education, ITRT

Innovation Lab Update

Several people have reached out to me on Twitter and Facebook inquiring about our Innovation Lab and its transformation. I realized, while I have spotlighted several activities throughout the year, I have yet to write an overview of our journey thus far.

I became a technology integrator ten years ago, assigned to an elementary school in the same district I attended as a child. I have been in the same room, in the same school, for all of this time. Over the years, it has been a huge struggle for me to get others to view this space as “our room” as my desk was in the back and the room was filled with heavy tables, chairs, and laptops. Because this was the room I was assigned, people viewed it as “Mrs. Letter’s Lab”, not a shared working space. When teachers wanted to collaborate with me, they brought their students to this space because it was easier than rolling a huge, metal cart across our open-campus school with sidewalk cracks and uneven terrain.

Every lesson used a laptop.

Every student sat in a chair.

Every chair faced the front of the room.

I died a slow death with each lesson I taught.

Ten years ago, “innovation” wasn’t the focus as it is now. I struggled to adjust to this new structure of instruction – wanting to support technology integration efforts of others in a space that never shifted, with a room design that was static and stagnant.

When I was a classroom teacher, my room was fluid. If I wanted small group work, we moved desks around and made it happen. When we had a camping day as a culmination for our “Where the Red Fern Grows” unit, we pushed the desks to the side, brought in pillows, sleeping bags, and flashlights, and told spooky stories while “roasting” Smores over our pretend campfire.

Camping Day in Mrs. Letter’s Classroom (Memphis, TN – 2002)
I was that teacher. I did whatever it took to engage my students in learning and make my classroom the space that I wanted as a student. I would dress up as a pioneer. I would transform my students into museum tour guides. I created learning experiences that went beyond the textbook because I wanted to cultivate a love of learning in my students in the same way my 6th grade language arts teacher, Mrs. Dalton, did for me.
She had a plastic bubble.
In the middle of her room.
You could read, write, or draw in the bubble, but had to earn the right to go inside.
That’s all the incentive I needed to become a teacher.
But that was then and this is now. I changed roles from classroom teacher to technology integrator and this was my new reality. Four walls and a door. Twelve tables, twenty-four chairs. I taught my lessons, walking in and out of each row, monitoring laptop screens from the back, but I knew this wasn’t ideal for learning.
It wasn’t ideal for my students.
It wasn’t ideal for me.
Since a large part of my job is providing teachers with professional development, I wanted a space that could attend to their needs as well, in a cozy environment – not one with stark, white, cement walls and immobile furniture. I needed more. They needed more.
Two years ago I took a risk. I started a GoFundMe campaign to change up the back corner of Lab 1 so it was more appealing for teachers. Inspired by the #StarbucksMyRoom hashtag, I designed this space, dreaming big. Gone was my teacher desk – I wanted bar height tables and chairs! A coffee maker! A bookshelf with new, relevant books by up-and-coming authors (not the books that were written decades before and collecting dust in my garage.) Could I even get a sofa? Who puts a sofa in a computer lab?
Apparently me.
Bar height table and coffeemaker (My Zumba instructor later donated a Keurig to the Tiny Tech Cafe!)


The start of our Lending Library – always accepting donations!
Doesn’t everyone have a sofa in their computer lab?
With the financial support of friends, family, and community stakeholders, we opened our Tiny Tech Cafe September 6, 2016 and the response was overwhelmingly positive. Teachers were now stopping in to grab a cup of coffee or take a quick break in their day and almost always these resulted in conversations with one another.
My relationships with teachers grew as did my desire to make this happen for students, too.
Digital logo I designed for our Tiny Tech Cafe
I even painted our own Tiny Tech Cafe canvas!
In Spring of 2017, I applied for a Creative Classroom Grant with the Hanover Education Foundation to transform the remainder of the room, so that we could have flexible seating options and resources at our fingertips whenever we needed them. (Do you know how many times I had to run down the hall and ask someone if we could borrow pencils, paper, and clipboards as we worked with technology? We needed basic supplies in here, too!)
Our grant was fully funded (with matching funds from my school) and we were on our way! So exciting! Unfortunately it was a painstakingly slow process to get everything in place according to the vision and timeline. When school began in September, I was still waiting for bulletin boards to be removed, shelves to be added, and stools to be put together. There was no official “Welcome to Our Innovation Lab” grand opening because… well… it was, and is, a constant work in progress!
But we had portable tables and, for me, that was enough to start diving in!
Students enter “polling booths” to vote on SCA Officers
Students learning about hurricanes and Kind Coins from Jet Stream Jax in TX
As the year progressed, we started building out the room. We purchased a green screen app for our iPads and made arrangements to keep the iPads in the Innovation Lab so access was equitable and convenient. We even created a coloring poster and invited students, teachers, and parents to work together to make it come to life so a part of them would be displayed in our room.
Creating green screen winter haiku videos
Adults and children coloring during Open House


