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:



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.”


A Night to Remember

In the three years we have been developing the ARCTIC Zone, in every brainstorming session we’ve had regarding various project ideas, a night of original TED Talks has always been part of the conversation. We knew it would make the ultimate culminating project for our 8th grade students before parting ways for the next big step in their lives. It combines so much of what we are aiming to accomplish in the AZ. Building the courage to craft an original script from the heart and the confidence to deliver that script to a live audience is exactly the kind of challenge we wanted to pose our students and exactly the kind of challenge to which they have always been excited to rise.

In dreaming up an event like this, you visualize things going a certain way or you imagine specific topics being selected to discuss. What I have come to learn, however, is that what I imagine is rarely what comes to be, and what does come to be is often far better than what I ever could have imagined.

It is difficult to put into words how I felt last night watching our first group of 8th graders take the stage to deliver their very own, very personal talks. I can only guess how a parent feels when their children reach various milestones in their lives, but I wonder if it might be similar to how I felt last night. As I watched each student walk up the aisle to the stage on his/her own, I found myself holding my breath. You can only hold their hands for so long before they have to step out on their own. No talk was perfect, and yet, every talk was perfect. Every student exited backstage with a wide smile of pride and a huge breath of relief.

I was grateful to have my own parents in the audience last night, and a comment from my dad still has me beaming. He was especially impressed with a common theme that seemed to connect each of the talks – a theme of kindness. This group of 8th graders is special for so many reasons. They were our first. But there’s something more. They have an unwavering respect and acceptance for each other and for others.

To say I was proud last night would be a major understatement. I couldn’t even look at any of them afterward without feeling the urge to cry. They spoke with confidence, and they spoke with heart. It is a night I will not soon forget, as I hope is the same for them.

ted 2

Baby Steps

When I first started telling people about our plan to design an alternative learning environment that incorporates project-based learning, something you would have heard me say is that I believe this is the future of education. That thinking hasn’t changed. It’s just taking a little longer to see movement than I had originally anticipated.

I do not believe project-based learning is the solution for all that is lacking in our education system. However, I absolutely see a future where lessons are not scripted, teachers are not bound to standards and pacing schedules, bells are not ringing every 50 minutes, and students are not restricted to the same expectations and assessments as everyone else around them. We’ll get there.

In the meantime, there are educators implementing hands-on, real-world experiences in their classrooms despite system restrictions working to limit those opportunities. Teachers are finding ways to relinquish control and are trusting student voices to guide their own learning. And we have students and community members working for change. I want to share about two baby steps of movement taking place locally right now.

First, there is a proposal in the works to launch an alternative learning environment similar to the ARCTIC Zone in each of the other two middle schools in Eau Claire. It is currently sitting in the hands of the district’s LEAP Committee (Learning Environments and Partnerships). The hope is to have a project-based learning environment in all three ECASD middle schools by the start of the 2020 school year.

The ultimate goal is to establish an entirely new secondary track within our district that utilizes project-based learning. In addition to the middle school zones, district and community members are working diligently to create a high school opportunity called the LAND School (Liberal Arts, Nature, and Design). The team will stand before the ECASD school board to present their updated plan on Monday night. Take a look at the following link for more information about this project idea: The LAND School

The second baby step I am so excited to share about came to me several weeks ago when I received an email from a 7th grade student from Altoona, a neighboring school district. She said she had been tasked to write a persuasive essay about adding or changing something at her school. She was interested in proposing the implementation of a program like the ARCTIC Zone at her school. Where she got the idea from or how she heard about us, I do not know, but with her permission, I’ve attached her final essay below. If this isn’t a powerful baby step toward positive change in our area, I don’t know what is. Here is a student using her voice to take action and spark meaningful change for herself and her community.

