Breaking Breakout(EDU)

In case you have not yet had the pleasure of familiarizing yourself with BreakoutEdu, let me start by saying that it is ahhhhh-mazing! Similar to activities such as Exit Strategy, the goal of Breakout Edu is for students to solve a chain of clues that will reveal combinations to multiple locks in various configurations. You might have a bunch of locks on one box, or you may have a bunch of boxes with one lock each– it just depends on your audience and your purpose.

The site itself is fairly straightforward– you can search pre-made games that cover any content area and grade level you can imagine (password is “showyourwork”) and get the materials as well as a video made by the game creator that shows how they set it up. All of this for FREE! But wait! There’s more! Check out the Facebook groups– there’s one for general discussion, and three others divided by elementary, middle, and high school. There you’ll find lots of great discussions and ideas on playing the pre-made games as well as people sharing the games they’ve created. This year, my position has me working with kids in grades K-5 so I have had the opportunity to try out different games on each grade. The first one I tried was called “Teamwork” and it was intended for grades 4-5 with modifications for lower grades. I’m going to be honest: It was really intimidating to get started on this. I had been lurking on the site and clicked on a few game descriptions and their documents and I felt very overwhelmed and confused. I knew the best way to combat these feelings were to schedule some classes to do this with because I didn’t want to face the embarrassment of cancelling, so that’s what I did. I printed the materials and sat down with the notes provided by the game designer, and didn’t talk to my spouse and children for the rest of the day. Seriously. I worked through each clue, spent time organizing everything, made a cheat sheet for myself with the combinations for me and the class’ homeroom teacher to use, and went over it several times to make sure I understood the process. I also gave the teacher I was working with a heads up that they were part of a grand experiment and this could be awesome or it could crash and burn. Thankfully, it turned out amazing.  All the kids (4th graders) participating were excited. They didn’t use the hints because they wanted to figure it out themselves– they worked together, included each other in discussions, and disputes were relatively easy to resolve. There were a few that were disappointed that there wasn’t a stack of cash in the box when they got it open, but overall they were proud of themselves for persevering through it. (note: all that was in the box were some stickers saying “I broke out using TEAMWORK” and a sign for them to be photographed with.)

Some groups got their lock open before others, so I split them up and put them in new groups, and I did this with 18 different classes. Reflection conversation highlights included:

  • One group insisting they didn’t need help even though they were clearly struggling: We talked about the importance of being brave enough to ask for help.
  • A group member not participating: instead of getting mad an tattling, we talked about the importance of finding out why they weren’t participating. Did they feel like others weren’t listening? Were they too intimidated to speak up? This led to…
  • Being open to other’s ideas, no matter how crazy (within reason!) they may seem: This activity didn’t require the participants to be strong in math or reading. What counted was their ability to function as a team, and it exposed some behaviors that may have otherwise not been addressed.

This year, I have played several other Breakout Edu games with all the grade levels in my school. We’ve done Pirate Pete with second grade, Help the Cat Find his Hat with grades K-4, There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed a Turkey with K-1, and Turkey Trouble with grades 2-3 to name a few. All successful, all age appropriate. What I love about them is that I can usually customize them to meet my students’ needs, and with almost 900 kids in my school that is a whole lot of needs! With any super-awesome new tool, though, I have to be careful about burning kids out on it (I’m looking at you, Kahoot!). I have yet to have a child give negative feedback based on the activity itself, though, so I will consider that a win.

Stay tuned for the next post where I share the joys of creating my own Breakout for the first time. Thanks so much for reading– I’d love to hear about your experience with Breakout Edu, or answer any questions you may have! Happy learning!



