A Day with Dr. Todd Whitaker

On Monday, October 19th, 6 teachers spent the day with Dr. Todd Whitaker at Dunkerton High School. Dunkerton administrators and staff organized the event with local schools and extended invitations that were accepted by 16 Northeast Iowa districts. Charles City landed six seats and brought a small team of MS and HS teachers to the event.

Dr. Whitaker is one of the most entertaining and bold educational speakers you will find, he mixes emotion and humor with does of reality that hit home to any educator as he delivers his message of What Great Teachers Do Differently.

Although the day was structured as a simple stand and deliver format, Dr. Whitaker did a masterful job of providing thought provoking rhetoric and provided the CC teachers with plenty to talk about.

Some highlights from the CC team include, Dr. Whitaker’s plea to educators to get involved in the vast professional learning opportunities offered by Twitter. A “Sharpening Our People’s Skills” inventory placing educators is different working personality groups. CC teachers each shared their own highlights as well.

Mrs. Sullivan’s Highlights

RAISE THE PRAISE – MINIMIZE THE CRITICIZE:  Teachers have a tremendous responsibility to treat students with the respect and dignity that every individual deserves. Every. Single. Day. Too often, students are treated differently depending on whether they are considered a “good” kid or a “bad” kid. Instead, every day we must practice treating all kids as good kids. We need to take care of them; you never know when the day is that they will need us the most. IGNORE, don’t avoid, the misbehaviors and deal with the student when you’re ready, not when they’re ready. A misbehaving student is looking for attention and an audience. Ignore that behavior until you get a chance to speak to the student individually and without the audience they desire. Acknowledge positive behaviors as often as possible. No one has ever said they’ve been praised too much! Raise the praise; Minimize the criticize.

Mrs. Molstead’s Highlights:

Treat people as if they are good. Todd Whitaker’s take on how we treat others seems like a no brainer, but how many of us actually do it?  Literally, treat EVERY person as if they are good, that’s it.  It doesn’t matter if they are a crummy person or a good person, treat them as if they are good.  Smile at them, greet them kindly. One of my favorite quotes from the day from Dr. Whitaker, “Ten days out of ten we should treat students with respect and dignity because we never know which day it’s going to make a difference for them.” 

Mr. Voves’ Highlights:

Listening to Todd Whitaker was a chance to step out of the classroom and reflect on the 17 things that he has identified as mattering the most in being a great teacher.  While none of his 17 things were earth shattering, they resonated with me as the traits and actions taken by my favorite teachers as a student.  My favorite teachers:

  • recognized “it is not programs, but people,” connecting with me and knowing me as an individual, rather than just a student
  • “Gave 10 days out of 10,” never allowing their personal lives to dictate the spirit and energy they exuded in the classroom.
  • Created orchestrated lessons, making them seem “random rather than planned,” anticipating students’ questions and thoughts to further growth.
  • ·      “Increased authentic and timely praise and minimized criticism,” helping to demonstrate care and sustaining student effort.
  • ·      Understood the “power of expectations,” recognizing that they were not in place to catch a bad behavior, but to set a bar of excellence in school and life.

As for many educators, these are the people and reasons that led me to the profession.  I am grateful to those that inspired me and allowed me to recognize “it is cool to care.”  During the day, Whitaker highlighted what I’ve always known; I am the variable in my classroom.  The challenge with that of course, is not only recognizing that fact today, tomorrow or even next week, but recognizing that EVERY DAY.

Whitaker celebrated that “Teaching is the profession that makes all other professions possible.”  Simply stated, “The thing we know about teaching is that we never know when it stops.”  What a great challenge and privilege we have as educators!

Mrs. Hervol’s Highlights

Todd Whitaker was great opportunity to refresh my philosophy as an educator. He addressed the challenges we face as educators in our relationships with students, parents and even our colleagues. How we choose to approach them is completely up to us. We can “siddle up” next to those challenges,  treat people well, and reward those favorable behaviors so that goals can be achieved.   He reminded me that “A teacher never know where the influence stops” and that I need to be a risk taker in order for kids to be risk takers. With the many forward thinking practices that we are working towards as a district, we have to work to  realize “The challenge is not to work with people like you. The challenge is how to work with people who aren’t.”  We may not all have the same approach but we all have the same goals and that is to help students to be successful and productive citizens. “Raise the Praise, Minimize the Criticize”.

