Sunday, March 19, 2017

My Old Friend...

Tomorrow I have to say goodbye to an old friend.

This friend has helped me to stretch.  This friend has connected me with opportunities to serve the needs of others.  This friend has made me laugh. This friend has brought me joy and introduced me to more new friends than I could have ever made on my own.  This friend has made me a better teacher. This friend has made me a stronger person.  This friend has inspired me to keep going on days when I felt stuck.  This friend has changed my thinking.  This friend has taught me to question and to grow even when I'm uncomfortable doing so.

This friend has shown me the limitless possibilities that await my students, my fellow educators, and me.  This friend has expanded my story more than I ever could have imagined. 

At this point you're probably thinking, "Just introduce us already, Ellen."

No, it's not a Peanuts character...

Yes, my PLN friends, I am talking about my school iPad2.  

This tool has connected me with more opportunities to grow than I could possibly list let alone describe in detail in one blog post.  When I reflect on those of you who I have had the privilege to meet in person, consider this post a long distance bear hug.  Those of you I have yet to meet, consider this post a long distance bear hug as well.  

Because of you, my students have seen more of the world and met students, teachers, authors, and experts they never would have otherwise.  Because of you future possibilities are bigger than this teacher ever imagined before.

I can't help wondering how my old friend will change the lives of the students it goes to next.  How will my old friend expand their stories?  How will my old friend help them to grow, explore, leap, and dream?  

In the event you've been wondering about my students and their efforts to help the Kula Project, let me give you a quick update.  My first graders are in the process of writing letters to their new friends in Rwanda. Each week when I least expect it, my students hand me dollars from their piggy banks, coins from their lunch money, and portions of their allowances.  They are honoring each other's random acts of kindness by giving to their new friends across the ocean. In the midst of their struggle with Spring Fever (or what I like to call my March Madness), they are still remembering to help. They humble me daily.  Their generosity inspires me to give more.

For me, technology's greatest asset is its ability to connect me with innovative educators around the world. Who brings light to your life through the window of technology?  

As always, thanks so much for reading.


Saturday, March 11, 2017

Why I Tweet...

I've been thinking a great deal about my story lately.  Who has impacted my life?  Who has encouraged me to keep dreaming and growing?  Who has seen me through my toughest losses?  Who continues to push me to be the best version of me?  One person that has been in every chapter of my life is my friend Lori.

Lori and I met when I was 5, and she was 4.  We lived in the same neighborhood of townhouses.  We attended the same ballet class, and we were in Brownies together.  We spent our days creating stories with our dolls, and playing baseball with our brothers.  We explored the woods that were close to our neighborhood, and we put on shows for our friends.  Our childhood was full of adventures.  

When Lori's family moved away, we wrote letters to each other.  We visited each other when possible through high school.  We continued to correspond through college and graduate school.  We shared stories of our adventures.  I was unable to attend Lori's wedding so I first met her husband and daughters through her letters. Distance didn't prevent us from listening to each other.  I looked forward to Lori's Christmas card every year.  Even though we weren't able to visit in person, we continued to encourage and support each other.  We continued to play a part in each other's lives.

In April 2007, Lori and I had the opportunity to reconnect.  Our reunion was one of the most wonderful moments of my life.  Neither one of us could believe that twenty years had passed since we had seen each other.   Because of our correspondence, it felt like we had only been apart for a few months.  Lori's friendship has taught me again and again the importance of written communication.  Lori was one of the first people to show me how words connect us.  Our stories are not limited by time and distance.  Lori taught me how important it is to speak from and to listen with my whole heart.

I found myself thinking a lot about my friendship with Lori while I was at NCTIES last week.  The connections I have made with other educators through tweeting have created endless possibilities for my teaching.  Tweeting has become my current method of letter writing.  Attending NCTIES would give me the chance to see some of those educators in person.  

For two days I had the privilege of learning from other North Carolina educators.  As I trekked through the Raleigh Convention Center attending sessions, connecting with teachers, and looking for the best places to get a snack, I had lots of time to reflect.  I had the opportunity to hear a lot of stories from other teachers.  I realized that technology has expanded our ability to positively impact each other.  Technology has expanded the realm of possibility for our students.  I thought of the many educators who I have never met in person whose support I feel daily.  The more educators I have the courage to share my story with the more I grow.  The more we all share our stories, the more we discover points and experiences that connect us.  We find that our struggles and dreams are similar.  We are reminded that we are not alone in our efforts to make education better for all students. 

