How do students prove “Work Habits” and “Grit”?

Work habits. I think this is one of the things that I always saw as a sure sign of student success. Do they try? After they fail, do they try again or is this it?

Reading levels,homework submissions, creative intellectual dialogs, and more; this is typically what I have used to gauge student grit and work habits.

Today, during our amazing madness of our Design Expo I think I have a different perspective. When all was said and done, we were tired, and calling for our beds, it decided to downpour. Being in a terrible drought, we are all very excited. Noticing 100 chairs, speakers, tables, and more that could be ruined by this rain, our excitement was quieted just a bit.

Hurry hurry hurry. This is what I pictured us adults doing as we were going to tackle the issue. Before I knew it, there were students everywhere, silently doing what they could, then asking what else they could do. The students that I witnessed weren’t previously students that I would categorize as the hardest working kids.

The students also did something that really had me intrigued. Often in the classroom, the question of, “What do I get out of this” is usually something they blatantly say or we just know they are thinking. Why should THEY do this for US?! This question didn’t come up. Not once. Not once did they expect something in return.

Could it be that they have pride in their school? Could it be that they have found a fun, safe place that they WANT to take care of the things that belong to them? Is that enough of a reason for an 11-14 year old to comprehend? Something to ponder.. why now, what is it about these events that make kids step up in ways I haven’t necessarily seen?

Also, this had me asking myself what I consider “hardworking?” How do I gauge that in my room? What is grit and how does a student prove that they have grit to persevere?

Maybe I need to reevaluate what effort, hard work, and grit look like. Maybe I need to provide more opportunities to show me what they ARE capable of. But how do we do this.. something to ponder as our exciting night ends!


Student Led Conferences: Celebrations of Learning

Student led conferences: A place where students share examples of work and set goals for the rest of the year.

Celebrations of Learning: A place where students reflect on their accomplishments and their challenges throughout the year in a positive manner.

After reflecting on what hasn’t worked in the past at various different schools, and in our personal lives, we as teachers found that parent-teacher conferences were not as effective as we’d like. By the time students get to middle school, parents have heard many of the same issues over and over again. Something was still lacking each time: student accountability.

Students and parents show up, we talk at/about them, they swear they will change, a forced change may or may not happen for about a month then what?

We created a new school, with that, needs to come a new culture. We decided to go to the heart of our GILLS. Right there lies something significant; Leading with Integrity. What does that even mean?

With our Celebrations of Learning taking the place of parent conferences, students were forced to do something they are very rarely asked to do: be accountable for their learning, and lead with integrity.

We asked them to reflect, a lot. We asked them to do this not only on what they are bad at or should change, but their strengths.  They deserve to celebrate. The biggest knuckle head in the room has done SOMETHING this year and they deserve to be proud of themselves. We are trying to create confident, proud individuals so let’s help them bring that out in themselves.


As the teacher in the room, I must admit I F.A.I.L’ed (First Attempt in Learning) a lot at this. What was important? An impeccable presentation, professional dress, student presence? What did I expect of them? To be honest, I wasn’t sure. I am so used to creating rubrics, setting guidelines, etc. We all know the expectations… but we didn’t. I had to be honest with the students and let them know that we weren’t really sure how this would go.


My favorite part! (which is probably why the “preparations” section was a bit lacking). I could not be prouder! Honestly and truly I sit here with the most ridiculous (exhausted) smile on my face. They did it! They stood in front of their teachers, parents, and PEERS and reflected, “owned” it.

My first “challenging” student had their presentation and I didn’t even know what to expect.

The results blew me away. There were still lowercased “i’s,” still “strenths” didn’t have a ‘g’ even though we had the word on the board daily, and all of the petty other things I could criticize. But what was there? What was there was ownership, accountability, many nerves, and ….heart! There is nothing more interesting then a tough kid coming in with his mommy and being so proud of himself with an adorable grin across his face as he sees the proud tears rolling down her face.

Instead of telling a parent that a student doesn’t complete their homework, or participate enough in class, they did it for me. THEY made promises to THEIR parents and THEY reflected on their challenges and strengths. Whether or not the follow through happens now lies in the responsibility between the student and THEIR words and goals not MINE, it is THEIR education.

But most importantly, was comparing the entrances and exits. Students had no idea what to expect regardless of us putting the word “celebration” in the title. They walked in with their heads down, five feet in front of their parents, SILENT. How’d they leave? Smiling, chatting. and often arm in arm with their parents.

