The Crosstrail of Professional & Personal Passions: When Your Why Meets Your Inspiration

Last week we talked about Starting with Heart outside of the classroom, and this week we’re going back inside our rooms, and even inside ourselves (cue Magic School Bus music…)  We’re exploring the realm of Heart in a unique way by looking at passions, and finding that moment when our personal passions intersect our professional passion.

When you’re hiking through a wilderness, oftentimes other trails will cross yours and provide you an option to perhaps end your journey to the summit in front of you, in favor of another.  Other times, trails merge and run together for miles before branching off further up the mountain. That point where they merge or intersect is a crosstrail. It gives us a choice to change trails, or keep going.  We have those in education too. We sometimes get lost in our content, skills, assessments, various logistical responsibilities that we forget the trail we were on, or worse, venture down a trail that takes us further from where we want to be.  In those moments, we have to remember our Why.

Simon Sinek in his world famous Ted Talk “Start with Why” says, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”  That has resonance for us as teachers, because our students will, for the most part, NEVER buy what we are selling, (content, skills, etc.) unless they first buy in to our WHY.  Similarly, we cannot reach our personal & professional summits without knowing and focusing on why we do it. The WHY is our professional passion. So let me share mine.

First, a little backstory. I was a curious kid.  I always wanted to know what was going to happen next and why things happened.  Learning was everything to me & I soaked it up every chance I got. Family trips to historic sites, national parks, and everything else we could imagine were some of my fondest memories of childhood.  As I started looking at colleges and possible career paths, I settled on teaching because I had been that kid who was “good at school.” Good grades, not a behavior issue, a typical solid A (sometimes B) student. For a long time, I didn’t have a “why” for teaching.  It’s a bit cliche, but I became a Social Studies teacher because I wanted to coach. Up until that point, the coolest job I had was working as a student coach for Kansas State University football. I got to be on the sidelines of home games, watch practices, work alongside players I had idolized growing up when they were players for K-State and were now coaching there.  I got to see upcoming prospects, escort them around the facility & campus, make highlight tapes that the coaches would use to evaluate high school talent. It was a dream! I thought, let’s get this degree, finding a high school teaching job & start coaching! I’ll focus my energies there, become great at it, and move as quickly as possible into college coaching.

Those first two years, I’m not certain I built any real relationships with students other than my football players, and even those were iffy.  I was so obsessed with that goal that I lost sight of what was happening in my classroom: lack of engagement, minimal management, and terribly ineffective teaching, all of which resulted in my contract not being renewed.  I was hurt, but thankfully I ended up getting a job teaching 8th grade at Turner Middle School, and it was one of the best things that could have happened to me. Over those next 11 years, I found and refined my Why.  For me, I do this job because I want to see students go beyond their comfort zones to be challenged and pushed, so that they are adventurous, lifelong learners. That why has now expanded to include not only students, but also teachers.  While I don’t serve in an instructional coach role, I love helping teachers discover their trail to a personal summit. Inspiring students & teachers to become adventurous, life-long lovers of learners. That’s my Why.

Dave Burgess in Teach Like a Pirate mentions that we all have content that we just aren’t that crazy about, and on “those days when you don’t have passion for your content, you must consciously make the decision to focus on your professional passion.”  He goes on to talk about personal passions and how those can fire us up when we hit those doldrums in the school year. The point I want to focus on is when your Why (professional passion) and your Inspiration (Personal passion) meet & merge into one trail.

Finding that point can be tricky, but I urge you to tap into those personal passions and bring those to light in the classroom.  For me, it was finding a way to bring my love of the Indiana Jones franchise into class. I found that gamification made that possible, by providing a theme, story, and world that can be easily adapted to the social studies classes I taught.  I also have a love of our National Parks, and I made a pretty concerted effort this year to merge both of these into class, with limited success. There are elements of the National Parks I will retain within my Indiana Jones themed game, but it will not be a main thematic element.  The real trick was how do I get 13 & 14 year olds to buy into Indiana Jones when most have never seen one of the films? That’s where the professional passion kicked in! I could use the thematic elements of a professor/adventurer to inspire kids with a story for our entire class! Selling it with costumes, music, and room transformations would hook kids into our journey with exciting stories of adventure and challenges to build team unity and develop that toughness they’ll need throughout their lives.  I get to do this every day (though not always as Indiana Jones), and my teaching life has been transformed by it. I also owe a huge thanks to people like Ron Clark, Dave Burgess and other DBC Inc. authors who have provided guidance and advice through Twitter, their blogs/vlogs, and books.

Go find your Why & Inspiration, then seek out the point at which the two meet.  I bet it’s at a summit, and you’ll see a whole world of summits laid out before you when you reach it!  Keep Climbing!

Summit Seeker(s) of the Week: This week I’m shouting out another amazing educator I’ve met on Twitter: John Meehan. English teacher and school instructional coach at Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, Virginia.  His classes truly reflect a personal passion for amusement parks, mud runs, and anything that gets the excitement going!  His now world-famous and viral #EggDashChallenge has stretched all over the world as teachers are amping up the engagement in their own classes thanks to his ideas.  I’ve been hugely inspired for new review games in class based on his tweets, and I’m super excited to read his book, Edrenaline Rush, which drops on May 20th from, you guessed it, DBC Inc.  John is a truly passionate and amazing educator who you need to on Twitter @MeehanEDU


Scaling the Heights - Starting with Heart Outside the Classroom

It’s Spring! The weather has warmed (mostly), and many of us have students competing in all sorts of events this time of year.  Baseball & softball have begun, track & field events are happening all over the place, and at least in Kansas, girls’ soccer has kicked off and the season is nearly half over!  To top it all off, the school year is winding down (brief moment of tears as some of us say goodbye to our kiddos who head off to new schools), so with all that going on, it felt appropriate to revisit where the philosophy of Summit Seeking begins: Start With Heart, and look at how this works outside the walls of our classrooms.

