Throwback: Reflection on Gamification

Photo courtesy of jimsheaffer

Now – July 30, 2014

Hey, guys!  We recently started up the DC Metro Area Google Educator Group, which is an awesome community of learning on Google.  It’s open to the public, and anyone can join.  It’s a little old place where we can get together…GEG, baby! Kidding. This is a content-rich and super-fun group for educators to learn together and collaborate.

We have only been around for a little over a week, but we are off to a very strong start.  Every so often, we will have a challenge that we will encourage our members to do.  The challenge for the first week is all about gamification.  Since we have gamified the group to increase member engagement, the topic just lent itself to being our first area of exploration.

Here is the introductory video, describing the mission of our group and our first challenge:

In addition to our Google Community, we have a very active Voxer group to accompany our GEG.  At the time of this writing, it has 26 members, currently discussing all aspects of gamification.  Participants range in experience from novices to game-masters, and everywhere in between.  We are having a blast learning from each other.

For every challenge, I will attempt (keyword: attempt) to reflect on what we are doing through a blog post.  This time, I am totally going to cheat, and recycle a post that I wrote during the beginning of last year.  Just so I set a good example for my students, and not to plagiarize myself, I am borrowing this from here.  

Wow, those old posts are super-embarrassing now (lol), but I’ll leave them up to document how much becoming “connected” has changed me, even on a personal level. I’ll also throw in a couple of other examples of my experiences with gamification.

Let’s take a journey back in time.

Then – October 17, 2014

Well, look at me…I’m on a roll.  Two days in a row, blogging!  That has got to be some kind of record.  Now, now, don’t get spoiled (or scared, depending on your opinion of the blog so far)…I’m usually not very good at keeping to a writing schedule.  But let’s savor life’s small victories, shall we?

Now onto today’s topic at hand: gamification.  As many of you know, I teach middle school English and technology as my 9-5 (and 5-9…I have no life [see Unplugged 2 for more on how having a life sucks]).  Enough with the parentheticals.

We are officially two months into the school year, and it has gone pretty well.  As for my English classes, I’ve been throwing a lot at them, and they’ve been throwing it right back at me since Day One.  We keep each other on our toes.  Technology on the other hand…

…nah, it’s still awesome.

Let me explain.  I’m not some educational narcissist who goes around all day patting myself on the back, muttering, “good job, Sarah.”  No, it’s not eeeeven like that.  I wish you could have been a fly on the wall the first couple weeks of my fifth period (Tech) class.  Well, actually, no, because I’d probably spray you with Raid.

I Got 99 Problems, But a Glitch Ain’t One

This group of students that I have now, they are my babies.  I’ve been working with them going on six years.  Now, they are in eighth grade.  The first two weeks of school, they had an acute case of “Big Fish, Little Pond” syndrome.  You know, how high school seniors are…but without the additional four years of maturity.  Dun dun dun.

It didn’t really help things that technology is classified under electives.  Historically, some students have taken this to mean, “Easy A.”  And really, who could blame them?  The way I’d been teaching it in previous years, it was pretty much showing kids stuff they already knew.  I thought I was really doing something, and I guess I was (for maybe, a third grader…), but it was really basic and not very challenging.  Microsoft Word, blah blah blah, internet searching skills, yadda yadda yadda, BORING!!!!

So this year, these SAME kids who have taken pretty much the SAME course for the fiftieth time, came in expecting the SAME thing.  There were some behavioral issues…I’m not going to lie.  But, little did they know that I had a secret weapon in my back pocket.

One word: gamification.  *GASP*

Leveling Up

What is gamification, you may ask?  I’m so glad you did.  I’m no expert, but what gamification means in my class is that we apply gaming concepts to learning.  Remember all those hours you used to waste, playing Donkey Kong Country?  You know, the one with Kong and his annoying sidekick Diddy, who would always get in the way when you were trying to jump on bad guys’ heads?  Well, I do.  We used to play that game for hours on end, when we should have been doing our homework.  Shame on us.

That was about twenty years ago for me, but really, nothing has changed.  I mean, everything has changed, but nothing has really changed.  Sigh.  YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN!!!!

The fact remains that kids still love games.  Luckily for me, I went to this amazing PD session over the summer offered through my county (shoutout to #pgtech, whut whut) that taught us how to gamify our instruction.  Here’s how it works.

This is How We Do It

There are certain things common to most popular video games.  You usually have levels.  You usually have points.  You usually have strategy guides.  You usually have some Big Bad to defeat at the end.  What gamifying instruction does, in a nutshell, is applies what kids love about games, to get them excited about learning.  Well, except for the Big Bad.  Let’s call it a Big Good…that helps you pass the levels…and gives you grades and stuff…ah, nevermind.  This extended metaphor just isn’t working out the way it sounded in my head.

