This blog post is from a return guest blogger, Barb Istas–MN teacher.


Confidence is a gift. It is that little hint of attitude that starts with a feeling either within you or it’s provided by a pat on the back from somebody else. In my classroom I try to build confidence all day long. I believe that confidence is the inspiration that leads us onward and upward in all our learning.

My students read and write a lot. While we are reading and writing, there are many sparkles of success to notice and build upon: an impeccable word choice, a terrific title, a strong and persuasive reason to support an opinion, finding the personification in text, making a connection from one selection to another text, or understanding and expressing a theme from any story. These are all skills that add up to excellent reading and writing. From a straight standards teaching viewpoint, this is the common core of my job.

I value the common core standards as I guide my students along the 6th grade trail. They truly are a road map that leads us through all the critical literacy skills. But deeper down in the core of learning bubbles the confidence each kid needs to really take off as a reader and writer. My bigger job as a 6th grade teacher is to help my students notice their own strengths, praise them enough for them to feel that glorious sense of confidence which will drive all learning and skill acquisition from that point forward.

Once I know that I can do something with even a little bit of flair or success, I want to try it again and again. This is the practice that leads to skill and success – in anything!

So it goes – my radar needs to be up. The searchlight is on. I need to notice and praise. When confidence comes, students are energized to engage in their own learning. And this is serious teacher fun.

Posted in Connecting With Students, General Education, Inspiration, Reading and Literacy, School Initiatives, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Public or Private?

Our Director of Marketing, Jenny Oelkers, had an interesting public school vs. private school experience.

The dollar signs started flying in front of my eyes like the leaves on the blustery October day. My 14-year-old son, Jake, had just shared his aspiration of attending an elite private school for the remainder of his high school career. I was shocked. Jake had always experienced great success in school, had been enamored with finally sitting in the student section at the high school football games and seemed to be embracing much of what high school in suburbia had to offer.

What was driving his desire? It took awhile to get to the bottom of things.

1. One of his best friends had recently made the transfer to the private school of interest and although the friend admitted the expectations were much higher, he was thoroughly enjoying his experience.

2. Jake has aspirations of admission to an Ivy League college. Harvard and Stanford are high on his list. (Little did he know that if we started paying $25K for his high school education, he would be lucky if we had two shillings to rub together to send him to ANY college). He thought attending this private school would heighten his chances of admission.

3. He knew that he was not working hard in his current school environment and still getting straight A’s. He believed he needed to be pushed.

We let him entertain the idea of a private school education. We explored options . We received the glossy brochures. And, we went on the school tour and allowed Jake to shadow his friend for the day.

As a parent, I will not deny that I was impressed. The school looked regal – brick buildings, vines creeping up to the eaves and a sense of community and freedom for the students that I had not previously seen. When we toured the school, we had the opportunity to meet a science teacher. The passion for her subject matter oozed from her as she discussed phylums, nematodes and arthropods – my eyes glazed over, but I couldn’t escape her excitement and passion! The creme de la creme were average class sizes of 12-1. I can imagine this environment is a teacher’s dream.

Jake came away from the day intrigued.

My next mission was to make sure we were aware of all the opportunities that our suburban high school had to offer. I arranged a meeting with an assistant high school principal who had been a teacher of Jake’s in the 7th grade. Jake really liked her and I knew she related well to him.

The assistant principal was honest and forthright. The private school that Jake was exploring most certainly delivered a high quality education, but there were a multitude of opportunities at our suburban high school as well.  She spoke directly to Jake and told him that he can challenge himself and he can be a leader in his high school, he just may have to work a bit harder to find those opportunities. She continued to say that he could blend in and take the easy route or he can make the choice to be involved – the responsibility and choice was his.

Winter break came and went and the application to the private school remained untouched. As I considered introducing a Scrooge Christmas, began contemplating downsizing our house and researching the nutritional value of ramen to see if we could sustain ourselves for four years on one simple soup;  I finally just asked Jake if he had made a decision about applying to the new school.

“Mom,” he said, “I don’t think I’m going to apply.”

“What led you to that decision?” I asked.

“There just weren’t any cute girls at that school.”

Ahhhh….the simple (and often frightening) mind of a 14-year-old boy.

Ultimately, the exploration of schools was interesting and eye-opening. My hope is the words of the assistant principal ring true in Jake’s head. It is his decision to be the best he can be and probably one of the best life-lessons he can learn.

