Author Archives: eolsonteacher

Letting Go to Grow

Returning guest blogger, Jonnie Becker, shares her teaching/learning journey…

I was given a plant.  I can hardly keep up with school, kids, and a husband let alone a plant.  Thank goodness it was a spider plant, and a little neglect won’t kill it.  This summer, I finally noticed it had a lot of dead leaves and even the new ones would only get so big and then turn brown.  So, I watered it, moved the curtain so it would get lots of sunshine, I trimmed the dead parts off, and made it a priority. But it was ugly, and the more I worked on it the less beautiful it became.  I put a bottle of water by it so in passing I may give it a trickle, and I left it alone.  When I checked on it again some weeks later, it had long beautiful leaves that dangled and curled in a way I had never seem.

Every teacher I know has waged war in the battle over covering the content or teaching the kids.  There just seems to be so much pressure to make sure our students “know” all this stuff.  So we plan these elaborate lessons weeks and even months in advance.  Then we put the kids through all the hoops of these lessons.  Sometimes it all works great and we are all smiles.  So I think, wow, I am a great teacher.  But I am wondering, are they any more prepared for a future we cannot predict?  Yep, they know more, but how did they come to know it.  I did the work, I set them up to figure it out, I limited the ways they could fail or get confused.  Did I do more harm than good?

In implementing the IACOPI e-curriculum, I have been working hard to make my Face to Face (F2F) time more about each student moving at their own pace.  They are working on whatever part of our project they think they can do.  This has taken most of them by shock.  They are all trying to run the rat race when there isn’t any race.  Needless to say, I was feeling all their stresses.  They wanted to “get done” so we could move on.  I felt like I was needed to get them back on track, as if this strange place I had taken them to was OFF TRACK.

Oh, what to do!  Do I plan a great teacher led lesson, take back the wheel and steer the ship into port?  Nope, I let go!  I sat down.  Yes! SIT DOWN, in the back.  I watched them.  Guess what happened?  Leaders emerged, collaboration began, and they were learning without me. The classes where I followed them, where I spent our precious time together letting them show off their work, modeling how be make our room a safe place, and suggesting what they needed after seeing where they were are the ones that grew by leaps and bounds.  Yeah, we are not covering the mountain of content, but they went from yes/no questions to REAL hypothesizing. From not knowing they don’t know to knowing how to dig and hunt and then work it together.

Like my plant, my students came to me used to care that only let it grow to a point.  When the care style changed it became stressed and didn’t bloom or really grow.  Then going back to the old method would have killed it completely.  The plant, like our kids, knows how to grow-it is just in them.  If you try to control the growth it has the opposite effect.  When you let go, they create something beyond what you thought was desired.  All this time we were going about growing our kids all backwards.  Redefining the meaning of Teacher.


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Jonnie Becker, returning guest blogger, spends her time facilitating an improved vision of science in the minds of the teenage youth attending North Butler High School. A self-determined techie who wanders her way into learning all kinds of new things.

The borage of confused parents has begun again.  As usual, I am pushing the status quo to make revolutionary systemic change in how the students in my room experience “an education.” Sometimes a colleague or two gets curious about what I am up to and why as well as the parents of my students.

Every year at this time (which corresponds to mid-term or 1st quarter grades) I get a lot of questions about why am I doing things so differently than what “everyone else does.”  So, this year I am getting the why are you doing all this e-learning, why is my kid doing a quiz at 11:30 at night, why are you buzzing all over the room without the class focused together?  Needless to say, I am getting a little weary as usual.  So the promise of an in-service day was a needed relief.

Our school is starting the IPI process, and were blessed with a great in-service by Jerry Valentine himself.  (This was not the typical PD day without a take home. It really was good already changing my classroom!) This process trains you to be aware of what kind of THINKING is happening in your room.  The six options break thinking into three ranges: non academic thinking, low order or low on Bloom’s taxonomy, and high order or high on Bloom’s.

Mr. Valentine informed us that the kind of work that asks student to think critically while VERBALIZING with their peers is the best work for growing their minds.  I was instantly reminded of the research of  Lev Vygotski.  My class has been based in the social constructivism principles since I was awakened in 2003. However, this year the platform for this has shifted from just in person to some online learning conversations too.  After having experienced the way a Moodle forum can explode in conversation where you get addicted to see what will happen next, I wondered if Mr. Valentine would consider an online forum environment as equal as a face to face for student to student analytical conversations. Thank goodness one of my colleagues asked for me, because I was too intimidated.

