Groundhog Day and Quicksand: Overwhelmed After Two Weeks of Distance Learning

As some teachers are about to officially begin their continuity of education plans and some of us about about to enter into our third week of distance learning, or some name thereof, I feel that the emotion that I have battled most for two weeks was the feeling of being overwhelmed.

For me, the most stressful time of the school year had been the first weeks of school.  There would be level of wanting everything to be just perfect, long hours each day trying to learn about your new students, setting up locker tags to make students feel comfortable, answering questions, and never really knowing where the next meeting invite would come from.

After experiencing two weeks of virtual learning, the emotions that I personally have experienced have been very similar.  You think that you have a handle on what the next day is going to look like and you may even have a task list ready to go.  But, here comes the next Zoom invite.  Here comes the next e-mail that will “just take a few seconds to respond to”, so you go to it and put down what you had been working on.  Here comes that time when you sit down to relax and a student reaches out with an email.  This has been the new first two weeks of school, when hours of when teaching time ends and when family time begins. 

My own lists have gotten continually longer each day, and no matter what I complete, I replace a task with two more.  It is a mix of the movie Groundhog Day and the feeling of running in quicksand. Having two children of my own learning at home has certainly compounded this, but, the first thing to be crossed off my list to manage tasks has been diet and exercise.  Although essential to mental health, it is just too easy to say “I’ll deal with that later.”

So how have I started to manage this feeling of being overwhelmed:

  • Get outside and exercise.  Even it is raining.  Write it down on your list. Do it.
  • This weekend, I decided to put my phone away for the day.  Let that e-mail go.  Let that text go for a little bit.  It will be there when you get back.  Find some time to do something you enjoy.
  • Make lists.  This is easy, right?  But, visually, this has been important to me to actually see that I’ve been making progress on getting things done.
  • Attempt to set up a virtual meeting with your students.  That single hour that I spent doing that this week was an hour of normalcy and routine that I missed.  Students laughed.  I laughed.  It was great.  If you can set these up, go for it.

What’s on for this week?

We will be starting our full-time flexible instruction for the next few weeks, and I’m sure some new challenges will present themselves.  And, if you are just getting started in your own distance learning program, I hope you have a great start.


The New Normal: Focusing on Teacher Mental Health in the Age of COVID-19

When I remember walking into my first classroom with my first class 13 years ago, I was assigned a mentor teacher, had colleagues that had offered advice on the challenges that I may soon face, and there seemed to be a “playbook” with how approach those early teaching experiences.

With the onset of the new normal in teaching created by the COVID-19 Pandemic and with so many educators shifting to some kind of distance or virtual learning, our students, families, and schools are trying to quickly adjust.  But, I think it is also important to recognize that we as educators are also going to have to work through some things that have nothing to do with the content that we teach.  Inherently, I think what drives us to be teachers are forming those personal connections with our students and our colleagues, to support each other, and to overcome challenges for the betterment of others.  But, just like we faced down some insecurity and anxiousness during those very first days and weeks of our teaching career, we again are going to have to do it all over again.  I have already heard from so many about the level of worry and stress increasing, so I wanted to focus on teacher mental health and share some unfiltered, “real” experiences that I am facing in the hopes that others know that these feelings are normal and there are some tools to overcoming them.  So, here we go into this unknown, but, I am going to be journaling my experiences each week, sharing what challenges I’m facing, but also what experiences there are to overcome them to maintain some degree of mental health normalcy in our minds.

I look forward to sharing what I am experiencing and I hope you will share as well!


Presenting at AMLE Annual Conference

This past week, I had the pleasure of presenting the story of how my students connected with our community, and, although it sounds like a cliche’, with the world to compile a series of researched multi-touch books.  Within the pages of these books, students interviewed friends, family, neighbors, politicians, and more to answer a simple question, “How do historical events impact individuals?”  Each interviewee was able to share their oral history of how a historical event  direct shaped who they are, and vice versa.  This served as a launching point for students to dig into primary source archives now available and accessible from their iPads and to intertwine this research with their interview.  In the end, I was able to team teach with my grade’s English teacher to put students in a position to publish their individual section or chapter within one of four volumes of these oral histories.  Each chapter included a primary source photo, the archived interview audio, and a student research paper, truly combining both “old school” and “new school.”

We were thrilled to be recognized as the Association for Middle Level Education Community Engagement Award Winner for 2017, and even more excited that were invited to Philadelphia to present our project and process at their national conference.  I am even more excited that we were granted the funds necessary to further our collaboration with the community, by bringing students to our local library and history center.