Thank you to the passionate teachers out there who love what they do and the teachers (and administrators) who aren’t afraid to give the kids the responsibility and power to take ownership of their lives and their futures.

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The Gift of Imagination

Cassie Erkens is our guest blogger. Cassie is a presenter, facilitator, coach, trainer of trainers, keynote speaker, author, and above all, a teacher.  She addresses the treasure that is imagination.  Follow her @cerkens

Imagination is a treasure available to each and every one of us. It is a gift that separates us from any other creature on earth. With imagination, we can make the mundane interesting and the already-remarkable even more stunning. With imagination we can write stories, paint pictures or murals, play, tease, solve problems, and invent tools and resources to make life better. Our options are limitless.

JK Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, says that imagination is so much more than a tool for creating. Because of imagination, humans can see or read the works of others and experience empathy or learn vicariously. This allows us to avoid creating the mistakes that others have made or to adopt solutions that others have identified so we too can be successful.

Sometimes, both teachers and students might be heard to say, ‘that’s not me – I am not creative enough; I’m not imaginative.’ I would disagree. We all have this simple treasure, and in our own way we have the capacity to captivate and inspire. Our challenge is to reconnect to the passion, thrill, and opportunity of imagination through learning in our classrooms. It is possible in a standards based, results-driven world, but it requires imagination on our part. Today, the common core standards call for more creativity. Before we can exact it from our students, we must explore and employ it in our very teaching. May we find exciting new solutions for teaching with imagination and may we demonstrate empathy along the way.

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Little Notes–Big Connections

Welcome guest blogger, Barb Istas.  Barb is an accomplished MN teacher and writer, with her own blog,
Yesterday after the final bell, I found a note on my desk. It was hidden underneath a pile of spelling papers, folded with my name written in hot pink ink. Uncovering the note brought an instant smile to my face and warmed my tired teacher heart. Before I even opened it, I knew it was going to be something sweet.

Getting notes from my students is absolutely one of my favorite things, a lovely and precious job perk. Because I teach and preach the power of writing all day long, it makes me giddy when students choose to open up their hearts and put their appreciation into words.

This little note lifted my spirits with several cute comments, but one compliment in particular caught my attention and made me think: “Thank you for not having favorites, for always paying attention to me just the same as everybody else.”

Wow, this note had some depth. Being fair and trying to connect with each kid, to build a relationship with every child on my roster, is something I take very seriously. I took this comment in, re-evaluated my teacher skills, and let it sit for a minute in my heart.

Later on that evening, I sat down with a pen and wrote a note back. I shared my gratitude for her words, and praised her a little more for some of her other strengths, (including her glittery nail polish). Encouragement comes in many forms, but a little note can go a long way in anybody’s education.

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How do you feel about onions?

Our guest blogger this week is a friend, former staff development coordinator and current high school dean of students, Eric Serbus. I hope you enjoy his musings on onions.

I honestly do not like to eat onions. The combination of an onion’s taste and texture makes me squirm. When I was a boy I would go to great lengths to extract any remnants of the shiny slivers before braving a bite. Whenever my mom made chili, my onion extraction operation could have been confused for a rudimentary gold mining operation. As I’ve grown older either my tolerance for the vegetable has increased or my patience for avoiding them has decreased. In either case, my palate and onions have come to a place of coexistence. I won’t seek onions out, but their presence won’t necessarily disqualify a food from being eaten.

In the past 10 years my relationship with the onion has blossomed, but not on a culinary level. I have begun to realize that an onion is arguably the most effective metaphor for reaching a deeper understanding about some of the complex challenges in teaching and learning. Here are just a couple of examples:

• Students, especially those at-risk, are onions that must be peeled layer by layer to understand, relate to, and ultimately educate. I’ve seen many teachers mistakenly respond to the behaviors and attitudes of challenging students as if they were rocks to be buried rather than onions to be peeled. Next time you encounter an unmotivated or defiant student forego the temptation to classify them as simply “lazy” or “naughty.” Rather, withhold judgment and peel away the layers by asking “why” the student has this attitude or displays that behavior. Only then can you intervene to effect real change.