Starting with Heart is all about building relationships with students and showing them how much you care about them as people and value their lives.  One of the best ways to do this to attend their special events and activities that help shape them into the person you see everyday in your classroom.  Most of us strive to attend the athletic and artistic events the school puts on to showcase our students, but so many of them participate in competitions or performances that are completely unrelated and unattached to the school.  These are the events that can truly help cement that relationship and show your Heart to those kids, so go attend them when they invite you. If they haven’t invited you, ask about their next performance or competition, and make it a point to go see them!

Okay story time!  This past weekend I had the chance to attend a performance of two of my students in an aerial arts show.  If you’ve never been to one, it is very similar to Cirque du Soleil, a combination of acrobatics, contortion, ballet, and interpretative dance!  I wasn’t sure what to expect, but their mother invited their teachers, so I decided I needed to see this. I was stunned! The beauty of the choreography and the sheer physical strength on display was incredible!  It was a two act performance that made my jaw drop. Watching the performers climb silk using pure arm and in some cases, foot strength, was striking enough, but then to watch them twist and drop and get caught at the last second by the silks left me amazed!  After the show, I made sure to see both of my students, give them a hug and congratulate them on their performances. Seeing their faces when they saw a teacher take time on a weekend to come see them perform in something they have a real passion for was definitely worth it!  Later that week at school I had them both sign my program, because that’s what fans do! So go become a fan of your students and let them show you what makes them who they are!

Finally, a word on school-sponsored events.  Definitely attend as many of these as you can, but also, look for areas where opportunities are lacking for students, and find a way to help.  Four years ago, I had such an opportunity. My 8th grade students were looking at the various activities available to them in high school and several began asking me about girls’ soccer.  I had to tell them that our high school did not have a girls’ soccer program, but that they were welcome to try out for the boys’ team. You should have seen their faces. Disappointment was first, then a bit of frustration, and even a little anger.

“Why don’t we have a team?  That’s not fair!” they asked and almost shouted.  

I told them I didn’t have a clear answer, but that I would do some digging and get an answer.  I started asking veteran teachers and administrators who had been in the district longer than me and had worked at the high school.  Every time I asked, the response was “There’s never been any real interest.” Or, “Well they’ve started petitions in the past, but not enough girls signed it for us to take it to the board.”  I couldn’t believe that, so with some help from our science teacher, Susan Helvey, we put out a survey among the 8th graders and got about 30 names. The girls in my class were excited when I told them what the data showed us.  They started asking, “If we get one, will you be the coach?” I looked at their faces and couldn’t say no. Now, I was committed, I couldn’t let them down and not get this thing going.

Another survey went out to the high school students and we had about 75 names by then.  That summer I agreed to stop coaching football and took over the boys’ program as well. By November, we were holding a preseason meeting, and we had those same 75 girls show up!  When tryouts started in the Spring, we had 33 girls eligible and ready to compete! I was blown away by their desire & hunger, and coachability. We didn’t win a game that first year, and there were frustrations and some tears, but we were improving every day, and the next year we were able to get some draws and wins, with 3 players being named 2nd team all-league!  The third year was my final year coaching them and we kept getting better, but it was so hard to say goodbye as I left the district and took my current job. The banquet was full of tears and hugs, but getting the program started and getting to coach with one of our first captains that final year, was the biggest highlight and joy I could have asked for. The stuffed bear they gave me still sits on my shelf at school, and I’ll never forget how much joy those ladies showed in getting their program and watching them grow up together still fills my heart.  

The lesson from all of this is where Summit Seeking begins: Heart.  Neither of these these stories happen without having a heart for students and caring about them as people first.  As teachers we know we need to love our students and care about them, but sometimes we in the haste to get content taught before an assessment or to get projects completed, we can lose sight of the fact that they are young people growing up in our classrooms.  They need our support, our care, and our hearts. Start with Heart, and your journey to your Summit will give you more joy than you can possibly imagine.

Summit Seeker(s) of the Week: This week I’m shouting out another amazing educator and colleague: Dawn Ayers. Dawn is currently a FACS teacher near Topeka and I had the honor of coaching with her that first year of girls’ soccer at Turner High School.  Dawn stepped in and volunteered to help me out when I was desperate for a female assistant coach to help manage the locker rooms and handle the logistics of both a varsity and junior varsity team.  Her advice and awareness of possible issues and great questions helped set the foundation for not only the program as a whole, but also for me as a first time head coach. What really stood out was her connections and relationships with our players.  She knew their stories and was for many of them the mom they didn’t have, but needed. Her impact on that program is still felt as she made us a family that year and kept us positive through all those tough losses. That leadership was reflected in one of our captains, Brittany Ortiz, who later became the JV coach in program history, just one year after graduating.  I see a lot of Dawn’s influence in Brittany, which is what makes her not only a great coach, but a great person as well. You can follow Dawn on Twitter @ayersda06


You’re Not Lost in the Woods - Leveraging the Power of Personal Professional Development!