One of the sessions I attended was Go Global! Amy Judd and Cheryl McCrorey presented strategies for connecting students globally.  While I was in this session I was surprised to find the class we were Mystery Skyping with was taught by Elisa Waingort.  I had communicated with Elisa on numerous occasions through Twitter.  Seeing her students enjoying the Mystery Number Skype was a highlight of the conference for me.  It reiterated for me the value and importance of connecting for my students.

Another highlight of the conference for me was having dinner with Elizabeth Chapman.  Elizabeth and I first connected through Twitter, but we met in person for the first time at NCTIES Elizabeth and I teach in the same state, but we probably never would have crossed paths if it weren't for the power of our Professional Learning Network.  Meeting Elizabeth was like reconnecting with an old friend.  Having the opportunity to hear more of her story of how she became an educator was a privilege.  

Before our dinner, Elizabeth and I met keynote speaker George Couros.  I was not surprised to discover how funny and approachable he is in person.  His genuine commitment to empowering  educators resonated with me. The other teachers from my school discovered the same thing when they ran into him later that evening.  Thanks to George, I think they have a better picture of why Twitter is so important to me.  His message showed them firsthand how being a connected educator can greatly improve your teaching.  I bought his book The Innovator's Mindset on the way to dinner.  George Couros made the point several times during his conference presentations that sometimes you just need to watch a cat video.  Making time to rest and to laugh makes you more productive.  Truth be told, I haven't made time to rest lately.  I needed a new voice to remind me again of the importance of balance in my life.  I needed to hear his message of encouragement.  The connections we make with other educators are more valuable than any other resource.

I think it was during his keynote that George Couros mentioned that because of technology, we are always able to find other educators to help us grow and improve our teaching.  We are no longer isolated unless we chose to be.  This point really resonated with me.  Because of my PLN, my possibilities for growth are infinite.

The session that stuck with me the most was presented by another friend from Twitter.  I first met Mandy Casto through a morning educator spark chat called #bfc530.  Mandy and her colleague Kim Harris presented Teaching Outside the Digital Toolbox.  I'm excited to explore the tools they presented and see which ones will work best for my students.

NCTIES also presented me with the opportunity to learn with other teachers from my school and another school in our diocese.  Their excitement, enthusiasm, and humor made learning more fun. I also had the opportunity to reconnect with my friend Patty Fischer who is just about to finish her first year as an assistant principal.  Talking with her about goals for my students and for my future was thought provoking and encouraging.  I told her it was like coming home.  We don't work in the same school anymore, but we are still cheering each other on in our educational journeys.

What was the most important thing I learned while at NCTIES?  Just like Lori, my educator friends are now treasured sources of support and guidance for me.  I need to make time for connecting with them, and I can't forget the importance of balance in my life.  I can't imagine my life without Lori, and I can't imagine my life without my PLN.  

As I was processing all that I learned and experienced last week, I received an unexpected text from Lori.  She had a last minute opportunity to go on a research trip to Egypt.  When I woke up that morning, I never expected to see a photo of my friend in front of Egyptian pyramids.  Talk about adventures!  What adventure is next for me?  Time to explore the possibilities...

Monday, January 16, 2017

How Do I Let My Light Shine?

Tomorrow I will be teaching my first graders about Martin Luther King Jr., and asking them what their dreams are.  

As I think about teaching this lesson tomorrow, I'm reflecting on a dream of mine.  I started dreaming of this last summer when I had the opportunity to meet more of my global Twitter teacher contacts at ISTE.  I have been hesitant to put this dream in writing because I don't know where to start in figuring out if it's possible or not.

Today I've decided to take a leap, and ask some questions, and see what feedback I receive.  I am hoping for some light, some direction, and good counsel.

I would like to collaborate in person with teachers I've connected with in other countries.  I realize that this will be a major financial challenge, and it could take me two years to save.  I need to connect with administrators in these schools to see if they would be open to me visiting their schools and working with their teachers.

What I would like to learn is how teachers in other countries personalize learning for their students.  I would also like to see what service projects students in other countries are working on and share with them my students' experience with service.  Long term I hope that my travels would further connect my own students with more classes globally.

I've grown so much from the support of the educators in my PLN.  When I've had the opportunity to meet these educators face to face it has strengthened our connections.  I'm dreaming of meeting their students and having conversations that extend beyond a convention center lobby or conference session.

So, PLN, I'm asking for your thoughts, feedback, and suggestions.  Please direct message me on Twitter if you have any ideas on how to help me make this dream a reality.

I'm so grateful for your wisdom, humor, and daily support of me and my students.  Thanks for shining your light on my calling.


Sunday, January 15, 2017

What Print Will Your Paws Make?