Our finished poster – “Create”
We put velcro tabs on the wall and added 12 x 12 Lego plates so the traditional “Lego Wall” could actually be dismantled into individual work stations using the Legos we inherited from a former Legos club.
Each green tile can be removed from the wall to use anywhere in the room.
Mrs. Tapper and I exploring Lego pattern building during our Mardi Gras Makerspace (Teacher PD)
We added a recording studio for students who were self-conscious about recording themselves. We added carpet. Pillows. I got a great end-of-season sale on patio furniture cushions and purchased 6 scoop bucket seats for $35 (which, by the way, are a hit for all students K-5, no matter what that weight limit says on the box!)
Our corner recording studio
Students can zip themselves inside the recording station to record!
Students working in small groups around the room in the scoop bucket seats
“If you build it, they will come.” I clung to this Field of Dreams mindset, hoping others might see the potential this space could have for ALL students, ALL teachers, ALL disciplines. I started shifting the types of lessons I offered with teachers, guiding them through problem-solving design processes and small group station rotations with students leading the way.
The Innovation Lab wasn’t just a shift of space; it was a mind shift as well.
In February, our bulletin boards were removed from the walls and shelves added in their place which completed our makerspace area. Now we could store our bags and crates of supplies into neatly labeled containers that were easy to reach.
Materials organized, labeled, easy-to-reach
Makerspace ready for use with shelves for project creations!
Our Innovation Lab has 100% flexibility in design, in purpose, even in scheduling. We created a website for our space and distributed magnets with the website URL to all teachers so at the click of a mouse they can add their name to a Google Sheets spreadsheet and reserve the lab for whatever need they have. They can also use this website to request supplies, borrow a book from our lending library, or be inspired by lesson ideas of others.
Innovation Lab Website with tabs for pages across the top


Our Innovation Lab banner displayed outside the door
I’m proud to see all the ways this space is being used. We’ve had theme days like Talk Like a Pirate Day with back-to-back lessons complete with station rotations. We’ve shared in collaborative learning experiences between classes as older students support the learning of younger students. We’ve coded robots, designed three dimensional shapes with 3D Doodler pens, and created public service announcement commercials about why you should Save the Bay.
Our students are at the helm of their learning experiences. They are teaching us how to create videos with iMovie and new uses for cardboard rolls and tape. They are solving real world problems and developing compassion and empathy in the process. They are offering suggestions on how to make things flow better and sharing their expertise with others. They are even taking ownership of JOY with Jubilant Outcries of Yes!
For those who are worried about the loss of testing space, have no fear. In less than five minutes time I can transition this learning space back into a traditional computer lab complete with twenty-four laptops, twenty-four chairs and six stationary tables. (Yes, I have actually timed myself to see how fast I could go!)
Now we have paper.
And pencils.
And clipboards.
And the moment that testing is complete, we can get back to learning the way learning is intended.
The way we need it to be.
Connect with Tamara on Twitter (@tamaraletter) or email ( We also welcome visitors, so please contact her to set up a date/time if interested in stopping by! A special thanks to Dave Burgess, George Couros, Katie MartinTom Murray and Kayla Delzer for their innovative ideas and inspiration that fueled the fire for change. We are definitely better together!
For more information our journey in creating this Innovation Lab, visit the blog posts below!
September 2017
October 2017
December 2017
February 2018
March 2018
Celebrating Seuss (Video Promo)


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education, grief, ITRT, kindness

Kindness Rocks for Parkland


There are times in life where we can’t begin to imagine the global impact of our actions. We are focused on our one moment in time, doing what we do, thinking, “That’s it! Mission accomplished. On to the next thing.”

We have no idea how far our seeds can scatter.

Two weeks ago we celebrated Random Acts of Kindness week (#RAKweek2018), a global celebration of kindness promoted by the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation. As part of our year-long “Passion for Kindness” initiative, we decided that Valentine’s Day would be a perfect day to dive into a new project – scattering seeds of kindness throughout our school to remind people that they matter.

We transformed our Innovation Lab into two work stations:

Kindness Posters/Hearts of Gratitude – Students could create kindness posters to display around the school or write notes of gratitude for staff members

Kindness Rocks – Students could paint inspiring messages on rocks to hide around campus to be discovered by others

Our planning caught the eye of our local news station, WTVR Channel 6 news, and Rob Cardwell visited our lesson to showcase it on their Building Better Minds segment. It was an exciting day for us as we have continually expressed to our students the importance of sharing their story with the world and using digital communication for good. Now we had an opportunity to make it happen for REAL!

