Day 1 (in just 24 more days)

Each year the First Day of School is just like the very first during my initial year teaching art more than ten years ago.  Why? Because between each of the “firsts”, I have grown as an educator and yes, my growth looks like this:


So, what will that first day look like?  I want to set the tone for the year, growing on successes from last year and extending even more the concept of student empowerment. I’ve spent the entire summer reading, researching and reflecting on how to continue to grow as an educator for the good of my students.  However, the biggest thing I’ve focused on this summer is that the learning that takes place in my classrooms at St. Phil is not about me.  The student’s input in their own experience is equal to what I deem important.

What will Day One look like?
The best way to let my students know that their voice matters is by giving them an opportunity to be heard.  Even though I have very few new students this year, we are going to start with student reflection on questions about them so I can get to know my students even better. Then, we are going to rewind to Innovation Time 2016-17. Homework for Day 1 will include playing video games and getting into the Flow.  I cannot wait to get started!

2016-17 Digital Scrapbook

I want to begin my year in review focusing on myself, which will lead into what really matters – my students.  This year, I set the following teaching goals to empower students:

1. Personal Context
I have witnessed first-hand how choice in the art classroom gives students a voice and a motivation to share their message. They are empowered as learners and meet the visual arts standards through their own exploration and focus on the artistic process. The environment described in Wettrick’s Pure Genius mirrors that in my TAB classroom. I will work to strike a balance between “expected” reading and student choice in the opening months, moving along the choice spectrum to more student-directed learning as the year progresses.

2. Pedagogical Context
One of the greatest take-aways from Couros’ Innovator’s Mindset is that not everything we try as educators will work with every learner. As educators we must be willing to take risks, to support multiple modes of teaching and learning to ensure we are meeting the needs of each student. To encourage growth in my innovative mindset this year, I must draw on the successes of last year while “maintaining a willingness to try something new” (Couros 51). For me this means letting go of teacher directed curriculum in the English room and giving students room to explore, create and reflect on their learning with a focus on the process, not the product. The reflection process will incorporate technology, as all of my art and Honors English students create digital portfolios with blog reflections on learning.

3. Classroom Context
The pirate in me is already alive in the art classroom at St. Philip Catholic Central (STP). Students in grades 9-12 work simultaneously at all different levels using varied media. It is easy to encourage them because I am passionate about what is happening in the art room.  I am so excited to share my passion for literature with the same fervor that I do in the art room. This means helping students find their interest and guide them through the process of developing their interests as readers and writers.


In Daniel Pink’s book Drive, he writes about the three elements that motivate people to do extraordinary things: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Autonomy is freedom to determine your own actions or behaviors; mastery is the action or process of mastering a subject or accomplishment; and purpose refers to the reason that something is done (having a purpose).

Innovation Time provides students with all of these elements. Students choose their projects and come to class with their own plan for how to use their class time. They work
at the project until they reach an end goal There is no “due date,” just the continuous striving for the goal.  And finally, students have a purpose for their work. There is an end goal: to create something to share with the world.

Read student blog reflections on their efforts to reach their goal.


This year, students in my English classes at STP selected their own texts for a portion of the course.  Here are their responses regarding the Lit Circle approach to reading, discussion and motivation:

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Student Comments:

  • I liked the Lit Circle books better. They allowed us to read books that we were interested in.
  • I like that we got to choose books that seemed interesting to us and not just a book you are forced to read that you aren’t interested in.
  • I was more motivated to read my Lit Circle books because I liked them more.
  • My motivation level for Lit Circle Books was much higher because they were book I wanted to read
  • The anchor texts seemed like a drag and a mandatory assignment while the Lit Circle assignment was fun to get into the book.
  • I felt more need to read my Lit circle book and enjoyed the continent I was reading
  • I had more motivation to read as I felt more of an importance to the discussion and was reliable to read to that point.
  • I think I had more motivation because I got to choose the book and make my own choice.
  • I was more motivated to read a book that I had chosen because it captured my interest more.
  • It was interesting for me to get opinions from different people
  • I really liked reading books with a group of people that were equally as interested in the book as I was
  • I WANTED to read my chosen book, but the anchor one were super not my style.
  • I have motivation because I am partially responsible for the rest of my Lit Circle team.
  • The lit circle books had a lot more choice to them, so I personally was more motivated to read them. The anchor text books could seem boring at times, and not all of them felt worth reading.
  • I liked picking my own books.
  • It was more fun to discuss and read a book with my fiends because it helped me understand the text more.
  • It motivated me more since it’s a smaller group so if none of us read, we can’t talk. Also, speaking in smaller groups is much more comfortable.
  • There is no motivation. Give up while you are ahead. Unless it’s lit circles. Then you are saved.
  • I liked it when we had freedom to chose a book and to choose a type of essay to write
  • Anchor texts gave me less motivation because i wasn’t interested in the story but the lit circle book was something i thought would interest me, which it did so i had more motivation to finish


