education, ITRT, kindness

Special Delivery

As a technology integrator assigned to two schools, it sometimes gets a little confusing to know which day I’m at which location. Even though I have my calendar linked to my email signature, and have signs in both schools letting others know of my whereabouts (and they are consistent from week to week), I am often asked, “When are you going to be here again?”

The email I received two weeks ago from one school’s secretary was brief and concise: “Please come to the office today. You have a special delivery.” Intrigued and a bit perplexed, I responded back, letting her know that I wasn’t at her school that day, but I would be there the next morning. “You received flowers,” she replied, “Come today if you can.” As luck would have it, my day was jam-packed with lessons, collaborations, and an after-school professional development session, all of which prevented me from leaving the other building until almost 5:00 pm. The flowers would have to wait until the morning.

The next day, as I made my way into the front office, I scanned the desks and caught a glimpse of a beautiful poinsettia plant. Excited that this might be my special delivery, I smiled at the secretary, expecting her to hand me the poinsettia. Instead, she handed me a box. 

A box of… flowers? This was a first for me! In my 40+ years of life, I’ve received flowers a handful of times, but they’ve always arrived in a vase with water for a specific occasion. Who sent me flowers in a box? And why?

As I pondered the mystery aloud, our systems operator (Sysop), Jason, approached me, vase in hand, and said, “I can walk with you back to your classroom and explain what happened.” This intrigued me even more! I didn’t know who sent me flowers, had no clue why, and now something “happened” that needed explanation! What in the world was this all about?

As we walked to the computer lab, Jason filled me in. “The day before Thanksgiving break, I was leaving for the day and saw a box with your name on it. The side of the box said “Benchmark Bouquets,” so I figured there were probably flowers inside. You weren’t here and I didn’t know how to get a hold of you. I knew the flowers wouldn’t make it a week in a box, so I took them home and put them in water then ordered another set of flowers to be delivered so you could still have your surprise.”

Let that sink in for a moment.

This man, who barely even knows me (I’ve only been working in their school two days a week for the past few months), spent his own money to repurchase flowers so that I might still experience the joy and wonder of surprise.

His kindness brought me to tears!

Opening the box, I discovered that the flowers had been sent from my home school, Mechanicsville Elementary, in celebration of being named an R.E.B. Award for Teaching Excellence recipient during a recent ceremony. Jason had saved the message from the original delivery and handed it to me as I hugged him for his incredible empathy and compassion.

We took a photo together to capture the moment and I spent the remainder of the day in awe of the kindness of others. Despite the original communication snafu, I was able to properly thank my administrators for the beautiful flower arrangement and thank my Sysop for his incredible act of generosity.

Sometimes the special deliveries we plan in our mind aren’t always delivered in the ways we expect. Perhaps that’s because there’s a greater story to be told in the process. I will always remember this moment, not simply as an acknowledgment of an accomplishment, but the humbling reminder of the power of kindness. 

Jason could have easily walked past that box without a second glance. He didn’t have to take action. When he realized flowers were inside, he didn’t have to take them home. He most certainly was under no obligation whatsoever to spend his own money to replace them.

But he did.

Stories like these are why I wrote A Passion for Kindness, which will be released in February 2019. Each day we have countless opportunities to impact other lives in a positive way! While many prefer to keep their acts of kindness silent and hidden away (and that’s great!), I’m here to amplify the good, sharing stories of real people stepping out of their comfort zones to make this world a better place for others.

These beautiful flowers remind me that there are incredibly kind people in this world. May you have the courage to be kind to others in extraordinary ways, too!

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RAK Friday 2018

It was one of the coldest mornings we’ve had on Black Friday, with temperatures below freezing, unusual for November in Virginia. My daughter and I set our alarms for 5:30 am and half an hour later we were bundled up in our car, heading to our first store to shop.

Black Friday.

The busiest shopping day of the year.

Friends, this is a crazy day in our country. Those of you who live across the ocean or across country borders, may not have experienced Black Friday in America, but let me tell you, it is not for everyone.

There are people everywhere.

Driving.

Walking.

Shopping.

Waiting.

It’s not a day for the weak of heart, the claustrophobic, or the impatient. In fact, I think they should include warning labels on the outside of retail windows, similar to those they display in front of roller coasters and high-intensity thrill rides, cautioning those who may choose to continue inside.

Decades ago, I shopped on Black Friday to get the lowest prices possible for presents I wanted to purchase for others. We didn’t have much money to spend on Christmas gifts so the discounts were a necessity, not a luxury. Being a savvy shopper, I would scour the sale ads from the newspaper on Thanksgiving Day, making my list of people I wanted to bless and gifts I hoped to purchase. I cut out my coupons and scheduled my destinations so that I could be thrifty and expedient. Then I would set out in the wee hours of the morning and hope for the best.

Long lines would form around the perimeter of stores whose doors had not opened yet, and people tried not to get trampled when they did. Some chatted while waiting; others kept to themselves.

It made for a really long morning before the shopping even began.

Now Black Friday shopping is different. Online purchasing has disrupted the retail stores’ status quo with many now shopping from the comfort of their homes, avoiding the crowds altogether. Still, for me, there is the lure of being out and about, mingling among the many who choose to do the same. But now, I continue my Black Friday shopping tradition with a twist:

Black Friday is RAK Friday – a day to scatter kindness to strangers.

Our day began at Kohl’s where we went from darkness to sunrise. I told Katrina to find the cutest children’s outfit where we tucked a 15% off coupon in a baby sock for someone else to discover.

We made our way to Michael’s and Five Below, where I found this adorable “Be Kind” purse. I wrote an uplifting note and placed it inside for the kind person who would receive it.

We drove across town to Short Pump Mall, which was quite chilly being an open-air mall. We kept our coats buttoned up as we went from one store to the next. I couldn’t resist stopping in my favorite Barnes and Noble bookstore to make sure some of my favorite books were on display for others to purchase.

I stood there for a moment, thinking about the joy I will have next year when I can come into this same Barnes & Noble and see MY book on the top shelf (making note to bring a sharpie so I can sign books for an additional surprise to anyone who might purchase it!)