In 2015 Ali McMahon and Andy Brown, two teachers at North Star Middle School, decided they were bored with having to go through the motions and teach the standard, basic curriculum.  They loved teaching but not in the way they were, not in the dull, disengaging way. But what about the students in classes like this? Everyone knows ‘that’ kid. You might have even been that kid. The kid that couldn’t sit still. The kid who always blurts out wisecracks and makes people laugh. The kid that doesn’t do well in school, and hates it.  Many times, these kids get labeled as the stupid kids, or the ones who aren’t capable of learning. These kids are actually really smart. They might just learn differently than the way teachers are teaching. Maybe they need hands on work–maybe, Project Based Learning (PBL). Mrs. McMahon and Mr. Brown put their heads together and came up with a solution.  What did they do to solve the problem? They came up with a solution that changed the way kids learn. Kids involved in the program love school now, they actually want to come! Interruptions are limited and the kids are engaged. Their solution, an authentic, real world curriculum, and technology integrated classroom. The ARCTIC zone. This is one of the many project-based classroom success stories. At Altoona Middle School there are many kids similar to the ones at North Star. The ones who always disrupt and those who don’t thrive at school. Anyone in my grade can attest to that. Project based learning would help this issue and there are many supporting reasons for it.  Altoona Middle School should input a classroom similar to the ARCTIC Zone next school year or create more of a cross-curricular curriculum with more projects. My reasons being, not all students learn the same, students in programs like this succeed and it teaches real-world skills.

America has been a successful country. There is no doubt about that.  But, America is built on freedom and democracy. Our school system is not.  Our school system was changed during the industrial revolution which was in the 18th century, more than 800 years ago. During the industrial revolution, factories needed people with the same skill sets. Schools were given standards that kids needed to know.  Now, 800 years later, teachers are educating us the same way but more than half of us will be doing jobs that haven’t even been invented yet! How do you teach for that? You teach life skills. Real world skills.  That’s what project based learning does. One way that project based learning does this is it teaches you soft skills. Soft skills are imperative. The authors of the article, “The Importance of Soft Skills” explain soft skills as “..a combination of intrapersonal and social skills.”  The article also states that, “Surprisingly, many employers will not be focused as much on technical skills-such as a mastery of finance and accountant knowledge-as they will be on so-called soft skills.” Another article, “Project-based Learning (PBL):Inculcating Soft Skills in the 21 Century Workplace”,  says that “21st Century employers are looking for graduates who posses soft skills that include responsibility, self-confidence, social and communication skills, flexibility, team-spiritedness, good work attitude, self motivation, and self management.”  It also states that many bosses are looking for the qualities and skills that project based learning teaches.

Another way that project based learning teaches the real world skills we need is that it teaches creative thinking.  For many students at our school, the idea of showing what they learned however they want, or coming up with what to do for a project is a daunting, almost paralyzing task. We have had so much structure for so long, that for some of us our creativity is fading.  Creative thinking is critical for so many jobs. Especially when you are dealing with technology, which is what most of the jobs will be about when we enter the workforce. The article “What is Creative Thinking and Why is it Important?” from Microsoft tells us that “Talented workers who are able to think outside of the box are a critical asset to help businesses overcome challenges and find new opportunities.” This shows us that creative thinking is a vital skill to have, that some traditional schools are killing.  Finally, PBL helps with the aspect of time prioritization. Mrs. McMahon says that her students have had major increases in their ability to prioritize assignments and manage their time. The article, “Importance of Time Management in the Workplace.” says that being able to manage your time wisely will benefit you in many ways. Such as, being able to deliver your work on time, create better quality work, improve your productivity and efficiency, minimize your stress and anxiety, and give you more opportunities in your career.  Many of those examples are also applied in school.