– I became a part of a PLN on Twitter.  I used tweetchat and networked with professionals, on educational topics (#tlap, #innovation, # LearnLAP…..).

– Setting the tone – Teach Like a Pirate Day
– Innovation Time Introduction
Excellence in Teaching Conference! Topics focused on Differentiated Instruction, Digital Learning and Developing Interest-Based Assignments.

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– In preparation for Christmas, we critically analyzed each week’s Gospel reading using the SOAPSTone model (Speaker, Occasion, Audience, Purpose, Subject, Tone)

Matt Miller hosted #DitchSummit online = nine great presenters sharing a wealth of information! Sign up here for the one in 2017!
– Began Lit Circles in all English courses.  Students set reading schedules and monitored their own discussions.
– I conferred with all students in small lit circle groups.
– I continued work on the school improvement team.
– March Madness Lit Style!  Students crafted a cohesive argument to convince their audience that their book should be read over a competitor’s text.  And the winner was….
– Innovation Conference in Wisconsin! Woah! The opening keynote Dr James Rickabaugh-ISN-Keynote-2017offered an optimistic but urgent vision for the future of learning, schools and education. keynote here!
– An amazing session on AEA ISN Conference Design Thinking 04.14.17 final – ready to push things to the next level!

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– BCACS brought Christine Schneider to the school.  Grades K-12 explored the Michigan eLibrary.

-Design Thinking!

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Marshmallow Challenge
5 Chair Challenge

– I issued a course evaluation to students
– Students finished TED Talks for Innovation Time.  What an amazing experience, where students focus on the learning process, not the product.  They also shared how much learning happens with a “failure”.

Summer 2017 – The Learning and Professional Growth Continues
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Beyond Innovation

After a long first semester of struggling with a plethora of reluctant readers, I decided that I needed to further adjust my approach to teaching and extend the student-directed pedagogy that I have found success with in both the art classroom and innovation class to literature.  But, how in the world could I continue to meet English learning standards with students all reading something different at their own pace?

I began researching what other high school English teachers were doing with literature circles and culled the information to increase student motivation and the actual reading of literature.  We are just finishing the first lit circle unit.  For the first unit, I had students select a text from one of the books that I would teach to the whole group.  This helped me introduce the process of reading, reflecting and discussing.  Since I have read all of the books they have been reading, it also let me help guide the discussion when there were gaps.  I think students have a better understanding of the process, as evidenced by comments in their post-discussion reflections:

I learned that blame should not always fall on one person, but sometimes you must take responsibility for your own actions and accept the blame. After Kiowa’s death, they decided that the blame was not to fall upon one person, but on all people. However, after the author killed a man on his own, and he had to accept the blame and responsibility for that. Next time, to create a better discussion, I could come in with more questions that appeal to the group rather than personal questions. We need to improve more on talking and on discussing rather than just talking at each other. I have not been here for the past two weeks for discussion, so I have not been able to tell what we should improve on. Now that I am here, I see that I am in the “quiet group” and should really work to help everyone discuss as a whole.

There have been struggles with implementation and this was expected, change is always difficult!  But overall, I have been amazed by the quality of discussion, the ownership over learning and more importantly the return of a small bit of joy to student discussions about reading!

The discussion was happy and funny. We need to stay on topic. But we have fun in discussion.

I learned that we still don’t like the book. We realized that Kenny is actually crazy. We pretty much just talked about Kenny. We all had input and we pretty much agreed on everything. I like my group very much. It’s gonna be sad to leave. I think I can ask better questions next time though.