As Katrina and I continued our journey, venturing in and out of the clothing stores, the crowds started to multiply and stores became packed with people. Even the arrows on the floor tried to guide people in forming orderly checkout lines, but to the mere observer it was like a cattle call.

As Katrina stood in line to purchase her items, I wandered around the store looking for ways I could scatter kindness.

I smiled at people.

I held doors open for those with handfuls of bags in their arms.

I found LOTS of clothes that had fallen to the floor, so I took the time to hang them back up – one less thing for the sales associate to do later.

About halfway through our day, we found a Starbucks and stood patiently in a line that extended past the entrance doors. After placing our order, I stood near the barista and watched him adding the enhancements for all the various drinks ordered.

His name was A.J. and he worked nonstop to make sure each drink was made to perfection, his concentration and precision almost an artform.

I complimented his skill which made a smile stretch across his face and we chatted a bit while he continued making the drinks. When he called my name, it was like winning the lottery!

Katrina and I passed by New York & Co. and as soon as I saw the sign on their window, I knew I needed to stop inside. Each year, this store partners with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, one of my favorite charities that I wrote about in my book!

We found a few items to purchase for others and got in the line that was easily twelve people deep. I caught a glimpse of the gal behind me who had the most beautiful curly hair I had ever seen. I wanted to take a photo, but didn’t want to be rude, so I simply smiled and told her how much I loved her hair. She was surprised by the unexpected compliment and I could tell by the way her eyes sparkled in return that the kind words brightened her day.

We waited.

And waited.

And waited.

And didn’t move an inch.

A sales associate made her way beside our line and explained that there was an issue with the checkout registers with only one of the four working. She offered to take our items and put them on hold so we could return later and skip the line to checkout. Surprisingly, no one took her up on her offer, choosing instead to keep standing and waiting.

About five minutes later, she came back out, her arms filled with water bottles and candy canes. “Hopefully this will make the wait a little easier!” she announced with a smile.

Her kindness was contagious!

When we finally arrived at the front of the line to make our purchases, I was reminded of my favorite charity again, gladly donating a little bit of money to an organization that does so much for others. I even got to ring a bell for my donation!

We passed by another favorite store, Carytown Cupcakes, and I decided to pay-it-forward for this marvelous #RAKFriday. I wrote a quick note and handed it to the cashier, then asked to pay for a cupcake I would never eat.

“I want to buy someone a cupcake, but I want YOU to pick out the recipient! Just give them this note when you do the act of kindness – I guarantee it will make them smile!”

It was then time to head to another mall. We found ourselves surrounded by cars everywhere we turned, so we drove a little slower, and made sure to allow people in front of us when we could. When we arrived at our destination, I skipped over several closer parking spots to allow other cars to have them instead. It felt great to wave and smile as others realized I wasn’t going to battle it out for the parking space! Besides, what’s a little more walking when we’ve been walking all day anyway?

Entering the final mall, I was delighted to see a candy kiosk on display. I pulled out my quarters and filled the machines, a small surprise that I knew would make any child smile.

I then searched through the remaining coupons I had in my purse and entered each of those stores, giving all the coupons away to people in the checkout line who might need them.

As Katrina and I finished our RAK Friday shopping for the day, we made sure to bring our traditional snowmen cookies home to the boys as a way of letting them know we were thinking of them.

While new media outlets may focus on the chaos and conundrums of Black Friday shopping, we are here to say that it’s one of our favorite days of the year.

A day to be thankful.

A day to share kindness.

A day to remind others there is good in the world.

To read more about our RAK Friday adventures, click one of the links below!

RAK Friday 2017

RAK Friday 2015

RAK Friday 2014

RAK Friday 2012

We are one holiday closer to my book, A Passion for Kindness, being released into the world! Sign up below to get monthly updates about the book release and additional blog post links, too!


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World Kindness Day 2018

Four years ago, in the early years of my kindness journey, I stumbled across a blog post someone wrote about World Kindness Week. Inspired to embrace an entire week of kindness, I set about different acts of kindness for each day including simple, small acts that others might miss. I wrote a blog post about compliments, then continued to share other acts of kindness I completed, received, or witnessed.

Since that time, I’ve learned that World Kindness Day (not week) is a real-deal thing, created in 1998 by the World Kindness Movement, and each year on November 13, I wake up absolutely giddy with joy knowing there are thousands of other people around the world sharing in kindness at the exact same time!

That. Is. INCREDIBLE!!

One way that I kick off World Kindness Day is by thinking globally. How can I make a positive impact on the world? That question alone is paralyzing if you get caught up in the enormity of it all. Positively impact the world? Who… me? Really?

Really.

Seriously.

YES!

See, your small acts of kindness make a difference. They matter to someone else. They don’t have to be expensive and they don’t have to be elaborate. They simply need to come from the heart.

So each year about this time, I start by filling three shoeboxes for Operation Christmas Child, (one in honor of each of my children). This organization will ship and deliver my box of goodies to a child in need on the other side of the world. How exciting is THAT?

When I printed my box tags, I saw it included a QR code allowing me to track which country receives my box of gifts. Bonus excitement!

Three boxes doesn’t seem like much. But when my three boxes join with your two boxes and another box over there, all of a sudden we have enough boxes to fill a large container. Add a few more from some other kind folks, and maybe we have enough to fill the backseat of a car. Another box here, another box there… all of a sudden, TOGETHER, we have made a substantial impact and we definitely need a larger vehicle!

In the blink of an eye, with the kindness of strangers, my meager three boxes magically multiplied into 850 boxes to ship.


That’s the power of collaborative kindness. It’s never really about me or you, but WE and US. That’s what makes days like this so amazing!

As I entered the Innovation Lab this morning, I caught a glimpse of a sneaky student leaving a kindness message on our laptop cart. Her smile was SO big when she realized that I caught her in the act, so I asked if I could take a photo with her. She readily agreed.

It’s not often that someone tells me I’m gorgeous, so I had to capture the joy in the moment!

