Friday, October 2, 2020

Checking In: How Are You?

Over the life of this blog, nearly five years now, I have kept a relatively consistent schedule with posts.  A few blips here and there, but for the most part, I have published a post, on average, about once every two weeks.  Sometimes I write a post in less than an hour and publish, sometimes I have three different posts going at once, writing a little bit at a time and publishing them over the course of a week or two.  But now, as of this writing, I haven't published any writing in several weeks.  My last post was published on August 11, 2020, which was in the middle of a three week period of training to prepare for the new school year. I love to write but have not had any desire to write or had much motivation to do so in the last few weeks.  And while I cannot speak for everyone, I would bet that if you are reading this, you are having a similar experience.  

I have never been so tired! After hours in front of my computer, when the end of my school days comes to a close, I close every tab, shut it down, and walk away until the next day.  Wash, rinse, repeat until Friday.  When Friday rolls around, I shut down my computer and don't go near it until Monday morning.  Teaching from my home in a 100% virtual environment has sapped any desire to do anything outside of my contracted school work.  That means that I have not written a new blog post, I have not prepped a training or presented at a virtual conference, that means that I have not participated in any Twitter chats, webinars, etc. The thought of doing those things nearly makes me tired just typing this out! The only thing that I have been consistent with is recording episodes of my podcasts, The BeerEDU Podcast, The Podcast by Sons of Technology, and my latest venture, The Battle Born Digital Learning Podcast (all of which are available on your favorite podcast apps).  

In conversations that I have had with colleagues, podcast guests, and in brief interactions with educators on social media, we all have our own story as to why we are so taxed on a regular basis.  For me, I could list dozens of reasons, but I will narrow it down to a few key things that are exhausting and stressful.
  • Starting a New School in a New(ish) District: After leaving my previous position in Northern Nevada and moving back to Las Vegas, I returned to the district in which I worked for 13 years but started at a new school, a school where I only knew 3 people going into. Meeting my colleagues has been difficult and working with students virtually is even more difficult.  
  • Special Education Procedures: In my previous district, I learned how to conduct special education procedures in a specific way. By the end of my second year, I had the procedures down to the point where I rarely had to ask a colleague a question about how to do things. My new school and district do things a little differently.  Some things are easier, some are more cumbersome, but I am finding myself seeking out help to do "simple" tasks on a regular basis, which means things are taking longer.  I have joked with my special education facilitator that I am going to drive her crazy, but she has been very gracious and helpful throughout my transition.  
  • Revisions to IEPs: My district mandated that all students had to have a revision made to their IEP to address distance education.  The revision required making some changes to instructional minutes, dates, etc.  Rather than a formal IEP meeting where all members of the team are required, we simply needed to call parents/guardians to discuss the changes, note any concerns, and make the revision.  However, more than half of my parents do not speak English, making communication tougher (Google Translate is my best friend!) and with some parents, I have not been able to make contact at all for a variety of reasons.  
  • Co-teaching: First off, let me preface this with the following: I love the four teachers that I get to work with every day. I get to do three sections of US History, one section of World History, and three sections of algebra.  But working virtually with four teachers is cumbersome. And algebra is a course that I have hadn't taken in 20 years, let alone taught it.  So I am learning how to teach algebra on top of everything else that I need to do on a daily basis. It is getting better and those math skills are coming back, but it was certainly tough in the first couple of weeks.  
  • Canvas LMS: My district transitioned to Canvas for this school year. I have completed courses as a student in Canvas and a few years ago, I attended a training on how to use Canvas but had not used it much as a teacher in the time since.  While I have learned the ins and outs of Canvas relatively quickly, that doesn't mean that it works seamlessly all of the time.  And while I don't mind helping others out, because colleagues are struggling to learn the program, I tend to get a lot of emails about how to do certain things.  
  • Social Media in General: I have nearly shut down my social media accounts.  I haven't done a lot of scrolling through and I certainly have scaled back posting in the last few weeks with the exception of posting when new episodes of the podcasts are available.  The obvious answer is political: I'm sick of it! There doesn't seem to be any sense of respect and etiquette when people post about politics. And it's even more frustrating how topics of human rights, social justice, and science are politicized.  But even educators are guilty of the lack of decorum, arguing like children about the validity of things like Bitmoji classroom.  I am already stressed out, avoiding social media has lessened my stress.  
  • Family: A few weeks ago, I found a very inexpensive flight to my hometown.  I hadn't been back in over four years.  I decided to go for a couple of days to see my grandpa, who will be turning 97 soon. Because I wanted the trip to be about seeing him, I kept it secret that I was going, with only a handful of people knowing that I was going to be there.  Traveling during a pandemic is tough and I quarantined myself for several days leading up to leaving to lessen any risk and not expose my grandpa or uncles.  I left there with a promise to my grandpa that I would be back soon, but not knowing when. Little did I know, my grandmother (no relation) would pass away two weeks later. I found myself going back to my hometown again for her funeral.  While I was able to see my grandpa again (I made him a promise and I came through!), as well as family and friends, some of which I hadn't seen in 25+ years, it was a sad and stressful time, especially for my dad.  I am a few days removed from the funeral of my grandmother and I am thinking about her often, but I know she wouldn't want me to dwell and each day is getting easier. 
As I am wrapping this up, I already feel a lot better just getting these words down.  There is light at the end of the tunnel with my caseload, as I have wrapped up my IEP revisions and have completed several annual IEPs, and my students are starting to get the hang of distance learning (even though they still don't like to turn on the cameras or mics to participate in class).  The weather is starting to finally cool off some, as most of September was still in the triple digits.  But I am also concerned about you! How are you doing? What is stressing you out? How are you coping with that stress?  What are you looking forward to and what is currently bringing you joy? Remember to take a step back, take care of yourself, and do something that makes you happy!

