Motivated to Breathe

I am well into my Headspace guided meditation practice. The sessions have doubled in length of time and there are more sustained periods of practice required. A few key ideas are resonating with me this week.

The first pause came when I was reminded that this is a process. In one session I was asked to be less results-oriented. This is a difficult challenge in learning as we are so accustomed to evaluating and assessing along the way. Instead, I was told to focus on the process and the journey. My goal should not be to tame my restless mind, but instead to develop genuine curiosity and learn to observe my mind with a soft focus.

So, I will not report on the specific drop in my sleep pattern (again) this week. It’s ok that I have been more restless as the time commitment has increased. I will continue to work at this each week, and be gentle with myself as I face some of the common obstacles to meditation.

The biggest question that came out earlier this week was a “Why are you doing this?” While focusing on my breathing I was asked about my motivations. It started simply enough – direct your attention to your intention. This was easily answered. I want to be more present, mindful and calm. My hope is that this will lead to increased hours of sleep. The next day the question changed slightly. If we believe that we will get something positive out of this journey, how might others benefit from our new learning? Ah hah! My mind rejoiced! My underlying purpose has not really been about my high-speed flitting thoughts, after all. My secret, deeply hidden reason for doing this is guilt. I am constantly on the go. My people never get my full attention, because I am worrying about everything that I need “to do”. My ultimate purpose is to train my mind to focus my attention to whatever I am doing in the moment. Whether it is eating a meal, speaking with a friend, commuting with my husband; my goal is to be fully, mindfully PRESENT. I know that I was previously present. My husband speaks of it all of the time. I was a lot of fun when I was in the moment!
Later in the week one of the guided meditations explained that if we meditate as an act of service; with the idea of having something to offer others, the process will become easier, the mind will be softer and become more malleable. I love this focus!

I wonder how our choices in learning new things can be paid forward? I wonder how many people mindfully choose to learn something new with the idea of helping others? How will your current learning project become an act of service for the people in your life?

Photo Credit: h.koppdelaney via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: h.koppdelaney via Compfight cc


The Backchannel – my EdTech Fave

Our #tiegrad cohort shared out some tech tools last week during class. More importantly than the tools being shared were the conversations about how and why particular tools were chosen. I enjoyed hearing about great ideas grounded in strong pedagogy and purpose.

Some tools discussed included: Explain Everything (see tutorials created by Victoria Olson here), Padlet, Desmos, FreshGrade, and Wolfram Alpha.

I wasn’t sure which tools would be chosen by my other cohort members, so I prepared a list of my favourite resources. We quickly ran out of time, so I am taking this opportunity to share out my experiences with my favourite EdTech tool here.

For several years I have been experimenting with a variety of Backchannel tools to find the best resource for my students. My purpose in providing a backchannel in my classroom is to offer more opportunities for students to contribute their ideas, questions, insights and ponderings. A backchannel increases the potential for more participation. Backchannels allow for real time collaboration, even while a lesson unfolds.

I observed a massive increase in student participation in my lessons when I kept the backchannels open throughout the day. I “heard” from students who had not volunteered to speak in class previously – they would insightfully discuss topics through text, offer different ways to explain things, and answer questions posed in real time during lessons. Not every student is comfortable speaking in front of a crowd!

A few of the backchannel tools I have tried include:

  • Padlet: An online sticky note board – it allows you to upload videos, images links comments, almost anything. Works on every platform. It will also provide you with a quick QR code for your board – which is helpful if you project the “wall” and people can walk by and scan the QR to join.
  • Baiboard: an iOS app where you can create a private or public shared space. One feature that I loved about this app is the ability to create multiple “pages” to work on. For several lessons, I created prompts on a series of pages, and the students could reply to the ones that held meaning for them. Organizing the collaborative dialogue on multiple pages kept the conversations more synchronously aligned. This app would be amazing if you were able to open it up to other devices without requiring downloading an app.
  • Voicethread: a great tool for student conversation. You can use images and videos to organize and prompt deeper conversations.
  • A little dabbling with some of the tools listed by EdTech and Mobile Learning.
I post a quick QR code on several "Say Something" mini posters around my room for quick and easy access to our Backchannel for the week.

I post a quick QR code on several “Say Something” mini posters around my room for quick and easy access to our Backchannel for the week.