The second reason I have for implanting PBL is that all students learn differently.  People learn differently, which is common knowledge. Einstein even said it. “Everybody’s a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree it will spend its whole life believing it is stupid.” If you implant a classroom similar to the ARCTIC Zone, the kids who learn better with PBL would thrive and get more out of school.  When kids in a traditional environment do a project, for example the scrapbook we did in ELA and social studies, everyone has to show their learning in the same way. With a scrapbook. When you force kids to all produce the same project it kills creativity and can cause unwanted stress because of the way they are required to show their learning.  It might not be their preferred way. In the scrapbook project I did an adequate job, because even if we were not assigned a scrapbook that might have been something that I would have done. But, for some kids putting their learning into a scrapbook would not help them learn. This can cause lower quality work, less understanding and knowledge of the topic, and high stress levels on students. However, if students were informed about what they need to learn and then they got to show their knowledge however they wanted, the outcomes would be more favorable.  This is what happens with project based learning. Next, when a student gets to show knowledge the way they want to, it sticks in their brain and gives kids the ability to retain the knowledge better. Lance Finkbeiner, a teacher at Anastasis Academy, a PBL school, says that, “If kids can associate their learning into something they are passionate about they will remember it better.” When you are excited about something your brain remembers more about it. So, when you are able to associate your learning with something you love it will stick with you. PBL allows for deeper learning and understanding to occur.  Finally, Howard Gardner has proven that people learn differently. Howard Gardner is a professor from Harvard University. He believed that the concept of knowledge/intelligence was too limiting, and that I.Q. didn’t measure the other types of intelligences. He researched it and found that people have multiple intelligences. Multiple intelligences are not a learning style, but a way to help you learn. When you know what intelligences you are higher in, you can play to your strengths and alter your learning to accentuate the intelligences you thrive in.

Finally, students participating in this kind of learning are successful. Many teachers who teach PBL say that they have seen positive increases in student’s behavior and soft skills. Mrs. McMahon says that she has seen, “ ..increased engagement and a desire to be at school again.” This is big. Michael Linsin, a teacher and bestselling author, says that, “.. no strategy, technique or method in the world works as well to motivate students to behave, attend during lessons and focus on their academic work.”  Mr. Linsin also says that when students love school, it can, “..change students like no other thing can or ever will,”. When kids love school it can inspire and make light spark. Second, PBL helps build student’s confidence. In the documentary Most Likely to Succeed, you get introduced to a girl named Samantha who goes to a school called High Tech High, an innovative PBL school. At the beginning she is painfully shy. She doesn’t like talking in group discussions or partake in group work. As Samantha continues with PBL she becomes more and more confident.  Samantha flourished with PBL to the point where at the end of the year she was the director of a play that her class did as a project. This play was seen by most of the school, students, parents, and community members. Mrs. McMahon says that she also has seen a spike in her student’s confidence. An article “Student Confidence and Self Esteem” says that, “Confidence is vital to a student’s success.” They also say that having confidence can lower dropout rates, assist kids with learning, help them love learning, and also help them stay motivated and achieve their goals.  Confidence is key. Finally, the test scores where PBL is implanted are just as good or higher than traditional schooling. Schools like High Tech High perform above the state average. Ali Mcmahon says “…our students’ test scores in both STAR and the Forward Exam are just as good as students outside of our program.”  A study conducted on the benefit of PBL classrooms showed that the students in a PBL classroom had a 63% higher improvement in test scores than those in classrooms taught with the traditional method. PBL can get kids to enjoy learning, limit disruptions, build soft skills and confidence, while still increasing test scores.

Many people argue that PBL is too difficult to teach in public schools, because you have to teach all of the standards while still achieving high test scores.  However, research shows that students involved with PBL test just as well as students in traditional learning. People also argue that PBL is not for everyone. That is 100 percent true. That is why I believe that AMS should implant a classroom for students that learn better with this type of learning, instead of changing the curriculum.

Implanting a PBL classroom at AMS can give opportunities to people who learn differently, and help Altoona grow into a more diverse learning environment. It would help kids who need a different type of learning thrive and teach real-world skills. Altoona Middle School should implant a classroom like the ARCTIC Zone to help kids who learn differently get more out of school. Altoona would be a more successful and positive learning environment with confident kids who enjoy school, and look forward to coming everyday. 

Change Happens One Step at a Time

My Kids, My Family

Yesterday was a tough one. My husband and I had to say goodbye to our 15-year-old Springer Spaniel, Maggie. She led a beautiful, healthy life, but this week it became clear to us it was time.

