Thursday, December 31, 2015

Comfort Zone - Reflections from 2015

Like many people this time of year, I brainstorm New Year resolutions with the best of intentions. Write more. Organize more. Be more. Surely writing my resolutions makes them materialize from wishes to wins, right?

As I dove feet-first into 2015 and settled into the familiar rhythm of work, family, and life, I quickly forgot what I had written on my post-it note above (then lost track of the note altogether, sorry Tony Borash!) It faded to the backdrop like a setting sun across the sea. The brightness gleamed, glistened, then simply disappeared below the horizon, lost in the darkness of night. I got caught up in the mundane tasks of going and doing and went about my way, week after week, month after month.

From January 1 to December 31, I worked, I played, I cooked, and I slept, but none of those tasks were written on my list. Another year had passed and I was right back where I started.

Or was I?

My friend, Justin Birckbichler, challenged me to reflect on 2015 as he shared his insights earlier in the week; I was also challenged by my #compelledtribe bloggers Craig Vroom and Jennifer Hogan to do the same. It got me thinking... what exactly did I accomplish in 2015? Was the year as static as my memory recalled?

I decided to make a list of the things I did that pushed me out of my comfort zone. Whoa - how quickly my pen filled up the page! Even as I jotted down the memories, I could feel my heart race, the excitement of learning something new fresh in my mind once again. Looking back now, I'm in awe that only one year has passed - it's been one for the books!


At the start of 2015, I was relatively new to the world of screencasting, or making videos using your voice and computer screen. I was contacted by Atomic Learning to create a video series about blogging random acts of kindness which included 32 screencasts. It was the first time I worked with project managers, producers, and audio technicians, and the learning curve was steep. I became an expert at connecting a pop filter to my microphone, adjusting settings in Camtasia, and remembering to say "STOP" and pause four seconds every time I messed up my recording so I could easily find the sections to splice in the final edit. When they say "failure is an opportunity to learn," let's just say I learned a LOT!

How did this experience change me? I took what I learned and started making instructional videos for the teachers in my school and shared them on a wiki, on YouTube, on EdPuzzle, and on Edmodo Spotlight. I created more than 40 videos that students watched in center rotations, at home, and part of flipped classrooms. By uploading my screencasts to several websites and posting links globally through Twitter, I was able to share my resources with the world!

I also recorded teachers reading chapters from our school-wide book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and posted the links to a Weebly website I created so families could listen to the recordings together. It was a noteworthy way to engage students in reading and listening as well as build connections with school and home.

I even collaborated on a Genius Hour project with a first grade teacher and helped her students transform their "I wonder..." questions into multi-media Pixie projects, complete with audio recordings.


In 2014, I thought I had stepped as far as possible outside my comfort zone by presenting an Ignite Talk at the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Conference in Atlanta, GA. It was, without exception, the most challenging presentation I had ever given: Engage and inspire an audience of hundreds in only five minutes with twenty slides advancing every fifteen seconds. Doesn't get much crazier than that!

Then in 2015, I was asked to be a Keynote Speaker for an Early Childhood Education conference. I knew right then that my experience at ISTE was merely practice for this unique opportunity. I shared a 45 minute presentation emphasizing Connections That Count, then provided a breakout session focused on technology for young learners. While this conference was much smaller than ISTE, every single participant there had their eyes and ears on me, to learn and be inspired by my thoughts, my passions, my experience. I can now check "Keynote Speaker" off my bucket list!

In August, I found my stride as I presented two Teach Like a Pirate sessions for district leaders, sharing Dave Burgess' passion and purpose for effective teaching. The sessions were so well-received, administrators were literally begging for books before they walked out the door! Several principals chose #tlap as their school-wide theme for the 2015-16 school year. Such fun!

In the fall, I presented on behalf of the Virginia Department of Education at two separate SOL Institutes across the state, sharing my experiences with formative assessment and digital writing. With only four presenters for elementary teachers (and four leading secondary), it was an intimate setting with 50-100 attendees each session. For those seeking resources, they will hopefully be posted soon!

To round out 2015, I was asked to serve as a Digital Content Committee Co-chair for the Virginia Society for Technology in Education (VSTE) Conference in December. That opportunity showed me first-hand the behind-the-scenes view of volunteer prep-work, room setup, and a thousand other things that go into making a successful conference. Over the course of five days, I emceed morning announcements with green screen recordings (another first!) with the talented Stephen Orr, created scrolling presentations, pushed out Twitter tweets, and helped my fellow committee members, making connections and building relationships every step of the way. It was truly a life-changing experience!


