Pants not required

In August of 2015, I left my full-time public school teaching position after nearly fifteen years and transitioned to the world of full-time online teaching.  The move was a big change for me, and while I greatly missed seeing my students most days, the transition to full-time sweatpants was much less difficult.


I quickly learned that working in pajamas didn’t mean I was less of a teacher.  As an online teacher, I felt busier than ever.  In a face-to-face environment, much of my time was spent planning lessons and preparing material for class, followed by endless amounts of grading.  My online courses were already prepared for me, so most of my time was given over to fully attend to my students and how they were learning.  Grading work was constant, like shoveling in a snowstorm, and sometimes the sheer amount of work being submitted by students made me wish for an internet snow day.  Online teachers don’t get snow days.

Face-to-face teachers would look puzzled as I explained that I was teaching online.  “But don’t you miss students?  It’s not like you get to see them online.  You’re not exactly teaching — you’re just grading their work.”  I did miss the classroom interactions with students, but I couldn’t help feeling offended by comments like this.

Online teachers don’t just provide a score on work.  As an online teacher, I assessed each attempt at learning, wrote detailed comments to students on what they did well, where they needed to improve, where they were going, and how to get better.  I instructed them on each assignment, giving them the necessary tools and remediation to move ahead before accepting another attempt on their work.  Grading student work became a major way I connected with my online students.  I left jokes and asked questions in their feedback, and many of my students would share what was going on with them in their daily lives.  I sent them encouraging messages and wished them luck on their other high school activities.  I shared material and resources to individual students who expressed an interest in learning more about certain topics. I created videos to answer their questions and give them guidance when necessary.

Online teachers also monitor progress constantly.  We know that if our students fall behind, they will face an overwhelming amount of work later in the semester (and that translates to a mountain of work for us teachers all at once too).  We send frequent progress updates to students, parents, and mentors.  We constantly look at the grade book to see how each student is progressing and achieving.  We address gaps in performance.

As it turns out, pants are not actually a requirement to be an effective teacher.  I do highly recommend them for the classroom though.

“You’re going to love working here!”

I recently left the public school where I had taught for almost 15 years, the public school where I started my first teaching job ever.  Though I learned so much working there and grew professionally every year, I was ready for something new. I was ready for more of a leadership role.

So I when I was offered a new gig as a Lead Instructor with Michigan Virtual University, I jumped on the opportunity.  I had already been teaching with them part-time for a year, so I knew a little of what to expect.  And though I’ll very much miss being in the classroom with students face-to-face, I’m excited to expand my reach as an online teacher.  I’m looking forward to learning and mastering new ways to connect and teach students in a new environment.  I’m thrilled to be leading a department of amazing teachers from all over the state.

Starting a new job is not easy for anyone.  I was really good at my old job, and now I feel like a first-year teacher again with so much to learn.  While I have a well-developed tool belt of teaching strategies at the ready, it’s different to apply those skills in an online setting.  I’m learning, which is wonderful, and I do love it.  The experience reminds me of what it’s like to be a first-year teacher again.

Some of my first interactions with the Michigan Virtual team members left me amazed.  Upon meeting me, several MVU employees shared a phrase that I keep replaying in my mind.  Are you ready for this?

They said, “You’re going to love it here!”

That’s exciting to hear for sure, but it got me thinking about being a first-year teacher in a Michigan public school.  In all my years of teaching, no one EVER said “You’re going to love it here!”  No matter how wonderful my previous teaching colleagues are, that is not something that veteran teachers say to new teachers.  In 15 years, I never spoke those words to new teachers!  I offered my help and assistance, guidance, mentorship, and lesson plans . . . but I never once said “You’re going to love it here!”

And isn’t that a huge problem?

I love teaching.  Most teachers I know are truly passionate about teaching.   The best parts of being a teacher — without question — are the relationships you develop with your students.  I loved the kids in my room. I loved planning lessons that would connect with my students.  I loved helping them consider new information in new ways.  I loved the challenge of making my subject meaningful to them.  I loved helping them through difficult patches in their lives.  I loved being a part of their stories, their stumbles and their successes, even if only for a short time in their teenage existence.

No one says to new teachers “You’re going to love it here!” because they know the truth, and the truth is this:  you are going to love the kids, and you’re going to love teaching those kids, but you’re not going to love all of the other parts that have been hoisted onto the shoulders of teachers.

