When I attended NETA several weeks ago, I attended a session about BreakoutEDU.

I could spend time explaining it, but why do that when one of my students wrote about it just fine? So you should read that and then come back to this. I’ll wait.

Anyway, I am typically afraid of trying new things and taking risks in my classroom, especially when I don’t quite see in my head how it will work. But after they saw the presentation at NETA and did a Breakout activity there, my students really wanted to do one before graduation with the rest of our newspaper staff.

So I asked my dad how hard it would be to build a box that could lock.

“What size?” he asked.

“I don’t know…not big but not small?” I said.

We agreed on a 12 inch square box, for ease of measurement, and he built me this:


He added a hinge and a hasp; I ordered the supplies on Amazon (locks, UV flashlight, invisible pen). Now I had to find the best way to use it.

One of the most appealing elements of BreakoutEDU is the community function–hundreds of puzzles are available in a variety of curricular areas. They are created by teachers, and there’s a crowdsourcy vibe to the website that hosts the puzzles.

Because I just wanted to get a sense for how it might work, I chose one that focused on team building. This was for my newspaper staff, after all, and team building is always something we could use more of.

Here’s the box, all locked up, waiting for my students to solve it. 

(I didn’t want to be a paparazzi while they worked on solving it, so I don’t have photos of them at work.)

The hardest part for me was keeping my mouth shut. It took them 10 minutes to find the most important clue, and I watched three kids walk right by it and miss it every time. Once they found that clue, everything else moved pretty quickly and they solved it in 21 minutes. It helped that three of the students had successfully completed a breakout box at NETA, so they knew what to look for.

It also helped that I couldn’t keep my mouth shut and I kept responding to their seemingly innocuous questions. Note to self for next time: bring duct tape for my mouth.

Inside the box, I had candy for them as well as a personalized thank you note for each student, in which I thanked them for their contributions to this year’s staff. I also had eight Sharpies.

My dad, ever the craftsman, was a little concerned at how plain the box looked. It was a rush job, and I just wanted the functionality of the box, but I was hit with this idea: what if I keep Sharpies in the box, and every time I do this, the students who crack the puzzles get to sign the box?

The inaugural signatures on my Breakout box.

Here’s what I learned:

  1. We had a group of 13 (some kids were absent) and even 13 is too big. Not everyone was involved all the time, and when one or two kids took a clear lead, it was too easy for the rest of the crew to just sit back and let them drive. Next time: smaller groups.
  2. I kept thinking how I could make this work in my situation where I share classrooms with multiple teachers. Communication is always key, but even more so with this activity–hiding clues and hoping other classes don’t mess with them will cause problems if I don’t communicate clearly with the other teachers.
  3. I underestimate my students. They solved it with 24 minutes remaining. That’s so much time! Yet I was worried they wouldn’t solve it, and I wanted this first one to be a success (hence my blabbing). I could’ve let them hang a bit longer and they still would’ve beat the clock.
  4. Have I need to keep my mouth shut when they do this?

Now that I have one under my belt, I’m excited to do this with more classes, to create and share games–even in my niche elective curricula. I’m glad my students lobbied for us to do this. I ask them to take risks all the time.

It was my turn to take a risk for them.


Celebrate Good Times.

Prompt: How do you celebrate your work and the work of your colleagues?

Short answer: I don’t.

When it comes to my work, I feel like a terminal failure. I struggle to find much to celebrate. But even if I could find things to celebrate, I’m intrigued by the question “how.”

In order to celebrate my own work, I need a paradigm shift to see my work as something worth celebrating. How does that happen?

Probably another round of therapy.

But seriously, this prompt has been tough to write to, because the forced introspection made me realize that I completely undervalue the work I do. I don’t celebrate my work, because I haven’t trained myself to see anything but the failures: losing my cool with a chatty class, grading quizzes and realizing not a single kid got more than 5 points, sticking to lectures too often.

But as I reflect on this day alone, I can celebrate the following:

  • Every semester I really do get better at teaching graphic design. My instructions become clearer, and my students produce better work.
  • Whole-class revisions of student writing is one of the best things I’ve ever done in my writing class. Today we revised three feature stories, and several students said they felt better, realizing they could meet the standard I had set.

Now, how to make celebrations a regular occurrence? Not quite sure. I tried earlier this year, in a way, with my 180 Days of Happy project…that lasted 90 days. But those weren’t true celebrations or reflections on my teaching.