Teaching Geography With Skype

This is a post that appeared on my previous, now defunct blog a number of years ago, updated for your reading pleasure!
We were a few weeks away from a unit centered on the 5 Themes of Geography, and my options were looking like either a) pull the info from the textbook, or b) do something the kids would be excited about.  So I started doing some research and some thinking and this is what I came up with:

We would still use the 5 Themes framework, but I wanted them to branch out beyond the borders of North Carolina.  I also wanted them to work collaboratively while sustaining interest in a project that was going to span a few weeks. I began with a regional map of the United States:


*Disclaimer! There are about 100 variations of what states are in what regions– I wish I could say that I chose this one scientifically, but honestly I liked the colors.
Anyway, I split up the kids and let them choose their regions.  Each and every group was excited about their region because someone had some connection to a state, so we were off to a great start!  The next step was to figure out a way to organize our information, so as a class we developed this graphic organizer:


And, yes, I am aware that this only covers 4/5 of the geography themes– I decided to omit the “movement” theme for the purpose of this unit, as we will be learning about it later in the year.  We discussed the themes as they related to Charlotte, North Carolina, and began with Location.  They immediately realized that finding the absolute location of their region was going to be tricky, and after some discussion as a class we had a group suggest using the absolute location of the state capitol building in one of their states. For relative location, some groups chose to describe it for the capital cities, some chose to focus on the region itself. I wanted to make sure they understood the concept, so we were able to have some flexibility with that.

We went through each of the remaining themes like this: I modeled, they applied. I assessed them with a simple rubric of 3 (mastered), 2 (partially mastered) and 1 (not mastered), and provided support where needed. I expected to be tearing around the room with my hair on fire, but the kids were really into this and did an amazing job of working collaboratively.

We finished our graphic organizers (this took about 4-5 class periods of 45 minutes each) and I was (fairly) confident we were ready to set up our first Mystery Skype. I found a list of jobs and tweaked it to meet our class needs. What we ended up with was this:

  • 1 note taker (records the clues on paper)
  • 2 tweeters (to live tweet the event, of course!)
  • 3 moderators (the faces of our class– asked the questions from the inquirers and relayed answers to the mappers)
  • 4 state experts (answered the questions from the other class)
  • 3 inquirers (asked questions based on the mappers’ notes)
  • 4 mappers (used maps of the U. S. and Google Earth to narrow down the other class’ location)
  • 2 photographers (used iPads to document the experience)

For the first few calls, I assigned the jobs but in subsequent ones, I have had them pull them out of a hat (a fancy word for “quart-sized storage bag”) and given the option to trade.

To set up the call, I turned to the Great and Powerful Twitter.



Within hours, we had three classes wanting to connect. I learned quickly that scheduling can be a challenge with our regimented days, but with some creative rearranging we managed to find a time to connect with a class in Iowa. I told them from the get-go that we were completely new to this in case we breached some Mystery Skype protocol or etiquette that we were unaware of. We took our cues from them and we were off and running! Their first question asked us if we were in the U.S. and where we were in relation to the Mississippi River. It took all I had to restrain myself and let the kids figure out the strategy! I’d like to say that everyone stuck to their job and their assigned classroom area the whole time and everything went perfectly… However… we had sound issues which made it all much more difficult than it should have been. We couldn’t get skype to work on our desktop, so we were using an iPad. The speakers I had weren’t working, so the only audio we had were the tiny sounds coming from the iPad speakers. In a room full of excited 8 year olds, this is not ideal. At one point, I was leaning in to the speaker to listen, not realizing my face was right in the camera. Not exactly the big screen debut I was hoping for, and I’m pretty sure I reappeared in a subsequent nightmare or two because that was one intense close-up. Also, the kids were SO excited that they were (of course) all over the room, talking over each other, doing each other’s jobs, and often doing everything but paying attention to the clues. BUT, we made it! After 45 minutes, they had guessed our location and we figured out theirs (with a little help).
This process has evolved for me over the years– now we do a couple of practice calls by dividing the room in half and assigning each group a mystery state. We also use a shared Google Doc to record the questions we ask the other class and those that are asked of us and use them in a whole class reflection. Our jobs look a little different, and we will sometimes use TodaysMeet for a backchannel discussion to learn fun facts about their school and area (without giving anything away!). You can also go to the Microsoft in Education program site to connect with other educators doing Mystery Skypes (as well as learn about a host of other creative ways to use Skype!)
The bottom line is that the kids L-O-V-E this activity almost as much as I do. It breaks down the walls of our classroom, gets them problem solving, thinking critically, and collaborating. Once we did a few calls, my 3rd graders were able to manage it almost completely on their own and that was probably the coolest part of it all.
Thanks for reading if you made it this far! I’d love to hear any questions you have, so please feel free to leave a comment! Happy Skyping!

