The Immortality of Stories

image credit: khunaspix via

image credit: khunaspix via

This powerful guest post by English teacher Brian Denesha challenges us to deepen our students’ experience of learning by infusing lessons with emotion and storytelling.  In making this leap, we can take students’ experience of stories to the next level and create a more memorable and formative learning environment for them — something that will stay with them for years.  Please read on to see how Brian incorporated this idea into his teaching!


Too often, I feel that we as teachers take for granted the opportunities that we are presented on a daily basis to truly affect the lives of our students. Just the other day, upon completing a text that is near and dear to my heart, I let my true emotions spill out in front of my class of seniors. While we have built a great relationship, and are unfortunately coming to the end of our one semester together, I don’t think I would have been able to say that I had impacted all of them in a way that could stick with them and make an indelible mark on their lives…that is until the moment I thought of my own father’s mortality.

The text, “Big Fish” by Daniel Wallace, ends with the main character dying and his son finally understanding that the stories and memories of those we love are the gifts that are left behind long after their physical presence has left us for the Elysian Fields that mythology promises for the truly great…our parents.

My own father is dealing with his fourth bout of cancer, the same evil that steals Edward Bloom’s life in “Big Fish”, and I took the opportunity to share what I have learned from reading the text multiple times over the past few years.

My own father is a storyteller, a jokester, and man of words and wisdom, so the connection to Edward Bloom is a beautiful and cruel one for me each time I read the book. As we finished the last chapter, when Edward’s son William finally realizes the “truth” that he has been wanting from his father for so many years has always been within his reach and memories, just as our truths are within our own stories; some that are still waiting to be told. The stories that we share, the jokes we tell, the moments we spend with those we love are the snapshots that will linger for years and years.

It was this realization, plus the realization that my own father is in truth mortal and will leave me someday, that brought out of me my true self.

How many times have we as teachers wondered what our students will remember from our lessons tomorrow, next week, next year, or even further down the road of their lives? Will they stop and think about the grammar rules we struggled through, or how we tried to find the writer’s voice that was hiding in them all this time? I know I do.

What I know now is that my seniors will remember the class period we shared; the class period where I cried for my own father, the still living Edward Bloom. Literature is emotion. It is the emotion that the author brings to the text as well as what we bring to the text as readers. We are the collection of stories we read, hear, and sometimes tell.

I heard my dad’s voice telling me the story of the two young Indian Warriors challenging the wisdom of the Medicine Man, just as William heard his father’s stories over and over throughout his life. I shared my emotions with my students. I let them see me cry. I let them feel what I was feeling. I helped them understand what Wallace was trying to teach us all: cherish every word, every story, every joke (even the bad ones) that our loved ones share with us throughout their lives. I encouraged them to listen to the stories of those they love, as those will be the memories that will live on long after the tellers are gone. I implored them to celebrate the lives of their friends and family everyday. I reminded them that the lives we lead and the stories we tell are what live on forever.

I can only hope that this one period in time affected them as much as it affected me. I truly felt that I TAUGHT them something that transcends the four walls of our classroom…a life lesson that I hope they remember and use for the rest of their lives. In this way, I hope to live on beyond this moment.

We are teachers. We are the ones that form the future. We are the storytellers and the main characters in the stories of our students. How humbling and beautiful to think that we will be the main characters in at least one chapter in the story of each one of our students. The question I have to ask is, “What kind of story am I writing each time I step in front of my class?”

No matter what the story is, I can only hope that it is a story that will be told over and over again; even many years after I join my father in the fields of paradise. In this way, I will live on just as all of us can. That is the power of story, the power of teaching, the power of loving what we do.

We are teachers…we are immortal!

Hutto Geniuses Choose to Matter

What happens when students are encouraged to become leaders and change the world with their genius?

They do it.

On January 21st, I asked 6,000 students in Hutto, Texas to realize that they are geniuses whose contributions to the world are desperately needed. With this spark igniting their hearts and minds, the students of Hutto embarked on a two-day adventure in discovering genius and acting on passion.

They formed groups around the big problems in education, human and animal rights, child hunger, environmental issues, and STEM. Students of varying ages interacted, shared their stories, and collaborated to design solutions to things that break their hearts about the world. Not only that, but when the challenge of working through this process with 6,000 students became overwhelming, guess who stepped up and saved the day?

The creativity, drive, and courage of these students did not go unnoticed! Teachers, families, and the community at large were awed by what transpired and came together to support the students’ inspiring ideas and efforts. Truly amazing things happen when students have the freedom and support to follow their passions and live their genius.