Starting the 2015-16 school year, our district joined with thousands around the world to use Google Apps for Education (GAFE). This was probably THE most exciting change to our district we've had in years! My ITRT team spent April-June self-training on Google products, each focusing on something different so that as a team we could cover the basics for professional development sessions for teachers in the summer and fall.

I decided to create a professional blog (which you are currently reading!) and set a goal of two posts per month. My main purpose was to share stories of what I do in my job as an instructional technologist as well as delve into other topics of interest related to teaching and learning. From August to December, I've published 13 blog posts with more than 1500 views. Not too shabby for a brand new blog!

I chose Blogger as my platform so that I could develop training materials for other educators and district leaders interested in sharing stories of their own. I also learned the nuances of Google Docs and the basics of Google Classroom so I could support student bloggers as well. Currently at my elementary school, we have 10 classrooms exploring digital writing with hopefully more to come!

I still continue blogging about random acts of kindness on my Wordpress site with 34 new stories for 2015 (Not counting the 12 stories I still have in draft!) I had more than 5,500 views from the U.S. and another 718 views from 73 other countries. Talk about having a global impact! Wow! If you are searching for inspiration about kindness for others, you may want to read a few of my favorite posts from 2015: Secret Sisters, RAK Mob at Rosa's, and Yellow Brick Road.

For those interested in cooking, I also added 25 new digital recipe guides to Snapguide, bringing my grand total to 209 guides in all. That's a lot of culinary joy right there!


Another area I delved into for 2015 was creating and managing websites. This was a completely new area for me that I knew NOTHING about at the start of 2015! In May, I started dabbling with Google Sites and by August I had two sites up and running. I volunteered to create and manage the Chorus Booster's website for my daughter's school and took the lead for creating our ITRT team's website (which is definitely a work in progress!) Both projects had bumps in the road, lots of trial and error, but now that the framework is in place, I can learn and grow even more to improve both sites in the coming year.


A large aspect of my role as an instructional technologist is to provide on-demand professional development opportunities for teachers and administrators in my district. I'm always a bit humbled when people say, "You know everything about..." Oh goodness, if you only realized the fallacy of that statement! In this job, you never know everything! Not even close! Technology is adapting at such a rapid rate; at the point you feel you have mastered a concept or tool, something new is already coming down the pike.

I am not an expert, merely a novice willing to discover.

Over the course of 2015, I have engaged thousands of teachers in professional development opportunities through one-to-one training, small group sessions, district-wide PD, local and state-wide conferences and even self-paced online courses. I completed requirements to retain my Graphite Certified Educator status and served as an Edmodo Spotlight Moderator this past fall. I am a lifelong learner, gleaning most of my personal and professional understanding through social media connections - reading blogs and engaging with my Personal Learning Network (PLN) on Twitter. After all, everyone I meet knows something I don't!

So what DIDN'T I do in 2015?

I didn't write as much as I wanted to; I found it difficult to carve out time for me. My story still swells in my soul, like an ocean wave building in a distance, but I have yet to take that first step towards publication. The dream is still a dream for 2016.

I didn't get to the gym on a regular basis and my muscles now scream when I do burpees and squats. Despite the positive encouragement from Toni, Kate, and Vicki, I just couldn't find a way to be at two places at the same time. I hope with a Fitbit on my arm and few changes to my schedule I can be more consistent in the new year.

I didn't keep my house clean each week; many days my living room floor was a landmine of toys and Legos scattered from east to west. While I have dreams of living in luxury, this Momma realizes play is the highest form of research and making memories trumps cleaning every time.

I didn't make a vacation scrapbook; my photos are "dumped" but nowhere close to being organized or printed. In fact, I don't even know what the folder names mean, but at least with my new phone they are in numerical order (thanks, Apple!)

What else didn't I do?

I didn't regret.

I went to work each day with a smile on my face and a happy heart. I did my best to help teachers in my building, to ease frustrations with learning "one more thing" and to support student learning in the best ways that I could.

I listened to students talk about their weekends, their favorite books, their hobbies. I made a point to thank the door holder and compliment the quiet child who was sometimes overlooked. I smiled. I hugged. I got hugged back.

I played games with my children at home. I read books. I took time to appreciate the small things in life that made me happy. I went back and visited my colleges and shared coffee and dinner with friends. (I even made some new friends in the process!)

I spent precious time with family and discovered "bonus time" is a glorious thing.

I lived. I loved. I dreamed and I explored. I made hopeful wishes for a brighter future, then went out in the world to make it happen. I actually did more than my three resolutions listed on that post-it note, none of which could have even been imagined on January 1, 2015.

And thanks to Dean Shareski, I even discovered my New Years Resolution for 2016, summarized in one three-letter word:

Dream big and follow your heart. Know that you are making a difference in the life of someone else, even when you think you are doing nothing more than going through the motions. Take a moment to stop and reflect, looking back on all you've accomplished. You might be surprised to see the impact you've had on others.