Until next time...  

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

When Things Don't Go As Planned

The alarm was set, but I didn't need it. I beat the alarm by nearly 30 minutes and there was no way I was going back to sleep; I was too excited. I grabbed a quick shower, poured a cup of coffee, and started getting my things together. The morning was already hot, but a scattering of thunderstorms in the area brought a little bit of relief compared to previous days. But rain or shine, nothing was going to ruin this day!

This picture could be any number of things. In the past, this easily could have described the first day of school, but not this time. This time, I am describing a camping trip with my family. We had planned this trip for over a month, four nights in Williams, Arizona, a temporary home base from where we would explore the Grand Canyon, Bearizona, the small towns along Route 66, Sedona, and Flagstaff. This trip would be the last before returning to school at the end of the month for my wife and me (yes, after two years, my wife would be returning to work!). 

The trip to Williams began rather uneventfully. A stop for drinks at 7-Eleven and a quick check of the tires and lights on the camper and our Dodge Durango and we merged onto I-11, crossed the O'Callaghan-Tillman Bridge over the Colorado River dividing Nevada and Arizona, and then through about 80 miles of the Mojave Desert toward Kingman, Arizona and Route 66, the road less taken that we would use to get to Willams instead of I-40 that bypassed the highway decades ago.  So, a stop in Kingman for breakfast and gas and we would be on our way, or so we thought...

After getting gas and starting the vehicle back up, the temperature gauge instantly went to the top. Normally, the gauge hovers around the middle, even when towing in the heat, so I knew that something was wrong. My fears were confirmed when I opened the hood and saw radiator fluid spewing out of the bottom of the vehicle. Luckily, a repair show was down the street, so I carefully guided us there with the vehicle screaming at us the entire time. 

My hope was that the shop would be able to look at it, make a repair over the next few hours, then we could be on our way. Unfortunately, that was not going to be the case. The shop was booked until the next day, other shops in the area were also full, and my insurance company would only cover a tow for 20 miles. So very quickly, it was determined that our planned camping trip would be no more. And when I said that nothing would ruin this day? I was mistaken...

So as a family, we began to go over options. We could find a motel in Kingman, but without a vehicle, what would we do? So then the thought was that we could rent a car so we could do something. But nothing against Kingman, there isn't a whole lot to do around there, at least that we knew about. Out of frustration, we thought about renting a car to drive the 100 miles back home, return the car there (for a significant fee), and drive back in our other car once the Durango was fixed. Regardless of the decision, none of these sounded appealing. 

Getting silly overlooking the
rim of the Grand Canyon!

So my wife suggested the following: rent a car in Kingman, transfer our stuff from the Durango to the rental car, drive two hours to Williams, get a motel room there, and still go to the Grand Canyon, Bearizona, and other places over the span of the couple of days that it would take to get the vehicle fixed. No, it wouldn't be the four we initially planned in the camper, but we could salvage something of a vacation. While she called to reserve a car, I found a motel and called the campground to cancel our reservation (and after explaining why we wouldn't be coming, the incredibly sweet woman on the other end of the phone refunded our entire reservation that we had prepaid, thank you Circle Pines KOA in Williams, Arizona!). An hour later, we were back on the road sans travel trailer to have some family fun!

