education, kindness, REBkind, travel

Texas Kindness: Kids Deserve It

The second stop of my kindness tour with Barbara Gruener was visiting Webb Elementary School to meet principal, Todd Nesloney, author of Stories from Webb and co-author of Kids Deserve It and Sparks in the Dark.

I met Todd in 2014 when we both presented Ignite sessions for the ISTE Conference in Atlanta, Georgia. In fact, it was his presentation about Genius Hour that sparked my passion project collaborations with teachers in my school! It was a delight to see him again and thank him for the positive impact he’s had on my teaching journey.

Webb Elementary in Navasota, Texas is another “must-see” school. We were delighted to receive a tour by a fifth grade student named Eli, whose smile could light up the darkest room. We began our tour in the office where a massive Lego wall spanned more than half the wall. Barbara snapped a photo of Eli and I adding a few creations of our own to the wall.

Eli proudly explained the meanings behind their “House Families” and patiently watched as Barbara and I took dozens of photos. We learned that families include students from every grade level and they remain in these families for the entire year with school-wide challenges at regular intervals.

As we were admiring the giant wall paintings, several kindergarten students passed by and excitedly announced that their family had won the latest challenge and they were chosen to go on a field trip together! The pride they had in sharing this reward with us was precious!

Love in many languages.
One of their family emblems hand-painted on the wall.
Each family emblem and name is displayed at the front of the school.

As we continued our tour, we saw many Disney references, the chosen theme for this school year. We also admired their “I Am” mirror wall (I couldn’t resist looking into the ‘kind’ mirror!)

“I am Enough.”
“I am Kind.”

I love the way Webb Elementary makes use of each nook and cranny to make school an inviting place to be. A corner reading nook caught my eye as did the colorful canvases displayed throughout the building. I especially loved the family canvases shown at each teacher’s door, spotlighting personal families, too.

Random Reading Spot with canvases on walls.
Canvases of teachers and their families outside of each classroom door.

At the conclusion of our tour, we met back with Todd and spun the color wheel to determine which family we would join. It was a joy to get a sneak peek at Webb Elementary and learn more about their school culture!

A special thanks to Barbara Gruener who volunteered to drive the distance to Navasota and back. We were able to enjoy the Bluebonnet wildflowers along the way and geared up for our next stop: meeting Jet Stream Jax who inspired our Kindness initiatives in the Fall of 2017!

More Texas fun to come in my next post! Stay tuned!


In March, I traveled to Houston, Texas as part of my R.E.B. Award for Teaching Excellence, the first of several trips I will complete this year and next. My proposal, “Cultivating Kindness for Global Impact” takes me to various locations in the United States and Canada to dive into learning opportunities that align with my passion for kindness. One of the perks of these trips is meeting Kindness Cultivators, many of whom I spotlight in my book, A Passion for Kindness: Making the World a Better Place to Lead, Love, and Learn. This week and next I will be sharing stories from my journey so you can “travel” with me, too!

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Texas Kindness: Kind Kids


On my first #REBkind trip, I visited Houston, Texas and neighboring locations to meet kindness cultivators and learn more about character education. I was blessed beyond measure by the hospitality of Barbara Gruener (@BarbaraGruener), author of What’s Under Your Cape: SUPERHEROES of the Character Kind. She not only opened her home to me as a warm, welcoming bed-and-breakfast, she offered to drive me around town to meet others and take in the local sights around Friendswood, Texas. Although I was in town for less than three days, we made the most of every moment!

*Fun Fact for you: Friendswood began as a colony created in 1895 by two Quakers, Frank Jacob Brown and Thomas Hadley Lewis, “to establish a community dedicated to God.” (The term “Quakers” and “Friends” are often used interchangeably.) Almost one hundred years later, I would be married in a Friends church in my hometown! What a delightful connection to discover!*

Our first stop on this kindness adventure was teaching a kindness class! Barbara had already arranged to teach a lesson with Wendy Hankins (@MrsHankinsClass), but unbeknownst to Wendy, I was joining in the fun, too!

At Kirk Elementary School, they have a school-wide genius hour where students get to follow their passions and join a mixed-age group for a themed lesson. Wendy and her coworker, Christine Owings (@MrsOwingsClass), host a kindness club called Kind Kids (@KindKidsAtKirk) and Friday was their first lesson with a new group. It was perfect timing for a surprise visit!

