Sunday, July 28, 2019

Becoming A Certified California Naturalist...

Last summer, I attended the Forest Institute for Teachers (FIT) workshop to deepen my knowledge of California forests and forest management practices.  My fondest memories from the trip were meeting facilitators and teachers from across the state. One leader, Dan Webster, had a special way of sharing his passion with the outdoors. A Yosemite naturalist and educator, Dan engages audiences by demonstrating how to connect with nature on a personal level. I was so inspired by his depth of knowledge, ease of conveying information and insightful commentary, that I decided to seek out ways to further captivate audiences with the outdoors.

I enrolled in the UC California Naturalist Program, hosted by a non-profit organization in Palo Alto, Grassroots Ecology. Through a combination of classroom sessions and field trips, the cohort develops a deeper understanding of the environment and designs a plan to engage audiences on ways to protect California's natural resources.

Course Overview:

  • The eight-week course is divided into themes ranging from California geology to nature journaling. 
  • Each week the class meets for a 2.5 hour lecture and half-day field trips on Saturdays. The lectures were from a variety of scientists, professors and Grassroots Ecology staff. Field trips were to local parks and nature preserves (Jasper Ridge, Arastradero, etc.) around the Palo Alto and Cupertino area. Prior to each class, a corresponding reading is assigned from The California Naturalist Handbook
  • In order to graduate, naturalists develop and implement a capstone project to share knowledge from the course.
  • Naturalists require 40 volunteer hours to complete certification after the course is complete.
I enjoy hiking and learning about the outdoors but my science background is limited. The naturalists in my cohort had a range of environmental sciences and outdoor experience. By comparison, I was definitely a beginner. Some of the lectures and activities required a deeper background knowledge to fully understand the scope of the topic, but overall, the course is designed for all experience levels. 

Course Highlights: 

iNaturalist and Citizen Science 

A large component of course is sharing observations and connecting with others through iNaturalist. This app uses crowdsourcing to identify and record observations. Users can search and contribute to projects or start an original project. Each week, naturalists were expected to upload field trip observations to the app. I enjoy using iNaturalist because it becomes a digital scrapbook of all my locations and observations.

(Bay Checkerspot Butterfly, Mount Diablo, Recorded on iNaturalist April 2019)

Stevens Creek Water Quality Monitoring 

Each week, we visited a different location to apply the information we learned in the lecture earlier in the week. The field trip to McClellan Ranch in Cupertino was a highlight because we monitored water quality using bioassessment and water chemistry tests below and above the Stevens Creek Dam. We collected aquatic macroinvertebrate from the upper and lower watershed to test stream quality. We found that the upper watershed had macroinvertebrate that were pollution sensitive, while the lower watershed had macroinvertebrate that were pollution tolerant.

(Mayfly Baetidae larvae from lower watershed)

(Stevens Creek upper watershed has 7.8-8.4 pH, the slightly higher acidity is due to the limestone present in the creek)

Nature Journaling with John Muir Laws

One of John Muir Laws books, The Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada, inspired me to record lecture notes and field trip observations in a nature journal.  Law's message is simple: nature journaling (or any type of journaling) will help you notice, remember and reflect more and stay present. Reflection is an important part of learning and can help deepen the experience. 

(Nature journal activity led by Laws)

(pages from my nature journal)

Jasper Ridge

The course provides opportunities to visit outdoor spaces and meet experts that you would normally not be able to. Our docent-led field trip to Jasper Ridge, a biological preserve owned by Stanford University, was an opportunity only accessible to the public by special request. Jasper Ridge is a outdoor classroom that hosts workshops and ongoing research projects that bring scientists and students to visit. We saw amazing stretches of native wildflowers and that inspired nature journaling during our visit in March.

Community Building 

The best part of the course was meeting people with similar interests and goals. I met activists, gardeners, docents, environmental professionals and students who were all passionate about the same things. To continue my education after graduation, I take part in BioBlitzes, where people participate in a biological survey to record as many living species as possible in one area within an assigned length of time. BioBlitzes are held in parks, preserves or any other outdoor space that needs attention. Keep Coyote Creek Beautiful is an organization hosts BioBlitzes in the San Jose area.