So, what happened to the Durango? The thermostat failed, causing the radiator to overheat. When the radiator overheated, it failed completely, explaining why it lost fluid. While the parts to replace a radiator aren't much (surprisingly, only about $250), the labor is very intensive because of the way vehicles are designed now. When the shop called to tell me that the total bill for the fix would be nearly $1100, you could have knocked me over with a feather. But in the end, while the trip ended up costing us a lot more money than we had intended, it was still a great time! 

This kind of a situation is exactly what our school year is going to be, what could happen at any moment in our classroom, and what could happen after spending the summer prepping materials only to learn that the tools, subject area or grade level, or something else has changed. NOT EVERYTHING GOES AS PLANNED! Sometimes, it is something minor, like the student information system going down when you want to input grades or attendance, waking up to a two-hour start delay due to weather, or the fire alarm that sounds right in the middle of the best lesson that you ever taught.  But this year, the 2020-2021 school year, is a beast that we have never encountered and no amount of successes and/or challenges in the spring during the initial shutdown can truly prepare us for what's coming. 

Outside of the continuation of distance learning or the challenges of returning to a face-to-face or hybrid model, what are some of the other challenges that you are going to face, things that you certainly did not expect six months ago? For me, there are several challenges. 

First, I will continue to co-teach classes, namely United States history and world history, courses that I have taught and co-taught before. However, I will also be co-teaching three sections of algebra. I haven't taken a math class in 20 years, let alone ever taught it. However, after learning that it would give me the opportunity to interact with students on my caseload more frequently by having them in my class and knowing that I will be working with an excellent math teacher, I am more confident that I can be successful as a co-teacher in a course in which I have no experience. 

Second, my district is moving toward implementing Canvas for all teachers and students. In the past, many teachers used Google Classroom, but after a directive came from the Nevada Department of Education mandating a common learning management system, it is now up to teachers to learn how to build courses in Canvas. I have used Canvas as a student and a few years ago, I completed a training in Canvas, but have not used it much outside of that. Luckily, my district has provided several training modules (on Canvas!) to prepare teachers, my school has created a technology team to provide training (a team that I was asked to contribute to), and I found a wonderful course, Canvas Educator, through TCEA that was only $29 and included a one year membership to the organization. As a result, I have been able to learn the basics of Canvas very quickly, but I know there are going to be numerous educators that are going to struggle with the stress of virtual teaching and learning an LMS at the same time. 

Lastly, I have my own children and their education to consider. I was looking forward to the first year without paying for childcare in a very long time, but with my district moving to fully online learning, I had to consider childcare once again, with many reservations. Because so many others are also going to need childcare, a large organization like the Boys & Girls Club was not even considered as I do not feel comfortable sending my kids to a place like that in a pandemic. Hiring a "nanny" to come to my home was cost-prohibitive. And keeping my kids engaged at home while I worked with my own classes, while a last ditch option, was something I wanted to avoid as well. After conversations with other educator friends, we were able to arrange for a school counselor that would be working from home and an educator that typically works as a substitute to have my children and four others at their home where they can complete their online classes, interact with some other children their age (two of the kids are family friends), and have some free time throughout the day to play games, swim, etc. 

Think about the challenges that you are facing going into this school year that you did not sign up for when you became an educator. What are you options when facing these challenges and how are you going to tackle the challenges head on? Know that you have the supports of your colleagues and millions of educators, students, families, and communities around the world and that we will get through this together! 

Until next time... 

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Exciting Times, All Things Considered

There is no question that the past few months have been hectic. Schools shutting down all over the world forced educators to teach remotely, states canceled extracurricular activities for students, graduations were held virtually or by drive-through, and professional development has become even more important with the uncertainty of what the next school year is going to look like. Unfortunately, there isn't an end in sight, regardless of calls from many within the federal and state governments to fully open schools, even as numbers of COVID-19 cases are skyrocketing.  But this isn't a piece designed to debated whether schools should open or not (I am 100% fully in the continuation of remote learning camp until numbers have decreased dramatically).  This is a look at some exciting things that are happening in education instead!