"What print will your paws make?" It's been our PTO's slogan for the last two years.  (Our school mascot is a wildcat.). Lately I have heard it in my head as often as I hear my first graders say my name.  Those of you who teach K-2 can appreciate how many times that is:)

Since writing my last post I've been thinking a lot about various people who have impacted me for life.  I was reminded of my friend Tese's impact on my life today when I was talking to my brother. As I mentioned in my last post, Tese passed away far too early from leukemia. My brother lost one of his best friends from high school this weekend to liver disease. Listening to my brother process the loss of his friend and reflecting on how much I still miss Tese, I am reminded that there are no guarantees.  We only have today.

"What kind of print am I making on the people I meet today?"

I struggle with answering that question sometimes.  When I'm facing the every day challenges teaching presents, I wonder if I'm doing everything possible to make a positive print on my students. I wonder if I've consistently encouraged my students to shine their light, to help others, to empathize, and to make a lasting positive impression on the people they meet.

For the past two school years my first graders were blessed with the opportunity to help our @chattothefuture friends in Uganda.  Skyping with the children in Kampala impacted all our hearts. When I realized that we weren't going to be able to help those children because the organization was going through some transitions and didn't need our assistance, I knew I wanted to find another way to continue this kind of service project with my first graders.

This past week I spoke with Lindsay Pigford from the Kula Project.  My students will be helping families in Rwanda.  I have been following the work of the Kula Project for a couple years now, and I'm excited to see what connections and growth will come from introducing my first graders to this organization.

This video gives you a glimpse into the Kula Project's mission.

If you are trying to find service opportunities for your students I encourage you to check out  I'll keep you posted on my first graders' efforts.

As always, thanks so much for reading.


Friday, December 30, 2016

Toothpaste, Tortoises, and Hares

Boys and girls please join me on the carpet.  My 26 students start to ruffle their way to morning meeting.  Some students sprint to guarantee a front row seat.  Others take their time sauntering to join us.  "My class has its share of tortoises and hares," I think to myself.

"Who would like to help me with our lesson this morning?" Instantly 26 synchronized hands pop up.   I scan the crowd for just the right volunteer. 

"Johnny, would you please come up to the front?"  Johnny has been crawling in the back area of the carpet I refer to as South Carolina.  My first graders find this humorous since our school is in North Carolina.  

"Ok," Johnny replies with some hesitation.  As Johnny makes his way through the maze of his classmates to join me at the front, I pull my lesson materials out of my morning meeting bag.  My supplies consist of a paper plate and a small tube of toothpaste.  

"Johnny, please open the toothpaste for me." Johnny opens the toothpaste as his classmates are still struggling to find a  comfortable seat on the carpet.  "Now, Johnny, I need you to squeeze all the toothpaste out onto the plate." 

"Are you sure about that, Miss Deem?" Johnny asks.  "Yes, I'm  sure,"  I reply with a grin.  Johnny sees my smile and starts to squeeze.  As Johnny coats the paper plate with toothpaste the other children chuckle to each other as they watch eager to see what becomes of Johnny's toothpaste pile.   When Johnny finishes squeezing the toothpaste he hands the plate back to me.  "Okay, Johnny, now I need you to put the toothpaste back in the tube."

"But I can't, Miss Deem."

"Would you like to ask a friend to help you?" I ask.

As you might have guessed, Johnny wasn't able to get the toothpaste back in the tube or to get any of the kids to help him do it.

"Thank you, Johnny so much for your help.  Please have a seat."

"Boys and girls, our words are like this toothpaste.  Once we speak them, we can't take them back. If we don't choose our words carefully, they make a mess that can't be cleaned up."

"Miss Deem, how do we clean up our mess?" Susan asks.

I'm sure many of you have used this demonstration in your classes before.  I don't recall who first shared this idea with me.  What haunts me about this lesson is Susan's question.  How do we clean up our mess when we speak without thinking?

I have a friend who taught me how to clean up my mess.  

He taught me to always choose kindness even when confronted with meanness.  He taught me to turn towards Christ when I'm lost.  He taught me that family and friends are the best gifts we receive.  
He taught me that C.S. Lewis was right in the The Four Loves. Lewis writes that there are four kinds of love that make life meaningful.  Christmas commercials would have you believe that romance is the most important kind of love.  Lewis writes about romance, but he also goes into great detail about the value of affection, friendship, and charity.  My friend is kindness in action.  He is happiest when he is serving others.

