notes to my teacher self

It is time to celebrate. You. Teachers. Teachers who understand the need to shift pieces of their practice for today and tomorrow, holding on to things that matter, throwing out those things that do not, and continually learning from others. Its time to celebrate those teachers who are reimagining their spaces and craft. That is happening across the country. Trying something new is hard and letting go of things that have worked in the past is hard, but we know we can get better. These courageous teachers have succeeded because they tried.  There are many of them in DCSD and beyond.

What you will see here is only a mere sampling of greatness, mostly from a primary lens, but including a couple intermediate nuggets at the end. There will be more editions of this as I reach out to teachers.

All of us are on a journey and are in different places, that MUST be celebrated. Let’s!

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”  

-Theodore Roosevelt

shared by Laura Whitaker, Rock Ridge Elementary, 1st Grade

Inspiration Sites (DCSD classrooms and teams who receive coaching–in varying degrees–some: one visit, some: many more) are in the process of becoming destination classrooms for other teachers to see, feel and be inspired by. These classrooms are not perfect. There is not a perfect classroom. We are failing forward and doing big things for students.

My days of writing about myself in the classroom are on hold, as I become a part, big or small, of these special universes around the district and broader community. The experience is so affirming and I am so honored to share these teachers’ notes to their teacher selves. Enjoy.

Kristin Kinner, Pioneer Elementary

2nd Grade

Student Ownership of Learning

Screen Shot 2016-02-02 at 8.11.07 AMTogether, we are deciding what we want to learn and how to share our learning with others. Here are some students presenting their study of tornadoes to the class. We talked about weather conditions, and places we could find out more. The students chose what they wanted to learn more about, and created groups. Using their resources ( books, websites, ebooks, newsela articles,)

they were able to answer questions and share their knowledge with the class. Students  chose presentations of iMovie trailers, posters, index card strips, and models of sinkholes and tornadoes.. This was so much better than me trying to focus on each weather condition and discuss it, especially since I am not an expert in weather. The students became the experts, sharing their knowledge of weather conditions, and asking  questions of others. The discussion was rich, and led to more research, which led to more learning.Screen Shot 2016-02-02 at 8.12.00 AM

We have also incorporated the Design Thinking Process into our learning throughout the year. We have designed tools for people living during Pioneer times while learning about our community in the past; we have designed roller coasters for amusement parks while studying about balance and motion; and we will be working on designing a habitat for Monarch butterflies as part of our School Garden project this Spring. When students are given guidance in their learning, they are able to be more creative and make their learning their own.


Kathy Carter, Renaissance Elementary Magnet School


K’Nex Challenge Promotes Creativity and Supports Learning

Screen Shot 2016-02-02 at 3.27.28 PMFlexibility is a key component of the learning environment in my kindergarten classroom. Routines, procedures etc. change during the year to meet the latest needs/passions/interests of the children.

Recently I noticed that the children were less engaged during their morning routine, which involved choosing from a variety of learning activities. Pondering what to do I remembered the recent acquisition of K’Nex in our room. Although the children had suggested and voted to buy the manipulatives, when the sets arrived, the children most familiar with K’Nex quickly used up the pieces for elaborate creations (using the directions provided with the materials). Children less familiar with K’Nex became discouraged and felt excluded.

When I changed our morning routine to include a K’Nex Challenge children suddenly arrived at school earlier, eager to put away their belongings and receive the latest challenge. By listing specific criteria that the creation must meet I was able to limit the amount of K’Nex used by each child and promote creativity.

In addition, each creation linked to specific learning that the children were engaged in during the day e.g., when we were exploring length, a challenge was to create something with “two sides shorter and two sides longer.”Screen Shot 2016-02-02 at 3.31.29 PM

When focusing on teen numbers and counting, a challenge was to create something that was composed of less than twenty pieces and could stand independently.

All children are now excited to start their day. They are increasingly familiar and creative with the K’Nex manipulatives. In addition, children are eager to share their creations and prove that they meet the criteria given.   