Some people might not agree with sharing details like this with students. It’s too personal. It’s uncomfortable or inappropriate. It takes time out of teaching. I think it’s powerful and necessary. I believe in sharing myself with my students. I want them to know me just as I want to know them.

Every Friday we end class with what I call C & C. The C’s stand for “Concerns & Celebrations.” I have four boxes that remain scattered around my room at all times, one for each of my Humanities classes. Beside each box is a small pad of notepaper. At any time throughout the week, students can choose to write a brief message and stick it into their class’s box. At the end of the week, I read all of the messages aloud to the class, which often leads to further discussion and sharing.

The messages include anything students want to share – things they are excited about, upset about, worried about, looking forward to, etc. Sometimes it’s as simple as “I’m excited to go camping with my family this weekend.” And other times they sting a bit more like, “I’m worried about my grandma who is in the hospital right now.”

We all have life happening to us, all the time. It’s easy to forget that, and we don’t have enough opportunities to recognize those things throughout a normal school day. So I build time in to our weeks, and I’ll never stop. The conversations we have are sensitive and powerful. We get to know each other on a more personal level. We have an opportunity to feel heard by those around us. And they look forward to it every week. Each Friday, I have at least a few students watching the clock just waiting to remind me about C & C!

Yesterday my own “concern” to share was about Maggie. They all know Maggie. She’s been to school with me several times this year, and I talk about her often. They all knew she was declining and that she’s been on my mind a lot lately. I do not have kids of my own yet, but yesterday I was reminded of the 70 kids I do have. The hugs, the tears, and the genuine words of sympathy were a beautiful example of the special family we have become. It was my loss, which became a loss for all of us.

Today I am grateful to be able to surround myself with the hearts and minds of young adults who yesterday showed me how much they care about me. I only hope they know how much I return that care and adoration.


Taking Chances

I’m behind the boat, but I learned that April 23rd was National Take a Chance Day. I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to share something I learned about recently. A couple months ago, I received a message from a friend who said, “Check this out! I totally thought of you when I saw this.” I’m darn proud of that. If people associate my name with ideas like the following, I think I’m doing something right.

The link he shared was a video from Britain describing “risk playgrounds” being developed in neighborhoods for kids. You read that correctly. Risk playgrounds. When looked at without any explanation, you might not know what you were looking at. It looks somewhat like heaps of random junk laying around in a common area. It’s a far cry from the brightly-colored slides and swings we see in our local parks.

When taking a stroll through a risk playground, instead you’ll find stacks of two-by-fours, crates, loose bricks, tires, mud pits, stumps, and workbenches with real saws, nails, and hammers. The idea is to find ways to increase risk which in turn will increase resilience, develop creativity and problem-solving, and engage the mind as well as the body. Schools are even implementing risk playgrounds for students in their early years program. The manager of one such program said, “We have fires, we use knives, saws, different tools…” and she adds, “They normally only cut themselves once.”

Here’s an article discussing risk playgrounds in Britain:
In Britain’s Playgrounds, ‘Bringing in Risk’ to Build Resilience

Reading isn’t your thing? Check out this video instead:
Why safe playgrounds aren’t great for kids

The goal is not to put anyone in danger or to see anyone get hurt. Every aspect of the playgrounds are carefully designed, and in the early years program, students are constantly supervised. The argument is that by exposing kids to risky situations, authentic, meaningful learning can take place. If you’re careless and end up cutting yourself, you’re likely going to be more careful next time. If you touch the bush and realize it’s prickly, you’re likely not going to touch it again. As the article states, “This view is tinged with nostalgia … in which children were tougher and more self-reliant.”

We’ve come to live in a state of fear, trying to protect our kids and our students from dangers and other risks that exist around them. But how much are we actually protecting them? Is it possible that this over-protection is actually harming them in other ways? I think so.

I’m not suggesting we tear down our playgrounds and throw a bunch of scraps and tools down in their place and call it a day. This is just one radical example of a community taking a chance on something and providing their kids an opportunity to do the same thing … take chances.