Why do we stop celebrating student achievement in middle school? We need to keep proving to students that POSITIVE behavior also deserves attention and recognition.

Twitter handle: @msblaha

Who cares, it’s in the past!

The standard statement made in a history class: who cares they’re all dead and it happened in the past.  I have a confession,  I used to feel the exact same way.

Being a part of the exciting generation of standardized testing, history was a dull subject in which I would eventually have to simply mark a, b, c, or d.  It was dry with little excitement, activities, or analyzing.  Being an honors and AP student I was able to shout out facts and remember dates at the drop of a hat and that is as far as it got.

Finally, I took an amazingly interactive history class in college and realized the mindset that I had all along was incorrect.  I couldn’t help but blame the teaching style forced upon teachers in the early 2000’s.

When I made the decision to teach middle school, I had a hard time choosing a subject to focus on.  I didn’t want to teach a “subject,” I wanted to teach students, and that’s what mattered. Plus, I genuinely do love and have a passion for them all.  I finally committed to history and realized I wanted to make students love it! I wanted to change the common old idea that it was in the past, and therefore was irrelevant.

Fast forward to me teaching my first 7th grade history class.  I spent the summer thinking about how to make them not only engaged and educated, but how to make them care.  I realized that what was missing from most of my history classes was an emotion.  So and so conquered so and so and took their land.  That was it!

We asked students to analyze documents and form arguments,  all of which are valuable skills in my opinion, but what I know was missing from my education was a true understanding and feeling.  I had little feelings, care, or empathy towards anybody or anything I learned.

Within each quarter of thematic units,  we do each of the things listed previously.  We analyze documents,  we design theories,  and try to find problems and solutions.   But my main focus this year has been to try to put the students in the place of the “characters.”   We tell each other stories from our lessons and look for similar situations in our lives in which we can relate.

Various activities and lessons support these stories.  One example is a simple rendition of an “I Am” poem, like many English teachers have students fill out about themselves in the first weeks of school.  Students “become” one person associated with the situation we are learning about.  They get that choice in who to become.  We spend time researching and filling out a sensory graph from that person’s point of view during whatever we are learning about.  Students then create an “I Am” poem empathizing with what that person must have heard, said, felt, smelt, tasted, and more.

When we do this, when students are placed in this place of really feeling what someone else must of felt, their eyes change, their heads nod, I hear gasps when the story is being told. I hear arguments of students defending all various aspects of the situation, THEY GET IT! And more than just from an analytical stand point, but they feel it. I can tell by the way they are speaking, the faces they are making, and the words they are using.  They are using their experiences in life to truly empathize with the people from the past.

The passion, it’s great, it was my goal.  But something else occurs after they have the ability to empathize. They can truly draw conclusions to present day problems, they can make connections and “master” the material.  Best of all, they become problem finders, and solution designers.

Twitter Handle: @mblaha

First Attempt in Learning

Failure: First attempt at learning. This is what we tell our students daily.  It is okay to “fail” because true failure is trying something once and giving up when it gets tough.

As I am here reflecting on my first quarter of our innovation studio it is the first thing that comes to mind. It was our first attempt in learning. I didn’t necessarily store things in the right places, nor did I always use correct questioning versus giving students the answer. But this is what we do, this is life, we fail. We must have our first attempt in learning before anything can change.

Being a recent graduate of an amazing credential program, and a staff member among some of the best (in my non-biased opinion), I have been told and taught many amazing strategies for teaching and engagement.  This experience has taught me in real action how valuable some of these ideas and and theories truly are to student development.

What I found was there was a lot  I couldn’t control. Someone might accidentally staple their finger and we may run out of duct tape (a middle schooler’s favorite tool) before another shipment came in. But despite all of those things I couldn’t control, there was a lot that I could control. I could control my actions, my words, and my emotions.

Questioning. My students were having a hard time beginning their projects. They wanted me to tell them how to build their catapults, to tell them the materials to use,  and where to start. This wasn’t the point. The point is to play and experiment. I had to use questions that forced them to think instead of letting them know that tape was going to force the arm of their catapult to not move.  Instead I tried things like, “Well, why do you think it’s not moving, is there a different material we can consider?” All I really wanted to do was yell, “THERE IS ELASTIC..OVER THERE.. IN A BIN LABELED ELASTIC!”

