “choice boards” in the classroom and how they “can be an extremely practical way to give meaningful and relevant learning experiences in the midst of emergency remote teaching.”

Boom! What are we using in the AZ right now to further students’ experiential learning while we’re all stuck in our homes? Choice boards! Validation feels good.

We just rolled out our third “Flex Board.” We call them Flex Boards because they’re flexible – students have choice over what they complete. Each board is made of a table of activities ranging in point values from 10 points to 40 points. Lower points = less time/energy/complexity for that task. Higher points = more. They set a “point” goal for themselves to earn within a two-week time period, and they can complete any combination of activities to reach that goal. At the end of the two weeks, they reflect on their achievements and set a new goal for the next two weeks.

We currently have goals ranging from 30 to 150 points. This is personalization at its finest, especially under present circumstances. Some students are motivated and excited to challenge themselves and others are drowning right now. The intent is to help each of them set a reasonable and achievable goal, so they can feel confident and successful under such trying conditions.

All activities on the board relate to a common theme. Our first board’s theme, for example, was COVID-19, so the activities included things like watching and responding to the news, hand-washing experiments, virus exploration, etc. This is our current board surrounding the theme of Wellness: 


Validation also comes in the form of student success. While it can be easy to focus all of your attention on those few students who are not engaging as frequently as hoped, it is SO good to direct your attention to those who ARE. Our second Flex Board theme was Create! Every activity on the board had students designing, building, making, and producing. We try to create (pun intended) activities that will engage students with their surroundings, allow them to explore real-world skills, and promote opportunities for family-time and teaching.

Though many of the activities submitted over the last two weeks were not easily captured in an image, I’ll share some that were.

Some students experimented with wood-working.


Garden Bed


LOVE Blocks


Tech Deck Ramp


Bird House


Coat Rack

Some created 3D dioramas of a historical event. Who was I to say, “No,” when asked if the diorama could be built in Minecraft?


One student is painting his thumb green by growing his own vegetables from scraps in his kitchen.


And MANY students are trying their hands in the kitchen, something I wish I had spent more time doing when I was in middle school.


Egg Bake




Beans and Mashed Potatoes

I see the pictures above, and I feel proud and validated. Our use of these Choice or “Flex” Boards has simplified remote teaching and learning for us, and has provided a great opportunity for personalization across our student population. They offer a variety of activity choices, and it mixes things up every couple weeks as we transition from one board theme to the next. I highly recommend the use of choice boards while teaching from home AND while teaching in the classroom, and I also recommend checking out AJ Juliani’s work.




Room to Grow

Two years ago, a university student spent a quarter of the year observing in my Humanities classroom. He had never before heard of project-based learning and was caught a little off guard upon entering my room expecting an English class. He was very eager to learn about our unique and flexible approaches and enjoyed his time shared with us.

When it came time to teach his one lesson, he was very proud of his plan. He had incorporated drama and storytelling, choice and creation all into one jam-packed creative-thinking design activity. It was my turn to observe, so I sat back and watched. It was a highly engaging activity, and students were excited. All around the room, groups were calling him over to ask if they could do this or that or add in some props or try something like this one thing they saw once. His reply to nearly all questions was, “No.”

When the classroom was emptied of student eyes and ears, I asked him why he turned down so many of the student requests. He didn’t really know why he had except that he hadn’t anticipated many of the questions and didn’t want things to get out of hand. He said, “I just don’t like not having control.” My response?

“How do you think the kids feel?”

Humans yearn for a sense of control in their lives. It’s why so many of us are struggling under our current “safer at home” constraints. The students in our classrooms are no different. Project-based learning can provide students with a strong sense of control simply because they are involved throughout the entirety of the project process. Their voices are included every step of the way. This kind of autonomy in a school setting develops self-confidence, ownership, and independence.

I’m reminded of an idea I read in a book in recent years, though the book it came from is escaping me at the moment. At any rate, the author explains how babies make 0% of their own choices. Everything is decided for them. For safety reasons, it’s the best thing for them at that time. Our society has deemed adulthood to be when a person turns 18 years old, at which point he is responsible for 100% of his own choices. When we look at “growing up” in this way, the author (who I will remember as soon as I publish this post) argues that the job of parents, educators, coaches, and other adults in a child’s life is to prepare students to go from that 0% to 100% in those 18 years with a gradual release of control and independence. In middle school, students are over halfway there.