(Coyote Valley Summer BioBlitz at Anderson Lake in Morgan Hill, July 27, 2019)

(2019 Cohort of California Naturalists-Grassroots Ecology
photo by Lynn Hori)

My Capstone

To graduate, naturalists design and implement a capstone project that explores topics from the course in greater depth. The estimated capstone time commitment is eight hours. Being a middle school teacher, I decided to design a series of lesson plans to use in the classroom. Students complete a scavenger hunt (using Goosechase) to explore the outdoor elements of our campus. Groups will search and record native and non-native plants, trees and insects/birds that they find. Inside the classroom, students will analyze maps to identify local watersheds, bioregions and indigenous tribes that once occupied the area.

A few questions I want to explore:

How can exploring our community help us appreciate it?
What did you learn/notice about the outdoors that you haven’t before?

The ultimate goal is to use the campus exploration to create an art project (either nature journaling or other environmental activism art) to communicate the importance about our environment.

Next Moves

I highly recommend becoming a part of the CalNat community! The best part of the California Naturalist Program is that any person living in California can apply and there are over 45 partner organizations around the state. Don't forget to ask partner organizations if they offer scholarships!

Monday, September 10, 2018

The Power of Strength: What I Learned Through My Teacher’s Guild Passion Project

I was chosen to participate in IDEO’s Teachers Guild fellowship to design an innovative solution for my school community and share it with other educators. The goal of the fellowship was to demonstrate that teachers are designers and have the power to generate transformative solutions to problems. IDEO is known for solving problems with design thinking and our ten person cohort was given training in this process. We had virtual and in-person meetings with The Teachers Guild, receiving coaching, mentoring and support throughout the school year. Our final designs were called “Passion Projects” and in this article I will outline my project and what my students and I learned from the process.

(My amazing cohort! Check them out on Twitter!)
(back row) @capaldi_phil @mrnavas @DrDuncanHistory @TheresaShadrix @NapolielloSarah
(front row) @msbartellsclass @YungTiffanie @LisaBridie @GHSTEAMchic

The inspiration for my Passion Project came from asking my students which superpower they would like to have. Responses ranged from "I want an increase in speed--both physically and mentally," to "I want to be able to read people--like, when they don’t talk, I want to figure out why they act the way they do," and "I want more courage to try new things that I’m too scared to do," and finally, "I want to be able to read between the lines, to feel what other people are feeling but not saying." I was surprised to hear that students requested realistic superpowers that they could easily integrate into their lives. This got me thinking on how I could engage students to identify their existing superpowers (i.e. strengths) and how that could move them closer to their goals. 

I based my Passion Project on the question: “How might we encourage students to identify their own strengths and apply strengths in a meaningful way?” I introduced this topic at the beginning of the school year through some activities to get students thinking about their strengths. First, students created their own personal brand in three words. A personal brand is what you are known for and how people experience you. Identifying a personal brand helps students reflect on how others may see them. Next, we chose a few activities from Team Works (an amazing team-building curriculum) to help build community and learn more about each other (Note: All of the Team Works activities are great but the ones I felt most relevant to my unit were activities from Theme 4: Connecting Across Cultures and Theme 5: How to Get the Best Out of a Team.) Later in the school year, students completed three investigative units that would help them determine their ‘Learning’, ‘Activity’, and ‘Relationship’ strengths. Finally, students applied their strengths through a Passion Project of their choice.

Students worked on their Passion Projects for three weeks. Similar to Genius Hour or 20% Project, students pursued an individual creative interest (building something, creating original art, designing an app, etc.). At the end, students were asked to prepare a visual aid and oral presentation for a ‘Student Showcase’ where students actively engaged a younger audience in their creative journey. My 8th graders enjoyed being able to hang out with friends, showcase their work, and speak to an audience. One student told me that time flew by during the Showcase!

After completing the investigative units and our Passion Projects, my students and I had the following takeaways:

Strengths energize you, they are not just something you are good at. Many of my students had the misconception that their strengths are things they excel at, but I emphasized that this is only partly true. To truly determine whether something is a strength, you need to reflect on how you feel as you complete the activity or task. Does it energize you? Can you be motivated to do it again? If you excel at an activity but it does not leave you feeling invigorated, that is a sign it is not a strength.