Mrs. Nelson’s Highlights

I had the opportunity to listen to Todd Whitaker speak on the topic of one of his books called “What Great Teachers Do Differently.” I could easily spin that title and apply it to his presentation and talk about “What Great Speakers Do Differently. Mr. Whitaker was engaging, humorous, and full of real-world wisdom. It is about that real-world wisdom that I will write further.

Mr. Whitaker shared with us practical and common sense things that hugely impact teaching on a daily basis. The best part of his findings about “What Great Teachers Do Differently” is that all of the practices he found helpful can be implemented without spending a penny and without buying into any type of initiative.

The first point that I remember and took to heart was his finding that great teachers treat kids with dignity and respect every day, all year. Despite the time of day, day of the week, week of the month, or month of the year, when he walked into great teachers classrooms he found those teachers greeting kids, expecting them to do the right thing, and treating them with manners. This is something that takes no funding and can be seamlessly incorporated into every class and it pays huge dividends in climate/culture, reducing discipline problems, and increasing learning.

I also loved the point he made that “it is not programs, it’s people,” when we are trying to impact education. He talked about how great teachers will do well with any program that they implement because their classrooms run on a set of principles about how to treat students and great organization. He said in his findings that in a great teacher’s classroom, things run so smoothly that it looks like things happen randomly, but great teachers have it all thought out so nothing happens randomly. So, no matter your current program or new focus, a great teacher will be able to adjust because his or her core principles are the same.

So, these are the points that stuck out to me from Mr. Whitaker’s funny and engaging speech! It was very inspiring and I will keep these points in the front of my mind and think about them often!

Consensus from the group is Dr. Whitaker is the type of speaker that every educator needs to hear, and the message he delivers resonates on many levels. We continue to be thankful for opportunities to send teams of teachers to hear influential educational leaders and bring back impactful change four our school district.

Students Share Tech with Students

By, Naomi Yaddof, CCHS Tech Integrationist, TAG, VREP

Four Charles City High School students presented at the AEA 267 Student Technology Conference in Cedar Falls on April 21. The AEA 267 Student Technology Conference was organized to provide an opportunity for ​ K-12 students to collaborate with, learn from, and present to others how they are utilizing technology to drive their own learning. The 21st century learner must have skills innovate, create, and make connections beyond the classroom. Each of the projects presented were accomplished though project based learning which allowed the students to pursue their interests, investigate and respond to problems and challenges, and choose the outcome.

Michael McKenzie gave an excellent presentation on the Fundamentals of Freelance Filmmaking. After sharing a demo reel of his work, Michael got down to business sharing the filmmaking process, the necessity and purpose of a script, explaining the types of production equipment available and how they differ, types of software, and how to promote your brand and secure job offers.

Tyler Babcock and Dylan Colasuonno presented on First Tech Challenge (FTC). They shared a video on this years robotics challenge, the Cascade Effect, explained their robot design process, and stressed the importance of applying real world problem-solving, organizational and collaboration skills necessary to work toward a common goal. Dylan and Tyler explained why they fabricated their own lift and bucket rather than purchasing auxiliary kit supplies. They also shared the importance FTC places on community outreach and gracious professionalism in competition. The audience members delighted in seeing the robot which Tyler and Dylan, named John Coffee, in action.

Nika Babtsov shared an engaging presentation about Virtual Reality Education Pathfinders (VREP). VREP was created to bring a new kind of teaching and learning environment into the classroom. The software used by the class is Blender, and can be downloaded free from blender.org. Nika shared the Blender interface and student work created by students in the CCHS VREP program. She spoke about 21st Century skills including computer, and technical reading skills as well as the ability and necessity to research, collaborate, problem solve, develop time-management skills and learn to access resources to answer questions and learn new skills. She also shared a video she created for Chemistry that included live action and Blender animation.