As a result of the closures, states canceled standardized tests. Many colleges and universities eliminated requirements for tests like the ACT and SAT for admission. And some states are already exploring canceling testing for the 2020-2021 school year as well. Testing has been a powder keg issue for many years on its effectiveness and necessity. And guess what? The world did not implode when it was canceled this year, nor will it if testing is canceled again this year! It's time for standardized testing to fade away and while it is horrific and unfortunate that it took a pandemic for the demise to begin, this will be one of the lasting positive impacts if testing is indeed eliminated from our schools.  

Because of the necessity of learning various tools for flipped, blended, and distance learning, I have noticed more and more people sharing their work on social media.  Everywhere you turn and every hashtag you search results in a ton of amazing resources from hard-working educators, from short videos, blogs, podcasts, graphics, and more.  And my perception is that more people are actively seeking out learning materials. As a result, I have seen more activity from Google Educator Groups (Nevada's group is relaunching in August, more on this in a moment), Facebook educator groups have been popping up for educators to share and ask questions, and various companies have been hosting more webinars, chats, and other activities for educators to learn about and become better versed in their products. 

There has also been some exciting things happening for me more directly. For educators in the State of Nevada, two huge developments are coming to fruition after weeks of preparation, the Nevada Digital Learning Collaborative, and the Nevada Google Educators Group. And for me, a book study on my book, To The Edge: Successes & Failures Through Risk-Taking.  

Look for The Battle Born Digital Learning Podcast wherever you
listen to podcasts! The podcast is sponsored by the Nevada Department
of Education and the Nevada Digital Learning Collaborative. 
The former consists of educators around the state that is working to prepare a variety of materials for educators, students, and families to highlight digital learning. I am fortunate enough to have been selected as a member of this team. My role in the NVDLC is to work with other educators on the marketing and communicating aspect of the organization.  To market the work of the NVDLC, I have teamed up with the Nevada Department of Education and a longtime colleague, Maggie Cox, to create The Battle Born Digital Learning Podcast!.  The show will be posted on the first and third Mondays of each month and will highlight the work of educators from all over the state.  I am really excited for the show to take off.  As of this writing, it is available on Anchor, but will soon be available on all other podcast apps like Apple, Spotify, Pocketcasts and Stitcher.  

The Nevada Google Educators Group has been around for a few years, but there hasn't been much activity. I was recently contacted about my interest in relaunching the group to help make it relevant and a place for educators to turn to for questions and to share resources and to be a part of the leadership team for the group. There is a multitude of ways to connect with the group on the Facebook group, Facebook page, Twitter, YouTube, and their website. You don't need to be an educator in Nevada to be a part of the group or access materials, all are welcome! The relaunch will be streamed on YouTube Live on Monday, August 3 at 6:00 PM Pacific, so watch the group's social media feeds, subscribe to the YouTube channel and visit the website for more information!

With the school year approaching and the unknown of what it is going to look like or what educators are going to face, now is a great time to take some risks in the classroom. Starting on Saturday, August 1, I will be leading a study of my book. My goal is to inspire others to embrace risk, learn from risk, and take the consequences of risk, good and bad, in stride.  The book study will take place on Voxer. If you are unfamiliar with Voxer, it is a messaging app that allows users to leave text and voice messages. It is available on iOS, Android, and there is also a desktop version.  If you are interested in participating in the study, fill out my book study form and I will be in communication with you to send you the details. If you do not have a copy of my book, it is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble in paperback, Kindle, and Nook.  I am very excited to host this study and hope that you can join! 

Even though the world seems to be burning, there are lots of great things happening that need to be highlighted. I hope that you can find something positive and are making the best of a tough situation. Please share them out so we can all connect through positivity!

Until next time... 

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Summer Recharge - Pandemic Style

Stop me if you have heard this one before: "Teaching must be great, you only work 6 hours a day and you get the summers off!"  If you are a teacher, you laugh at this one whenever you hear it because you know how ridiculous it truly is when you dive into it deeper.  What teacher is really working only 6 hours a day? How many hours a day are you really working? Are you working once you get home? What about weekends, are you working on the weekend? And come summer, how much time are you really taking off?  

Over my 15 years as a teacher, I can't tell you how many hours I have worked after my contracted time at night from home, on weekends, or in the summer.  Figure in the time I have spent pursuing my graduate degrees, certifications, attending and presenting at conferences, etc., and it adds up to thousands upon thousands of hours of times attempting to improve learning for my students and improve my skill set.  And while I have always viewed summer as a time to focus on self-improvement, this year is much different.