A little later in the morning, I received a special delivery from a dear friend who also serves on our school’s PTA. It was the most PERFECT notepad (“Sprinkle Kindness Like Confetti!”) with a huge chocolate bar attached. Again, the kindness was so heartwarming, I had to take a photo. (If you know me well, you know that I take joy pictures quite often!)

As I finished one of my lessons today, I passed by a teacher who was returning to her classroom. We chatted for a bit, then as we approached her door I saw two post-it notes taped to her door, written by students in our school. Reading those sweet sentiments and witnessing the jubilation it brought to this teacher… well, you know what I HAD to do!

I took another picture.

During one of my lessons today, I showed first grade students how to join my Passion for Kindness Seesaw group where they could share kind acts they see or do. One student shared how she earned her “Super Kid” award by showing kindness in pushing another student on the swings.

Kindness multiplying.

As the day progressed, I met with two of our kindness classes with the mission of creating Kindness cards, inspired by Wendy Hankins and Kind Kids. When we planned these lessons weeks ago, the intent was to create greeting cards to make available for teachers in our Teacher’s Lounge, so they could share kindness with others easily. It was supposed to be a lesson filled with the joy of gratitude and giving.

But some things have changed in those few short weeks. Our evening news is filled with tragic images of uncontrollable fires and burned-down houses. On the east coast where we live, the fear and heartache is distanced as we are far-removed from threat. However, it’s our duty as educators to make our lessons real and relevant, so I knew I had to make a connection for our students.

When the lesson began, I shared our original mission of creating Kindness cards for teachers. Then I talked a bit about the recent news of wild fires and the damage they’ve caused. I showed the students a photo of Paradise Elementary, which was spotlighted in the news and from the Kids for Peace organization. The devastation was immediately felt by all the students as the room fell silent with shock and surprise.

Photo Credits: The Washington Post

One student said, “I can almost feel the sadness.” This was a perfect lead-in to our cornerstone words of kindness: Empathy and Compassion. We shared conversations about feelings and how they can become a catalyst to action.

Then I gave the students a choice.

“Sometimes we do kindness in moments of joy. Sometimes we do kindness in moments of sadness. Neither act of kindness is better than the other; both are needed and important. It’s up to you which act of kindness you do today. You can make cards for teachers to give away, or you can make a card for someone at Paradise Elementary School. Choose with your heart.”

Using donated cards, we recycled them and made them new again with words of hope, love, kindness and joy. Students decorated with markers, gel pens, colored paper and fancy scissors. They poured their hearts into their work and proudly displayed their final products, sorting them into one stack of cards for California and another stack to be placed in a gift basket for teachers.

Cards for Teachers

Basket of Kindness cards for teachers to use with new pens and envelopes, too!

Cards for Paradise Elementary

Whether you celebrate World Kindness Day on November 13, join in the fun for an entire week, or “Make Kindness the Norm” like The Random Acts of Kindness Foundation, it’s always a good time to be kind to others! I hope each and every one of you experienced a ray of kindness shining upon you today.

Just thinking about that makes my heart smile!

If you or your students would like to create cards for Paradise Elementary, you can mail them directly to the address below, making sure your postmark is no later than December 1, 2018.

Kids for Peace

1302 Pine Avenue

Carlsbad, CA 92008


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SCA Election

Like many schools around the country, we host an election experience for our students as they vote for their classmates as officers in the Student Council Association (SCA). Just weeks after school begins, students in grades 4 and 5 gather references, complete applications, and record campaign speeches to convince others to cast their vote in their favor.

While I am not in charge of SCA, I do provide technological support, recording individual students with a green screen, compiling all videos in an easy-to-view format, creating a digital ballot and information sheet for students (which includes a sample ballot) as well as facilitating the election process for all students in third, fourth, and fifth grade.

Each year is a learning curve of enhancements as well as minor hiccups along the way. When election season ends, I always vow to write a blog post, yet fail to make it happen as the never ending to-do list of upcoming projects diverts my attention. However, my #oneword18 “INSPIRE” reminds me that sharing my experiences is important to help others along the way. It’s in this mindset that I take today, Election Day, to reflect on our SCA Election from this year.

Planning and Recording

First and foremost, it’s crucial to provide detailed communication to students and parents in this process so everyone knows what is expected and when. In early September, I sat down with our school’s SCA sponsor and worked backwards, identifying the election date then other checkpoint due dates along the way, making sure to include time for me to record students, process videos, and create ballots/information sheets. We also included due dates for application submissions and poster displays.

To schedule voting times, I created a digital chart of time slots using Google Sheets, then provided teachers editing access so they could add their name on a time that best fit their needs. Since we have access to several laptop carts in our building, I was able to have two classes scheduled in the same time slot, thus making Election Day more efficient.

Working directly with students is so empowering as I get to know them as people not simply names on the ballot. They described creative, unique ways to improve our schools if only we would vote for them. One student wanted to focus on kindness as a school theme, complete with identifying kind students who will volunteer to sit with other students during lunch. Another student wanted to expand spirit week to provide additional opportunities for students to work together in creating a positive school culture. Some students had grand visions of possibilities while others had step-by-step action plans to make change happen.

They shared their hopes; they shared their dreams. They poured their passions into their speeches and their enthusiasm showed. A few students were nervous to record their speeches with this being the very first time they had given an “official” speech. I reminded them with a smile that they were just talking to Mrs. Letter and we can always rerecord their speech if they didn’t like it.

Some students were perfectionists, recording again and again and again, while others were relieved to be done in one take. I offered them reassurance, positivity, and encouragement for a job well done.

 

Sharing and Viewing

After recording all students in front of a green screen using the DoInk app, we added a patriotic background and uploaded all videos to Flipgrid to share with students using a secure school code to ensure privacy. To keep videos in order of electoral positions, I wrote each student and position on index cards, put them in alphabetical order by categories, then used the cards to post the videos in a backwards order with the last video being first added, thus matching the digital ballot students would use to vote.

I created the digital ballot using Google Forms and created a Bit.ly shortcut to make it easier to access on Election Day. Then I used the form to create screen shots, compiling in a Google Doc as a sample ballot with directions for students and teachers on how to access the campaign speeches on Flipgrid.

