Don’t Miss The Boat

Online education is like a rising tide,it's going to lift all boats.

“Are you crazy?! Have you really thought about this?! People would KILL for your position!”

These are the things my siblings said to me when I told them I was leaving my 3rd grade position at a public school in NJ. I worked there for 16 years. It was a great place to start, I met some awesome lead learners (Hi Brad!), it was fine. As the years progressed, I felt I needed something more. I needed something challenging, something different, something more than fine. I applied and was offered a teaching opportunity at a public cyber charter school in PA. And then things became very interesting.

Most people aren’t familiar with public cyber schools.  I often find myself telling them about our cyber school and all the wonderful learning that happens online and at our family learning center. Then, almost instantaneously the questions begin…

“Do you even teach?” (Yes)

“Do you have a class?” (Yes)

“Do you see them, can they see you?” (Yes, we use webcams)

“Are you giving them links to click on and learn?” (Yes, sometimes)

“Do your learners spend the entire day in front of a computer?” (No)

“How can they learn from the internet?” (Oh, boy…)

A question that a fellow educator and Twitter friend recently asked me has been lingering on my mind. He asked,

“Can you build strong relationships with your students online?” ~ Oskar Cymerman

This stopped me in my tracks. Why would he question this? Don’t we build relationships with individuals online, like I had formed with him and so many others, on Twitter? Can learning relationships only be formed face to face? I continue to learn a tremendous amount from my fabulous #PLN and the numerous chats, blog posts, edu articles, and blabs. Yet, I have only met a few Twitter friends in person. Why was he asking this?

When I began my cyber teacher experience, one of my fears (I had many) was if I would be able to connect with my learners. How would I do that? I have always been an animated teacher. I’m able to capture their attention and incorporate playfulness visually, kinesthetically and vocally into my lessons. I know how to simplify ideas and concepts to reach all learners. Would I be able to do all these things as a cyber, online teacher?  Can I build relationships with my cyber students as I had done with my traditional “brick and mortar” students?

Yes, I can and I have. Yes, we can build strong relationships online. Yes, I am still animated, playful, and fun. Yes, students can connect and learn from a cyber teacher. How can I tell? At our school we receive feedback from parents, students, colleagues and administrators.  My learners and I interact online, and in person. We email, FaceTime, call, we attend various meet and greets, and field trips. I speak not only with my learners on a regular basis but also with their parents who attend lessons with them. YES! Parents sit in on every cyber lesson I have! The trifecta (Student, Parent, Teacher) relationship is so powerful. I am most proud of the relationships I have with my parents and learners. Parents learn together with our class. They support the work we do, add to our discussions, reinforce concepts and ensure deeper learning at home.

I often ask my son Gabe to read my blog, and let me know his viewpoint. This is how he responded…

“You know mom, school is just a place where teachers teach what they have to, you know, curriculum and test prep. When I want to learn something, something that’s important to me, I know where I can find it and who I can learn from. I build those relationships online, I can make them happen. Kids just go to the source.  A lot of the time, well recently, its not from a school, its not from a teacher or the relationship I have with my teachers. I just think teachers don’t understand that.”

~Gabe Howard, 15


Today, learners are not waiting for a relationship with their teacher to form, to learn something new. They don’t have to wait to learn. They build relationships and learn concepts online daily. To disregard this fact, is to disregard our times, what is relevant to our learners now. Our generation of learners are an iPoding, texting, Googling, YouTubing and Facebooking. They live during a time of dramatic technological changes. For many of them, texting is the chosen method of communication and YouTube is the chosen method of online learning. Whether you feel this is good or this is bad, is irrelevant. This virtual presense will not go away.

We as tenured teachers form and maintain relationships by meeting face to face, talking on the phone, and writing notes and letters.  Today’s learners build relationships by texting, Facetiming, emailing and social media. They have access to so much and often times contact the source directly. We need to bridge the gap of old and new. There are more ways to form a learning relationship than face to face. We need to accept and adapt to this modern way. We can’t afford to miss the boat any longer.


Creativity is thinking up new things.

I read an article recently which identified creativity as the No. 1 “leadership competency” of the future. Innovation was also in the top five. It went on to discuss the lack of creativity and innovation in US schools. As I read, I couldn’t help but think about what creativity and innovation would look like in my classroom next year.

