Unveiling Passions

When Andy and I set out to create an alternative learning environment four years ago, we had a few goals in mind, all surrounding flexibility – flexibility in environment, curriculum, and pacing, but we didn’t quite know what it might look like or how we might pull it off. As we began our research and sought out schools to visit, conferences to attend, and other resources to review, we were immediately struck by an idea witnessed while visiting the FLIGHT Academy in Waukesha, WI, an alternative personalized learning environment. The idea was Passion Projects.

Though the ARCTIC Zone has morphed in many ways over the last few years, we have remained grounded in our aim to immerse students in learning that envelops their own ideas,  passions, and interests. This idea often stimulates many questions about how our students are able to cover the same content standards as other middle school students. This past week, four different passion projects were launched by ARCTIC Zone students. I would like to share briefly about the projects and the standards these students chose to focus on for each project.

Class Pet Project

Michelle is a 7th grade student in the ARCTIC Zone who had her heart set on obtaining a classroom pet this year. She decided to work with power standard Science 5 (understanding animal cells and the processes that affect their function) and Tech 4 (showing respect for information on the internet that belongs to others). After conducting research and practice work about animal care and creating a bibliography of the sources used during her research, Michelle made contact with an employee at our school who was looking for a new home for her pet rabbit. We all met Rocket when he was brought to his new home, our classroom, on Friday. Michelle is currently working on a permission slip for students who wish to care for Rocket over our upcoming winter break.

Yoga Class Project

Maddie, a 6th grade student, loves yoga and wants to share what she knows with other students. With permission from administration and our custodial staff, she now has a spot designated for her yoga class which she teaches during Resource at the end of the day, twice a week. Though her first class had lower attendance than she had hoped, her sign-up sheet looks promising for the coming week. Her focus standards for this project are ELA 2 (reading and comprehending informational texts) and SS 12 (analyzing factors that change the perspectives of people during different historical eras). Have you ever thought about where yoga came from and how people’s thoughts toward it have changed over time? Just ask Maddie…


Ceiling Tile Project

Grace is a 7th grader who thought it would be special to use ceiling tiles in our hallways as a platform to spread inspirational messages to all who walk by. Using power standards ELA 12 (producing clear, coherent writing) and SS 13 (understanding cause and effect), and with the approval of administration and our custodial staff, she installed two tiles this week just outside our downstairs classroom. Voices in the hallway and the ideas spreading from this small project are enough to make anyone smile.

Magic the Gathering Club Project

Two 7th grade boys, Mason and Ben, set out to teach as many people about Magic the Gathering as possible. They created informational flyers and wrote an informational speech that was delivered to all ARCTIC grade level Resources using ELA 4 (proper punctuation, spelling, capitalization, and grammar) and ELA 13 (writing an informational text). They gathered supplies and received a very large supply donation from another student’s family. Then on Friday, they launched their very first club meeting where many students attended to either play or learn how to play. All students were sent home with a practice deck of cards to prepare for next week’s club meeting.

If you look and think hard enough, there are ways to connect what appear to be the most outrageous ideas to the most traditional content standards. The content itself might be different from another classroom, but the knowledge or skill at the foundation of the standard is there. The fun is in finding the connection. The beauty is in seeing them come to life.

What I love most about project-based learning is the other stuff they pick up along the way that does not pertain to content standards at all. In all of the mentioned projects above, students were required to communicate with teachers, administration, and/or custodial staff. They were challenged to plan and organize and in some cases step into leadership roles among their peers. And it’s all because they chose to be there. 

Can I Get a Redo?

One of the things I love most about the ARCTIC Zone is a student’s ability to hit the reset button at the start of a new quarter. It isn’t often that students get that chance. In math, for example, because its content is so linear, if a student gets behind … they’re behind. There is no skipping ahead or starting over. It becomes a struggle for the student and for the teacher to help get that student “caught up.” It can be a deflating experience.

With project-based learning, the goal is always to complete each project, but to expect that every time is unrealistic and, quite frankly, unfair to students. There is far more learning to be done throughout the project process than can be measured by the project product. So with the start of each new quarter, we offer the option of hitting the reset button. We talk about that decision with each student, and we reflect on why it’s being made. Students write down what they learned about themselves and their projects throughout this quarter and what they will use to execute the next project in a more productive or successful way. Then they can breathe again. We watch them dive into their new project ideas with vigor and determination.