Kristin Wilson, Cherokee Trial Elementary


No More Teacher Controlled Seating

Screen Shot 2016-02-02 at 8.36.16 AMWhen I took away assigned seating in my kindergarten classroom there was immediate ownership and buy-in from students that filled our space.  It started when one student asked if he could change his seat.  In response, I facilitated a class discussion on the topic, heard from every voice in the room and voted to decide the outcome of assigned seating vs. free choice.  It was unanimous for both AM and PM classes.  As a class, we discussed the expectations and parameters of choosing our own seat everyday and how to handle conflict if a particular seat is taken.  I watch my 5 year olds negotiate with each other daily and interact positively to convince peers to change seats or sit beside them.  With this one movement, I am able to assess higher order thinking skills while the students complete a daily task before the bell even rings!  Not once have we experienced tears although we have worked through moments of disappointment and problem solving.  The students voted to have tables and chairs at various heights along with the option of sitting on the floor as well.  Students can choose have a new seat every single day or if they are comfortable in a particular spot, they can choose to stay.  We reached a level of trust between teacher and student and they revel of knowing I trust them to make a good decision when they enter our classroom every day.  It was a leap of faith to put 45 kindergarten friends in charge of seating arrangements and I wish I had tried it sooner!

Jill Cahenzli, Eagle Ridge Elementary

2nd Grade

More Engaging Morning Work

Screen Shot 2016-02-02 at 8.47.42 AMWhen I got rid of the DLI/DLR (in the morning) and asked students to use iPads to respond to questions (on a Google Form), they were instantly more engaged and their learning is more authentic.  For years I have been using the DLR, first thing in the morning.  I noticed that the DLR work didn’t transfer to student writing AND kids were bored with it.  Now, I use Google Forms to ask questions about academic units, The Seven Habits, restorative circle topics, and “just for fun” topics too.  Students even vote on topics they want to write about/respond to and together we upload pictures and videos that the class will respond to.  I am able to immediately give students feedback (on sentence structure, parts of speech, spelling patterns, etc.). After responding on the form, students go to their “Daily Doodle Notebook” to draw a picture about one of the topics they responded to.  Then, they pair with a shoulder buddy to quickly share and explain their response and doodle.  The kids LOVE morning work now and constantly come to me with ideas about questions and responses. Click here to view a presentation (including pictures)!

Kristy Roesle, Arrowwood Elementary

1st Grade

Removing 1:1 seating, various desk heights, student choice in Daily 5

Screen Shot 2016-02-02 at 8.49.56 AMAfter studying Susan Kovalik’s importance of room environment and the impact it has on students’ learning and their ability to focus in a calm atmosphere, I switched to neutralizing the colors and clutter within the classroom years ago.  One thing I did focus more on changing this year was where the students worked in the room and how it impacts them.  As long as it benefits kids and their learning, I’ve always been open to accommodating students in whatever fits them best.  This year, many asked to have lowered desks, to work in a chair, work on the floor, work at a plastic table desk, work at the taller community table, or at the gray coffee table.  Several kids also wanted to share a desk Screen Shot 2016-02-02 at 8.50.07 AMwith a friend, to hold their supplies, so it would give us more classroom space.  After lowering the desks, we discovered that several kids were a bit too short to sit on the floor, so I found some milk crates on Craigslist.  The kids love them and they’re easy to move in the room wherever they want them.  The kids never abuse this system, since it was created by them and they have ownership of it.  If they start missing their own individual desk and chair, I’d be glad to let them have it back.  Student empowerment really benefits students and their learning. Susan Kovalik was one of the best leaders in this that I have studied.  🙂

The Center 4 Learning, Kovlaik


Chantel Estes, Roxborough Intermediate and Primary


Allowing students to“Tinker” in the TinkerLab of Engineers

TScreen Shot 2016-02-02 at 8.55.03 AMhis year I have a unique opportunity to create a learning space focused on building sustainable learning practice through Tinkering. I have always believed that students learn best when they have choice and are given time to discover. In the past, I felt guilty taking time from direct instruction to give students free time to tinker, so I limited it to 10 minutes every rotation. Luckily, I am fortunate to work at a school and in a district that values student choice, personalized learning, and time for discovery. So for every four days I see students, I dedicate one to tinkering. Students are loving it! Tinkering in the TinkerLab of Engineers is shaped by student requests and only limited by the materials and tools we have available. I typically set out some materials for students to use, then they are free to choose how they want to spend their time. I am continually amazed at how tinkering has transformed how I view learning and the power it has to inspire students to frame their own learning.  

