Before the First Day.

Before I dig in to this post, a quick housekeeping announcement: I’ve decided to no longer maintain two separate blogs. If you are interested in my posts about teaching, there’s a link to the left that will pull all of them. Same with posts about iPads. You can also click on the file folder tab at the top and search the entire blog by keyword. 

Every year before the first day of school, I email parents, providing them with a link to my class website and an assignment to write me a letter about their student. I’ve been asking parents to write me letters about their students for my entire career, and I love reading these letters. Some parents get me their letters before the first day of school, so before the students enter my classroom I already have some context about what makes my students tick. I’m able to ask them questions about their interests, which can thaw the ice better than any mandated activity might.

But I’m always looking for more ways to make the first week of school a positive experience for everyone, so throughout the year I collect articles that I revisit at the end of July. One of those articles was Catlin Tucker’s post about flipping back to school night, and I loved the idea.

I took some photos, B-roll, and made a couple of screencasts, edited them all in iMovie and published the video to YouTube. (If you’re interested, you can watch it here.) Then I emailed the video to parents, along with the letter assignment. I’m hopeful that this initial positive contact with parents will begin an open channel of communication, and that it will provide a less rigid open house night. Our open house night can often turn into mini-parent-teacher conferences. But this year, if the parents who attend open house have watched the video, perhaps the conversations will be more genuine. I’m hopeful open house this year will be more equal exchange between me and parents, instead of me talking nonstop (and fast!) to share the basics of my classes.




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.


My Time At NETA.

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.

Instead of writing to the prompt today, I’m writing something of an ode to my district and an ed tech conference.

I can’t remember the first year I went to the Nebraska Educational Technology Association (NETA) conference–I think it was 2010. What I do remember is how deflated I felt by the end of the two-day tech-fest.

So much of what I saw I knew I could not do in my classroom–not because I was unwilling, but because at the time, my district just lacked the infrastructure, hardware, and software to do the innovative ideas shared at NETA.

I went two consecutive years, and then I stopped going–I was teaching AP Lang and Comp and the conference fell too close to the test date. I felt like I was abandoning my students, attending two days of sessions in which I might find one idea I could shoehorn into the resources available to me. It just wasn’t worth it.

Fast forward five years.

Oh, how things have changed. This impresses me, this hindsight, because in my personal life I feel like life pretty much stays the same. Last year I returned to NETA as a presenter. It was a completely different experience than my first. When I attended sessions, my mind raced with how I could implement the ideas in my own classroom. Excitement replaced discouragement. Possibility replaced unlikelihood.

Public schools have become an acceptable prejudice; be as unfoundedly critical of your local school district, and few–if any–will come to the district’s defense. I’m not saying my district is perfect. But the technological changes I’ve seen in the past five years instill a hope that I never thought I’d feel. We have a much improved network. We have rover carts in most classrooms. Some teachers (myself included) have iPad carts.

Sure, I have days where YouTube doesn’t work or my entire Mac lab loses internet (both of these things happened today), but most of the time, I can troubleshoot and get things running again, I know who to ask for help, I’m able to do what I want to do–and that includes trying new things.

I get to go to NETA again this year, but this time as a journalism adviser. NETA reached out to local high school journalists and invited them to the conference. So I’m accompanying my Editor-in-Chief, co-Editor-in-Chief, and Managing Editor to NETA. They have researched story ideas, developed interview questions, and contacted sources. I will attend a handful of sessions, but my primary responsibility is to advise them as they work on their stories. I’m excited for the opportunity they have to see passionate educators collaborating and learning how to create more engaging classrooms.

The best part is knowing that in the sessions I attend, I will not feel hopeless. Yes, change is often slow in the realm of public service, but I am encouraged by the increased support and resources dedicated to improving educational technology in my district. It’s not perfect, but it’s change for the better.