Valentine claimed that online conversations are NOT considered verbalized higher-order thinking situations. The comment was infuriating, and left me curious. How much do we know about the social construction of ideas in a virtual environment?  I would suspect not much, and if so, not in the way that the IACOPI does e-learning. Holla!  I am excited to find a way to show what I believe to be the key.  The real reason why online learning needs a teacher and face to face time.  After experiencing the IACOPI, I have come to understand that you build the human life force for learning when you make a community, a one from a collection of many, that can organically shift power, focus, and progress based on the subtle balances from within the community.   After you have that face to face, you don’t need to have the constant real life feed to create new understandings as a team. You can actually feel the humans with just a few key strokes.  I may argue a forum discussion can be more helpful with a community, because you risk less when you share.

I can’t wait to see how transitioning my students to be a community of learners in both the real and virtual realms.  Could we be doing something so new, that we are the activation that sparks a whole paradigm shift in how we apply and implement learning theory?  Could we be rewriting Vygotski’s chapters in social constructivism?   Someday, they will be referencing the IACOPI!  JUST YOU WAIT!

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Retraining My Gut

Jonnie Becker spends her time facilitating an improved vision of science in the minds of the teenage youth attending North Butler High School. A self-determined techie who wanders her way into learning all kinds of new things.

     As an active, enthusiastic member of the Iowa Community of Practice, IACOPI, I have been transitioning to becoming a professional who facilitates  a blended learning environment.  Basically, I am learning to retain myself on how to teach in such a way to create a community in my classroom where students use digital tools and virtual environments seamlessly within the actual face to face brick and mortar of our school building. Wow, it did take me the better part of three summer months to learn what that  meant to me.  The trouble is I got my mind, my consciousness, around that idea I just forgot to keep my unconscious mind in the loop. Here’s what happened…
     My blended teaching has taken shape in all my classes, not just the physical science class I do for the IACOPI.  Well, my chemistry students are just getting into their first Project Based Learning Task: The Riverwood Fish Kill from Chemistry in the Community 5th eds.  I don’t follow the curriculum as put together by the publisher instead I borrowed the idea and then make the rest of it as we go. Part of this process makes the project flow more organically.  I let the students propose what they think could have killed the fish, we split into teams and research that cause hypothesis, test for, and evaluate data with their team’s unique possible cause being the lens for how they approach the work. Most of my students proposed totally realistic hypotheses that they have no clue how to test.  So we spend some time digging for background research.  We are not a 1 to 1 school, so I do not have access for all students in my classroom.  I am blessed with six networked laptops just for me, so I am not really complaining. Yet, I still need them working and learning because really I don’t know the best way to test some of their ideas either.  Nevertheless, I sent some students to the business computer lab, some to the library, some to the general computer lab, and I had a few six or eight still in my classroom.  So of 20 students I was “monitoring” six to eight at the moment my principal stopped by to check on me teaching.
     Pause…my heart is anxious just remembering this moment.
I was sticken with horror!!! My mind knew that the students, where ever they happened to be, were working, thinking, collaborating, learning but my unconscious mind said THIS IS WRONG!  You are doing NOTHING, you are just  standing here (folding flyers for midterm to send home to explain the process of  standards based grading).  EEK quick LOOK BUSY, look like you’re teaching, look like a teacher, fake it quick!!! So, I interrupted a student reading an article she had just found and pretended like I was giving her advise on some possible search terms.  (Which totally wasn’t needed because she was finding better things than I had found on the same topic).  The string of endless judgements went racing through my head: she’s lazy, she left all her students off on other teachers, she’s irresponsible, she isn’t prepared, this isn’t learning, there is no objective for the class, there’s no assessment for this “lesson”, there’s no lesson, she isn’t teaching!!!
     My principal didn’t say anything, but if I was thinking those things with all I had learned about blended environments, then either he is too professional to say them, or he is just trusting me at this moment.  Everything I had ever experienced had created a deep internal knowledge that was in conflict with calling what  I was doing and promoting as “teaching.”  Like I was paid to be a conductor of the orchestra, but I was letting them write their own music as they played and I was letting their own ears decide the quality of the song.  I was just blended into the notes, making minor suggestions which spark the genius with the players already.  Yet, I, at that moment viewing the scene in the eyes of a stranger to the community could only view chaos because it was not the classic song an orchestra “should” be playing.
     How did it turn out?  I stopped bugging that poor innocent student, decided my own judgements were far more harsh than anything my administrator could ever conceive and went back to folding the flyers.  Retraining myself to trust in the power of my student’s starts today! Maybe it IS me who is HOLDING them back with my archaic lingerings of the industrial model of education. Today, I surrender to a better way, and hope it doesn’t get me fired. Comment if you know what this feels like.