By handing over a chunk of control to their students, teachers need to be flexible with process and product outcomes. Giving control means giving choice, and students will not all make the same choices regarding their learning environments, processes, or products. That being said, not all students will be able to accept the same amount of control. Some are ready for a lot, while others are not yet equipped for that same amount. It requires a great deal of flexibility, patience, and understanding on the part of the teacher.

One of my favorite recent descriptions about how student differences should dictate the differences in their learning environments and expectations was in a TEDEd Talk delivered by a student named Olivia Chapman in 2017 (check it out!). The talk, entitled Is Equality Enough?brings to light the uncomfortable realization that schools are a great example of negative equality – a spot where equality is not enough but rather equity is what schools should seeks to accomplish.

In her elaborate and eloquent speech, Olivia uses the following metaphor to illustrate the need for equity in schools:

“School is supposed to be a place to learn and to grow, but not all students grow well in the same conditions. Oddly enough, neither do plants. A cactus can store water for long periods of time. It doesn’t need much of any attention, and it is very large and very strong. An orchid, on the other hand, is a small, delicate flower that needs a precise temperature and amount of water in order to survive. So if you were to plant an orchid in the same environment as a cactus and expect them both to bloom, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Likewise, if you plant students in the same classroom environment, and expect them all to flourish, you’ll once again be disappointed. Not taking the time to think about every student as an individual is like telling a flower it’s not beautiful and that it doesn’t deserve to bloom because its petals aren’t the exact same shape or color as all the other flowers. But really, if you think about it, no two children or flowers are exactly alike.”

There you have it. Straight from the heart of a student who is living it. Students, like plants, require differing levels of support and care. There needs to be flexibility in learning environments and expectations based on the individual, not on state and national mandates. We need to foster safe and nurturing, creative and stimulating environments where students are able to grow into their own individual identities, at their own paces. Where they are planted may not fall within our students’ control, but we can offer opportunities for them to flourish and bloom where they are planted.



Unpopular Opinion?

Last week I was worried about a lot of my students. There were some I hadn’t heard from for several days and some who hadn’t submitted anything in weeks. I allowed my worries to get the best of me for a few days, and I’m back to breathing a bit easier again this week. Today I want to focus on the sliver of the student population for whom this whole quarantine thing seems to be working.

Everywhere I look, it seems, there are memes and posts blasted throughout social media describing how distressing and detrimental the switch to distance learning has been for our students’ learning and well-being. It’s true that many, many students are struggling under current conditions due to any number of reasons. And regardless of the student, it goes without saying that all are missing out on very profound social interactions every day we are away. However, what if this sudden shift in learning is exactly what SOME students needed? Let me explain …

After completing our first two weeks of at-home learning, I can name a handful of my current students who are performing better now than I’ve ever seen them perform. Their “assignments” are not only completed on time, but they are done well! For these students, it would seem that being in the comfort of their own homes, distanced from the hustle and bustle of a normal school day environment has served them well. They feel real ownership in how to manage their day and their time, they are more focused and productive when they do choose to work because they are making that choice, and the feeling of pride they encounter when completing a task only inspires a stronger drive for success.

We have another population of students to consider when reflecting about our current learning conditions. Mental health concerns are on an overwhelming rise, and many of our students are included in that rising tide. For some, being at school for a full day does not give them the best chance for success. Though the academic instruction and resources are there, some students are unable to access that instruction due to invisible barriers. The simple act of walking through the school doors is enough to induce genuine physical and emotional symptoms of anxiety or fear for some students. For those whom the building, itself, is the obstacle to accessing learning, this could be an answer.

Though it is not the case for all or even most students, it must be noted that transitioning to distance learning has been a positive change for some. That, in itself, should raise some eyebrows in regards to the day-to-day structures of a “normal” school environment. Could it be that the way classes are currently structured is not suitable for all? Of course they’re not! But why not? And what are we going to do about it?