Authors AJ Juliani and John Spencer challenge teachers to ask themselves the following question: “What am I doing for my students that they could be doing for themselves?” I find myself facing this thought a lot, and I would argue it is a question parents should ask, as well. There are many reasons that make this a difficult concept to confront. It’s tough to hand over control. It may feel less efficient. It might not be done as well. It may be done differently than how you had intended. I can guarantee, however, that whatever the task, it will be far more meaningful for your child or your student if the responsibility is put in their hands.

Those are my brief words of wisdom for today. What chances are you taking? What chances are you encouraging your kids or students to take? No chance is a waste. Learning comes from experience and failure…from taking chances. See it? Take it.


Technology Recognition

Several of our students spent Monday evening dressed up in formal attire, seated behind a booth showcasing some of their projects from this year at the brand new Pablo Center downtown. The unique part about this particular showcase is that it was not directly connected to the ARCTIC Zone or a specific project. It was an Ed Tech Showcase put on by the district to allow educators in the district to display and share unique ways in which they are implementing the use of technology in their classrooms. Three of our students spoke with teachers, technology specialists, school board members, administrators, and other community members about how they’ve used technology in their projects and how we use technology to guide, track, and assess our learning progress in the ARCTIC Zone. So…who are these students, and why were they chosen to speak at this showcase?

Inglydia Films

A few short weeks ago, we aired the top 15 films submitted to our 2019 ARCTIC Zone Short Film Festival on the big screen at Micon Cinema in Chippewa Falls. Students were challenged to tell an untold story about a significant person or event in history. Two students, Ingrid (grade 7) and Lydia (grade 8), hence the production name Inglydia Films, worked together to create a documentary about three animal species that have gone extinct in the past twenty years. Amidst the in-depth research and content shared within their film, the girls used unique camera and lighting techniques, good pacing, and high-quality editing in both film and sound to pull together a very succinct and engaging documentary.


Not only did Inglydia Films take first place that evening, but their film was then submitted to the 2019 Chippewa Valley Film Festival. Though it did not make the final cut, simply being considered for the regional festival, especially at such a young age in comparison to most other entries, was definite reason to be proud. On Monday night, Ingrid and Lydia had their film on display along with all of the paperwork from their project, and they shared the steps with which they walked through the film-production process with visitors at their booth.


At the start of this school year, a new student in the ARCTIC Zone, Hung (grade 6) was set on a passion project goal. He wanted to design and code his own video game. For nearly three full quarters, he tucked himself in a corner of the room during one of his CHILL times each day, exploring an app called Tynker in which people can do exactly that. Starting completely from scratch, Hung designed a video game inspired by the game of Pacman. After coding hundreds of necessary elements (think about how many dots Pacman eats!) along with many added features to make the game his own, he published the game on the app, which allows for anyone to now locate and play his game.

I will never forget the energy in the room the day he presented his game to our 6th grade resource class. They were so impressed with their classmate’s creativity, his focus, and his ability to design a REAL video game, and they couldn’t wait to play it. Even cooler, Hung now has several other students who have come to him, eager to work together on a brand new game project idea. The story doesn’t end there, though. Shortly after publishing his finished game, the creators of the Tynker app contacted Hung requesting a video-chat interview with him in order to write a spotlight article about him and his game in their Featured Maker Program blog! The interview took place a few weeks ago, and we are eagerly awaiting the launch of their article. You can bet this proud teacher will be sharing that the moment it comes out!

At the Ed Tech Showcase on Monday night, Hung was able to share about his ability to freely explore an app of his choice for his passion project and how he used his own passions and interests to design a brand new version of a well-known video game that can now be viewed and played by a large audience.

Needless to say, Monday was an exciting evening for the ARCTIC Zone. Plus, we picked up a few new nuggets of our own that we’re already talking about implementing next year. It’s great to learn from each other. It’s great to share our successes across the district. And it’s great to showcase the incredible things our students are doing every day.