Spending hours analyzing data, more hours preparing evaluation materials (I’ve seen teachers cart in their evaluation files and portfolios on carts with wheels!), and even more hours sitting through professional development that doesn’t apply to you will take valuable time away from the part of the job you love. Mandated writing assignments that require a minimum of 20 hours to grade during exam week might cause your head to spin.  And even the most devoted teachers start to crack when several weeks of the year are spent rescheduling lessons so students can take part in district mandated testing that is separate from state mandated testing.  You will feel powerless as a professional while decisions are made that affect you and your students, and you are not once given a place at the decision-making table.

Please know that these are not issues affecting one district in Michigan.  I connect with teachers around the state, and I hear the same stories everywhere.  Teachers love teaching, but teachers are unhappy with their jobs.  And around the country, other teachers feel the same.

How can we take the job of teaching and make it again about teaching and learning?  What can we do to make new teachers love it here?



So what do YOU want to learn?

There was never a genius without a tincture of madness. — Aristotle

The first day I introduced Genius Hour to my students, I asked, “How many times over your entire school career has anyone asked you what you want to learn?”  I teach high school seniors, so this question created more reflection than if I taught young students with only a few years of learning under their belts.  My Advanced Placement seniors looked totally baffled, which was a new experience for some of them.  “It’s true,” said one student, perplexed.  “No one’s ever asked me what I want to learn.”

Before this school year, I was also guilty of not asking students what they were curious about studying.  If you saw the pages of Economics benchmarks and AP Psychology objectives that students must learn in my classes, you wouldn’t ask students for their opinion on much.  I’ve learned a few things over the last year or two that have helped to change my mind.

Think about your typical school PD session.  For years, I sat through PD sessions that killed my desire to teach.  Two years ago, several required hours of PD had gone unplanned, and teachers were told to put together our own PD.  While it still felt like a hoop to jump through, soon teachers were exploring topics, strategies, and programs that interested them.  It was the best mistake ever.  Teachers grouped together to research topics they had wondered about but didn’t have the time to explore otherwise.  Soon teachers were collaborating and even developing websites for colleagues on topics they were passionate about, from PBL to flipped learning.  I wondered why we don’t conduct PD in that way all the time.  When given the time, I am excited to learn about educational strategies and instructional technology in any way that I can.  When given the time, I am happy to share what I’ve learned with other teachers.

Is it the same for our students?  I think it is.  We use all kinds of strategies to make them interested in what we think they should learn or what we are forced to teach.  But I’ve learned over 13 years of teaching that it’s a rare high school student who is passionate about learning economic theory.  And while students see my passion for all things psychology, it doesn’t necessarily translate into their passion.  I feel successful if they develop an appreciation for the science and look at life with a psychology perspective, but not all of them continue on to study psychology in college (though I want to hug the ones who do).

Genius Hour gives students one hour a week in your classroom to find their passion, to explore a topic of their choice in depth and over time, to research, think, and collaborate, and then to publish and share their reflection with the world through a personal blog. At the end of the project, students present their reflections in a TED-type presentation to their classmates and members of the school or community.  Before jumping in, I spent a lot of time reading about Genius Hour and how other teachers have made it work in their classrooms.  You can view the list of resources I have collected about Genius Hour here

I started implementing Genius Hour at the beginning of our second trimester in late November, and my students continued their Genius Hour projects through  May.  I only offered Genius Hour in my AP Psychology classes because it’s a year-long course, and I know exactly what activities that I can whittle down or cut without skimping on content.  The other courses I teach are one trimester courses lasting 12 short weeks, and I will have to look hard at my plans to decide what I can change about the curriculum.

The  initial excitement about Genius Hour in my classroom led me to propose Genius Hour as an elective for the 2014-2015 school year, and the proposal was approved by our curriculum council. I’m a little nervous about how it will progress — it definitely was not all joy and cheer throughout the process — but I’ve learned a lot this year about success, failure, and student motivation, all to be addressed . . . in another blog post.  🙂


Building the New

The secret to change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.

— Socrates

Over the past few years, my focus has been on learning and using educational technology as a teaching tool.  During that time, I have had the privilege of attending several #edtech conferences where I have learned techniques that have transformed my teaching.  I just returned from an awesome 3 days at MACUL ’14, where I attended sessions on all kinds of edtech strategies of interest to me.

But I’ve also discovered a secret:

Edtech conferences are not actually about edtech.  

Don’t be confused — there is plenty of edtech at an edtech conference.  I’ve engaged in sessions on everything from Chrome to scripting with Google Drive, from useful digital tools to creating iTunesU courses, from screen-casting to blended learning to online learning.  It’s exhausting to think about how much I’ve learned over the last three years alone.  With “love of learning” as one of my core strengths, I soak it all up and bask in the brainstorming, sharing of knowledge, demonstrations, and teaching.