For many, myself included, the last 2-3 months of the school year was very taxing.  Working from home remotely was something that nearly nobody had ever done before and the process of figuring out how to provide school to students was very trying.  Luckily, I was already familiar with the tools that my school ultimately decided to use for remote learning, but there was so much more to the remote learning and teaching process that was exhausting, such as coordinating schedules for teachers, students, and families, ensuring that devices and Internet were available, and communicating through phone, email, video conference, etc.  

Yes, you can disconnect & recharge! And did you also know that
you can customize a Bitmoji in the Google Chrome extension? 
Adding to the crazy that was the last few months and the continuing pandemic, I moved in the middle of May. Moving is tough in the best of times, but getting everything packed in an apartment and a storage unit, finding movers to help and trekking across the state to a new home that you have never actually seen only increased the stress. (We didn't just find a place and sign a lease, the realtor that we worked with was amazing and conducted a video walk-through of the home before we committed).  Meanwhile, I still had a few weeks of school and conducted remote teaching from my new home over 400 miles away (my principal and I talked about it and in not so many words, he essentially said that it didn't matter where I taught from as long as I was doing my job). 

Had the opportunity to meet Jim Craig and have him sign
my copy of We Win! A few months ago at an event in Las
Vegas celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Miracle on Ice
As a result, once the school year ended, I shut myself down to reset myself and take a break from everything.  I went days without turning on my computer.  I scaled back my scrolling and participation in social media.  I still listened to podcasts, but I wasn't as actively engaged as a listener and I started listening to more non-education related shows and more music (I went down a rabbit hole of The Offspring's catalog for several hours one day and was turned on to a very early punk band from Detroit called Death by the boys from The Punk Rock Classrooms Podcast).  I watched a lot of different shows on Hulu and Netflix, namely The Office, Waco, Ozark (as of this writing, still need to finish it), and have been rewatching episodes of Trailer Park Boys.  And I have been doing some reading, plowing through We Win! Lessons on Life, Business, & Building Your Own Miracle Team by Jim Craig, the goaltender of the 1980 USA Hockey team that defeated the Soviet Union in the Miracle on Ice game before beating Finland to win the gold medal.  I have also been reading White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo and The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, using both books as an opportunity to realize my own biases about race to become a better-informed person and educator and striving to be an anti-racist.   

Fishing was slow during the trip, I only landed one small rainbow trout, but
sunrise over the lake is extremely hard to beat! 
To further unplug, I needed to get out of the city and get back to something I love but had not had the opportunity to do in a long time: camp! My travel trailer had not been out in the great outdoors for a couple of years and had been sitting in storage.  My fishing gear had also been sitting dormant, so as a family, we went to Panguitch Lake, Utah for a few days.  While I did not have any intentions to be on a device anyway, it made it much easier to avoid my phone when I arrived at the lake to learn that there wasn't any cell service.  For four days, we hiked, we fished, and we ate our meals cooked over a fire and had a great time until the drive home when we broke a spring on the camper and had to have it towed to Cedar City for repairs (but thanks to Matt's Springs, we were back on the road about 4 hours after calling for the tow truck!).  I have another camping trip lined up for later in the month to Williams, Arizona, not as rustic as Panguitch Lake, but another opportunity to unplug and relax in nature. 

After nearly a month of unplugging, I have been starting to get back into the game. I have recorded a handful of episodes of my podcasts, The BeerEDU Podcast & The Podcast by Sons of Technology. I have been working on some modules provided to Pear Deck Coaches as a way to refresh and expand my knowledge on the platform.  Since I missed the live presentation, I have started to go back to watch sessions from CUE-NV's CUE'd Up virtual conference that was held in late June. Because I am going to be teaching in a new district/school and do not know what the fall is going to look like, I'm not sure how to prepare other than brushing up on skills and looking at other ways to create lessons in a blended, flipped, or virtual format (I know I am teaching special education, but what I am co-teaching is still up in the air).  Either way, I am motivated again to grind after having some time to decompress.

My point was not to tell you about my summer, not explicitly, at least.  My goal, if you are still reading this, is to tell you that not only is it okay for you to unplug, but you NEED to unplug.  Take care of yourself. Spend time with your family. Get away (safely) if you can and leave your electronics behind, perhaps even go somewhere without cell service or put your phone into airplane mode when you get there. You have my permission to do these things (not that you need MY permission, what you do is YOUR prerogative)! You will be better for it, your family will be better for it, and when we return to whatever school will be in a few weeks, your students, colleagues, and community will be better for it!

Until next time...