Throughout the unit, we have been discussing the elements of effective persuasive writing.  Now, St. Philip Catholic Central is hosting its first Lit Circle Championship!  Each round includes argument videos from the lit circle groups, all advocating for why their books should be read.

Throughout the week, STP students have voted on which video shows a better argument for why the book should move forward in the tournament.  Final four games are tomorrow and the winning book will be announced on Friday and featured in my classroom library.  STP students are welcome to come to room 103 and check out a copy of any of the books featured in the tourney.  This activity has helped students develop evidence-based argument sand should serve them well as they begin essays on their lit circle books.

Next week, we will begin Lit Circle Unit 2.  For this unit, students are requesting any text, which will be approved if it is appropriate for school and at a recommended reading level for their grade.  Furthermore, the American Lit students are selecting U.S. authors and the World Lit students are selecting authors outside of the U.S.  I don’t expect to make huge changes to the process but want to hear from my students.  I plan to survey them on their experience with the first unit so that I can make adjustments and continue to work for increased student engagement and comprehension!

“The Suck” and My Innovation Class

In some cases, student motivation is becoming an issue in my Innovation Class.  But before I point the finger at the students, I must first look internally to see what is happening during innovation time.  To be frank, I expected this to happen.  I have already seen it happen in my art classroom.  Students begin the year/semester all excited about the choices for responding to their own ideas and interests through the making of art. The first art pieces the students produce are both meaningful and beautiful; they experience issues in the creative process but complete a piece that communicates new ideas and enthusiasm for the making of art.  Then they lose steam and before I know it, they turn to Pinterest for ideas.  This is when I intervene.  I find that a quick conference will refocus their energy, when they “don’t know what to do”.  I simply ask what media they would like to try or what idea they wish they could communicate visually and working together, we create a plan.

Here is where I give a big “thank you” to my PLN!  As I read through blogs of my colleagues, I discovered that what is happening in my classroom actually has a name. “The Suck”, coined by Jon Corippo, is the dead zone that students find themselves in between when the project is assigned and their excitement level is high, and when the project is actually due, and their excitement level is low.  Some of my students are abandoning their original ideas or are simply complacent during Innovation Class.  I know what to do–I have been already doing this in the art room.  I just haven’t been doing it in my Innovation Class.  It is time to intervene.

Karl Lindgren-Streicher says that “#ObiWanCorippo has a couple solutions to The Suck. First, you’ve got to label it. Kids need to know what The Suck is. The need to be able to recognize when they get stuck in The Suck.”  Early next week, I will present the concept to my students with elements from Corippo’s presentation.

Then, I have to take what I already know how to do and move it to my Innovation Class. Taking time to conference with each student, I will set goals with students individually.  For some students, this will be easy since they will be working through some structured, short-term steps in the process:  create your 3 in 3 presentation, review and update your timeline, etc.  For others, this will be a time to critically look at the project they are involved in and remind them that this emotional journey is worth it.  They can bring their amazing ideas to fruition.

Image:  Saddington, J. (2016)

What a Week!

So it is only Wednesday, but I wanted to blog before I got through my next round of Innovation Time.  Just last week, one of my students said, “Mrs. Niesen, you are as excited about my project as I am.”  I sincerely replied that I was.  I never leave one of my Innovation classes without a renewed vigor for teaching and learning.  I know that I have done something right this year and that is made more evident as several students bring their first round of innovative ideas to a close.

After months of researching training options, Ava broke her goal of an 18 minute 5k, qualified for nationals and placed 34th at the Foot Locker XC Nationals.  She just presented her TED Talk this week, enlightening us all about how research plus self-reflection can equal growth.

Emily successfully planned and ran Faith Day during Catholic Schools Week.  Her journey through Innovation Time was shared on the BCACS blog – A community blog for parents, students, staff and supporters of the Battle Creek Area Catholic Schools.  One of my colleagues saw the BCACS blog and commented: “It is neat to see what young people can accomplish when real teaching and learning occurs.”

And we continue on.  Because why would you buy a new drone when you could figure out how to put one together yourself? Even if it does involve re-forming “a small portion of the gimble so that it fits under the helicopter a little better, as the base is just a little to big” (Chris).


My students are amazing!  Find their amazing stories on their blogs!