We began our lesson by revisiting the progress on Jet Stream Jax’s Peaceful Hearts Playground, as our students had donated coins in the fall for the Kind Coins campaign to rebuild school playgrounds following the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. We zoomed in to the photos Barbara Gruener provided of their kindness rocks and peeked at her Flipgrid to see an example of the messages they painted on their rocks. We also talked a bit about how kindness rocks have been used in our local community with #rvarocks on Twitter and RVA Rocks Facebook Group.

The students spent the next forty minutes creating and collaborating; it was a delight to show our visitors how seamlessly we incorporate our state-mandated content of reading and writing with character development, social emotional learning (SEL) skills, and the 5C’s of successful life skills. Our rocks were set aside to dry and we made plans to hang our posters and share our hearts of gratitude later in the week.




That afternoon the world learned about the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Another school shooting.

Flashbacks to Sandy Hook.


Now there are 17 more.

I. Can’t. Believe. This. Is. Happening.


As an educator, my sweet little world of kindness came to a crashing halt.


I wrote a bit about my feelings in my I Can post as the tragedy swirled in my brain. The next day it was business as usual in my elementary school, but I felt the weight of the horror pressed against me, a dark cloud suffocating the joy from the day before. I wanted to do something, anything, to share kindness with this school community who would be forever changed by the events on Valentine’s Day. But what on earth could we do to possibly help them?

Kindness rocks.

I brought the idea to Mrs. Madison and her students to see if they would be interested in donating their beautifully painted kindness rocks to another school that might need a little reminder of hope and love and joy. They readily agreed.

We did not talk about the tragedy at hand; but rather, we talked about the impact kindness has when it is scattered and shared with others. We imagined what it would be like for others to find our rocks and how they could keep the rock as a reminder of kindness or hide it again for someone else to find.

“Can we make more rocks, Mrs. Letter? So we can send them some AND keep some here?”

More rocks.

More paint.

Hope and love and joy.



Say their names” was a constant whisper on my heart. I decided to make seventeen of our rocks memorial rocks, one for each of the lives lost on that day. As I added their names to my bullet journal, I lifted up a prayer for each of the families whose pain was greater than I could bear.

On the back of each kindness rock, I added their names then wrote encouraging messages on the remaining rocks. I captured each rock using Flipgrid (Code: 5ea50c) so anyone who finds a rock with #kind4MSD on the back could leave a video response in return.



My assistant principal, Mr. Davis, posted the Flipgrid on our school’s Facebook page, which caught the attention of my district. They, in turn, created a video compilation of the memorial rocks to post on our district social media sites.

MES Facebook Post


HCPS Facebook Post

The next morning, our rocks were mentioned on the news.

By a different news station than the one who had filmed our lesson the week before.

The seeds of kindness are scattering.


In times of complete and utter helplessness, we often feel paralyzed, like there is nothing we can to do make a difference, no action we can provide that will make things better. I felt that immobilization for a solid week before I realized that all the tools I needed to show compassion were with me the entire time.

Kind words.

Kind actions.

A heart to comfort the pain of another.

We are sending out our kindness rocks to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School this week in hopes that when they arrive, someone at the school will hide them around campus to be discovered by students and staff. We will check our #kind4MSD hashtag periodically to see if there are any updates or posts from others or perhaps it will spark more kindness rocks to be created and shared around the world!

Be the good.

Share in kindness.

Inspire others.


On Tuesday, March 6, WRIC Channel 8 News in Richmond, Virginia, showcased our kindness rocks during their 6pm broadcast. On Wednesday, March 14, WTVR Channel 6 News showcased our kindness rocks during their Building Better Minds segment at 6am and 6pm.

Follow Tamara on Twitter or connect with her Passion for Kindness Facebook group to join in the fun of sharing kindness. Tamara is also writing a book about kindness with Dave Burgess Consulting, Inc. to share her kindness journey with the world!

For more information on kindness rocks read this post by Rachel Moravec, visit #rvarocks on Twitter, or connect with RVA Rocks on Facebook.


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education, ITRT

Olympic Makerspace – Part 2

As we prepare for the closing ceremonies of the 2018 Winter Olympics, our students have been busy crafting their own designs and modifications to make the events safer, faster, and more enjoyable for all.

Four weeks ago, Ms. Banton and I introduced our Olympic Makerspace project to every fifth-grader in our school during their library time. We mapped out specific tasks for each week that included building background knowledge about the various sports, pondering the “I Wonder” questions that filled our minds, then narrowing down our thoughts to one driving question:

“How can I improve the Winter Olympics?”

Friends, let me tell you… we were BLOWN away by their ideas and suggestions. With over 100 students participating in this project, their passions shined through as they dug deep into researching their topics. In addition to learning more about the Winter Olympic games as a whole, they discovered specific nuances of each sport, like how the bars work to guide a bobsled and what makes the blade of a skate glide faster over ice.

