Saturday, October 18, 2014

Edcamp Delco

My obsession started in May 2013.

And now I must confess, I am addicted to Edcamps. What are Edcamps, you ask. An Edcamp is an informal unconference-style day of professional development organized and given by the local participants with sessions determined at the time of the event. The goal of these free, participant-drive professional development conferences are to connect educators, to share innovative instructional strategies and technologies, and to collaborate about ways to transform education for all students.

Typically, the focus of an Edcamp is on conversation and participation, rather than on presentation. Participants choose what topics to discuss and decide where the conversations go. Arrive with an idea for a session that you would like to lead and be ready to learn. A session might explore a technology tool, a discussion about best practices or a collaborative presentation with multiple facilitators. If one session does not meet your needs, "vote with your feet" and head to a different session. Session topics may include instructional best practices, technology tools in the classroom, proficiency-based grading, homework and more.

My obsession started with Edcamp Philly in May of 2013 and culminated today with Edcamp Delco, of which I am one of the founders.  I'll be sharing more in the coming week about what we did to plan this event as well as what I learned from participating in today's Edcamp Delco.  But for now, check out some of the resources and connections that we shared this morning through Twitter.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

In Other News...

Check it out!  I made the news!

My district shared news of my being selected as a PASCD Emerging Leader on our school's website.  The story was in turn picked up by our local newspaper. So of course I had to snap a pic of my story in the paper. I didn't realize how unfortunate my crop job was on the headline until later!

originally posted at


Haverford School District Educator Selected for PASCD’s 2014 Class of Emerging Leaders

PASCD, state affiliate of ASCD, the leading international nonprofit education leadership association, has selected Ms. Jennifer Ward at Haverford High School for its 2014 class of emerging leaders. The PASCD Emerging Leaders program recognizes and prepares promising educators to influence education programs, policy, and practice at the state level.

This year's leaders were invited to apply for the competitive program based on self-nominations and recommendations made by past program participants, current PASCD members, and the greater education community. Once PASCD received the online applications, an advisory panel composed of PASCD leaders, and current ASCD emerging leaders reviewed and selected this year's class.

The leaders are enrolled in the program for two years and may be paired with an PASCD mentor—an Executive Board member, a local region board member, or a current ASCD Emerging Leader—who will provide support and help guide their development. Ms. Ward is also invited to attend PASCD's 64th Annual Conference held in November 2014, where she will have the chance to grow as a PASCD emerging leader and access new ideas, resources, and best practices from PASCD leaders, presenters, and staff.

“Meaningful leadership supports everyone in a school community, from teachers and administrators to support staff and parents, all in the effort to help our students reach their highest potential,” said Jennifer. “I am excited for the opportunity to develop my own leadership skills as part of PASCD’s Emerging Leaders program.”

PASCD emerging leaders have typically been in the profession between 5 and 15 years, have a marked interest in making a positive contribution to education policy and practice, and have invested in professional growth opportunities aimed at improving student outcomes. The 2014 class is both professionally and regionally diverse, ranging from classroom teachers to administrators, hailing from across the state, and educating students from Erie to Philadelphia.

“I’m pleased to welcome Jennifer Ward to PASCD’s Emerging Leaders program,” said PASCD President Dr. Lori Stollar. "Jen joins a passionate group of educators from around the state dedicated to providing the best educational experience for Pennsylvania’s students, and I look forward to working with her.”

For more information on PASCD’s Emerging Leaders program, visit 

Friday, October 3, 2014

Opening Up

I am jovial. I wear my heart on my sleeve, as the idiom goes. Teachers and students playfully tease me that I cackle. Yup, like a witch. Big and loud. When I laugh, which is quite a bit, it echoes down the hallway. And early on in our new school year, I cackled a lot.  See, we start our semester in tenth grade English writing "This I Believe" essays, personal essays that focus on a core belief.  Not only have I found these essays to be a great way as a teacher to get to know my new students, but it is also a wonderful tool to help begin building our classroom community. We get to know one another, we have opportunities to contemplate rhetoric and style, we search out mentor texts, and we spend a great deal of time reading and responding to one another's short essays. Students share their beliefs about love, about life, about pets, about loss, about magic. I have been working on an essay about my cackle.

