NaNoWriMo: Let the Games Begin!

Dear Internet,

With only two hours left of October 2014, I am officially committing to writing a novel this November. Best wishes to all of you who will join me in this crazy pursuit. And because I’ll need to come up with 50,000 of my own very soon, I’ll let the Tenth Doctor’s words speak for me tonight:

“There’s an old Earth saying, Captain. A phrase of great power and wisdom, and consolation to the soul in times of need.”

“What’s that, then?”

“Allons-y!”

You know it’s going to be a great year when this happens.

Me: Allons-y!
Student #1: What does that mean?
Student #2: It’s from Doctor Who. 

YES! They’re only in fifth grade, but they’re off to an excellent nerdy start in life.

Two weeks later during science:

Me: Running water is water that moves, like a river or a stream. Standing water just stands there, like a lake or a pond. But not like Amy and Rory. (A few students get it.) Ooh, there’s a River in Doctor Who as well!
Student: Isn’t she the one in the astronaut suit?
Me: Spoilers!

😉

Exploration and Xerox PARC

Beginning next week, the students in the House of Awesome will begin a learning adventure called Exploration (known in many classrooms as Genius Hour). Here’s how it works: Every Tuesday afternoon, students will be in charge of their own learning. They will choose a topic that interests them, submit a proposal, plan and conduct their own research, create something to show what they learned, and present their results to the class. While they may explore any topic that interests them, they will be learning fifth grade standards in English language arts, math, science, social studies, and/or visual and performing arts. In addition, they will develop skills in decision making, goal setting, and time management.

This will be a departure from the usual teacher-led classroom routine and a departure from what most of us expect from school. Is it worth spending so much time on free choice learning and creating? What could possibly come out of it that students can’t get from the traditional model of teaching and learning?

Let me tell you a story: the true story of Xerox PARC, established in 1970 in Palo Alto, California. A group of brilliant scientists and engineers were brought together to do basic research. Their prime directive was to invent the office of the future, nothing more specific than that. They were given free reign to dream up and try whatever they were interested in. By some estimates, more than 2,500 of their ideas are still in use today. Here are just a few examples*:

  • Ethernet (technology that formed the backbone of the Internet). I could stop there and that would be world-changing enough. But wait, there’s more!
  • Laser printers
  • The personal computer — the idea that each person in an office would have their own computer rather than just a terminal
  • The concept of a computer that was so easy, even a child could use it. Now my students are creating their own code using such machines.
  • Object-oriented programming
  • The virtual desktop and virtual folders that we all use on today’s computers
  • The concept of a suite of office software with a virtual clipboard
  • Popup windows and menus. Anyone (anyone old like me) who remembers the DOS prompt knows what a leap forward that was!
  • Desktop publishing (Yes, kids, that used to not be a thing. I’m serious.)
  • Postscript, the first technology that allowed a document to look the same regardless of the printer being used
  • WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) technology. Remember text-based editing software, e.g. Word Perfect from the 80s? That was all about to change.
  • The Alto computer: one of the first personal computers, comparable to the Macintosh but released a full eleven years earlier!
  • The concept of the laptop computer
  • Technology for video capture and manipulation that would eventually form the basis of Pixar
  • And my personal favorite: Software on the Alto allowed the user to change between fonts, including — get this — Elvish runes. I love nerds!

Suffice it to say that smart people allowed to pursue their own interests can accomplish amazing things. I look forward to another year of guiding students through the Exploration process. Allons-y! 

*Source: Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age by Michael A. Hiltzik

Nerds of a Feather

One week to go before school begins! Today I spent a wonderful afternoon discussing Reading Workshop with colleagues. Some of us are trying it for the first time. Others shared their experiences and resources. This was not official professional development but every bit as valuable — maybe more so, since it came from a common interest and a genuine desire to improve our teaching in ways that feel right to us. Choice and authenticity… sound familiar, Reading Workshop teachers?

Being nerds, the conversation often turned to other important matters, including The Dresden Files, Doctor Who, Outlander, Homestuck, manga, anime, writing, cosplay, RPGs, and Nerdfighteria. I am so fortunate to have found kindred spirits whose enthusiasm for life and for teaching reaffirm that I am in the right place. DFTBA!

Work-Life Balance for Teachers (File Under: Fantasy)

Teaching is among the professions that consume one’s mind and soul. Even when we’re up-to-date on grading (hey, it could happen!), we spend personal time and energy researching, planning, and finding new ways to reach students. Random lightning strikes of inspiration hit us when we least expect them. (Great ideas in the shower, anyone? Yeah, I thought so.) There is always more to do, and with 30 students who will never have another chance to be in fifth grade, it’s hard to know when to say “I’ve done enough for today.”

While I love my job, like, jump-up-and-down-can’t-control-myself love it, sometimes I need to pull myself away. I need to remember that my life outside school is important too. I have a wonderful family who deserve my attention and my cooking skills*. I am helping develop two amazing organizations: Omar’s Dream Foundation and Nerdscouting. Those things matter.

I also need to block out time in my calendar for my own pursuits. This may sound selfish. It feels selfish. But I think it will help me take better control of my time and (I hope) not feel so overwhelmed by everything I have to do. Continue reading