Fortunately for Andy and me, the reset button is open to us, as well. The ARCTIC Zone is in its fourth year, and every single quarter, we find ourselves discussing ways to improve our processes and expectations. I have to laugh because at the end of each of these talk sessions, where we adjust and tweak and change as we see fit, we always look at each other and say something along the lines of, “This is going to be so great – so much better than what we had before.” Although I believe we truly ARE sooooo much better than we were when we started in 2016, I am convinced our quarterly check-ins and improvement sessions are far from over.

We spent this past summer infusing our power standards into every step of the project process. Our thought was that it would help to align and connect the standard to the project in a more cohesive way for students. I remember the look we gave each other this fall, “I can’t wait to see this play out with projects this year.” In reality, we caused one of our own worst nightmares. We unintentionally sucked the excitement and enthusiasm out of every project by expecting standard “work” at the front end of every project. We watched all quarter as students became bogged down by standards and less and less engaged in their original ideas. Argh! What were we thinking???


Between first and second quarter, we worked frantically to redesign the project process once again. The absolute most important part about project-based learning is that students should be excited about their projects. Otherwise, what are we doing here? What a difference these small tweaks have made in just the first week of the quarter! Students have some great ideas in the works, and their confidence is soaring now as they’re cruising through the first few phases of the process. The work is still there. It just reveals itself in a different way and at a different time.

What I love most about making a huge change like this one in the middle of the year … Modeling quality reflection and revision. Explaining our rationale for designing things the way we did in the first place and then explaining our rationale for redesigning. Admitting to them we screwed up … big time. Proving to them once again we’re human and we want what’s best for them and their learning.

We can all use a redo once in a while…


Forgot My Deodorant

Yesterday, I forgot to put on deodorant. It happens once in a while. I get out of my morning routine somehow and miss that step. So what did I do as soon as class started? I told my students! I made a really big deal about how I forgot to put on my deodorant and how uncomfortable I was likely going to be the rest of the day.

I know some of you are probably raising an eyebrow. Why would I share this kind of information with my students? I’m human. That’s why. They need to be reminded of that once in a while.

Every teacher I know has stories of bumping into students at a restaurant or grocery store where the student looks absolutely dumbfounded and doesn’t know how to respond to seeing their teacher outside of school!!  It’s hard enough for them to believe we exist outside of these walls. They surely don’t believe we deal with the same day-to-day things as them like deodorant and relationships and emotions and life.

I was recently asked what the ARCTIC Zone’s goal is – what are we hoping to accomplish for our students? Someone else in the conversation retorted quickly, “Well, obviously they’re trying to increase engagement.” That’s part of it, of course, but I found the question to be more complicated than I realized. On my own, later that day, I began jotting down a quick list of the things I personally hope the ARCTIC Zone is able to support or improve for our students.

I do hope to increase engagement. I want to practice and improve executive functioning skills like time-management, organization, and prioritization. I want to develop and grow soft skills like creativity, collaboration, and communication. With the development of all of those things, it is also a hope that student achievement is positively impacted. I found it to be really difficult to narrow down my hopes and dreams and wants for this program. Above all, I think what I want more than anything is for my students to gain confidence in themselves and with their place in this world.

Of all blurbs of time from my past, the one I would never want to repeat is middle school. Whenever I mention to people that I teach middle school, responses are all the same, “Oh, bless you!” “Middle school?! Yikes!” “Oh my gosh, all the hormones!” It’s true middle school is one of the toughest times to experience as a human. Bodies are changing. Emotions are flying. Kids can be mean. Society can be critical. School can be tough. Finding your place in the mess of emotions and criticisms and discomfort and judgment is SO hard.

We live in a time where symptoms of depression and anxiety are appearing at younger and younger ages.  Family dynamics, societal expectations, school, childhood trauma, environment, diet, medication, technology, politics – all supply pressures from different angles. Add to that puberty, identity-seeking, and relationship-navigation, and you have your typical middle school student. We often warn our students with threats about their future, “It’ll only get harder from here…” Really, though, doesn’t it get easier?

If a student can hang on through middle school, his maturity will eventually catch up with the mature level of topics and scenarios he will face in his older years. And with time, he will become more and more equip with the necessary knowledge and skills to face those scenarios with ease. So how do we help him hang on?