So this week’s post is another BIG passion of mine!!  One of the biggest frustrations many teachers have expressed to me over the years and one I’ve dealt with in the past is that the professional development we SOMETIMES receive from our districts either 1.) Doesn’t feel like it relates to our content or our classroom, or 2.) Isn’t something that helps us grow as educators.  For various reasons, sometimes it feels like we aren’t getting what we feel like we need as educators because logistical things (and yes, these are necessary things to accomplish in schools) seem to take priority.

That’s okay.  You are not lost in the woods. You’re not David Livingstone stuck near the Zambezi River  You have a compass, you have a map, you have boots, you have trekking poles and all of it is at your fingertips, local bookstore, and among your colleagues!

Which brings us to four key ways to #CannonballIn with personal professional development!


First, the simplest and most direct way I’ve found is to stalk Amazon or your local bookstore for intriguing and interesting education books.  This is where I started with Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess.  I fell in love with the passion and energy contained in this book & “teaching manual”, so I was determined to find more.  I discovered Learn Like a Pirate by Paul Solarz a few weeks later, and what followed was an endless amount of discovery of new books, mostly from Dave Burgess Consulting, Inc., but also from people like Ron Clark.  Reading these in my spare time or during silent reading time with students has helped to change and shape the way I teach and how I interact with students. The advantage here was that I got to pick and choose the topics I was interested in, and most of these books sparked a desire to find other books and authors they referenced. Just as a compass helps you know which way you are headed, stalking the bookstores can help give direction to the next steps.


Second, if you’re not on Twitter, you need to get an account.  As Aaron Hogan has mentioned, “Twitter won’t change your life, but the people you meet there will.”  This is the essence of the online educator community. Pick a topic you have a passion about or are interested in, and there is likely a Twitter chat about it.  Some of my favorites include: #worldgeochat, #XPLAP, #tlap, and #sschat. If you’re more into the Google search way of finding stuff, there is plenty of cool resources out there and plenty of conferences to look at or YouTube videos that can help.  Great places to go include: Edutopia, The Teaching Channel, and YouTube. YouTube is where I discovered a lot of my PD on Standards-Based Grading by watching Rick Wormeli videos on YouTube. It takes a little while to uncover stuff, so pairing this with some bookstore stalking can help some open some ideas for good searches. The map pairs well with a compass to provide a pathway and see what may lie ahead of you, so logging on to Twitter can help you learn the possible obstacles and solutions you may need on your journey.


The third place ties in greatly with the previous idea, and that is seeking out free places that offer conferences, whether they be physical or digital.  A great free resource I attended this weekend is EDCampJOCO at Olathe West High School. This was an outstanding morning of learning, as I got to hear Tara Martin speak about #BookSnaps, which was on my Ed Conference bucket list, and got to learn a bit about podcasting, which I’ve been thinking about getting involved with as well.  I also got to share my joy of gamification and standards-based grading by presenting with Jordan Billings. Another great resource that launched last summer was the Hive Summit, hosted by Michael Matera. You can subscribe to it at and check out #HiveSummit on Twitter for some awesome video podcasts with some of the biggest innovators in the world of education.  Subscribe today & get in on the learning fun! A sturdy pair of boots will prevent those blisters, rolled ankles, and other maladies that cause us to stumble and perhaps turn back. Finding the free conferences can provide that extra support when online chats or reading books isn’t quite enough to help you get to where you want to be.


Finally, the one that costs.  Find conferences that spark your interests and passions.  The cost factor can sometimes be intimidating, so reach out to leaders in your district for funds to help support the cost of travel and conference registration.  Have confidence in yourself and make the pitch to them about why you need & want to go. We need to encourage educators who want to get better by providing them the spaces and funds necessary to help them grow.  I’m fortunate to be in an awesome district that does this on a regular basis, but I know other may not be so fortunate, so I’d like to suggest an affordable and wonderful conference that can help get you started: Summer Spark at University School Milwaukee.  It is an awesome two day conference with some of the greatest educators in the country! Plus, it’s a very reasonable price and fairly centrally located, making travel and expense much easier to deal with. Come join us and be a part of sparking change in your teaching, classroom, and school! Just as trekking poles allow you to move faster down the trail, traveling to conferences can truly get you speeding down the path toward your personal summit!

Summit Seeker(s) of the Week: This week I’m shouting out another amazing educator and colleague: Amy Walker. Amy is simply amazing, having taught both 5th grade and 7th grade, bringing an infectious smile and wonderful positivity to our school and her classroom. Her leadership as part of our social studies professional development group has helped shape our department’s growth, and her encouragement to come to @EdCampJOCOKS was all the motivation I needed to spend a Saturday morning getting better as an educator.  In every way, Amy makes the teachers around her better and her students find success through her innovative and encouraging classroom! You can follow Amy on Twitter @MrsWalkerOPS


Notetaking, Interactive Notebooks, & Gamification - How to Merge Them?

After a week off with Spring Break, I was so jazzed (Cue “All That Jazz” from Chicago) to start teaching again!  I definitely used the time to decompress and relax, but I also spent some of that time working on lessons for the final quarter of the year (is it really that time already?)  I implemented Chuck Taft’s Hexagonal Thinking strategy on the fly after seeing his post on Twitter about it, though modified for my unit on Reconstruction. I loved it, though the students are taking longer than I thought on it, but the conversations and in-depth thinking are really cool to watch.

