Day 5 – National Archives and Beyond


The fifth and final day of my stay at Mount Vernon was spent at the National Archives.  Since I was spending and extra day in Washington D.C., I packed up and checked out of Mount Vernon before the bus left for the Archives.  It was a pleasant, if not lightly trafficked, trip into Washington D.C.

We arrived at the Archives before normal business hours and went straight into the “special events” entrance.  It was the first time I’d had to put my backpack through a metal detector since the airport, but it wasn’t too bad.  We spent the rest of the morning going through what the students would do if we were to bring a group to the National Archives.  It was really well designed and implemented.  While we were there we also saw the Constitution and Bill of Rights before the public was allowed in, and then we went on a self-guided tour of the exhibits on display.  The crown jewel, at least for me, was the copy of the Magna Carta that was on display.  I had seen another copy before in London, but any time I get to see an original copy of such an important document I’ll get excited.

When our time was done at the National Archives, I parted ways with the rest of the group and struck out on my own in Washington D.C.  I quickly made my way to my hotel, found my bearings, and headed off for a whirlwind 24 hours in our nation’s capital.  Rather than go into huge detail, I’m going to summarize my thoughts on the sights I visited.

  • American History Smithsonian – I’m not 100 percent sure I’ve ever stepped foot in this museum before.  I had been told by a number of people that it was underwhelming.  The one thing I really wanted to see (a replica of Julia Child’s kitchen) was being repainted, but the rest of the museum is fascinating.  I think the name is misleading, it should be the “pop culture museum”.
  • Air and Space Smithsonian – I was very underwhelmed with this museum.  Sure it’s neat to see all the planes and space ships, but I’m pretty sure they haven’t updated a thing since I was there in the mid-90s.
  • Congress, the Supreme Court, and the White House – I did a “walk by” of these sights since I had no desire to spend any time waiting in line.  Congress was being refurbished, so it wasn’t as striking as it would have been.  The White House was madness.  The Supreme Court building was fun to see although uneventful.
  • Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument – I saw these amazing feats of architecture in both broad daylight as well as at night.  I highly recommend seeing these at night.  There is something oddly spooky about them after dark.  In hindsight, I wish I’d seen the entire mall at night, but a guy’s got to sleep.
  • Jefferson Stone – The original planned location of the Washington Monument.  Not much to see, but interesting to know the back story.
  • World War 2 Memorial, Vietnam Memorial, and Korean War Memorial – All three were very well laid out and conceptualized.  I was very impressed with the Korean War Memorial and I really wish I’d seen it at night.
  • Lincoln Memorial and Reflecting Pool – I had seen this before, but I’ll always want to see the Lincoln Memorial again.  There is something extra magnificent about the statue and two speeches on the interior of the Memorial.  As I turned around and gazed at the reflecting pool while standing on the spot Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I have a dream” speech, I also had an odd flashback to the movie Forrest Gump.
  • MLK Memorial – I am completely sure I had not seen the MLK Memorial the last time I was in Washington D.C.  In terms of conceptualization, this was fantastic.  The execution was outstanding.  And the fact that he might be glaring at Thomas Jefferson for all time makes it that much more awesome.
  • FDR Memorial – Roosevelt’s presidency is one of the black holes of my historical knowledge.  I know I should know more, but I don’t.  That being said, this unorthodox memorial did a great job of telling FDR’s story as a president.
  • Jefferson Memorial – I can’t remember if I’d seen this before or not.  I’ll definitely remember this time not only because I got to see the memorial and gaze across at the White House, but also because the rose blossoms were blooming on that side of the tidal pool, so I’m considering myself luck.

It was a history-packed trip, and I’m so thankful my wife allowed me to have this opportunity.  I’ll remember this trip for a long time.  I’ll try and post some of the ways this trip has affected my teaching in the coming months.