• Time, experience, and stress can easily add additional layers to a teacher’s professional onion, layers that can potentially conceal the core of one’s purpose if not routinely peeled. As we begin the Professional Learning Community journey in our school, teachers have been forced to peel some of the dirty, old, dead layers off of their onions and refocus on the most important and effective practices in their profession. They are moving out of isolation and are beginning to engage in action/results oriented collaboration focused on student learning and continuous improvement.

It doesn’t take a lot of reflective practice to realize that many aspects of the education profession are more complex than originally thought. Whether it is grading practices, discipline policies, or any other pressing issue, educators must continually peel away layers to find the heart of every issue. I challenge you to see beyond the surface and explore the undercurrents of educational issues.

Whether you like to eat onions or not, I invite you to post your own onion metaphors.

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Keeping the Funny When Nothing is Funny

Please welcome guest blogger, Stevie Ray!   He is a nationally recognized speaker concerning communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management. He can be reached at

6337 Newton Avenue South Minneapolis, MN 55423-1113

Carol Burnett once said, “Comedy is tragedy plus time.”

For educators, however, it seems like time can make laughter drift out of reach; the results can be devastating. To be sure, a small bit of stress is actually good for us. Stress, in moderate amounts, allows us to focus and remain productive. And human beings highly value productivity. Getting stuff done, especially stuff we like doing, creates a release of Dopamine in the brain. This pleasure hormone is what feeds our feelings of satisfaction. So work is not all bad, it just depends on how we balance it with play.

Ask most people what the opposite of play is and they will say, “Work.” This is far from the truth. Dr. Stuart Brown M.D. studied the effects of play on the brain. Quite simply, play is defined by any activity that is done for its own sake. It is non-productive, elicits joy from the participant, and tends to turn off our internal clock; time flies. It actually walks hand-in-hand with work to create a healthy brain. If the brain is starved of play behavior for long periods of time, healthy chemicals cease, and the brain shuts down. Essentially, the opposite of play is not work, the opposite of play is depression.

So educators must engage in behavior that brings a good hearty laugh occasionally throughout the day.

The best way to do this is to understand where laughter comes from. There are four main causes of laughter.

1) Laughter of Superiority. Most laughter is pointed at someone else’s foibles, making us feel a bit superior (but in a fun way).

2) Laugher of Recognition. We laugh when someone else talks about a situation that we ourselves experienced. It’s a sharing mechanism.

3) Laughter of the Unexpected. When we are surprised, we laugh.

4) Laughter of Delight. When in groups, people tend toward laughter (unless some sourpuss puts a lid on it).

People are sixteen times more likely to laugh at something if they experience it with other people. If you are sitting laughing all by yourself, we need to get you some help.
So the best way to keep laughter a part of your day, and keep a healthy disposition is to engage the Four Laws of Laughter. Do something to surprise a friend or colleague. Share a story about what happened to you recently. Make yourself the brunt of the joke if you aren’t sure who will be a good sport. And don’t isolate yourself! You can surprise yourself in ways that aren’t necessarily funny. Just doing common tasks in a new way shakes the cobwebs out of the brain and lightens your mood.

Remember, you are trying to be humorous, not funny! People who try to be funny usually end up being annoying. Humor draws everyone in, so be open about your experiences and others will do likewise. The result will keep laughter a part of your day, all the way until the end of the year.

Posted in Connecting With Students, Inspiration, Interesting, Just for Fun, Teacher Performance, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

What makes a great educator?

Our guest blogger today is Barbara Borland, a Program Manager at Colorado State University-Pueblo. She writes about a topic near and dear to her heart: quality education.

In this day and age of CSAP tests, No Child Left Behind, etc…we have lost the idea that education goes beyond the calculable test scores that school districts use and the federal government mandates to determine excellence and success in teaching.

What makes a great educator?
~Someone who takes time out of their day to explain for what seems the two hundredth time a concept to a student and does so with patience.
~Someone who cares enough about their profession that they seek continuing education classes that challenge them and that will make them better practitioners in the classroom (with or without their district directing them to do so, or giving them credit for the classes).
~Someone who understands that not all students learn the same way, and someone who goes out of their way to ensure that they are imparting knowledge in a variety of methods.
~Someone who treats all students as their customer, for surely without students, there would be no need for teachers.
~Finally someone who is able to share their excitement about learning with their students.

I can’t tell you the number of college students I have had who hold wonderful memories of a particular teacher in their K-12 education that encouraged them to learn and gave them confidence in the fact that they WILL be successful. Be that educator!

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