Our students became researchers, not simply Googling a sport, but asking more questions and searching for more answers. “How do athletes keep warm on the snow and ice?” sparked deeper research into fabrics and costume/uniform designs. “Where do athletes stay during the Olympics?” transformed into a conversation about architecture and interior/exterior design. Students started analyzing photos and replaying YouTube videos to hone in on specific details they wanted to improve.



In Week 3, students began designing their projects on paper, identifying what materials they would need to build their prototypes and sketching out models of their improvements. In Week 4, we set out all the materials and let the students GO!

Some students worked together in small groups. Others worked alone. All students were engaged and focused on their projects. They grappled with the logistics of how to make their visions come to life and when their prototypes didn’t quite work, they revised their plan and made adjustments to redesign.









We used Seesaw as our tool of choice to capture students’ projects, which allowed them as much time as they needed to explain their projects. We literally handed them the iPad and they did the rest on their own!




This snowboard includes straws on the bottom for smooth traction and additional safety over bumps.

As we reflect on the success of this project, we are already swirling with ideas of how we can take this concept of making and apply it to other themes throughout the year. Having a dedicated space in our school with ready-to-use materials and flexible seating makes this style of innovation quick and easy for our students!



A new ramp complete with safety sled


A redesigned ice skate to provide more stability with the country’s colors!


Did you know you can learn about math with making? Lots of angles in this design!

If you would like more information on how we redesigned our traditional computer lab space into an Innovation lab or various ways we have used flexible seating, please view the links below! We hope our Olympic Makerspace projects inspire you and your students to dream big!


September 2017
October 2017
December 2017
December 2017
January 2017


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Three Little Things

Last night I was tagged in two separate posts asking me to share three random facts about myself with the world. Now, I’ve seen these types of viral share posts flying around on Facebook, but never on Twitter with my trusted PLN.

I scrolled up and read through some of the responses and was immediately drawn in by the zany, the crazy, the simple, and the sincere. People were sharing about their families. Their travels. Their most prized possessions and the oddities that make them unique.
I learned who has been a Go-go dancer (Barbara) and who’s adopting a child (Jessica). I discovered that some of my PLN have very diverse heritages (Did you know that Angela is Cape Verdean, Black, Portuguese & Native American with a Chinese last name?)
I scrolled and I scrolled and I scrolled and with each three facts I read, I learned a little bit more about the people who share my passions, who lift me up, who inspire me with their words and kindness each day. I felt connected and the laughter that was shared throughout the night filled my heart with joy!
It made for a great virtual ice-breaker as each person was asked to tag three more people and the thread continued to expand left and right, connecting classroom teachers with administrators and first year teachers with seasoned educators holding multiple degrees and designations. Published authors were chatting with new bloggers and the walls of entitlement were flattened. Some were even brainstorming ways to have a Three Random Facts dinner at their next Edcamp!
We were just a group of people, getting to know each other a little better, with a LOT of fun in the mix.
It was a simple post, but WOW – what an impact! It made me realize once again the power of our words and how we can use our words to connect with others in a positive way.
I was so inspired by the collegiality that I created this padlet to capture any responses people may want to share and keep in one place. I thought it might be a fun way we can all learn about each other to share at conferences and #coffeeEDUs, showcasing the power of a PLN!

I would love for you to share your three random facts on this Padlet, too. Let’s show the world how social media can be used to strengthen relationships and shine a light on all the things that make us unique. (It could also be a great intro activity for a lesson with your students, too!) If you’ve never used a Padlet before, give it a go – you just double-click on the main page to start a text box!

A special thanks to Bethany Hill and Annick Rauch who tagged me in their threads – this has been SUCH fun! Another round of thanks to Jarrett for the tweet that started it all… you never know when YOUR question will go viral!
Jump on in and share your three little things… I can’t wait to learn more about you!


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Olympic Makerspace – Part 1

One of my favorite things about being a technology integrator is collaborating with teachers as they stretch themselves out of their comfort zones to try something new. A few weeks ago I was chatting with our school librarian, Ms. Banton, who was swirling with some ideas about an Olympic-themed research project.

“How about we have the students do something with the research they learn? Could they use their research to make something better?” I asked.

That’s all it took.

Two sentences and lots of brainstorming later, we settled on a three week project to help fifth grade students students dive into the Olympics and take their research to the next level.

Setting the Stage

We introduced our unit by focusing on the power of “I Wonder” questions. The lesson began with the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics trailer to build anticipation and awareness of the various sports that compete at the Olympics. We also showed another video that highlighted the moment where the flag was passed from the prior country to the new, with more footage of the events.

What I love most about these videos is the way you are pulled in by the music. One student heard the opening strains and looked at me perplexed, asking “Is this supposed to be a sad video? Does something happen to him?” Then, as the music rises and the other instruments join in, the tone changes and students discover what the video truly represents: anticipation, preparation, exhilaration. It’s The Mozart Hook at it’s finest, capturing your attention and pulling you along for the ride. (For those of you wondering, “What’s the Mozart Hook?” check out p. 97 in Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess!)