It’s A Test

In many ways, with the COVID-19 outbreak, I felt very comfortable being asked to transition to distance learning. Much of what the ARCTIC Zone is built on is required within a learning platform like the one teachers across the globe are now being asked to use with their students. The program is built on providing students flexibility and freedom within their day, choice and voice in their learning, and supported independence.

We use an online classroom called Canvas every single day like many classrooms do. However, our online classroom has mapped out content for every “power standard” we have established based on content-specific state and national standards.With our project-based learning environment, while students work through a quarter or passion project, power standards from all areas are tagged to each project, which leads them to predesigned modules in our Canvas classroom. Nothing about the way our project process is designed requires students to be in a classroom.

It has been interesting seeing, hearing, and reading about other educator experiences throughout this unique time that have led me to believe we were better prepared for the shift in learning requirements. On the first day students were kept home, as teachers throughout our building hurried to learn how to use the online classroom or to design altered lessons or to develop a new learning model, my teaching partner and I were very relaxed in comparison. As our district continues to work to decide on essential “power standards” for secondary teachers to focus on for the remainder of the year so as not to overwhelm themselves or their students, we continue to use the power standards we have already established. And more than once, I have read articles or heard podcasts suggest to educators that now, more than ever, might be the best opportunity for them to try their hand at project-based learning.

I feel good about our preparedness for transitioning to a distance learning model, but that is not to say our students are any more prepared for the challenges of working from home, especially during a never-before seen pandemic outbreak such as this. In the first few days of at-home learning, I felt a surge of excitement every time I saw an online submission from a student or heard the ping of a student email coming my way. It was working! They were doing it all from home! After just a few short days, though, that excitement wore off as it became clear that, though many students were accessing and engaging, many were not.

I know there is a level of stress and worry in some homes right now that far outweighs the need for some students to be concerned with school expectations at this time. I know there are parents who are braving the dangers of leaving their homes daily to head to their essential jobs. I know there are students babysitting siblings and cousins during normal school hours. I know there are many home scenarios I DON’T know about right now. I want to be sensitive to the home dynamics that are causing genuine struggle for some students right now. I also know, though, there are students laying around their houses playing video games, watching YouTube, and creating Tik Toks all day.

There are going to be leniencies with grading expectations for this quarter, no doubt, though our district has yet to determine what those might be. There are going to be no students hindered from progressing to the next grade level based on their performance this quarter. So tell me honestly, with no grades, no suspensions, no threat of retention, and no teacher hovering over you, what reason do you have for doing anything school-related for the next eight weeks?

I realize the items I listed above are only external, negative consequences that might serve to motivate some students to do well in school on a normal day. This is exactly my point, though. Are these the things that should be driving students toward success? Let’s remove those factors for a moment – or for an entire quarter thanks to COVID-19 – and see what our students are really made of. For what have we actually prepared them? In my mind, this is the ultimate test.

What have we prepared our students for? Have we developed in them the desire and ability to do what’s right just because it’s what is right? To tackle their schoolwork from home despite the lack of consequences for not doing a darn thing? To reach for success and growth in themselves just because they want to?

I told many of my students this week that this is the ultimate test. In the ARCTIC Zone, they have a lot of freedom and flexibility with how they choose to use their time. They have a lot of independence in directing their own learning compared to their peers down the halls. This is a whole different ball game. They are being trusted with complete independence, freedom, and flexibility within the comfort (perhaps too comfortable) of their own home, complete with distractions galore. Some are rising to the occasion, and some are crumbling.

My feelings of calm while transitioning to distance learning were replaced last week with feelings of concern. Concern for how to increase intrinsic motivation within my low-achieving students over the last two weeks. However, that concern was quickly replaced with a new calm when I was able to remind myself of our best tool: reflection.

No one wants to fail. No one wants to disappoint themselves or others. No one wants that. This is an extreme shift for all of us, regardless of our preparedness ahead of time. So the start of a new week will begin with reflection for all students. They will look back at the last two weeks, their successes and struggles, and make decisions and plans regarding the next two weeks. And already, I am able to breathe easy because I know they will rise. I have seen it so many times before. If given the chance to reflect and reset, they will find success on the other side.