Day 4 – Constitution and Bill of Rights


Today was my last full day at Mount Vernon and I was determined to get the most out of it.  I woke up early in the morning and made my way to the estate to watch the sunrise on the piazza.  I’ve seen the sunrise hundreds of times in my life, but there’s something special when you realize that the first president of our country no doubt saw that same view at some point of his life.  After admiring the view, I headed back to our living area for George Washington’s favorite breakfast…homemade hoecakes.

We started off our morning spending all the money we could in the gift shop of Mount Vernon before it opened to the public.  There’s nothing quite like running around an empty gift shop to work your pocketbook into a frenzy.

Today was more or less a wrap up day where we were introduced to all the online media available to us on the Mount Vernon website.  We were also turned loose to plan assignments and activities using all the resources at our disposal.  It was great to finally have some time to plan on how I’m going to use the overwhelming amount of data that I acquired over my few days.

We then had a couple of lectures and round tables with various people about how to handle some of our most challenging TEKS using primary sources.  I loved this part because I’m always looking for ways to up my game on these particular TEKS.  At dinner, we spent some time thinking about how we would take what we’ve learned back to our communities.  I might have even gotten talked into presenting at a conference next year!

Day 3 – Convention and Ratification


Today we spent the majority of today in the library, so it was a lot of lecture.  That being said, the lectures were amazing, so it didn’t really seem like a lot of sitting.  We first heard from a local Washington D.C. teacher for ideas on how to teach to students who do not speak English as their native language.  We got a lot of resources that will be super helpful in the classroom.

The biggest lectures of the weekend happened today, we heard from Dr. Carol Berkin about the Constitutional Convention and the Bill of Rights.  I would love to be able to tell you that I knew all this material before, but that wouldn’t be honest.  I learned so much from these two lectures that I feel pretty confident that I can say this was the best part of the entire trip.  Her insight was exceptional and I could sit and listen to her speak all day.

We then spent the afternoon reenacting the Virginia Ratifying Convention.  It was a fascinating activity and helped me internalize the arguments that were going on in that room.  In between Dr. Berkin’s lectures, we also reenacted the Constitutional Convention.  I had the honor of playing Gouverneur Morris in our reenactment, so I had fun on one leg.

In the evening we were entertained by David and Ginger Hildebrand playing Colonial music.  I watched them expertly play a number of instruments that I had never seen played.  After dinner, a small group of us walked down to see George Washington’s tomb, the memorial to the slaves on Mt. Vernon, and down to the wharf on the Potomac River.  It was a great day, although very mentally strenuous.

Day 2 – Washington’s Influential Documents and Experiences


Waking up on Day 2, I was in a much better place mentally.  There is something therapeutic about getting a good night’s sleep and a hot shower that makes the world a little better.  The only thing that threatened to bring down the day was the constant threat of rain.  None the less, we walked over to the Library building to begin our day.

We started out with a lecture on the Magna Carta and its effects on the Constitution by  Robert Pallitto.  It was a great day because I think the Magna Carta is very difficult to teach because it’s difficult to shoehorn in.  We all know if plays a role in the principles of the Constitution, but how to do it effectively is a challenge.  He did a great job of making both the Magna Carta and the Constitution in bitesized pieces and then arranged them in a way they made sense.

From there we proceeded to my current favorite thing we’ve done, we headed off to the working whiskey distillery and gristmill on the Mt. Vernon property.  We got to talk with the master distiller as well as watch the gristmill in action.  It was a fantastic experience and according to the staff a really big surprise to do both.

When we returned to the library, we had a couple of application sessions about the Declaration of Independence as well as Project Based Learning in the classroom.  These presenters did a great job showing some practical application steps and how we could use things like the Texas Declaration of Independence to compare with the US Constitution.

After lunch, we toured the actual library on site.  We walked into their special collections rooms and got to see a number of vary rare books, including some owned by George Washington.  While the library is small compared to most public libraries, I was in awe of the amount of material at your disposal about Mt. Vernon and the Washington family.  We followed the tour with an application session about pictures of Washington and their transition throughout the years.