My friend's generous spirit and gift for hospitality have uplifted me on more occasions than I can count. He helped me through my first Christmas without my mom.  He has helped me though personal and professional challenges.  He taught me to make every day an occasion to celebrate.   He taught me to love with my whole heart.  He taught me "a friend loves at all times." Proverbs 17:17

I am filled with gratitude for my friend's example.  I am blessed to know and love him.  Most people know him as Fr. Christopher Senk.  To me he will always be Padre.  Thank you, Padre, for being you:)

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Pay Attention, Ellen

I've been thinking a lot about paying attention lately.  

Every year I look forward to Advent.  When radio stations started playing Christmas music the day after Halloween, I decided to embrace it and see it as a reason to have a longer Advent.  Every year I look forward to sharing my childhood memories of Advent with my students.  I look forward to seeing the singing Salvation Army guy at our local grocery store.  His name is John, and he mans his red bucket every year with radiance.  He greets everyone with Christmas carols and blessings for a Merry Christmas.  His commitment to helping others has made a lasting impression on me.  Every time I go to the store I wonder how many people's day he has brightened that day.  He has become part of my Advent.  Without knowing it, he is helping me prepare my heart for Jesus.

This year Advent has me reflecting a lot on past Christmases, too. 

Recently I was talking with a friend who was up early waiting in line to obtain that special Christmas gift for her child.  I told her that one of my favorite Christmas memories was of the year I was in first grade. My parents and I made ceramic ornaments together.  I'm not sure why my brother didn't make any.  (Maybe it was because he was four years old at the time.) :)  I remember loving the activity and cherishing the extra time I spent creating with my family.  What I can't tell you is what Santa brought me that year.  What I didn't know at the time was how much my parents were struggling financially.  My Mom had planned the ornament activity to add some magic to our Christmas.  I'm certain she and my dad sacrificed a lot of financial resources to make my brother's and my Christmas wishes come true that year.  What I remember most is the invaluable time I spent with my family.

I also remember our first Christmas without my Dad.  I know it took great courage for my Mom to prepare for that holiday.  She gave me a glass bookcase to house my collector dolls.  My Dad had always wanted to make me one, but his cancer prevented him from making a display case for me.  Every time I've looked at my dolls in that case since, I am reminded of how much my parents loved me.  I'm reminded of how my father fought cancer bravely and without complaining for 3 years.  I'm reminded of how my Mom worked full days and spent her evenings at the hospital with my Dad.  I'm reminded that the best gifts I've received in my life aren't housed in that glass bookcase.

About a month ago, I had the privilege of a quick visit with my friend from college and her son.  They were beginning a week of college visits.  Her son has Friedreich's ataxia, a rare form of muscular dystrophy that affects the neurological system.  This condition will make it increasingly difficult for him to walk and could shorten his lifespan.  What I witnessed while they stayed with me was incredible courage.  My friend is determined that her son live his life to the fullest, and their whole family is invested in helping spread awareness and support for finding a cure.  They are choosing to trust God as they face this together.  She reminded me of the importance of facing my problems head on.  I can't climb the mountain if I'm not willing to hike to the foot of it first.  Without knowing, she and her son also helped me prepare my heart for Jesus.

Every morning before I go to school I pray for patience with my students.  I know I'm not alone in my fear that I fall short sometimes, especially this time of year.  

Teaching in a Catholic school is a privilege, and I love the extra activities we get to do.  Our schoolwide prayer services on mornings we don't have Mass are something I look forward to every year.  I love having the freedom to play different Christmas songs that focus on different parts of the story of the Nativity.  Lately, I have wondered if I'm getting too distracted by my to do list to savor these blessings.  Lately, I have wondered if I'm missing the light these special activities give to all of us. 

Today is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.  It's a holy day for Catholics, and we don't have school so that families are able to attend Mass.  As I have had time to reflect today, I have promised myself to slow down, pay attention, and let my light shine more.  My tasks will get done.  They always do.  My first graders will never experience Advent as a first grader again.  I want them to remember decades from now that Advent at school was a special time of anticipation, joy, and light.  I want them to leave first grade faith filled and encouraged.

Today also is the birthday of one of the most courageous friends I've ever had.  She taught me to stand up for what I believe in, to not be afraid to take risks, and to use my gifts to help others.  Her life was short, but her impact on mine remains.  She fought leukemia with courage.  I miss her every day.

I am beyond grateful that Tese was my mentor and my friend.  Her support and love continue to impact my teaching and my life.  I am stronger because I knew her.  I dedicate this post to her.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Do You See What I See?

Do you see what I see?

I was taking my class to Music this week, and this bulletin board caused me to stop and stare.  You could say I had a lightbulb moment.

