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Fearless Learning Free Lesson


"Catch me!" my three year old granddaughter screamed as she jumped into the swimming pool, knowing all along that someone would surely be there to catch her. She was never wrong! My eight year old grandson, along for the bike ride to encourage me as I relearn a long forgotten skill, takes his hands off the handlebars and gleefully coasts on the downhill as I pump the hand brakes and pray that I stay upright. We are all born with that fearless learning gene. I'm currently reaching back and searching to reclaim mine.

Taylor Swift has a song. Fearless. "Dance in a storm with my best dress.." kind of fearless. Hands off the handlebars fearless. Jump in the deep end fearless. We are born with it, and many of your students still have that fearless gene. Why not celebrate it, maximize it, and make it work for learning in your classroom this year? Call it Growth Mindset if you wish, but fearless learning has been present in the universe since the beginning of time. It's who we are at our core.

Lessia Bonn (I Am Bullyproof Music) has a song called Fearless also. Written long before Taylor Swift's song, Lessia's "Fearless" was an integral part of my classroom practice from the day I discovered it. I worked on some (IMO) pretty amazing learning units with Lessia for a couple of years, based on her music. Using the Bullyproof songs brought so much magic to my learning community during my last few years in the classroom. Here's a video made by my Rainbow City kids during that time. All about what being Fearless means to them - in life, in relationships, in learning.

Denise Brennan-Nelson wrote a sweet little book called Willow. Willow is a fearless artist, drawing and painting whatever her heart tells her to create. Her teacher, Miss Hawthorn, seems to have lost her own inner artist. She likes her apples round and red, and her trees tall and green with brown trunks. Miss Hawthorn likes a clean and tidy art room, with very specific uses for her materials and very specific responses to her lessons. Enter Willow, a student and artist who teaches Miss Hawthorn a thing or two about art and life and fearless learning. Miss Hawthorn is able to reach back and recapture her own true inner artist. I have a lesson on this book in this Bullyproof Rainbow unit.
Sharing part of it here with you for FREE! I hope you'll enjoy using it and remember to return to the download page and leave some awesome feedback! As always, I would love to see pictures (and even videos) of your students' responses to this lesson!

Hope you'll check out this blog post on Using the Arts to Teach Perseverance!








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Using the Arts to Teach Perseverance

"It's a country club over there," my parents could often be heard to say during my fifth and sixth grade years. We had just moved back to the neighborhood and new, progressive school that we had to leave after my Kindergarten year.
We had moved next door to my grandparents and my mom's large and loving family, so as a kid I wasn't aware of the financial difficulties that had caused the move "back home", just thrilled to be up in the business of my young aunts and uncle all.the.time. I was known as the world's youngest teenager, showing up at my Aunt Harriet's after school living room dance parties, and a careful observer of my Aunt Rhoda's makeup application and hair styling as she left for work or dates. They took me to the library every week for stacks of books, taught me to twirl a baton, and drove me to school. We had long and serious discussions about Elvis, Richie Valens, Buddy Holly, and the Big Bopper. A member of a for real actual singing group, The Tempos, actually lived across the street! Two of the songs that they briefly made famous were "Since I Don't Have You" and "See You in September". My grandma always said that Gene was a very nice boy who served his country.  I think he was a friend of my uncle, but who knows? My uncle always seemed to be in his room studying. That room was the only space in my grandparents' house that was off limits to me, but that was ok. He knew nothing about hair and clothes and makeup, and I just went in to look around when he wasn't there. We danced the Strand. We drew and colored, knitted, cooked and ate together, laughed together, and took full part in each other's lives. I missed nothing in the area of life enrichments, and I liked my school and friends.

BUT... the summer before fifth grade, life was heading in a positive direction for my very young parents. My dad finished college, had a CPA practice, and was beginning to invest in deli restaurants among other businesses. They bought their first home, and I returned to my original school in fifth grade while my little sister started kindergarten. Our little brother was nine months old when we moved in, so no school for him yet!