I Wonder

Once we’ve set the stage for engagement, it’s time to empower the students to own the lesson. We displayed images for each sport and read the words aloud so they would know which sport went with the videos they had just seen. That’s when the magic of the moment began.

“What do you wonder about these sports? Think about the way they use their bodies. Their equipment. What does the setting look like? How does that contribute to making them safer? Faster? Better? What do you wonder?”

I would like to say that all students immediately put lead to paper and frantically scrawled out their ways to change the world, but they needed time to think.

See, we all need a bit of time to ponder.

Time to think.

Time to grapple.

Time to grow.

The magic is in the pondering.

We gave them an “I Wonder” sheet to jot down their questions and encouraged them to chat with others at their table. We know the power of collaboration and how one idea sparks another, so we wanted to provide students an opportunity to enhance their questions. After several minutes, we opened the discussion to the entire class, choosing a few ideas to add to our class recording sheet, which sparked even more pondering by others.


Their questions made us ponder, too!

  • I wonder how can we design the luge track to be safer?
  • I wonder why girl ice skaters wear skirts and how we can design a costume for girls who don’t like dresses?
  • I wonder why one sport wears goggles and another sport doesn’t?
  • I wonder how people stay in a bobsled?
Refine and Research

On the back of the page, students were asked to choose one of their “I Wonder” questions and create a research focus that would drive the creation of a product that could improve something already made or doesn’t exist yet.

Ms. Banton and I walked around the room, helping students refine their research question which we noted on their papers. Then students were given an opportunity to peruse and check out books for the remainder of class.

After repeating this lesson for each of the fifth grade classes in our school, it’s exciting to see all the different student interests related to the Winter Olympics. Next week we dive deep into research using print and electronic resources, then in Week 3, students will use materials from our Innovation Lab’s makerspace to design and create their innovations to share with the world!

How do YOU use passion projects and makerspace lessons in your curriculum? Do you have any projects you are working on for the Olympics? Share your ideas below so we can learn from one another!


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Pokemon Power

It started with a simple request from a first grade student. “Can I go sit over there and look through my Pokemon cards?” The school day was done; children were seated in straight lines through the hallway waiting for their daycare vans to arrive. This particular child was one whose body was always in motion, moving here and there and everywhere.

I quickly gave permission, after all it was after-school time and perhaps this low-key activity would keep him calm and content. My hunch was correct as he spent the entire time seated, completely immersed in his small deck of well worn, half-bent cards.

Other students quickly noticed and asked to join him, so a small group formed, all focused on the names, illustrations, and point values shown on the face of each card.. When their daycare vans arrived, they gathered their cards and headed out.

Now I will be honest with you – twenty years ago when these Pokemon cards had their first introduction into my instructional realm as an educator, I may not have been so understanding. In fact, my memory makes me cringe a bit as I recall the various toys and trends that students have brought into the school building that made their way into the back of my desk drawer.

But I am wiser now and a bit more patient. I see value in using whatever tools I can to engage students in conversation, in discovery, in sharing with others. From fidget spinners to silly bands, there’s always an opportunity to use what students love, we just have to shift our mindset.

As I was leaving the building that afternoon, another teacher passed by and commented about students bringing Pokemon cards to school. I think I may have surprised her with my interest, because I immediately started chatting about all the ways you could use them in the classroom for instruction. Intrigued, she walked a little closer and we continued our conversation as I explained how my eight-year-old plays with them at home with me.

“See, each card has numbers on them that represent different things. You could easily tie this into a math lesson as students compare numbers, add, subtract… students could write stories about Pokemon characters or even design a new Pokemon to sell on a trading card. The sky is the limit!”

Lucky for me, this teacher was open and willing to try something new, so we scheduled a time for me to come in and do a small group math lesson using Pokemon cards.

Oh, how I wish you could have seen the JOY on the students’ faces when they saw me at the table holding Pokemon cards! They were in shock! They couldn’t believe we were going to use them IN CLASS!

I worked with a small group of five students and had to start quickly because each rotation was only 15 minutes. I began by spreading out the cards so the students could see that, yes, we really were going to use REAL Pokemon cards in our lesson!

I flipped the cards over, mixed them up, and had students select two cards. They used their iPads to log into Seesaw and take a photo of the cards they had chosen. Then we talked about the numbers on the card and how we would use their health levels (the number in the top right corner of each card.)

Students were directed to use the digital pen tool to circle the key numbers on top of their photo then complete a specific task with the values. When finished, they tapped the record button and read what they had written, uploading their work to our Seesaw journal.

Since I was working with small groups, I could easily differentiate the lesson based on students’ individual and collective skills. For one group, I had them compare the health levels to see which Pokemon was healthier, then showed them how to rewrite the numbers using comparison signs.