And celebrating the work of my colleagues? When I’m never in their classrooms, it’s hard to see what they are doing. We don’t always have time or make time to share our work worth celebrating. When we are tasked with looking for ways to implement different strategies to improve test scores, well, I’m pretty sure no one feels like celebrating all that much.

I know celebrating our work is important–today I reminded my journalistic writing class that the work my friends Ann Feldmann, Jeannette Carlson and Jeff Bernadt do with our iPad Academy is groundbreaking work that deserves all the recognition in the world. I reminded my students that they hear way too often, from parents and journalists and yes, even teachers, that public schools are a joke and are broken beyond repair; I reminded them that it’s just not entirely true.

There is great work happening in classrooms all over the country. Work that needs to be celebrated. And the first step in “how” to celebrate our work is to make sure our students know our work is worth celebrating.

Why Do We Need Teachers?

A few years ago, I read this article. 

If you don’t have a lot of time, skip down to the section that begins “Dani Indovino” and read from there.

And I come across articles like this quite often–articles predicting sweeping changes in education, some of which make sense, some of which have me shaking my head.

And then there’s this grim scenario, outlined by The Atlantic’s Michael Godsey, that nearly put me in tears thanks to his myriad sources basically claiming that teachers will soon be obsolete.

But what each of these articles omits in the land mine of education reform is best read here. 

Education reformers often ignore and discount the heart of teaching–the emotion and passion of it. What Chase Mielke writes in the previous link is left out of every article that antagonistically asks, “Why do we still need teachers?” And sure, if you see school as a content delivery system, then Godsey’s imagined future is probably spot-on. But school isn’t a content delivery system.

When I taught AP Lang and Comp, I preached the gospel of collateral learning: that it sure was fantastic I was teaching them how to analyze argument, but what I really wanted them to learn was how to work hard. How to overcome adversity. How to be kind. How to be respectful. Can a superteacher’s recorded lectures, monitored by a classroom facilitator do that?

I think not.

Why do we still need teachers? Because for so many–too many–kids, a teacher is the one adult they trust. The one adult they can confide in. The one adult they know has their backs and will fight for and with them.

Why do we still need teachers? Because a recorded lecturer cannot hear the kid in the back ask a question, or correct a misperception.

Why do we still need teachers? Because a human connection during the learning process adds an immeasurable value to both student and teacher.

If we replace teachers with cold software and pre-recorded lectures, it is not hyperbole to suggest that a dystopian future awaits us. Every dystopian novel I’ve read has alluded to a complete removal of human connection from the classroom, if not a complete removal of  traditional education.

Why do we still need teachers?

Why do you even need to ask?

When Change is Hard.

For the month of April, I am participating in the Blog A Day Challenge for educators. All prompts are provided by Meredith Towne (@BklynMeredith), an educator from New York.

I am somewhat resistant to change.

Funny thing is, I teach subjects that are constantly changing, and I use hardware that requires me to embrace change.

I’ve written over on my other blog about how teaching with iPads has really challenged me to try new things in my classroom. But at the end of the day, I’m a creature of habit, a creature that is fond of my cage, and change is hard. Here’s the hardest change for me right now:

Student-led learning.

Part of my resistance to student-led learning is fear–I don’t want to make myself obsolete. But part of my resistance to student-led learning is experience. Example: for the first two days of my film unit in Pop Culture Studies, I lecture for two days about film history. Every semester, I offer students the opportunity to explore the resources on their own and learn about film history at their own pace and select from a menu of assessments and learning evidences. Every semester, they are unanimous: just give us the information.

When I tell them they will spend two painful days taking notes, several students tell me my lectures aren’t painful at all (which, admittedly, feeds my ego a bit; I try to lecture in the style of “engaging storyteller” and this feedback validates me), and other students bluntly tell me if I gave them time to explore the content on their own, they would just end up on YouTube watching World of Warcraft gamers bite the dust.

I give them points for honesty.

So I read about idealized classrooms that are student-led, where students take charge of their own learning and somehow score high on tests, and I try to figure out how I can make that change in my classroom.

I make small strides occasionally; I look for ways to incorporate more student choice in assessments and content acquisition. But this is a change I can’t quite seem to make, at least with my Pop Culture class. I get closer in my other classes–the classes that ask students to create a product of some kind. So I tend to focus on my photography/design class and my writing class and newspaper, of course, and look for ways to hand over the learning to those students.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to fully let go. I don’t even know if that’s the expectation, even though I’m internalizing the message that it is. But at least I am always aware, always thinking in the back of my mind that it is something to strive for. And maybe for right now, being aware and looking for the opportunities is good enough.