Apparently, while I was gone, our public school system had decided to try out some new programs and practices at the newest building in their district. When I arrived in Miss Brooke's fifth grade, things were happening! Kids who were academically successful appeared to have been placed together in class, so there was never a chance to read any of the books that I had become used to shlepping to school with me every day for four years. (Well, actually three years. Too busy throwing up every day in first grade when reading groups started. Membership in the blue birds was not all it was cracked up to be.) Aside from watching super smart kids learning and responding and interacting on all sides, we had ENRICHMENTS! Yes, our district was on the cutting edge in the 60s with the very beginnings of gifted education. They didn't call it GT or anything like that, but in my opinion, they should have named it something because the confused young parents just called it a "country club over there".
At the "country club over there", we could leave our classrooms without having to make up anything that we missed while gone, and take Creative Dance, Art Enrichment, Science Explorations, and Chorus. We could also learn square dancing and polka. Yes, polka. It was Pennsylvania after all! As a dancing school dropout, I loved Creative Dance the most. Could not believe my good fortune at being part of a group with actual current dancing school students.  (Being a dancing school dropout is absolutely true - I left Saturday morning dancing school for Saturday morning cartoons at the ripe old age of seven because I just couldn't keep up with the other dancers.) In Creative Dance, we were presented with music and could create our own choreography. It was amazing! My love for dancing, nurtured as the world's youngest teenager dancing with Bandstand every day, was restored!

I took that "country club at school" spirit with me throughout the rest of my education and my career as a teacher. As I got to higher grades, I learned perseverance. Perseverance made everything I tried to do better. Study and practice became enjoyable pursuits because there was always a goal ahead, a reason for persevering. I studied harder in French class so that I could spend more time in Ceramics class in high school. I studied for and passed out of basic language arts, foreign language, and math courses in college so that I could load up on Art History and Anthropology. And when I became a teacher, I tried to make sure that my own students had opportunities to explore the arts and sciences as much they possibly could. I did this through project based learning and through centers, including Inventor's Center, an early incarnation of STEAM. My students' journals always had a drawing/sketching/diagramming component. A kid more in tune with art could use more art than words and still succeed in journal writing. I can point to several professional artists today who have told me that they appreciated being able to journal through art in those elementary years.

After that loooonnnngggg intro, this post on Perseverance is turning to the importance of including the arts in an elementary education. We learn to be awesome dancers by dancing. We learn to be artists by crumpling papers, erasing, and starting again. We learn to be writers by writing. I always had two signs in my classroom: Good Writers Write and Good Readers Read. Perseverance is what makes us successful, and I believe that it is best learned in the pursuit of the arts.

When I was thinking of picture books to use with this important topic, I couldn't narrow it down any further than four. I simply took all four out of the library. You don't have to own every book that you touch. I donated three of these when I retired, and just discovered the fourth one. The public library is a great place to find books, especially books that you will use for a brief lesson. School libraries are another great source, if you are lucky enough to still have one. I won't speak badly here of the district that I retired from, but no librarians? Seriously?


The very first book that came to mind was Dancing in the Wings by Debbie Allen. In this book, Sassy is a dancing school student who, unlike yours truly, persevered. She was "too tall" and her feet were "too big" for all the roles and participation that she longed for. Rather than drop out, she practiced, observed, and danced every dance from the wings, learning it as well as if she was on stage herself. Her hard work and perseverance pay off when a director of an important Washington dance festival notices her, chooses her from her entire dancing school and invites her to be part of a performance troupe. This is based on Debbie Allen's life and the experience of her daughter Vivian in dancing school.