Design Re-thinking

I am still struggling with how to marry “traditional” English teaching with allowing students to create learning and our “innovation class”.  After my second session of the Ditch That Textbook Digital Summit (#ditchsummit), I know that this is going to be my focus for professional work over Christmas break.   To continue to embrace change, I have to acknowledge that this is not a replacement but a reorganization of things to focus on design thinking/creativity and motivation!

Even though I’m on my second session, I actually just finished listening to John Spencer (session 6).  Many questions come up after watching Spencer’s video.  Could I open up design thinking to take information from the texts we are reading and move through LAUNCH process?  Can I create links between text, themes, historical connections and their current innovation project?  Could it work through character analysis?  Could is start with building an authentic audience together? I think the key is the phrase Spencer repeated throughout the video “Don’t rob the world of your creativity.”

Or should I abandon the focus on literature all together?  Would everyone go nuts at this thought?

So many questions!


Teaching Like a Pirate

I continue with my teaching goal of engaging learners and teaching like pirate.  Today I used a special props hook to start our American Lit unit on the Fireside Poets. This week, we discussed themes in 19th century poetry and the Fireside Poets.  Then sitting around a bonfire, we shared interpretations of the poems that they explicated and ate roasted marshmallows!



Still Working….

Change is hard.  Not only for the students but for the teacher as well.  When I remind students that “tomorrow is innovation day” and I hear the cheers, I celebrate successes.  However, I have several students who have not embraced the change.  I attribute some of this to a lack of confidence in ideas and a fear of failure.  More importantly, I realize that I have not done a very good job of teaching students that it is OK to fail–failure, learning and growth go hand in hand.

I plan to start tomorrow’s Innovation Class with this in mind.  Furthermore, I want to remind students that we are all in this together.  Without getting on a soapbox, I want them to remember that I may fail in starting Innovation Class at STP.   In fact, some days I feel like I have and am ready to run back to the safety of reading, reflecting and writing essays.  I realize that if I do this, it is a disservice to my students.   They DESERVE more.  They need the chance to grow and learn with their own passions and ideas at the core.

Some of my students want Innovation Class everyday.  Could we get there?  Maybe.  If we embrace the journey of change together, one day at a time.

Innovation Class – Finding Ideas

During innovation class, we have spent the past few weeks getting acclimated with the concepts of choice and topics.  After brainstorming “bad ideas” last week, one student described it as “vomiting on a whiteboard”.  I did ask for honesty!

I do feel that most of the students got their wheels turning with the activity and more importantly, discovered how you could create a product concept from an idea.  How much fun would a video game about rubbing your hands on carpet be to play?  More importantly, how would you begin to develop the idea?  That is our next step during Innovation Class – create a clear plan for bringing an idea to fruition.

Of course, some students couldn’t wait to work.  I am lucky enough to be both the art and English teacher at St. Phil.  Crossover between the Innovation Class and the open art studio happened instantly.  Here are students drawing plans for a house designed by one student, while the other explores interior design possibilities!IMG_6192.JPG


My next step is to further define where projects are headed and to support students who are struggling with the open assignment concepts.  I will also further define expectations. Finally, blog posting has begun but they are insular at this time.  It is time to open up and share student thinking with the world!IMG_6193.JPG

Innovation Class Intro


Well last week included “Teach Like a Pirate Day “and the introduction to Innovation Class time.  While my pirate costume was a hit, IMG_6071.JPGthe innovation introduction wasn’t received with the enthusiasm I had hoped for.  So during my commute home on Friday and over the weekend, I took some time to reflect on the presentation.

I purposefully did not share examples of what other students were doing with innovation / genius hour / 20% time.  My experience as an art teacher has taught me that if I show an example, I close students’ thinking and will get a close duplicate of other student ideas.  I am not second-guessing this choice but know that the students are apprehensive about swimming in unchartered waters.  Today I reassured them that I have been through this before.  I know how they are feeling right now, after all my senior students have been told exactly what to do, how to do it and when to finish things for 12+ years.  I asked the students to trust me and let them know that I was going to be by their sides every step of the journey.

I continued my innovation journey by letting students know that we were going to start our Innovation time together slowly.  We would be spending the beginning classes identifying problems, ideas and student passions.  I would be sharing a process that will be applied to each student project, regardless of its length.

While my students are not completely sure of what is going to happen, I hope that some of their excitement grows this week as we work through an activity to “Find Your Passion”!