It was invigorating to share our students’ work with an international audience.

Here is a sample of one of the books: https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/id1224973543



“What Did You Use to Make That?!?” – Keynote, History, Shapes, & Magic Move

We’ve all been there.  You spend hours and hours working on a lesson hoping that it is a hit with your students and inspires them to want to dive deeper into content, to feed off of your enthusiasm as they take an initial question or problem and use creative approaches to go their own ways to be creators and collaborators themselves.


Rewinding to the ADE Academy 2017, I felt like a student watching Ben Mountz work wonders with Keynote’s shapes and magic move.  As a history teacher, this had so much potential to be used to tell a story, but moreover, to put my students in a position to tell a story.

After my students used stop motion to tell the story of Jamestown, it was now time to tell the story of some of the best rising action that you can experience in school, the build up to the American Revolution.  But, how to inspire them again to be digital storytellers?  I purposely would leave my projector on in the morning, during homeroom, and during the day as students watched me make my first attempts of using Keynote’s Magic Move.  What makes this tool even better is the ability to not only use Keynote’s shapes, but also to be able to edit those shapes and create your own.  My goal was to eventually be able to create all of my own graphics and shapes. So, I got started.  I began by using historical images and Magic Move and moving them around to create animated scenes.  But, I wanted to take it to the next level.  It was time to make my own shapes.

“What is he doing?”  was a common question as students would come into my first period, watching and questioning to each other.  Admittedly, some of my first attempts were not the greatest.  In fact, my attempt to draw my own head as the head of a colonist and then fill in the rest with shapes looks, at best, extremely goofy.  But, I decided to leave it in to show that it was a work in progress.  What I ended up with was hours of work for a 30 minute discussion, however, it was a discussion with lots of “What do you think might happen next?”  “What should happen next?”  “How could you show what might happen next?” In the back of my mind, I was hoping that students would be “hooked” just from seeing some of the possibilities of Keynote, shapes, and Magic Move.  They were.

“What did you use to make that?” This quote actually came from another teacher who happened to view some of the animation possibilities in Keynote, not believing that this was even possible within the application.

A 2:00 Minute version of the story of the rising action of Britain and the American Colonies is available here.

No lie, but students began asking, “can we make one of these?”  Several students in my afternoon classes asked if this could be a class at North Hills.  Not only am I hooked on using Magic Move, but, I was glad to pass on the inspiration of Ben Mountz to my students.  We already have some great ideas that I look forward to sharing in the very near future.


Powerful, Seamless Classroom Tool for the iPad Environment: Apple’s Classroom App

As my school enters our seventh month of our 1:1 initiative, more and more teachers in my building are starting to utilize Apple’s Classroom app.  This app, which, within seconds of using it, will prove to be extremely easy and intuitive to use for any teacher or administrator.  Classroom enables teachers to maintain a pulse of student iPad use in their classes, while also using tools like AirPlay and Screen View to make it a more collaborative one all at the same time.  As such, I create a brief video to introduce Apple’s Classroom app and some of its capabilities for our teachers:



A Clear Lens to Personalize Learning: Digital Storytelling with Primary Sources & Stop Motion – PBS Webinar Coming Soon!

Imagine this as if you were a student:

Documents that are over two hundred years old are sitting in front of you.  Great.  More fancy “old English” words that you just don’t understand.  From what you can gather, the person that wrote it isn’t like you at all.  Your teacher says that you need to summarize the document by the end of class but don’t even know where to begin nor do you have any motivation to do so.

Now, imagine this:

A journal or poem from a soldier and war statistics are laying on your desk.  Once again, your teacher asks you to summarize the documents.  You perk up a little, just enough to complete the summary and get on your way to your next class.

And now, this:

You are watching a movie.  Forrest Gump. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Shawshank Redemption, or binge watching the Wonder Years.  You can’t turn it off.  You want to see what happens to the struggling man from Alabama, or the high school troublemaker, or the criminal Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding, or even the young boy Kevin Arnold.  You are hooked in by the story of somebody that is completely unlike yourself.  You can see qualities in people with whom  you thought you had very few similarities, if any.

What’s the difference?  Visuals? Maybe.  A catchy theme song? Okay, maybe.  A great soundtrack?  Alright, that makes sense, too.  But the biggest thing?  A personal connection to the story.   You can see yourself as that person.  You are rooting for them.  You can insert yourself into their experience.

Hollywood does a fantastic job of doing this for us when we lose ourselves in a character.

How do we do it for our students?