Trust. Many students were afraid to fail and get into trouble if their catapult didn’t work, they were terrified to break things, and scared to make a mess. With each of these items (that came up daily by the way) I tried to remember what I promised them. It was okay. It really was. Even if I was frustrated by the situation, or I locked my keys in the car one morning (yep, it happened!) I couldn’t bring that into the classroom. The students were already nervous in there and not sure what to expect. If I snapped over a broken drill bit or a floor not being swept, they would think it wasn’t okay to make a mess and it really wasn’t okay to break something.  On Friday, if their catapults didn’t work, we celebrated what did work and would say, “Okay, you only had 3 hours, if you had more time, what would you do?” And when they had an answer, we celebrated it! Play time on Friday showed that messes, breakage, and non-working catapults would be genuinely okay.

Excitement. Even though this was my 10th week in the iStuio, it was their first.  Each Monday I tried to speak with the same enthusiasm and excitement as the first. Attitude is contagious. If I was excited, they couldn’t help but be the same. There are a few that tried.. I mean.. they are middle schoolers. By the end of quarter 1, I had very few (2) behavior problems and almost 100% of the students engaged for an entire week. As cliche as it sounds, if I was excited, they were excited!

Co-Teaching. I purposely saved this one for last. This entire journey was made particularly special by the amazing staff that I work with. Being a new teacher,  I must admit,  I was anxious about having 17 veteran teachers in the room with me. There was absolutely no need to be. I was able to pick up classroom management styles and tips from each.  They were respectful of my job in there and made it clear that they were flexible with whatever was going on.

My support from staff and administration was equally significant. I could text my principal from the classroom and he would magically appear with any missing piece I forgot I needed. Our custodial staff was extremely helpful with my messy nature when there were days I really couldn’t get the floors swept and tables wiped off.


Twitter Handle: @mblaha

New Teacher, New Tinkering Space

Wow it’s happened. My first year being a “real” teacher, with my own “real” students.  I knew that this alone would be the most challenging and rewarding thing I have ever done.

The moment that I found out, the classroom theme ideas and fun first day of school activities started dancing in my head.  This is what I had dreamed of since I was 4;  writing on my play chalkboard and playing school with my older sister.

Then, something more exciting happened.  Something I wasn’t expecting.  I was asked to be the director of our school’s innovation studio which is similar to a tinkering studio.  Of course, my first answer was yes!!

After I said yes, I realized I had no idea what any of this was. Then, I did the only thing I could think of.  Google.  I googled it and realized how perfect of a fit this was for me.  I teach History and I absolutely love it. But this was something new, something   the daughter of a construction worker was made for.

I flew out to New Hampshire to learn from one of the best, Gary Stager.  I attended the Constructing Modern Knowledge Conference and felt.. overwhelmed.  No this isn’t what I wanted, I wanted to continue living in my naive excitement.

Arduinos, motors, messes, middle school?!  How would this come together?  Where do these materials come from?  How will I organize this?  How will I be able to lead this with 700 students at a brand new school?

After the panic subsided, I realized something really important.  I had so much fun at the conference!  I realized why tinkering labs and maker spaces were designed.  We were collaborating, we were problem solving, we were learning, and… we were having fun!

No not the collaborating,  problem solving,  and learning you’re imagining.  It was genuine.  It was realistic.  It was something that students could experience versus be told.

Finally, I walked into our new innovation studio for the first time a couple of weeks before school started.  Our principal had gone to get hundreds of pounds of materials.  I thought for sure it would take a couple hours to organize. WRONG.

However, after much support from our staff and a couple of weeks, we were ready to open our doors.  The students would be building catapults.  Something they could build that would force them to experience failure, and more importantly, success.

The looks on their faces were worth it.  Worth everything that every person put into that iStudio.  Students would visit me for 5 days at a time then we would rotate.  Each day, a new revelation.

Day one: Excitement.  They looked at all of the materials, the fun new furniture, and heard the ideas.  They could hardly sit still as each of them heard about this new concept for the first time.

Day two: Confusion.  As students went to grab all of these materials after brainstorming ideas, they had a realization.  They realized they have never been asked to do this before.  They were scared to be messy, to make mistakes, and to make decisions.

Day three: Relaxing. The students realize at this point that it’s okay if something breaks.  If their idea is a bad one, they really can start all over.  Failure truly is the first attempt in learning.

Day Four: Frustration.  Just when they were starting to come together, something would break, or not work as they were expecting it would.  Panic began setting in as they realized this was “due” tomorrow.

Day five: Success. This was my favorite day. Watching their faces as they realized that as long as they tried, it was okay. Approximately 90% of the catapults ended up working.  They learned a new way to think and a new way to collaborate.