(Wait a minute… that’s not a skill that’s described in their standardized curriculum… does that mean they can’t do it? Absolutely NOT! Give it a go and see what they can do!)

In another group I told a story that the Pokemon characters were going to join forces and battle together, thus joining their health numbers for a combined sum. We walked through the easier ways to add numbers that ended with zeros and students wrote and solved the addition problems.

For some, it was planting seeds to reading three digit numbers. For others it was extending their learning potential by harnessing the “light bulb” moment when they could figure something out on their own. Since I was right there with the small group, I could provide immediate feedback and correction as students completed the task.

Best of all, we completed all this learning in 15 MINUTES. That’s it! Fast, furious, and FUN!

Screenshot of comparing numbers
Screenshot of adding numbers

In Chapter 11 of Play Like a Pirate, Quinn Rollins discusses all the different ways you can use trading cards in the classroom. It’s a great book for learning more about how you can embrace the power of play, increase student engagement, and make your teaching relevant to the world in which your students thrive.

The next time a student asks to take out their Pokemon cards in the classroom, take a peek at their cards and have them tell you more about their passion. You might be surprised to discover a new way to teach a common concept!


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education, kindness

Serving Others Unseen


As many of you know, I am passionate about random acts of kindness. Well, ok… that’s probably an understatement. I am BEYOND passionate about kindness – it is my life’s purpose! I truly believe with all my heart that simple acts of kindness are the threads that keep us woven together in fabrics of peace and joy.

I love sharing my passion for kindness in the lessons I teach with collaborating teachers and their students. Whether it’s writing prompts or multi-step word problems, I can usually find a way to showcase the power of kindness in most things I teach each day.

Sometimes, however, I am provided an opportunity to devote an entire class period to kindness and that’s when my heart SOARS! It’s usually an integrated lesson where the standards of learning mesh with at least one of the 4 Cs (critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity). Recently, at a district innovation meeting, I was introduced to a 5th C: Community Service.

There are so many ways we can use kindness to give back to our local community! Sometimes we see a need and decide for ourselves the best way to assist. Other times we haven’t a clue where to begin. All you have to do is ask one question: “How can we help?


Then act.

When we asked our students at the beginning of the year how they could show kindness to others, many mentioned feeding the homeless. They referenced seeing people on the side of the road with “Help! Hungry!” signs and giving food as an easy way to help them out.

Our conversations since then have continued to cycle back to the homeless, so my collaborating teachers, Mrs. Cross and Mrs. Madison, decided that this holiday season would be a perfect time for us to show our students the power in serving others unseen by assisting a charity organization in their preparations to feed the homeless this spring.

Caritas is a global organization with community outreaches that care for homeless individuals for a week at a time. They provide a safe place to sleep, access to hot showers and basic supplies, three hot meals a day and lots of opportunities for playing games, chatting with others, and meeting others who can provide resources and advice for getting back on their feet again.

Simply put, they use kindness to give people hope.

We decided we would help their mission of kindness as we focused on the power of giving versus receiving.

We transformed the Innovation Lab into work stations with two separate tasks. One station would focus on creativity as students decorated plain place mats with inspiring messages and illustrations. The other station would focus on communication and collaboration as students worked in an assembly line to wrap plastic silverware in napkins, securing with a small rubber band, which would be given to homeless individuals as they sat down at a table to enjoy a warm meal with others.


When students entered the Innovation Lab, we discussed the purpose of our service and how our small acts of kindness would impact others on a larger scale. We also talked about the stations and how there is joy in the journey of working together for the common good.

The room quickly filled with chatter as students got to work on their designated tasks. Students in one group brainstormed things they could draw and write while students in the other station discussed the most productive way to organize and wrap silverware.



Time passed quickly. We only had a limited amount of time, so our stations were short – only 20 minutes for each. Our goal was simple: make as many place mats and silverware bundles as we could in the time we had. Inevitably, we ran out of forks, so our silverware task members joined back in with the place mats group to create even more inspiring works of art.



When our time came to a close, we had students count the place mats and silverware bundles. We then took advantage of the teachable moment to toss in a little math as we added the totals between the classes for a grand total. How many people would be touched by our acts of kindness?


Our students were in shock as we stared at the final sum:

428 bundles of silverware.

62 place mats.

You could hear the cheers of our students all they way down the hall! They couldn’t believe how much they had accomplished in such a short amount of time. It was such an empowering lesson!

We heard comments around the room:

“I wish we could do more fun activities like this.”

“I bet this is like some kind of world record!”

“I want to do this when I grow up – it feels so nice to give back to other people who need it most.”

A few students asked if they could share their thoughts on the board:





We packed all our items to donate, serving others unseen:



Even though these items won’t be used until spring, we know that someone will be touched by our acts of kindness and generosity.