Yet the biggest learning experience for me has been discovering the philosophy of the edtech people, the people I call “my people” (I also call Star Wars people my people, and luckily there are also several of those at edtech conferences as well).

Edtech people see possibilities.  They see potential — the potential of education, the potential of students, and the potential of teachers to shape and change lives.

Instead of focusing on what teachers aren’t doing, edtech people focus on the good things teachers are doing.  They celebrate the risks that teachers take using technology with their students.  They support and encourage teachers who are willing to try.  

Edtech people say, “Just try it and see how it goes.  We’re here if you have questions.  And good for you for wanting to do this for your students!”  If you knew how often I’ve heard about what I MUST be doing on a daily basis with lesson planning, you’d understand how great it feels to be appreciated for learning something of value.

Edtech people like to share.  Instead of competing with each other and keeping resources to themselves (which our current teacher-evaluation system promotes), they encourage share-and-share-alike.  If you’re doing something that works, they promote what you’re doing.  They go out of their way to share your story.  

Instead of saying “you need to be doing more,” edtech people say “we know how hard you’re working” and “you are making a difference.”  They recognize and trust teachers as highly-educated professionals.

Edtech people don’t make excuses.  They don’t talk incessantly about theory.  They put their energy into building instead of tearing down.  They produce change.

Edtech conferences are all about creating change, from a single lesson or strategy, to an individual teacher, to the entire business of teaching and learning.  They do so by bringing in educators who support, encourage, collaborate, and respect.  They bring in people who want to build the new.

It’s a philosophy that is heartening and too often missing in the daily lives of teachers; it’s why I consider myself an edtech person and keep going back for more.


Finding Happiness through Your Strengths

As an AP Psychology teacher, I know my students are always fascinated with mental illness — admittedly, so am I.  If you can turn off Hoarders or My Strange Addiction, you clearly have some sort of superpower I don’t possess. Psychology has done an incredible job of cataloguing the many interesting ways human behavior can go wrong.  But we can also learn from human behavior that is going right.  Positive Psychology is a growing field that shifts the focus away from defining and treating mental illness to studying mental health so that we can learn to be more proactively psychologically healthy and happy.

A few years ago, I read the book Authentic Happiness by  Dr. Martin Seligman, director of the Positive Psychology Network and former president of the American Psychological Association.  Dr. Seligman writes about how to experience happiness in your life by using your signature strengths to achieve flow and positive emotion. Seligman argues that even happiness can be learned, and I think it’s so cool that my students could learn how to be happier in life.  Learning how to be happier goes beyond any classroom curriculum.  It’s my goal to be able to share with my students some of the keys to achieving happiness in their lives, and we always spend time towards the end of the year studying the science and research behind happiness.  

So what’s the point of discovering your strengths?  In Authentic Happiness, Seligman argues that cultivating your strengths can benefit your health, relationships, and your career.  Much of his book concerns discovering these strengths and how to use them to increase happiness.  You can take the VIA Survey of Character Strengths to determine your top strengths.  The survey takes around 25 minutes to complete, but it’s time well spent if learning your strengths can increase your level of happiness, right?

Before taking the survey, I had never considered my cautious behavior a strength.  In fact, I’ve always assumed people who were less cautious were probably having more fun.  I’ve tried to rebel against my top strength — but my most reckless behavior is probably my tendency to overdose on Nutella (come on, you have a Nutella problem too, admit it and maybe we can start a support group together).  As I look back, my top strength has served me well in my life.  I am careful about what I say and do, and as a result, I don’t have many regrets . . . until I’m looking at the bottom of the Nutella jar.  Instead of rebelling against that strength, I can recognize ways that it helps me to be a happier person. Humor and playfulness and love of learning are a part of my everyday.  If I’m not learning something new, I feel stagnant — and you can count on my nerdy jokes along the way.  I can work my favorite Snoop Dogg joke into any lesson plan.  No matter how they do on standardized tests, my students will know why Snoop Dogg carries an umbrella.*


My Top Strengths

My students are working on Genius Hour blogs weekly, and I asked them to take the VIA Survey to determine their top strengths and to post their results.  I loved seeing how their results fit their personalities.  I hope that identifying their strengths will lead my students to use strengths to increase the happiness in their lives.  Here are just a couple of their thoughts on their VIA results:

“Having a future mindset will definitely help me accomplish my goals in life and humor and zest will help the journey be more fun.” – M.F.

“I never really thought of being interested in the world as a strength. Like, I’ve always been curious, and have always loved to learn. I guess I’m just now realizing that being curious will make me a smarter and more well-rounded individual, and therefore more valuable to work and other people.” – M.R.