In the afternoon we had a lecture and application session about Washington’s thoughts and practice of government.  It was a fantastic look at how the (arguably) most important man on the planet at the time thought about government as well as his effect on the brand new government.  We transitioned to a tour of the grounds of Mt. Vernon with the lead horticulturist.  He brought huge amounts of insight about the gardens and layout of the mansion…and there may have been adult beverages shared by him as well.

We finished the evening at the Mt. Vernon Inn Restaurant talking with an actor portraying Tobias Leer, George Washington’s secretary and tutor of his children.  It was a fantastic day and I enjoyed every moment of it.

Day 1 – Washington and Civics


I arrived at Washington’s Reagan Airport in the late morning on Sunday.  While it was late morning Washington D.C., my morning began long before in the wee hours of the morning as DFW Airport.  I’ve never been happier to be out of a less than three hour flight.  I gathered my bags, checked the my information, and called my ride to Mt. Vernon.  The rubber met the road, as they say, at that moment.  My five days in residence at Mt. Vernon is beginning.

I found my ride at the curb and was joined by another participant for the week.  We were a part of a group of educators invited to Mt. Vernon to learn more about George Washington and stay on the grounds of his estate.  Along the ride we had some light chatting about the area with our volunteer driver and I enjoyed watching the Virginia colonial houses and the Potomac River fly by.

When we arrived, I found my way to my room and prepared myself for our opening session.  To be completely honest, I was whipped from travel but also extremely excited at the prospects for the week.  We had a brief session setting up the goals for the weekend and introducing people who would be helping out for the weekend.  After lunch, we listened to a lecture about George Washington about Washington as a citizen and how he viewed citizenship.  The lecturer, Lorri Glover, was eloquent and spoke directly to the heart of Washington’s beliefs about citizenship.  Following this lecture, we headed to the museum on Mt. Vernon’s property and had some time to look around and see all the wonderful artifacts on hand.

After the museum, we headed to the Mt. Vernon Inn Restaurant.  It was closed at this point, so we got to enjoy a quiet dinner where we played George Washington trivia.  While my team came in second that night, we all felt like winners as we headed to the estate on Mt. Vernon for a private, evening tour.  Our tour guide was extraordinary and we got to see all the rooms of the estate including the third floor as well as the basement.  It was a really great day, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

I understood from the moment we introduced ourselves that I was the junior educator here.  Most of the teachers were in their twentieth or more year of teaching, and I am not even close.  I think that’s why I’m most appreciative of this experience.  Most of the time the teachers I’m with already know much of what is being said, but I’m learning a ton.  I feel like I’m hanging on every word that’s said.  I can’t wait to use these new perspectives in the classroom next year when we’re covering the life and times of George Washington.

TAGT Conference Reflection


Every year my district’s awesome parent advocacy group for gifted students offers scholarships to go to either the National Association of Gifted Children Conference as well as the Texas Association for the Gifted and Talented Annual Conference.  Every couple of years I apply for a scholarship so that I can continue to grow in my teaching of gifted students and try and stay on the cutting edge.  This year the conference was in Houston, TX and I got a scholarship to go.  I came away with three thoughts on my time there.

  1. I love hearing about the different G/T programs that are offered around the state.  This conference is a melting pot of people from all levels of gifted education from all over the state as well as the nation.  Every time I go, I hear about how different districts provide services to their gifted students and I’m always amazed at the variety of programming.  I made a point this year of asking people to explain their programming so I can become better versed in all the shapes and sizes of gifted education.  I’m particularly fascinated, this year, by hearing about district’s magnet schools for gifted children.  This totally makes sense, but until this year’s conference I’d never hear of such a thing.
  2. I’m lucky to be in a district that is so forward thinking when it comes to technology.  Every time I go to a conference I’m interested in learning about the newest and greatest technology that people are using.  Outside of Dr. Brian Housand’s technology presentations, I really didn’t find too many new things this year.  I know that this has a lot to do with the technology specialists on my campus as well as my district’s push to put as much technology as they can in our classrooms.  One of the presenters was throwing out everything she could think of to try and stump me, but I’d heard of everything she had.  I’ve had the opportunity to see Dr. Housand a couple of times this year and I really enjoy his presentations because I always learn a few new things to try out.  This time it was some new techniques for designing presentations as well as geosettr.
  3. I made the decision to attempt to present at the conference next year.  I’m going to talk with a couple of my co-workers to see if they have any interest in presenting as well.  I’m mulling over my topics that I might present on, but for now I’m thinking it would either be on narrative feedback in the classroom or student voice and choice.