For more information on the TinkerLab of Engineers, visit my blog

Ed Goulart, Mammoth Heights Elementary

First Grade

Community Meetings

Screen Shot 2016-02-02 at 8.58.14 AMA practice that I feel has had a major impact on my classroom community is the use of community meetings. We begin each day with a circle. In addition to all the normal first grade routines, like calendar and meteorology, we end the circle by checking in on a common topic. The chairperson usually chooses the topic, anything from what you did last weekend to what you plan to do at school today. Through this, the children get to know each other better and form closer bonds. We also have a weekly Community Meeting at which we discuss student generated ideas and suggestions. We keep an agenda in the classroom in which the children write their ideas. The ideas are then presented and discussed. The children argue in favor of or against the merits, and vote on whether or not to adopt the new idea. This practice empowers the children to take control of their learning Screen Shot 2016-02-02 at 8.58.25 AMenvironment. It also helps them assume responsibility for the routines and procedures which they’ve adopted. Through the discussions, the children begin to understand what it means to support their thinking and to listen to different points of view. Finally, Community Meetings give everyone an opportunity to voice their thoughts, concerns and beliefs.



Shannon Herzog, Sage Canyon Elementary School


4 C monsters and Free Range Stations

Screen Shot 2016-02-02 at 9.02.15 AMGood thing teaching is a practice.  Each day is a new beginning for me in Kindergarten.  One of the most powerful changes I have made this year is allowing students to move from stations (daily 5) when they are ready.  I stopped “ringing the bell” so to speak.  This “free range” allows students to stay in a station they are thriving in and move from a station that may not be working for them at the moment.  This change has freed me to focus more on personalizing my instruction for guided reading groups and or one:one conferences.  I continue to work on an accountability component that will be discussion/reflection based.  I’d eventually like students to help me design the stations and their purposes, but for now this is a great start!  I have also used this change to talk a lot about the 4 C “monsters” as we call them.  And use the performance strands as a guide to help me build stations each week.  We also anchor much of our thinking about working together upon the idea of the four C monsters.  These silly guys have breathed new life into my project wall, anchor charts, and daily reflection.

Sommer Breithart, Rock Ridge Elementary

1st Grade

Removal of Behavior Clip Chart

Screen Shot 2016-02-02 at 9.33.40 AMMy students and I ceremoniously threw away our behavior clip chart.  We had a restorative circle about how the clip chart makes us feel.  I told them that I don’t feel good in my heart when I tell kids to move down their clips.  Some students said that they feel sad when they go home on a “bad” color.  It was a powerful circle!  

We now use a positive behavior incentive system, which includes each student collecting beads on a personal pipe cleaner to earn I.B. badges. Once students collect 10 beads, they may choose an I.B. badge to put on their pipe cleaner..  There are ten total I.B. badges to earn – one for each I.B. Learner Profile Attribute.  

I must add something here about Sommer, one of the many who have completely reimagined their spaces. Sommer took home truckloads of “stuff” that had accumulated over 8 years. The results are outstanding and the kids are energized and own the space now. See slides below:

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Erin Cordova, Wildcat Mountain Elementary

1st Grade 

Show What You Know

1It is so hard to pick just one thing to write about.  Teaching has certainly been a journey for me, but the journey I’ve been on in just half this school year is nothing short of exciting, so where do I even start!?!?  Prior to this year, I always had my hand in everything my students were working on day in and day out.  From small day to day work to final summative assessments, I was in control.  If you had asked me then, I would have thought that I was doing what was best for kids.  I believe even now that with what I knew then, I was doing what I thought was best.  This year one of the biggest changes I have made is giving kids more choice in showing their learning.  I have implemented something that has become known as “Show What You Know”.  During our literacy time, there are a few certain things that kids need to do from their personal learning menu.  With some guidance, the kids are able to chose what will best help them to work on our WCO of creating meaning.  Once they have done these few things, they get to “Show What You Know”.  Kids get to use any and all materials in the classroom to show something they have learned.  This could include anything from using Legos to retell a story they have read to creating an Explain Everything presentation to share facts they learned from a nonfiction book.  The level of engagement in my classroom when I have given this control over to my kids is astounding.  The kids have come up with creative ways (way more interesting than my prescribed ways before) to show their learning. They are invested in their learning and take pride in creating something unique to them.

Laura Whitaker, Rock Ridge Elementary

1st Grade 

Letting Students Choose Books
Screen Shot 2016-02-02 at 10.30.55 AMI’m giving students more choice in what they read and select for their “book boxes” and “book bags”.  I’ve seen students more eager to meet with me for reading work and they show a deeper focus on becoming a better reader with a book they have selected.  Since taking ownership of their book selections, they are more engaged and confident when reading to self and reading with others.  I’ve also used reading to find more options for students.  They now have individual Raz Kids accounts giving them more opportunities to choose from a variety of good fit books that are colorful and engaging!