I wish we had taken a photo of Wendy’s face when she came through the door and saw us sitting in her school’s office! It was the first time we had ever met, but we hugged as if we were long-lost friends!

After introductions, we made our way back to her class and Barbara and I blessed Wendy with a copy of both of our books. We took a few photos, then watched as Wendy welcomed her students to class, listening to sounds of “Limbo” playing through the laptop. We even had a chance to check out the students’ stellar dancing skills, too!

When students switched to their Genius Hour groups, our “class” had expanded to nearly 40 students! WOW! I read one of my favorite kindness stories, “Ordinary Mary’s Extraordinary Deed” by Emily Pearson, then Barbara and I shared our personal experiences with kindness, specifically how one ordinary deed could make a monumental impact on someone else’s life.

We discussed the hurricane that came through their area last school year and showcased Barbara’s student Jet Stream Jax (both of whom are spotlighted in Chapter 3 of A Passion for Kindness.) We showed them Jax’s Kind Coins video and talked about kindness rocks, kindness shirts, and how we can all become kindness cultivators, too.

Wendy showed them where their Kindness Club was mentioned in my book  (p. 113) and Barbara led a visualization activity so students could see the ripple effect of kindness over the course of one month. The students were excited to start sharing kindness with the world!

Following the kindness lesson, as students switched back to other classrooms, Wendy showed us the Kindness Quilt displayed in their school’s hallways that students had made last semester. (Could you tell it was created with 12″ x 12″ scrapbook paper? So quick and easy!) Before we left, I gave Wendy a few things for her students as little reminders that every act of kindness matters.

Barbara and I were filled with such joy from our visit with Wendy, Christine, and the kind students of Kirk Elementary! It was a wonderful way to start our morning of kindness!


In March, I traveled to Houston, Texas as part of my R.E.B. Award for Teaching Excellence, the first of several trips I will complete this year and next. My proposal, “Cultivating Kindness for Global Impact” takes me to various locations in the United States and Canada to dive into learning opportunities that align with my passion for kindness. One of the perks of these trips is meeting Kindness Cultivators, many of whom I spotlight in my book, A Passion for Kindness: Making the World a Better Place to Lead, Love, and Learn. This week and next I will be sharing stories from my journey so you can “travel” with me, too!

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The Gaming Child

He received the game as a Christmas gift.

With the other surprises of the day, he didn’t open the game right away, but when he did, he was hooked.

He sat for hours in his gaming chair, eyes glued to the screen, as he manipulated the controller in his hand to make the character move through one challenge to the next.

He was searching for moons.

He was collecting coins.

He was trying to get to the next level.

He was so engaged with his gaming, he didn’t hear the call to come to dinner and lost all interest in building Legos.

His behavior persisted throughout the winter break and into the new year as he and his older brother bargained and battled for gaming time on the device.

He stopped reading books. He didn’t want to play outside. His entire focus was wrapped inside that game.


As an educator, it’s easy for me to read the story above and fall into the abyss of my bias. To pass judgment on that child. To pass judgment on that parent. To shake my head and lament about life “back in my day” then make a direct correlation to the child’s gaming patterns and his average reading ability. After all, if he spent less time gaming and more time reading, he would receive better grades, become a star student, and master his standardized assessments.

But this story is different. I’m not passing judgment because “that” child is mine and “that” parent is me.

I’m writing this post to let you know that my child is fine, and yours will be, too.

My son received a Nintendo Switch gaming system for Christmas, a shared gift with his older brother who is in high school. Both boys received a chosen game to go with the device and they have played on the system nearly every day since we got it.

But here are the details you didn’t get to read above.

Each day my youngest son begs for us to play Mario Odyssey with him, because he knows we have a greater chance to win a level if we work together.

When he’s not playing the game, he’s watching YouTube videos created by others to learn better strategies on how to master various levels with the greatest number of coins.

He invited a friend over to play the game with him, something this somewhat introverted child never does, as we don’t have many neighbors his age nearby.

We made the gaming day happen, and the joy on his face was immeasurable.

He has battled his own frustration to the point where we have nearly sent him to his room. He has discovered that sometimes persistence and perseverance require not more grit, but a change in task and location.

As his mom, I could have very easily placed time limits on his gaming throughout the week. “No games until the weekend,” or “Only 20 minutes today.” But I know what it’s like to be SO EXCITED TO DO SOMETHING only to be told no repeatedly.

It crushes the soul and makes you resentful over time.