I also picked up a personal gift to myself, and yes, it is Indiana Jones themed.  It is The Lost Journal of Indiana Jones, a fake version of his journal from The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles and the four feature films, featuring diary entries about those adventures.  I will welcome all nerd comments now….

All done?  Good, because I found some inspiration in it for my gamified class theme.  A few years back I started using Interactive Student Notebooks as a strategy (mentioned in an earlier post here), and I loved it.  The students enjoyed it too, as it helped them maintain their notes, organized their thoughts, and allowed for immediate processing of new information.  However, the flaw in the system stemmed from the low DOK level skills that went into the notebook, and I soon started trying to find a way to use such an effective strategy, but upping the thinking involved.  I’ve also come to realize that they aren’t a good assessment to use when implementing standards-based grading practices, so grading them is not something I would want to do.

The problems are really two-fold.  First, how to ensure students complete the process of acquiring and synthesizing necessary background knowledge to accomplish the higher DOK tasks associated with my class; the “deep dive” projects on specific topics connected to our standards that form the bulk of my class.  Second, how to compartmentalize the knowledge in a handy reference location so that students can routinely return and access it when necessary to complete tasks, rather than having to constantly resort to digging through searches to find low DOK information.

Notetaking is a big sticking point for me.  I’ve never been one to assess it because notes are so heavily personal and reliant on the note-taker’s judgment as to what information is necessary and what information is not.  I also know that I have a bad habit of including too much information in my “flipped lectures”, so I’ll need to curate those and reduce them down to what is essential for the topic(s) we are studying, but that’d for a different post.  I also don’t want students to have to sort through endless pages, as the notebook should be a resource they create for their personal use. It should be efficient and easy to access, so I think a single page of notes is preferable for a topic.  I also know that everyone has their own way, be they sketchnotes, outline, Cornell, web, or any other strategy, so the students should have the freedom to use the one that suits their learning best. All that said, notes are far better than students constantly having to return to a web search/resource while trying to complete a larger project, so I feel I need to implement them in some way in the classroom.

Then there is the low DOK aspect of the ISNs.  I don’t want to assess it, mainly because it does not connect to any of my standards, but also because it is such low-level learning (the cut & paste aspect of the foldables often found in ISNs).  I still believe that there is value in this strategy, but it needs modification to better fit my class standards & skills. I want students to be able to refer back to their notes as they work on our higher-level thinking tasks, so it needs to be accessible, but I also like the opportunity it can provide for practice with skills such as document analysis.  

Selfishly, I like how it could easily tie in to my class Indiana Jones theme, being as students could refer to them as their adventure journals.  In addition, the elements of including document analysis (could mirror artifact analysis), the opportunity for creating both sketchnotes and written notes definitely fit in well in a US History class.  So I think it could provide some outstanding connections to skills, content, and theme, but I can’t quite seem to figure out how to integrate it within my class.

I know it works, and that it would be a great fit, but as with everything else, the trick is figuring out how to make it work with all the other mechanics and moving parts within my class.  I welcome any and all suggestions you may have, so feel free to leave me some comments!

Summit Seeker(s) of the Week: This week I’m shouting out two awesome educators, one I met at Summer Spark 2018, and the other is from my Twitter PLN: Carrie Baughcum & Alice Keeler. Carrie is an incredible special education teacher from Chicago who is the ultimate Sketchnote guru!  Attending her session helped me see not only the value in these notes for students, but also how to begin to implement the strategy in my class (though I didn’t stick with it very well this year).  Her energy and enthusiasm for students is infectious and if you get the chance to meet her or attend a conference session with her, you need to do it! You can follow Carrie on Twitter @HeckAwesome.  Alice is an all around EdTech rockstar!  In addition to being a math teacher in California, Alice provides incredible instruction, both in person and online to teachers in how to integrate technology and use those tools, especially G Suite, to best help your students.  Her thoughts and ideas as they relate to ISNs & homework, helped inspire this post. If you get the chance to pick up her books (50 Things You Can Do with Google Classroom (and its follow up to go further), and Ditch That Homework (written with Matt Miller)), you definitely need to!  She’s definitely on my Education Conference Must See List!  You can follow Alice on Twitter @alicekeeler.

Gamification & Theme - The Importance of Storytelling

First, a HUGE thank you to everyone who reached out after reading last week’s post.  It was amazing to hear from everyone and know the thoughts and prayers are coming. The love and support from friends and family is just amazing, and I am truly blessed!  Thank you to everyone!!!

Now, let’s get back into a personal passion of mine: Games!  I love my gamified class & when I married it with Standards Based Grading this year I watched the grow and learning skyrocket among my students.  I’m so excited I get to share how I came to this style of teaching, and journey I’ve taken to become a better teacher at Summer Spark 2019 in Milwaukee!  

All that said, I’ve realized my theme is a hodge-podge of two personal passions: Indiana Jones & the National Parks.  I love them both, but they really don’t play well together as a theme, and since the National Parks project I planned this year had to be scrapped, I need to revamp my theme and cannonball in to Indiana Jones.  Lots of work to do this summer around this, but it’s exciting work, redoing flipped lectures (Green Screen purchase?, royalty-free music, etc.), updating my game’s website to reflect the new theme (students may be helping me here!), and planning units to tie in with the theme (squad challenges, stories from Dr. Jones, & adventures/quests for students).  LOTS TO DO!

