Friday, April 6, 2018

This is not that post.

     My co-teacher and very dear friend died on March 9th, 2018.  It's been almost a month.  It doesn't feel like it's been almost a month.  Her name was Sharon.  And she was my very dear friend.  She called us "soul sisters" to anyone who would hear it at the hospital and once at the hospice place.  She was pretty amazing and although she annoyed me every once in awhile with her "Technosaurus Rex" joke and corresponding technology skills, I miss her immensely.  While I intend to write a longer post about her (it's already written in my head), this is not that post...
     One thing Sharon always encouraged me to do (that I never did) was to share my artwork with the world.  She actually wanted me to try to sell my artwork, but I'm a long way from that.   While I am not so sure about this, I trust that Sharon knew what she was talking about.
     Here it goes... You can click here to see my most recent artwork, mostly from 2016 and 2017. 

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Be a DOer, Not a Dreamer... Or Be Both

As award-winning writer and tv producer Shonda Rimes said to the 2014 graduating class of Dartmouth College, “Be a doer, not a dreamer,” I’m a doer.  I like solutions.  I like decisions.  I like to make decisions and try solutions and if they don’t work, I like to try a new solution.  I like to help other people make decisions and find solutions, and when I found myself “taking a break” from the only career I had ever known (teaching students with mild, moderate, and intensive disabilities), I had to DO something.  I found myself in a job that I found lackluster; something about doing the same reading interventions over and over with little technology integration didn’t thrill me.  While I have found ways to make it more entertaining for students, I still find the process a little dry.  I needed to DO something else.  I needed to DO something else that could integrate all students, all types of learners and DOers into the school community.
What I started DOING with my professional (and personal) learning network blossomed into a movement at Highland Drive Elementary School (grades K-3) in Brecksville, Ohio that I had never planned for or imagined.  Six to ten educators hanging out on the weekend at a community woodworking shop in the city moved to a “club” during lunch and recess time which then transformed into the Highland Drive makerspace (aka “the STEAM room”); an entire classroom space complete with a mini library of “makers” books like Ish by Peter H. Reynolds, The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes by Gary Rubinstein, Ada Twist, Scientist by Andrea Beaty, and the Smithsonian Maker Lab by Jack Challoner.  
Thanks to donations from parents and staff, a grant from the Brecksville-Broadview Heights Schools Foundation, and an additional grant from a group called the GPD Employee’s Foundation (an organization that provides grant money to Northeast and Central Ohio as well as Atlanta, Indianapolis, Louisville, Phoenix, and Seattle), our makerspace boasts three desktop computers, access to 14 iPads (shared with the Reading Intervention program), 15 LEGO Education WeDo Kits and accompanying software, scrapbook paper, pipe cleaners, scissors, glue, googly eyes, a LEGO wall, and more!  
The makerspace is used for every Thursday and Friday at lunch and recess for “Makers’ Club.”  With help from my reading co-teacher Sharon Wiesler, second and third grade students are invited to the makerspace to work on a “challenge” or “project” each week during their lunch and recess times. They follow the design process and start by identifying a problem.  They then take time to brainstorm and plan, create, and then evaluate what they’ve created.  The room is also open for teachers to sign up to bring their Kindergarten, first, second, or third grade classes in to complete science experiments or complete the “Project of the Week” on a daily basis.  With every project, we try to make sure that students are engaging in the design process while also learning how to share, collaborate, and solve problems with other students.
Projects have varied so far, in length and intensity, but have been largely successful. Problems we have worked to solve and projects we’ve done this year have included:
  • Using marshmallows and toothpicks, design and build a phone stand for the teacher’s cell phone that is at least 6 inches tall and will hold it up off the table for at least 10 seconds.
  • The weather is changing (discussion on seasons).  What happens to the animals when the weather gets colder in Northeast Ohio?  What can we do to help? (Bird feeders and houses were created and placed in our “Highland Island,” an animal and plant sanctuary at our school.)
  • Plan for and create LEGO “robots” using the WeDo kits and software
  • Using the available materials (cups, cotton balls, straws, pipe cleaners, string, tape, glue, and a few other items), create a carrier for a ping pong ball that will carry it down the zip line (fishing line) in 4 seconds or less.
  • Learn to use hammers and screwdrivers along with other basic tools.
  • Create “Sticky Slime” that hardens quickly, but softens again based on heat from your hands.
  • Using ten straws and ten inches of plastic wrap, can you build a boat that can hold 25 pennies without sinking for X number of seconds?

