Minecraft Mill Cities

One of my favorite studies in our two year curriculum is a focus on immigration and the Industrial Revolution. As with all our studies, it is a cross disciplinary approach to help our students gain a deep understanding of the concepts. As part of this study students explored current and historical issues of immigration in history classes and literature. The focus on push and pull factors as well as adapting to a new life were central to these classes. Students interviewed a recent immigrant and crafted a non-fiction narrative about their experiences in Writing Workshop. Students also explored their own family history.  In science, students explored the changing use of land and watershed as they related to industry. We also focused on how new industries required a larger workforce and new ways of manufacturing. A field trip to Lowell, MA provided a rich experience for our learners. The entire unit culminated with an Ellis Island Simulation in our small gym where the entire community could come together in celebration of learning.

I have used Minecraft as part of our Westward Movement study  and see it as a valuable tool to capture student understanding. For years I wanted to integrate Minecraft into the rich study of immigration and Industrial Revolution. After collaborative discussions with our Director of Technology, colleagues, and students I created a Minecraft Challenge (my notes). My goal was to help students understand the connection between watersheds, changing land use, and industry. I wanted to provide an experience where students could develop their skills of collaboration and communication. I also wanted to students to share their learning with a wide audience. A Minecraft world connected with screen casts seemed like the best fit.

After exploring watersheds through hands-on activities and excursions into nature we examined maps of Lowell, MA. The maps depicted an agrarian Lowell and industrial Lowell. From this focused examination students began to explore the connection between watersheds, canals, and industry. With this foundation of experience students eagerly accepted the challenge of creating their own mill city to share their understanding of the subject matter and to express their creativity.

This was my first iteration and I am curious how I could make this experience better for my students.


Reflection from our admissions department

Fake News & Reliable Sources: A Reflection & Resources

This summer, before the onslaught of headlines, I wrote about the challenges young people must face when trying to decipher real from fake news. I wondered how we, as adults, build a filter to determine reliable from unreliable sources of information action. These ideas led me to create a mini-unit to help students build a filter to assess the reliability of news sources and websites. It all begins with a questionable container of yogurt.

What do you do when you find a container of yogurt close to its expiration date? You give it the sniff test. Yes, peel back the cover and sniff. If your nose gives it an all clear you give it a small taste. If that turns out well you enjoy the treat. If either test fails the yogurt is discarded. This concrete example of everyday life at home created the foundation for my 4th and 5th graders adventure into investigating the reliability of websites and news sources.

When you come across a story or website give it the sniff test using CARS.





After defining each phrase we put our new stiff test into play by exploring Save The Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus. Armed with a QR code, their iPads, and a CARS checklist students worked to determine whether the information regarding the Tree Octopus was reliable. Thankfully they were up to the task and rightly identified the source as unreliable however, this was a set-up for the next site.

After accessing All About Explorers many quickly assumed it was a reliable source for information. Why? It looked good. After urging them to truly explore the site students realized they were duped. This led to a rich conversation on how appearances can be misleading and how media literate individuals would deeply explore a site and engage in some fact checking. After accessing reliable sources of information we discovered Christopher Columbus was not born in Sydney, Australia in 1950, as the site points out.

In the coming days we will build on our sniff test. Students will begin to research topics of their own choosing as we add note-taking, and topic sentence writing skills to the mix,

It is more important than ever that we help students develop they skills they will need to navigate the incredible amount of information that they will be exposed to on their lifetime. What if every student left elementary school with the skills to be media literate and an empowered member of their community?

This is just one experience in a classroom. Please share this with others and pass along any resources and experiences that can help me make this a more powerful experience for my students.


Resources I gathered as I researched this topic. I hope they pass the sniff test.

Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone Of Civic Online Reasoning by Stanford History Education Group

Infographic Walks You Through 10 Questions To Detect Fake News by Dahlia Bazzaz

When Narrative Matters More Than Fact by Ashley Lamb-Sinclair

Battling Fake News In The Classroom by Mary Beth Hertz

The Classroom Where Fake News Fails by Cory Turner & Kat Lonsdorf

The Remedy for the Spread of Fake News? History Teachers by Kevin Levin

Fake Or Real? How To Self Check The News And Get The Facts by Wynne Davis

5 Tools To Help Evaluate Sources In A World Of Fake News by Shawn McCusker

Can Librarians Help Solve The Fake News Problem? by Donald Barclay

Did Media Literacy Backfire? by danah boyd

Secret Gifts

I am a huge fan of Twitter and the opportunities it provides educators. A Professional Learning Network is essential to our growth (and sanity) and Twitter provides a wonderful platform to connect with other educators. This is a recent example of PLNPower in action.