Preparation and Voting

In Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess, we are reminded of the power of instructional hooks to grab the attention of students as we transform learning into a memorable experience. For SCA Election Day, I focused on the Interior Design Hook as I modified our Innovation Lab into a polling station with tables, laptops, and testing shields transformed into individual polling booths. To add additional ambiance, I added an Election Day announcement to our memo board, brightened the doorway with a patriotic fabric banner, and covered tables with blue tablecloths. I also remembered to wear red, white, and blue!

Before students arrived, I prepared laptops to display the digital ballot (Google Forms) so they could have the full voting experience ready to go when they entered the room. I directed students to their polling booth then shared a quick overview of the voting process, explaining the similarities and differences to how we vote as adults (i.e. voters stand at a polling booth here and there, however we use a paper ballot and scanner as adults instead of a digital Google Form.) Once students understood how to complete their digital ballot, they were allowed to vote for their chosen candidate and submit their vote in the election.

There is a powerful energy surrounding SCA Election Day. It’s an experience of choice and voice where every vote counts. Some teachers use the campaign speeches as a language arts mini-lesson in persuasive speech; others use the event to showcase the democratic process of the United States versus voting rights of other countries. We emphasize citizenship and responsibility, referencing the 5 C’s as we teach. It’s a yearly event that has the power to develop future leaders within our schools.

Reflection and Renewal

As with any grand undertaking, there are key takeaways following the event that may get overlooked or diminished with time. I want to make sure I am taking time to reflect realistically on our process so that next year can be even better!

One of our teachers suggested we add a checklist to the student application so teachers know when things are due and can remind students accordingly. I thought this was a great idea! We included a list of due dates for students on their applications, but several applications were turned in without the required speeches written for review. By providing teachers a checklist of due dates, they can post to the board for students to write in their agendas, thus guiding them in being aware of upcoming deadlines.

We’ve come a long way from spending half a morning of instruction with the entire student body sitting in an assembly listening to an endless line of candidates, many whose names get muddled in their memory before they even return to class. By using videos on Flipgrid, students have the opportunity to watch, listen, and review campaign speeches, providing time for a more informed decision-making process. This year our fifteen campaign speeches were viewed 2,102 times! WOW! We will definitely use Flipgrid again as our chosen platform for sharing speeches!

One huge change this year is my availability of support for this school, which was diminished by 50% as I am only in this building two days a week instead of four. This resulted in a longer turn-around time in making the green screen videos, uploading to Flipgrid, sharing with students and providing time to view before voting. I may need to adjust a few things for next year so the process is not delayed from start to finish.

For example, I would love for students to create their own green screen videos, filming each other, but I also want to preserve the privacy of their campaigns so that all campaigns are shared at the same time with no “leaks” of information to opponents. With the reduction of my availability, I didn’t have time to record fifteen students and teach them the nuances of using DoInk and Flipgrid while also meeting the other requirements of my position. Next year, I may save the green screening for another project and simply record students in front of my patriotic fabric instead, saving a little bit of time in video editing.

I discovered that several teachers showed student videos whole group to their class on Election Day instead of empowering students to view them on their own during language arts station rotations. I may need to send additional reminders to teachers and emphasize this option next year so we don’t have additional loss to instructional time. I also need to invest in a lapel mic for our quieter students so their voices are easier to hear as they speak.

The digital ballot was a huge hit with many students arriving with their choices already marked. By having a recycling bin located near the door, students could dispose of their ballot upon exiting the polling station making voting seamless and efficient.

Unforeseen Issues

In preparing the polling stations this year I encountered two major issues that almost derailed the morning voting groups. One cart of laptops had not been used this year, resulting in an entire summer of updates being pushed down as soon as I turned them on, making them unavailable for use. Then, I discovered that sleep settings were set to 5 minutes on each laptop resulting in a constant need to log in to access the digital ballot.

Oh. My. Goodness. If you’ve ever wanted to witness a tech integrator scrambling from laptop to laptop to get them all up and running, this was your moment! Knowing I had booked several classes in dual time slots, this made for a challenging morning – thank goodness for patient students and teachers who smiled and offered their reassurance as I tried to get everything up and running in a timely manner!

As soon as I had a moment of unencumbered time, I went into each laptop and adjusted the sleep settings so by the time we had the majority of classes come through this was no longer an issue. However, next year? I am definitely checking those sleep settings and making sure each laptop has run updates prior to Election Day (lesson learned!)

All in all it was a positive experience, one of our best years yet. I’m excited to tweak the minor adjustments from this year to make next year’s election even better! I am blessed to live and work in a country where I, and others, have the right to share our voice, make our choice, and hope for a better tomorrow!

Here’s to another great year!

Ms. Biggerstaff, a fifth grade teacher, shares my joy for patriotic outfits on Election Day!


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Pirate Day 2018

Arrrgh there, mateys! Welcome to Pirate Day 2018!

In our second year of promoting the pirate spirit of risk-taking, communication, and collaboration, I invited our gifted-talented teacher, Maureen Ambrose, to help me prepare the crew and transform our Innovation Lab into a sea of grand adventure. What a day we created!

We started planning in August, quickly realizing that Talk Like a Pirate Day (Sept. 19) was not an option this year as it was a half-day in our school calendar with a district-wide teacher laptop rollout that afternoon. Before we even raised our flag, we had to choose another date.

After cross-referencing several calendars and focusing on our “why”, we realized we needed to offer this amazing learning experience on two days instead of one, providing additional opportunities for teachers and students to join in the fun. As luck would have it (or perhaps it was simply the shifting of the wind?), we discovered a month later that the date we chose was the same date as our school’s Author Visit, the third grade Ag Day, and school picture day! Egads!

Did we throw our hands up in the air and rip up our treasure map because of all the unforseen obstacles? ABSOLUTELY NOT! To quote Dave Burgess, the ultimate pirate captain himself, “It’s not supposed to be easy – it’s supposed to be worth it!”