Getting to the Heart of Collaboration

“Collaboration” has become a buzz word that we attach to any process that involves people working together.

This is because we often use collaboration as a synonym for other buzz words that start with C: Cooperation, Communication and Coordination.

In doing so, we miss the most critical element – value creation.

Collaboration describes a process of value creation that our traditional structures of communication and teamwork can’t achieve.

Let’s break it down further and clarify what it really is.

Collaboration has three parts: TEAM, PROCESS, PURPOSE

  1. Two or more people (Team)
  2. Working together (Processes)
  3. Towards shared goals (Purpose)

A group of people using social software together doesn’t, by itself, translate into collaboration.

Technology certainly raises the bar of what is possible, but merely using them does not create value.

I say that because I see schools and organizations struggling to fit social technologies into their culture. Widespreadplatform or tool adaption is not enough. There needs to be a unified plan, an understanding of what these tools can and can’t do, and more importantly how people are going to work together.

Great tools available can facilitate such collaboration, but even the best tools cannot guarantee that success.


  • Must be embedded in the culture, where a standard and expectation ethic of contribution flourishes.
  • People in the classroom or community must recognize they are smarter together.
  • People must work “out loud” – sharing is constant.
  • People collectively solve problems.
  • Together, everyone discovers more innovative ways to be successful.

Now this sounds high-tech, but it happens elegantly every day in kindergarten classrooms, where we call it “Show and Tell.”

We learned how to collaborate in the sandbox with friend and strangers alike – now we get to expand the size of the sandbox and extend the invitation for creation to anyone, living anyplace, any time, anywhere.

This is where and how disruption happens – when you invite people into the room and assure them that their contribution will be honored, they choose to contribute. They choose collaboration.

Tap into a crowd if you believe the most valuable person is the crowd. You must innately believe that smartest person in the room is the room – and that the more diverse room, the smarter it gets.

Collaboration requires unrelenting determination and commitment from those who now understand that the desired result can only be achieved together.

People at any level can make an impact, be a leader, break a barrier. No only can they; they must.

We are smarter together.

What Will Your Verse Be? – Guest Post by Monica Evon

The new school year is in full swing, and the jitters of the first couple weeks are subsiding. Students know which classes to go to when, and teachers are calling on students without glancing at the class roster (at least not too often). With procedures and protocols out of the way, I am reminded of one of the most essential jobs we have as educators: helping each child become all he or she can be.  It’s an exciting and challenging task—and a terrifically rewarding one.

My challenge to my fourth graders from the beginning of the year: What is your genius? What is your contribution to the world?  How will you help others feel like “They Matter”? As each year starts, students and I have the opportunity of many “firsts.” Each student is creating his/her own “verse” on a daily basis.  The first few weeks of school have set the tone for the entire year. Continuing to build a relationship with each child is so important as teachers embark upon a journey of a new year.


Our team started off by watching Angela Maier’s video from this summer You Matter!  They sat silent and glued to the screen as she shared her passion. After watching the video students had lots of questions and comments.

Madison – “What does contribution mean?”

Brie – “I am not a genius. I don’t know what I can share.”

Eme – “Can I share more than one genius?”

Peyton – “Can my genius be in sports?”

Jaxon – “Will we be bragging?”

Our fourth grade team decided it would be wonderful to share their genius with others. Ava thought we might be able to inspire others.  They each wanted to create and share their genius with the world.  So I kept my mouth closed and let them create.

Before they began, we watched another video that is a commercial for the iPad.  It has become one of my favorites.  Even though it is really for the iPad Air itself, I love the idea of what “verse” the students will create.  What Will Your Verse Be?

They began creating, collaborating, and sharing.  It is simply amazing what each of them contributed.  Each student used Notability to create his/her genius.  What they created was added to our classroom movie that we made (see video at the bottom of the page).

Then our fourth grade team came up with a brilliant idea!  They worked in small groups and created Movie Trailers sharing the significance of “You Matter”!

They also wrote Bio-Poems. Below is an example of what two fourth graders wrote.

Our fourth graders collectively created a movie that represents our belief in making a difference in the world.  It is an awesome theme for our school year.

How can we make a difference? There are myriad ways students can make their passion for change a reality, as shown by the many projects from these students at a school in California:  2014 #20Time Projects in 4 Minutes.  Our fourth grade team will continue to share throughout the year on Twitter and on my blog.  I hope our work will inspire change in your classroom, and will inspire you to share your students’ “verses” with the world.