If I knew then…

In my last post, I shared the story of the journey my 4th grade daughter and I have been on since she began elementary school and how it has led me to advocating not only for her, but for all the kids in North Carolina. She was identified as dyslexic and ADD at the beginning of second grade, and I was suddenly dealing with a very real, very common learning disability that I knew little about. As a parent, it was upsetting because I was suddenly in a situation where I didn’t know how to help my child. As a veteran teacher, this was disconcerting to say the least because how many students had I taught that were struggling with the same or similar issues? It was an awful feeling as an educator, so this post will be what I needed over two years ago in the hopes that others will find it helpful.

First some statistics:

(these were compiled by Susan C. Lowell and Dr. Rebecca Felton, coauthors of Basic Facts About Assessment of Dyslexia. I had the privilege of working with Susan in Raleigh recently and she is nothing short of amazing.)

  1. About 37% of 4th graders are considered below basic level in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
  2. This same test finds reading failure in about 67% of minority populations such as African-Americans, Hispanic Americans, Limited English Proficient Americans, and impoverished Americans.
  3. Specific Learning Disabilities (SLD) make up roughly half of all special education students. Of this group, 80% experience reading difficulties.
  4. Reading research scientists find reading failure in about 20% of the general school-age population. These same scientists predict that all but 2-5% of these students can be taught to read accurately and fluently with appropriate instruction.

I don’t know about you but to me these are sobering figures– especially the last one. All but 2-5% can be taught to read accurately and fluently with appropriate instruction. This shouldn’t all be falling on the shoulders of the teachers of Exceptional Children, and our kids shouldn’t need an IEP to rival a Tolstoy novel in order to access appropriate instruction.

Signs of Dyslexia:

I want to include the typical signs to watch out for, but I also want to point out there are characteristics that should have been giant, flaming red flags to me in hindsight had I known to pay attention to them. Generally, a child with dyslexia will have difficulty with the following (from the International Dyslexia Association Website– link below):

  • Writing letters and numbers backwards and reading backwards. No! All kids do this at some point– it is not something only people in Club Dyslexia do.
  • Learning to speak
  • Learning letters and their sounds
  • Organizing written and spoken language
  • Memorizing number facts
  • Reading quickly enough to comprehend
  • Persisting with and comprehending longer reading assignments
  • Spelling
  • Learning a foreign language
  • Correctly doing math operations

There are subtleties, too. People with dyslexia often have difficulty rhyming words or pronouncing multi-syllable words. L still calls ambulances “amalances” and though her rhyming skills have improved, she will still occasionally ask if words like “dog” and “done” rhyme. Another thing to look out for is substitution of words that may be in the same category or may have the same beginning or ending sound– this can happen in speaking or reading. An example given from the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity cites using “volcano” instead of “tornado”. When this happens with L, she can verbalize that she knows it’s the wrong word and that the correct one is stashed in her head somewhere, but out it comes anyway.

So this is a VERY brief overview– there are organizations that have more exhaustive and detailed lists and I have noted them below. I cannot stress enough how important it is that if teachers are seeing these behaviors, it’s not because the child is lazy or defiant or immature or whatever. It’s also not personal. They. Cannot. Help. It. The more we educate ourselves about this, the better we can meet the needs of our kids and hopefully mitigate any more self-esteem nosedives.


These are just to get you started and the tip of the iceberg. In other words, my thoughts on what I recommend you click on if you find yourself googling “dyslexia resources” (which now you don’t have to do because I just did it for you!).