Avoiding Assumptions

It’s interesting to me how I can preach to a group of young adults about how important it is to avoid making assumptions about other people while at the same time forming my own assumptions about the exact group of people to whom I’m preaching. For example, I have been guilty, on occasion, of making an assumption about the level of knowledge or experience my students have with a certain topic or skill set. I may assume they will require a good amount of teaching and practice in that area, when it turns out I end up learning more from them about it than the other way around. Or, as in the case of last week, I make the wrong assumption that they have more knowledge or experience in a certain area than they actually do.

It is difficult to explain, but spending so much time with a group of middle school students, setting the highest of expectations and watching them continually deliver on those expectations, laughing with them daily … I sometimes forget they’re kids. I feel somewhat embarrassed to admit it, but I was surprised last week by how many students were so unaware of the stereotypes and prejudices that surround them from day to day – many that come out of their own mouths! I guess I assumed they knew and understood. The current quarter project my 6th and 7th graders are doing requires them to take a close look at subliminal messages being sent in pop culture media.

During my first class last Wednesday, we talked about what a stereotype is, shared some examples of stereotypes we have heard used about various groups of people, and discussed what it is that makes it a stereotype. Several common examples came up right away – A woman should take care of the house and kids. Blondes are dumb. Tall people play basketball. Once one example was shared, tons were thrown into the ring. However, when I asked about what kinds of stereotypes exist related to race, the room went quiet. Uncomfortable looks were passed between students. I even heard one person whisper to another, “That’s racist.” Wow. When I asked why everyone got quiet, a few responses included, “I don’t want to be offensive,” and, “It’s uncomfortable.” Cue Ms. McMahon’s passionate sermon about how critical it is to have these conversations BECAUSE they’re uncomfortable. We wonder why this topic remains so sensitive – let’s talk about it!

We viewed numerous examples of ads that, intentional or not, perpetuate certain stereotypes. Then we viewed several who are deliberately working to break down existing stereotypes. One example ad we watched was an Always commercial that confronts the phrase “like a girl.” Take a gander at the following link if you haven’t seen it. Warning – having tissues nearby would not be the worst idea.

Here’s where my false assumptions reminded me how important these conversations are. After watching this video, they were invigorated. One student, who is incredibly motivated and seems to have a really good grasp of his surroundings said, “Whao. That totally made me completely rethink that phrase!” That shocked me, and I’m not sure why. How could I assume he and his classmates understood the gravity of some of the phrases they/we all use in everyday conversation? Isn’t that how stereotypes are perpetuated??? This is exactly why this project is so important.

Later that day, a group of boys came to me to get some feedback on a project they are fine-tuning. We had been talking for a few minutes. I had offered some suggestions, and now the conversation had turned a bit more lighthearted where we were making a few jokes about this and that. At one point, one of the boys said, “You’d have to be a girl to …” He stopped mid-sentence, paused, and finished with, “Never mind.”

Change. One conversation at a time.

Fast forward to this week, when we shifted our conversation to the idea of representation in the media – who is represented and how they are represented. We first looked at how well- or underrepresented certain groups of people are and how that could affect a person who identifies with one of those groups. Then we looked at how families are often represented, specifically in advertising. Five different examples showed five happy families including a mother and father with their children. All looked healthy and fit, while details within each image implied that they were also financially comfortable. Many of my students also noticed that, though numerous colors were represented from family to family, all families were of the same color.

Following a brief discussion of how unrealistic these representations of what a family looks like is, I wanted to prove the point further by revealing how just how many differences exist from one family composition to another within our own classroom walls. I led a version of what is often called a “privilege walk.” In my version, I have all students stand shoulder to shoulder in a straight line facing me. I read a statement, and if that statement relates to any students, those students are to take one step forward. I thank them, and they step back into line with the others. I preface the activity with an admission that some of the statements might be uncomfortable and that this is a choice activity. They always have the option to not step forward.