We show different strengths in different areas. Much of the research for my Teacher’s Guild Passion Project came from the book, “Your Child’s Strengths” by Jenifer Fox. It is a great resource for educators and parents that want activities to try with children of all ages. In the book, Fox states that we have strengths in three different areas: activity, relationships, and learning . Activity strengths are tasks that you excel at that make you feel good. Relationship strengths are tasks you do for people that make you feel strong about the relationship. Learning strengths are the best ways and environments we learn in.

What makes your strengths your strengths? To validate what you claim to be your strength, you must complete investigative work. Students broke down simple, everyday tasks (cooking, shopping for groceries, chores, etc.) into parts or steps to identify which tasks energized or depleted them. Self-reflecting helped students see the origins of their strengths.

(Student example of a finished Strength Profile)

Strengths engage talents and become skills. Students are more likely to repeat the activities that relate to their strengths and eventually develop them into a skill or talent. After they have identified strengths, it is up to the students to continue developing until they become a more permanent part of their lives. The idea that personal growth can happen outside of school can be seen in the rise of microlearning, digital badges, and other technology tools that promote self-paced learning. Students who can identify personal strengths and engage them early may have an advantage when it comes to applying talents and skills.

Knowing strengths is just as important as knowing weaknesses. A student response to a survey question about how to improve this unit next year was profound, “I don’t think we should only focus on strengths, but also our weaknesses. Knowing our weaknesses will allow us to avoid taking on more than we can handle, it would also help deflate the egos of those who are arrogant." This incredibly insightful response was a moment of realization for me. Identifying strengths is only valuable if we are also given the time to reflect on our weaknesses, including the weaknesses that lie within our strengths.

Talk it Out. One thing I would do differently next time is build in more time to share insights with a partner or group. Feedback from the people who are closest to you or who work with you on a regular basis, can be valuable in providing insights.

Find the right word. I found that many of my students did not know how to describe their strengths. One of the activities asked students to describe a task that energized them in one word. After reviewing their responses, it was apparent that they needed more support. Their one descriptive word was either too general (i.e. deciding) or too specific (i.e. drawing). As a result, I created this word bank to help students choose a word that best described their strength. After sharing the word bank, students were able to continue more smoothly.

(A word bank my students and I created to help identify specific strengths.)

Take a pause. Reflection is important, our strengths may change over time and finding strengths is personal and requires effort. There is no one test or questionnaire that will tell you what your strengths are. You determine strengths through asking questions as you complete tasks and by noticing how you feel doing certain things. Possible questions you could ask yourself to further determine strengths: What was the most successful project I ever tackled and what made it successful? What was the most important team role I ever fulfilled and why? When faced with an overwhelming obstacle, what is my go-to skill to overcome it? What are the strengths that others acknowledge in me? I would love to see students reflect on this project in years to come. My goal is to create a survey to send former students in high school to see if their strengths have changed or remained the same.

(Presenting my final Passion Project to my cohort)

Overall, I think my students got a lot out of this project, which was the central aim. I would make a few changes next year, such as adding more time for the Passion Project, transforming some of the activities with Nearpod, Go Formative, or FlipGrid to make them more engaging, and building in more time to talk. This experience taught me that the design thinking process can be applied to a wide range of problems. My cohort shared some inspiring Passion Projects that demonstrated this in creative ways. For instance, Tiffanie Harrison designed the Elevation Framework, a way to tackle equity and ensure student voices are heard. Phil Capaldi designed the Hallway Buddy: a small, interactive mascot that lives in the hallway and builds school culture. Lisa Bridie Parish designed Civic Science, a year-long project empowering students to develop solutions for local environmental issues. The insights collected from our experiences shows that educators can make lasting impact in any context.

Special thanks to my co-worker, friend, and mentor, Mariana Garcia (@MarianaGSerrato), for creating and sharing some of the resources I used in this project.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Thin the Forest? My experience at the Forest Teachers Institute (FIT)

Wildfires are growing larger and more powerful due to dry conditions and dense forests. There are ongoing debates of the best methods to reduce wildfire intensity and management. Many agree that a combination of prescribed burns and forest thinning can help better manage wildfires, but these methods need to be regularly implemented on a larger scale. To learn more about the forest and fire management, I attended FIT (Forest Institute for Teachers), a week-long, hands-on, workshop for educators on how humans and wildlife interact with the forest and how we can support and maintain a healthy forest ecosystem.