Anyway…back to the subject.  Just like in a video game, everybody starts off at the beginning level.  In my class, I call it the “Tutorial Stage.”  Here, I have placed several basic assignments that all students must complete before they are allowed to move onto the fun stuff.  They earn points for each assignment, and level up every time they hit a certain point threshold.  I chose the arbitrary number of 2100 points, because every major assignment is worth 700 points.  So, if they complete each assignment perfectly, they only have to do three at each level.

In each progressive level, the assignments get harder and harder, building on skills that the students learned in previous stages.  However, the higher level assignments tend to be more fun.  Students are allowed to go back, but not allowed to skip ahead…just like a video game!

Each assignment has a specified number of players.  Some are solo missions, and some are multiplayer.  Just like a video game!

Each stage has multiple missions.  Of these missions, students can pick what interests them, as long as they reach the 2100 point threshold.  These missions are usually new skills that the student isn’t as familiar with, such as coding and video production.  As stated earlier, there are strategy guides and walkthroughs for most missions…get this…video tutorials.  Just like a video game!

This post is getting really long and my eyes are starting to shut, so I’m going to go ahead and post it now.  If you would like to see an example of gamification in action, feel free to visit our class site.

I’m always telling my students to end their writing with a proper conclusion, so I should follow my own advice, no matter how sleepy I am lol.  We are nearing the end of the first quarter, and the inaugural run of the gamification of Tech.  I am so impressed by everything the students have done so far.  I can’t say that they’ve turned a 180 in terms of behavior, but it’s definitely north of 150.

I’m sure that there will soon come a time when students are regularly teaching me new things about technology.  That’s how I’ll know that I’ve done right by them.  Already, they are turning in projects that are way better than my crappy examples.  Gamification is rooted in inquiry and PBL, and helps to address the multiple intelligences.  There’s some teacher-talk for you academic types.  Ok, that was the Nyquil talking, so don’t blame me.  Nighty night.

Last thing: I’m so grateful to have learned about this concept from my fellow educators.  Thanks so much for sharing 🙂 🙂 🙂

Then – January 11, 2014

Mid-point video clarifying how to gamify.


Then – June 30, 2014

Screen Shot 2014-07-29 at 11.14.23 PM Screen Shot 2014-07-29 at 11.14.36 PM

Mind. Blown.

Looking Ahead

I’m still growing on my journey to gamification. It’s a work in progress.  I want to thank all of the members of my PLN for all of your great feedback, inspiration, and advice.

This coming school year, I really want to gamify my English class, too.  We had a gamified boot camp to prepare for the standardized testing, but I really want to roll it out for the full year like I did with tech.  

One thing that came up in the Voxer chat that I want to try is putting them into teams/guilds.  Another is letting them buy things with their points. There was a distinction made that it’s best to have them purchase special privileges and the like, not necessarily to reward them with parties.

Also, I am thinking of ways to marry my love of flipping with gamification, even more.  Stay tuned…something big is coming (hopefully) lol.

Come join in the learning fun and grow with us in our Google Educator Group.  Although we are based in the DC Metro Area, we welcome educators from everywhere.  Feel also free to spread the word.  We hope to see you there.



Gone Fishin’: Reflection on Social Media

Disclaimer: This post is going in a very different direction than usual. Not everyone will agree, and that is totally okay.  However, I wanted needed to chip in with my own two cents.

First of all, let me say that my PLN absolutely ROCKS!!!    

I have been having a blast over the past year, while learning alongside great teachers all over the world.  The collaborations have been excellent.  I am also thankful for the times when we have had those courageous conversations, for these are the moments when I get to re-examine my thinking.  We all need to be exposed to different perspectives in order to see situations from many angles.  It is in this spirit that I write this blog post.  

Please keep in mind that I am dissecting ideas, and not attacking individuals.  For this reason, I will not mention any names or specific blog posts, except for those that have inspired me in a positive way.  The views below are my own, and I am not speaking one else’s behalf.  With that being said, let’s begin.

The Fish

Rafranz Davis  wrote a phenomenal blog post this past weekend, which got my gears turning.  I told her that I loved it so much, that I could “blog about [her] blog.”  At the time, I was joking, but later that week, I saw some very different posts being spread so virally that now I’m dead serious.

Rafranz is totally right.  There is a weird Twitter dynamic in the world of educational technology.  Some of my other friends and PLN members have mentioned it, too, such as Elle Deyamport and Angela Watson.  They both utilized a metaphor that I really like, being fish in a pond.