Decoding Dyslexia NC: great place to find North Carolina-specific info, as well as advocates to accompany you to IEP meetings at your child’s school, tutors, etc. I met one of the advocates, Jeanette Meachem, this week when we went to Raleigh and I wish I had known her two years ago. She is fabulous. This link is to their page on characteristics of dyslexia, but this amazing site has info on the whole dys- family and their cousins: dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia, sensory processing disorder, ADD, ADHD and more. I print their math graphic organizers weekly to help L with her homework and they have worked wonders.

International Dyslexia Association: Lots of great info, as well as a self-assessment for adults. I highly recommend checking it out if you had difficulty reading as a child or had troubles with foreign languages.

Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity: I love that they have resources that speak directly to kids here. One thing L says to me frequently is “Dyslexia is my deepest, darkest secret” and it breaks my heart into a million tiny pieces every time I hear it. I am trying hard to chip away at this and some of the things on this site are helping. I’m hoping that the more I show her that there are so many others who face the same challenges and have the same type of incredible brain that she has, the more comfortable she will feel about it. Of course, as her mom I know exactly nothing about anything, so I’m relying on the hope that at least some of it is registering subconsciously…

I find myself thinking of more and more resources as I type this, but I’m going to stop here. This is a beginning– whether you suspect dyslexia in you or your child or student, know someone newly diagnosed, or have been at this a while and are looking for something else that might help, I hope I am able to point you down a path that has some answers. If you have other resources to help families, please share in the comments. I will address places to find things to help in the classroom in a later post– there are a lot of great things out there, but really no website or app will replace a good teacher.

Thanks for reading! Please share this with anyone who might need it, and I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.


(Sources: International Dyslexia Association, Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity)


(Cover image from

The Importance of Advocacy

“She’ll grow out of it.” “It’s developmental.” “She’s so cute!” “It’s just a maturity issue.”

All of these phrases and more were used by teachers, family, and me to describe my daughter, L, when she began school in Pre-K and on in to early elementary school. I suspected that something was not quite right with her reading development, but I wanted to believe what her teachers were telling me…so I did. And to be fair, they believed it, too. In kindergarten, it took her all year to memorize 100 sight words, but there was no way she could spell or write them on her own. When she began first grade, that spark and excitement about school started to fade and we had so many tears and angry outbursts over the nightly reading requirement. I tried in vain to get her to segment words and sound them out phonetically but she wasn’t making any headway. I remember thinking, “I’m a teacher, for crying out loud! Why can’t I help my own child?!” A conversation with her second grade teacher confirmed my suspicions that she was lagging behind her peers, and so my spouse and I decided to get her a full educational and psychological evaluation done by a private agency. We wanted a complete profile of her as a learner and wow did we get it. Though her IQ was average, her phonological memory and phonological processing was weak. These issues along with a few others led to her being identified as dyslexic, with a bonus diagnosis of ADD. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was a turning point for me not only as a mom, but as a teacher and I coped the best way I knew how: I started researching and learning about dyslexia. This put me in the front seat of an emotional roller coaster that I am still on today. The biggest question I had was: Why on earth, in all my years of teaching, have I not received any information or training on a learning disability that can affect up to 20% of the population and is relatively easy to fix if it’s caught early on? The mom part of my brain was heartbroken, knowing my child had a lifetime of extra challenges ahead of her, as well as knowing how much she had been struggling in school but wasn’t able to verbalize it to me. The teacher/ mom part of my brain was frustrated because I didn’t know what to do to help my own child, despite my years of experience in the classroom; and the teacher part of my brain wondered how many parents had I said the exact same sentences to over the years, when really their child was facing a struggle that was beyond my knowledge and expertise? Argh!