This brings me to the story of Lin Manuel Miranda, who, as it can be seen on the PBS LearningMedia website, turned his personal reading of Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, into what he personalized in his mind when reading it: an energetic hip-hop/rap song (and consequently, a hit Broadway musical).

Again: How do we do this for our students? 

I hope that you can join me in March as I share how I have done this in my classroom by employing quality (and free!) primary resources to allow students to answer a larger question while interpreting a story using their own materials and through their own lens using a simple, yet effective technique: stop motion animation.  (Think Rudolph!)

As Lin Manuel Miranda brought American History and hip-hop together, you and your students can bring together two things that may not immediately “jive” together in your mind: Primary Sources and Stop Motion.  In doing so, you will see a level of personal connection, creativity, and interest that you may not have experienced in your social studies, ELA, elementary, and/or library classes, as students latch on to tell a story through their own eyes.  Even neater, students will start to express stories while displaying their own interests, just as these students did, while answering the larger question of “Why did Jamestown struggle to survive?”


Disney?  No?  Pixar? Not quite?  Authentic learning for a real audience? Absolutely.  Join me in March to learn about the basics of putting your students in positions to do this as well as tips, strategies, and needed materials. and let’s get started with interpreting primary sources with digital storytelling tools such as stop motion on multiple platforms.


An Interview with Gram: How Students Archived Community Oral Histories by Creating Multi-Touch Books

It hit me.  This past summer, I panicked.  I had never stopped to interview my 95-year old grandmother, Sara Whalen, who has had experienced so much during her life.  From the time I was born until I moved out of my parents’ home in 2008, my grandmother had lived in the same house as me.  However, I had never sat down with her to interview her about her life.  I immediately worried that it was going to be too late.

Using the framework from the Veteran’s History Project, I focused my attention in August of 2016 on interviewing grandma.  I prepared interview questions, researched the Women’s Army Corp and its contributions during World War II, read over handwritten letters and records of my grandma, and viewed numerous artifacts andimg_1915 photos from her life.  I sat down across from her, with my iPad recording, and had a conversation about her life.  I heard about her early life in an orphanage, her relationship with her step-father that led her to join the service, experiences in the WAC, and life after the war.  Sadly, she would show her age at times, repeating stories that she had just told me.  Sometimes, she would use vocabulary that may not be considered “PC” today.  Still, I had it.  I had her story to share with the VHP.  This process, though, left me kicking myself.  Why had I not done this earlier in my life and in hers?  Surely, her story would have been more vivid, details more sharp in her mind.  If I had only done this when I was in middle school in the late 1990s, I would have a more polished and authentic piece of history.  If only…

This led me to realize how powerful an experience this would have been if I did this years earlier.  During that conversation with grandma, I learned things I had never known. I felt more connected to her (and my) past by simply having a conversation.  I had to share her story.

My students HAD to have this opportunity.  But, how would it “fit”?  Thankfully, I have an incredible English teacher on my team in my building, who was more than willing to amend and augment the annual our 8th grade research paper to revolutionize it to be something more meaningful.  Over the course of an iMessage conversation this summer, we moved from a 5 paragraph essay on a westward expansion figure, to a project that had a few basic principles and goals:

  1. Connect our students with the community and/or a family member
  2. Conduct primary source research using archived newspapers and magazines to promote historical thinking skills
  3. Employ the services of our library/media specialist to teach database research skills
  4. Organize research into focus areas and develop a thesis that encompasses both the oral history and student research from legitimate primary & secondary sources
  5. Author a 5 paragraph essay that intertwines research with the oral history
  6. Create an multi-touch interactive iBook chapter per student that archives an image, the full audio interview of the student, and the student work.
  7. Design and release 5 volumes of multi-touch interactive iBooks available to the community (and the world!) to highlight student learning by the Spring of 2017

This project was a team effort on all angles.  Prior to the holiday break in December, students learned of the project and used the break to make connections to relatives to figure out what significant event they would want to research and who they would want to interview.  After the break, students watched my grandma’s interview as a guide and began to write their interview questions in English class.  With the assistance of our library/media specialist, our English teacher did a fantastic job in explaining how to locate primary sources using Google News Archive in addition to utilizing databases that our school has access to this year.  Moreover, she introduced NoodleTools, a web-based tool to cite sources, create focus areas, and create note cards, before seamlessly moving thoughts into an outline.