Pictured in photo from left to right, Tyler Babcock, Dylan Colasuonno, Nika Babtsov, and Michael McKenzie.

National Career Readiness Certificate at CCHS

ACT’s National Career Readiness Certificate (NCRC) is a portable credential that demonstrates achievement and a certain level of workplace employability skills in Applied Mathematics, and Locating Information, and Reading for Information.  The Charles City High School Career and Technical Education Department finds value in their students earning the NCRC credential.  To implement this, CTE teachers have been working on implementing employability skill curriculum in the areas of Applied Math, Locating Information, and Reading for Information into their classes.

The goal is to have every CTE student earn a National Career Readiness Certificate by the time they graduate from CCHS.  Employers, both locally and nationally, have shown a need for training in “real world” skills that are critical for job success.  Students in a CTE class will be assessed in the three employability skills areas.  From that assessment, a student will be able to validate the skills they already possess, and see areas where they can improve or even add to their skill set. This will help teachers identify gaps between student skills and employment needs.  They will then align their curriculum to meet the job skills employers need and give students opportunities in the classroom to build upon their own skills.

By utilizing the NCRC at Charles City High School, we will improve students’ success in the career pathways they choose.  Students will be more informed of the expectations of the workforce and have a solid understanding of their abilities and potential.

Kiesha Trettin, CCHS CTE Chair

PBL in the Classroom: According to a Special Education Teacher

By: Brittni Molstead, CCMS Special Education Teachers

I was asked to share how I have incorporate project-based learning into my classroom, however, I wouldn’t be at the “how” without the “why,” so let’s start there. I use PBL because it is authentic. How many teachers have students asking on a weekly basis, “Why do we have to know this?” I remember sitting through classes myself as a student thinking that very same thing. If you make the learning authentic, that answer is always clear. I use PBL because it requires collaboration and critical thinking. The skills that employers once found the most valuable are no longer at the top of the list. We need to help instill 21st century skills in our students so that they can become productive citizens. I use PBL because it is hands-on inquiry. As teachers, we all have ingrained in our heads that people “learn by doing,” so let them “DO!”

Now let’s get to the “how.” I knew the moment I was introduced to PBL that I was excited and wanted to jump right in. It made complete sense and it was sure to be a wonderful experience for my students, but I quickly learned that it’s easier said than done. I had all of these great ideas that I was ready to try. I was so excited and I felt prepared, and then… I fell flat on my face. The project seemed simple enough. Students were to plan and put on a holiday party, some of you may have attended this culminating activity. It was a real life situation that includes so many great life skills like budgeting, shopping, cooking, organizing, working together, speaking and listening skills and I could go on. However, I quickly learned that “standards based” PBL in a level 2-3 special education classroom, with six students, doesn’t look like the fairytale PBL I had envisioned in my head. It required a lot more probing, pre-teaching and re-teaching than I had originally planned, but in the end, I think we ended up with a pretty wonderful holiday party. The students served close to 70 district staff members and students that day, and they learned invaluable skills along the way.

I was much more prepared for our second project. This time we focused on finding perimeter and area. The students were to collaboratively create a community garden design and each individual was responsible for designing a garden for a different family.   Without getting into the entire project, we structured this project with more direction and more checkpoints. I had mini-lessons prepared and I fit them in as the students got to that point or needed re-teaching. The students were allowed to present their final product in whichever way they chose. Most picked power point or a poster and then presented them to a few high school students from Mr. Lundberg’s class. Our students were excited to hear from the high school students that they would be looking to create a garden this spring!

Our third trimester has looked a little different for the 6th grade students in my classroom.   We have now integrated into general ed. math and language arts classes and are planning multiple PBL projects for the end of the year. It will be a wonderful experience for all of the students and teachers to experience PBL in an inclusive setting.