We make fools of ourselves and remind him that we are all only human. We let him know that sometimes we forget to put on deodorant. Sometimes we make poor decisions. Sometimes we fail.

My biggest goal with the ARCTIC Zone and with my everyday interactions with students is to remind them we are not perfect. To sprinkle them with bits of love – sometimes a little tough love when it calls for it. And to provide a boost now and then when they’re struggling to hang on.



Benefits of Blending

Don’t ask me where September went. It’s hard to believe we’re already discussing parent-teacher conferences and looking at the end of first quarter. Many things have happened over the last month to warrant a blog post, but because time has gotten the better of me, I’ll do my best to sum it all up.

September came and went, and with it came a whirlwind of beginning-of-the-year experiences. Our 6th graders attended their annual overnight trip to Camp Manitou in New Auburn where they spent the day outside hiking, kayaking, cooking over a campfire, and playing games. Attempting to sleep in bunks with a group of their peers is always sure to enhance the bond between students. Another camp success!

Our first quarter project, The Green Project, is well on its way. We have students organizing highway cleanups, tree-planting programs, a composting program for our school, and some even looking into what it would take to get solar panels. Some are working on eliminating the plastic bottles of water being sold in our school vending machines, while others are looking into the invasive species of plants and animals that exist locally.

Overall, the thing most evident to me so far this year is the positive impact blending grade levels has had on our students. It is by no means our first year blending students of varying grade levels, however it has been the first year we have begun with a large amount of consistency overlapping from the previous year. In our first three years, we were continuously changing our project process, classroom protocols, and schedules to accommodate our new ideas and the addition of grade levels from year to year. Though we continue to tweak and refine our methods as we see a need, many of our practices and processes have remained close to the same since last year. With some consistency in place, our 7th and 8th graders have been able to model appropriate expectations and lead with comfort and confidence in a way I have not seen before.

I have seen it most evident during my Humanities classes during activities like the Concentration Challenge, Cooperation Challenge, and our Friday Design Challenges. For example, the Cooperation Challenge is a grouping challenge that is taught in two parts. It challenges students to form groups of various sizes in a very short amount of time. The class is not successful unless ALL members of the class are in appropriate groupings. It forces individuals to think beyond their own success. When reflecting about group failures, students are required to use “I” statements regarding what happened and what could have been done differently. They are challenged to accept responsibility for the entire group.

When attempting this challenge for the first time as a class last year, it took a long time for the “we versus me” mentally to take hold. Fingers were pointed at others and statements would slip out about why someone else screwed things up for everyone. It took us weeks to successfully complete part one of the challenge and more to complete part two. However, when the challenge was reintroduced this year, students from last year took ownership of their actions and were voicing things they could be doing differently to help out their classmates right from the start. The modeling of this accountability and dedication to the success of their class created an immediate ripple, causing our new students to think about the challenge through a group-focused lens. It shouldn’t be surprising that part one of the challenge was successfully completed within two days or less for each class this year.

The benefits of blending grade levels are at least three-fold. I say “at least” because there are likely more than what I’m about to describe. First, our 6th graders have peer models helping them to begin their time in a unique setting with supports built in all around them. Second, the peer modeling from our older students helps us manage our time and our expectations as we set the pace for a new school year. We are able to rely on them in ways other teachers are not, as they begin fresh with a brand new batch of students each year. Finally, the boost of confidence is very visible in our older students as we hand over our trust in them to explain procedures and to model appropriately. They are  handed an unexpected leadership role within their classes every day which causes a visible difference in so many of them. I’ll mention a fourth benefit … friendships blossoming across grade levels break through invisible barriers that might otherwise exist between them.

This year has been the smoothest start for us yet, and I attribute that to our blended grade levels matched with a level of consistency from last year to now that we have been able to sustain. I’m so grateful to have the opportunity to experiment with practices not traditionally used in classrooms. This is just one of many wonders I get to experience every day.





A Good Smack in the Face

The first week of school always seems to smack me in the face… in a good way, if there is such a thing as a good smack in the face. Coming off of summer days where I don’t set my alarm and I get to create my own schedule from day to day, the sudden jump into the deep end is something for which I’m not really sure how to prepare. It’s shocking to the system but refreshing at the same time, and when I find my way back to the surface, I can breathe again.