Screen Shot 2016-02-02 at 10.30.44 AM

BELOW are some thoughts from inspirational DCSD intermediate classrooms. When we primary teachers give students choice, freedom and autonomy, imagine what the future holds as they move through their school experience!

Ginny Stafford, Mammoth Heights Elementary

6th Grade

Student Advocacy and Digital Freedom

Screen Shot 2016-02-02 at 9.24.51 AMI am a big believer in student advocacy and student ownership, and twenty-first century teaching demands this more than ever before.  My students have a lot of voice and choice and when a classroom is built around trust, growth and hard work so many magical things happen; students make some incredible choices and amazing results follow. However, one area in which I wanted to challenge myself to grow, was in the area of feeling the need to constantly ‘police’ my students’ use of technology.  For example, watching student screens, restricting some apps, worrying about what they might see or do, etc.  So this year I took a big risk, and through a lot of work upfront in establishing trust and respect in our classroom, I have put more and more trust and faith in my students to use their technology even more freely.   I feel that by my students being empowered to make good choices, knowing that they are trusted to know right from wrong, not restricting how they attack a project, they are able to do more with technology; this has led to students using higher-order skills, coming uScreen Shot 2016-02-02 at 9.26.11 AMp with and implementing challenging projects due in part because of the supports and platforms provided by technology.  They have also been able to work with more complex texts as they use the technology resources to navigate through the difficulties.  It has been a weight lifted as my students have lived up to my expectations of being trustworthy, digital citizens.  Nothing is perfect, mistakes are made, accidents happen but we work through those set-backs, and we continue to knock down walls, and learn and relearn and learn some more!

Jenny Henry, Cherokee Trail Elementary

2nd Grade and 6th Grade

Students Empowered

Screen Shot 2016-02-02 at 9.28.10 AMWhen I give students control and empower them to make decisions about their learning, they consistently exceed my expectations. Their confidence, engagement, excitement soar. Students are committed, passionate and challenge themselves to take risks and try things never done before. I have no doubt the world is going to be a better place because of these children!

6th graders collaborated with RCHS and Botanical Gardens on a challenging DNA lab. Passion project group designed a mural which included every student and staff member at school.

Students partner with Innovation Pavilion experts and entrepreneurs to implement innovative solutions to real world problems and engaging challenges including obesity, ROI, drone building, computer game design, crowdfunding and digital storytelling.

2nd grade students Skype and offer suggestions to another 2nd grade classroom in Kansas about flexible learning spaces and deskless classrooms.  Collaboration and engineering combine during student designed challenges.


Jessica Craig, Roxborough Intermediate School

3rd Grade 

Letting Students Redesign Instruction

At the beginning of the year, my students and I were less than enthused with our math block.  We struggled Screen Shot 2016-02-02 at 12.03.34 PMto stay focused during whole class mini lessons, even though I tried to keep them under 10 minutes.  Our math curriculum didn’t allow us much freedom for expressing our learning in our own ways, and I didn’t like the idea of all students participating in the same rotations, learning and practicing the same things, for specific amounts of time.  I wanted my students to be able to personalize their math time.  I wanted them to identify their own personal areas for growth, create their own goals, decide which small group lessons are beneficial for them to attend, and brainstorm personalized activities to fill the rest of the learning block.

I pondered how to redesign the block to make all of these things possible and better fit their learning needs, but I didn’t know where to start.  I saw a long weekend ahead of me at the school, trying to make big changes with an unclear vision and not very much time. That’s when I realized I wasn’t tapping into my most valuable resources- the kids!  My students know their own learning needs and styles better than anyone.  They are also the most creative group of problem solvers that I know.

Screen Shot 2016-02-02 at 12.03.49 PMThe next day, I started them on a Design Thinking challenge to redesign our math block to better suit our individual learning needs.  I had used this process with them before in redesigning our physical environment, so they were familiar with the process.

We conducted surveys about our learning preferences in terms of math, looked at the data, and participated in empathy interviews to gain perspective on our interests and passions.  We asked for advice from experts, ideated, created teams based on our common visions, and prototyped different possibilities.  They were so engaged and determined to create the perfect learning block! Eventually, we decided on a blended, personalized learning model. which works perfectly us!  We have used the model ever since, and we revisit every so often to make revisions as we learn more about ourselves and our learning.

The students came up with something way better than I could have ever come up with myself, and I was reminded of a familiar lesson- when all else fails, let the kids figure it out!

1 thought on “notes to my teacher self

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