I also know what it’s like to be at school all day, followed by hours at after-school care, when all you want is some time to yourself doing something that makes you happy.

I remember what it’s like to be nine years old.

Caleb playing Mario Odyssey.

As I watch my son playing his game, and invest MY time getting to know about HIS passion, I discover he’s learning things I would have never thought to teach him.

He is solving complex algorithms as he patiently reminds me, “No, Mommy, you can’t do it that way. You can’t just jump. You have to ground pound, then jump, then do a half wall jump, then throw your hat where you want to land, then dive. That’s how you do it.”

He has become the teacher, and I am his student.

I am fiercely protective of my child, as many Momma Bears are, but I am also a seasoned educator and parent with more than twenty years of experience as both.

My son will be fine.

Yours will, too.

If you are concerned about your child’s gaming interests, take the time to learn more about their passion. What is it about the game that intrigues them? What challenges must they overcome to win? What keeps them coming back to play again?

When my oldest son, Daniel, was obsessed with Minecraft, I discovered his innate ability to match colors and shading to create masterpieces of art. Hours of designing and creating sparked an interest in engineering and chemistry, both of which he is exploring in high school. In fact, he once spent an entire afternoon presenting at our district’s Leadership Conference about how to use Minecraft to teach math and science.

When he was in fourth grade.

Daniel first designed the inside of the St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans, LA (notice the complex shading and symmetry from Minecraft blocks).
Daniel then designed the outside of the cathedral wrapped around his previous creation, all from looking at this photo.
Daniel showing district leaders how to apply Minecraft to math and science during our district’s annual Leadership Conference.

As I look across the room at my youngest child, Caleb, I am mesmerized by his ability to remember exactly which kingdom has which star power and his intuitive skill at reading various maps to discover the treasure he seeks.

And just this week, this same nine year old did something I didn’t think was possible.

He actually beat the game.

999 moons. 43 souvenirs. 82 music tracks. Bowser was defeated and he had the joy of seeing every variety of bird on the final ledge, including the elusive penguin.

He even received a digital celebratory postcard showing every single character displayed in the game.

The level of pride my son has for achieving this goal rivals that of student who has received a Principal’s List award at a school assembly.

He knows the satisfaction of accomplishment.

He may never read a 500 page novel and I’m OK with that. (Although, as his book-loving Momma, you can rest assured he is surrounded with books throughout the house should he change his mind!)

He may never play on the high school soccer team and I’m OK with that, too. (Not for lack of trying, of course. He’s done his time with basketball and soccer, neither of which garnered much enthusiasm. Even his interest in swimming waned as he grew older.)

He can put together a 1200 piece Lego set and meticulously create masterpieces with Perler beads, much like his older brother. Perhaps, just perhaps, he is bound for a greater success than I can even imagine in a career that hasn’t yet been created.

It makes me ponder my own instruction as an educator, and wonder if there’s a way we can link this gamification mindset to required curriculum standards in such a way that students can apply these skills to the classroom, too. Are we really preparing our students for future success in this digitally enhanced world?

I don’t have answers, only insights to my child.

I don’t have judgment towards you if you raise your child a different way.

I’m simply bringing to light my experiences and putting them out there from my perspective as I support my child’s passion and celebrate his success.

He’s going to be just fine.

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education, ITRT, reflection

Coding is My Jam

As a technology integrator and instructional coach, much of my interaction with teachers is supporting them in their efforts to use technology in their day-to-day work with students. Their technological expertise ranges from novice to advanced, so each collaboration is personalized to take them from whatever level they are currently at to helping them reach the next level. The goal is to push up a notch, not push off a cliff!

Many subjects align nicely with technology. Digital writing is a great way to reinforce grammar and composition skills. Recording reading makes oral fluency more relevant and easier to assess. Interactive activities that layer text, photo, and more provide students an opportunity to create products to showcase their learning in ways that didn’t exist before.

There are times, however, when we need students to engage in learning experiences that may not be directly tied to testing standards. That’s when it gets a little tricky, because we all know how limited that precious commodity of time is with jam-packed schedules and multiple pacing guides to follow.

In Virginia, we do not follow the Common Core curriculum. Instead, we have our own state guidelines called the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOLs). In November 2017, our state approved Computer Science Standards of Learning for all grades K-8 with specific course standards for the high school level. A quick glance of these standards might give a general classroom teacher heart palpitations as the verbiage is tough to deconstruct if you are not familiar with technical computing language.