My dad was a writer and had a memory like a steel trap when it came to words. This was especially obvious in his joke-telling, but once in a while he would recite an excerpt from a book or a poem that resonated with him, and you just knew it had meaning because Dad had chosen to know it and say it. Something I heard him say on more than one occasion is a quote I have seen and heard in many places:

“Character is who you are when no one is looking.”

A Time for Change

Everyone, literally everyone, has found themselves face-to-face with challenge and sacrifice, worry and strife, confusion and questions in recent days and weeks. No one in the world has encountered what everyone in the world is encountering today. Tell me then, who is anyone to judge the actions and choices made by others during this unparalleled scenario in which we find ourselves?

As a teacher during this time, I have been witness to conversations regarding how teachers, administrators, and districts at large are handling the sudden change in school dynamics. Social media has become an outlet for people to raise their voices about what should or should not be done or said by this group or that. Some think what is being asked of students is too much while others feel it is not enough. I ask – how does anyone know? And how can districts, administrators, or teachers possibly provide equitable access or expectations knowing every household is different from the next? And of course, there is the amount of time we are all being provided to establish such things.

The truth is, no one knows best practice for this scenario because no one has been faced with this scenario before. Instead of raising our voices about what is or is not being done correctly or quickly enough in this moment, why don’t we take some time to look at what we DO know?

What Is Most Important?

First, let’s think about what this pandemic has revealed about what schools believe to be most important for our students. Safety, full bellies, and human connection. The need for student safety is evident in the very fact that our school doors are closed at this moment. Upon learning that it might come to this, our district did everything in its power to organize and gather two things as quickly as possible. The first was finding a way to provide food for those students who rely on school for one or two meals every day. The second was providing access to technology from the home by sending devices and free hot spots with any students in need so they could stay connected to their teachers and school.

Because we have never faced an immediate need to transition to digital learning like this before, my school district administration is taking time to discuss its options and best practices. Because my district is so large, it often takes longer to implement changes of this scale. The bigger the ship, the more time it takes to change course. However, despite the time it is taking for our district to land on a solid decision about how to move forward with academic instruction and expectations, one thing has been very clear. The one thing teachers are being asked to do is to connect. Be there. Reach out. Provide opportunities for human connection with each student whenever possible. That’s what my district finds most important at this time: safety, food, and connection.

What Is Not Most Important?

In a crisis like this, when schools are forced to decide what stays and what goes, when it matters most, what have you noticed? What have we seen put on the chopping block? Quarter three was immediately cut short by one week, prohibiting any end-of-quarter tests, projects, or other assessments from occurring. State testing was cancelled for all schools. And now, as we wait for further direction, teachers in our district have been guided to only offer supplemental activities, which at this point equals a loss of two weeks of instruction, leading to more.

As I speak with colleagues and friends from other surrounding areas, the discussions being had and decisions being made by each district are very interesting to me. I have heard phrases like “cut your content down to just the basics” or “ only the essentials.” One district told their teachers to scale their content back by 70% and then to cut that in half. First of all, who determines what is “essential” or “the basics” or what “35%” to keep and what to toss? But more importantly, when the rubber hits the road, can we admit that schools are now realizing and accepting that every single bit of content thrown at our students during the school year is not actually necessary?

So What’s Next?

I don’t have an answer for this question, but I know it cannot go back to how it was. This is a chance for the world, the entire world, to rethink a lot of different things. For our country and our state, one of those things is education. We have been gifted an opportunity to really discern what is and is not most important when it comes to what school provides its students each day. Education should not, cannot, look the same when we return.

Imagine a school year where students only learned 35% of what is currently being taught. How much quality time could be spent on those “essential” skills? How in-depth could teachers go? How creative could they be if given the time to innovate?

What if we did away with standardized testing completely? If it’s okay for one year, why can’t it be okay for the next? And the next? What impact could removing this one thing have on teacher morale, student confidence, and family concerns?

Is there a version of school that exists where secondary students participate in one digital learning day each week or each month, providing teachers with collaboration and professional development time without intruding on student learning days? Is there a version that exists with no bell schedule shuffling students from one core content area to the next and the next and the next and the next?