If you have the time, take the VIA Strengths Survey.  How will you use your top strengths to increase your happiness? How might it help your students to know their strengths?

*Why does Snoop Dogg carry an umbrella?  For drizzle.  HA!

Backchanneling with Twitter

In AP Psychology, we have started one of my favorite units — Social Psychology.  I like teaching this unit because students learn about many powerhouse psychologists and the interesting experiments they designed to study how social situations influence behavior.  Learning about the psychological principles behind conformity, aggression, altruism, and attraction typically engages many students as they see these principles at work in their daily lives as teenagers.  We begin this unit by looking at ways social dynamics can change our behavior, and within the first week, we view a documentary on Dr. Philip Zimbardo’s infamous Stanford Prison Experiment.

Conducted in the 1970s, the prison experiment is infamous for a few reasons.  Zimbardo turned the basement of the Stanford University psychology building into a fake prison.  Zimbardo’s subjects were psychologically tested and were all mentally healthy before starting the study.  He assigned them randomly to play the role of either prisoner or prison guard.   Then he sat back and watched what happened.  The study was meant to last two weeks.  Zimbardo had to end it after five days.  Within 24 hours, guards became sadistic and prisoners lost their identity and dignity.  The roles quickly took over and became their identities.  You can learn more about his study at the Stanford Prison Experiment website.

While students are generally interested in Zimbardo’s experiment, the video we watch is an ACTUAL video.  On VHS.  From the 1990s.  Some students, upon seeing the early 90s hair and clothing, check out right away believing that the information is unlikely to relate to them, even after being prepped for what social principles to look for while viewing.  This year, to mix it up and encourage engagement, I decided to try creating a Twitter backchannel as we watched.  I already use Twitter regularly to communicate with students, link to content-related articles, and of course to create an excellent PLN (there are so many valid reasons to use Twitter, teachers!).   Twitter backchanneling allows a group to communicate in real time by using a specific hashtag on Twitter.  We used a hashtag to indicate my classroom — #jhs204.  I reminded students about digital citizenship rules and expectations, pushed play on the video, and projected my Twitter feed on the screen in the front of my room.  I was a little worried that the backchanneling would distract students from paying close attention to what was happening in Zimbardo’s experiment, but just the opposite happened as Twitter was overtaken by #jhs204.

As students watched the video, the Twitter backchannel gave them a quick way to post responses, thoughts, and questions.  They became more engaged in what was happening in the experiment as they looked for ways to use their voice on Twitter.  Some began relating the prison environment to a high school environment or WWII Nazi camps.  Some expressed surprise at how quickly tensions escalated in the experiment.  Students considered how the experiment would be different today and wondered why Zimbardo only used middle-class white college-aged men in the study.  Not every tweet expressed a lot of thoughtfulness, and not every student tweeted, though a couple of students who don’t use Twitter added a stream of comments to the whiteboard near the screen.  But altogether, backchanneling added a level of discussion I don’t think we would have had otherwise.

But for me, the best part of backchanneling during class had to be when students from other classes noticed what we were doing and started asking questions about it.  As their friends in my class started filling up Twitter with #jhs204 tweets, several outside students began wondering what we were up to and jumping into our conversation here and there.  Students who have AP Psych later in the day jumped into the early conversation to ask if we would be doing the same thing during other hours.  They were excited about coming to class.  And a student who was absent at the dentist during our first hour was able to see and ask about what his classmates were discussing.  Even previous students who already graduated and had viewed the video in psychology left comments.  Not all comments from outside students were positive — some expressed annoyance that their Twitter feeds were taken over by #jhs204.  I can certainly live with that, but for students who don’t want to risk annoying their friends, I’d recommend creating a separate professional/educational Twitter account to use for classroom purposes.  Below are some of the tweets students posted during our class:

Backchanneling during class is something I’m eager to try again.  With a few modifications, I think it could be an even more successful classroom event.  Have you used Twitter in the classroom?  How would you use backchanneling with your students?  I would love to hear your ideas!  And students, you can follow Dr. Zimbardo on Twitter – @philzimbardo.

Augmenting Classroom Reality

It’s a whole new world out there, people, and it’s a world where reality is augmented.   If you haven’t had a chance to play with augmented reality (or “AR” for the edtech nerds out there),  you need to try it!   Why?  Because it’s FUN.  And it also steers learning towards the all important creation end of dear ol’ Bloom’s taxonomy.

AR apps work almost like QR code readers, allowing you to scan in any image and make magic happen.  I like using Aurasma, which allows you and your students to create “auras” that you attach to images.  When you scan the image with your phone, the Aura appears as an overlay.  The best way to explain it is to see it in action.