Which brings me to the point of this post: Storytelling.  It’s so vital in a gamified class to have a great story that can hook students into the game, especially if it’s a yearlong game like mine.  My students will be on a quest to defeat foes who are trying to steal important historical artifacts/antiquities (items in my game), and sell our nation’s history to the highest bidders.  They are tasked to recover the antiquities, which offer special powers/abilities in our game. As they discover more of them, they may find other unique artifacts through our Fortune & Glory Quests.  The end goal is to become an Obtainer of Rare Antiquities, the highest level in the game.

Hooking kids into this story is always the toughest part.  It’s essential to have the elements in place at the start and SELL, SELL, SELL!  Those first days when students normally learn rules & procedures through teacher instructions or icebreakers instead become challenges they must overcome to be ready.  Each piece of the larger story is uncovered in those early days, from characters that can help, enemies/bosses that will try to stop them, items to earn, where to store them, how will they use their items & badges, and what possible achievements & dangers could be unlocked!  Like any good novel/story, the exposition at the beginning sells it all. The goal is to get them immersed in the game world first, using it to teach both content & skills.

Now for the question at the end: I need a name for my alter-ego.  For the past two years, I’ve just ran with being Indiana Jones at times in class, but I feel like it’s not original.  Should I just run with it, or do I need to alter it to fit my name (a tough match since Henry Jones and Ryan Stephans don’t quite mesh)  Leave a suggestion in a reply on Twitter!

Summit Seeker(s) of the Week: This week I’m shouting out two awesome educators, one from my Twitter PLN & one from my school: Sam Mandeville & Meg Richard. Sam is an amazing 7th grade geography teacher who co-hosts the #worldgeochat on Tuesdays at 7 PM Central.  Her ideas and suggestions have hugely impacted my teaching and that of my 7th grade colleagues here at The Summit!  She also makes some pretty cool t-shirts (see below!). You can follow Sam on Twitter @SamMandeville.  Meg is a super-amazing 7th grade science teacher at The Summit who also coaches our Science Olympiad team!  She has been featured on the Teaching Channel and is just consistently awesome at everything, including being a nominee for Kansas Teacher of the Year!! Check out her ideas on Twitter @frizzlerichard.

Sam’s awesome t-shirt she made for me!!

Sam’s awesome t-shirt she made for me!!

Confidence & What if? - Responding When the Mountain Beats You

Hey everyone!  I feel like there is never enough time to get to everything, so often this blog has taken a big back seat in favor of other items that need my attention, and admittedly I’ve been trying to come up with a different focus on this post and not succeeding.  I’ve been avoiding talking about this because it’s been WAY TOO REAL for me recently, and I wasn’t sure if I could honestly approach it with the openness it deserves, but it’s time to tackle it head on!

This blog was more meant as a place of reflection on my path as an educator, but lately the world outside my classroom has creeped in, so apologies for the personal stuff that comes with this post.  In my personal life, my wife and I have had some interesting weeks. We’ve been trying to start a family for about 5 years now, with no success. Since January, we’ve learned that due to medical conditions I have, that would not be possible without major medical intervention, that while quite routine in this day and age, still are a bit frightening.  Add to that going through genetic tests, discovering I was born with only 1 kidney, waiting to find out what our options are (in addition to the costs involved), and I’ve been just absolutely broken at times by this, and I know it has affected me as a teacher. Worrisome concerns personally have contributed to a lack of confidence as a teacher and that has truly scared me.  

However, as I’ve had to remind myself quite frequently, the “mountain” or the “trail” only wins if you let it.  Conquering a daunting task requires stamina, grit, and the will to keep going. I often tell my students, “You will stumble in life.  Everyone does. But the real question is not if you will stumble, but how will you respond when you do?” I needed some of my own advice and I have a bad habit of wallowing in those feelings.  I started wondering if this was still the career for me. I looked around at the amazing things that were happening in every classroom at The Summit, and wondered why they weren’t happening in mine.  They were, but I couldn’t see it, and the “What Ifs” started to creep into my mind:

“What if I don’t fit in or belong here?”

“What if I’m not good enough?”

“What if this keeps happening?  How will I be able to talk about my teaching to other teachers?”

“What if this is last time I’ll ever teach a class?  What will I do then?”

All of these thoughts came into my mind multiple times over the course of the last few weeks and I don’t think I’ve ever been that scared before.  But each day I knew I had to get up, and find a way to be “On” as a teacher, because 115 kids were counting on me. Their lives and education were more important, so I hid what was happening in my head, and even hid myself away in my classroom during lunch so I wouldn’t risk exposing any vulnerability or weakness in my “armor.”  It seemed the “mountain” had won.

A few days went by, and as it always seems to do, life gives you what you need at the right moment.  We got good news back on our genetic tests: We weren’t carriers of the same genetic issues, and a big sigh of relief came over me.  Later that week, my students presented their John Brown Comic Book Character “Shark Tank” pitches and fellow staff volunteered to come judge them.  Some were of course better than others, but overall my students rocked it! Then a new “What If” entered my head: “What if all of this happened to make me stronger and a better teacher?”  All of a sudden my perspective changed. I soon realized that if I chose to look at and dwell on the negative the “mountain” would always win. But when I looked for the progress and growth that had occurred, I realized I could get back up, dust myself off, and keep climbing toward the peak I wanted to reach.  That piece of self-reflection was exactly what I needed.