But back to the turning point:  It’s worth noting that I teach in the school that my children attend, and before you start thinking about how lucky I am, let me be clear that it’s hard. It’s much harder than I imagined because of this whole thing– now I was in a position where I had to advocate for my child, and the thoughts and feelings of colleagues I had worked with for years had to be secondary and this shift didn’t happen overnight. I will spare you the details, but for the past two and a half years, I have been fighting to get my child the help she needs, while educating everyone I can on the true nature of dyslexia. Throughout this process, I have learned all about nuances in the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) and the ridiculously complicated process of proving that my child needs help beyond what the regular education teacher can provide. We have been fortunate to have many teachers past and present who are willing to listen and want to help. Unfortunately, it’s a subject they know little about and in no way do I fault them for that, but I am trying to do something about it.

Somewhere along this journey, I got in touch with a grassroots advocacy group, Decoding Dyslexia. I initially saw them as a resource, but after I posted a few comments on their Facebook page that may or may not have been a little rant-y about the lack of awareness of dyslexia in North Carolina public schools, they reached out to me and asked me if I wanted to be a parent advocate. I jumped at the chance– how could I turn down an opportunity to help not only my child, but thousands of kids across the state of North Carolina?

These past few months, I have been on the phone with parents in similar situations, blown up my Facebook feed with dyslexia facts and symptoms; attended a Charlotte City Council meeting with the head of Decoding Dyslexia NC, Linda William (who is a force to be reckoned with!), where they declared October “Dyslexia Awareness Month” and played a video where I shared L’s story; all of this leading up to a meeting this past Tuesday (March 14) with our state’s new superintendent of public instruction, Mark Johnson.


All of these women are an inspiration, and they are getting it done. They are moms, advocates, teachers, and everything in between. We shared our stories, and emphasized the need for legislation addressing dyslexia. North Carolina is one of only 11 states with no laws addressing students with dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia. Of those 11 states, 7 of them have pending legislation, so we will soon be one of 4 states.  We were grateful to Mark Johnson for taking the time to listen to us and ask questions, and being willing to learn more about what we as a state need to do to meet the needs of ALL our kids. Never in a million years would I have imagined that I would be where I am now, but I am proud to be a part of this. Stay tuned for another post soon about signs of dyslexia and resources to learn more about it. If you made it this far, thank you of reading. I share this because I know there are other parents out there with similar experiences and if that is you, then please don’t hesitate to reach out. Leave a comment, DM me on the Twitter, or fill out the blog contact form; and know that there are people working very hard to get kids in North Carolina the very best possible education they can. Good night, all.


A Vision for Education


Yesterday, March 12, was an incredible day. I was in the company of 9 other women from Decoding Dyslexia NC and we met with our State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Mark Johnson. We asked him to stand up for kids with dyslexia, a population that is embarrassingly underserved in our state. He listened, asked questions, and we walked out of there with our heads held high knowing we gave a voice to so many kids in North Carolina who desperately need help that they aren’t receiving. After our meeting, we headed to the offices of our representatives and popped in, asking them to support a bill that has been introduced that defines what dyslexia is. The representatives we met with were gracious and listened, even though it was the end of the day. I’ll go into more detail about this in a future post, because it needs to be shared, but today my vision for education is this:

That we, as educators, are doing everything we can to meet the educational needs of all our kids, and that we are giving them opportunities that they don’t even know they need.

This is going to look different for each kid, but we have have got to get away from drowning them in tests and the false sense of accountability that testing purports to give. We need to help each child find their success identity and be open to the different ways that can look.

8 Characteristics of the Innovator’s Mindset #IMMOOC2 Week 2

I am bound and determined to keep up with the awesome MOOC on the book Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros, so be prepared for a blast of posts with this focus and hashtag. A big challenge for me will be to keep these succinct because yay words! I want to use all of them! I’m starting with week two with the full intention of backtracking on week one, but I want to feel somewhat caught up, so here we go. (For the record, I read Chamber of Secrets before Sorcerer’s Stone so apparently this is a thing with me.)

