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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

But.

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.  

 

Reflecting with Hexagons

I think that the deepest discussions I ever hear in my classroom happen when we do Hexagonal Thinking.  If you haven’t heard of this strategy, I explain how I use it with my 4th graders in this blog post.  Last year, I did a post on using Hexagonal Thinking to reflect on the school year.  In the past, my 3rd-5th graders have used Hexagonal Thinking.  This year, on a whim, I decided to try it with my 2nd graders.

My 2nd graders have never done an activity like this before.  It was our last day of class together, and I wanted to help them sum up the things they have learned in our Gifted and Talented class this year.  Because they were new to Hexagonal Thinking, I conducted the activity in a slightly different way.

First, I went to this awesome Hexagon Generator, and asked the class to help me brainstorm words that represented things they have learned in GT.  Here is what they came up with:

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I did this right before their recess time, so I could make some quick copies for everyone while they played.

When we got back to the classroom, I paired up the students and gave them the paper.  Now this is where I really departed from my traditional lesson.  Instead of asking them to cut up the hexagons and place them where they wanted on a new sheet of paper, I asked them to make connections between words that were already sharing sides.  We went over a couple of examples so they could understand that I didn’t want them to say things that used the words in the explanation, (such as creativity goes with problem solving because you need to be creative to problem solve) but to think about the qualities that each word shared.

You know how you sometimes come up with an idea right before class and you start executing the idea and realize about 3/4 of the way through explaining it that it was the dumbest idea ever and now you need to figure out how to get through the next 45-minutes without anyone crying – including you?

That’s how I felt as I started monitoring the partner discussions.  Expecting 2nd graders to “go deep” on the last day of class was not a brilliant decision on my part.  There were comments like, “Well, bridges goes with stability because they need to stay up or they will fall down.”  True, but not what I was going for.

And then something kind of magical happened.  I heard partners saying, “No, no, that’s not what she wants.”  And I started reading some of their notes.  And I realized that these kids can think deeper than I can when given the opportunity.

A few of their comments:

  • Stability and Support – “You have to be strong and stand up for your friends.”
  • Creativity and Perspective – “You have to think the way others think to make them happy.”
  • Perseverance and Adaptations – “They both don’t give up trying to survive.”
  • Perseverance and Adaptations – “Sometimes you need to change to work together.”
  • Ethics and Perspectives – “When you don’t look at different points of view, sometimes you get in a fight.”

You can see the working drafts one pair used below.

The great thing about this activity was hearing the students use the vocabulary, like “ethics” and “perspectives” correctly, and being able to tell from their comments if they really understood these topics.

If you still have some time with your students before closing out the year, I definitely recommend this activity!

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Creativity Land

For her Genius Hour project, one of my 5th grade students questioned what the world would be like without creativity.  Since she used Scratch for last year’s project (on Sleepwalking), I told her that she needed to present her information in a different way, but that she could still use Scratch for part of her project.  Whereas she used Scratch to give her information about her topic last year, she decided to use Animaker this year.  However, she chose to use Scratch for the “interactive” portion of her presentation (I always insist that there be a part that involves the audience), and blew me away with the complexity of her game.  She designed “Creativity Land,” which includes five interactive games that help students learn the information she gave in her videos.  This. Was. Not. For. A. Grade.  She did this purely out of her love for learning and creating.  English is her second language – maybe third, because imagination is certainly her first.

If you don’t do Genius Hour with your students, you are missing out on something amazing.  And so are your students.

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Click here to play this game by Olivia T.
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