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SymbalooEDU for IACoPi

SymbalooEDU for IACoPi

SymbalooEDU is a visual bookmarking tool that helps you to organize and share the best of the web with your students.

We are so excited to have the opportunity to work with IACoPi to build an online collaborative learning environment to facilitate teachers with integrating technology into the classroom.

Together we’ve created a custom Symbaloo for each of the major subject areas where members of the IACoPi groups can communicate and collaborate on valuable online resources for their course modules. The links to the Symbaloos can be found below:

Symbaloo Forums

IACoPi Forum A dedicated forum was created for IACoPi with subforums for each subject area to allow the group to post topics, ask questions and have discussions. Come join the conversation!

Iowa Training IACoPi members needing additional training on how to use Symbaloo can visit: It contains a series of short tutorial videos, assignments and quizzes to help you get better acquainted with using Symbaloo.

Better. Together.

The passion behind IACoPi is very inspiring. We hope that through the process of working together we can grow and improve our tool for education.


Even the students in Iowa are excited about Symbaloo. A student from Jordan Creek Elementary has created the following video to show how easy it is to use Symbaloo.

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Blending, Reshaping, Expanding

Laura Horan (@laura_horan) is the Curriculum Coordinator at Manson Northwest Webster.  She has taught grades 3-5 and 7th grade Language Arts.  She has been a part-time consultant with the Prairie Lakes AEA and was a member of the state Iowa Core team.  She blogs at Opening Doors to 21st Century Learning.

As I think the importance of the Iowa Communities of Practice and Innovation work and what it means for school communities, teachers, and students, I think about an article written by Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel entitled, “I Just Want My Kid to be Happy…and Successful.” The authors express what we, and particular parents, all want for our students. They say we want all kids to be, “Happy, motivated, college-bound, work-ready and prepped for success…”

So, what does this mean?  My connections with my own work and learning are a simple example.  My definition of work has changed. Because of technology, I can now conduct my work from anywhere and it is more driven by results rather than driven by time and place.  But more importantly, the way I learn has changed dramatically.  My learning has changed from attending meetings and trainings, reading books and articles written by a handful of tried and true experts in the field of education, to attending webinars, reading blogs, websites and comments of experts and practitioners from all over the world. Some are educators, some are not.  While I still value my face-to-face meetings with colleagues, my learning has expanded to include a greater community, and I depend on this new personal learning network as I learn, share, and do my job.  My thinking has been challenged in ways that I never thought possible.  I have become much more of an independent learner which in turn has motivated me to stretch and learn more.  As I think of the IACoPi work, and the blended learning courses the teams are creating, I imagine students experiencing similar changes as we move away from the traditional classroom, instruction and learning.  How exciting!

As we prepare kids for their future, we know that the traditional fact-based, rote curriculum of the past won’t cut it.  We need the work of the Iowa Communities of Practice and Innovation which is project-based, research-driven, and taps into the digital lifestyle our kids are growing up with.  As I follow the Twitter hashtag #IACoPi, and read the Better Together Iowa blog entries, I’m excited about what is happening in the content teams.  The curriculum is incorporating higher order thinking skills, technology, multimedia, and the multiple literacies of the 21st century. The teacher teams are striving to create the kind of online experiences we want for all students.  And while some may still worry, “What about the facts and the basics?” the teams are not forsaking foundational information, but instead are creating experiences that enable students to gain that information through investigation and relevant activities.

These blended learning opportunities will create a new learning environment that will enable all students to be engaged, motivated, independent learners.  Students will still have face to face contact and instructor support, but also experience expanded learning outside the classroom.  It’s the best of both worlds and is what we need to prepare our students to be “Happy, motivated, college-bound, work-ready and prepped for success.”

The IACoPi teams are truly pioneers in the field of online learning.  I want to thank Nancy Movall, the IACoPi leaders, and Iowa teachers who are creating the blended courses.  Together you are reshaping what it means to teach and learn in Iowa.

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Better Together: An Example Explained

Jen Sigrist, director of teaching and learning at Van Meter Schools and former social studies teacher, is leading the social studies team to create blended curriculum as part of the Iowa Communities of Practice and Innovation (IACoPi) pilot to scale project.