One of the prompts asks us to talk about ONE characteristic of the Innovator’s Mindset and give an example of how I exemplify this. None of these characteristics can operate in isolation and I’ve started and restarted several times– I am going to go with “risk taker” because this speaks the loudest to me and my approach to teaching and learning. I strongly believe that we owe it to our students to take risks. In the YouTube Live session, risk is defined as moving from a “known”, something that is comfortable and familiar, towards something that might possibly be better for our kids. This is an inherent part of my personality and something that has served me well in the classroom– for the most part. Not every risk I take has had a positive impact on students– there have been many projects or initiatives that I have had to go back and restart or stopped altogether because they aren’t meeting the needs of my particular group of kids. These reasons can be things like a lack of a clear plan or communication, I’m way more excited about it than my kids are, infrastructure issues, whatever. But when this happens, the crucial part is going back and reflecting on why and how it can be improved for the next attempt.

All this being said, there are many instances where risks have paid off and have led to amazing experiences. The most recent being my current position as STEM Coordinator. I saw a need for it at my school and approached my principal with the idea. To my complete surprise, she said yes and this year has been transformative for me in a lot of ways. Instead of being responsible for 25-50 students, I now serve almost 900. That is a BIG responsibility (not to mention intimidating, overwhelming, ridiculous…)! Not to mention all the teachers that I am now tasked with supporting… I have been working to find my place in the grand scheme of things this year, and am learning how to work with different personalities, that support looks different for different teachers, and that it may just be possible to expand the pockets of innovation.

So my point to all this is that I strongly believe we have to take risks. Sometimes that risk will crash and burn, but this isn’t a guarantee. I found myself starting to stagnate and I made the choice to do something about it– this has led me down a path that I know I can control. If I am bored or burnt out, I have the power within myself to do something about it. We all do. So go do something that you can embrace fully– your kids will thank you and you never know when you might inspire a colleague. I leave you with this:




Hello and thanks for visiting! I’m not sure where to begin, so let’s just jump right in, shall we? First off, let me just say that I have intended to get this up and running since about August of 2016 (ok maybe sometime in 2014) but better late than never. Who has time? As educators, we are beyond busy and hardly have time to take care of ourselves, let alone our family, significant others, friends, pets, and of course, our professional learning, right? If I have learned anything over the years, it is that it’s imperative that we make time for our own professional growth– otherwise, we will burn out. I was very close to that point a few years ago, when I got a grant funded from Donors Choose for two iPads.

I reached out to our school’s tech contact at the time, the amazing Jill Thompson (@edu_thompson), and she started me on a path I have yet to look back on. She showed me a few easy tools to get started (Show Me for screen casting, Toontastic for creating stories) and the effect upon my students learning and enthusiasm was instantaneous. Suddenly, I was able to actually listen to a short presentation on perimeter to see if they truly understood the concept without sitting down and conferencing one on one, as they narrated their solution to a problem I set in the back of the room for them. During our literacy block they were collaborating on stories, rejecting the pre-made characters and settings on the app for their own creations. They couldn’t wait to show me what they had done. I saw back and watched this in awe– they were creating, they were collaborating, they were *gasp* reflecting; and most importantly, they were so excited to share what they were doing. This spurned me on to find other ways to enhance their learning and I discovered the world of Twitter Chats. Seriously, I was like a kid who had been given an all access pass to Toys R Us. My little laptop was suddenly a gateway to a whole lot of educators who were passionate, knowledgeable, supportive, wanted to do what was best for their kids and wanted to help others be successful as well. Over the years, my network has grown– it’s primarily focused on North Carolina, but my Professional Learning Network extends across the globe– how can I not want to be better at what I do when I can learn from so many amazing people from around the world? It was a renaissance I didn’t know I needed.

I have come a long way since then. My point to all this is that if we are going to be on the front lines and working with these kids every day, we have to keep learning. For me, that learning includes reflecting and sharing which is what I plan to use this space for. So again, thanks for stopping by! I’d love to know where you’re from and how you are involved in K-12 education, so please let me know if the comments! Also, followers = motivation so please subscribe!! Until next time…