What changes would you like to see? Because there will be change. An event like this doesn’t take place without a good amount of change following in its wake. What that change looks like depends on a lot of factors though, and voices is one of those factors. Perhaps we could use our social media and other communication outlets to raise our voices about positive change for the future of our schools. Our students, our teachers, and our families deserve it.

A Balance in Control

Yesterday, I blogged about focusing on what’s in our own control. It’s funny because just over a week ago, I began to write a post about knowing how and when to find a balance in control in your classroom. I had about two paragraphs complete, and then I had to step away because of recent events. Yesterday’s post seemed more fitting, but I wanted to jump back in and finish my thoughts about “control” from before we were hit with this pandemic. So here goes…

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

One of the most common frustrations I hear from teachers who have or are planning to transition to a PBL approach in their classroom is knowing how to give up their control to their students. It’s a huge leap for teachers to make. Most of us grew up with our own teachers standing at the front of the classroom, deciding the agenda for the day, determining our next steps in our curriculum, telling us what to do or to read or to make next. When we went to “teacher school,” we likely imagined ourselves taking that spot at the front of the room, imagining all of the ways we would emulate our favorite teachers from our past while adding our own flare to our own classrooms. I know I did.

So when we look around and agree that school maybe doesn’t look quite the way it should, and you begin to dip your toes into what you think might be a more authentic approach to real-world learning, one of the toughest things to face is stepping out of that spot at the front of the room. Releasing your control to your students. Letting them call the shots. Allowing them to choose their own paths. It’s hard for many reasons. You can’t know what’s going to happen. It’s unpredictable, and that can be scary. It’s also difficult to watch students fail, even when we know the powerful learning that can come from failure. When I read about PBL or when I talk to others doing it, giving up control is one of the most challenging parts for most people.

It was the opposite for me. This was one of the things I was most excited about when transitioning to a PBL model. I couldn’t wait to step aside and figure out my new role as a “guide on the side,” if you will, while my students were able to explore their own interests and ideas and dreams, making mistakes along the way, adjusting as they went. I love to be the person who stands up for the capabilities of my students. I dare people to approach me with a comment about how they’re “only in middle school.” I pounce at the opportunity to defend and brag about what I have seen my students accomplish. I am very good at scooting over and letting my student grab hold of the reins. It’s been one of my biggest strengths throughout this process, but it has also been a weakness.

Where most people struggle to know how to let go, I have realized, especially recently, that I need to hold on a little tighter than I have at times. I do not pretend to know everything when it comes to best practices in delivering a PBL model, but I believe I pay attention pretty well and do a decent job of reflecting on each project, each quarter, and each year as it passes. I believe I am improving in knowing when to release and when to hold tighter on my reins of control.

A good example I have of this is our annual Film Festival quarter project. Each year, during third quarter, our students participate in the same project. It’s the only project we repeat from year to year. Being that it is our only annual repeat project, it has allowed us ample opportunity to evaluate the successes and struggles with the project each year and to adjust accordingly in the coming year. I believe the following descriptions display my need and my ability to pull a little tighter on the reins each year until finding the right balance.

With each Film Fest project, we introduce a new challenge…

In year one, students were tasked with using cause and effect to explain a medical discovery that has impacted our world today. They could work alone or in a group. They could plan out and create the film however they wanted. It was our first time trying a project like this, and the expectations and requirements were pretty loose. “Make a movie!” How cool does that sound? What we found is that it’s way easier said than done. We ended up with some okay films that had good information in them but were either boring or confusing to view. 

In year two, we decided to focus our efforts on cinematography. If we were asking our students to produce a quality film, it is only fair that we provide ample guidance in how to do that. The challenge was to tell a true untold story and why it’s important for the world to know about it. If you’ve seen the movie Hidden Figures, this is the idea we were going for – a story that is not well known but is deserving of an audience. We decided to require that students work in a group this time around so that roles could be split up among students for such a lofty project. We also brought in a local filmmaker who taught about various elements of cinematography like how to prep your film ahead of time with a screenplay and storyboard, how to make camera shot and angle choices, and how to properly edit your final product. With a bit more control in our court, we ended up with some higher quality films that still lacked in many areas. Mostly, quality suffered because groups were struggling to manage their time throughout the quarter and found themselves cramming at the last second.