Well, friends, let me tell you – IT. WAS. WORTH. IT!! We had an AMAZING two days filled with wide-eyed wonder, active anticipation, and student engagement was at an all-time high! If you are looking for an innovative way to focus on the 5 Cs while integrating technology and instructional content, keep reading to open this treasure box of insight and inspiration!

Planning

All great pirates know that half the joy in adventure is dreaming big. Maureen and I started our planning process by brainstorming dozens of activities we wanted to do, then whittled them down to align with our state standards, district goals, and grade level expectations. We knew we wanted to promote the concept of station rotations and we also wanted classroom teachers to be an integral part of the learning process (they needed to steer the ship, too!) In that mindset, we decided to plan a 40 minute adventure with three stations, students rotating to a new landing every ten minutes, leaving time for a five minute introduction and a five minute reflection before the next ship sailed the seas.

Since the needs of kindergarteners are much different than the needs of fifth graders, we knew we would have to provide a variety of activities, but our transition time for setting up/tearing down stations would be limited, so that led us to create two pirate days – one for K-2 students and another for 3-5 students.

We created a Google Sheets sign-up and changed the sharing settings so that anyone with the link could edit the sheet. We sent our email out to teachers inviting them to sign up for a designated time and were blown away when our sheet was nearly filled the first day! WOW!

Activities

Reflecting on Pirate Day 2017, we wanted to offer new pirate-themed activities for our students while continuing the “best of the best” from the year before. Since designing an unsinkable pirate ship was a huge hit in our Makerspace area last year, we kept that activity going, but with a few enhancements based on lessons learned.

The concept was simple: Using only one small sheet of aluminum foil, one popsicle stick, and masking tape, create a ship that could float and hold all the treasure (pennies) without sinking in the turbulent sea (a plastic tub of water.)

WAIT – did I just say water? In an Innovation lab with laptops and iPads and robots nearby? Yep! You read that correctly! See, we can do amazing things if we train our crew before we board the boat. It’s all part of the preparation!

Below are the key tips to remember should you try this with your pirate crew:

  1. Buy LOTS of absorbant paper towels. Those thin, brown sheets of sandpaper masquerading as paper towels in your dispensers by the sink will do nothing more but crinkle and curl, making more of a mess than you already had. It’s worth the expense of purchasing the good stuff, trust me! We used Viva Choose-a-Sheet paper towels and each small group was responsible for cleaning up their own station, even the kindergarteners!
  2. Cover your tables with cheap, plastic tablecloths. It cost us a whopping $2.00 to provide an easy-to-wipe surface for any water spills, then when Pirate Day was done we rolled up the table cloths and threw them away for easy clean up.
  3. Buy pop-up foil sheets. Did you know you can purchase 500 sheets of foil for less than two venti drinks at Starbucks? It’s true and worth every single penny. Productive pirates know that saving time reaps great rewards so buy the box and rock on with your day!
  4. Provide pennies, but skip the cute paper plates. I bought four rolls of pennies (for another $2.00) and divided them into four cute, pirate plates I found in the party section of Target. Great idea on the pennies – complete fail on the plates. By the third class, this pirate knew she had to find another way to store her treasure as the paper plates were completely destroyed from the water on the coins. Using styrofoam plates as a last-minute replacement saved my sanity and made it easy to drain extra water from treasure fished out from the bottom of the sea. If you are reading this now, make an even better choice and use a small plastic plate or shallow bowl instead.
  5. Make a Flipgrid grid and have your devices ready to capture the fun! Since Flipgrid changed their grid set-up, we now use Student Lists with our grids. Prior to Pirate Day, I created a grid that Maureen and I could use to create topics for the stations we wanted to capture. Take a peek here to see a sample of our ships and which designs were unsinkable!

Here are the new activities we offered for each of the Pirate Days:

(K-2) Pirate Ship Creation – Using Brain Flakes, students create a pirate ship using the colorful, interlocking discs. Then, pirates count the various colors used recording tally marks and/or numbers on their recording sheet. As an extra bonus, students can share their creations on a Flipgrid topic.

(K-2) Create a Pirate – Using free coloring sheets from Quiver Vision, we printed the pirate sheet from Book Week and allowed students to color their pirate. After coloring, students used the Quiver app on iPads to make their pirate come to life, talking to them in a unique augmented reality (AR) experience. We shared with teachers how they can access more coloring sheets to use as a fun center rotation in their classroom.

(3-5) Pirates of OZ (Ozobots) – Using Ozobot robots and pre-printed coding tracks, students designed their own path from ship to treasure, using color codes to guide their robot along the way. Students were encouraged to extend the tracks or draw new shapes using a black marker. Students were able to watch their Ozobot travel and redesign courses if needed should an Ozobot walk the plank right off the page.

(3-5) Talk Like a Pirate – Using a Seesaw activity template, students joined a Pirate Seesaw class, typed things a pirate might say using the suggestion sheets we provided for inspiration, then recorded themselves speaking their best pirate-ese! Best of all, they shared their talks on Seesaw so other students could listen and learn, too!

Reflections

We wanted to create the best pirate learning experience we could with total immersion. In addition to creating space for rotations with the flexible seating in our Innovation Lab, we added blue tablecloths to simulate water, decorated from one end of the room to the other and donned our favorite pirate attire, greeting all pirate crew members at the entrance. As music from the Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack blared from the speakers, we guided our pirates past the pirate ship into the galley for the introduction to our day.

As I spoke with students, Maureen pulled the classroom teacher to the side and gave her a quick run through of what she would do at her station. From there it was all-hands-on-deck as we began our activities, rotating every 10 minutes, thanks to Maureen’s reliable phone timer.

After the last rotation, we gathered the energized travelers back to the galley for a reflection of our learning experiences.

Resilience. Grit. Determination. Perseverance. We saw these characteristics in our students as they worked through the various challenges they encountered in their rotations. They discovered that masking tape loses its stickiness when it gets wet. They realized the importance of making colored dots the same width and length for coding. They shared their unique insights on what it meant to be a pirate learner, a risk-taker, a success.