Before I discovered the professional development potential of Twitter, I often wondered why few educators seemed to see teaching the way I did.  What I didn't realize at the time was I was not alone in my feeling of isolation.  There were countless other educators around the world struggling with some of the same issues I was.  What I also discovered as I talked with other teachers in my school about how Twitter has helped me is that they share my concerns.  We just weren't finding the time to talk about them and address them.

Why does it become more difficult each year to keep up?  Why is it harder for my students to listen each year?  Why does the spectrum of special needs keep growing?  Does anyone successfully keep up with app updates and mastering advances in technology?  

All these questions led me to the one question that spoke to me the most...

Why can't my students have more opportunities to play, explore, build, and design?  

I remember making in elementary school.  I remember dreaming of being a Mousketeer, and imagining that I was helping superheroes like Batman and Robin make the world a better place.  One of my earliest memories is of a stoplight I made in preschool out of construction paper.  I was so proud of that stoplight.  I remember walking around my yard holding it and feeling very accomplished.  I recall releasing Monarch butterflies in second grade and learning to love writing in third grade with Miss Etheridge.  In fourth and fifth grade I wanted to be Mrs. Aquaviva.  She had the most beautiful handwriting.  I have often wondered what happened to Mrs. Aquaviva.  

I remember being very upset in fifth grade when we were making a bulletin board for our teachers, and we had to change our original message of "Thank God for our teachers" to "Thank goodness for teachers."  This was the moment the seed was first planted for me to pursue teaching,  and it was also when I first realized I would be teaching in a faith based school.  

Three years ago I attended my first ISTE convention in Atlanta, and the world of possibilities of Twitter was opened to me.  I remember sitting in an auditorium of over 17,000 educators, and I received a tweet welcoming me to the Twitterverse.  That tweet came from an educator who would become one of my best friends I have yet to meet.  We now talk several times a week, sometimes daily, through Twitter and occasionally by phone.  He has helped me with challenges, dreams, students, and ideas.  I have come to see him as my coach.  If I had never tried this form of social media I would have missed out on so much professional and personal growth.  I would have missed out on one of the most meaningful friendships I have ever had.

In my early days of growing my PLN (Professional Learning Network), I came across the Breakfast Club #bfc530.  These teachers tweet every school day for 15 minutes and respond to one question about education.  Because of #bfc530 I discovered #EdCamps, teachers in North Carolina, teachers all over the US, teachers in Australia and New Zealand, and how to teach like a pirate.  Because of #bfc530 I rediscovered how much I love learning new things.

If I had never started tweeting I would never have met author Cheryl McNeil Fisher and been able to share her books with my students.  Her Skype read alouds with my class evolved into a school visit last May where she met all our K-2 students and was able to share her books and calling with even more of the students at my school.

If I had never started tweeting I would never have met Adam McKim who started an organization called Chat to the Future.  Because of our connection, my first graders had the opportunity several times to Skype with the orphan children in Uganda they were working so hard to help.

If I had never started tweeting I would never have discovered #aussieED.  I get up early on Sunday's so that I can connect with educators on the other side of the world who are dedicated to improving their calling for the sake of their students.  They suggest books and activities I might never have discovered without their point of view.  

If I had never started tweeting I would never have discovered the joy of Mystery Skype.  My students have been thrilled to play this guessing game with other students around the country.  The fact that they were practicing map skills during the game was unimportant to them.  They were connecting with other elementary students and suddenly their classroom was bigger.

If I had never started tweeting I would never have tried making time for Genius Hour and Maker Space in my classroom.  I would have never had the privilege of watching firsthand how these movements are great ways to build a community and teach my students to have meaningful conversations with each other. 


At this point, you're probably thinking, "Ellen, you've addressed this theme before.  What makes today different?"

On Thursday afternoon when I saw my friend and colleague's beautiful bulletin board, I was struck by how much I need Twitter, and how much I wish I could share it with more of my colleagues during the school day.  I was reminded of how glad I am that Twitter has expanded my point of view of the world, and how grateful I am for those who challenge my point of view. 

Currently, Twitter is a site that is blocked for security reasons at our school.  I've been asked to help write a proposal showing the benefits of Twitter for free professional development.  

I'm curious to hear from those of you who have Twitter as a resource at school.  What hurdles did you have to overcome to get access to Twitter, and what strategies have your IT people used to limit any security risks Twitter might present?

I have a dream of Twitter being available to all of my colleagues in our diocese.  When I think of how my world becomes bigger every day because of countless educators around the world cheering me and my students on, I want that for all my fellow teachers.  

A special shoutout to all my PLN friends who were at #edcampNJ today.  I hope to be with you learning in person next time:)

As always, thanks for supporting me and my students, and to my American PLN peeps, I hope you all have a wonderful Thanksgiving!