(I highly recommend purchasing "The Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada"
by John Muir Laws, it's a great resource)

At FIT, California educators heard from public and private forest specialists about current forestry issues, how different forest groups work together, participated in hands-on activities, and designed lesson plans to take back to the classroom. It was fascinating to learn about the role of fire in nature and how we play an active role in shaping landscapes. The theme for FIT this year was water, so we met different water conservation stakeholders, including the Tuolumne Utilities District. One requirements of attending FIT is to design and implement a unit with the provided resources from Project Learning Tree (environmental education curriculum), Project Wet (water education), or any other relevant information shared in the workshops.

(Hands-on activity: Extracting a core from a tree using an increment borer. This is done to obtain a core sample and count the rings to reveal the age of the tree)

The amount and depth of information covered at FIT was amazing. There are so many ways that educators could integrate these topics into the curriculum. I had a few ideas I wanted to share that I will be using in a STEM Social Studies classroom. This great article, Efforts to Reduce Wildfire Risk Fall Short, Buck Science, by Tony Schick and Jes Burns is a powerful overview of the current state of wildfire management and presents many viewpoints of the issue. I love that this article also explains why this story matters, how the authors know what they know, the evidence, and how you can get involved. I am planning on using this article as a introduction to analyzing different perspectives of an environmental issue and how this information can lead to action.

(Project Wet Lesson: Macroinvertebrate Mayhem, in the Tuolumne River. We are collecting samples of macroinvertebrate populations to monitor stream quality.)

(Our collection of macroinvertebrates. We found a wide variety which indicates healthy stream quality!)

For my FIT project, I plan on integrating a Project Learning Tree lesson (Trees for Many Reasons) into my 7th grade unit on early globalization and the Silk Road. This unit highlights the lasting impact of globalization and how technological advances may not benefit all groups equally. We will discuss the impacts of globalization through analyzing a life cycle of a pencil and the pathways of natural resources that go into a finished pencil (I’m using this kit). The final deliverable of this unit is the creation of a Tour Builder that traces the life cycle of an personal item of choice.  

(Production Manufacturing field trip to Sierra Pacific Industries,
can you spot the employee in the center of the photo?)

Some other ideas I have include analyzing the growth of the Wildland Urban Interface and its impact on firefighting and safety. As housing prices increase, people living in the West are settling into wilderness areas, called the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) . Who is responsible for keeping communities safe from potential fire threats? How can we prevent people from settling in fire-prone areas? Another idea is to use Earthwise Media, an app that uses satellite images to tell stories, to help students create infographics, posters, or flyers about environmental issues around the world.

(Field Trip to Bottini Ranch Clear Cut. We planted trees and learned about reforestation efforts)

I highly recommend attending FIT. I have a new appreciation for the forest, the people who use it commercially and recreationally, and importance of keeping it healthy.  If FIT doesn’t sound appealing, check out these professional development opportunities that specialize in other areas such as agriculture, floodplain ecology, and wilderness conservation and management.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Digital Storytelling: How to Tell a Story Using Tech

Storytelling is a personal and empowering way to teach, inspire, or excite. There are five basic principles that help an audience connect with a story:

Is the story....

Real?  Did it actually happen?
Simple?  Is it easy to understand and follow? 
Emotional?  Does the audience connect with your story?
Truthful?  Does this story connect to the human condition?
Valid?    How sincere is the story? 

I recently finished four digital storytelling modules that were instrumental in increasing my students' ownership of learning and overall engagement. I wanted to share different ways to tell stories using technology and how it can be a creative outlet for any subject area.

Before I begin any kind of storytelling unit, I show my students the TED-ED videoWhat Makes a Hero? and review or discuss the storytelling presentation and story spine. The TED-ED video is a great ice-breaker and background for Hero's Journey.


Photojournalism is one of the most simplest forms of storytelling because it uses images to tell a story. A famous project that uses photos to tell stories is Humans of New York. The aim of Humans of New York is to combine photos and interviews of random people from the streets of New York. It has grown into a popular blog, social media campaign, and book series. I love this idea of connecting with others through storytelling and wanted to bring this project to our school. My students became more familiar with Humans of New York by analyzing selected photos from the website. We discussed elements of what makes a compelling story, in order for students to begin their own version of the project, the Humans of AdVENTURE edition. Because we are a 5th-8th grade program and in order to build more community, I paired our 5th graders with 8th graders. After students interviewed each other, took photos, and captioned images,the final products were on an "Humans of AdVENTURE" Edmodo page to share with others in our program.