The statements I chose to read this time around all related to family dynamics. Some examples include:

If your family owns your home…
If your family has ever had to move because you couldn’t afford rent…
If you live in a single-parent household…
If your parents are married…
If your family takes at least one vacation a year…
If you have ever had to skip a meal because your family didn’t have food in the house…
If your family owns two or more vehicles…
If your parents are not of the same race…

Like I said, not all of them are fun or comfortable. Each time I do this activity, it seems that similar things happen. First, I am often surprised by who steps forward when, as are others. Second, though it absolutely hurts my heart, it also fills it with pride to see the strength and resilience in the young adults standing before me. Third, there is always hesitancy for some at the very start of the activity, but as they look around and see others stepping forward, it is as if the reins are removed and suddenly it becomes a badge of honor to show others in the room a glimpse into their lives.

I waited this long in the year to bring this activity in because it was critical to establish a space in which students feel safe and free of judgment. I believe I accomplished my goals with it this time around. I want my students to recognize how different each of them are while also realizing they are not alone. Many of them admitted how surprised they were when they saw others step forward with them. I want my students to know their stories do not define who they are while also remembering that everyone has their own story – to be careful with how quickly they pass judgment on others. And, swinging back to the original lesson, I want my students to use a very critical eye when viewing things in the media because what is represented all around them does not capture the reality in which we live.



A Genuine Spark

The first week of a brand new quarter is always energizing. It feels fresh and relaxed. We reflect on the good, the bad, and the ugly from last quarter’s project experiences and design brand-new project plans for the quarter ahead. As we near the end of another year in the ARCTIC Zone, a few things stand out to me. First, though the project process we use today is SO much more supported and authentic than it was when we started three years ago, we are still finding ways to improve it. Second, each new project holds real potential to touch students’ hearts or open their eyes in profound ways. And finally, my students continue to surprise me in so many ways, but that’s old news.

On several occasions, I’ve talked about the project process we follow called the LAUNCH Cycle which is discussed in length in the book, LAUNCH, by A.J. Juliani and John Spencer. If you haven’t checked it out yet, I’m confident you will not be disappointed. It is such a great template to follow when designing projects, despite your level of experience using project-based learning.

We have been using this cycle consistently with our projects for some time. We and our students have become very comfortable and familiar with the steps. However, the phases within the process weren’t necessarily becoming easier for students to complete on time from project to project like we hoped it would, given their added experience each quarter. It seemed that the first couple phases, especially the dreaded research phase, were pulling them underwater. They found themselves drowning throughout the middle of the project, leaving them just gasping for air in order to quickly pull off a completed project by the end of the process. This has resulted in lower quality projects in many cases along with quite a bit of added stress and disappointment along the way for individuals and groups.

This is a system problem. With so many students struggling to breathe by the end of a project, we knew we had to do some rethinking about our project process. With middle school students, it became obvious that time-management, prioritization, and chunking of tasks needed to be even more supported somehow. We landed on an idea we believe will be transformational to the quality of final projects moving forward as well as the confidence and overall attitudes of our students regarding their project work.

For the big project this quarter, phases L, A, and U will be completed in Humanities as a group. So this week we all worked together to break down the L Phase checklist into smaller chunks. We discussed our time-management plan by the day, and checked things off as we completed each task throughout the week. I am happy to report that all students submitted their L Phase requirements on time today.

The same will happen with the A and U Phases, where we work to map out a plan and complete the checklist together. Mixed in with the phase completion, I am able to add in opportunities for very purposeful exploration and discussion of the topic. I have two hopes with this new system of support. One, I hope to be able to better teach time-management and prioritization skills through modeling and practicing them together in the early phases of the project. After submitting their L Phase requirements today, I heard several students comment with a, “Well, that was easy!” Yes! And two, with quality exploration of the project topic in class together, I’m hopeful when it comes time for them to break away from class and complete the second half of their projects on their own, they will be better prepared to design and execute products more meaningful to them and to the project purpose.

The obvious hope with each quarter project topic is to light a genuine spark of passion in as many students as possible, knowing that not every project will strike the same cord for everyone. With real-world connections, meaningful topics, and authentic experiences, the potential is there.