This year, we decided to share the driver’s seat even more. The challenge was storytelling – to tell a compelling story. We required multi-grade-level groupings so every group had at least one student who had the cinematography lessons from last year to apply to this year’s film. Then we deliberately chunked their tasks and timelines for them. Certain parts of the project were done entirely in Humanities class, guided by me, while other parts were done with their groups in a CHILL time we had them set aside for Film Fest work only. I had my hand on the reins more than usual this time around, but I’ve come to realize that’s necessary from time to time. Our films this year are the best we have seen yet. They are more complete and creative than we have seen before.

I believe these successes were there because of the control we decided to take back within this project. PBL isn’t about giving up all control to students. They aren’t prepared for that. Nor are most teachers. It’s about finding a balance in control. Giving and taking. In many ways, the ARCTIC Zone is my own PBL project, in which I continue to make mistakes, reflect, adjust, repeat. Each year, each project gets a little bit better.


Would it Help?

Friday evening, as I stood on top of one of the cafeteria lunch tables, clapping and facilitating the choreographed curtain call for our school play performances coming up on what would have been tonight and tomorrow, another adult in the building called me over to tell me the news about schools closing midweek. This would likely impact our play performances, and I was not about to interrupt our rehearsal to deliver the bad news. So we finished the night, the painting of the set, the running of lines, the grapevine in the curtain call, and when we gathered as a cast before saying our goodbyes for the evening, I broke the news.

I was honest about what I don’t know – which is a lot. All around me, I listened and watched as students absolutely fell apart. I mean full-on tears from many of them. They were just devastated. And it wasn’t only because the show they’ve worked on for months was being postponed. I had several of my students from class approach me in a panic about how they were going to finish their projects in time because this was supposed to be the last week of the quarter. One girl looked right at me and told me through sobs that school was the only social interaction she had. Ouch. Try responding to that without needing to swallow a lump first. This really hurts. I imagined some groans about the play, but honest tears about getting to miss school for a while? It wasn’t the reaction I had expected.

I settled the room and took a breath. Then I explained my favorite mantra to them. If you’ve seen the movie Bridge of Spies, you may remember the Russian spy who is held as a prisoner throughout the film. Numerous times, the men holding him ask him if he’s nervous or if he’s worried about what is to come. His calm reply is always, “Would it help?” I’ve tried, in all aspects of my life, to hold onto that mindset. I think it applies here perfectly.

We can only control what we can control, and what is happening to the world around us in recent days is very much out of our control. There are a million unanswered questions and confusing circumstances. No one knows what to expect tomorrow or next week or next month. Not knowing, not having any control over the matter, is what scares people. But worrying won’t help the situation. We can only control what we can control. That’s what I tried to communicate to my cast on Friday evening. This is one of those times when all we can do is breathe and move forward together, one day at a time, adjusting to new circumstances where needed.

I feel very fortunate. The ARCTIC Zone uses an online classroom daily, and we practice student discipline and independence with every project. We felt very prepared to transition from a face-to-face instructional delivery to a purely online platform. In fact, the last 24 hours alone have been enough to convince me to advocate for students bringing their school devices home all the time. I could barely keep up with the student emails and online submissions I was receiving last night and all day today. I’m proud of the discipline my students are already showing in such a unique set of circumstances.

With so much out of our control right now, we need to focus on the things that remain in our control. We can control our words. Our actions. We can breathe. We can smile. We can show love and kindness to others. As we begin to navigate these new waters ahead of us, when we begin to feel worries creep in, let us all remember to stop ourselves once in a while to ask, “Would it help?” Because this, too, shall pass…


Developing Purpose

One of the most commonly asked questions about the ARCTIC Zone is “Who is your target student population?” As in – which kinds of students benefit most from our learning environment and structure? We have been guided and encouraged by many people to try to narrow our answer down to help students and families make decisions about registration or to help the community better understand our goals. The truth is, though, we don’t have a good answer for that question, and I don’t know that we ever will.