Of course, a read of Dancing in the Wings naturally leads to a read of Brothers of the Knight also by Debbie Allen. It's an amazing retelling of the fairy tale "The Twelve Dancing Princesses", and in light of the recent public controversy over whether men should be dancers, it got my attention. In Brothers of the Knight, Reverend Knight is a single father raising twelve sons. The story is narrated by their dog, Happy. Reverend Knight is befuddled by the fact that his sons' shoes are tattered, torn, and generally wrecked every morning, although they appear to have been sound asleep every night. A new housekeeper solves the mystery, and the brothers come clean about their passion for dancing. They had thought it necessary to sneak out to the ballroom at night because they thought that their father would disapprove. Reverend Knight marries the housekeeper, adds dance to his sermons, and all live happily ever after. Dancing with perseverance can sure wear out your shoes!
And speaking of shoes, a story from the childhood of Michael Jordan, Salt in His Shoes, is another great example of how perseverance can lead to success. Michel Jordan was once a short child who wanted to play basketball with the neighborhood kids. He was shorter than they were and had a difficult time keeping up. He measured himself over and over, but never seemed to grow. His dad advised him to keep practicing and his mom advised him to put salt in his shoes and to pray every night to be just a little taller each day. Michael took the advice seriously, praying, salting, and PRACTICING at home. He eventually scored the winning point in a neighborhood game when another player was injured and unable to play. And... as we know.... he grew to be a famous six foot six pro basketball player! Was it the salt? Or the perseverance?
Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman is also nothing short of amazing as a model for perseverance. Grace loves to read and to act. She loves stories - telling them, hearing them, acting them out. When she learns that her class is about to cast and perform "Peter Pan", Grace wants to be Peter. She is focused on her goal, and sticks with it through practice and auditions even though one classmate tells her that a girl can't play Peter, and another tells her that Peter is white. (Grace is African American.) Enter Grace's Ma and her Nana (gotta love the Nanas!), who inform Grace that those two kids who discouraged her don't know anything. Nana then takes Grace to a ballet performance where a famous brown-skinned dancer named Rosalie Wilkins ballet dances the part of Juliet in "Romeo and Juliet". After the performance, Grace adds the dance of Juliet to her practice, auditions for and gets the part of Peter Pan. Grace is an amazing Peter Pan, and according to her Nana, "If Grace put her mind to it, she can do anything she want." True for Grace. And true for all of our kids.  Putting your mind to it is perseverance!

Sometimes I wonder what might have happened if I had chosen to stick with Chorus when I was told by the teacher to sit in the back where no one had to listen to me. I could have been a famous singer! Nah, I just pursued the arts that mattered to me. Teachers, the important thing is to present the arts as possibilities to our students. Let them tinker and explore. Let them respond to assignments and projects infusing a piece of the arts that is important to them. Find time for performances in class. There are ways! Make your room just a little bit of "a country club over there". You never know what future artist, dancer, singer, writer, or scientist is sitting right before your eyes!

Check out some of the STEAM resources at Rainbow City Learning to add a little art to the learning in your classroom!


Click below for a FREE introductory lesson on using the arts to teach perseverance.


To hear the thoughts of our "We Teach So Hard" blogging group on this topic with lots of book suggestions, just click!


For the blog posts of our We Teach So Hard podcasters, click below!




Using the Arts to Teach Perseverance

And... before you go... Check out some amazing posts for the month ahead from my awesome blogging buddies at Teacher Talk!





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Five Tips for a Smoother September


Did you blink? Summer is over! Everyone I know is finally back to school. The last round went back to school in Michigan this week! So many changes, new expectations, and new habits for a new school year! If you can stand one more piece of advice about smoothing out your September, mine would be to add just one new procedure at a time. Here are a few that I believe will make a difference in your year!


Start with the one that tells your students: Welcome! You are in a safe and accepting place, and everyone here is glad that you are here with us. Here's how I would get that started. (It's not too late to add this in for the current year, even if you've already started. Revised script follows here!) Close the door after all are seated and busy with whatever your morning work is. You: "Ok, I have something to share with you. The office has just discovered that they made a mistake. They placed all the BEST students in our grade right here, in this room, with me!"  Them: "Gasp!" (Gazing at you with wide-eyed wonder, as if to say, "How'd that happen?") You: "I know! Right? So how are we going to keep them from figuring it out?" Them: (Offer some ideas.) You: "Well, the key thing is to remember not to tell anyone in any of the other classes that this has happened. We have to kind of keep it low key and just act like we usually do, which is pretty close to perfect!" Them: (Looking around room, and knowingly smiling.)  This is not a fantasy. I have done this and it works.  You are telling your students that they are the best, and in most cases, they will try to live up to your faith in them. Want the best class ever this year? Just believe in that idea together. Send that idea out into your school, community, and the universe!