Now go out and make 2016 the best year yet!

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Hour of Code

Last week I had the pleasure of introducing the wonderful world of coding to several fifth grade classes. Oh, the JOY! If coding is something new to you, jump right now to and you can experience the exact same lesson I shared with my students!

Coding is not a new concept, but one that is quickly gaining global exposure as a much needed skill for hundreds of industries looking to hire smart, creative, self-directed learners. As educators, we often say, "We need to prepare our students for success in an ever-changing world"; coding activities do just that! The website is excellent for taking learners of all ages from beginner to expert with easy-to-understand directions and videos from leading specialists in the field. The Star Wars module is fantastic with actual movie producers illustrating how computer animation is created from JavaScript code.

In a matter of minutes, students quickly discover that they can use basic prompts to program a computer animated figure to move and collect items, advancing to the next coding challenge. After completing 12 or more activities, students are rewarded with an open space to create their own coding adventure, complete with self-selected rules, scores, characters and more. This is where the REAL fun begins!

Pondering the next layer of code.

Great collaboration!
An example of free-choice code.

Half the fun is sharing your success with a friend!
"Mrs. Letter! Come here! You've got to play the game I made!" Within minutes students were sharing their headsets with me, eager to showcase all they had learned. How could you resist such an opportunity to engage with your students during a lesson?

"You've got to see this!"
"Whoa! Look what happened!

Another in-depth free-choice coding game.

"I did it! I made it through the game!"

Best of all, I came home to discover my 12 year old son deep in concentration doing his OWN coding activity, inspired by the Hour of Code he completed in middle school. Check out this video to see what he created (a computer graphic of his face, made from blocks!)

If you don't think your students are creative - spend an hour with me in our laptop lab. You will leave inspired by just how awesome and amazing our students can be! The Hour of Code will continue all this week as more students discover the joy of computer programming. We are bringing JOY to learning, one block of code at a time!

Ms. Miller joins in the coding fun.

We completed an Hour of Code!

For more information about coding, search #HourOfCode on Twitter or visit

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Trekkers Skype

If you are a fourth grade teacher in Virginia, you have probably heard of the Virginia Trekkers. This group of four ITRTs from Henrico County Public Schools traveled across the state, creating podcasts along the way, to showcase the various people, places, and things mentioned in the state curriculum guide. They added their videos to a website and voila! Their personal journeys became shared resources for a global audience.

If you are a fourth grade student, however, the Virginia Trekkers are like a magical troupe of explorers, discovering hidden secrets as they traverse from mountain to shoreline. Just the mention of "The Trekkers" brings smiles, applause, and excitement.

Last Friday, our fourth grade students had the opportunity to share a conversation with two of the Trekkers via Skype. Oh, the anticipation! Students had written questions in their journals, ready to be answered, and waited all day for their opportunity to interact with a "REAL" Trekker.

Since the regular classroom was too small to hold 60+ students, we held the Skype event in the library. We got all the technical hardware connected and did a test run before students entered the room to make sure everything worked correctly. There were no glitches, so everything seemed to be going as planned. 

The students entered the library, their excitement like an electrical current zipping through the air. After a few minutes we got everyone settled in their seats, on the floor, even standing in the back. We dialed the Trekkers through Skype, waited for them to answer the call, and then...


Their faces showed on the screen, big smiles and hand waves, but there was no sound. 

Everyone looked at me, the ITRT, who surely could fix this issue. I checked the microphone and speakers but lights were on and operating; the volume button on the computer showed no issues with the mute off. We disconnected the call, tried again, and this time it worked, but their voices were too soft to hear for the 60+ students in the room. We scrambled to find another set of speakers (mine were apparently too weak) and in the process of detaching and reattaching, we lost the volume again.

Has this ever happened to you? Where you plan a lesson involving technology and then lo and behold something goes wrong and panic rises within you like an ocean wave, waiting to crash, drowning you AND your lesson? You are not alone! I think there is an ironic moment of satisfaction for a classroom teacher to observe a tech integrator in the same boat as well - we are in good company, trying to fix a problem that is sometimes out of our control!

After a little more scrambling, we finally reached a crossroads, realizing we couldn't get the microphone and speakers to work correctly at the same time. It was in this moment we made the choice: it was more important for our students to hear the Trekkers than for them to hear us.

Within seconds a marker and paper appeared and we organized students in a line to write their questions. Students then held their handwritten questions in front of the webcam for the Trekkers to read and answer for the group. Success!