To continue the extended metaphor, our networks would be the pond, and we educators are all the fish, splashing around.  I, personally, am thrilled to be a fish in the pond, swimming in this good salt water…or fresh water…whichever is in a pond.  Obviously, I’m not a science teacher.

There are all different kinds of fish in our pond.  I like to consider myself an exotic, quirky fish, if there is such a thing.  Maybe a little red one, swimming in the blue water…a Haitian fish.

Anyway, back to the point.  There are guppies.  There are goldfish. There are dolphins (I know there are no dolphins in ponds…humor me, people).  That’s what makes our pond so great! Fish come in all different varieties.  In all honesty, the size of the fish (i.e. how “known” you are) really doesn’t matter.  You’re a fish.  You’re already a rockstar.  But since fish size is a reality in the lovely world of educational technology (and most other fields), I’m not going to ignore the elephant in the room.

To loosely paraphrase Angela, sometimes you may be a guppy in one pond and a dolphin in another.  There is nothing wrong with being a little fish, a medium fish, or a big fish.  We are what we are, let’s face it.  It’s all good in the hood…er, the pond…however, lately, I’ve been reading some things that have made me go, “hmmm???”

There is no need for me to “call anyone out,” or for any rachet behavior of any kind.  This is not Worldstar Hip Hop, thus I will not mention anyone specifically.  The point is to address a certain way of thinking that goes far beyond a few blog posts.  Many people seem to share this philosophy, so I wanted to chime in and offer some food for thought.  Fish food, if you will.

We can agree, we can agree to disagree…it’s all good baby, baby.  I have love for my educators either way.  With that being said…

Here We Go!!!

Twitter is a social medium.  Let me slow that down and bring it back one more time…social…medium.  Those two terms would lead us to believe that it is a tool for collaboration, oui?  Twitter and other social media have brought me out of teaching in isolation and into 20-freaking-14, allowing me to collaborate with, and bounce ideas off, educators all around the world.  In other words, using social media has put me into a new pond.

(BTW, here are some ideas to get you going if you want to rock social media for collaboration.)

The way I approach Twitter (and other SM) is that I am here to learn.  I am here to share.  I am here to grow…with you.  However, lately I’ve seen a few blog posts, with the writers sharing their criteria for following back.  I totally respect that everyone has their own methods.  Yours may be different from mine, and that is A-OK.

However, I’ve been seeing one recurring word that doesn’t sit quite right with me.  This word is, “impress.”  A lot of times, people say they won’t follow back if they’re not impressed. I’m baffled.  I’ve heard this term enough over the past week that I would be remiss if I didn’t address it.

What, pray tell, are the criteria for “impressive?”  If I have less than 1000 followers, am I not impressive?  If I don’t have 50 million accolades listed on my bio, am I not impressive?

Personally, I’m impressed simply by the fact that you’re on Twitter, trying to better yourself for your students. The last time I checked, we were all fish.  Do we not have fins to swim?  Do we not have gills to breathe (ok, science teachers, I know…just work with me)?  And since we are in a magical pond where fish can change species, did we not all start out as guppies?  

Don’t get me wrong…I have criteria, too, for when I will follow back.  Obviously, you can’t follow every single person who follows you, or your timeline will be complete junk.  I made that mistake on my first Twitter account. But, what is junk?  To me, the voice of a fellow fish will never be junk.  Junk is that spammy stuff that pollutes our beautiful pond.

***(Random sidenote: Dolphins can learn from guppies as much as guppies can learn from dolphins.  I’ve met some great dolphins who know this, and some great guppies who had the confidence to insist upon both listening and being heard.)***

Here are my criteria for following back, in a nutshell:

  1. Are they clearly involved in education?  (If yes, follow back.)

It’s that simple.  Every now and then, someone flies under my radar, but that is an oversight.  I apologize profusely to anyone whom I may have missed.  That being said, every educator fish is welcome in my pond.  The more, the merrier.

To reiterate, I’m not attacking individuals, just dissecting ideas here.  I’ve heard the argument that people’s streams will get diluted by info they don’t want, etc.  Again, I believe that everyone has a voice and something valuable to bring to the table.  In addition, you never know what guppy is going to become your “personal dolphin” someday, i.e. have a great impact in your life.  I cannot begin to tell you all how many seemingly random strangers I have connected with online, who have come to play a major role in my life.