Use music for transitions, entering, exiting, and some of your writing time. Have certain songs that you play for lining up, for coming to morning meeting, for coming to the carpet for mini lessons, for starting center activities, and for cleaning up. Try keeping a playlist on your computer desktop for easy access when needed. Kids will respond by falling in step with the desired activity as they learn the music that is directing them to begin. I used a few of the Bullyproof Music tunes for most activities, but Seger's "That Old Time Rock n Roll" was a favorite cleanup song. "Got Your Back"(Bullyproof) is a great one for entering and lining up to go to specials, lunch, recess, etc. We loved "Gift" (Bullyproof) for coming to carpet for lessons because it made us think about how special the time we had together really was.



Try some tinker time. I have ALWAYS been a fan of project based learning, invention, and just plain old tinkering with stuff, long before STEM, STEAM, and saving Fred. Long before Genius Hour too! I would love to see you carve out a block of time wherever you can manage it each day where kids can interact with ideas and stuff and just set their imaginations free. Every classroom, science or not, can and should have a Maker Space, in my opinion. Here's a free Guide to Getting Started, if you're ready! The experiences that kids have with tinkering in a leisurely way will spill over into writing, discussions, and even test taking. It's great exercise for their brains. Try it and see!


Write every day. Journals, Interactive Notebooks note taking and responses, math word problems requiring longer answers, quick writes, or just free writing in a writer's notebook to be used at a later time. Students should write in the company of others, and they should see you writing too. Try writing your own journal using whatever projection method you use (I used Elmo, and in the olden days, an overhead projector). The writing that you model should be pen to paper though, not keyboarding into a document. Show that you are happily putting the same effort into your writing that kids are putting into theirs. They will learn much more from watching what you do than from just listening  to what you say about writing. As you develop a new Interactive Notebook lesson, be sure to project what you are writing so all can see it. Writers who write in the company of other writers have far fewer cases of writer's block.


Read together every day. Have a read-aloud going, no matter your grade level. Humans love to be read to. Don't just assign reading to be done at home. Let your kids read in the company of other readers. It will raise those reading levels much quicker! They will notice new books they'd like to try, see examples of others enjoying reading, and enjoy it themselves more and more each day.

Five habits for September. If these five things are in place by the time you and your students arrive at October, I'm guessing that you will say it's been a good month! Happy sailing through the days ahead! Take care of yourself, and enjoy these fresh new moments with your new friends!

For some fresh September ideas from Rainbow City Learning, just click below!



How Morning Meeting Can Become a Sacred Space



You've been thinking about it, planning for it, and executing it for weeks now. Some of you have literally been working on it all summer. Your classroom. It's one of your sacred spaces. A space that is of high importance to you. It's not home. It's not the mall. Not the forest. Or the beach. It's a space in which the things that happen and the thoughts that you and your students have are very important to all of you. In your mind, the way you set up your classroom right now will set the tone for your entire school year. 

Certainly prayer rituals in all religions can be considered as sacred space. To many of us, commuting time with our coffee in our cars is sacred space. Time spent with a pet, loved one, or special friend, can also be sacred space. Those few quiet minutes at the end of a teaching day after the busses have pulled away and the car pickup line has vanished can also be sacred space. You are sitting at your desk or table or even on the floor and no one has come through the door to talk with you. Yet. You know the time. Bet you can even recall how it feels right now!

Your classroom as sacred space. Sacred space is time and space we set aside to create a transition from our fast moving life. Morning Meeting can be an important part of that space. IMO it is a sacred space all on its own. It is a time to pause, to think, and to get in touch with our emotions. It's a time to grow and develop compassion and empathy as we listen to others. It's a time to develop confidence as we share ourselves and our own thoughts. 