Understanding these challenges, coupled with the reality that I am only available in one school 2 days a week (with an occasional 3 day week here and there), I have to get a little creative to find ways to support teachers for their requests while also providing additional experiences that bring non-tested curriculum directly to the students.

Enter the world of collaborative coaching.

Several times a month I sit down with the gifted-talented teacher at my school, Maureen Ambrose, to compare notes on lessons we are doing with teachers and students. When we first began our collaborative planning sessions last year, we mainly touched base to make sure we were on the right track and brainstormed ideas; now we use the time to extend our conversation to creating unique learning experiences for individual classes and grade levels as a whole.

It started with Pirate Day in the fall, where we used a common theme to focus on three learning experiences using technology, one of which was coding with Ozobot robots. Each station was led by either me, Maureen, or the classroom teacher. We offered Pirate Day two days with flexible signup and it was so popular we will offer it again for another two days this spring!

This month, we focused specifically on third grade classes, inviting them to a “Coding is My Jam” learning experience with each station focused on various coding skills. As Brian Aspinall, author of Code Breaker states, “I don’t want all kids to code, but I do want all kids exposed to coding.” (His blog post about going beyond the Hour of Code reminded us of the importance for students to have these experiences all year long, not just in December!)

For Coding is My Jam Day, we transformed our Innovation Lab into a coding studio with three designated areas for each of our activities:

  • Robot Coding – Create a sequence code using designated cards, then input the directions into a remote control and watch the Botley robot move from start to finish. If the output doesn’t work the first time, analyze the code and debug to try again!
  • Coding is My Jam – Using the Osmo “Coding Jam” block coding kit, work with a partner to create unique beats for various instruments to design a new musical soundtrack!
  • Binary Bracelets – Discover the wonderful world of binary code! After a brief overview of the history and purpose of binary code, use a basic binary coding sheet to create an 8-bit code identifying your initials. Then, after planning out your design using a basic storyboard, replace the code with colored beads to string on a pipe cleaner, creating a “readable” coding bracelet. If time allows, you can complete extension activities to create a secret message for a friend using binary code or answer riddles by deciphering the coded answers.
Items used for coding lessons
Botley Robot materials
We created squares on our tile floor for Botley to maneuver through.
Binary Bracelet station
Materials used to create Binary Bracelets
Coding Jam Osmo kit with iPad on display
Osmo Coding Jam station
Coding sheets
Extension activities (with Table Talk Math mats below!)
A quick photo of Maureen and I before all the fun begins!

Prior to our coding day, Maureen visited each third grade classroom to read the book, How to Code a Sandcastle, and play an unplugged coding game called “Let’s Go Code” to build a bit of coding background knowledge. It was a quick interactive intro to hook them in for what was to come!

When Coding is My Jam Day arrived, students entered our coding studio and sat on the floor as Maureen provided a brief overview of each station. During that time, I took the classroom teacher to her station and shared details in how to guide students in their learning. We then began the rotations, using a timer on our cell phone to notify us when it was time to switch stations. We made sure to include a brief discussion at the end, emphasizing the challenges and lessons learned in coding.

What I love about this three station model for learning is that every single student in the class gets to experience every activity in a way that encourages communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and even creativity. There is equity in access to the technology and having three adults in the room helps to guide conversations and pitfalls that inevitably occur.

“See? Coding works!”
Testing the output to see if there are any bugs in the code.
Students work together to create a block code.
Lots of critical thinking when the levels get harder!
Students coding with block coding tiles from Osmo.
Collaboration makes block coding fun!
Student mapping out her initials using binary code and a planning page.
Creating the binary code as a story board before creating the bracelet.
Student creating a Binary Bracelet using beads and a pipe cleaner.
Binary bracelet success!
“We love our Binary Code bracelets!”

For the classroom teacher, it was a 75 minute commitment (30 minute pre-lesson one day and 45 minutes on the Coding is My Jam day), but hit on several of the Computer Science SOLs which actually maximized the time spent. Best of all, we had no behavior issues for either experience, as all students were actively engaged exploring unique tasks that challenged their thinking in a non-threatening way. We even saw several students wearing their binary code bracelets throughout the week!

While there was a bit of work on the pre-planning side (you don’t host an adventure like this without having a strong plan of action!), the actual day of implementation was relatively easy and provided flexibility for Maureen and I to rotate through the other stations offering additional support. We also captured the learning with quick videos to a Flipgrid grid with three topics for the stations we used.