My absolute favourite backchannel tool is TodaysMeet. This web-based tool allows for hosting a conversation (like a group text) where you can create a “room” that can be open for up to a month. The chat or texting format is easily recognizable by our students. The reason that TodaysMeet has become my favourite backchannel tool is because the teacher presence feels light. Although I create the room and I am “present” and monitoring the discussion, I observe my students genuinely interacting WITH and FOR each other – not for me. When a student raises their hand to speak in class, quite often they are awaiting some form of feedback  (even in a discussion): a nod from the teacher, approval of their ideas, or praise. In classroom discussions, I notice that many students direct their input directly to me – even if they are replying to the last student speaker, their eyes go to me, or they wait for me to “call on” who gets to comment next. An effective backchannel works for the students, it becomes their own space. Sometimes the conversations would extend far beyond the classroom walls and hours.

Three years ago I asked my students to reflect on how texting to a backchannel in class helped them. Here are some of their thoughts:

texting let us stay in contact throughout the lesson. Even though she was teaching us, we could write a comment and people would see it. Not: ‘we ran out of time, so we can’t do all of the questions and comments’

Instead of raising my hand all of the time or calling out, it helped me because I could easily write what I wanted to write and it would get sent and other people could see what I had to say and Mrs. James could see what I had to say

it let me express more of what I wanted to say, to say more of what I think

Grade 6 reflections on how texting to a backchannel can be used in class.

Grade 6 reflections on how texting to a backchannel can be used in class.

Grade 6 reflections on using backchannels for participation in class.

Grade 6 reflections on using backchannels for participation in class.

Using a backchannel has allowed me to formatively assess in real time. I am given an opportunity to see leadership from students who may not otherwise stand out. It opens a window into a collaborative and reflective learning environment that is usually hidden from view.

It takes time to find the right backchannel tool, and what works with one group of students may not work with the next group. It is important to find a platform that fits in with your class’s community and culture.

Breathing. Not Sleeping.

I am still struggling in my mindfulness journey. I found a few online resources to support me in going forward. I am visualizing “training my mind” as similar to the process of training your body. When you start running or working out, you can hit a wall and see very little progress for a time.

My two biggest struggles with meditation recently are restlessness and a very busy brain. A few websites that offered support:

Meditation Oasis

The Change Blog: “meditation isn’t supposed to be easy” – thanks for these words!!!

Mindful: which tells of Eastern teachings describing the mind as “a drunken monkey bitten by a scorpion”

Even the Headspace app reminds me that there are obstacles to successful meditation. A recent session began with a focus on the fact that training the brain is a skill, and like any skill it requires practice. It is ok for it to be difficult sometimes. At this point I am told that even resisting all of these distracting thoughts will only add more tension to my mind, so my only job is to be aware of the distractions. When my mind wanders, I only need to gently return my focus to the moment.

Some Wins:

  • I’m still meditating every day
  • A weird new observation happened when I had a headache last week. I have had regular headaches for a few years: often 2-3 times a week, and a migraine or two each month. I realized that this headache was the first headache I’ve had since I started meditating in over a month! Interesting. I intend to do some research to see if there is a correlation between meditation and fewer headaches.

I reconnected with some of my previous learning in my meditation journal: we are our most authentic selves in the spaces between our breaths, the spaces between our thoughts. So, even if those pauses are short, each one counts.

The Headspace app directs you to do a body scan every time. I am asked to become aware of the areas of tension in my body, not do anything about it, but just be aware. My tense areas remain the IMG_0248same. I carry tension in my forehead, along my jawline, my lips (I bite them constantly), from my neck down through my back, both shoulders, my right rotator cuff, my core is always tight, and I keep my toes curled up when I am stressed. Thinking about these areas of tension has given me another goal: I hope that meditation helps me to reduce the tension in my mind, hopefully leading to less tension in my body.

I pictured a bizarre version of the old “Operation” game, with the tweezers, red nose and grating buzzer noise! I had to sketch the creepy visual.

I’m hoping that daily meditation will heal these areas – with no buzzers to disrupt my focus.




Barely Breathing … and Sleeping

I have had difficulty drafting this weekly update on my Learning Project: mindfulness and meditation. It feels like I have had more failures than successes.


  • I’ve become WAY more restless lately – I fidget, I scratch my head, then my shoulder, then my other shoulder, my chin. Then I scratch my knee.
  • I’ve become a meditation multi-tasker. I juggle the tasks of counting my breaths and thinking about a multitude of thoughts and problem-solving. I don’t even lose track of my count as I process all of my thoughts.
  • My only concrete measurement has plummeted: My weekly sleep average dropped by almost an hour! February 1 – 7 sleep average: 5 hours 3 minutes.
  • I am not focusing. My mind is restless, I think about everything and I have trouble connecting to the things that were working: counting my breaths, attending to physical sensations, visualization, listening to the directions.
  • My neck and shoulders seem even tighter.