Morning meeting sends a clear message to all: 

  • We are not at home right now.
  • We are not outside right now.
  • We are in a space that is important to us as a community.
  • We will learn and grow in this space.
  • This is how we do things here.


This is how we do things here. Probably the most important message you will try to send to your students all year. It's the culture of your learning community. Having a Morning Meeting (or any variation of it that you are comfortable with) is an important part of building your classroom culture. 

According to Responsive Classroom, Morning Meeting consists of four basic activities: greeting, sharing, group activity, and a message. It can take anywhere from fifteen minutes to a half hour. I really recommend using the full half hour in the early days until the "this is how we do things here" part of your class has been established. You can whittle it down as needed throughout the year. The time it takes can be adjusted through the sharing component. Create a system together with your students for deciding how many will share at a particular meeting and how the sharers will be selected. (Draw sticks, pass a ball or talking stick, drop name cards into a bucket, etc.) Some days you will have time for more sharing and even questions or comments about each story, and some days you won't. When it becomes "how we do things here", all variations will be accepted.

As you are setting up your classroom and deciding how to fit in all the academic components, it's important to consider how you will get the attention of your students for the the lessons and standards. If you've got a group that loves to talk, why not direct that in a positive direction, and give them something positive to talk about? Instead of fighting the talking, why not try a Morning Chat? I've written about something I tried in my own classroom called Morning Tweets. Kids came in and wrote what was on their minds. Those tweets could be used as the basis for sharing. While students are chatting or "tweeting", you can get all the housekeeping duties out of the way: lunch count, attendance, notes, etc. Find a specific piece of music that all will recognize as a transition to Morning Meeting time, and you shouldn't need to say a word. If introduced and practiced, kids should be able to come to your sacred space (Morning Meeting space) when they hear the music. 



Greeting
I like to keep this part short and simple. My students would usually turn to the person on each side and hand shake, fist bump, or nod. They would say "Good morning!" to each other and say their name. You can get as fancy and/or silly with this part as you and your students agree on. We sometimes greeted each other in a language other than English, and sometimes as a Shakespearean character might have said it.

Sharing
My favorite way to choose who would share was by assigning a number to each student. I used calendar cards that already had numbers 1-30 printed on them. Students were assigned numbers (like their address, I told them!) at the beginning of the year, and added that number to all papers. It was also a good way to make sure that everyone had an equal chance of being called on. Choosing a few numbers to share each day will allow all who want to share a thought or a short story a chance to do so sometime during the week/two week cycle. As each shares, their number is then placed at the bottom of the stack of numbers.

Activity
This can be any whole group energizer that you think is fun and beneficial to your students. A dance move, a song, a poem to recite together are some ideas that we have tried. My newest idea is to use Morning Meeting Yoga as a way to include a short yoga practice (one pose and one breath) for the activity. It's short, sweet, and builds a practice that students can use throughout life as an emotional support tool. Adding a themed thought for the day can be in addition to or instead of the message. The thoughts in each set (Ten sets available in all!) will build character traits such as empathy, friendship, gratitude, kindness, caring, goal setting, collaboration, growth mindset, good character, and lifelong learning. The sets are interchangeable. Some contain a few partner poses to try as well!

Message
The message can be a simple thought for the day, or a longer message about what students will be learning that day. I recommend doing both. The yoga thought can be a silent meditation for kids to use through the day, and the academic message can be a great transition to the first lesson of the day. 

Wishing you the best teaching year ever, and hoping that your classroom becomes a true sacred space this year for all who enter! 

Click here for more Zen Classroom resources from Rainbow City Learning! 