So what is my advice for when the “mountain” beats you? Well, everyone responds differently but here are a few thoughts:

1.) BREATHE - It is rarely as bad as we make it in our heads.  I have to regularly tell my brain to shut up.

2.) GET UP - Go do something.  Exercise, wander about, read, or any other self-care you enjoy, but GET UP!  Staying in one place only encourages the negative thoughts, so by physically moving to something else you also encourage your mind to metaphorically “GET UP” when the “mountain” beat you down.

3.) FIND THE GOOD - It can be hard to locate when you’re beaten down, but somewhere in that mess is something beautiful.  It might be a friend’s kind words, the support of a colleague, or in the case of educator, the amazing work of your students.  Go find it and soak up every bit of it, bottle it if you have to, but force yourself to see it.

4.) KEEP GOING - Whatever you do, don’t stop.  The best thing that happened to me was having a place to go each day and knowing I had students counting on me.  I couldn’t just sit at my desk and wallow in self-pity. I had to help them because no matter what I was dealing with, they needed me more. Whatever your job is, or your role in that workplace, keep doing it! If you’re down and need help, don’t be afraid to ask (something I need to get better at, BTW).  Sometimes, our colleagues notice before we can say anything. Go ahead and be open to that help.

Summit Seeker(s) of the Week: This week I’m shouting out an amazing educator I get to work with in: Erika Short. Erika is a counselor at my school who consistently goes above & beyond for our students.  She takes time to help them applications to high school programs, talking about their concerns, and sometimes making those phone calls home when our students’ parents need to know and what’s going on.  Every time I speak with her about our students, my immediate thought is, “This is someone who loves kids and cares about them as people.” Then, this week, as part of the Exhale Project by Miss Topeka 2019, Cooper Allison (@cooperkay22), she gave me one of the bracelets to help bring awareness to mental health issues in our country.  You can see the picture of mine below. I think the word “Exhale” is perfect for me! I need to remember that first step: BREATHE! I am genuinely humbled & honored to get to work with this amazing educator and person. You can follow Erika on Twitter @MrsShort_2

My bracelet from the Exhale Project.

My bracelet from the Exhale Project.

Adventure Paths - Traveling Your Own Road to Mastery

Hey everyone! Welcome back!  It’s been awhile since the last post, but with the holidays (filled with family & some visits to the doctor), getting prepped for a new semester, and assessing student argumentative essays, the blog has taken a bit of a backseat.  But I’m back this week to talk about Adventure Paths! This idea came from Adam Powley (@MrPowley), a fellow gamified teacher and post he wrote about creating ways for students to navigate through a course by taking on challenges, and traveling a unique path toward mastery of the skills and content we teach.  Adam envisioned a similar setup to Super Mario Bros. 3, where each unit was like a separate world and each task would be a level. Those who are in the “gamification world” could incorporate the earning/using of items and badges to allow students to blaze their own trails through the unit.

I loved every bit of this idea!  So in my typical “cannonball in” mindset, I set to work.  I knew I needed to replace my National Parks project idea with something else, but wasn’t sure where to go, but then Adam’s post hit me and I began looking for ways to design it in my 19th Century American History class.  After a couple of days tweaking the tasks and working through the logistics of how to manage those on the path and those who weren’t, I came up with a very quick and dirty design for my first Adventure Path. As you can see from this link, it is simply a Google Slide with links to specific pages on my Journey Into The Past website and other Google Slides that explain the tasks to students.  To keep it simple this first time, I simply made the path two steps longer than the “standard path” by adding two Fortune and Glory Quests to the end of it, the last one being an escape room style activity using content they had learned throughout the unit. Not spectacular, but for a first run, I was pretty pleased with myself. I hid the slide with the steps in the path within a Google Form that forces students to sign on to the path before they know what the challenges or the reward at the end will be, adding an air of mystery to the idea.

Then came the time to sell it.  I went back to one of my strengths, telling stories from history.  I brought “Dr. Jones” back to tell the story & background info of 1850s America as the students sat on the floor with a campfire playing on the screen behind me under dim lighting.  I said very little about the path that day, only noting that it existed and was path that would challenge them beyond what they thought they could do. The next day I explained how to access it and reminded them that once you signed in, you were committed.  You had to complete the tasks to receive the reward, there was no turning back.

I was blown away!  48 of my 113 students signed up!  Several have already completed the two Fortune and Glory Quests, and are well on their way to finishing the path.  I know many will not complete the path, but the fact that so many were up for a challenge impressed me! I’ve loved watching my students try to solve the clues for the escape room.  This has me sold on this as a strategy to push students beyond their comfort zones to get to the experience of learning, and most importantly, to get back to joy of it. I’m currently working on how to design different tasks for the adventure path that will still address the same standards as on the standard path, particularly for our next unit on the Civil War and Reconstruction.  I’m working on designing a RPG-style path for the Civil War where students will have to make choices as though they are leading either the Union or Confederacy during the war. The focus would be on understanding how choices made in the war would have later consequences and analyzing the context of those decisions. It’s still a work in progress, but ultimately, I would love to have them navigate a map of the war with links to important locations and choices.

In the end, I’ve found adventure paths can be a great way to motivate, engage, and challenge students in their learning process.  The students have all expressed how fun it was to solve the clues for the escape room, to work through the process at their own pace and feel the energy and excitement of a challenge.  That to me has been the real joy, and one I hope continues for future adventures!