We didn’t have a single discipline issue from any class on any day.

Our students were completely engaged in the tasks at hand and most didn’t want their time to end. We made learning empowering, relevant, and fun. In fact, our Pirate Day was so successful, we are going to repeat it again in the spring for the classes who couldn’t attend in the fall!

We hope our grand adventures on the high seas has inspired you to step out of your comfort zone and try something new. We look forward to sharing more themed days as we continue throughout the year!


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education, kindness, reflection

Socktober

With the change in seasons, our three kindness classes are up and running and we are well on our way to learning more about empathy and compassion through our lessons. We began the month by brainstorming our #oneword for kindness, sharing in small groups, then creating a digital word cloud of our responses using the online website AnswerGarden. We will do this activity again at the end of school to see how our perspectives of kindness have changed throughout the year.

We spent the remainder of our time creating Kindness Journals and learning more about the #CelebrateMonday movement on Twitter (created by my great pal, Sean Gaillard, principal and author of The Pepper Effect.) Using my Twitter account, we saw all the positive things people posted on social media with that hashtag, which dipped into an impromptu digital citizenship reminder about words we use online and the impact they have on others.

In our second lesson this month, we jotted down acts of kindness we had seen/received/completed. We then listened to our first kindness book, Those Shoes by Maribeth Boelts, as we enjoyed our flexible seating around the room.

What makes this book such a powerful story are all the ways we can infer information about the main character, Jeremy. We discovered through words and illustrations that Jeremy and his grandmother didn’t have much money for non-essential items. They shopped in thrift stores. They rode through town on public transportation. They graciously accepted donations from others while still striving to do things independently.

We learned that kindness involves sacrifice which carries a variety of emotions: frustration, anger, responsibility, joy. Our discussions blurred the lines of social status and eventually led us to ponder the challenges of being homeless, out on the streets, with nowhere to go, with no one to help.

It’s then that we discovered through our own brainstorming that we can be the good and make a positive difference in the lives of others who are struggling. We listened to Kid President discuss three questions that could change the world and delighted in the realization that we, too, can join in his mission:

Socktober.

For the month of October, we are collecting socks to donate to those who are homeless. While our students’ initial images of homeless people focuseded on old men living in cardboard boxes on the side of the street, we quickly learned that most homeless families are women and small children with one in thirty American children experiencing homelessness each year. We pondered the fact that we have homeless families in our school district and quite possibly in our school as well.

With service to others on our minds, we encouraged our students to talk with their families about #Socktober and set a goal to donate 150 pairs of socks between the three classes by the end of the month.

It didn’t take long to put intention into action.

The next week our bag was filled, requiring a cardboard box to hold our donations. We then overflowed that box and had to use an even larger storage basket to hold all the socks! Even today we had students adding to our collection!

We are hopeful that our small gifts of love will brighten someone else’s day when they need it the most. If you would like to donate to our #Socktober mission, please comment below or message me on Twitter. We have two more weeks to bring smiles to others and would love for you to join in our fun!

A special thanks to Brad Montague and Kid President for their efforts in sharing kindness with others in unique and empowering ways. We are truly better together in all that we do! Check out their book Kid President’s Guide to Being Awesome – you will be so glad you did!


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For the Love of Reading

“What kind of books do you like to read?”

I have to laugh when I hear someone ask this question, especially to children. Many will answer with a series or author name; a few will respond with a genre. Some will stare blankly with a shrug of their shoulders indicating disinterest in the question altogether. Even in elementary school, students have begun to label themselves by reading ability or interest. Have you ever heard one of these responses?

“I don’t like to read.”

“I’m not a good reader.”

“Reading is boring.”

My earliest memories of books revolve around my mom who was an avid reader. While we never had a formal bookshelf in our home, she would have stacks of books in her closet, under the coffee table, and in various bags in our spare bedroom. I can still see her now, curled up in a corner of the couch, covered in a blanket, hardback book opened with crisp, new pages waiting to be turned.

My mom’s passion for reading trickled down to me in small and meaningful ways. Unfortunately, my love for reading was a late discovery, as I was a product of the Red Bird, Blue Bird, Black Bird grouping of a decades-old educational system that judged my reading ability by lower-level comprehension questions and oral fluency peer comparison. According to my report card, I was an average reader. According to my passion, I was a skilled and reflective orator, retelling and correlating storylines to life lessons, emphasizing inspirational character traits with each story shared.

Since that time, I have easily read hundreds of books in a variety of genres that shift depending on my own life stages. No one requires me to take a test to prove my learning and I am freed from narrow constraints that dictate my reading selection.

I can read any book, at any time, without judgment or expectation.

I am a life-long reader.

From one of my first and favorite novels, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith, to the humorous and sometimes horrific insights of Iggie’s House and Blubber by Judy Blume, my early teen years found comfort in learning about people’s experiences: their highs and lows, successes and failures.

In high school, I discovered biblical inspirations, marking my favorite quotes with colorful highlighters that occasionally bled through the other page. Handwritten notes with personal references in the margins reminded me that I am wonderfully made and bound for greatness. I was drawn to personal narratives shared in Daily Guideposts, providing inspiration 365 days of the year. Many of those verses and stories still come to mind today when I face trials and tribulations of living in an imperfect world.

In college, I bought a kit to build my own two-leveled bookshelf. It was made of cheap particle board and a bit wobbly, but it was mine. I quickly filled it with Shel Silverstein poetry books like Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic and treasured young adult novels like Where the Red Fern Grows and Bridge to Terabithia. I vowed to never watch a movie until I had read the book first.

In my twenties, I found great escape in the twisted tales spun by Stephen King and Dean Koontz, developing empathy for characters like Christopher Snow in Fear Nothing. Then my interests took a complete turnaround when I transitioned to motherhood, with a focus on baby board books like Guess How Much I Love You capturing the unexplainable love I had for the newborn baby rocking asleep in my arms.

I read to my child.

For my child.

With my child.