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Teaching the Importance of Belonging


The 90s called and they want me back! Back in my classroom, back with those amazing 90s kids in Rainbow City, and back to the warm and fuzzy classroom learning community that we all were back then. What?!? You didn't teach in the 90s? Well, good news! All you've missed is the big hair! You can bring that 90s feeling back to your classroom and to your students this year. Here's how:


My podcasting besties (We Teach So Hard) and I were recently talking about all kinds of belonging, and how to nurture feelings of belonging in our classrooms. I had a list of books that I wanted to suggest when I felt the strong and unavoidable pull of the 90s. The music in my head switched way back to Sheryl Crow's "It Takes All Kinds of People", the song that I found in The Marlo Thomas compilation of songs, stories, poems, and essays called Thanks and Giving. Marlo edited two other volumes as well, Free to Be You and Me and Free to be a Family. These books, published from the 70s through the 90s, informed my teaching practice during the 90s and right up until the day I retired several years ago. They were about all those qualities of character that teachers today are always saying that they are trying to instill in their students.

These three books (available dirt cheap on Amazon, Ebay, and used bookstores) are also available in your local libraries. But trust me, when you start to explore, you will want to own them. Get yours now! (But wait until I grab my backup copies please! 😏) I receive no associate benefits anywhere from telling you that you need these books. The only benefit to me is that I can feel that I've paid it forward to future students of yours.

There are all kinds of belonging. If I learned anything from my thirty - six years in the classroom, it was that strong, confident children who feel secure and safe in their environment are welcoming and inclusive to others. You can't make belonging happen without building those kids up from the inside first! Let Marlo Thomas be your guide in this process. You're welcome.


Before I get into the highlights of these amazing volumes, I want to recommend a little adult reading. Becoming by Michelle Obama is my current pick for a book about belonging. The most important takeaway for me from Becoming is the importance of telling your stories. Lucy Calkins does it. It's the piece that trips up many teachers. "How do I get through these voluminous 'mini-lessons'?" Easy. the voluminous part is her stories. Substitute your own stories and voila! Much easier to remember and teach.

Whenever I told my own stories in class (hopefully with a purpose), I used them to segue into nudging kids to tell their own. And, as I said earlier, kids who feel safe and secure in sharing their stories can welcome other kids into their circle. They are interested in hearing the stories of others as well. The Marlo Thomas collection serves that tell your stories function in bite size, easily digestible pieces. So much of it can be found on YouTube and Spotify, if you'd like to listen with your kids. I love owning the books.


A TV Special of Free to Be You and Me. Marlo discusses why she started to collect the stories, songs, poems, and essays. The title song by The New Seekers is awesome! "Take my hand, come with me where the children are free."

Panel discussion on 40th anniversary.

A classic is "The Day Dad Made Toast" (on You Tube!). I used that for years to encourage kids to write a "small moment" story. We would discuss ways families are different and all the ways different family members take different roles, but remain important members of the family.

"Boy Meets Girl" - all about gender identity. Sound pretty current? Two babies meet in the hospital nursery and discuss their futures.

"The Southpaw" Found this online. I used to cut this pdf up into separate notes, put on a baseball cap, and head into ALL the classrooms with another teacher dressed similarly in a baseball cap, for a little Reader's Theater demo. We were quite in demand as actors at all grade levels. Pretended we were actually writing and passing the notes! All about a note-passing frenzy between two "former" friends, Janet and Richard. Perfect for a discussion on collaboration and choosing teams. Also great for a writing prompt. Kids clamored for the chance to act out this Reader's Theater themselves, and any were inspired to write their own about other conflict situations.

My all-time favorite nugget from Marlo is the Sheryl Crow song mentioned above, "It Takes All Kinds of People". I bought this one from iTunes and loaded it on my classroom computer. When we played our weekly review game on Friday mornings, "Are You a Smart 4th Grader?", this was the "wait time" sound track while "contestants wrote their answers on their individual white boards. Semi techy, and semi old school. This was an activity kids looked forward to all week to earn those rainbow dollars (our class money). They really paid attention to lessons because the questions just might show up on our weekly game! I linked a science specific, but editable version for you in the link above, in case you want to try this game yourself. Change anything you like, but please don't change the master. Make a copy and then make it your own! Running the weekly game was actually a classroom job for three students. More about our class economy and jobs can be found in this resource that you might want to take a look at as you plan your year:



Teaching takeaways:

I used the Free to Be books as prompts for so many aspects of learning in my classroom. I used them mainly to encourage kids to tell their stories. To record those stories in their journals, to use those stories to keep building the kind of person they were becoming, and then to tell the new and changing stories. 
A favorite art project with pretty simple materials is a small moment picture.
  • Draw a "photo" of a small moment in your life. (Could be drawn using an actual photo as an example.) Use pencil and eraser at first.
  • Go over lines in "photo" with a fine point black sharpie.
  • Fill in background scene with watercolors.
I would love it if you send me photos of your "small moments" art, and I will come back to add them here as examples for future readers! You'll be famous, and you will win a free resource from Rainbow City Learning ($3.25 or less). Send photos to retta.london@gmail.com .

To win even more resources throughout the year, click and apply here to become a Brand Ambassador for Rainbow City Learning!


To hear more about belonging on our podcast "We Teach So Hard", click this image:
Wishing you the best teaching year ever, in a classroom where the children are free and where everyone feels that they belong!
To read the blog posts from my "We Teach So Hard" friends, click below!













Plan a Teacher PD That You Will Love!



You know the feeling. You are trapped in yet another useless PD that has been planned to fill your time while your classroom to do list is growing along with your anxiety. Your eyes glaze over as your ears and brain fill with "Yada yada yada." Have you struggled to imagine how the topic or strategies offered will have any practical use for you? Have you ever wished that you had some choice in how the PD was planned?

This summer, three teacher friends and I made that wish come true. Our podcast group ("We Teach So Hard") made plans last winter to create a summer PD getaway that would be uniquely useful to the four of us in the teaching, creating, blogging, and podcasting year ahead. Coming together from Connecticut, California, and Michigan took some advance planning. Plane tickets had to be purchased, a location determined, and of course a target list of tasks and presentations had to be established.

The very first step is find your tribe. Don't just put out a district wide message about planning your own PD and wait to see who raises their hand. Actively seek out like minded teachers that you know you would enjoy learning with and just hanging out with. A great place to look is right around you. Those hallway planning sessions and mini PDs that happen every day? I know those have been some of my best inspirational sessions! Ask those colleagues and friends that you regularly discuss pedagogy with. Who are the people that you call to consider a new idea or practice that you'd like to put into place? Maybe your PD soulmates are part of an online group that you participate in. Our group was originally formed by two district colleagues and two teaching friends that we met in online groups. We found so much common ground just through those online interactions that led to true and lasting friendships. So start your list! Where is your tribe? Look at school, look around at district PDs, and check out the members of your online groups. They are just waiting for you to find them!




Our first task was to decide where our PD would take place.  We wanted to spend some time together in a place that would be comfortable both indoors and out. Summer was clearly the best time for all of us, as two are full time classroom teachers who can't easily get away during the school year. The two Michiganders in our group suggested Northern Michigan, where the Summer days and nights are more like early Spring in most of the US. Low 70s in the daytime and high 60s at night. Like having air conditioning inside and out! Aaahhhh.... We selected Mackinac Island in particular because of its rich history and uniqueness. No motor vehicles are allowed on the island. We arrived on a ferry, and all island travel is done by bicycle or horse and carriage. So peaceful!

I was in charge of finding a location on the island where we could work and still have opportunities for play! I started out this time on Trip Advisor and found a condo rental pretty quickly that was perfect for us. High on a bluff, with a great view and comfortable places to work and to find some alone time when each of us needed that. Three bathrooms for four of us? Yes, please! All images on this post are actual photos of our trip, so you can see how beautiful the site actually is!

Equally beautiful might be a park or coffee shop right near where you live. The people that you are with are far more important than where your mini conference is held. Choose and agree on your location according to the budgets and interests in your group.