In the first week of school, my students completed a Google form attached to my class website asking them to indicate what kinds of technology they can bring to the classroom.  I was thrilled to see almost all of them carry a smartphone with them.   Out of 67 AP Psych students, only two do not have access to technology in their pockets.  To make this lesson work, I put students into groups and made sure each group had at least one person with the ability to download Aurasma on their phone.

Last week, I introduced my students to Aurasma (follow @Aurasma on Twitter).   First we watched the above video to give them an idea of what they can do with Aurasma.  Immediately, most of the students reacted positively.  Some of them downloaded the app that minute and started playing, attaching Auras to our textbook cover and their IDs.  Within a few minutes, one student had already started to create an Aura for her boyfriend professing her undying love.  This is what it’s like working with teenagers.

Then I introduced the assignment.  In previous years, my AP Psychology students have created trading cards on famous psychologists, including information on birth and death dates, popular works, occupation, and contribution to the field.  This year, I gave the same assignment, but they had to work in groups to create Auras for their psychologists.

We spent one full class period in the library to give them room to move and shoot video if necessary.  They also needed to print images to link up with the Auras they created.  A few of the groups who went above and beyond my expectations needed another 20 minutes or so to wrap things up in class the next day.   We discovered it was important for each finished product to include the Aurasma account name of the creator so that the rest of us could follow their account and gain access to their work.  Reminders of the importance of digital citizenship ensued (“Yes, students, I will have to follow you on this app.  Be sure you ONLY create Auras I can brag to your parents about.  Because I MUST FOLLOW YOU to see your work.  And I have a weak stomach.  I’m speaking to you, Girl with the Boyfriend.”)

I’m including some of their products below, and I’m proud of their creativity and the time some of them devoted to making me laugh. They know I always grade more generously when I’m smiling.  To view their Auras, download the app (it’s free!) and search for their account name, then follow them and scan their images.

We did run into a few technical issues here and there, so there may be videos you can see but not hear.  And some of the images used are too small to be scanned online, so you may have difficulty seeing all of the Auras created below.  We also discovered that different groups that used the same image to scan may have the wrong video pop up!  While we have  yet to perfect the process, I think our next attempt will be much more successful.

I would love to hear your comments on their work!

Follow "megatronxtreem" on Aurasma

Follow “megatronxtreem” on Aurasma

Search for sparklearkles and find her AP Psychology channel to follow. Hover over picture of Rogers, sun, moon, and thought bubble.

Search for The furious 5 and follow their channel to learn about Edward Thorndike.

Search for The furious 5 and follow their channel to learn about Edward Thorndike.

Follow calientesparkles to learn about John Watson.

Follow calientesparkles to learn about John Watson.

Follow kFields13 to check out G. Stanley Hall.

Follow kFields13 to check out G. Stanley Hall.


Follow michaela97 to learn more about Thorndike.


Follow casshole (yes, that’s right) to learn about William James.


Follow adtrosin to discover why Carl Jung is so important. Don’t miss the bloopers on the next image!!


Follow ColleenRoss to learn about BF Skinner.

Follow ColleenRoss to learn about BF Skinner.

Follow AnthonyPlate to learn about Wilhelm Wundt.

Follow AnthonyPlate to learn about Wilhelm Wundt.

Follow CaitlinStout to discover William James' importance in Psychology.

Follow CaitlinStout to discover William James’ importance in Psychology.

Follow Youjustkeepbeingyou to learn about BF Skinner and his work in Psychology.

Follow Youjustkeepbeingyou to learn about BF Skinner and his work in Psychology.

This is the reverse side of the above aura, which can also be scanned.

Follow bigsteve96 to catch up on G. Stanley Hall.

Follow bigsteve96 to catch up on G. Stanley Hall.

You know who to follow!  TKKyro can tell you about this famous psychologist.

You know who to follow! TKKyro can tell you about this famous psychologist.

Other ideas for augmenting work:

  • School newspaper or yearbook — augment sporting or performance events so when you scan the image of the event (football game, music concert, spring musical, pep rally), you can see video footage of an exciting moment from that actual event.
  • Resumes or business cards — what if your intended employer could scan your resume and hear you explaining some of your skills or qualifications?
  • School pride — students could place Auras around the building explaining the history of the building or important features of the school.
  • Textbooks — I plan on having students augment images from the textbook to link to videos of some of the important psychology experiments we discuss in our curriculum.

These teachers have more to say about Aurasma:

What do you think?  How might you use AR in the classroom?