The tail end of my trip to Houston was possibly the most memorable part of this excursion.  North Texas was in the midst of one of the largest snow/ice storms I’ve been around for.  I left the conference a little early to try and beat the ice freeze on Friday, but unfortunately I didn’t leave early enough.  It took me around 3.5 hours to travel south to Houston from Dallas.  On the way back it took me 8+ hours to drive to Dallas, and I still didn’t make it all the way home.  Memories.

TAGT Annual Conference


I found out this week that I’ll get the opportunity to go to the TAGT Annual Conference in Houston, TX.  I briefly looked over the session list for the conference and I got super excited because there are a number of wonderful presenters that will be there.  My short list of people I’ve seen before that I’d love the opportunity to see again are:

  • Dr. Brian Housand – I saw Dr. Housand present at Confratute this summer and really enjoyed his personality and way of presenting information.  He does a lot with technology and introduced me to some new things to try in the classroom.
  • Dr. Joyce Juntune – I saw Dr. Juntune at our district’s summer training conference.  She overwhelmed me with data at the time (it was the week after the end of last school year), but in a good way.
  • Dr. Bertie Kingore – I’ve seen Dr. Kingore at a number of conferences before and has left an impression on me as a gifted educator.
  • Kimberly Kindred and Melanie Ringman – These two find ladies work in my district and have done a great job teaching.  I’ve had the opportunity to hear Kim speak before and it’s worth it.  Great educators doing awesome things in the classroom.

I’m hoping to see some of these presenters at the conference, but also get the opportunity to find some new favorites.  I’ll be sure to share some thoughts after the conference is over in December.

Constructivist Week


My week of inservice training is behind me and the kids come for the first time on Monday.  I feel like the week before school has flown by and all of a sudden I’m scrambling to finish off a few last minute things this weekend.  All things considered this was by far the best inservice week of my teaching career and the theme of it all would be ‘constructivist’.

Our district’s social studies theme for the year is constructivism and we spent some time looking at what that looks like in a classroom.  We worked in groups to define the term and come up with things we’d like to know more about so that our curriculum director can work on some trainings throughout the year to help us out more.  In the afternoon of this particular day, two of my co-workers and I got to lead a training on Project Based Learning which is our campus’ focus and has been for a year.  We each shared a project that we had run in our classrooms this year as well as provided some ideas and things to think about when planning a PBL unit.  We got some great feedback on our presentation and our curriculum director praised us at our campus later in the week.

Later in the week our principal brought in Mark Barnes to speak with the whole staff about his particular brand of constructivist learning.  After he presented to our teaching staff as well as a number of district administrators, six of us got the opportunity to spend the rest of the day learning from Mark in a small group in a more in depth way.  He shared with us about how he uses his website to be the hub of learning for his class, different technologies he uses, and ways to deal with the different problems we might encounter during our first year.  I walked away from this day with a head swimming with ideas and not enough time to adequately plan out how I might implement them.  On top of all that, my school issued a few of us an iPad mini to use in the classroom!

I’m really excited to push the envelope a bit this school year…in a good way.  I’m ready to take a massive step toward transforming my classroom into a place where my students drive their own learning and create more than intake.  I’m ready to think differently about education and I’m so glad that I have some co-workers who will be traveling this road with me.