To me, creativity and innovation go hand in hand. I perceive creativity as the prime source for innovation. I see it as a process, a way of generating ideas and expressions, which can amplify knowledge and lead to new ways of thinking and problem solving. Bringing those ideas to fruition is innovation. It can be an original production, something altered, something better and more useful. There is no one right way or answer. How can I incorporate creativity and innovation into my classroom? What would this look like?

When I think of creativity and innovation as a session in my classroom, I think of it as something similar to my Genius Hour. It’s a time devoted to student curiosity and interest; a time for research, collaboration and exploration. Where every student can feel empowered to explore their passions. Creativation (yes, this is what I will call it) is the adjunction of creativity and innovation. Creativation is a time for divergent and convergent thinking; a time to generate many unique ideas, and to combining those ideas into the best result.

All around us are national and international problems, real world problems of importance %22Creativity and Innovation are about finding unexpected solutions to obvious problems%22-2that desperately need creative solutions. Our world is running out of natural resources each day, many still do not have safe drinking water, and our oceans are heavily polluted. Creativation will give students an opportunity to generate solutions to such issues.  Students will be able to understand the importance of contributing original ideas and being receptive to the ideas of others. They will see creativity and innovation as a necessity. These two necessities of human ingenuity should be unchallenged.

The more I think about creativation, the more I wonder; is it learnable?  Can anyone really learn how to be creative and innovative? I believe so. When I think about it, a vertically challenged basketball player comes to mind. Being tall assists a pro basketball player immensely, but even short players (Spud Webb and Nate Robinson…I know…I’m dating myself) have achieved success through hard work and practice. In the same way, there are certain individuals naturally prone to being creative and innovative thinkers. Creativity and innovation requires a constant shifting of ideas. It requires a blending of new information with old, new ideas with forgotten ideas; a constant back and forth, pendulum swing, the blending divergent and convergent thinking. I feel those who practice creative activities learn to prime their brains’ to think in this way.

So what does this mean for America’s standards-obsessed schools? Creativity and innovation are very much sought after in American schools, but its clearly been misunderstood and certainly not supported. Some argue that creativity and innovation should only happen in an art room, shop class or a kindergarten wing. Others believe we can’t teach creativity and innovation because learners already have too much to learn. Most school curricula does not, as of yet, encourage creativity and innovation, mainly because they are not clear how creativity should be defined and how it should be treated in learning and assessment. A school district’s curricula is often overloaded with content and this content reduces the possibility of creative and innovative learning approaches in practice.

Schools play a key role in fostering and developing students’ creative and innovative capacities for further learning. Creativity needs to be viewed as a cross-curricular skill, a  skill which students should be encouraged to develop. Creativity and innovation isn’t about freedom from concrete facts. Rather, it’s fact-finding, it’s rooted in deep thoughtful research.  These are vital stages in the creative, innovative and learning processes. Creativity and innovation have strong links with knowledge and learning. Creative learning requires innovative teaching. This type of teaching calls for educators to become reflective practitioners. Teachers need to be able to distinguish how a teaching method or activity can stifle or trigger creativity and innovation in their students.

One of the enemies of creativity and innovation, especially in relation to our own development is

So, how do we do this? Currently, teachers lack support in bringing forth creativity and innovation into their classrooms. Many focus on convergence and discipline instead of divergence because it’s easier to handle. Teachers play a major role in constructing creative environments. Our teachers need training, support, and encouragement from administration, colleagues, parents, students, and the community. Many educators agree that current curriculum standards can still be met, if taught in a different way. The time has come to change our educational culture to one that values creativity and innovation and sees it as an asset in the classroom. What will you do differently to promote creativation in your classroom?







“I Don’t Know, But Let’s Find Out Together”

I dontknow


“Where do creative and innovative ideas come from?  I mean, is it a step by step process? Or does a flash of inspiration strike a learner in a moment of utter clarity? How does one get to be innovative? Are you born with it? Do you learn it?”

These are questions that my son, Gabe asked recently. We were on a beach holiday a few weeks ago and his firing squad of questions has been on my mind ever since.