However, I do understand that there are certain people you want to connect with more closely, which is hard to do when you follow hundreds or thousands of people.  That, my friends, is the beauty of Twitter lists.  I just created one with about 100 of my personal dolphins…close friends in my PLN with whom I want to stay tightly connected.  I set this list to private, and I check it frequently.  It’s the best of both worlds.  I can now have that ever-growing pond, while still having that VIF (Very Important Fish) feed.  Ok, I’ll stop with the fishy metaphors now.

Nobody has to use my methods.  Who am I to tell you who/how to follow?  However, as a friendly fellow fish (I totally lied about stopping with the metaphors), I wanted to share what works for me.


Student voice is a concept that has been gaining ground in terms of best practices for instruction.  In my district, teachers cannot be evaluated as “distinguished,” unless they give every student the opportunity to be heard.  To me, this is phenomenal!  Why are we not treating each other with the same respect?  We need to start knocking down these walls, and shattering glass ceilings.

I’m not going to mince words.  Like I said, I am all for collaboration, and will continue to actively pursue and facilitate those connections.  I have love for all fish, regardless of size, but I personally do not have any interest in “impressing” anyone.  There are plenty of other fish in the sea, willing to work together for the sake of all our students.

Guppies.  Goldfish.  Dolphins.  Who knew that we fish could make so much noise?  The funny thing is that Twitter is just a tool!  It really isn’t that deep…at least it shouldn’t be.  We are here to listen.  We are here to share.  We are here to do right by our students.  Make your own pond, and fill it with all kinds of fish.  Don’t forget your personal dolphins 😉

Some awesome quotes to leave you with:

I’m proud that I can inspire someone but what makes what we do even more amazing is that we are also constantly being inspired by others. – Rafranz Davis

We need to continue venturing into other ponds and making connections so that every fish can feel welcome wherever they go. – Angela Watson

I was glad to take the plunge because below the surface I was able to find my school of fish. Now I feel I can take my next adventure out to sea, and this time, I don’t have to do it alone.  – Elle Deyamport

What is your $0.02?  Chime in below in the comments.

Five PBL Hacks for Educators

I don’t remember much from high school, but I will never forget chorus.  I spent so much time in the choir room that I could have received mail there.

Every year, we would put on a big production, where we’d cover songs from musicals, decades, or movie soundtracks.  Senior year, one song we did was “What a Feeling” from Flashdance.  One day in rehearsal, my teacher, Mr. Johnson, told us, “those lyrics are so true. (dramatic voice) If there’s one thing you need to remember in life, it’s to take your passion and make it happen.

At the time, being 17, I laughed it off, thinking it was the corniest thing that I had ever heard.  However, it always stuck in the back of my head.  Now, *cough cough* years later, I finally get it.

What is PBL?

If you’re hip to the current best practices of teaching, you know that PBL means many things to different people:

  • Problem-Based Learning
  • Project-Based Learning (edit: a rockstar member of my PLN just enlightened me about terminology regarding PBL.  Read her blog post here.)
  • Passion-Based Learning

I heard the third definition more recently, and I think I like that one the best.  For the purposes of this post, let’s stick with that, shall we?

As educators, part of our duty is to model life-long learning, and what better way to do that than to become living examples of PBL for our students?  Take your passion, and make it happen.  Here’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

My PBL Journey

Last year, at approximately this time, I received an email that would change my life.  I’m not going to tell you about it just yet; that would ruin the suspense.  Muhahahahaha.

For the months leading up to summer 2013, I had begun my journey to connectivity, creating a Twitter account exclusively (well, almost) for #edtech stuff, participating in chats, and getting to know other educators via social media.

One day, I saw a “Call for Presenters” come through my Twitter feed, for a conference called Edscape.  On a whim, I filled out a Google Form to present on flipped instruction.  We had tried it the last few weeks of school and it had worked well for us.  However, I wasn’t quite comfortable with the idea of leading a session on it.

I was also very uneasy about the traveling aspect, knowing darn well that I lived in the DC area, and this conference was all the way in New Jersey.  I had presented a couple of times at conferences in my area, but this was different. This was traveling.  I had no idea what I would do, on the off-chance that my session would be accepted.


Well, guess what?  It was.  (For those of you playing along at home, the acceptance letter was the life-altering email that I alluded to before.)  A little punk voice in my head kept screaming, “OMG, what do we do now?!?”  Thanks to the unwavering support of my family, I decided to go for it.  My parents made the six hour drive with me.

Once I arrived, I was so happy that I actually took the plunge.  I learned so much and made some amazing connections.  For the first time, I met members of my PLN face-to-face.  One person would serve as a super-mentor and we’d present together at ISTE in a matter of months.  Another would inspire me to found (find?) our county’s first ever edcamp.