A few weeks ago, as we were in the midst of our drafting process, a student shot me a quick text message after school via our daily homework text service.  I use Celly, an awesome tool for sending students quick reminders and a way for students to quickly contact me without us having to share cell numbers.
I responded, letting the student know that she was welcome to write about her experiences and reflect on how they helped to shape her belief.  I have had students share a great deal through our process of writing "This I Believe" essays over the years. Students have shared their experiences about losing parents, about family members who suffer with addiction, about loved ones who have ended up in jail, about struggling to overcome their own difficulties with illness.  Through our writing, we reflect on how these experiences as well as others have helped us grow in our beliefs and come to understand what it is that we hold to be true. We share ourselves, and we also have valuable conversations about the subtitles of writing a personal narrative versus crafting a well-written personal essay. So this was not the first time that I have been asked this question.

But about twenty minutes following our text exchange, my phone rang. My dad was on the other end of the line, many miles away, three states between us, telling me that his biopsy had come back earlier that day showing cancer cells growing in his stomach. Cancer. My dad has cancer.

The next morning in class, as we are working on drafting our "This I Believe" essays, the student approached me to share where she was in her drafting. It was late in the class, the bell about to ring. She began her essay sharing her experience of coming to terms with what she learned from her father's death as a result of cancer. I couldn't read the whole essay. I started to cry. Trying to pull myself together, I quickly explained to the student that shortly after our text exchange, I learned that my father has cancer. I will never forget the compassion, the empathy, and the maturity of her response. She turned to me and said, "I'm not going to pretend that our experiences are the same. Everyone deals with cancer differently. But I do know that this is a difficult and scary time. I'm sorry."      

At the close of our class the following morning, she handed me an envelope.  "I know that I should have been working on my draft last night, Ms. Ward, but I wrote this instead."  She walked out of the room with some friends on her way to her next class. Inside the envelope was a five-page letter, typed, single-spaced. She shared with me her experiences, her struggles, her beliefs - her story. Later that night, when parents were filing into my classroom for our Back to School Night, the student's mother came over to introduce herself. The student's mother shared that her daughter had showed her the letter shortly after printing it out the previous evening. She was able to share things through this letter that she hasn't ever said, her mother told me. The experience that the three of us shared - student, parent, and teacher - help to reinforce the power of personal writing and the need to open up space for empathy in the classroom.

Personal writing is not tested by our Common Core State Standards (CCSS). We have state rubrics for expository/informational writing and another for argumentative/persuasive writing. We do not value stories. Just under a decade ago, every one of the other English teachers I worked with had their tenth grade students complete "This I Believe" essays. This year, I am the only teacher. And, I have had to fight to keep it in my curriculum, arguing the value of personal writing. It is an addition to our core curriculum. It is something extra that I have my students complete. I have been told that the assignment does not have value.

My student writers draft, craft, and revise their personal belief essays, post them to our class blog site, revise based on feedback, meet with me in writing conferences, again revise based on feedback, adapt their written essays to video presentations, and then post their written and video creations to our online writing portfolios. As we write we find mentor texts, discuss written and digital rhetoric, and perhaps most importantly, empathize.  We share our stories, hear one another. We build a community of thinkers and writers. We value reflection. We value revision. We value empathy. But these are not skills that can easily be bubbled in on scantron tests.

I understand the need for accountability in the classroom, the desire to demonstrate progress. However, with so much emphasis being placed on high-stakes state testing as the measure of that growth, we inevitably under value those skills that are difficult to measure - resiliency, grit, empathy, creativity, reflection, and revision.  And as so many have already argued, these are the skills that students will need as they move into an unpredictable job market. Testing a student on whether or not he or she can identify the mood of a short passage of literature does not measure how successful the student will be upon high school graduation. Focusing exclusively on how well students know, or even on how well they can apply, a particular set of literary terms to a text does little to prepare them for the world outside the doors of school. Instead, we need to open up our thinking about what we value. What value is an education that excludes the individual's experience? What value is learning that does not incorporate complex critical and creative thinking skills that take time to develop? What value is school when it does not open up opportunities to learn from mistakes, to revise thinking, to reflect? What value is a class that does not encourage learners to empathize?

I opened up to my student. She opened up to me. Together we wrote, we reflected, we revised, we collaborated. We learned together. There is value in that. There is so much value in opening up.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014


Much of my lesson planning is done in the shower. Turns out, this is true for quite a few people.  Scott Berkun summarizes some of the research of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in a blog post titled "Why You Get Ideas in the Shower."   Berkun writes,
"We have fewer and fewer places in our lives where we are not bombarded by inputs. For some people it’s yoga, going for a run, or going for a walk that quiets the conscious mind down enough for the sub-conscious to speak up. For other people it’s driving in the car. Everyone’s psychology is different and will relax in different environments, or at different times."
So, it makes sense that a great deal of my inspired lessons come to me during my early morning showers.