We decided to focus our PD on our strengths as teachers, and added in some social media lessons to move us further along as bloggers and podcasters.  We all agreed that we learned so much during just three short days that we actually spent onsite. Day 1 and Day 5 were set aside for travel. Of course, you and your team will decide on the most meaningful topics for you. After all, isn't that why you are doing this in the first place?

I spent two years as part of a leadership academy with the purpose of developing teacher leaders. We received one book on leadership each month. Some were connected to education, and some of the readings caused us to imagine and create as we found a relevance in our own search for educational leadership. At the end of the month, we had a two day retreat at a local hotel. The author of the book we had read was also a part of our retreat and led one of the sessions! Anything is possible with a great budget. This one was accomplished through grant writing. Grant writing is a great option when you start to plan your own PD. Just allow plenty of time for that whole process to play out.

Some questions to get you started:
What do you teach? What would you like to learn more about? What strategies  would you like to explore? What have you already spent some time researching that you might be able to teach to the others?

Think about and then discuss these questions with your team as you plan the curriculum for your mini conference. If you are planning to hold your mini conference during the school year, bring your administrator on board. You might ask for release days and/or funds to make it all happen. Grant writing and Donors Choose are also options to find funding.

Some possible overall themes:
Adding Art to STEM or to other subjects
Focus on Test Taking Strategies
Integrating Social Studies into Reading, Writing, and Math
Building Better Classroom Citizens
Making Use of Online Resources for Students
Integrating PBL

This list could go on and on. Make it your own and make sure it matters to all of you!


The image above is a view from our condo at sunset. It's also a reminder not to let the sun go down on your conference without accomplishing part of your working agenda. This takes self-control and perseverance! We did make sure to get our entire agenda accomplished in three days though. We held ourselves and each other accountable. A typical day started with a morning run, bicycle ride,  or indoor Chi Quong (think yoga, standing up) for each of us. Or maybe it started with sleeping in or washing hair. Whatever each of us needed. We were gathered with breakfast by 9 and at work on our agenda. We would generally work until 1:30, travel into town for lunch and ice cream. (Yes, we had ice cream every day. I know.) We stopped at the market for fruit, salads, and nibbles for the evening and headed back for a working dinner. We all changed into jammies for a work session then that lasted until bedtime. We did one dinner out, but worked before and after.

The schedule we came up with worked for the four of us. Yours may look very different. The important thing is to make sure that you accomplish the goal you set when you decided to have this experience together.

I have an overpacking problem. I admit it. You can probably guess which suitcase in the image above is mine! I'm sure that I took three times as many clothes and shoes as I needed. Dragging that thing around was a nightmare, and I needed to depend on everyone else to help! The next time, I will realize that simplicity is the key. Don't bring choices. Bring exactly what you are sure that you will wear, and then just wear that! Having swag tees (Thank you, Tracy!) also gave us several days of no choice dressing. We wore our tees for part of every day!

If you see me at a conference or at the airport in the future, hold me accountable! Did you only pack what you needed? Did you leave something at home?



Totally unexpected, totally unnecessary, and totally fun! Tracy surprised us all with a swag bag containing a notebook, stickers, pens, sunblock, lip balm, snacks, and cute matching t-shirts. I admit that I was not on board with the shirt at first, but I'm loving the pictures now that we are back at home. Our shirts also attracted lots of vacationing teachers to us, making for some fun conversations with people from all over the US and Canada.

I highly recommend packing some fun swag bags. Make some shirts for your tribe!


Having chosen a real vacation spot to hold our mini conference, achieving a play/work balance could have been very challenging. Already knowing that we work well together, this was fairly easy to accomplish. This is another reason to choose your attendees carefully!

Our conference was the perfect combination of work and play, travel to a place of natural beauty, and time well spent with dear friends.

So what are you waiting for? Get started planning your own mini conference today! Keep a planning page in your notebook in case you happen to be stuck in a mandatory PD that doesn't fill a need for you!









Be sure to listen to our podcast on iTunes that we actually recorded together during our time on Mackinac Island!

For more about our DIY Professional Development getaway, be sure to check out the blog posts from Deann, Kathie, and Tracy below!