Photo credit::

Looking back, my Edscape experience was like walking to the edge of a huge diving board.  Once I dove in, I was no longer afraid…I have presented approximately 15 times in 10 months, in six states and two countries, and twice online to international audiences.  I have learned so much from others, and made lifelong friends, but I could never have done so without activating my PBL.

Here are a few takeaways that I’ve encountered.

The Hacks

    1. Step outside of your comfort zone.  Well, duh.  Sometimes you are going to have to yell at that little punk voice in your head.  I personally enjoy, “break yo’self foo!”  However, feel free to use whatever terminology you choose.  Another case in point: some of you may have seen my free interactive tutorials.  If not, I have attached the link for your viewing pleasure (insert shameless self-promo here).  Well, I had this idea a couple of years ago, but was too afraid to start.  “Ooh, nobody will watch! We’re wasting our time,” the little stupid voice said.  Well, so what?  When I finally got around to it last December, I was having so much fun that I didn’t care if nobody watched. (Spoiler: some folks did, which opened even more doors.)
    2. Bet on yourself.  If you want to live your dreams, you’re going to need to invest in yourself.  It could be money for conferences, transportation, etc.  It could be the time that you invest in building your brand.  Just be prepared to foot the bill, because nothing in this world comes for free, sweetheart.  (I hope you read that in a Humphrey Bogart voice.)  BUT, the joy that you get from chasing your passion will be more than worth it.
        • Use all of the free avenues available to you (i.e. Twitter chats, conferences on The Future of Education, Google Hangouts, etc…be creative!)
        • Organize your time wisely! (I ❤ Kanban Flow, a Chrome extension.)
    3. Make lists. If you’re one of those people who is always flooded with thoughts, you may be struck with a great idea, only to lose it minutes later.  This is why lists can come in handy.  I like to use Evernote because it can sync across multiple devices.  Check this old post for more tips.
    4. Be an innovator.  Allow me to be dead honest for a moment.  A lot of the time, I get more credit than I deserve.  I did not invent any of the topics on which I present (maybe in the future, I’ll invent something.  Who knows?).  Most of the praise I get comes from being an innovator/early adopter.
      Photo credit:

      I was first introduced to this chart during an educational technology class I took a couple semesters ago.  You can apply it to technology, but really, it goes along with most concepts.  Example: I happened to be in the right place at the right time when I heard about flipping, and was able to share my experiences with others.  If this infographic is correct, you can see how the practice has grown. Here’s how to be an innovator:

      • Stay connected to the latest developments in your field.  Do this by learning everything you can about your passion.  Go to conferences, connect on Twitter, etc.
      • If you see a strategy that may work for you, try it.  The worst that can happen is that you learn from your mistakes.
      • If the strategy pays off, don’t do it in isolation…tell others about it so that they can reap the benefits as well.  It’s not bragging; sharing is caring.  To that point:
    5. Never walk alone.  Just like the grown-ups in your life told you when you were little, always have a buddy.  As a matter of fact, get as many good buddies as you can!  Build up that PLN.  It’s a learning party, people!  As I keep saying, I love Twitter…it’s totally changed my life.  You never know what allies you will find.
      • Use social media to your advantage.
      • Go to conferences.  Find tips here if you’re a little shy.



PBL…it’s not just for students.  Just remember to stay true to your passion.  You may see results, and you may not.  Either way is fine…it’s all about feeding your soul and doing what makes you happy.

Do it for the vine YOU!!!

(Thanks, Mr. Johnson.)


What’s your passion?  Chime in here.




Sarah vs. “Da Teechur”: An Introvert’s Guide to Conferences

I have a confession.  It’s a pretty well-guarded secret, but, hey…since you and I are friends now, I think I can trust you. Ok, here goes: I’m an introvert.

Photo credit:

This usually comes as a surprise to people who don’t know me very well, as well as those who know me too well. I’m a decent actress, and one of my greatest roles is “life of the party,” but I can only stay in character for short bursts of time.  Conversely, once we get to be really good friends, I won’t shut up, and you’ll forget how you couldn’t get me to say a word when we first met.

I just returned from ISTE, the biggest EdTech conference in the world.  This year, there was a record number of attendees…roughly 16,000 in one venue, and many more online (shoutout to the #notatiste crew).  It was totally overwhelming, but in a good way.

One amazing thing was that there were so many people in my PLN in attendance.   These are the people with whom I’ve Tweeted, Google Hangout-ed, Google Plus-sed, Facebooked, emailed, etc. for over a year.  One of the most awesome feelings are making these in-the-flesh face-to-face connections.