Despite our technical difficulties, we learned a lot about the Trekkers - what they enjoy doing in their spare time, their favorite places to visit even their favorite flavors of ice cream! It was a wonderful experience to "meet" the Trekkers live and discover new things about them.

We are thankful they took time out of their busy schedules to chat with us! 

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Shape Hunt

This week Ms. Houston's first grade class has been learning about shapes in the world around them. On Monday, the students learned how to take photos on an iPad, then went around the room capturing the flat shapes hidden in everyday objects. They recorded their insights on paper, analyzing each shape for the number of sides and vertices.

"See? There's a triangle right there!"

Recording Sheet

Identifying Sides and Vertices from Photographs

On Tuesday, students imported their photos into the Pic Collage app, adding labels and personalizing fonts. They even added a smiley-face sticker for a job well done! When finished, students exported a screenshot of their collage to the iPad's Camera Roll which was later transferred through the Dropbox app into a Google Slides presentation. We kept the background color simple and light, choosing to focus on the content of our collage, not the extra special effects.

Resizing Photos

Adding Text

Almost done!

We had such a fun time identifying shapes and their attributes - who knew we could find so many shapes in one classroom? To see all the student collages, click here!

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Digital Citizenship

How do we keep students safe online? This is a common question I hear from teachers and parents alike. As our district moves towards using digital tools for student work, there is a rumbling of concern with how and why these tools are being used when "we learned just fine with paper and pencil back in the day."

The reality is this: we live in a digital world. Most children are exposed to digital tools years before they walk through a kindergarten door. (I know this to be true, because I am constantly correcting children that swipe across a laptop screen with their finger.) We want to expose our students to the tools that are available and keep them safe in the process, but we are caught in the cross-hairs of fear and naivete. There are many myths about online student privacy, several of which I addressed in my blog article for ISTE in 2014. How can we meet in the middle to raise our children to live in this new, digital world?

By teaching them.

As a technology integrator (ITRT), much of my job centers around providing professional development for teachers and district leaders, empowering them with tools and knowledge that can enhance their purpose of instructing and leading students. One way we do this is a form of OJT ("on the job traing") where we teach a classroom lesson with the teacher/administrator observing, modeling good teaching strategies with a healthy heap of technology integration thrown in the mix.

There are 6 elementary ITRTs on my team (including me) supporting the needs 15 schools. This can get a little crazy sometimes for the ITRTs who have to split their time between 2-3 schools, but I'm fortunate enough to be assigned to only one school (ironically, the school my husband attended as a child, but that's a blog post for another day!) Last year, our team launched a Digital Citizenship curriculum for fifth grade students that pulled in the collaborative efforts of ITRTs, Librarians, Counselors, and DARE Officers. These nine lessons are taught throughout the school year as an effort to guide our students in the "best practices" of using the internet and digital devices in a responsible way.

With the help of resources from Common Sense Media, we share open conversations with students about how they are currently using technology in their personal world and expectations for school-based use. We answer questions like "What do I do if I see something I shouldn't see?" or "What is cyberbullying?" We take the time to share our knowledge in hopes that students are empowered to do the right thing when working and playing online.

This week's lesson centered around privacy: understanding the difference between personal and private information and what information is OK to share online. We discussed identity theft and how young people are often victims of this crime because they have a clean credit history with little to no digital footprint to be tracked.

These are important conversations to have with children.

The photo below illustrates one part of this lesson, where we use colored paper to represent information shared from one person to the next. Students quickly see how one bit of information shared online can spread from person to person, suddenly becoming viral. 

It's always a highlight to my day when I can work directly with students, especially with instruction that directly relates to their world. We're making a difference with our students, one lesson at a time!  

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Google Forms for Class Elections

Last week our school held their annual SCA Elections and for the first time ever, our students completed an electronic ballot! By creating a simple survey in Google Forms, all students in grades 3, 4, and 5 participated in the democratic process of electing school leaders in a mock election that simulated a real polling center,

The MES Polling Center was open for a three hour window. Each class signed off as they entered the polls, with one class voting at a time. After a brief explanation of how to complete the electronic ballot, students then leaned over into their cubicle to select their choices. (We didn't allow them to sit in chairs because we don't get to sit when we vote!)

We saw our greatest traffic close to lunch time, much like a real polling center. Occasionally, classes would have to wait outside the door for an opportunity to enter, but we found it was a teachable moment of how to practice patience. For many students, this was the first time they had experienced going to the polls!

All the students were very respectful throughout the voting process and many left with smiles and thank you's for a "fun" time voting. Best of all, the results were instantly available with colorful graphs to show!

A special thanks to my ITRT teammate, Fay, who not only showed me how to get this up and running in my school, but invited me to participate in her school's election, too!