(Humans of AdVENTURE example from a 8th grader)

Blending photos together is another great way to tell a story. Photo blending is when you superimpose or merge multiple photos together to form different layers. This type of photojournalism and can be easily integrated into projects. For example, an amazing engineering elective teacher at my school, Mariana Garcia, runs a Global Goals for Sustainable Development project where students raise awareness and develop a product to help solve global goals. To synthesize learning and spread awareness, students developed a blended image about their ideas.

(student example of a blended image for Global Goals)

There a variety of smartphone apps for photo blending that are free. Two apps I like are Photo Blend for Android and Photo Blender for iOS. If students do not access to smartphone apps, they can use Google Draw to merge two photos together. 

(photo blending created with Ultimate Photo Blender)

For more photojournalism ideas and resources, the Pulitzer Center has lesson plans and does educational outreach. I have had two photojournalists from the Pulitzer Center come and speak to my class about their work


Documentaries are great ways for students to express their voice. In my experience, students enjoy making videos but struggle with making videos that captivate an audience. By providing students with a clear story structure and descriptions of shot types, camera movement, lighting, etc., students can improve video quality and audience engagement.

In my classroom, I wanted to focus on the three phases of video production, general tips on how to make videos, and how to tell a story using video. In our project, students created a partner bio video with a peer from another grade level (I had 6th and 8th graders pair up). My goals were for students to practice the three phases of video creation (pre-production, production, and post-production) and include a variety of shots to ultimately create more professional looking videos.

After reviewing elements of storytelling and Hero's Journey, we analyzed different types of short films. I love sharing videos from One Minute Films (some good ones are Wildebeest and Candy Crime) to show students that telling a story doesn't have to be complicated. To practice, challenge students to come with a story in six words.

To bring in STEM, have students tell the story of a famous scientist, engineer, inventor, or mathematician in a sixty second video clip. First, conduct research to trace hero's journey of the subject and use a story spine to chart journey. Next, download multiple large images to help illustrate journey. Finally, write the story of hero and record as audio of story in mp3 (add audio files such as instrumental music to enhance video).

(example of Jane Goodall hero's journey video)

KQED Teach has several multi-media online professional development courses for educators that I have used to support my digital storytelling units. Conscious Youth Media Crew (CYMC) is a Bay Area, multimedia training program for youth that focuses on developing a voice through filmmaking and has a great collection of youth-created videos that can used as examples or ideas for projects.

Graphic Novels

Graphic novels are sequential art using words and pictures and are basically the same as comic books. Graphic novels are great to use in the classroom because they help scaffold text with images and improve literacy skills by reinforcing sequence, helping students feel like they can comprehend story beyond their reading level.

A few examples of comics that show students how to combine dialogue and characters in a simple way (using coins, dots, etc.) are Money Talks and Longshot Comics.

(example of a Longshot Comic, with dots being the characters. Source)

To practice, have students use panels (squares where stories take place) to separate action. Panels can be read left to right or top to bottom, as long as it is clear to reader. Then, add word balloons for dialogue. The shape of word balloons can convey emotions. 

(word balloons that convey different emotions. Source)

In addition to word balloons, you can add narration using captions to illustrate other parts of the story.

(the caption is yellow, the word balloons in white. Source)

Similar to documentaries, graphic novels contain a variety of shot types to establish where things are and provide more focus to certain elements of the story.

(types of shots. Source)

I have had students identify their own strengths (superpowers) and create a graphic novel telling the story of their hero's journey. There are some helpful paper templates and online storyboard creators that I use to get students started. 


Animation is simulating the movement of images using a series of pictures or frames. There are many different types of animation you can create with or without tech. I use flipbooks (using sticky note pads) to show students how to make basic animations.

My students and I have used multi-plane stop-motion animation to create short videos, but it does require some equipment (iPads or smartphones, multiple panes of plexiglass, etc.) that may not be easily available. The cameras you can use to create animation can be iPads or smartphones but in my experience, the iPads produce better quality shots.