I had a total blast.  Everybody and their mama was there. Between all of the information, the fantastic conversations, and the crowds, I would often find myself mentally exhausted.  I’ve talked to other people about this, and I was surprised to find out that I’m not alone.  With that being said, let me go ahead and share my five major takeaways  for the rest of the “ISTE-verts” out there.  (Bonus: Most can also work for other social events.)

The Five Hacks

  1. Hack one: Build upon your pre-existing connections.  This is pretty self-explanatory, but a lot of us have built a strong network of like-minded educators online.  Yes, it’s so much easier to talk to people behind a screen, where you have the luxury of filtering what you say before you post.  Yes, it can be absolutely terrifying to meet people in real life.  However, don’t forget, you and your PLN members have probably invested months or years into building a relationship.  The hard work has already been done.  Just roll with it.
    • Bonus: Reach out to people you are particularly close to, prior to arriving at the conference.  Make plans for lunch, or to meet up at a social event.  That way, you will have a guaranteed buddy.  However, also be sure to mingle and get to know other people.
  2. Hack two: Don’t take yourself too seriously.  I can’t believe I’m telling you this, but since we are such good friends, I feel like I can open up to you without judgement, right?  I kind of have an alter-ego in a way…wow, I feel like I’m five.  Seriously though, there’s Sarah, the reserved side of me, who would rather just put her earbuds in and drown out the world.  Then there’s Sarah daTeechur, whom I’m sure many of you have met.  Sarah daTeechur is the persona I described in the introduction.  She’s fun, charming, and witty.  She’s the one who sang Lady Gaga at ETK14, on a large stage in front of 500 people.  Sarah would never do that, but Sarah daTeechur?  She has no fear.
    • Find your inner teechur, or whatever you want to call it.  You may have to dig deep, but find the person who comes out when you interact with your closest friends/family/kids/pets/house plants.  If you never ever talk to anyone, channel someone you know who does.
    • People, generally, want to like you, and they want to hear what you have to say.  By not participating, you’re denying them (and yourself) the opportunity for collaboration and feedback.
    • Even if you make a complete derriere out of yourself, guess what?  Everybody does at some point.  Nobody is going to care as much as you do.  It’s not the end of the world…nobody will probably even remember.  If someone does decide to hold a minor faux pas against you, tough cookies for them.  It’s not your problem.
  3. Hack three: Listen more than talk.  This may sound counterintuitive, especially coming right after the previous hack.  However, there is a difference.  I didn’t say to stay silent like some weirdo mime.  All you need to do is make sure that you’re listening to what others have to say, as opposed to struggling to find the right words, which leads to even more awkwardness.  You can only use the, “my brain is mush right now” excuse so many times.
    • As an introvert, at least for me, listening should come pretty naturally.  The trick is to ask follow-up questions based on what people tell you.  Ask them how they came to do what they do, what shifts they see in the field, etc., etc., etc.  This takes the pressure off you to talk, but at the same time, you are contributing to the conversation.
    • If someone did something you particularly admire, congratulate them, and follow up with questions.  This helps to strengthen the relationship on both sides.
    • Make sure that you chip in with your own input, when you’re comfortable.  On the flipside, don’t go overboard and dominate every conversation.  That is not a good look.
      • One hack that I’m starting to implement is to make sure I contribute at least one idea to every collaborative and/or social situation.  For example, I attended Hack Ed, which was structured similarly to an edcamp.  During the first session on equity and access, I struggled internally on whether to contribute to the conversation, but finally shared my views at the end.  I spoke for probably 15 seconds, but from that, I was able to connect afterwards with other like-minded attendees, and we came up with a game plan to enact change.  #winning
  4. Hack four: Bring props.  When I was a little kid, I fought dirty.  As a toddler, I used to love to bite people, for absolutely no reason.  I don’t always play by the rules.  Now, as an adult, I still have my mischievous streak, but I choose to use it for good rather than evil.  At #ISTE2014, I was able to present with a member of my PLN, whose work I had admired for a long time.  Since we were presenting on gamification, we decided to award ribbons to attendees for completing challenges.  (You know those ribbons…the ones that go on your name tag.  They are always a big deal at conferences.)  We got 100 ribbons online, and jokingly referred to them as “the contraband.”  We knew we wouldn’t need all 100, so I’d use the extra contraband as an icebreaker to start new conversations.  (For example, “your name tag looks naked.  How about a ribbon?”)
      • Although we were using the name tag ribbons for a session, who’s to tell you that you can’t do the same thing, even without presenting?  Go crazy, kid.  They’ll love it.  Order your own contraband ribbons here.  You can even customize your own slogans.  How cool would it be to have ribbons saying, “Member of _____’s PLN?”  Hmm…maybe I’ll do that next year.
      • If you’d rather be more discreet, your prop can always be a go-to story.  I’m blessed to be awkward, and I have quite the repertoire of #edufails to share in my back pocket (i.e. how I was forced to sleep in a Denver airport two weeks ago, and narrowly made it in time for my InnEdCo presentation).  Just make sure that your story is not totally random or inappropriate, because that would be kind of weird.  Although, I have discovered that most educators have a twisted sense of humor…
  5. Hack five: Know when to say when.  Sometimes, things get way too overwhelming, and you start getting grumpy.  At least I do.  There have been a couple of times during ISTE where I had to return to the hotel to take a breather and regroup.  Sometimes you need a little me-time to refocus and return with new energy.  This is perfectly fine.  Just remember to come back!!!