Summit Seeker(s) of the Week: This week I’m shouting out an amazing educator I get to work with in my Social Studies PLC: Amy Walker. Amy is a 7th grade teacher at my school who not only delivers amazing instruction to her students, she also helps plan and lead our professional development days!  Every time I get to observe her teaching I come away impressed with how she challenges her students to “Reach their Peak” as we say at The Summit. Whether it is designing engaging lessons, pushing students to produce high-level work using historical thinking skills, or simply being a positive personality during those winter doldrums, Amy flat out brings it everyday!  I’m so grateful I get to work with such an amazing educator You can follow Amy on Twitter @MrsWalkerOPS.

World 1 Map from Super Mario Bros. 3

World 1 Map from Super Mario Bros. 3

Sharing the Fails - Half-Baked Ideas that Don’t Pan Out

This week’s post comes from a quote in Tisha Richmond’s book, Make Learning Magical: “Let’s share our wins as well as our fails.”  That quote really resonated with me because I was always afraid to talk about my classroom.  Sure I felt I had some cool lessons and ideas, but I never felt confident sharing them with the world or even some of my colleagues.  Every time we had to share lessons during professional development, I would always fall back on a couple of tried and true activities that I had used in class so many times that I could do them in my sleep.  They weren’t super exciting or innovative, but I knew they worked and I wouldn’t get laughed at for suggesting something crazy or get told why it failed. For me, that has always been my biggest fear: Being mocked, laughed at, or worse, simply failing.  

As a gamer, I was the kid who hit the reset button A LOT!  I rationalized it, saying “The computer cheated! I hit JUMP!” Words I’m certain any true 8 bit Nintendo player has uttered countless times.  Failure was not acceptable to me. I know I’ve said it to students and my players before that “failure is not an option!” I know they will make mistakes, they’re teenagers, but I felt I had to be demanding in order to set high expectations.  I rarely valued the effort and risk-taking that came with great learning, and often would direct students to simpler, less-risky project ideas (or worse, gave them a “recipe” to follow) to prevent their possible failure, and in turn, me being seen as a failing teacher.  It made me hard to relate to for my students, and as a result I was seen as the tough, hard-nosed teacher who doesn’t have fun in class.

I still live with this fear.  Fear of failing. Fear of being “found out.” (Side note: I discovered there is a term for this phenomenon: Imposter Syndrome.)  It seems ridiculous, but whenever I have one of my “half-baked ideas” I always worry that this will be “the moment” when everyone discovers I’m not that good at this whole teaching thing.  As a result, my ideas usually spend days rattling around my head and are usually walked quite a ways down the path, searching for pitfalls and traps that will lead to failure, but I’m more willing to embrace a risk now, even when I don’t see it as much of a risk.

Which brings me to point of this post.  Last post, I talked about student agency, voice, and choice and mentioned my National Parks project having to be scrapped.  The original idea was that students would research important natural and human historical sites in various regions of the US and construct arguments for their preservation.  Simply put, there was not enough work for all members of the groups, and it became a tedious exercise in research and entering information into a database. Talk about a BORING activity and not at all a true “learning experience.”  I wanted my students to enjoy and discover my passion for the natural and human history of this country, and this didn’t cut it. So we revised, the new project was designing a museum for their region that would provide guests with an experience of the natural world while also incorporating the history of the nation in that region.  The first round through, students were doing great work designing layouts for museums, researching ways to present historic sites and include nature in their exhibits. They presented to another small group about their projects and the plan was to get feedback and support from each group at the end of each unit. Then, QUICKSAND! I had fallen into “the trap” of not scouting ahead and seeing what might happen at semester.  I had simply assumed that everyone would remain in the same hour and we could just keep right on down the trail. Nope, about 12% of my students would be switching hours, which meant switching groups, and being locked into a project that they weren’t passionate about. In a word: FAILURE!

So we punted it, leaving it as a Fortune and Glory Quest (sidequest in my gamified world) for those that wished to work on it on their own time and schedule. Which, of course, lead to another pitfall: Time.  I soon realized that I had planned the end of the semester thinking they would be working on this National Parks project on Fridays, which would sync up perfectly with the end of the year, as students finished content-related work as well.  Now they didn’t have enough time to complete a new activity, but too much for what we still had left. Anyone who has taught middle schoolers knows this is a dreaded conundrum. My best solution was to adapt a Google Doc into a Google Slide activity and do a quick tutorial on #BookSnaps by Tara Martin to see how the students responded.  To be honest, it’s not my best effort at planning and lesson design, and it’s left me really pushing kids to try Fortune & Glory Quests or revise their previous work to ensure that we have full “time on task” during class these last two days.

I still hate failure.  I’m better at learning from it now (though I will still hit the RESET button on video games every now and then), but it definitely makes me uncomfortable.  My new “half-baked” idea is Adventure Paths, allowing students to challenge themselves as they complete activities for each unit. It’s better, but not fully fleshed-out.  Which is how I plan to spend my Winter Break recharging, hoping to be far enough down the path to avoid the quicksand and traps, but still willing to take the risk that I might just stumble into another one.

Happy Holidays to everyone and thanks for following!