Overview of our Flipgrid topics
Flipgrid Topics for capturing learning

We look forward to offering additional learning opportunities like this throughout the year and encourage others to give it a go, too. You might be surprised how much joy can arise from three little stations in your day! We also want to give a huge “Thank You” to the Virginia Professional Educators for supporting creating learning experiences such as this and providing funding for us to purchase materials to make this day a success!

Used with permission from Sylvia Duckworth

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Innovative Kindness

In our Passion for Kindness Facebook group, we share uplifting posts and videos we see online. Often, it’s kindness given, received, or witnessed. Sometimes it’s a quote of inspiration. I love to see which posts resonate with others. I find that surrounding myself with positive people, even on digital platforms, helps to focus on the good instead of the bad.

About a month ago, I came across a video of a color-blind man receiving a gift from his family: specially crafted glasses that would allow him to see the world around him in vibrant hues of brilliance. As he eagerly unwrapped the glasses and put them on his face, his demeanor completely changed, the drastic change to his sight rendering him speechless, in tears.

The video tugged my heartstrings and made me ponder the impact of empathy and compassion as it relates to innovation. According to the Institute of Design at Stanford, known as Stanford d.school, empathy is not only an integral part of the design thinking process, it’s the very first step. “To create meaningful innovations, you need to know your users and care about their lives.” (Download “An Introduction to Design Thinking PROCESS GUIDE” to learn more.)

I wanted to bring this concept of Innovative Kindness into the classroom, so I created a lesson that would showcase examples of innovations sparked by the kindness of others then lead into a discussion of empathy and compassion.

With students in Mrs. Cross’, Mrs. Miller’s, and Ms. Miller’s classes, we viewed the video of the color-blind man then watched another video of a cat whose owners created a wheeled attachment for his paralyzed hind legs, adding ramps throughout their house to overcome climbing steps. His owners even adapted their innovation to include a handle, so they could assist their feline when he had to climb multiple steps in a row.

We discussed those key words: empathy and compassion. For nine and ten year olds (and even adults!) the words are sometimes used interchangeably. We spent several minutes showing how empathy – that feeling of relating to someone else’s struggle or pain – can lead to compassion, which is empathy in action. We then related those words to the design process, how kindness in action sparks innovation.

Katie Martin reinforces this concept in her book, Learner Centered Innovation: Spark Curiosity, Ignite Passion, and Unleash Genius: “When we empower learners to explore and learn how to make an impact on the world, we inspire problem-solvers and innovators.”

Our classroom conversations shifted to the power of innovation in making the world a better place for others. I shared the graphic below as an introduction to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations.

SDG poster courtesy of https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdgs

We discussed world problems and their impact on humanity. We shined a light on our lives in the United States and the many things we might assume others have like water fountains and quality education. We pondered the challenges that children in other countries face daily.

We then decided that we wanted to change the world, too.

Offering students the choice to work independently, in pairs, or with a small group, we challenged them to identify a problem and create a solution, focusing on the who before the what.

We provided Design Crews with a note sheet to record their planning, then we set them loose in our Innovation Lab’s makerspace – free to use any materials for any purpose. The greatest constraint they faced was time; they only had 20 minutes to create a plan of action and design a prototype.

To download this FREE template, visit http://bit.ly/KindTempShare.

It was incredible to see how quickly our students dove into this activity. They were so engaged! Their collaborative efforts quickly came together as they communicated with the group, one person often refining the ideas of another after testing out their prototype.

Pondering the possibilities
Deep in discussion
Makerspace supplies
Crafting the prototype

Their excitement was contagious! They all wanted to share their innovations that would improve lives of people, land animals, and aquatic life. With the remaining time in class, we guided students in using Flipgrid (many for the very first time!) to capture their creations with voice and video.

Recording their innovations on Flipgrid
They loved seeing each other’s videos!
To view student videos, visit https://flipgrid.com/0a92a047

Many times teachers are hesitant to dive into hands-on projects citing lack of time or availability of resources. However, to transform learning experiences for students, we must make student agency a priority. In Learning Transformed: 8 Keys to Designing Tomorrow’s Schools, Today, Tom Murray and Eric Sheninger challenge us to “empower kids to own their learning (and school) through greater autonomy. It is driven by choice, voice, and advocacy.” When you find value in designing lessons with this purpose, you find a way to make it happen.