I try to imagine those feelings from the perspective of a student because I honestly cannot remember that part of school from my younger days. I imagine it’s somewhat similar in terms of being smacked into a sudden change in schedule, routine, and expectation but with the added disadvantage of not knowing their teachers or schedules or locker combinations or all of the other details that make middle school so awkward and uncomfortable. I try to keep this in mind when deciding how to approach the first week’s activities.

Last year was a disaster. The first day is always used to cram as much information into the minds of the new 6th grade class to ensure they feel comfortable and knowledgeable transitioning into their new middle school lives. And I thought it would be brilliant to use the first week of school to walk really slowly through a mini-project to introduce the new group to the LAUNCH Cycle process. I will be the first to admit when something is a total flop in my classroom, and let me tell you … this one fit the bill. If I remember correctly, I think we may have even called it quits a few days into the whole thing. It just bombed. The 7th and 8th graders already knew the process, so they were itching for more, and it doesn’t matter how old you are – you can tell when you’re being asked to do something just to do it. So the 6th graders knew right away that mini project was pretty meaningless. I was so disappointed in myself for thinking I could launch a year of authentic, real-world learning experiences with something so inauthentic and irrelevant. They were totally on to me.

So I did some reevaluating. In thinking about the kind of first day I wanted our 6th graders to have, I had one goal. I wanted them all to leave school on the first day excited to return the next. I wanted families to have a response to the, “How was your first day?” question that included more than the obligatory, “Fine.”

There are certain things all new students are worried about that always need to be addressed: lockers, schedules, and building awareness. So we covered those things in the morning, but our afternoon was spent outside, conducting a fun design challenge. Who doesn’t like a good egg drop? We had only one survivor, but that led to some really fantastic conversations about the things we’ll need to be thinking about this year as we work on quarter projects, passion projects, and other design challenges.

I feel so much better after this first week than I did last year. I attribute most of this to our shift in thinking about the first few days we all spend together. Project-based learning is all about diving in and learning as you go. It only makes sense that we would tackle the first week of school in the same way. I have a very good feeling about this year…

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Authenticity Matters

Just yesterday I held the receiver of the phone in one hand, begging a negotiations officer to send the SWAT team in, who now surrounded my house, to rescue my two girls as I held the basement door shut. My husband had just walked downstairs, his rifle strewn across his chest, to confront our son about why the police had come to our house in the first place. It wasn’t his fault his PTSD from the war had kicked in when the police arrived, but now two officers lay dead or wounded on our front lawn, and I was scared for my children and for myself. I had never seen him this angry before.

If you’re confused or frightened, I understand. What I really did yesterday? I played the role of a wife in this exact situation and other situations as part of a SWAT Team and Crisis Negotiation Team Training for our local police department. The police liaison at our school knew of my acting background and contacted me last week to participate in several hostage/crisis scenarios. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but I am so glad I agreed.


In preparation for this day of training, a crisis scenario had been brainstormed by several members of the police department that somewhat mirrored a real situation that had occurred in another state just last October. The training took place in a house just behind the fire station whose interior had never been seen by any member of the teams, including those who created the scenario. I was given details about the scenario and then entered the house along with my “husband” and “three children” where we waiting for the first call.

From start to finish, officers approached the house as if it was a real case. Body bags had previously been placed on the yard to resemble the officers who had been shot and required medical attention. Snipers were positioned inconspicuously around the house. And the negotiations team was hurriedly collecting information about the situation and who might be inside the house, preparing to make contact.

The phone rang, and I answered acting in the way I had been coached, saying things I had been directed to say. The same scenario was used multiple times throughout the day, though some people rotated duties among their teams, and the role players (me) were given new directions that would ultimately lead to different outcomes: peaceful surrender, hostage situation, requiring the use of a throw phone (which was brought in by a robot!!!!), a secret bedroom window rescue of my two “daughters,” among other things.

The entire day was exhilarating and fun, yet terrifying at the same time, considering these are real scenarios that could and have played out. At the end of the day, I found myself absolutely impressed with the men and women working for safety and justice in our neighborhood. The level of calm and quick-thinking displayed with every one of them among such highly intense and emotional circumstances heightened my respect and gratefulness for this group of people, having been given this unique glimpse into their reality.

