Global Student Voice Film Festival

The Global Student Voice Film Festival is a competition for students ages 5-18. Hosted by the Student Voice Organization, of which Jennie Magiera is president, this contest is in its second year.  Last year’s theme was, “In Another’s Shoes,” and I highly encourage you to view the winners.  For the 2018-2019 contest, students will create 60 second films with the theme of, “Activating Change.” You can access the rules here.  Of particular note is the optional Dec. 17th deadline.  Entries received by that date will receive feedback from the judges, and be given the opportunity to revise their films to be turned by April 9th.  Participants who don’t meet the December deadline have a hard deadline of February 18th.

The goal of this contest is to amplify student voices, but it is also to reinforce respect for intellectual properties, so any use of images, video, or music in the film that are not created by the contestants are subject to strict copyright guidelines.

If you have students who are passionate about film production and/or making a difference, the Global Student Voice Film Festival would be a great project for them.



Officially Out of My Comfort Zone

Pretend you have worked for the same company for 27 years.  You know the company’s procedures and idiosyncracies, the people to contact when you need something done or have a question, and many of the employees.

Then you get a job with a new company.

You miss half the training because you already scheduled two weeks of vacation that worked with your old job calendar but completely interfere with the new one.  You go from serving clients ages 5-11 to ones who are 9-18.  You have to learn new passwords for ten different systems, the majority of which you don’t even know their use. You just doubled your number of co-workers, which means you doubled the number of people you don’t know.  The acronyms are different (some are the same so you get excited that you actually know something – but they mean different things), you can’t find the parking lot, you don’t have a place for any of the supplies you spent years accumulating, and within a week of starting you are supposed to take a test that will basically determine whether or not you get to keep your job.  And now you are not just serving people but you are also scoring them – and those scores might make a difference in the rest of their life.  And the picture you took for your new badge really sucks.

Fun, right?

On one of the few days I managed to attend training for my new job at the Advanced Learning Academy, we were asked to share something we accomplished this summer. I said, “I got my dream job.”  I know it doesn’t sound like it after looking at all of the challenges I just described, but I’m going to stick to that statement.  It has been an anxiety-ridden and humbling journey so far, but I still get up excited to go to work each day.

What exactly is my job?  Good question, glad you asked.  Officially, my title is STEAM Master Teacher.  I work with another teacher in our school Makerspace, collaborate with other teachers, and teach courses that range from Game Design (with 4th and 5th graders) to Principles of Engineering (8th-11th grades).  Our school, Advanced Learning Academy, is an “in-district charter”, which basically means that I still work for a public school district, but we do lots of innovative things.  The campus I am on is a high school campus (where we serve 4th-12th; PK-3rd are in another building) that also houses two other magnet schools.

My biggest challenge right now (besides learning carpentry and trying not to get lost) is classroom management.  My style has always depended on relationships, and many of my students had me several years in a row in my previous job as a GT teacher.  Forging relationships with K-5th grade students is a lot different than trying to develop them with teenagers.  Last week I went from laughing and adoring my first period of teenagers to wanting to come home and hide under a rock after my second period.  It’s amazing how quickly everything you’ve learned in 27 years goes right out the window when a student talks back to you before he has even gotten the chance to learn how invested you are in his success.  Not that it never happened with my elementary kids – but I’m pretty sure it never happened within the first 15 minutes I met them.

I have had to ask more questions and request more advice in the last two weeks than I probably have in the last 10 years of my career combined.  Like most people, I am very uncomfortable in situations where I feel ignorant. That’s basically been my feeling since I agreed to take this job.  Extended periods of ignorance are even more stressful.

Now I get to test out what I’ve been telling my students for so long – with experience and practice we improve.  Learn from failure and make the appropriate adjustments.  Don’t be afraid to ask for help.  Don’t get into power struggles with teenagers in a room full of saws and hammers.

Okay, I don’t think I ever explicitly mentioned the last one, but you must admit that it’s good advice.



Oh, the Places I’ll Go – After I Finish Filling out All of the Paperwork

“Ha!” I thought as I surveyed the eight other people in the room seated around me.  “They have no idea what they’re in for.”

I remember the first time I did this, twenty-seven years ago.  Newly hired by the school district, I was told to show up at the Central Office on a specified date and time “to sign the paperwork.”

I envisioned signing a contract and moving on.  No one told me that “sign the paperwork” meant that I needed to make twenty-thousand decisions about my benefits during the course of three hours.

Now I’m starting over in a new school district.  I know better.  “Sign the paperwork” is code for “choose how much money we are going to take from your paycheck each month.”

“Here we go.”  Thick packets get passed to each of the new hires, almost all of them thirty years younger than me.  I watch them frown as they start leafing through all of the pamphlets, brochures, and multi-page documents.

I start tuning out the person guiding us through each page.  Health insurance is first, and with a quick glance I can see that the plan that costs the least is about as worthwhile as burying my paycheck in a deep hole in the backyard once a month.  The new hires start asking questions as I start shuffling through the rest of the papers.  I’ve been through this before, albeit 27 years ago.  I got this.