You Only Get One Shot

Try to lose yourself when you go to these big events, as they can be game-changers if you play your cards right.  Ok, that was a horrible segue.  Anyway, one line of “Lose It” by Eminem sticks out to me as particularly relevant: “You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow.  This opportunity comes once in a lifetime, Yo!” Very insightful, Eminem.  Yo, indeed. I’ve witnessed some people change their lives  at this conference, right in front of my eyes.  You never know who you will meet, who can strengthen your PLN, or who shares a similar vision.  If you’re fortunate enough to be at ISTE, or #notatiste, you can’t let any opportunity pass you by.  Step outside your comfort zone, ISTE-verts!  I have faith in you!!!! See you at #ISTE2015.

After #ISTE2014, my head is spinning… (aka five spinning hacks)

Hey guys.  Thanks for tuning into yet another random blog post.  I just returned from #ISTE2014, via Google Teacher Academy (#GTAATL), via Canada’s Flipped Learning Conference (#canflip14), via Innovative Education Colorado (#InnEdCo14), via iPadpalooza (#iplza14).  The day before that was the last day of work.  Right before that,  I had a teary goodbye with my students, preceded by a mad dash to pack up my room, preceded by a mad dash to finish the yearbook, and other random end of the year madness.  So, yeah…it’s been intense. These last few weeks,  I have learned so freaking much and met/hung with so many cool people face-to-face, that I can’t even begin to process all the awesomeness.  I will spare you until another blog post.  Maybe. Anywhoooooo…this blog post will go in a slightly different direction than my usual educational technology topics.  Today, I want to talk a little bit about work-life balance.

This is How I Roll

A few months ago, I posted a video about how technology helped me get in shape.  Right now, I’m in a more rounded shape (ha!), but I’m happy to say that I’ve maintained a net loss of 40 pounds.  If you missed it, here it is again:

Today, I made the very tough decision to get off the couch, despite the jet lag, and go to spin class.  My definition of spinning, which may or may not be quite accurate, is stationary cycling.  It’s not like those big clunky bikes you see in most places…they look more like the Tour de France bikes.

Photo attribution:

I’ve been doing spin class off and on for about seven or eight years, but I really got into it about a year and a half ago.  I really like spinning, because it forces me to clear my head and disconnect for an hour, and focus on what I’m doing.  Cell phone use is highly discouraged, which is exactly the excuse I need to leave it alone. I have to shout out a couple of awesome instructors.  I have seen some great ones, but the three whom I have enjoyed the most are named Reem, Tee, and Michael.  If you are in the DMV, I highly recommend you check out their classes.  Tonight was Reem’s class, and I’m so glad I went.  By the time it was over, I even had the energy to lift some weights.  Total difference from how I came in, like a zombie. Here are five spinning hacks for the newbies, and anyone else who may want some tips.