We have students across the board, of all different skill levels, from all walks of life, with varying degrees of academic achievement leading up to middle school who absolutely thrive in the AZ. We also have students from each of those categories who flounder. We see students who start out really rough until one day, something clicks, and they are off and running. We see some who start off really strong and motivated but for one reason or another fall into poor habits and struggle to correct them.

What’s the difference? What makes one student successful in the AZ and another not? Honestly … I don’t know. I don’t know if I’ll ever know the answer. Perhaps after a few more years, it will become more clear. Until then, though, I will continue to work on reaching each student at their level, on their terms, and to build the necessary skills and habits for success in and out of the AZ.

Once in a while I like to do a read-aloud in each of my classes. It’s something I never tire of, and regardless of their ages, students love to be read to. In one of my classes, we’re reading a book by Gordon Korman called The Unteachables. It’s about a bitter teacher counting down the days till his early retirement being placed with a small group of self-contained 8th grade students who have been removed from a general education setting for various reasons. We’re nearing the beginning of the end, and despite earlier events in the book, a positive relationship has been growing between the teacher and students.

In the chapter we read today, they took a field trip to a local automotive shop. One of the students, who struggles with Dyslexia, which is mentioned nearly every time the character is discussed – clearly a major hardship for him, has an emotional aha moment at the shop. He has his hands under the hood of a vehicle and just finished replacing a gasket to fix an exhaust leak. In this moment, he feels like he has a purpose for the first time.  He mentions how dumb he feels at school not being able to read as quickly as those around him, but that here, he’s found something he is good at, something that feels meaningful and right.

I stopped reading at this point and went off on one of my many tangents – another great reason to read aloud. You never know where a book might take you and your class discussions. Quick tangent – in another class, we watched a video about Emmett Till today off the cuff because he was mentioned in our read-aloud for that class. That’s for a different post, though. Back to my first tangent – we talked about how school, in many ways, focuses on a few things it values in students… reading, writing, math, test-taking, etc. If you’re not great any those things, the first 18 years of your life can be a real downer.

That’s why, in the AZ, we try to bring out the strengths of each student, even if they don’t realize them in themselves yet, and to apply those strengths to projects that can incorporate all the other stuff “school” wants them to know and do. By starting there, we work to develop weaker skills to apply to future projects and life endeavors.

Yesterday was not a school day. Teachers had professional development and instructional planning time, so students had the day off. At the end of the work day, four of my AZ students showed up to work on a current project. They showed up on their day off, to spend two hours with me, building wooden flats to be used for the set in our upcoming school play. One of these students is my stage manager for the play and another is a cast member and student who plans to use the time as volunteer hours for National Junior Honors Society.

The other two created this as a 3rd quarter project. They have applied science and technology standards and conducted research regarding supplies and pricing. For one of these students, this is HIS thing. School is definitely not his thing. But he showed up … at school … on his day off … to work on a school project. Everyone has a place and a purpose in this world. School’s job should be to help them find it and develop it.

My Net

I have not written in a while. A lot of life has happened for me between my last post and now. The kind of life that causes pause and reflection. The kind that provokes pondering about priorities and purpose.

In recent weeks, I have come to know a new version of myself. A version who doubts and questions. A version who struggles to get herself up in the morning. A version who, more than ever, feels lost, confused, and broken. Through these challenging days, I have landed on some realizations.

When I was a kid, there were times I argued with my siblings. There were times I got in trouble. There were times I went through breakups. There were times I didn’t get the part in the play I wanted or I earned a poor grade or I disappointed people I care about. In every difficult moment of my childhood, there would come a time when my dad would call me over to sit beside him on our couch, where he would explain to me that though the world seemed to be upside down or nearing its end, life would go on. That over time, my worries or disappointment would diminish, and that I would look back and wonder what the big deal had ever been about.

Six years ago, I was teetering on the idea of applying for a teaching position at Northstar Middle School. At the time, I was in my fourth year teaching 7th grade in Bloomer, Wisconsin, and I loved it there. There were certain draws pulling me to Eau Claire, but there wasn’t anything pushing me from Bloomer. I had an amazing group of colleagues in a sweet, small town in which I had begun to make a name for myself. The decision felt selfish and greedy on my part. I was uncomfortable abandoning my students.