This quarter is divided into two different quarter projects. Our 8th graders are embarking on their culminating project in the ARCTIC Zone as they set out to write and present their very own TED Talk at the downtown Grand Theater in June. Though we haven’t officially begun to dig into the project quite yet (due to Forward testing – blah!), it has been a frequently addressed topic of conversation throughout the year, and many students have already started narrowing down their topic ideas. Though no topics have been officially chosen, yet, I am already incredibly proud of the profound, challenging, and meaningful topics they are exploring. Stay tuned for more about these in a future post as they take shape in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, our 6th and 7th graders have been challenged this quarter to connect with one of today’s pop culture media sources and to work to persuade them to rethink a message they are sending to their audience. Project time for them this week has been spent exploring various media sources and subliminal messages being sent to audiences, both good and bad. We focused specifically on the power advertising has in its ability to either perpetuate or break down existing stereotypes in our society.

Discussing stereotypes and digging into some tough and sometimes uncomfortable conversations has very clearly sparked an honest curiosity in many of them. More students are participating in discussions (both in-person and online) than ever before. I even received the following email from a student one evening this week in reference to our discussions about several stereotypes that are often perpetuated in advertisements:

Hello! I would just like to say that I love the topic in humanities. It made me happy to talk about not because I support it but because it’s so interesting. I actually got carried away with writing in the discussion post and typed 400 words.

Spark … lit!

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Spread Some Smiles

I haven’t written in a while for a number of reasons. The end of the quarter has been filled with many obligations, complications, and distractions, both professional and personal. And, to be honest, I’ve been a little keyboard-shy after receiving some criticisms regarding the content of this blog. What I have concluded is that I am fully invested in what we are trying to accomplish with the ARCTIC Zone. Blogging about my experiences not only brings me joy, but it challenges me in a way that I believe is making me better. A better educator. A better writer. A better communicator about project-based learning. A better example for my students.

I’m seeing more than ever a growing need for kindness in our world. It’s something we preach to our students on the regular, but the truth is: we could all use a little more compassion in our lives. We can all work to spread a few more smiles, and we could all benefit from a little more kindness sent our way.

I’ve seen a classroom activity shared several times by other teachers that I have always wanted to incorporate into my own class. I call it the “Hot Seat,” and I just started with it a couple weeks ago. One student sits in a chair with his back to the whiteboard for three full minutes while the rest of the class fills the whiteboard with positive thoughts and words about that student. That’s all. At the end of the three minutes, the student turns around to read what has been written about him.

The first few times we did it, the students in the hot seat expressed a confusing nervousness that crept inside them during those three long minutes despite the fact that they knew everything written had to be positive because “that’s what the teacher said.” Several students have echoed these sentiments offering worries about the whiteboard remaining empty because they fear others will not have anything nice to say about them. Is your heart breaking, too?

Not only that, but there was one student who tried to get away from the whiteboard as quickly as possible after reading her own notes because she was so uncomfortable seeing the many positive things written about her. That established a discussion regarding the following question – Why is it so difficult to receive a compliment? My students came to the following conclusions:

a.) Society suggests that by accepting a compliment, you are agreeing with what was said about you, and by doing so, you exude an arrogance that is frowned upon by others. So in an attempt to appear less conceited, we brush off compliments as though we disagree or couldn’t possibly accept the sincerity in them.

b.) Society also wants us to be strong, independent individuals who don’t need to rely on the praise of others to lift us up. By accepting that praise, we appear weak, as though we depend on those words to get us through.

c.) We don’t compliment each other enough. This could be for various reasons. One suggestion was that by complimenting another person, you risk sending the wrong message, as if in order to offer praise, it must come with some sort of strings attached. Regardless of the reason, because we don’t compliment each other enough, we have no clue how to receive said compliments. Ain’t that the devastating truth?

How do we shift this kind of thinking? Instead, let’s teach our students and ourselves that

a.) Confidence is a beautiful quality.

b.) Leaning on each other at times is essential.

c.) Spreading kindness to others is our duty.

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