"It's only when I'm truly scared that I know I am being audacious enough." #Choose2Matter

I was recently interviewed by Anita Stout, author of Life Isn’t Broken, a blog that celebrates “all that’s good in life.”

Anita was kind enough to include me in her “Moments of Creation” series, which asks entrepreneurs how they conceived of the idea for their business and how they’ve developed it.

We spoke about how the start-up life is frightening and exhilarating; challenges and rewards; my vision for Choose2Matter, and what’s it’s like to avidly pursue your passion.

Read the full article here.

Jumping into Genius Hour — Guest Post by Tony Klein


image credit: samuiblue via

In the midst of this frigid winter, my heart was warmed during a visit to Estherville Lincoln Central Community School District in northern Iowa. The teachers and administrators there are extremely passionate and are ready for change in the classroom. With the support of his colleagues, history teacher Tony Klein boldly made the leap to bring Genius Hour into his classroom! In this post, he shares his reasoning behind the decision and his vision for the journey. Stay tuned to Tony’s blog and follow him on Twitter @tklein11 for updates and to support him and his genius students!


I recently surrendered eighteen of the ninety school days this semester for my students to work on Genius Hour. As it was, ninety days in a semester was not enough to teach all the lessons I would like to teach. SO WHAT IN THE WORLD AM I DOING? Implementing Genius Hour is a big change–revolutionary, perhaps–and like all big changes (such as the decline and fall of the Roman Empire and the French Revolution) there are many influences: Daniel Pink’s Drive, a professional Development day with Angela Maiers, support from the administration, current trends in popular historiography, and most importantly, my instincts.

Genius Hour is, simply, the opportunity for students to spend twenty percent of their time on a topic that intersts, excites, and challenges them. On Friday, January 24, 2014, I introduced Genius Hour to my Civics, Geography, and World History students. Genius Hour in my classroom uses models other teacher have used, primarily Chris Kesler’s “Genius Hour” website. There are three requirements: 1. The students must choose a topic they are passionate about or interested in. 2. They must do research. 3. The students must have a larger purpose in choosing their topic, such as “How can I make a difference?” or “What do I want others to know about my topic?”

Now for the ideological origins of Genius Hour in my classroom…

1. I am currently taking courses for a second master’s degree, this one an MS in Education through Southwest Minnesota State University. Each month, a course requirement is to read a work on an educational topic. During the first week of January, I read Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink, an option for our January meeting on motivation. Pink hypothesizes that most people in our contemporary economy are motivated by the desire for more autonomy, the opportunity to achieve mastery, and doing work that is purposeful. He argues, therefore, that a system of rewards and punishments, which dominated the twentieth-century business and education systems, no longer works today and must be replaced. Among the alterations he suggests is Genius Hour, which originated with Google. Though intrigued by this idea, Pink’s argument was not enough to sway me to give up twenty percent of class time to my students’ interests.

2. On Wednesday, January 15, Estherville-Lincoln Central teachers had a professional development day in which Angela Maiers, a nationally known educational consultant from Des Moines, was the key-note speaker. Among Maiers’s major messages was that students need to be told that they matter, they are geniuses, they have the opportunity to follow their passions, and they can make a difference in their world. What really resonated with me was when she off-handedly mentioned how her vision for schools were similar to Pink’s vision for businesses. In a moment of extreme clairvoyance, I instantaneously committed myself to implementing Genius Hour in my classroom. Whatever concerns I had vanished and I became certain of the benefits of providing students the time and support to pursue their interests and passions.

3. Pay close attention to the previous sentence: the words “I …committed” imply autonomy. So I have the autonomy to give students autonomy! (There’s a great lesson in classical early modern European political philosophy here, but I’ll avoid that.) I have this autonomy because the leadership at ELC is reading and thinking the same way I am. Or vice versa. Regardless, I decided on my own without asking because I knew that I would have the support, and encouragement, of Mrs. Paul, Mr. Christenson, Mrs. Jensen, and Mrs. Nitchals. They cultivated an atmosphere in which my ideas could be implemented in my classroom, and more importantly, students’ ideas could be pursued to further their own learning.