As I had more children, I made sure each had a bookshelf in their bedroom. The first was built by my husband, a simple 2′ x 4′ storage space crafted from pine and custom-sized to fit baby books, which was passed along to each child as they arrived. When a child outgrew the baby bookshelf, another one would appear in their room, magically filled with early reader books, graphic novels, and other books I had found at yard sales or Goodwill.

While there may not have been money to purchase name-brand shoes or the newest game console, there was always money available for books. From Junie B. Jones lamenting her first grade woes to Jack and Annie sharing their treehouse adventures, I tried my best to pass along my mother’s love for reading to her grandchildren.

Years later, when that same mother who sparked my love for reading faced her greatest battle of Stage 4 lung cancer (at the same time my mother-in-law was battling Stage 4 colon cancer), I turned to books like Option B by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant to guide me through my loss and grief. On the day after my mother’s death, I received a package on my doorstep: Driving Miss Norma, the book my mom had pre-ordered for me as a Christmas gift six months before.

Even after her death, my mom was encouraging me to keep reading.

I am now in a season of enriching my educational practice with books like Teach Like a Pirate, Blogging for EducatorsBe Real, Make Learning Magical, Lead Like a Pirate, The Path to Serendipity, Lead with Culture, Professionally Driven and Social LEADia (and so many more – this paragraph could be a blog post in and of itself!) I am discovering the joys of reflective practice and learning from educators who stretch my thinking with their encouraging words.

I can also hear a new whisper on my heart:

“Write and share.”

In the journey from reader to writer, I see the interconnectedness of both, how words consumed and internalized are woven together into expressions and examples bursting forth to be shared. I have learned from writers before me how to scoop up fragments and phrases and mold them into visual experiences that unfold inside a reader’s mind.

To write well, you must be well read.

I am still perfecting my craft as a writer as I share blog posts like this, sparked by writing groups like #CompelledTribe who challenge me each month to keep writing, keep sharing, keep developing.

This time next year I will be an author myself with others holding my book to read. The thought is nearly incomprehensible. I am humbled to join the Dave Burgess Consulting, Inc. crew as an honorary pirate preparing for her maiden voyage. I can almost see in my mind’s eye my mom sitting on her sofa, wrapped in a blanket, reading my book A Passion for Kindness, her eyes brimming with tears of joy.

It’s a journey that will soon come full circle.

In celebration of #NationalBookMonth this October, I challenge you to share your experiences with books that have made an impact on your life. You may be surprised to discover that your words of reflection may inspire someone to add a new book to their collection! If you share a post, tag me, too – your words inspire me as well!


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grief, kindness

Hearts of Hope

Friends, it’s been a really tough week. 

Last Saturday, as I was putting the finishing touches on my Braille kindness rocks, I received the phone call no one ever wants to receive.

It was my friend, Amy, who teaches students with special needs at our local middle school. She’s also the teacher of my sweet backyard neighbor, Ashton, who was in her care for the past five years. Even before I answered her call, I already knew it was bad news. Tears welled up in my eyes before I could even say hello.

“It’s Ashton. She’s gone.”

The sob that erupted from my soul was loud and ugly, as my body shook in complete and utter anguish. Even now as I’m typing these words, the tears are back again, reminders that my heart is still raw and aching over the loss of this sweet girl.

16 years old.

Gone.

No. No. No.

I spent the rest of the weekend in a daze, the sorrow enveloping me like a cloud of darkness, no light shining through. Painting provided a brief solace, so I picked up my paintbrush and sat at the table, staring at the supplies that were never put away after Saturday morning’s devastating news.

Kindness rocks.

Ashton loved the color pink. In fact, she had her own fundraiser and Facebook Page dedicated to her favorite color: It Comes in Pink. I counted the extra rocks I had in my container and was shocked at the total.

16 rocks.

16 years.

Oh my.

That was my sign. I needed to paint Kindness rocks for Ashton. I pondered for a bit about what to create, what message to send out to the world, then it came to me.

Hope

Ashton’s sixteen years were filled with hope and promise of embracing the joys in each and every day. When her parents, Chris and Laurie, received the diagnosis of Ashton’s condition at nine months of age, they were told she probably wouldn’t live long enough to attend elementary school. Niemann-Pick Type C (NPC) disease is extremely rare with only 500 diagnosed cases in the world and no known cure.

And their precious firstborn had it.

In their heartbreak, they made the decision to live life with Ashton to its fullest. Nothing was taken for granted. They watched their precious daughter’s body slowly succumb to the limitations of this disease, and yet they still celebrated life with exuberance.

They went on vacations. Played in the snow. Rode in boats on the river and sat along the shore.

They built a playground in the backyard then added a handicap-accessible swing. They built a ramp off the side of their deck when steps became too much to manage. They replaced carpet with wood flooring and added handles to hold in their bathroom.

When Ashton started to wobble when she walked, she received leg braces, which of course came in pink. When she needed more stability, she received a walker until walking was too much of a challenge. When the time came to transition to a wheelchair, she had to have the one in pink.

Her heart radiated love to everyone she met. She had an incredible sense of humor and often got the giggles at the most inappropriate things. She was a treasure to anyone who ever had the pleasure of being in her presence.

To us, she was simply Ashton. We’ve spent the past twelve years sharing a backyard and I’ve been blessed to see this sweet girl grow up. Her younger sister, Emily, doted on her, their bond of sisterhood stronger than many siblings I know.

Despite the challenges that constantly came her way, Ashton’s determination and perseverance were unmistakable. She showed us all the true meaning of hope and unconditional love.

For Ashton’s rocks, I chose yellow as the background to represent her bright smile and the joy that radiated from the twinkling in her eyes. I painted one pink heart on each rock with the word “Hope” in white, then added a little bit of glitter inside the heart, because Ashton was always a sparkle to anyone’s day. On the back I added “For Ashton” with the date that she became healed and whole.

Sixteen kindness rocks.

Sixteen hearts of hope.


On Monday morning, as I was putting on my makeup, I couldn’t believe what I saw on my brush: one perfectly formed heart staring back at me.

I had to smile at the little Godwink I received, as my heart was still so heavy from Ashton’s passing. It was as if Ashton was sending me a hug straight from heaven.