  • I have managed to meditate every single day.
  • I had another very productive day after meditating in the morning.
  • I re-read my meditation journal to reconnect with some of my previous learning – and re-learned something I had forgotten.

The visualization that continues to work best for me is the idea of my thoughts as cars, and my desire to chase them down and control them. I blogged about it previously here.

(Embarrassing Personal Narrative commences) The mind works in mysterious ways because Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars” became my anthem when I found myself reflecting on my meditation fails as I restlessly wrangled all of my “thought cars”. The lyrics could easily be bent to describe my challenges with meditation: Let’s waste time… Chasing Cars… Around our heads”. I found myself trying to “do it all… Everything” on my own. Doing too much, taking too much on – it keeps my mind churning for hours. I longed to just “lay here … And just forget the world” or at least the distracting thoughts so that I could shut off my mind and get some sleep. Even the lyric “I need your grace To remind me To find my own” is a reminder about how difficult this is to do on your own. All of my teachers seem so distant – people ‘once removed’ as voices through an app, or lessons from one person through another. I would like a meditation buddy. A beginner. Even in a personal learning journey it helps to have someone to commiserate with, someone who understands when times get tough, and to help you push through.

*author’s note: It’s hard to post failures in learning. And sometimes the connections you make while learning can be a little embarrassing, especially when your brain begins to DJ your life experiences as you write in a meditation journal!

Story Time

I am a huge fan of story. Story has helped me to find connections with my learners. Our shared stories help us to understand each other and build community. Our humorous classroom agreement states “what happens in Advisory, stays in Advisory” – and these stories are the ones we return to over and over.

I loved the ideas shared by @cogdog Alan Levine last Thursday night. Our #tiegrad collective favourite might be pechaflickr where the participants engage in improvised speeches using photos selected under a particular tag. I can’t wait to try this with a group of students! Liane’s grace with the one racy photo that came up ensured that we will never forget the pleasures that fitness brings to ALL elements of our lives…

Other resources shared by Alan included:

  • Five card stories: a random image finder using flickr, where the author must incorporate the images into their story sequence
  • Daily Create: a challenge extended to engage in spontaneous creativity and share your ideas in a community
  • DS106 Open Assignment Bank: An incredible resource for storytellers and makers. I found my next writing challenge for my students based on selecting a character to be a renegade teacher. With a little remixing, this could be hilarious with Middle School students.
  • Storymaking: What works: A resource wiki for story creation.

Another great resource page curated by Alec Couros is Digital Storytelling.

At some point in Elementary school, the art of story becomes a recipe. My students arrive in Middle School understanding the “Hamburger” model of writing and insist on the importance of beginning, middle and end. This habit is difficult to break, even after many read alouds, or shared stories where we start right in the midst of the action – and the beginning unfolds after we’ve been hooked.

This year, I tried using story as my “spelling” unit. There is still pressure at the Middle School level to have a formalized spelling program but I wanted there to be purpose for the spelling words, not just a worksheet to complete. I craved authentic writing. The way that we progressed was to locate a provocative image, such as this one of abandoned cars in Belgium. We would isolate the image, and through partner talk generate a list of imagery, vocabulary, and evocative language that would inspire amazing writing. The words would be written all around the image using our SMARTBoard. Then, as a group we would negotiate a list of “spelling words” from our co-created essential words or phrases list. We would select 10 words, of which 5 had to appear in student’s writing. On “test” day, the ten words would be read out, so that kids could list them on their pages. The image would be projected on the board with the list of impressive vocabulary (the “spelling” words would be removed from the board) and then the kids would write. They usually had all week to begin percolating their ideas, and a short block to create an initial draft. The quality of writing I received from my students far exceeded the work I received after many of my carefully constructed, scaffolded and structured writing lessons. A few stories reduced me to tears. One boy invented a son named Theo and describes being “lost in a fury of cars”.

I can’t wait to try some of DS106 activities for fun, impromptu, unrehearsed and joyous story-crafting! Thursday’s session with Alan Levine re-ignited a passion for seeking the fun in sharing story with our learners.

Research Update: January

It is thanks to Liane’s brave post about Clarity and Confusion that I feel brave enough to admit that I am still feeling murky about my Lit Review and project altogether.

This is my January Research update, such as it is:

What have I done?