Through our Innovative Kindness lesson, students had an opportunity to take grade-level state standards and apply them in new, unique ways. They made connections to prior content regarding conservation, natural resources, and recycling. They also practiced the 5 C’s of communication, collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and citizenship, all within the confines of one sixty-minute class period.

There are many creative ways to shine a light on kindness with your students. You might design a Kindness Scavenger Hunt like Laurie McIntosh in Canada or create a month-long virtual Kindness Read-Aloud like Karen Caswell in Australia. You could even introduce kind acts to your students by having them participate in The Great Kindness Challenge January 28 – February 1 by signing up your school and downloading a printable checklist to complete at school or home. (Many more kindness ideas to come when A Passion for Kindness is released next month!)

I would love to know ways you are shifting the focus towards student agency and innovation in your lessons. Comment below and share your inspirations! Together we can transform learning, one lesson at a time!

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What’s In a Name?

Last week a dear friend messaged me, apologizing profusely for mispronouncing my name during a podcast recording. Instantly, I felt empathy for her because I know very well the internal angst you feel in that exact moment of error.

I’ve been there before.

I laughed it off with reassurance that she wasn’t the first and she wouldn’t be the last. People mispronounce my name ALL the time.

They don’t do it to be disrespectful.

They don’t do it to be mean.

They simply don’t know the way my mom decided to pronounce it when she completed my birth certificate so many years ago.

Social Backlash

There have been many posts on social media about the importance of learning students’ names and pronouncing them correctly. I agree wholeheartedly that calling someone by their name – and saying it they way they prefer – adds a level of value to their day and reminds them that their name is important, therefore they are important.

It matters to children. It matters to adults. No debate there.

What troubles me are the social media posts where conversations shift from aiming for excellence to attacking for error. Is there no compassion for those who struggle to “get it right?”

I know the importance in learning someone’s name.

I also know the importance of giving someone grace when they mess it up.

So allow me to share a little vulnerability: I really struggle to remember all your names. And how they are spelled. And how they are pronounced.

I am in awe of those people in my world who have instant recall for everyone they’ve ever met. They match faces with names like Memory cards, winning each game they play.

I’m still trying to figure out why my Memory card is bent.

Weak Link

I have a weak link for recalling names (and multiplication facts, and my assigned lines in a theatrical production, and pretty much anything else that requires memorization.) I never used to address people by name unless I had to. Yes, I knew it was the polite and respectful thing to do, but the fear of saying a name incorrectly (or even worse – saying the wrong name or no name at all) kept my conversations nameless. I avoided introductions at all costs and mentally pleaded for name tags to be provided everywhere I went.

Despite my brain block, I do know who you are.

I recognize your smile and the way your eyes light up as we speak.

I instantly recall shared memories and moments, but for whatever reason your name might remain in the shadows of the corners of my mind.

I wish I could change that about myself. I work diligently to overcome my weaknesses. And yet… they still persist.

About a month ago, I was at a district event where I had invited my dad and his girlfriend to attend. I was introducing them to an educational leader, one whom I’ve known for years. I’ve worked with her on committees and supported initiatives in her building. But in the moment of introduction, I simply couldn’t recall her name. My brain went blank.

It happens.

There was an awkward pause as I prayed for God to save me and He did – the educator smiled at my family members and introduced herself as if no one even noticed my vocal paralysis.

That’s grace.

I recently read an article about Raisa Patel whose name is constantly mispronounced and it resonated with me for several reasons. I felt her pain of a mispronounced name. I felt my embarrassment knowing I’ve caused that feeling for others. I felt a little less alone when I learned about her classmate who resorted to writing down her name phonetically to make it easier to remember.

I do that, too.

In fact, you will often find me jotting down notes in my little aqua blue notebook. It’s one of the coping strategies I’ve created for myself over the years.

What’s In a Name?

Did you know that no one in my family calls me Tamara? It’s true. That’s my birth name, but one my mother never used. (Well, unless I was in trouble. Then she used my first name AND middle name AND last name all bunched together with one breath.)

Like several of you, I grew up with a nickname. People called me Tammy, but with a catch.

Everyone spelled it differently.

My mother spelled it Tammie. My teachers spelled it Tammy. Very rarely did the two spellings align. Sometimes it annoyed my mom, but most times we just overlooked the error and didn’t get riled up.