Gabe is a very bright and very studious young man. He enjoys his tech and sci-fi movies. He loves to dabble inGabe gamer chats and Twitter chats (with his mama) too. We often discuss education, though sadly, he has clearly mentioned he will not be an educator. He believes that learners have a voice and strongly feels that educators need to listen more to their learners. Gabe and I were discussing innovation and I mentioned how important it is to allow time for learners to tinker and encourage them to innovate. You never know what ideas learners can come up with and where that will lead us globally. He was intrigued by this, hence the questions.

As a questioner myself, I took a moment to think about them all. His questioning came on so strong, one right after the other, without a moment to breathe or think. A few minutes later, I simply answered, “I don’t know, Gabe.”

“You don’t know?” his eyebrows lifted above the rim of his glasses. I took notice of the look of pure surprise on his face, he truly looked stunned. I am sure it was not the first time I had answered him this way. Why the look?

“That’s it? That’s your answer?”he asked unsatisfied.

I smiled, nodded my head and bit my lip, “Yes, …and that’s a good answer”, I replied.

As I sat there, and stared at my 15 year old, I started thinking: how many times do we give a “best guess” to a series of difficult questions? Did he want me to guess an answer? Maybe he wanted me to Google it? Did he want me to “bs” him? You know, give him a round about answer of “it could be because of this…that…and maybe …”. I’m quite proud of his ability to formulate a strong question. I respect him and his ability to do that, as my son and as a learner. I thought I answered him well. However, I could see in his reaction that my response was disappointing and puzzling to him.

Is it a good thing to admit you do not know the answer to a question? 

Like most things in life, I think it depends on many variables. It might depend on the context of the conversation, the personalities, who you are speaking with, your familiarity with the topic and a whole host of other variables that may influence the outcome.

I feel some of us who are in positions to provide answers, solutions or solve problems may be afraid of the phrase: “I don’t know.”  In reality, those 3 little words hold a lot of power. It is an honest expression. It is a genuine expression of your lack of knowledge of a topic. When stated truthfully, those words can build trust. Why is it that this phrase can leave some disappointed and leave those reciting it, embarrassed? Why can we not accept “I don’t know” as a viable answer?

Learners anticipate answers from teachers; they expect it. Some answers satisfy, others don’t. It is our responsibility as life long learners to admit when we don’t know something, but more imperative to provide guidance on how to find that answer.


As an educator, I feel you need not have all the answers on the spot. The smartest people in the room know when a question is beyond their knowledge and understand the power of consulting with others and learning together. They know the answer, “I don’t know” is acceptable, it’s truthful. Most importantly, it can lead to powerful learning and thinking. The collaboration and relationship it can build with the learner, is unmatched. As educators we should commit to answering the unknown together with our learners. It is far better to admit you do not know something than make something up and hope they do not call your bluff. The next time you don’t know the answer, don’t be afraid or embarrassed.  Instead just say “I don’t know, but let’s find out together.”


A Beer, Storytelling and Spanakopita


I was so fortunate to have had an opportunity to visit with relatives in Canada recently. Thanks in part to social media, annual Christmas cards and phone calls, I have been able to stay connected throughout the years to my Uncle Jack and Aunt Voula. This trip was an emotional one, and reminded me of my parents, especially my mom.

My mom had the gift of storytelling. Storytelling is truly an art form and apparently, runs in my family. I was always amazed at how well she could tell a story and describe events so vividly. I would close my eyes and turn her words into a movie in my mind. I can remember asking her questions about her childhood, curious to learn about this amazing woman I called Mama. Through her stories I learned about her life on a small farm in Greece. I remember her stories of determination and defiance, when her father, my Papou, wouldn’t let his girls go to school and learn. My mama would sneak and learn anyway, only to be punished for it later. The harsh punishment didn’t matter to her, she continued to go. Yes, my mama was a tough lady, a true pioneer of her time. I learned history through her storytelling too. Like how the Nazis didn’t find her farm, nestled in the hills and outskirts of the small town of Analipsi, Greece during WWII, but how the Greek communist rebels (andartithes) did. I remember her crying as she told me how they hit my Yiayia (grandma) with the butt end of their rifles, as they took over their farm. I learned important life lessons, many of which I remember and can visualize today. This trip to Canada fed some of my curiosity about my mom’s family, and gave me a better understanding of my roots.