Although, as a district, we are very much in the beginning stages of implementing project-based learning, I know that we are headed in the right direction and I can’t wait to see all of our efforts pay off! #WeAreCC



Making a change in student’s responsibilities and privileges

by Brennan Richards, CCHS Junior

The concept of S.M.A.R.T. lunch is to give students more responsibility and maximize their time for educational needs, as well as a more open yet controlled approach to student’s lunch time meals. Mr. Johnson, principal at CCHS, was approached with the idea of S.M.A.R.T. lunch by a Cedar Rapids Kennedy PE teacher, and has been working all year to try and implement his vision.

The idea of S.M.A.R.T. lunch is centered around an hour long period, where students are given time to become more accountable, and give them more freedom to control their school work.  Targeted intervention, enrichment opportunities, and the student lounge are all opportunities available to students through S.M.A.R.T. lunch.

The student lounge will be an alternative learning space for students, with collaborative and individual learning spaces. The CCHS Art Club was tasked with designing…

View original post 172 more words

PBL In 8th Science

By, CCMS Science Team

This winter 8th grade students explored topics related to how our energy consumption now affects the world and what impact the rise of renewable energies will have on the future. Over fifty projects were completed addressing topics ranging from nuclear energy to solar powered phone chargers. Student created products including standard Google Presentations, board games, class debates, solar phone chargers, and flyers informing people about vampire electronics. This being a first attempt at projects of this scale, most groups chose to just use their peers as their public audience, however, one group has gone out and successfully presented to the public.

Lexie Carey and Olivia Wolfe created a presentation that uses The Lorax to introduce elementary age students to pollution. After reading The Lorax to students, the girls then explain in very simple terms how coal is converted into electricity and the waste products that are generated. They discuss with each group some of the harmful effects of these waste products as well as the role of the EPA in protecting citizens from waste. They have created a short activity to engage students with the topic and with the book and each activity is tailored to the age group they are presenting to. An example of an activity is the Lorax mustaches that first graders make in order to “become” the Lorax. After putting on their mustaches the students then decide what they would say as the Lorax instead of “I speak for the trees” in order to encourage others to protect the environment. The presentations have gone very well and they have quite a few more lined up before Earth Day.


Making a change in student’s responsibilities and privileges

by Brennan Richards, CCHS Junior

The concept of S.M.A.R.T. lunch is to give students more responsibility and maximize their time for educational needs, as well as a more open yet controlled approach to student’s lunch time meals. Mr. Johnson, principal at CCHS, was approached with the idea of S.M.A.R.T. lunch by a Cedar Rapids Kennedy PE teacher, and has been working all year to try and implement his vision.

The idea of S.M.A.R.T. lunch is centered around an hour long period, where students are given time to become more accountable, and give them more freedom to control their school work.  Targeted intervention, enrichment opportunities, and the student lounge are all opportunities available to students through S.M.A.R.T. lunch.

The student lounge will be an alternative learning space for students, with collaborative and individual learning spaces. The CCHS Art Club was tasked with designing the lounge, which will be located in the inner circle of the 500 circle. The lounge is an opportunity for students to relax during the school day, and fully utilize their hour of S.M.A.R.T. lunch.

In the words of Mr. Johnson, “S.M.A.R.T. lunch can benefit our school by breaking down some barriers of traditional scheduling, changing the approach with students, and giving students control of learning. It can also benefit our community by teaching students how to utilize time, making them more responsible members of our community, as well as giving them a reason to look forward to school.”

For S.M.A.R.T. lunch to be a success, students need to be accountable for themselves, and accountable for others. There has been a call for change among students at CCHS for some time, and all students need to do to ensure that S.M.A.R.T. lunch is an option for next year is prove to the faculty they can handle the responsibilities of S.M.A.R.T. lunch, as well as the privileges that come with the new responsibilities.

The Importance of Learning Targets

Learning Targets. How are they defined? How are they described? Will defining learning targets support creating common assessments? What is their importance for PBL?

Our year commenced at Decorah learning the DuFour way PLC’s should operate. We ascertained that four fundamental questions exist that perpetually shine before us.

  • What do we expect students to know and do?
  • How do we know when students have learned?
  • What do we do when students haven’t learned?
  • What do we do when students have already learned?