Many students went above and beyond.  Several students elected to interview grandparents and great grandparents on the topic of the Great Depression and World War II.  The Vietnam War was one of the more prominent topics as well.  Still, some students reached out to relatives around the world, with one student interviewing a relative about the first post-apartheid election in South Africa while another interviewed her grandfather about living under Mao during many of his reforms.  Some topics included significant personal tragedies, including a Holocaust survivor now living in Washington state, Kosovo under Slobadan Milosevic, a NYC emergency call center employee on 9/11, and a Washington, D.C. Air Traffic controller on 9/11, to name a few.  Some topics were very local, including the closing of a local theme park that was part of the community, a major blizzard in the city, the decline of the steel industry, and how flooding impacted the region at various times.

No matter the topic, students reported an underlying theme: they became more connected to those they interviewed and took a greater interest in their topics. The community undoubtedly stepped up as well to contribute to student learning, which was simply awesome.  I have the utmost respect for the English teacher that led the note-taking, focus area, thesis development, editing, and writing of the papers.  As mentioned, our librarian and special education staff jumped right in as well. Many members of our teaching staff volunteered to be interviewed as well.

My role in this project was that of a guide of historical research, oralscreen-shot-2017-02-13-at-8-22-47-pm history, and, on the educational technology side, developing and releasing our class iBooks, which will be released on the Apple iTunes Store in late March or early April.  Students certainly took ownership of their own learning, while being guided by our English teacher and supported by the community.  It will come full circle when the students “give back” to the community members that assisted them as we are working on creating a book that archives such astounding stories and personal contributions to our local, national, and world history.  A bridge was truly built using oral history and primary source research, and I have so many to thank for it, notably the English teacher on my team that was so willing to not only adapt to the oral history idea, but to completely redesign her research guides and templates and instruct students how to intertwine oral histories, primary, and secondary sources to make it happen.

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How George Washington’s Winter at Valley Forge Inspired Memes in My Classroom

Okay, we’ve all been there.  We’ve seen that hilarious meme that gets posted on social media.  Then again, we’ve all been there, we see that borderline inappropriate (or over the line) meme that is neither funny nor witty. Unfortunately, sometimes people we known in our own lives may rely a little too heavily on proving a point by showing a meme that they had seen on Facebook.

Our students, too, see memes.  Some students even enjoy making them over the course of the day to day.  This led me to a few thoughts, why not harness this interest and try to spin it to allow students to express and enhanced their understanding of a topic by creating an appropriate meme.  I stress appropriate for a reason, as it leads to a digital citizenship discussion on what is an is not the proper way to utilize images on social media, and really, on the internet as a whole.

Enter Valley Forge.

No, really.  Valley Forge.  One of the most trying times of our young nation during the American Revolution.  Washington struggled to keep his men alive, let alone thrive as a fighting force to take on the British.

Enter primary source documents from Valley Forge.  There are many journals of the trials of soldiers at Valley Forge, paintings the support their struggle, and data to provide even more of a buttress for the idea that life was difficult during that winter in eastern Pennsylvania.

Enter memes.  Stick with me.

Stick with me like Washington needed his men to do at Valley Forge.  Why not have students display their understanding of the underlying message of the document by creating memes that would express the viewpoint of a soldier there?

Many of my students were familiar with memes.  Some didn’t know what they were until they saw some examples, and some still had never seen one.  This “teachable moment” allowed us to have a discussion about how using images in memes to “pick on” others was in no way being a good digital citizen, and moreover, led to students having the ability to make a meme highlighting what a soldier their may have been thinking in a creative, and humorous manner.

What resulted after was, put simply, awesome.  Students were asking to make two, three, four, five, six, or more memes to display different aspects of how life was harsh at Valley Forge.  Their favorite part was sharing these with the class, explaining the rationale of their meme if not immediately able to be discerned from their text tagline. There were lots of laughs, lots of “oh, I get it” comments, and, most importantly, lots of interaction with the primary sources to garner additional ideas.

It may not have caught the social media world by storm like the “Obama-Biden” memes, but, this is a tool that will now be a go-to when expressing an underlying theme of content in my class, and one the students will want to “wait out the winter with me” to experience some more of, just like those soldiers at Valley Forge.

Engineering History: 3D Printing in a Middle School History Class

Today was the culmination of a year img_0434of implementing a $10,000 STEAM Grant to the 8th Grade Social Studies program at my school.  At our local STEAM Showcase event, we were able to put some of our students in positions to share what they learned in the previous year, what skills they developed, and, as teachers, reflect upon the challenges, successes, and opportunities for growth. We were supplied with 3D printers, supplies, and 3D scanners to outfit our classrooms, but, the knowledge and experiences gained were just as valuable.