Earlier this month I was participating in #TitleTalk and was intrigued by an idea shared by @Fifthgrade4ever. The conversation revolved around how we as educators share books with our students. Wouldn’t it be cool if..? YES! Yes, it would be cool.  screen-shot-2016-12-21-at-2-39-41-pm


Three weeks ago I met with my students at Morning Meeting and we discussed what characteristics they felt made a good book. The following day students wrote a personal response in their dialogue journals about the components they most liked about the books they have read and examples of books read that fit the criteria. As we explored titles through read aloud, literature classes, and student book presentations the lists were refined. I enjoyed our critical examination of author craft, our personal connections to texts, and the rediscovery of our classroom library.

Last week I explained the “Secret Laurel” project (Laurel is our Librarian). We drew names of classmates and I challenged students to gather as much information they could about their secret reader. We practiced observing, asking good questions, and reflecting on peer’s past book reviews and reading logs. Throughout this process, my student explored our classroom library and generated a list of possible titles they could give their Secret Laurel as a vacation gift.


Over the last few days students conferred with classmates to decide what would make the perfect gift. I appreciated that students wanted to share a good title, that they were willing to collaborate, that they could keep this fun secret, and they could think of someone else’s likes and dislikes.

Books were wrapped with great enthusiasm and they were sent home to be unwrapped with family members. The feedback thus far from students and families has been positive and I enjoyed celebrating our books, our readers, and the PLN I am very fortunate to be a part of.

Smell The Roses

It is a snowy day in Maine and I have been blessed with a snow day. For me, a snow day is a chance to relive my childhood with my own children. Snowballs, sledding, hot cocoa, board games, and movies.

As I start picking up from a day of fun I happen to notice my children’s tooth brushes. They are no longer kiddie sized. Both have graduated to the adult size though they are only 8 and 6.

A parent once said to me, in reflecting on their child at a parent teacher conference, “Every day is a year and every year is a day.” How very true! In looking at those toothbrushes, years felt like days and I heard the voice of my parents and grandparents ringing in my ears. Where has the time gone?

How do we slow ourselves down? How do we share with our children and students that they should take time to enjoy the world around them? What kind of environment fosters this mentality and do children even have a sense that time is fleeting?

In & Out, Up & Down

The past ten days have been a roller coaster. I have experienced the ups and downs of being surrounded by like minded people.

The majority: Last week I was fortunate to attend Ed Tech Teacher’s Innovation Summit in Boston. I was surrounded by hundreds of educators who came together to improve the work being done in classrooms. How might we leverage the philosophy of Design Thinking to engage students with hands-on work that has meaning to our students’ todays and tomorrows? The energy and passion for education was palatable and I was excited to be in the mix, talking the same language, and knowing what we were doing would lead us to a better place. (If you are curious here are my abbreviated notes.)

The minority: Last week I fulfilled my duty as a citizen and voted. I was hopeful for our future as a country and felt I had cast my vote towards a candidate I thought would help us reach our goals. The result I had hoped for did not come to pass. In the aftermath of the election, I was struck with how polarized our country has become. We have surrounded and insulated ourselves with so many like-minded people and talking heads that we can no longer hear the opinions of others. It is clear that we have lost our ability to empathize and to listen to understand.

As teachers we weave the social & academic curricula. Now, more than ever, it is important that we reinforce respect for others & ideas, & rebuild our safe spaces. We can leverage the amazing tools we have available to us to remove barriers so students can grow as learners. We can also leverage tools to help students connect with one another in order to build the capacity to listen, understand, and empathize.





Last week, my two kids went back to school like the rest of us. I watched their eager, anxious faces turn toward the bus as it rolled to a stop and saw their backpacks bounce up the bus stairs. I was filled with hope and excitement for them. I was also a little nervous. Even after 19 years as a teacher and so many back-to-schools, the nerves still kick in.

Sending children off to school requires an incredible amount of trust. We trust doctors with our health, airline pilots with our long-distance travel, and other drivers on the road to stay in their lane. We trust teachers to keep our kids safe and ignite curiosity.

But how do perfect strangers earn those varying degrees of trust from one another?

Specifically, how do teachers earn the trust of parents? How do we reinforce that trust?

Phone Calls – Starting the year off can be nerve-wracking for children, parents, and teachers. After the first weeks of school, we call each family to discuss their child’s transition. We answer questions ranging from field trips to recess to snacks to whether students are making friends and focusing on learning.

Open Doors – We welcome parents into our rooms in the mornings before school starts. It is an opportunity for them to explore the space, look at student work, and to see the faces of everyone involved in their child’s life.

Class Blog Posts/Tweets – Parents want to know what is happening in school. We make it a habit to capture and share moments on our grade level Twitter page. We also encourage students to write reflections of events and classes that are then shared on the blog. We encourage parents to provide their feedback through comments or tweets.