Take for example this morning. While washing my hair, I have this thought: why not use Twitter to teach students about the economy of words? By having students craft poetic lines in the space of 140 characters, we can use Twitter to talk about the power of word choice while at the same time using a public space to write for a real audience.  Two lessons in one!  Initially I posted using the hashtag #Twitterverse (clever, right?) but quickly realized the error of my ways when I searched the hashtag to see just how overused it is already.  So instead, we'll be using the hashtag #TwitterPoem to share our short verses.  Join us!

Share your #TwitterPoem with us.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Passion in Class

A few weeks back, before the hallways filled with chatter about summer adventures and schedule comparisons, I had the opportunity to both participate in and lead a number of professional development workshops for teachers in my district. It was a week filled with conversations and collaborations around flipping learning, using technology to connect learners, and about passion. And it is a couple of those conversations about passion that have been replaying in my head the last two weeks.

Mapping our heartbreak with Angela Maiers
It was Tuesday morning, 9:00 am bright and early, reminding many of us sitting in the room that summer was coming to an end. Elementary librarian Christy Brennan was leading a small group of teachers from our district in a discussion about passion-driven learning. It was a conversation that started many months earlier in late June, when both Christy and I were invited by Downingtown STEM Academy teacher Dr. Justin Staub to join his ninth and tenth grade students as they met with Angela Maiers to explore their passions. I have been struggling to write a post about our day at Downingtown STEM Academy for months. It is difficult to put into words the transformations and collaborations that we not only witnessed but also were invited to join. Students and teachers spent two days connecting. And it was an honor to witness how deeply their community of learners connected - connected with one another, connected with their passions, connected with others across the globe who shared their passion - all in search of ways to address heartbreaking problems. I watched as students who confessed that they would never really have connected in the classroom started to brainstorm together ways they might help abused animals in our area. In small groups, students shared their heartbreak, and then began to gather into smaller groups to map the issues and connections around those problems. When students were given the time, space, and support to address real-world issues, magic happened. It happened when students were encouraged to drive their own learning, and teachers became part of the learning community rather than leaders of it. And as Christy and I watched this magic unfold, we started to brainstorm ways to bring passion back to our district. So before our school ended last spring, Christy started a summer staff book club with a group of us committing to read Angela Maier's The Passion-Driven Classroom. That's what were discussing early that Tuesday morning in late August.

As we started to talk about what it meant to get out of our learners way, Christy's phone rang. For nearly an hour, we had an opportunity to chat with Angela Maiers. Angela shared with our group what it means to bring passion into the classroom. Many of us mistakenly think of passion as being a frivolous idea, lacking the rigor necessary for the real work of the classroom. But, as Angela pointed out during our conversation, "You don't have a shot at the brain unless you engage the heart." Maiers and Sandvold write in The Passion-Driven Driven Classroom:
"Passion comes from the Latin word 'patior,' meaning to suffer or to endure. In its origin, passion is used to describe someone who willingly opens up to suffering and finds fulfillment therein. ...In order to tap into passion as a resource to motivate, engage and empower our learners, we must understand these underlying values of passion." (16-17)
We teach in districts and systems that are ruled by standards and data-driven outcomes. But this is not at odds with passion. In fact, the empowerment and creativity that passion-driven learning inspires is the very type of inquiry-driven, higher-order thinking called for by our Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Passion-driven learning opens opportunities for students to wonder, to question, to reflect, to demonstrate their grit and resilience. "Passion isn't a nicety," Angela told us. "It's a necessity."

As a high school English teacher, it is this concept that has me rethinking how I foster learning opportunities in my classroom.  Rather than taking center stage, my role as the teacher is to curate and create moments where students take ownership of their own learning, reflect on and revise their thinking, and demonstrate the skills they are attempting to master.  I am a facilitator of learning. And I am not the only leader in the room.
Last fall, my students and I completed 20% time research projects in which my students were given time and space to research whatever topic they were interested in learning more about. I encouraged them to research something they ordinarily do not have opportunities to learn about in school. As a high school English teacher, I realized that my goals were to help students think reflectively, research responsibly, and grow their writing skills by adapting their tone for a specific audience of readers. It didn't matter what they researched. What mattered was the how.  Each Friday, students had a full block, 90 minutes, to read, conduct interviews, practice what they were learning. My students learned to quilt, decorate cakes, code apps, write lesson plans for middle school students, set-up experiments, shoot footage for documentary, revise a screen play, connect with resources helping our local homeless community, and so much more. We struggled together. Many of my students experienced success throughout the process, but just as many failed. And the students that butted up against their frustration, were challenged by the process of their learning, ended up learning incredibly valuable lessons about how to deal with complications and failures. In the end, students blogged weekly, interviewed experts, and filmed reflection videos on their learning. They created, collaborated, and connected. They wrote more and more often than previous classes. They conducted primary research. They integrated mentor texts with what they learned while interviewing an expert. And by opening up choice, my students were empowered to develop their voice, share with audiences outside our classroom, and demonstrate their learning in creative ways. This is the power of bringing passion into the classroom.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Classroom Makeover