“Wait.  What did you just say?” I suddenly blurt out.  My brain screams, “You just missed something important!”

“You can get this accident insurance, which will give you money if you have an unexpected accident and get hurt.”

“Isn’t that what health insurance is for?” I ask.

“Well this might cover what the health insurance doesn’t.”

“Insurance for the insurance.” I thought.  “This is new.”

And there is critical illness insurance.  Also to cover what the health insurance does not.

Whole Life Insurance, Term Life Insurance, Workman’s Comp, Disability, Sick Leave Bank.

I look around the room.  Everyone’s eyes are glazed over.  The woman who is starting her first job, getting married in December, and possibly having a baby in the next year or so, seems ready to bolt.  The one man in the room looks relieved that he has no dependents, and I’m close to hyperventilating because I’m pretty sure my paycheck will be about $10 each month – but that’s okay, right, because one of these things I just signed up for surely insures people who have a tendency to overindulge on their benefits.

“There is no way I am ever going through this process again,” I think to myself.

“No worries if you’re having a tough time making decisions, everyone,” says our guide.  “This is only for the next three months, and then we have Open Enrollment so you can change whatever you want.”

I’ve signed so many papers that I half expect someone to hand me the keys to a new house.

The guide tears off my copies from the paperwork, and hands them to me.  “Great!  You’re free to go.”

I numbly head back out into the bright sunlight.  Halfway to my car, I think, “Did I just put my dog’s name down as my Primary Beneficiary?”  I turn around to go back.  I stop.

“Eh, it’s only for three months.”  I shrug.  “I just wish I signed him up for the Dental Insurance instead.”





Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus

First of all, this is the best book title I’ve ever seen.  It is intriguing when you see the cover, and totally makes sense on a variety of levels once you read the book.  Even the author’s name, Dusti Bowling, seems perfect for a story set in a theme park in Arizona.

I think I first learned that Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus existed from @TechNinjaTodd on Twitter months ago.  Before I even had a chance to read the book, I followed @Dusti_Bowling on Twitter and she almost immediately followed me – which I took as a sign that I am a Very Important Person.  After reading her tweets for a few month, I realized that Dusti Bowling is just a down-to-earth author who responds quickly to her readers.  She also supports her fellow authors by recommending other great books, and Skypes with students on a regular basis.  So, it turns out that, to Dusti Bowling, everyone is an important person – a theme she models in this book.

I finally got some time to read Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus a few days ago, and I was not disappointed.  The main character, Aven, is a young girl who was born without arms.  Her adopted parents have raised her to be a confident problem-solver instead of a helpless complainer.  She can do pretty much anything with her feet, and the friends she has grown up with don’t even notice her unconventional methods anymore.  However, Aven becomes much more self-conscious about her uniqueness when the family moves from Kansas to Arizona.  Starting a new school with students who have never seen a person eat with her feet, Aven realizes the one problem she can’t solve is that some people fear those who are different.  Just when she seems to have reached her lowest point, Aven meets a few friends who have also been mistreated due to their differences.  Throw in some tarantulas, a tantalizing mystery, and the declining Wild West theme park her parents manage, and Aven must summon up all of her will-power to ensure the family’s move to Arizona doesn’t end up as a disaster.

This is a great book to use for teaching empathy, perseverance, and the power of a growth mindset. (For another great story that has those themes, I also recommend Fish in a Tree.) I could see using it as a class read-aloud in grades 3 and up.  To learn more about the inside story of Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus, you can visit the StoryMamas website for an interview with the author.  If your class wants to ask the author more questions, be sure to fill out the form on Dusti Bowling’s home page to request a Skype with her.

Find out where you can buy this book!

Exact Instructions Challenge PB&J

One of the funniest writing professional developments I ever attended included a live demonstration of the teacher following written instructions for making a Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich.  By following only the instructions on the paper, the teacher ended up making a huge mess.  The point was to show that we often forget some important specifics when writing a “How To” paper.   YouTube’s Josh Darnit has a video you can show your students to get the point across without having to stick your own hand in a jar of Jiffy.  He assigns his children the task of creating “exact instructions” for making a PB&J sandwich, and chaos ensues.

I showed the video to my students in Robot Camp, and they immediately understood the connection – that programmers can’t assume the robot or computer knows what they are thinking, and if something goes wrong you need to go back and fix your mistake instead of blaming it on the device.

You should note that this particular video is labeled, “Classroom Friendly,” and I can attest that it is appropriate.  I can’t vouch for any other Josh Darnit videos or “Exact Instructions” on YouTube.


Turing Tumble Review

I think I’ve finally come to terms with my Kickstarter addiction.  Basically, I choose an item to “back”, and wait until that product arrives on my doorstep before I find something else to invest in.  Most of the items I fund take around a year to get manufactured, so this seems to be a compromise that my bank account can handle.