Teacher Blog Posts/Tweets – Building trust requires an understanding. We take the time to share our professional thinking through blog posts and tweets. We provide a snapshot into our pedagogy and make our philosophy of teaching as transparent as possible. We begin early in the year by simply sharing our summer reading.

Personalization – Parents want what is best for their child. They send their children to school not only to learn the “3Rs” but to also be energized by the world around them. Helping students find their passion and building the curriculum around individuals needs and interests helps connect teachers and parents.

Being Present – We are visible and approachable at morning drop off, dismissal, and at school-wide events. While our teaching and home lives are busy, taking a moment to watch an inning of baseball or to stand in the entranceway before a performance reaffirms our role in the lives of our students.


There are many other opportunities to build trust. What are your suggestions?

Information Overload

We live in an increasingly connected world. Inspirations, ideas, and commentary are shared instantly and viewed by many. Currently, social media and news outlets are awash with political opinion and, at times, vitriol. Flooded by this tidal wave of fandom and tribes (for more on this read Participatory Culture In A Networked Era) it is hard to discern what is fact, opinion, or trolls.

I feel I am a sensible, educated, and level-headed individual. As a result, I feel I can unearth the nuggets of truth from various media sources to reach my own conclusions. How did I get to this point? How did I learn to discern fact from fiction, see the spin, and try not to sip the kool aid? What skills did I develop to get to this point and when did I learn them? More importantly, how did I practice them and where did I receive the feedback to confirm that I was seeing a version of the truth through my own lens?

I worry that our students are not developing these skills. I fear they do not have the opportunities to practice discussing topics in class and review media sources. I fear that our country is developing a sense of “us and them” and we are losing our ability to have considerate conversations about important issues. How do we build these elements into our classrooms and school cultures?


I cam across two articles that connect to this post.

It Might Be Trending, But That Doesn’t Make It True – The Guardian

The End Of Trump: How Facebook Deepens Millennials’ Confirmation Bias – The Guardian



Field Guide: A Design Thinking Experience


I had the privilege to attend Field Guide, a four day conference at Gould Academy in Bethel, ME, produced by Adam Burk (@AdamBurk) and Sarah Shifrin (@SarahShfrn). The focus was on design thinking. Design thinking is a human centered approach for unearthing opportunities and possibilities by drawing inspiration from diverse people, industries, and experiences. It leverages the power of connecting with individuals to develop possible solutions and breeds a mindset of responsiveness and flexibility through prototypes, testing, and iteration. Through hands on learning we moved projects through a design thinking process which included:

  • Empathizing
  • Defining
  • Ideating
  • Prototyping
  • Testing

As an educator I saw immediate application to the classroom. Collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity – the 4Cs (and connecting and computing to solve problems if you follow Will Richardson) all play a vital role in the design thinking process. I appreciate the design thinking approach because it is human centered and honors the connection all stakeholders have to a problem and possible solutions. Inherent in the process is the need for designers to connect, thinking critically, be creative, collaborate, and communicate their ideas. The process also opens the door to authentic problems that require a cross-curricular approach to solve.

To accommodate the design thinking approach in my classroom, I will need to provide time for students to empathize. I will need to unpack that term so students can understand it. I will need to provide more time for students to brainstorm in various ways as well as time to prototype their ideas. These two steps are already well-rooted in my practice. Most importantly, I will need to honor the cycle of ideation. I will need to design a scope and sequence that will allow students to prototype a solution, and test it with users. This, to me, will be the richest learning moment for my future students.

My first experiments will start small including a focus on empathy using picture books as mentor texts. I plan to implement a design thinking approach to our first literature study thanks to examples provided by Dan Ryder (@WickedDecent). This will include logging problems faced by the characters and designing solutions to those problems. I also am thinking of redeveloping our immigration and industrial revolution study with design thinking in mind. It would be powerful to meet with immigrants of today and ask about their transition into the United States. Students could explore ways in which the transition could be made easier and bring their ideas back to their “user.” Students would also be asked to design a mill city in Minecraft meeting with the mill owners (me in costume) to gather information for the initial prototypes. All these scenarios would emphasize the creative cycle, gathering feedback from the user to inform revisions.

I am excited to make these changes as I feel they will only enhance the quality of my students’ education and how they think, test, and learn in all aspects of their lives.


I will keep you posted on our progress. Feel free to share any resources or ideas!


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Multi-Genre Writing Projects In Grades 4 & 5

My colleagues and I always strive to find the balance among student choice, direct instruction, and free writing in our Writing Workshop. We want our students to explore their past, find their voice, and capture their passions through story. We also want to expose students to new genres, develop sound writing skills, and refine the craft of writing.