(Simplified multiplane set-up for stop-motion animation. Source: Walt Disney Museum)

(example of multiplane set-up I used)

The multi-plane stop motion set-up (like the one in the photo above) can be used in combination with free apps, Stop Motion Studio or Lego Movie Maker. I would recommend that while you are making background scenes and props to use for the multi-plane set-up, see what they look like on camera. Many times, props can be too large and need to be recreated to fit into the scene. 

(students using layers to create different backgrounds)

The student-created video below was made using a multi-plane set-up and a smartphone in my engineering elective class. This project asked students to choose an existing technology and imagine a way to innovate the technology to make it better. Teams created short animations about the history of their chosen technology and how they plan to make it better. 

(student-created video using multiplane set-up for new innovation--the Pro-Watch)

To bring in other subjects, have students choose a STEM related NewsELA article, develop a simple storyline, then create an animation about the innovation. A great article I have used is "Startup gives city taste of robotic delivery," about robots that deliver food in San Francisco.

(animation based on NewsELA article, "Startup gives city taste of robotic delivery")

A few other ways to create animations (without the multi-plane setup) are stop motion with Google Slides or Animaker, a Chrome extension. If you live in the Bay Area, the Walt Disney Museum has great animation workshops, multiplane resources, classroom outreach, and field trips for educators and adults that want to learn more about storytelling.

The best part of digital storytelling is how adaptable and flexible it can be for any subject or grade level. 

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Globalizing Your Classroom and Teacher Travel Opportunities

     As a middle school social studies teacher in a STEM program, I am always searching for resources, ideas, networks, and opportunities to help me become a better educator. I love teaching history/social studies but often feel like it is misunderstood--especially outside of the education world--as a subject that focuses on facts, dates, and boring content. In fact, social studies education is a dynamic, globally-centered, inquiry-based, interdisciplinary subject area that is just as important as math and science.

In recent years. I have added global competencies and the social justice framework into my ever-changing social studies curriculum. The challenge to integrating these concepts is meaningful professional development and training that would help me fully understand the scope of what this looks like in the classroom. I found a great opportunity, Teachers for Global Classrooms (TGC), that helped me understand the value of global education, strategies for implementation, and provided a variety of cross-cultural opportunities to help me become a better teacher.

(the four main global competencies from the Asia Society-image source)

The TGC fellowship is a yearlong professional development opportunity that contains three parts: an intensive graduate level course that focuses on global education implementation, a 2-day global symposium held in Washington D.C., and an international field experience. It is a rigorous and competitive program for U.S. educators that have been teachers for over 5 years. I was accepted into the fellowship in the fall of 2016 and traveled to the Philippines for three weeks in June/July of 2017.

(English Department at Duenas High School, Iloilo, Philippines)

Even if you are not interested in applying or get accepted into the program, these resources I created for the fellowship) can help other educators implement global competencies into schools.

The final activity of the TGC fellowship is the creation of a capstone project (a resource for my school's community on global education). I created a website around the importance of global education and included, tools to help assess global competence, resources and lesson plans to implement global education, other teacher travel opportunities, and travel blog from my international field experience. There are many other resources on the website so I encourage you to check it out!

Capstone Project: Global Education Guide (GEG) Work Plan
The purpose of the TGC Capstone project is to create a user-friendly resource for your school community
on global education. As you are creating your capstone think about your school’s/district’s specific nee
reate a user-friendly resource for your school community
on global education. As you are creating your capstone think about your school’s/district’s 
Capstone Project: Global Education Guide (GEG) Work Plan
The purpose of the TGC Capstone project is to create a user-friendly resource for your school community
on global education. As you are creating your capstone think about your school’s/district’s specific n

Friday, April 14, 2017

SXSWedu 2017 Recap

Last year, I heard about SXSWedu for the first time. As soon I learned more I knew I had to find a way to get there. I applied for a NEA Learning & Leadership grant in the spring and received confirmation I was selected in the fall.

                                  (My blurb from the Past Grantee page on the NEA site)

I was excited because I have always heard that SXSW is an amazing experience and knew SXSWedu was an extension of that. SXSWedu is a great networking event and has amazing professional development opportunities throughout the four day conference. Also, I was stoked about visiting Austin--a city I have wanted to visit for a long time!

                           (A little appsmash of my time in Austin)

I've been to big conferences before but this was by far the largest event I've ever attended. The program guide was over 150 pages long! Many times I was overwhelmed by choosing a session to attend and knowing I only could be physically present at one.