There is one phrase I heard over and over throughout the day. Different people at different times said it to me or near me. I heard it while being prepped for the day in the morning. The officer coaches in the house with me during the scenarios mentioned it numerous times. I was told by officers between scenarios. Several people offered it again during the debriefing session following the final scenario. The thing I heard so many times from so many people yesterday was, “You have no idea what a difference it makes to have real role players instead of coworkers during scenario training sessions like this.”

I had been thinking about that all day. For their training yesterday, they were “called” to the scene of a house none had ever seen before. The voices on the other end of the phone had never been heard before. The faces inside those walls had never been seen before. Many officers commented about how quickly their hearts jumped when they realized there were REAL kids in the house! The gravity of the situation was suddenly different, the focus stronger.

As I sat in my car today, waiting for my new brakes to be installed at the Express Lube, I couldn’t stop thinking about yesterday. Learning never stops. No matter what profession you assume, the hobbies you explore, the adventures you choose to embark upon, learning never stops. And the best learning occurs when genuine, authentic experiences are put before you. It’s why the police department called me in yesterday. It’s why our students are so much more engaged in their learning during projects that offer real-world connections. Meaningful connections. Like our Join Hands Day project where we found numerous ways to support our community and raised money for a child who departs for her Make-a-Wish trip to Disney in just a few days. Or the live launch of the 8th grade TED talks at the end of this year.

Authenticity matters. It raises stakes. It heightens focus. It sharpens skills. It deepens learning.


Challenging the Summer Slide

The “summer slide” is an unfortunate occurrence that happens to students when they are disconnected from the everyday interactions that happen during the school year. There is a lot of research that speaks to the rise in academic gaps that are revealed each fall when a new academic year begins. According to an article from the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), “students [lose] a greater proportion of their school year gains each year as they grow older – anywhere from 20 to 50 percent.”

Do these numbers make you as uncomfortable as they do me? I could launch into my opinion on adopting a new school calendar year, but I’ll refrain. That is a far larger topic that likely won’t be tackled in the very near future. Along with the obvious loss in academic learning that takes place over the summer months, I would argue that there are other gaps that grow, including peer relationships and an overall connection to learning.

After our first year with the ARCTIC Zone, we knew we wanted to find ways to stay in touch with our students and to hopefully keep a connection to learning alive for them throughout the summer break. At that time, we implemented several ideas we hoped would do the trick. Each summer we’ve altered our summer expectations and offerings. Our family summer picnic is still a huge success, and I’m excited to say this will be our first year welcoming alumni to share the evening with us. This is a tradition that will remain in place for as long as I have anything to say about it.  It is an opportunity for incoming families to meet and mingle withe returning families, and it’s just a great chance for students to hang out on a beautiful evening outside.

We needed to find a way to connect students to learning and exploring while they were away from school without it feeling like a chore but with accountability, as well, to ensure they would all reap the benefits of those experiences. Our students now have a summer passion project they are expected to complete before they return to school in the fall at which point they will give a short presentation to new and returning AZ students where they will share their project ideas and outcomes. Last year we had projects of all kinds. One student raised quails while another student designed a video game while another student tested several baking methods for cheesecake while yet another student tracked the success of various baits at multiple fishing spots around Eau Claire. The goal is not to “require” a school project but to open their eyes to the learning opportunities that exist all around them all the time. I want them to realize this connection and to deepen their desire and love for learning.

Another idea we’ve implemented this summer came on just weeks before we parted for vacation. The hope has always been to increase student engagement and initiative and to build their leadership and communication skills. So, at this moment, I stand typing this post within the walls of my classroom on a beautiful summer morning as a group of middle school students (not all AZ students, by the way) hang out for their first Anime Club Meeting that was 100% organized by two student leaders. This summer, we created the idea of student-led summer clubs. All students had the option to become a leader of any summer club of their choice. I offered my availability and guidance for any moment, like being able to offer school as a meeting space if needed, but other than that, they are on their own to organize club meetings and communicate with their members.

All in all, when we parted ways for the summer, information had been sent out to all students regarding 12 different clubs. Some example clubs include a bowling club, running club, movie club, art club, and a babysitter’s club. Anime happens to be something I know NOTHING about, but that’s okay because I don’t have to do anything! The club leaders came prepared with snacks, decorations, crafts, and of course … anime episodes for watching. I’m just here enjoying their company and their laughter, which was my hope for this idea from the start – peer connections. All of the other leadership stuff is just an added bonus.