On Wednesday afternoon following the graveside service, Laurie shared a story with me about how she had gone for a quick run to clear her mind and her digital watch beeped, displaying one lone heart.

No numbers.

No words.

Just one simple heart.


Today we shared in a Celebration of Life service and were reminded again and again of Ashton’s impact on this world in her short sixteen years. Ashton’s physical challenges never stopped her from giving the most precious gifts to others: hope and love.

After the service, we returned home and when time came for afternoon dismissal of school, I walked to the corner of our street, waiting to walk my son home from the bus stop. A car approached and it was Chris, Laurie, and Emily returning home from the service. They stopped and rolled down the window and chatted a bit, as we often do when we pass one another in the neighborhood.

As they drove away towards their house, I caught a glimpse of the sun peeking through the clouded skies above.

There was a heart in the middle of heaven.

And another.

And another.

I fumbled to open my phone and take a photo, the shapes dissipating as quickly as they formed. I watched the clouds shift and slide across the sky and felt the slightest breeze wrap around me.

I believe Ashton sent us her own hearts of hope right in the moment we needed them most.

Can you see the hearts in my photo?

Can you see the hearts in those you meet?

Look harder.

They’re there.

In honor of Ashton Friedl, the family has asked for donations to the Ara Parseghian Medical Research Fund (APMRF) at Notre Dame which is dedicated to finding a cure for Niemann-Pick Type C (NPC) disease. For more information, please visit https://parseghianfund.nd.edu/it-comes-in-pink.


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Dots of Joy and Kindness

It started with a simple dot.

My oldest son, Daniel, caught my attention this summer as he pointed to the Braille dots located on floor numbers inside of an elevator. “I know how to read that,” he said, his voice steady and confident. I laughed and reminded him that the numbers were shown on the buttons, too. “No, really, I can read it. I can read Braille.” He traced his fingers across the raised dots and a smile spread across his face. “That’s the number 3. See? It matches the letter “c” with these four dots in front of it.”

I turned to my son and stared in amazement. We had never discussed the Braille alphabet before, nor did we know anyone who read it. I asked him how he learned Braille and he shrugged his shoulders, replying nonchalantly, “I just taught myself.”

This summer as I was presenting my Passion for Kindness PD sessions to teachers in my district, I shared this story and was delighted to meet Debra Reames, who works directly with students with visual and hearing impairments. We had an instant connection, bubbling over with excitement in all the ways we can inspire our students with joy through kindness. Towards the end of our session, she showed me her Braille bracelet and even painted a JOY rock to add to my collection.

The next week my son and I received mail from Debra which included inspirational quotes, printed Braille alphabet cards, and our names typed out on Braille paper. My son was so excited to receive these acts of kindness!

On Saturday, September 15, 2018, also known as International Dot Day for Peter H. Reynolds’ fans, I decided to make my “one dot mark” by creating joyful kindness rocks in Braille to share with Debra and her students.

Using rocks I purchased at the Dollar Tree, a little bit of paint, and a lot of precision with a toothpick, I created four JOY rocks with raised Braille dots that I sealed with a thin layer of Mod Podge on top. Now her visually impaired students can feel joy as they read it, too! (I’m sending them to her on Monday… shhh, don’t tell!)

I had so much fun painting JOY rocks for Debra and her students, I created a few of my own #passionforkindness rocks to scatter around my community throughout the week. You never know when someone may need a little reminder of joy, love, and hope!

Peter H. Reynolds encourages us through his writing to “make your mark on the world.”  While making a difference takes a little bit of effort and courage, it isn’t hard and doesn’t have to be expensive. I try to make my mark through simple acts of kindness, but your mark might be making a meal, calling a friend, or playing a game with a loved one.

Make your mark with time.

Make your mark with joy.

Make your mark today.


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education, grief, reflection

On That Day

 

On that day, I opened the door to my third grade classroom having no idea that our country would be under attack within the hour.

On that day, I marked attendance, taking for granted that every child would be present that day and the next.

On that day, I watched as students unpacked their backpacks and got settled in, waiting for me to teach them lessons they needed to learn.

On that day, I discovered just how important it was to be their teacher.


They were seven and eight years old. They had no concept of terror other than the make-believe monsters that hid under their beds and the shadows that played tricks on them at night. They slept with their favorite stuffed animals and baby dolls and wrote stories about cats and dogs, flowers and friends.

Our day was blissfully normal in every way. In Tennessee, school had begun a few weeks before; we were still getting to know one another. A knock on my door changed everything.

“A plane just flew into the Twin Towers. It’s on TV, but don’t let your kids see.”

Minutes later, I took the students to their specials class, then raced back to my room to watch the events unfold in real-time horror.

Another plane.

Fire.

Smoke.

Collapse.

Chaos.

Shock.

Students returned to class and I had to continue teaching as if nothing had happened. How could I begin to explain that day when I didn’t even understand it myself?

All I could do was hug my students a little tighter, a little longer, reminding them how important they were to me. I told each and every student that I loved them.

It’s been 17 years since 9/11 and I remember it like it was yesterday.

And each year, I receive a message from one of those eight year olds who sat in my class that day.

“Hey, Mrs. Letter. I hope all is well for you. I just wanted to say that every year I remember that day and I remember the conversation we had on the reading mat in your room. I remember the questions we asked and the confusion we all had at what was happening and why those “bad guys” would do such a thing, etc. but I also remember feeling safe in your classroom. I always knew that as long as I was in your class (even from wasps… which you taught us how to ignore when they fly in the portable) and I knew I was loved. Pretty vivid memories for a third grader but that’s the impact you left on me and I thought I’d remind you!”

Some years the message sent is long; other years the message is short and sweet. But for one day of the year we are connected again, teacher and student, with a bond that will never be broken. I am reminded of the life-long impact we have on our students’ lives with our words and actions, even in those moments of unscripted conversations that are raw and real.

We keep our students safe.

We remind them they are loved.

We put on our battle armor and shield our students from a world that is complicated and cruel at times.

On that day, I decided evil would not win.

On that day, I discovered love was louder.


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