Reflecting on Blended Learning


One of the many things teaching related that I’ve run across is the Middle School Matters website and podcast.  Being a middle school teacher it made sense for me to learn as much as I can about the middle school mindset as well as learn from others in the trenches.  As I was listening to their latest podcast (show 249), the guys brought up the idea that sometimes we are looking for the one classroom model to teach all students at all times.  They brought up that maybe the idea of blended learning (defined as using teacher driven learning, student driven learning, flipped classroom, etc. where it fits best in the curriculum) is what we need to look at an not focus on only one model.

I’ve always struggled with models of teaching because none seem to fit my classroom just right.  Currently, our school is really pushing PBL in the classroom, and I’m helping pilot some ROLE strategies in the classroom this year.  Others in our district are pushing the SEM model, flipped classrooms, or are emphasizing STEM.  It’s easy to see great teachers using a certain model and think to yourself “I need to try that”.  I think it’s folly though to change the bent of your classroom year after year just to find that the outcomes don’t quite work for you and try again with something different.  Maybe the greatest skill we as teachers can learn is how to use the strengths and weaknesses of all the different methods of teaching combined with intimate knowledge of each of our students to cater each unit to maximize learning and produce based on that knowledge.

If that’s the case, this still doesn’t give us any room to sit back and relax as a teacher.  It means we need to be actively looking for teaching models that we haven’t tried.  We should be scouring professional development opportunities and take advantage of our colleagues with varying backgrounds to expand your knowledge as a teacher.  We should constantly be innovating and learning.  We should take risks, just like we ask our students to take risks in class.  We should relish the chance to get new technology in our student’s hands even if it doesn’t go too well the first time.  The more we push ourselves as teachers, the more we are able to push our students in the classroom.

Is Compacting the Answer?


There are a number of things that the average classroom teacher must deal with regardless of location and circumstance.  We have our state or national government telling us what students in our class must master to graduate, we have mandates from our districts for what is going on in our classroom, and we have (for the most part) increased student populations creating and overwhelming amount of children per classroom.  With the vast number of things that are increasing the pressure on teachers as well as trying to work with struggling kids, providing for children with learning disabilities, and entertain students in ways we never thought we would have to how to we find time for everything?  Is it possible that compacting curriculum could ease the pressure on the classroom teacher by allowing the gifted learners the opportunity to achieve higher while allowing the struggling learner the opportunity to have more time and attention from the teacher?


Compacting is the idea that we pretest the students in our classrooms before each unit to see what they know and do not know about the upcoming material.  If a student struggles with the material (as most should since you haven’t taught this yet) they move at the same pace you would normally teach.  If a student can show aptitude that meets your definition of mastery you would compact their curriculum.  All this means is that the student would not need to be retaught all the things they already know, but would be given an individual enrichment project based on their individual interests that they would work on while the rest of the class learns the material they have already mastered.  If a child masters certain topics but not others you would have them work on their project only during the concepts they have not yet mastered.

I can almost hear complaints from where I sit typing this out right now.  This seems like a logistical nightmare.  Kids wandering everywhere doing something or another while you are trying to hold class for the kids that need to learn.  The bottom line is that there will not be a significant amount of children being compacted at a given time.  If more than a handful of kids have mastered concepts you are about to teach them, you might think about upping the rigor of your class rather than compact them all.  Some classes may have a few kids while some may have zero children being compacted.  If a child who has had their curriculum compacted decides to distract the class instead of working on their individual project, they can come on back and work on the stuff they have already mastered for the day.  You can then talk with them about the choice they made and they can decide to choose to work on a project that works them in a way that will not distract the class or they can be bored out of their minds while they relearn old material.

Putting it into practice

I’ll be honest when I say that I have not tried this out in my classroom…yet.  I’m going to try it out with one student this upcoming school year and really try and keep great records on how things go.  I want to prove to myself that this can work and that it’s what’s best for the students in my classroom.  I’m excited by the opportunity and I’ll try and report back on what is going on with the lucky child.