There doesn’t seem to be any movement toward altering the school calendar, so until that happens, I think the answer to challenging the summer slide phenomenon, is getting students connected … with each other, with themselves, and with learning opportunities that surround them on a daily basis. Isn’t that what we want for their futures, anyway?

Quality Feedback

The summer season is always a time when I like to sit down and really reflect on the previous year and to begin brainstorming ideas for the year to come. Say what you want about teachers having their summers off, but alongside a very strong need to just sit,  recharge, and take some time for me, I find it to be a necessary component in being able to hit the restart button for a new year with fresh ideas and improved practices.

One thing we realized needed some teaching this past year was the art of giving quality feedback. This is not a skill that comes naturally for most, nor is it always easy to provide the kind of feedback we feel is helpful for fear of being too critical or offending the other person. Feedback should be critical, though. It’s how we improve. Sometimes an extra eye or ear is exactly what we need to strengthen ourselves and our work, not to mention the strength we build with one another in being able to provide respectful, honest ideas.

An idea I shared with my students is one I found online somewhere that describes four different types of feedback using the four suits in a deck of cards. Hearts and diamonds (the red suits) are both positive feedback while spades and clubs (the black suits) are both critical. I try to avoid the word “negative” because, although it is feedback regarding something the reviewer does not necessarily like, that word just has “bad” connotations attached to it. Maybe I’m wrong here. Maybe you have a better idea for a replacement word? Let me know if you do…

The hearts and spades both represent “fluffy” feedback as I call it that lacks real substance. It might be something like, “This is really good.” That’s a positive comment, and we all love to hear positive comments like that about ourselves and our work, but it doesn’t really do much to help us build on what we have or to be able to replicate the “goodness” in the future. Likewise, the statement, “This needs more work,” is a critical statement that doesn’t really offer much in terms of steps for improvement. So we practice offering diamonds and clubs – feedback comments that really tell a person what it is that is good and what, specifically, needs improvement. Statements like, “You used really great eye contact while delivering your speech” or “I think your introduction could use a stronger hook to grab your audience’s attention right away” help a person to understand exactly what is great and not so great about their work and allows for them to move forward purposefully.


So, as I sit in my living room on this gloomy Monday morning on my second week of summer “reflect and recharge” time, I come to you for feedback. What do you like or dislike about this blog? How often do you wish the blog was updated? What kinds of things do you want to read about as we move into our fourth year with the ARCTIC Zone? More of something? Less of something?

I welcome any and all ideas, suggestions, advice you can offer. The one thing I ask is that you offer diamonds and clubs … because how else do I improve?


Giving Back

Long before I began teaching at Northstar, a tradition emerged called Join Hands Day where the entire building would halt classes for one Friday in May and every student would participate in a day of service-learning and giving back to our community. Each grade level tackles the day differently. Some return to Camp Manitou to help clean up for the summer season as a way to give back for allowing us to spend time there in the fall, some rake and clean up local parks, and others spread out to various organizations throughout the community to offer a helping hand for the day.

This being our first year with three grade levels to manage between the two of us, we asked the students if they wanted to join their grade level groups to participate in their planned activities for the day, or if they wanted a chance to plan their own. I was excited and nervous when the vast majority agreed they wanted a go at planning their own activities in a way that could give back to our community. I knew this could be an amazing experience, but I also knew it could be a total messy flop. And it was going to be especially difficult planning events for all 70 students when each of them was spread out through four different Humanities classes throughout the day – the time in which we would be planning.

I had never done anything like this before, and I wanted to make sure it was completely in their hands, so I did my very best to facilitate discussion, ask probing questions, and help guide them to the appropriate people and resources to further their planning without imparting my own opinions or biases. We started by brainstorming an enormous list of potential activities or events that could help our community or others in some way. There were many discussions and votes that ultimately led to the list being narrowed down to four potential ideas: volunteering in their former elementary schools, hosting a 5k pet walk to raise funds for charity and to promote healthy living, paint a mural with a positive message, and host a bowling tournament to raise funds for charity.