In a phone conversation with my dad, something that rarely happened given his revulsion to talking on the phone, through tears, I expressed my worries to him. My dad taught me another lesson I will never forget. He told me I had to defuse my ego and realize that I am completely replaceable. That if I were to accept a position elsewhere, another teacher would fill my spot, and life would go on for everyone. He was not trying to insult me but instead to remind me that my wants and needs mattered – that there were students in every city, in every state needing positive role models and mentors. With or without me, life would go on.

It was after that conversation that I submitted my application which landed me in my current spot. Sort of. It was the launch pad by which I was able to find my way to my current position, doing my best to provide challenging, engaging opportunities for students to create and thrive. Every day, I immerse myself in my classroom activities. I coach sports after school. I direct the school play and the talent show.

Some people wonder why I throw myself into so much all the time. It’s not because I think my students and athletes need me or that I think no one else will do it. I learned from my dad I am replaceable in that way. I know someone else would step in. I know my students and athletes would be just fine with another teacher, coach, or director. It’s because in times like now, when I am in free-fall, I need my students to catch me. They don’t know it, but they are my net.

My dad passed away a few weeks ago. He was living with stage four lung cancer that had metastasized to several other organs and eventually made its way to his brain. He was a remarkable man. Words do not suffice in trying to explain just how remarkable.

There are many things I have questioned in recent weeks. Things both personal and professional. My students, though? No question – they are the reason I do what I do. They are the reason I walk through the school doors each day. They are my purpose and my net. Their unique personalities, their deserving hearts, and their creative minds are what catch me each day and place me back on solid ground. They are my proof that life will go on.


We’re Engaged!

According to 5 million national surveys done by Gallup in 2018, less than half of our nation’s students in grades K-12 are engaged in school. Less than half?!? Think about that for a moment. School takes up the majority of those 13 years in their young lives. For what kind of success are they being set up if they’re spending that time feeling disengaged and unmotivated? Am I the only one alarmed by this? Isn’t this an absolute reflection of our nation’s educational system?

What does engagement actually mean, though? I looked it up and was actually surprised by the definition. The “action of being engaged” is “participating,” “partaking,” “sharing,” “involvement.” That’s it. Just being part of something. Students need to be included in the decisions related to their learning. Teachers need the freedom and flexibility to stray from the script and develop authentic relationships and learning experiences for their students.

I’m not sure if project-based learning is the answer to this crisis, but I believe it to be a start. Not every project is a success. Not every project strikes all students with as much enthusiasm as we hope it will. Our current quarter project, though, has everyone buzzing with excitement. As I looked around my room last week, I knew we had struck it big with this project. Students who often lag behind with their work and struggle to stay on track were asking for help and checking things off their lists left and right. They were engaged. For some reason, this project grabbed them, and because of that, those students will feel success in school this quarter. Who knows, maybe that feeling of success will lead to more next quarter. We can’t get this lucky with every project, but we can strive to make every future project just as engaging or more.

Experiences like these cannot be created for students if teachers are disengaged with their work. According to those same Gallup surveys, our nation’s secondary teachers are worse-off than our students with only about 1/3 reporting high levels of engagement. People become teachers because they have a flame within them. A flame to inspire, help, and mold young minds. Teacher engagement drives student engagement, and unfortunately, many of the conditions in our nation’s existing educational system are extinguishing those flames at a rapid rate.

An 8th grade student stopped in the middle of her work yesterday and asked me from across the room, “Ms. McMahon, do you ever start a project wondering where you’re going to go with it, but then once you get started you get so in the zone that you just don’t want to stop?” That’s engagement. Students learn very quickly how to go through the motions, and those students grow into adults joining the work force. We don’t want citizens to just do as they’re told. We want them to participate, to partake, to share, to get involved … to engage. All students deserve to feel that “in the zone” feeling in school. All teachers deserve it. And furthermore, all people should strive to feel that regularly in our own personal and professional lives. Otherwise, what’s the point?

i learn