Today that person touched by kindness is me.

Kindness inspires. Be the change! Seek out opportunities to give back to your community and make a difference in someone else’s life.

Small moments matter, even if unseen.


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Hot Chocolate Writing

Each December my world is a whirlwind as I’m sure many of your worlds are, too. There’s so much to do! There’s so little time! It’s an unbalanced force of nature that heaps on additional stress from party planning to gift giving to oh-my-goodness-we-are-out-of-tape-on-Christmas-Eve panic that is enough to make anyone want to crawl into the chimney themselves and hide.

Despite the chaos of holiday happenings, I secretly LOVE this time of year! Oh, the joy of writing by the twinkle of lights on my tree, decorated with decades of memories from my family! Oh, the love shown by others as Secret Santas sprinkle kindness to make someone else’s day just a little bit brighter! Oh, the jubilation of doing fun, creative lessons at school where holiday themes and acts of service trump standardized tests and worksheets!

One my my tried-and-true, favorite lessons to teach this time of year is “Hot Chocolate Writing.” It’s an engaging lesson that can be adapted for any age level and is sure to bring a smile to many!

The lesson begins with sounds of Sleigh Ride jing-jing-jingling throughout the room as students enter our Innovation Lab. They pick up their supplies from the table and sit anywhere they like. They have a small white board, a dry erase marker and an eraser.

That’s it.

There’s already a buzz of excitement in the room because the lights are dimmed low, music fills their ears, and they already know it’s going to be a fun lesson!

Once students are settled in their chosen spot – some are in wobble seats, others on cushions, a few on the sofa and carpet – we share a conversation about their first impressions of today’s lesson. They mention the music, the flexible seating, the materials “with no directions on what we’re supposed to do” and inevitably someone mentions the colored post-it notes I’ve placed on the back of their white boards.

The engagement factor is buzzing now as side conversations erupt.

“What color do you have?”

“What are we going to do with these?”

“What’s going to happen next?”

Ahhhhh… the hook has grabbed them already!

It’s then, with rapt attention, I talk about sights and sounds and all the ways people are drawn into whatever the experience may be. We talk about movies. Videos. Commercials. Cartoons. We discuss the power of storytelling and how it all begins with someone writing a screenplay, a script, a storyboard, a scene.

I then offer the challenge: List the five senses on your white board in less than 30 seconds.

Beat. The. Clock.

The only sound you hear is markers sliding across the boards.

I draw a very primitive picture of a hand and the students tell me which senses to add, labeling the fingers.

Five senses.

Five fingers.

Easy to remember.

It’s then that we shift our focus back on the power of stories and we watch a video clip from the movie, The Polar Express, that shows waiters and chefs serving hot chocolate to children on a train. The students are easily pulled into the moment as they watch with wide eyes and smiles. For many this is a familiar scene.

For some, it is new.

When the conductor closes the door and the music fades away, students turn their attention to the board on the side where I have placed colored post-it notes by the five senses listed earlier. Now they are given a task:

Look on your white board to see which color you are assigned and which sense matches your color.

Watch the same video clip but this time focus only on your designated sense.

What details can you add to your white board?

We watch the video again as students fill their boards with descriptions.

After the video ends, they are told to find their group members (based on color of  post-it notes) and share insights to dig deeper and create more meaningful descriptions.


The room is noisy, but productive, the creative banter ringing like bells across a snow-filled meadow. Time is limited so they work quickly, then we gather back together as a whole class to start sharing ideas of what to put in our descriptive paragraph.
They talk.
I type.
We go from group to group, sharing details based on the sense we were given. We begin with sight to set the basic flow of the paragraph, then move to sound, adding descriptions, changing the order, creating compound sentences with commas and comparisons. Then we add in smell, touch, and taste.
Our writing as a class is messy.
We misspell words. We fix them.
We realize we left out key information. We add it back in.
We debate word choice.
We ponder synonyms and syntax.
We write.
By the time each group has shared their suggestions, our basic summary of a movie scene is filled with detailed descriptions worthy of the big screen.
We read our story together.
We celebrate our success!
One reason why I love this lesson so much is because students focus on the 4C’s:
Critical Thinking – Students have to focus on their chosen sense and filter out other senses in their white board descriptions. They also have to think of figurative language which can be a challenge for some who struggle with abstract concepts.
Communication – Students communicate constantly in this lesson. They share their ideas. They write. They speak. They shift their conversations from internal dialogue to peer sharing to articulating ideas for the class.
Collaboration – Students take individual ideas and expand upon them in small groups, later collaborating as an entire class to join in the writing process.
Creativity – Students think of creative ways to describe something of familiarity with others.
I also love that students get to see what real writers do in the writing process:
We make mistakes.
We move words around.
We get excited when words work well and annoyed when they don’t.
We question.
We wonder.
We create.
If you are looking for a fun-filled activity that will engage your students in the writing process, you may want to serve up a cup of “Hot Chocolate Writing” as you wind down this holiday season. It’s sure to put a smile on your face and theirs!