This year we experimented with multi-genre projects as a way to find this balance. Tom Romano explains that multi-genre writing is “composed of many genres and subgenres, each piece self-contained, making a point of its own, yet connected by theme or topic and sometimes by language, images and content. In addition to many genres, a multigenre paper may also contain many voices, not just the author’s. The trick is to make such a paper hang together.” 

It is also an an opportunity to develop a dynamic piece and infuse student choice into writing (watch this nice video posted by Barry Lane). “Writing in the world is a mural and not a snapshot.” We want students to experience that mural.

This project began after April vacation in conjunction with Genius Hour (post one and two) and a dynamic Restaurant Project in math. Students identified writing topics that they were passionate about, and began to tell the story using different genres. Our requirements were simple:

  • Have a beginning, middle, and an end
  • Use at least three different genres

Right from the beginning, the students were engaged and challenged. Many started with genres we had explored during the year, but slowly began to blaze their own trails. These young writers began to do their own research about new genres, and shared that learning with their peers. Writing newspaper articles and learning the format of e-mails were early adventures in writing style and form. Soon students explored storytelling through:

  • texting
  • ransom notes
  • blackout poetry
  • found poetry
  • narrative
  • triolet
  • poems in two voices
  • mystery
  • memoir
  • invoice
  • haiku
  • diary entries
  • eulogy
  • recipes
  • news casts
  • lists

The feedback from our students was more than positive:

  • “Writing these projects helped me keep things simmering in the back of my head.”
  • “I liked it because I could work at my own pace.”
  • “I liked having choice and total freedom of what to do.”
  • “This was my favorite writing project because we got to choose our favorite genres, learn about new ones, and it was challenging.”
  • “This was a good end of the year project because we grew as writers and now we know more stuff.”

As teachers we were impressed with the quality of their work and the passion they brought to the craft of writing. You can explore a handful of student pieces by visiting their blog post. 

Digital Curriculum: A work in progress

Last year a collaborative inquiry team was formed to explore what digital skills students would need to have in order to be successful in the world after graduating high school. I joined the effort because I was eager to move our technology integration efforts forward. The collaborative team discussed pedagogical practice, explored our school culture, and conductive extensive research. Together we identified a set of skills that we believed all students should possess before leaving school. The team shared their findings with the full faculty which overwhelmingly agreed.

This year, we began an extensive curricular review based on the work of the inquiry team. A curricular review team was formed, of which I am the chair. Our challenge was to extend the work of the previous year, frame the skills so they could be applicable to all content areas at all grade levels, and to begin to identify where and how those skills are being integrated into the curriculum. The full document, still in draft form, can be found here. The skills include:

Choose the best tool(s) for the task at hand
Work collaboratively online
Conduct research online
Formulate, test, and validate ideas through data analysis
Curate files and information digitally
Communicate messages with digital media
Solve problems and create products using computational thinking
Navigate digital lives

Next year we will begin to collect information from every educator, PreK-12, and will use the data to create a scope of sequence of our digital curriculum. We will then make recommendations to the school of how our professional development funding can be best used to support our learners and what gaps in experienced need to be addressed.

What are your thoughts regarding this process and the skills we have identified?

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I felt the love during Teacher Appreciation Week. It is nice to hear the voices of the community acknowledging the efforts put in by educators. We would not be able to do what we do without an amazing supporting cast. Behind the scenes of every great classroom is the teacher’s family and friends. They are there to help sew the costumes, push the shopping carts of extra supplies, volunteer for field trips, bring the coffee during late night grading, be a guest reader, test experiments in the backyard, cut out stencils, be extra hands for the bulletin board paper, and be an ear for the ups and downs of a teaching day.
To those of you who are there for the teacher. Thank you.


There is a bump in the hallway outside my classroom. It is one of many little quirky character traits of our 100+ year old building. I tripped over that bump every time on the night I moved into my classroom. I made hundreds of trips from my car to the room and hundreds of times I stumbled over it. Now, eight years later, I gracefully step over that bump. I may be talking to a student, reading students’ writing, or rushing to a meeting and I will not falter. Subconsciously, I have learned where it is. Still, I always forget to warn visitors.

Familiarity with that quirky little bump has allowed me to move easier through the hall. It has also got me thinking. Little bumps are part of learning, part of trying something new. If we as teachers stick with the same content we get used to the trials and tribulations of learning something new. As we introduce the same ideas to new students we gracefully step over the bumps and forget to talk about the them with our learners. We develop blind spots. As I reflect on this school year and look forward to the next I hope to invite more educators into my classroom to help me really look at what’s going on. What am I gracefully stepping over?