With four ideas and four Humanities classes, it worked out perfectly for each class to randomly select one activity on which to take the lead. It was important, at this point, for each class to understand they were responsible for further investigating their activity as an option for the entire group. It did not mean they were going to be doing that event and none of the others. It was a great way to work in a natural “jigsaw” and for each group to feel responsible for a piece of the day. Within each class, they split into teams they felt were necessary for furthering their research and planning within their activity. Many classes ended up with a communications team and a supply team among others.

Each day I tried to have a general idea for what I thought I wanted each class or group to cover or consider. For example, one day I wanted every class to consider and list potential obstacles we could face with trying to pull off their activity – weather, cost, transportation, permits, etc., and then they had a new direction to take their conversations. Often times, though, my own plans for the day were thrown out almost immediately as things came together organically. Emails were sent to principals and partnership coordinators at elementary schools as well as parent chaperones, phone calls were made to Menards about mural supply costs and to bowling alleys, interviews were conducted with our principals and police liaison regarding the legalities of hosting a fun walk/run event on our site. Every email, every phone call, every interview was written or conducted by the students.

Eventually, things morphed naturally, and a full day was beginning to take shape. If I’m being completely honest, I could not believe how much was falling into place. It turns out kids have HUGE hearts, GREAT ideas, and people LOVE to say “yes” to them! The class working on the 5k event decided it was best to remove it from our list of potential ideas because, though the event would be simple enough to pull off, they just didn’t feel it was likely to get a good turnout in the middle of the day on a Friday, and they wanted to make sure the day was worth every second of their time and energy. Many of the original ideas ended up morphing in natural ways. To explain all changes in detail would be ridiculous, so I won’t.

When Friday, May 10th rolled around, let me tell you how our day looked. Our group of 70 students split into three groups. One group chose to work on replanting the vegetable and flower gardens our first group of ARCTIC Zone 6th graders had planted two years ago. The gardens will be tended to by AZ families throughout the summer, and all vegetables harvested are free for the taking by all AZ families. Another group worked on designing and painting a “mural.” They cut it into enough sections for each student to have his/her own piece to paint which will soon be hung at the Children’s Museum in downtown Eau Claire. After multiple conversations with the museum, they were thrilled to accept our offer to paint something with a positive message for them and asked that we create something related to healthy eating/living so it can be hung in their lounge area. The finished product will be hung at some point this summer, so we will be sure to gather some members of our mural group to be present for that!


The final morning group split into four smaller sections and walked or rode to each of their former elementary schools. There they spent time volunteering in classrooms, helping to hang artwork, cleaning up playgrounds, answering questions about middle school, and chilling with kids at recess.


After enjoying a picnic lunch together outside, we loaded the bus – a bus that had been booked by students and paid for by our generous PTSA (with a mini-grant that was written by a student). The bus took us to Wagner’s Lanes where each student bowled a total of two games and recorded their final scores to bring back to their sponsors they had reached out to ahead of time. Sponsors of family, friends, teachers, neighbors, and so on pledged a choice amount of money per point their student scored that day. Prior to the actual event, they had all decided to donate the collected funds to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, so when the day was complete, the collecting began.


On the final collection day, I was made aware of something on my own personal social media account. Here’s where I need to take a side track for a moment, though I promise it’s relevant.

When I think about teachers who made a significant impact on my life, my mind immediately thinks of five different teachers. One was my first grade teacher, Mrs. Cohodes,  who was part Native American, had a heart of gold, and found beautiful ways to share her culture with us. Next was my fifth grade math teacher, Mr. Peterson, who coined the phrase, “Oof da” and also gave me the nickname, Ali, which has stuck for the last 20 years. Mr. Zoromski was my favorite high school math teacher who knew how to connect with me on my level at the time with humor while also putting me in my place when necessary. Frau Winterleigh was my sweet and spunky German teacher who opened my eyes to a language and a culture I just love. And then there was Ms. Strong.

Ms. Strong was my high school orchestra teacher and conductor for all four years. As I’ve eluded to with my new teaching position, interacting with the same students for multiple years does amazing things for building relationships. Having all four years with Ms. Strong was no exception to that concept. She was by far the craziest, funniest, kindest teacher I remember. She loved her students with her whole heart and would drop everything for any one of us. I remember her hectic schedule travelling from school to school and wondering how on earth she managed to pull it all off. She gave everything she had to her students and to making music – which, for me at the time, was a very special gift. Though I admittedly haven’t played in far too long, my violin remains close to my heart and always will, and I have Ms. Strong to thank for that.