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education, kindness

Umbrellas and Rain

It was a typical Monday morning with voices of students and teachers filling the building after another two-day reprieve. I was walking from one class to the next when I passed a teacher in the hall pushing a loaded cart of supplies. “Perfect timing!” I proclaimed as I held the door open for her to enter the building. She smiled in response then stopped to chat for a moment or two.

We talked about our weekends and upcoming projects on the horizon. We shook our heads in disbelief as we contemplated one-fourth of our school year already complete. “Where does the time go?” As we started to part ways, I thanked her for bringing a little sunshine to my day and she paused with a laugh and said, “You are an umbrella to my rain!”

Perhaps this is a cliche others know well, but it was the first time I had ever heard it. The visualization has stayed with me the entire day.

How can we be more like umbrellas to other people’s rain?

We can offer shelter from the storm.
There are times throughout our week when it seems the winds whip from every direction and you can barely stand upright. Seek out others who may be running for shelter or are hovering in the shadows to stay dry. Make a genuine effort to connect, to check-in, to listen and empathize. Be that safe place people can go where the storm of judgment and criticism is kept away.

We can surround others with strength.
Just like the metal ribs of an umbrella stretch out to hold the canopy in place, we can strengthen our students and co-workers by stretching ourselves to meet their needs. Perhaps it’s something simple like offering to help on a task or maybe it’s a bit more complex like brainstorming ideas and solutions. Supporting others with strength reminds them that they are not alone and we can battle the storm together.

We can get wet to keep others dry.
Sometimes support means doing things beyond our designated roles and responsibilities. It’s staying late after school to help out a struggling teacher. It’s helping to clean up the cafeteria floor when a carton of milk is spilled by a student. It’s offering to help, being willing to serve, and taking one for the team. Our willingness to get wet by the storm shows others that even in the hardest downpours, the work we do still has value, importance, and worth.

Let’s be like umbrellas today, so we can we can shine a light on sunny skies tomorrow.


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Value Vulnerability

Several weeks ago, my attention was drawn to Chapter 5 of Shattering the Perfect Teacher Myth, by Aaron Hogan. This section, aptly titled “Value Vulnerability” made me uncomfortable right from the first truth:

“Vulnerability is prerequisite for all innovation, creativity, and change.”
Ugh! Just the thought of sharing vulnerabilities makes many people squirm, myself included. I’ve spent much of my career holding firm to the teacher myths that we need to know all, do all, be all. It’s quite a challenge to allow that shell of perfectionism crack and shatter to the ground; it’s even harder to share about it with others.
What I’ve learned from Aaron’s writing (as well as posts from other educators in my PLN) is that I’m not alone. We’ve all had amazing days as well as those moments when we questioned why we got into this profession in the first place. What helps us make it through the rough spots is realizing that we are not alone: vulnerability makes us real.
Today I was chatting with another teacher when her voice lowered to a near whisper. “I did something horrible,” she confessed. Her students had spent quite a bit of time working on a special piece of artwork and she wanted to preserve the delicate designs. With best intentions, she took the papers to the laminating machine, but as the oil pastel creations were pressed between the layers of plastic, the heat from the machine melted the colors and smeared them across the designs.
All the students’ masterpieces were ruined. 
As I listened to her story, my heart ached for the angst she experienced in that moment. I could feel my own skin bristling at the loss, the horror of having to explain everything to her students who had worked so hard to create such a special project.
She was mortified, but didn’t allow her embarrassment to stop her from being vulnerable with her students. After they arrived this morning, she gathered them near, explained what happened, and apologized. She readjusted her schedule to provide time to talk about the mishap and offered students the opportunity to use class time to recreate their colorful drawings.
Sometimes the greatest lessons we teach begin with the greatest lessons we learn.
Her students responded with empathy. They consoled her. They offered forgiveness.
By sharing her vulnerability with her students, she actually strengthened her classroom culture as they openly discussed her feelings of panic, shock, dismay. She showed them that even teachers make mistakes, thus shattering the perfect teacher’s myth in the most humbling of ways.
I was a little surprised she opened up to me in this way, sharing such a heartbreaking faux pas. But as she described her students’ reactions to the news, I realized the importance of this shared moment.
We rise together. 
Aaron Hogan’s words reminds us:
“Being vulnerable with your colleagues is being willing to step into the struggle and walk with them toward a better place.”

Today I am grateful for the reminder that I don’t have to be perfect. We all make mistakes. We all have those horrendous moments that make us want to run and hide. But there is a hidden beauty in revealing our inadequacies to others.

It helps strengthen our resilience so we can then strengthen others along the way.


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