The most common question we received today, though, was something along the lines of this: “3D printing…but in Social Studies…in a history class?”  Listen, STEAM concepts are great.  Students should be challenged to use design thinking to combine knowledge from a variety of previously separate showcase1subjects to be creators.  But, shouldn’t these skills be integrated within classes throughout a student’s school day, rather than isolated to a single class that is the designated STEAM area?

Using this belief, myself and two of my colleagues applied for a 2015-2016 STEAM Grant, planning to allow students to create history, designing and making historic landmarks, forts, and innovations that have played vital roles in American History.  Full disclosure: we took a massive risk.  Not one of us had any experience in 3D printing when we applied for the grant.  When we got word that our grant was accepted, there was a definite learning opportunity for not only our students, but for us as teachers.

showcase2Looking back, I learned just as much as my students about trial and error, problem solving, and design thinking.  We actually had some hiccups early on as we were sent a faulty machine, and decided to send all of our devices back to the supplier to select a different model.  This resulted in a delay to our plans to start our implementation in September.  Instead, we were looking at January.

Fast forwarding to today, our students featured our Civil War Innovations project.  Last year, students selected a different Civil War innovation in which they had an interest.  Some students selected weaponry, some selected musical instruments, some focused on uniforms and other accessories, while others decided to direct their attention to technological and transportation innovations.  They began researching the impact and legacy of these items before making a decision on what it was that they wanted to create in 3D form.  They then took to the task of measuring, designing, erasing, re-designing, and sketching their soon-to-be creations.

Another hurdle, though: Students really didn’t have much, if any, of a knowledge base of how to take their sketched designs and transform them into a file downloadable for 3D printing.  The solution: Tinkercad.  Props to my ADE colleagues for recommending this resource!  It was simple to use, as I believe it is really designed for younger learners.  However, my students had to start somewhere, and, after going through a series of quick demos and interactive training lessons, most students were hooked.

Students excitedly worked together, solved each others problems, and made suggestions to each other of how to improve their designs.  What I thought would take a couple of weeks to accomplish really took a matter of days.  Students were anxiously awaiting their prints, which resulted in setting up prints to run after school hours and late into the evenings.  I got into a steady routine of monitoring prints remotely and asking our awesome school custodian to turn of the machine’s power at night before his shift ended.  I would hope that this experience led some of my students to enroll in high school level 3D courses, as they now could visualize their creations in addition to learning history-based content.  So, to answer the question…3D printing…in social studies…in American History?  Yes. Take a risk – why not?

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What Electric Football Can Teach Us About Our Classrooms

I’m a child of the late 80s and early 90s.  I have vaguecam00129_preview_featured memories of watching my older brother and neighbors gather around excitedly to watch a table of plastic move around in an unpredictable fashion.  I’ll be honest, I didn’t get it.  But, wanting to be “part of the fun,” I, too, sat around and watched.  What created this excitement?  Why was this so engaging?

This era was also the dawn of the video game era.  Ataris, Nintendos, and handheld single-player games came on the scene.  So how could there be a niche for these electric football games.  The answer is simple: seeing, feeling, and experiencing something is powerful.

Draw upon the parallel at play: we are at a time when screens are on the rise.  Like the late 80s and early 90s when children would now sit for hours in front of screens, we now have awesome tools for our students to use, but also place them in front of screens for hours.  So what in the world does this have to do with electronic football?

When we allow our students to get up, move, hold physical objects, touch and feel items, there is a level of engagement that can’t be supplied from simply looking at a screen.  We need to use the “all of the above” strategy that is sometimes mentionedimg_2505 in political debates about energy sources. In my class, we recently were discussing our own city through the lens of why it was such a critical component within the realm of the French and Indian War.  Could we have simply looked at a map of Pittsburgh?  Certainly.  Could we have talked about the geographic features of the region? Absolutely.  But, using the “all of the above” and “electric football” mentality, what would happen if students got to hold physical objects, move around the room, and collaborate.  Students were provided with placards of rivers, physical features, modern day landmarks, landmarks from the 1750s, and flags and given the task of using their own experiences to recreate our city.The end result was a level of engagement in class activities and an inquisitive attitude to “figure it out” as a group.

So, what can we learn from electric football? Even though we have engaging and powerful applications, resources, and ways to amplify our student’s voice in ways well beyond our classroom, sometimes, it can be useful to gather around together, grab some physical objects, and make a lesson come to life within the fingertips and in front of the eyes of our students.