Ms. Strong has since become Mrs. Hornby and the mother of two beautiful, spunky children of her own. Her youngest, Claire, was very recently diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor that is inoperable. She is nine years old and is now spending her time at St. Jude’s Hospital in Tennessee where she is receiving the best possible care and is seeing and experiencing as much of the world as she possibly can.


On the final collection day for our bowl-a-thon fundraiser from our Join Hands Day event, my social media feed alerted me that Claire was now part of the Make-a-Wish Foundation, and they donations could be made directly to her! When I introduced Claire’s Caring Bridge site to my students, they all agreed our money should go to her. So just last week, the ARCTIC Zone donated a grand total of $3,373 to Claire’s wish! You read that total right! That total, combined with the fundraiser her own elementary school conducted for her, is likely to cover most if not all of her wish, which the foundation is considering rushing for her due to the severity of her condition.

My students received a “thank you” video directly from Claire and sent one to her in return. I cannot begin to describe how proud I am of my students – not only for collecting such a large sum of money, but for the time and planning and creative thinking they did to pull off an entire day that was dedicated to giving back to their community and was 100% theirs. This doesn’t even crack the surface of what project-based learning can offer.

If you’re curious about Claire, with permission from her mother, you can read more about her and her amazing perseverance, positive attitude, and the incredible support system she has surrounding her here: https://www.caringbridge.org/visit/clairehornby



Do What You Love

I just started reading a book called Girl, Wash Your Face by Rachel Hollis. It’s a book written for women that tackles “lies” society has been telling us about who we are or who we are supposed to be and offers very blunt, very inspiring suggestions for debunking these lies and taking control of our lives in a way that will lead to more happiness on the other side. One of the very first pieces of advice she offers is to surround yourself with positivity and to do what makes you happy. She admits that both of these sound incredibly obvious, but are very often easier said than done.

The first thing I did after reading this chapter was make a list of everything I choose to “do” in my life. Included on my list were things relating to my profession like “teaching in the ARCTIC Zone” all the way to things I just kind of dabble in like “gardening.” In looking at my list, I found there are many ways I could categorize the activities. I could list them as professional or personal or I could rank them by a level of importance I find them to hold in my life. Some of them clearly fit into a “want” category more than a “need.” At any rate, it got me thinking carefully about why I choose to do each of the things on my list and whether or not that “why” was strong enough for me to keep it on my list.

When I think about my “why” for teaching in the ARCTIC Zone, my thoughts drift to the afternoon of our final day of school this year. The last day is always a bit of a chaotic nightmare, regardless of the grade level you teach. End-of-year activities are often weather-dependent, scheduling a tight enough plan together to keep students engaged becomes tricky, and emotions are high simply because of the time of year – utter exhaustion mixed with tearful goodbyes. Admittedly, the majority of the day had caused me to feel more stressed out than anything, until the 8th grade celebration came to a close. We had just concluded the graduation-like ceremony in which each 8th grade student crossed the stage for friends and family to applaud, and at this point, students were dismissed to leave with their families.

As I stood toward the back of the room, one-by-one, my students and their families found their way to me. Pictures were taken, tears were shed, stories were shared. There were many special moments – moments I’ll keep to myself, for some things are better kept close to the heart. I will say this, though – there is a huge difference between receiving a hug from a student and receiving a REAL hug from a student. I got a lot of REAL hugs that day – from both students and family members.

The ARCTIC Zone has provided me an opportunity to build relationships with students and families on a level I never imagined possible when I started teaching nine years ago. We’ve shared three years together. Three critical years in their student’s growth and development. I’m not sure if I helped any of them become better readers or writers or historians or scientists. I do know, however, this group of 8th graders is leaving with far more confidence and resilience and a much better understanding of and acceptance for who they are than when they entered our doors. I feel really good about that.

On the last day, the 8th grade class also presented Andy and me each a special gift – a book of pictures and quotes. Though the pictures make me smile and will always be something to look back on, it is the words of my students that leave the biggest print on my heart. I’ll share a few of my favorites below.

THIS is my “why.”