Summit Seeker(s) of the Week: This week I’m shouting out two more of my wonderful colleagues: Josh Stock & Jordan Billings. Josh is an English teacher in Olathe who I finally got to meet in person last week!  He’s been a huge help in game-design and engaging students. His room transformation during their study of Peak, a young adult novel about climbing Everest is so cool!  Kids read for an hour straight in tents, while getting to drink hot chocolate or tea!  It is amazing to see a teacher get kids to love reading by repackaging it! You can follow Josh on Twitter @teachlikeaninja.  Jordan is a fellow social studies teacher who is a Classcraft Ambassador if you are looking for a more pre-packaged system for gamification.  He also has incorporated so many fun elements into his classes and his kids are creating some incredible work! He also joined Josh & I for a meetup to just talk gamification, and hopefully all three of us will get to present about the ideas at district PD soon! You can follow Jordan on Twitter @MrBillingsclass.

Classroom Atmosphere - “Mr. Stephans, You Don’t Actually Do Anything in Here.”

Earlier this year I made a vlog about my classroom when I completed its setup.  In the link you can see the video tour, but I realized that I hadn’t truly explained what my class is all about.  The title of this post says it all. It is a quote by one of my former students about what goes on in my classroom on a daily basis.  I am huge believer in making history cool again (I assume it was at one time) *crosses fingers hopefully*, but it has somehow been tossed aside by many as “that other subject” as we spend significant resources on Reading, Math, and STEM subjects.  To accomplish this goal, I believe we need to inject some energy and life back into our subject and to partner whenever possible with our cross-curricular teams to help our students see the value in learning about the past. I hope this post will give you some insight into how I try to accomplish this.

Let me first admit that I was once “that history teacher”.  I lectured all class period unless they were writing papers or taking a test.  I told the stories, but in the same way my teachers had taught me. I loved history because, as I have mentioned, I am a nerd, so taking notes and listening to a lecture never bothered me.  Sadly, most of our students aren’t like me. They need to be inspired and energized, so I set out to change my ways and over time I think I have found a style that suits me for teaching 19th Century American History.

First, I moved all my lectures to flipped videos and uploaded them to my YouTube channel.  I’ve been fortunate to be in 1:1 schools for several years, so that helped, though I would still have done the lectures (albeit much shorter) if I did not have access to the technology, but would have incorporated the students acting out roles of the historical figures.  These videos have allowed me to move off the “stage” and to allow students to work at their own pace to complete tasks and projects. This is what my student meant by “you don’t really do anything in here.” To which my response was, “That’s because I already passed the 8th grade.  Now it’s your turn to do the thinking and work, and I’m just here to help you when you stumble & celebrate your successes.”

Second, I embraced the power of Interactive Student Notebooks.  This was a dramatic shift I made mid year 4 years ago when I realized my students were struggling with analyzing documents because they lacked the background knowledge to understand the context.  Over the years I’ve tweaked them to focus more on critical-thinking skills and document analysis, and less on the foldables, & drawing aspects. This year, I haven’t used them as much because I’m needing to find a way to organize them to reflect my new theme around the National Parks & gamified class.

Speaking of gamification, this is a shift I made last year after reading Explore Like a Pirate by Michael Matera.  I’ve spoken a lot about this, so I won’t spend much time getting into it, but suffice to say, it changed the way I viewed my teaching and has helped me find ways to motivate & reward students for exceptional work, while still maintaining focus on the learning process and improving our skills throughout the year.  Everything in my class earns Experience Points (XP), and exceptional work earns items that unlock power-ups in class, and badges the provide additional XP and status throughout the game. Students have challenged themselves to move up the leaderboard, which we look at weekly & to show off their accomplishments.

Finally, this year I shifted to Standards-Based Grading after listening to Abigail Crane at Olathe West talk about the mindset shift, and watching the Hive Summit video this summer with Rick Wormeli.  This has been a massive game-changer. I get to see the same data, but now it means something, and I don’t spend hours grading simple assignments. My day is spent wandering around my room, observing students, having conversations, building relationships, and helping students reflect on their learning and offering guidance when they are stuck on a task.  Students get to revise with feedback, and late assignments are okay! We embrace the idea that learning is sometimes messy, and doesn’t happen on a linear path. We need to allow for those moments of academic discomfort and the opportunity to fail forward and become a better person and student through the process of learning.

So there it is.  As my student said, “Mr. Stephans, you don’t really do anything in here.”  And to the outside observer, it may appear that I am not truly “teaching”, but if you spend any time in my class, you discover students are engaged in learning throughout the class and I am always around taking in the learning process and being ready to assist when needed, though not always when students want me to, because they need to struggle through and persevere sometimes.  My students also apply for jobs and help run the class by answering the phone, taking attendance, and becoming leaders in here as well.

Summit Seeker(s) of the Week: This week I’m shouting out another educator/author & an amazing colleague: Paul Solarz & Ashley Nuñez. Paul is a 5th grade educator from Illinois whose book, Learn Like a Pirate, helped shift my class from teacher-centered to student-centered.  His advice & practical strategies on helping students achieve and develop the skills necessary for success in the real world are outstanding. His book on my list to review now that I’ve read and implemented some of his strategies, so be on the lookout for that blog post in the coming weeks.  You can follow Paul on Twitter @PaulSolarz. Ashley is one of my cross-curricular teammates at Summit Trail and I have been fortunate to work with her both here at The Summit and at Turner Middle School. Ashley is an outstanding math teacher who also has implemented Interactive Student Notebooks with great success!  Her concern for our students is always uplifting and her strength as a leader among our team is always on display whether it is in the classroom, during meetings or supervising the hallways. She needs to get on Twitter so other math teachers can learn from her examples!