Social studies is an important part of the 21st Century learner’s education. It is the one content area where students can make sense of and connect all the other fields of learning into a common frame of reference. It’s the doorway to becoming a responsible, global citizen. 21st Century learners are more connected with the world than ever before, and it takes an understanding of social sciences as a whole to participate in this environment -Jen Sigrist

The social studies team is truly working together to accomplish the unprecedented work of Iowa Communities of Practice and Innovation (IACoPi). The team consists of classroom teachers, special education literacy specialists, project-based learning experts, and district level administration. The collaborative dynamic is working, and Sigrist explains the group was cohesive from the beginning. “We are challenging each other’s thinking. We are connected by our drive. We are passionate about improving social studies education, so it is meaningful for our kids.”

To support the improvement, many IACoPi social studies educators attended the Buck Institute on Project Based Learning professional development. The professional development supports the mission of the social studies group, the promise of Iowa Core/Common Core, and the goal of IACoPi. Project Based Learning invites students into the content making the learning and assessment relevant, meaningful, and authentic. As educators across the state continue to address curriculum, the need for a paradigm shift becomes evident, and the need for educator collaboration becomes necessary. Iowa Communities of Practice and Innovation brought passionate professionals together, and amazing work is being accomplished.

Housed on a Moodle server, the social studies curriculum is impressive. Since its birth, the project has evolved, and the metamorphosis was inspired by a need to create essential content. The blended curriculum is aligned with universal constructs. “When you think of the stereotypical social studies education, it is irrelevant. Relevant is global citizenship, empathy, information literacy, civic activism, and civic responsibility.”

One of the many collaborative gems is the global citizenship project. Sigrist and the team knew to be effective, the curriculum would have to center around current issues. The blended ecurriculum is designed to be malleable. The community will utilize the adaptable work to meet the needs of students and their respective districts. The blended learning format is not about covering the content, but about students uncovering.

There is no doubt, teachers working together will benefit Iowa students. The enthusiasm is evident in the work, and the relentless journey to improve is impressive. Jen Sigrist believes in the curriculum and the quest, “I am proud of the way we are working together, proud of the type of unit, and I am sold it is the type of thing kids need, but teachers have not been given.”

Educators involved in the Iowa Communities of Practice Innovation blended ecurriculum mission will meet the end of July to further develop and examine curriculum.

#IACoPi feature post authored by Erin Olson (@eolsonteacher)

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Making it Real

Guest Blogger-Marcia Powell (@marciarpowell) is a high school science teacher at West Delaware.

Today, my family went to the club tour for our 4H group.  It’s a chance for all the kids to showcase what they are bringing to fair, including their goat project, their woodworking efforts, or that photograph of which they are so proud.  And as we sat around at the picnic at the end, I couldn’t help but think about the parallels between this and project based learning that I hope to put into my science classroom.

First of all, the kids had a broad area to explore, and a project was their summative experience. The roadmap to success was filled with learning the nitty-gritty details necessary to be successful.  There was reading, writing, thinking, designing, and planning to be done, not as an isolated skill, but with the goal of helping the student be successful in the project.  Technology was integrated naturally, as it was needed for research, reflection, and generating the reports and posters that went along with the topic at hand.

Science should be like that, and it’s dismaying that it isn’t.  It’s not, as a 3rd grade student told me today,  “a way to prove what we already know.”  It’s a chance to invent something new.  And that inventing of new understandings is exactly what we hope will happen for our students.

So this year, I will use the end product I want my students to produce as the focal point of my planning.   I will examine my standards and see if they match that product, and if they don’t, I will align them.  My benchmarks need to become the roadmap I need to use to increase understanding for that summative product, rather than the final product being a fun project at the end.

A simple shift is all that matters, and the shift must come from the perspective of what the teacher and his/her class believe is important.  For me, the biggest change in this is finding ways to use a public audience to make the learning real and relevant.  Instead of just planning a bridge, I may ask students to site a new bridge that I know needs building in my city.  I may ask an architect to come in, rather than making the mistake of telling kids that they can be an architect ‘when they grow up.’

Project-based learning is a natural way to increase the rigor and the relevance in our curricula.  Combining the possibilities of project-based learning with the reflection that is critical in blended learning can fundamentally shift our notions of content and significant inquiry. I’m looking forward to the challenge.  Can you join me?

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