Five Spinning Hacks

  1. Get your settings right.  This is very important, otherwise you won’t be comfortable.  Well, let me not mislead you.  The first few times, your derriere will probably be very uncomfortable, thanks to the saddle, but stick with it and your body will adjust.  The Hack:
    • In terms of the adjustable settings, stand next to the bike, and set the seat at approximately hip level.
    • If there’s a horizontal setting for the seat, adjust to your preference.  I like to push my seat forward, personally, since I’m kind of vertically challenged.    Taller people may like theirs backwards.  The goal is to be able to reach the handlebars from a seated position without too much strain.
    • The handlebar vertical position is based on your preference.  I like mine high, because it hurts my back to bend down too far.
    • Make note of your settings once you have found the perfect balance.  This will save you the trouble of having to go through all that hassle in the future.
  2. Adjust your resistance.  Spin instructors have different styles, but many of them ask you to adjust your resistance based on your RPE (rate of perceived exertion).  Some of them may call it a scale of 1-10.  One is no resistance, and 10 feels like you’re pushing through mud.  The Virgo in me has found a hack for this to keep it somewhat quantitative.  The Hack:
    • On old-school bikes (i.e. manual models): Before class begins, get on the bike.  From a seated position, keep turning the knob to add resistance until your legs can no longer pedal.  That is your level 10.  Turn the knob the other way to release resistance.  Each full turn of the knob takes you down a number.  Before class starts, get to a level three or so.  That’s usually where you need to be for warm-up.  Don’t panic if it all starts feeling the same after five.  Trust me, your legs will thank me later.
    • On new-school bikes (i.e. digital models):  I usually do the same process here.  Push the resistance until you can’t pedal anymore.  From there, I try to break down the levels into multiples of 10, and go from there.  For example, if my RPE of 10 is a level 20, then my 1 RPE would be level 2, 2 RPE would be level 4, etc.
    • Find whatever system works best for you.  This is just my strategy, and it’s definitely not a one-size-fits-all.  Winging it may work just as well for some folks.
  3. Water.  I suck at drinking water.  Spin class will force you to drink.  Some people sweat so much that they leave puddles on the floor.  I have witnessed maintenance coming with a mop when class was over.  One instructor even brought a “Caution: Wet Floor” sign with him, and used it as a prize for the hardest worker.  If he put it next to your bike, you were the big winner.  The struggle is real in spin class.
    Photo attribution:

    The Hack:

      • Want to get through a 20 oz bottle?  Take three sips every time the song changes.
      • Is water gross to you?  If so, flavor it with Mio, or Crystal Light, or something like that.
      • Even better…use this stuff.
  4. Gear.  You don’t have to have any special shoes or clothes for spinning.  Gym clothes and tennis shoes work just fine.  Just make sure your laces are tied, so the bike doesn’t try to eat them.  True story…it happened to me tonight.  However, proper cycling shoes do make a difference, as they have harder soles.  I can’t really put the difference into words, but you’ll understand when you put them on.  The skies will open up, and birds will start to sing.  In addition, certain spinning clothes may be useful.  The Hack:
    • Only invest in spin gear when you decide that you want to continue.  I don’t want to hear, “Sarahdateechur told me to spend $100 on this stuff, and it was a waste of money.”  Stick with the basics until you know if spinning is right for you.
    • You can get cheaper spin shoes on  Check out this deal that I got. Advantage: They have stepped my spin game up, big time.  Disadvantage: I didn’t get to try them out first, so they’re kind of narrow.  Also, the European sizes are a little confusing to us in the States.  But you can use a size converter, such as this one and you’ll be in the right ballpark.
    • I also got a sauna suit that I wear under my workout clothes sometimes. It makes a lot of claims.  Advantage: I can’t vouch for all of the benefits, but what I can say is that it makes you sweat a lot more.  This, in turn, makes you drink more water.  Win-win.  Disadvantage:  You smell like rubber really badly until you wash it…a lot.
  5. Have fun.  One thing that was keeping me from spin class, prior to the weight loss, was that I was afraid of being judged.  I imagined that the room would be full of these fit, Barbie and Ken look-alikes, pitying me for being the “big girl.”  I couldn’t have been more wrong.  Spin class is full of all types of people.  And, furthermore, who gives a crap?!? Forgive my French.  The Hack:
    • The best quote I have ever heard went a little something like this: “What others think of me is none of my business.”  Let that sink in, rinse, and repeat.  You are your own worst critic.  Nobody else is paying you any mind, except to give you your props for being part of the spin community.  I have a hypothesis that most people are like me, looking at themselves in the mirror, making sure their RPE 10 faces don’t look too…cough…inappropriate.
    • If anyone does say anything off-kilter to you, realize that it’s a problem with them and not with you.  Sometimes it’s easier said than done, but don’t let one person derail you from your mission.  This is just like anything else in life…you may deal with negative people, but you have to let them roll off your back.
    • Soak in the music and relax.  Make spin class fun.  If you prefer to go it alone, there’s a great app called iRideInside, available from the App Store for iOS (possibly for Android, too).


The Cool-Down

Well, that was a lot longer than I had anticipated.  Congratulations for making it to the end of our ride.  As educators, we have a lot on our plate, and exercise is a great way for us to take a mental break, while doing something good for our bodies.  Schedule time in your day to take care of yourself.  However, before you leave, please chime in with a comment and/or by answering the poll below.  Happy summer!

Want more fitness tips?  Click here for my Fitness board on Pinterest.