When I moved up from elementary school to junior high, I wanted to set myself apart from the crowd, be a little different, discover my uniqueness. I decided to change the spelling of my nickname the way I wanted it spelled. I dropped the final “e” and started writing Tammi on all my papers and hoped it would catch on with others.

It didn’t.

My mother continued to spell it Tammie and my teachers kept writing Tammy. Then I met another girl who spelled her name Tammi, so I dropped an “m” and reinvented myself as “Tami.”

In 9th grade I joined the marching band and discovered a clarinet player whose name was Tami. The only difference between our names was that she was born Tami, not Tamara, therefore she had greater claim to the name.

So I added back the “e” and became “Tamie.”

I remained Tamie to all my friends and relatives through high school and into college. Then I became engaged and realized my identity would change again as I took on my fiancé’s last name.

That’s when I decided to give the real name a go as I reinvented myself one more time.

Hello, Tamara.

New Life, New Name

Switching names was easier than I anticipated as I got married and moved to another state. I felt comfortable introducing myself as Tamara instead of Tamie and those whom I met were never the wiser of my 20+ years spent with a different name.

Until I moved back to my hometown twelve years later and my two worlds collided – those who knew me as Tamie and those who knew me as Tamara were now living in the same town.

Who am I anyway? 

I gave up sending Christmas cards when it became too complicated to sign them. (Who is this card going to? Do they know me as Tamara or Tamie?)

The running joke in my family now is trying to guess which way my dad will spell my name on my birthday card. Each year it’s different and it always makes me laugh.

Move On

What should we do when we make a mistake with others? When we mispronounce a name or fall into the abyss of nameless darkness? When we’re not sure how to spell it, how to say it, how to recall it?

Own it.

Take a breath. Apologize. Ask them to repeat it. Acknowledge that you may mess it up again, but you will keep trying to get it right.

Then stop fretting over the mistake. Give yourself some grace, move on, and for the love of all things sane, please don’t berate others who are trying their best.

We are all works in progress and grace goes a long, long way.

The next time you see me at the grocery store or at the end of a presentation, please come up and introduce yourself. It’s OK if you say my name wrong. I won’t correct you because at the end of the day, it’s all good. You won’t hurt my feelings by pronouncing my name wrong.

I would much rather you say, “Hi,” messing up my name in the process than never saying, “Hi,” at all.

And for those who are really curious about how I pronounce my real name, I’ll share with you my own mnemonic:

“It’s Tamara, like camera, but spelled with all A’s.”

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One Word 2019

Do you make New Year’s Resolutions? How does that work out for you? Do you make it to the end of the year with completed checkboxes? Are all your line items marked off the list?

For me, New Year’s Resolutions result in failure.

Every.

Single.

Time.

I used to create a long list of goals I wanted to accomplish, my Pollyanna optimism confident in my ability to complete each one. January would start off with a bang. February would bring about some challenges. By March and April I was drowning from the riptide and by June and July I couldn’t even tell you what my initial goals were, they were so long sunk to the bottom.

When I made New Year’s Resolutions, I created a year of frustration with unfulfilled, unrealistic expectations. It impacted my self-esteem and did absolutely nothing to help me become a better version of myself.

Then, the eureka moment. As 2015 came to a close with 2016 around the bend, I embraced the concept of choosing one word to focus on for an entire year. It completely changed my perspective of resolutions.

Here are the words I have chosen the past few years:

What’s fascinating in choosing a word to focus on is that is really does become a part of your soul. When I selected “joy” for 2016, I embraced it in every way possible. I became an honorary Joy Ambassador, following the examples set by Akilah Ellison and Theresa Holloran. I referenced joy in my blog posts. I was drawn to all things joyful and it really helped me get through a tough year.

In 2017, “resilience” reminded me that I could survive the lowest of lows. I held my mother’s hand as she took her final breath, then found a way to keep moving forward.

And then, it was 2018. I wanted a word that was filled with hope for good things to come. I wanted a word that embodied the gift I wanted to share with others. There was only one word that came to mind:

Inspire.

As I reflect on 2018, I am in awe of how the word “inspire” materialized like a self-fulfilling prophecy. My boss called it “The Year of Tamara” which made me laugh every time she said it, but now looking back, I have to admit it was a crazy, incredible year. Even in my reflections, I find myself shaking my head asking, “Did all this really happen to ME?”