Last summer, I wrote about my latest Kickstarter purchase, the Turing Tumble. I expected to receive it in January, but a few obstacles were encountered during production that delayed it to the summer.  Sadly, this meant that only the few students that attended my robot camp got a chance to test it out, but I think I got a pretty good idea of its impact from them and my 15 year old daughter.

Paul and Alyssa Boswell, who invented this unique game, kept their Kickstarter backers very well-informed during the production process.  Packaging is a huge part of getting products like this into the hands of consumers, and there were a lot of bumps along the way.  However, I think they got it right in the end.  Turing Tumble arrived in a substantial box that has a customized insert for all of the pieces.  It will definitely make it easy to store.

Speaking of pieces, there are a lot, including tiny red and blue marbles that are “tumbled” in the games.  The quantity of small pieces is a definite reason you should not ignore the age rating of 8 to Adult.    I would caution anyone with young children or pets (like mine) who are living vacuum cleaners to set up this game in an area where accidental flying marbles won’t be immediately ingested .

The Turing Tumble is basically a mechanical computer.  The different pieces represent what happens in a computer when a program runs.  The set comes with a puzzle book that is written in the form of a graphic novel.  Players are given 60 different objectives (challenges) throughout the story to complete using the pieces.  (You can see an excellent description of the game, along with pics and video, on their Kickstarter page.)

A few of my students, ages 8-10, got to try out the game.  Despite the beautiful images by Jiaoyang Li that accompany the story in the puzzle book, the students skipped straight to the challenges.  Once they understood the basic structure of the book (each challenge has an objective, a picture of the starting setup, and the available parts you should add), they began to cruise through the scaffolded puzzles.  A small crowd gathered around whenever they “started a program” by pressing the lever to release the first marble, and everyone watched in fascination as red and blue marbles fell in patterns determined by the placement of pieces.

My daughter was equally interested in the game.  We sat at the dining room table working our way through the puzzles, and I ended up being the gatherer of pieces as she mentally visualized where to place them in order to accomplish each new objective.  I was the one who finally stopped that night – mainly because I was feeling a bit grumpy about her solving the puzzles much more quickly than I ever could.

The good news is that anyone can now buy the Turing Tumble – and you don’t have to wait a year to receive it.  It is available directly through their website, from Amazon, or Gameology (for New Zealanders and Australians).

Turing Tumble also has an education portion on their website, which includes a practice guide.  You can submit your email address if you want to hear from the company when they release their Educator Guide.

image of Paul and Alyssa Boswell with their invention, from Turing Tumble Press Kit

Heads or Tails – I Win!

I like to make a lot of life decisions by flipping a coin.

Before you dismiss me as a crackpot, hear me out.

There is a moment when the reveal happens, when you uncover the coin to see heads or tails, during which you must access the deepest part of yourself.  Because, no matter how ambivalent you were about your decision before you tossed that coin in the air, that inner part of you knows what you really want.  There will be a tenth of a second that you will feel either relief or disappointment at the outcome, and that’s important information for your ultimate decision.

Of course, not everything we want is good for us.  I don’t use the coin technique for deciding whether or not to eat a tub full of Ben & Jerry’s Chubby Hubby ice cream.  It’s reserved for those important times where the pros seem to equal the cons, like my recent job dilemma.

Except it didn’t work this time.  “Heads” told me I should apply for the new job.  But relief and disappointment both exploded in my soul.  I didn’t want to leave my students, my colleagues, my district I had worked in for 27 years.  I had a great job that I knew how to do.


I was intrigued by the idea of a new adventure, taking a job that practically described word for word, my dream career (which I had pitched to several people over the years) that seemed impossible to do in a public school.

And, I had a child’s voice in my head that urged me on.  “Mrs. Eichholz always encourages us to take risks,” she answered, when someone asked her what she had learned in GT.  “Responsible ones!” another student shouted – just to clarify.

This is true. I tell them to go outside their comfort zone, do things they have never done so they can learn what they’ve never learned.  “Don’t stick to what’s easy for you or your brain won’t get enough exercise!” We try things together that I’ve never even done, and they watch me make mistakes on a daily basis – and learn from them.

I never say, “Okay, everyone, when you are middle-aged and two years from being eligible from retirement and you live 5 minutes away from work and you know everyone in the community and you have good friends who support you and make you laugh every day, and you’ve taught K-5 for nearly three decades, throw it all away for a job that might require you to 3d print a parachute while you’re jumping out of the plane.”

But here I am.  And it feels exhilarating and completely intimidating at the same time.

I guess the coin toss kind of did work.  I think my soul was telling me that either decision would be fine.  I had a choice between two different journeys, and I picked the really scary one – mostly so I can tell my students, “Don’t tell me you can’t do that just because you’ve never done it before! Challenges make your brain even stronger!”  And mean it.

I have accepted a position in SAISD as a S.T.E.A.M. Master Teacher at their Advanced Learning Academy, which serves grades 4-12.  They have a Maker Space (with power tools!), and I will be teaching some classes, helping other teachers to integrate S.T.E.A.M. projects, and working with Trinity University students studying Education.  


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