4. So what will students be working on? (This will be the subject of my next post) Won’t they be pursue topics that are not academic, like wake-surfing, the history of volleyball, or Dr. Who? Yes, they will. Other students, however, are working on profound historical topics or projects that can help others, such as the origins of chess, the Sun Tzu’s Art of War, and the Battle of Mogadishu. But even the seemingly academically questionable topics ARE WORTHY of study because framed the right way, topics such as wake-surfing, volleyball, and Dr. Who can highlight much larger principles or trends in history or the contemporary world. Moreover, having my students turn the superficially trivial into the deeply profound is a model that can be seen in the popular historiography today, which uses everyday objects, places, and events to illuminate larger concepts or principles in history. Throughout my course, I have students read excerpts from works such as Tom Standage’s A History of the World in Six Glasses, An Edible History of Humanity, Neil MacGregor’s A History of the World in 100 Objects, and Niall Ferguson’s Civilization: The West and the Rest. Each of these titles tells a world history through a series of everyday objects or ideas. The authors use coffee, pop, canned food, fertilizer, plates and dishes, coins, blue jeans, and myriad other items to highlight larger forces in world history. Thus, students exploring their own interests, with my guidance, can do the same kind of thinking as these renowned scholars.

5. Let’s revisit the second sentence of this piece: “As it was, ninety days in a semester was not enough to teach all the lessons I would like to teach.” Did you catch that? “…the lessons I would like to teach.” That statement encapsulates a perspective that values the teacher’s interests more than students’ interests. I teach history and social studies, in part, because I love history and social studies. My pleasure reading is almost exclusively history and social studies. But what about students who do not love history and social studies? As long as I’ve taught, I’ve recognized that no matter how relevant I try to make history to students’ lives, some do not see the value of the social studies. In the past I have tried to find manageable ways to make the subject matter more individualized, and I had never found something what seemed to balance teaching skills and content with student interests. The genius of Genius Hour is that it recognizes that teachers still have four days a week to teach the content, skills, and lesson that s/he thinks will help students learn. Genius Hour recognizes that there is value to very well-established academic disciplines such as history, but on one day of the week students who may not enjoy history or the social studies have the opportunity to pursue a topic that they want to learn about it. I believe Genius Hour will be a very worthwhile pursuit in my classroom because it recognizes students desire for autonomy (the opportunity to select a topic and the time to work on it), mastery (sharing the topic with their peers or the public), and purpose (the opportunity to select a topic that will inform or help others).

6. So what about those eighteen or so lessons that won’t be taught? No problem. The students are generating replacement lessons to share their learning with their peers. They have the opportunity to do what I do everyday–share my passion with others.

What Does It Mean to Be a Leader? Five-year Old Geniuses Respond

Leadership is a topic about which a great deal has been written. But if you want a clear definition of what it means to be a leader, just ask a kindergartener!  I recently had the great privilege of spending two amazing days working with the collective genius of the students and teachers of Coppell Independent School District in Texas.  The lesson showcased in the following response by kindergarten teacher Torrin Garrison came from the students in her class.

Learners of all ages have important thoughts to share with the world!


“Last week I had the privilege to hear Angela Maiers speak to teachers at my elementary school (Cottonwood Creek), as well as parents in the community. I also had the opportunity to watch her incorporate a lesson using the habitudes with learners of all ages, including two from my kindergarten class.

Inspired by her lesson, and hoping to help my students reflect on what it means tobe a leader, we created a circle map, after partner brain-storming on qualities that we find in leaders. We had a class discussion, and much like Angela, I gave my learners freedom to speak up and tell me what it means to be a leader. We documented these in this Circle Map inserted at the top of this post.

I was thrilled to hear my learners mention words found in Classroom Habitudes. We hope hope to add to the list as well as brainstorm ways that we can demonstrate these habitudes in our classroom.”

By Torrin Garrison

Realizing YOU MATTER!

We are so thrilled that student blogger Kendall Haines took the time to share the story of what the YOU MATTER Manifesto means to her. Please read on to discover how your life changes when you realize that YOU MATTER!


What does the phrase “YOU MATTER!” mean to you?

I’ll give you time to think while I tell you what it means to me.

When someone told me that I mattered, I rolled my eyes and blew it off. I didn’t think much of myself. I cared more about other people than myself.

My teacher caught me rolling my eyes and asked me to come see her after school. I went after school, and she spoke to me…for an hour. I then continued to talk to her…about everything.

Talking to her made me realize I mattered. Talking to someone you trust is always a resource for starting to see yourself in a better light.

I now realize that I matter, and that I should believe in myself and think positive. The “YOU MATTER” manifesto, along with my teacher, saved my life. It means more to me than words can say.

What does the phrase “YOU MATTER” mean to you? What do you stand for?

I believe you matter because you have a great amount of potential. You’re smart and have a lot in store in the future for you. YOU MATTER!!

Now what do you think?