In 2018…

I signed my first book contract with Dave Burgess Consulting, Inc. to write a book about kindness. (A Passion for Kindness: Making the World a Better Place to Lead, Love, and Learn will be released in February 2019 on Amazon and Barnes and Noble! Sign up for freebies, notifications, and more here!)

I celebrated a second year of Kindness Passion Projects at our Kindness Share Fair with forty students and their teachers, Lori Cross and Jennifer Madison, then presented with Lori and Jennifer at our district’s first Inspire conference.

Visitors at our Kindness Share Fair completed a Call to Action leaving notes of how they will scatter seeds of kindness in the world.

I was awarded Teacher of the Year for Mechanicsville Elementary School and advanced to the finalist round for our district, a first for a technology integrator in our school system.

I was interviewed by the local news not once, not twice, but three times to scatter seeds of kindness in our community. (Many thanks to Amanda McDaniel, our district’s Communication Specialist, who always helps to promote the great things happening with our schools!)

I gave my first out-of-district Keynote at the Clarke County Innovation Conference (and didn’t fall off the stage!)

I co-wrote three fully funded grants to bring creative learning experiences into the classroom, then inspired other teachers to do the same. (Many thanks to the Hanover Education Foundation and the Virginia Professional Educators for these opportunities!)

I survived a near-frigid rafting trip in a paradoxical thunderstorm down the Snake River in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, then survived five days of disconnect deep in the heart of Yellowstone AND a saw a black bear.

In person.

And lived to tell about it.

I traveled to Chicago, Illinois to learn from some of the most inspiring educators in the world at the ISTE Conference, then spent quality time getting to know many of my DBC heroes at dinner, in the city, and during the conference. I also got to enjoy a little team bonding along the way! (Many thanks to our incredible district who recognizes that those who provide PD for others need opportunities to get PD themselves!)

I love my ITRT team so much!

I completely overhauled my website and my Instagram account. I created a Facebook group about kindness and wrote 39 blog posts about my adventures throughout the year.

While writing a book.

While being a mom.

While losing half my summer break days with a job switch to an 11-month contract.

In 2018, I survived the one year anniversary of my mother’s death then mourned the loss of my precious neighbor, Ashton, who passed away at the age of 16.

16 Hope rocks created in memory of Ashton Friedl to hide around our community.

I received the R.E.B. Award for Teaching Excellence to cultivate kindness for global impact, which will take me across the United States and Canada in 2019 and 2020.

I presented four sessions at the VSTE conference, including a closing Ignite, while also leading the conference’s social media committee with the amazing Margaret Sisler. I presented twice at our local EdTechRVA Conference earlier in the year as well as led a multitude of PD sessions for my district.

I wrote an article for DisruptED TV Magazine and recorded podcasts with Character Speaks, Edustations, and The Kindness Podcast.

Looking back, I’m in awe of all the opportunities I had to inspire others through my words and actions. Even though I did all these things in the course of a year, my greatest insight about the word “inspire” came when I stopped to reflect on each item listed above.

I couldn’t have done any of them if I didn’t have the support of others.

See, it’s easy to view the end result and stand in awe at the person waving the flag on the top of the mountain. But what about all the safety harnesses the person wears as he scales the walls to the top? What about all the slips that occur from not having your feet firmly planted or misjudging the weight a rock can hold before it crumbles? What about the times when the top seems unreachable and you don’t know if you will ever make it through?

In my 2018 journey, I made several mistakes and encountered failure along the way. What kept me pushing through wasn’t my willpower alone, but the encouragement of my friends, coworkers and virtual PLN.

Inspiration begins in the heart one, but magnifies on the shoulders of many.

Every single thing I did last year was the result of some form of collaboration with amazing people in my world. Perhaps it was a conversation or a brilliant moment of connectivity. Maybe it was the result of weeks laden with brainstorming, planning, and preparation. Quite possibly, it was the culmination of a lifelong journey of passion, persistence, and patience.

It was in this time of reflection that I discovered the one word that will carry me through this next year:

Uplift.

This year, I want my words and actions to uplift others.

I want to cheer you on and celebrate your accomplishments.

I want to help you take that next step when you are filled with fear.

I want to help you rise, help you soar, help you make your wildest dreams come true.

I want to be here for you, in the way others have been there for me.

Together we can make 2019 the most amazing year ever!

Do you have a #oneword for this new year? Leave a comment to share your thoughts! I would love to know your focus word, too!

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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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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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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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