  • My one pager based on Creswell: Topic, problem, rationale, possible questions, theoretical frameworks and search terms.
  • Read a few articles and wrote (yes, wrote – with pen and paper. This is how I think best, sketching, messy, page filled, satisfying crinkled notebook pages) notes.
  • Began planning an outline for the Lit Review
  • Read a few other sample Lit Reviews for ideas
  • Met with my new reading group: Keith, Jarod, and Bryan – I am loving our team name: #bryansbrainiacs
  • Stressed non-stop about my topic, resources, the process of writing and due dates

What needs to be done?

  • Firm up my topic – see my muddled thinking below
  • Ensure that I have adequately documented where I am finding my resources – I rushed a few.
  • Read up on theoretical frameworks so that I can settle on one or two – not keep trying to make ALL of them work.
  • Meet with the UVic research librarians – they have the experience, the clarity and I am sure that I am not the first with an unclear direction
  • Find out if we can use professional literature reviews as part of our own Lit Review, or if we need to seek out each document mentioned and write our own connections, summaries and understandings. The most helpful article I found is a literature review – unfortunately a few years older than I would prefer, but amazing insights.
  • Meet with my team more frequently.

My Confusion: I love the idea behind my topic, but I am realizing that the problem I am trying to solve is far larger and more systemic than I am currently addressing. My general idea for my research and resulting project is to look at the initial steps required to effectively leverage the use of student-owned devices as learning tools and what a “BYOD” program could look like for grade 6 students. My project is meant to be a part of larger scope and sequence with Jarod’s digital literacies for Grade 7/8 Middle School students.

Initially, I think that I was focusing with a very narrow view of teacher and student needs. Taking a step back and reading more literature – including teacher blogs – I am realizing that the problem that I need to address is much larger than creating a “program”. The shifts that need to occur for effective digital literacy development are HUGE! The two areas that I have identified as needing a seismic shift are school (or district) cultural and curricular. It is not enough to embed technology into pre-existing lessons or create a series of one-offs. The use of technology has to be seamless and personalized. As I stated above, I prefer to write my notes on paper, where other grad students enjoy a digital format.

So where am I now? Addressing these questions as part of my research has overwhelmed me. What cultural and curricular shifts need to occur in order to effectively leverage the learning potential of personally-owned devices?

Feeling slightly lost in the research and reading makes me feel like I am constantly starting over. But, I guess it is important to just keep going forward. The pieces that don’t fit with the final product can be cut out. Evolution happens.

Committing to Breathing

I made the purchase. The Headspace app is my favourite resource, and teaches me in the manner in which I prefer to learn. So, $100 later, I am committed. I wavered over the purchase for DAYS – I don’t spend money easily. But, after sampling through the resources listed on my previous blog posts, I realized that I am seeking a developmental program. I have a destination in mind: a calmer mind, increased presence, ability to adapt to stress as it comes, and more sleep. Sampling from all of the free guided meditation resources actually increased my sense of feeling disjointed, scattered and frustration with the lack of progress. I wanted a sequence, and I wanted one that held meaning and engagement for ME. The guided meditations from Headspace seem to grow over time. You are required to apply skills from previous sessions. It feels like I learn something about myself and how my mind works. I feel like I am unlocking something, and moving towards my goal. Headspace feels like a course of study, and that ideas and information will be revealed to me in a timely fashion, as I gain new skills and readiness.

One of the first animations was about visualizing your thoughts as cars and our need to chase and control them. I can use that! Right now! I can use it as I move through my day. When the stress of impending deadlines overwhelms me and I have been dwelling on that stress for hours at a time, and my shoulders have crept up around my ears with the tension…. I can pause and realize that I have chased that “time pressure” car down the highway and I am now being dragged along the street as I grip the bumper. This visualization helps me to break that cycle and have a laugh. Since these are early days in my mindfulness lessons, I am not given tools to tackle or control my relationship with my thoughts, only a suggestion that it is really all about that relationship and perspective.

Something that I love about these guided meditation sessions is that they start and end in the same way (so far). You start with absolute focus on your space. You identify the sounds and the physical sensation of your body in the position it is in. By starting with an inventory of sound and feeling, you are required to engage and acknowledge your present state. By ending the meditation with the same awareness, you are returned from your “mind work” to your physical space. This serves to help me be more present – to get “out of my head”. I found myself using these strategies to move myself out of a long, busy-brained, sleepless session the other night. I began by actively listening to my space: a clock ticking, my husband’s relaxed breathing, waves roaring on the beach, and the rain on the roof. Then, I inventoried my body – places where it was in contact with a surface, places of tension, pressure points. My fists were clenched, so I unclenched them and re-visited my body scan. The last step is to focus on your breathing. That was the last thing I remember. I was asleep.