My high school classroom, like my teaching, has undergone quite a few changes in the past few years.  As I have incorporated aspects of flipped learning and passion-based learning into my curriculum, I needed a classroom space that would accommodate movement, choice, and self-directed learning.  So, this summer I ditched my teacher's desk in favor of a standing work station, rearranged the desks into learning communities, added pillows, storage ottomans, and rugs for a more comfortable reading/break-out area, and made sure that students had easy access to what they would need to connect and collaborate in class by making supplies and multiple outlets accessible.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Are We Virtually Connected Or Are We Connected?

I attended elementary school in the early 80s. My school pictures are filled with a lot of vests and big feathered bangs. At one point or another, every one of my classmates came to school with the "bowl cut," when mom stuck a Tupperware bowl on your head and cut around it. I knew every one of my classmates, and not just because I grew up in a small town in upper Michigan. Our families relied on one another for information, for advice, and for support. We didn't turn to the web to figure out how to sign our children up for a bus to and from kindergarten. We didn't scroll through the school's online portal to to learn about which standardized tests were being given and when. Instead, we asked the parent who had a child older than ours. We talked with our neighbors. We built our community, both students and parents, through face-to-face connections and informal mentorships. And having just spent the morning clicking and filling out online forms so that my soon-to-be kindergartener is signed up for the correct bus and so that I receive text messages and phone calls and email alerts of every change, I'm beginning to question how impersonal school has become.

I find this ironic having just spent the summer attending and presenting at a wide variety of education conferences where many of the presenters, myself included, are sharing strategies and ideas for addressing individual learners needs.  Recently, while attending a session at the EdTech Teacher Summit in Chicago, I participated in a two hour session in which we wondered about the impact of individualized learning on the development of learning communities. When I look at how I am connecting with my own child's school, it is increasingly impersonal. Our avenues for learning about the school are typically through a screen of one sort or another. And when information is not emailed or posted to an online portal, it comes in the form of paper...lots and lots of paper.

When I attended kindergarten orientation in early summer with my son, he was led to a room with other soon-to-be school-age children and sent through a series of "stations." At each station, he met briefly with a teacher or school staff member who assessed his "level" in 10 to 15 minutes. Can you read this word? Can you count to 10? Do you know your phone number? I stayed in the auditorium with other parents where we were handed a bag of papers that contained procedural information about getting our student's health and dental records for the school but which also contained packet after packet of homework we were to go over with our child during the summer months. Yup, pre-kindergarten homework. Handwriting exercises and shape sorting games, basic math problems and sight words. And my son's school is not unique. Just a few weeks ago blogger Philip Kovacs posted "An Open Letter to My Son's Kindergarten Teacher," and like Philip and his son, my son and I have not opened that bag of homework.

However, what surprised me most was a little brochure tucked into our parent packets on Virtual K, an online kindergarten program that the school encouraged parents and students to access as a supplement to their half-day kindergarten program. The staff member standing before the parents at kindergarten orientation explained that the school used the virtual program to provide the instructional time that kindergarten students needed to be successful in later grades but which the school couldn't provide in person. Wait! What? So our schools are encouraging our youngest students to disengage with the school community in order to learn from a screen?

Technology has opened up so many avenues and possibilities that were not available to students of the 80s like me. When used well, technology can connect and engage both parents and students to the larger school community. And we see so many examples of teachers and schools doing this well: teachers who email welcome letters during the summer and encourage students to share their pictures and descriptions of summer adventures through blogs and online bulletin boards, schools that use Google Hangouts to virtually meet with students over the summer, and teachers who share video playlists introducing new students to their future classroom and learning adventures. However, each of these examples illustrates how technology is used to supplement the community that is also being built in person. Without that face-to-face connection, technology instead serves as a wall to divide parents and even students from the school. Simply moving all those handouts and information to an online space does nothing to build a sense of connection to a school. Just because information is easily accessible, does not mean that community is. It is worrisome that during kindergarten orientation parents are told with pride about online kindergarten. Remember that poster that hangs in nearly every faculty workroom -  "All I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten"? Read through it. Most of these lessons cannot be learned online.

But it's early. The school year hasn't officially started, so perhaps I am wrong. I just hope that my son and I have more opportunities to be connected to our school community rather than virtually connected.