My Uncle- Theo- Jack, is a simple man, with gentle blue eyes. He tells me blue eyes run in our family. I am certainly the odd ball out, for I have green eyes. He wakes up early and works out at the local gym with his youngest son, John. Theo usually beats John there, arriving at 5am if not earlier most days. He comes back home, washes up and then he is out the door again. He spends most of his mornings at his garden, weeding and pruning. Today he is collecting zucchini flowers, cucumbers and green beans for our afternoon lunch. IMG_6308He greatly enjoys gardening and will often plant various bushes and flowers to adorn Bill’s, his eldest son’s, dentistry practice. Like most men, Theo Jack enjoys cars. He likes to drive his “big car”, the largest BMW I’ve ever seen, loaded with all the bells and whistles you can think of, very fast around the block. He smiles as he hugs the corners of various avenues. He laughs as I slide across the leather seats and grab the “oh shoot!” handle above the window. The need for speed must run in our family.

Sitting on his deck, overlooking the city of London, Ontario, drinking a beer together, I felt the urge to ask him a question. If you know anything about me, you know that I always ask questions. I have this innate ability, to think out loud and question things. It has gotten me “in trouble” as a child, and even more so as an adult. I’m not sure why others think I am challenging them, in all honesty, I am not. I just like to question and will question FullSizeRendermost things for my own benefit and better understanding. I asked Theo Jack why he chose to live in Canada, and not the US like the other members of our family. His response intrigued me. He said “I had visited the States but, it didn’t hold my interest. Sure there were some nice areas, but I was looking for something more. Canada really felt like home. It is beautiful here, wide and open. I came to Canada and stayed here for my children.  I wanted them to have opportunities and to have a better life. My heart though, is in Analipsis” (his small hometown in Greece). “Why Theo?” I asked. He proceeded to tell me about his education, traveling to his small school, an hour walk, one way, in all types of weather, barefoot. He told me how poor his family and all the families in their town were, and how they would send him to school with one slice of bread and a piece of feta cheese, that was breakfast, lunch and dinner. He told me about the one time…one time…he was punished by his teacher. He told me how he held out his hand and the teacher whipped his palm with a thin tree branch. Over and over. He never misbehaved in class again. As the story telling continued, I pictured my mom and Theo Jack together. Her childhood stories and his intertwining, weaving them into a family quilt, that presents with me with a better understanding of their life. Noticing my gaze, and how I am drifting off into my own thoughts about my mother, he says…

“Your mama was a very smart woman, one of the smartest women I knew.” He brought me back into the moment. I looked at him, then looked away as tears welled up in my eyes. My mom died quite some years ago, and her passing is still hard for me to discuss. I sat there biting my lip, another habit of mine, trying to keep my emotions at bay, he continued on.

“She was strong, a hard worker. She had a vision. Your mama wanted a better life and would not settle. Many women and men misunderstood her. Back then, women didn’t do what she did. They didn’t question things, they didn’t question authority like she did. She always pushed forward.”  

I will remember his words for as long as I live. I sat there, letting his words linger in my mind, as my Thea Voula, Theo Jack’s wife, joined us with a plate full of her homemade spanakopita and some fresh fruit. She placed forks and napkins on the table by each of us, and urged us to eat. She is a mama to me; we are very similar. We share a passion for learning and a love of literature; our favorite, Anne of Green Gables. She too, is a strong lady, very honest with a gentle smile. She is refined and elegant, as many women from her generation are. When she looks at you, her cheeks plump up and her eyes sparkle. Her love for you shines from them. My Thea, had christened me with the nick name of “Cute”. As a child, she would call my parent’s house and ask how “the cute” was doing. Even now, when I call her I always say “It’s “the cute” calling “.

Still curious about my family, I asked how she and Theo Jack met, hoping for another story. She looks admiringly to him and asks if he would like to tell the story. He shakes his head no, and she begins…only to be interrupted by him a moment later. She raises her hand and says, “I offered for you to tell it, you declined. Please let me talk, don’t interrupt me”. He shakes his head, smiles slowly and listens in. Story telling at its finest.