There were several themes that stood out to me at the conference: understanding and confronting bias in the classroom, the importance of authentic cross-cultural collaboration and listening to diverse perspectives, and the art of personal narratives (i.e. storytelling).

Understanding and Confronting Bias in the Classroom
  • The opening keynote from Chris Emdin, author of "For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood...And  the Rest of Ya'll Too," was inspiring, relevant, and honest. Emdin provides insight on how to improve urban schools, the absence of diverse perspectives in teaching and learning, and ideas on how to address these issues. I highly recommend watching it. 
  • I attended the session, "Tools to Combat Bias in the Classroom," hosted by the Anti-Defamation League. This session explored the connection between personal identity and bias, presented ideas to encourage personal reflection, and how to use anti-bias tools to build empathy and understanding.
    • First, we completed an introductory activity to encourage personal reflection and discussion.
      • 1. If I had to describe myself in four words, I would say I am _______.
      • 2. One experience that I have had that helped me to form this description of myself was:_____.
      • 3. One things about being a ___that makes me feel good or proud is _____.
      • 4. One thing about being a _____that is sometimes difficult or embarrassing is: ___________.
    • A simple idea to celebrate the introductory activity is holding a informal diversity assembly where students stand up when their word is called and clap for each other. 
    • Another activity to promote discussion is instructing students to "choose a side." The leader calls out a comparison (competition vs. cooperation, respect for self vs. respect for others, group oriented vs. individualistic, risk takers vs. play it safe, etc.) and students choose a side. As the activity progresses, students may identify with both sides but are required to choose just one. The leader asks each side what they think of the other and one question they have for the other side to deepen conversation and facilitate dialogue.
    • The Zero Indifference Guide is a helpful resource for school communities to combat name-calling or bullying.
The Importance of Authentic Cross-Cultural Collaboration
  • Building relationships between students is an important component to develop cross-cultural understanding locally and globally.  There are more ways to connect students around the world than ever before and this type of collaboration is called virtual exchanges. 
(Graphic from
  • There are several organizations that promote virtual exchanges. iEARN ($100/ per year) is an interactive, curriculum-based network that connects classrooms all around the world and provides an infrastructure for students to connect with each other. Classroom Bridges (free) is another great resource, however, it only connects you with other teachers and you have to create a platform for students to connect. 
  • Once classrooms are connected, a great introduction activity is 'My Name'. Students can introduce themselves and get to know each other through discussing the significance of their name. 
(My Name Introduction Activity description, from iEARN)

  • If you want to learn more about some example virtual exchange projects and explore more resources, this padlet is a good start. Global Collaboration Day happens each fall and is a great excuse to connect with classrooms and schools around the world. There are also all kinds of resources on the website about virtual exchange including videos, projects, and tools.

The Art of the Personal Narrative
  • Somewhere in during the conference I heard storytelling described "as a end result, but education is happening through the process." I believe that creating personal narratives can be a creative outlet and engage all students. Also, building narratives can be done in a variety of different ways--from podcasting to vlogging.
  • I attended a great session on how podcasts lead to deeper learning through improving listening skills, building empathy, and supporting all learners. I learned that 60%-90% of our time is spent listening but only 10% of the population listens effectively. Listening is such an important skill that we assume many students know how to do but we devote little class time to improve or practice these skills. 
  •  There are several tools students can use to create original podcasts: Audacity (downloadable),  Soundtrap (web-based), and Hindenburg (advanced audio editor). Recommended podcasts that can be used in the classroom: The Moth and This American Life.
  • One of the session leaders is a teacher, Mike Godsey, with a great website that contains podcasting resources and tips. 
  • Podcasting Tips:
    • Be sure audio it is clear, clean, creative, additive (has a purpose).
    • Music is a editorial element. It can build tension, develop emotion, and deliver impact. 
      • In the Serial podcast, Sarah speaks in short paragraphs and grabs attention through music. Music is used for beginning and ending transitions. However, be careful. Journalists should use elements and words that allow people to come to their own conclusions.
    • Ask open-ended questions to get honest answers.
There are a dozen other reasons to head out to Austin if you don't make it to SXSWedu next year, breweries, Zilker Park, barbeque, ice cream.....the list goes on.