We desperately want to get past question one. Easier said than done. Quite often we assume that we answer this question. Too often, the answer is foggy at best. How do we lift the fog?

  • Create clear, concise learning targets.
  • Communicate these targets to the students.

When we share information, we breed familiarity. By sharing and discussing the learning targets and their purposes, we effectively communicate to the student what is important, it becomes familiar to the learner, and more familiar to the instructor.

Want to significantly improve student learning? Try communicating learning targets more clearly. Even though we know what we are trying to communicate, it doesn’t matter unless the student clearly knows what the learning target is directing him or her toward.

Want to clarify the ability to assess what the students have learned? Engage the student in discussion related to the learning targets. Clarify the targets for them, with them. To quote a patriotic movie, “Aim small, miss small.” To aim at small, clearly defined targets can only make it easier when (if) you miss the target, you will still be near the mark. The next step is to adjust your instruction and re-aim (reteach).

How do learning targets connect to PBLs? Well, proper construction and communication of learning targets in the form of driving questions will lead students toward increased engagement as they’ll know what their target is. Additionally, this process will improve the teacher’s ability to specifically assess student learning leading to questioning and valuable feedback.

Easy to say; is it worth it? Based on the way the way the year started for this district and considering the significant number of hours dedicated to the development of learning targets and driving questions, there are more than a few souls who believe in its value.

Getting Back to the WHY PBL?

My original assignment to kick off our MS/HS professional learning blog was to write a post about WHY Project-Based Learning is the current focus at Charles City MS/HS. After sitting with what felt like writer’s block for nearly an hour, I realized maybe we have already written that chapter:

  • We sent teams of teachers north into Minnesota to see some of the best PBL-themed schools in the midwest in operation who were intrigued by what they saw.
  • We were able to have MS teachers teach in prototypes of open learning spaces for our new MS that cater to PBL.
  • We have had and continue to have tough constructive conversations about the challenges that come with the shift to PBL in our classrooms.
  • We have singular and team teacher efforts around the district that are providing amazing PBL experiences to students.
  • We have compiled data through the affinity diagram above asking the question, “What needs to change in education at CC to meet the needs of our learners? The data tells us, 21st Century skills, real-world experience, the 4 C’s, and student directed learning……all offered in a PBL atmosphere.
  • We kicked off our PBL learning together with a brief presentation this past December….Find it here: Why PBL?
  • We have compiled resources, research, templates, learning tools, etc. for staff to learn from….Find it here: CC PBL Resources
  • We spent a day in January with a neighboring district offering great opportunities to their students because they took the PBL plunge.
  • We worked through the PBL process together to design and review what PBL could look like in our classrooms.
  • We continue to plan and implement PBL on a daily basis in some of our classrooms.

Our list could go on.

Recently in an administrative team meeting, Dr. Cox brought some things into perspective for our team. As part of our practice, we discuss progress of professional learning in our buildings and recently it began to feel like our conversations were becoming repetitive. He began our most recent meeting assigning a chapter from Simon Sinek’s book Start With Why, as well as Sinek’s renowned TED Talk. Sinek’s presentation of the golden circle philosophy and ensuing conversation brought me to realize, that perhaps we need to step back and really look at the WHY of how PBL came to be our focus.

Taking another look, does the list above really constitute the WHY? There is certainly a fair share of the what and the how to implement PBL, however we do begin to see the WHY materialize. The affinity diagram gives some powerful ideas that relate to the WHY PBL and the feedback from the teams of teacher returning from Minnesota certainly supports WHY PBL. We have also heard some compelling cases from our Clear Lake colleagues about WHY PBL has become their focus. All things considered we may be overlooking the most important reason for PBL, the students.

The bottom line is, we have witnessed the impact PBL can have, we have plenty of other schools’ PBL models to learn from, we even have feedback from stakeholders wanting to help make PBL a reality, however the most important factor to WHY PBL is a focus is……we have students begging for it!

Do we really need much more than that?

After all, if we really start with the why, we should always start with the students.