In the fall, the makerspace teamed with the Kindergarten teachers at our school to plan “pumpkin investigations” that were then modified for each grade level to complete during the week before Halloween.  Students were able to describe the pumpkins, use synonyms, measure the pumpkins using standard and nonstandard measures, determine if the pumpkins would sink or float, estimate the weight and then weigh the pumpkins, touch the insides of the pumpkins and count seeds, sketch different kinds of pumpkins, smell the pumpkins AND even taste the roasted seeds of the pumpkins.  There were lots of sensory opportunities built in and even the students with moderate-intensive special needs took a trip to the makerspace for this adventure; exactly the purpose of this “multi-purpose” space.  Just as Lisha Kraft states in her article “The Way We Talk About Education Today Reflects Growth of the Maker Mindset” in Make Magazine on Oct. 17th, 2016, “As more and more educators see the limitations often set by a typical worksheet, and they utilize such strategies as, project-based learning, differentiated instruction, inquiry-based instruction, collaborative learning, and student-centered instruction, educational barriers will continue to crumble and disappear.”
While I continue to take a break from teaching students with mild, moderate, and intensive special needs, Mrs. Wiesler and I encourage ALL students to both read and DO something every day.  Using the mindset “Create more than you consume,” we encourage students to use simple and recyclable materials to create while finding their own passions for learning.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

I failed.

So, failure is supposed to be an okay thing, right? Well, I failed.

And it's taken me months to actually sit down and type this blog post that I've been ruminating on since November of 2015.

I'm embarrassed. I failed.

And in my childhood AND my adult life, I don't typically do activities or engage in subjects in which I'll fail.

Again, embarrassment.  Horror.  Oh, the horror!


In the last two years, I've tried to immerse myself in things in which I'm not going to be the best.  I have tried to remind myself that the process of learning is about the PROCESS not the DESTINATION.  I've been trying to practice throwing myself into learning whether I am going to rock it or not.

And so I took up woodworking.  I was NOT good, but I learned. (I wrote lots of posts about this experience at the Soulcraft Woodshop previously.)  This has permeated into the rest of my life as I am less afraid to take apart machines at our house, more willing to use tools and fix things, and even more willing to talk to the people at Home Depot and Lowe's when I need something.

Another thing I decided to do was exercise more.  In the past, this was a major priority in my life, but in the last five years, I gave up.

So, off I went to a spinning class.

Not JUST a spinning class, but a spinning class IN THE DARK.

At the first class, my only goal was "do not throw up."

At my second class, I expanded my goals to include "do not throw up" and "do not stop pedaling."

Over a year and 30 pounds have gone by, and now I am able to get through an entire class following all of the directions.  Sure, I can't typically walk very well the next day, but I can do it.  I learned.

With these two experiences, I started slowly.  I muddled through the skills.  But, I made it out on the other side.

With this other thing... I failed...

Look, I'm even stalling here by NOT getting to the point, right?

Okay, here's the story.

I started a Makers' Club at my school which has been (dare I say) WILDLY successful.  And I wanted to tell other people about it.  So, I applied to present about it in several places.  Sure, some places turned me down, but I don't consider that a failure. I just wasn't what they were looking for.

But then, I applied to give an "IDEA Talk" at the WVIZ Ideastream Technology and Learning Conference.  Educators from all over North East Ohio often flock to this conference and network with each other and I had yet to attend.

But, in previous years, I had given several of my male teacher friends a hard time about this conference.  Where are the women presenters?  What's the deal with the all male panel discussions?  Why aren't the ladies ever included in these events?

After saying all that, I HAD to apply, right?

So, I did.  And I was accepted.  Three people were chosen to give these "IDEA Talks" at the conference and they would be posted online afterwards.

I waited a ridiculously lengthy amount of time to write down what I was planning to say, even though I had been chewing on it for quite some time.  I knew I wanted to talk about the Makers' Club and I wanted to discuss how to include and attract both girls and those with disabilities.  I wanted to integrate my passion for working with those with special needs with the technology and "making" that we were experiencing every week in our Makers' Club.  I wanted to convey the passion I felt about integrating and including ALL kids while still being relevant to my topic.

And I failed.

Well wait.  First, I wrote a great blog post.  I call it a "blog post" and NOT a speech because, as it turns out, it was a WAY better piece of writing than a speech.

Maybe I didn't understand the time constraints.

Maybe I thought they would let me keep talking until I was done.

Maybe I didn't understand that I was modeling this after the "TED Talks" that I love and admire so much.

Maybe I'm just NOT a great speaker.

Anyways, once it was over, I was reflecting.  I didn't get to finish because I was getting the "wrap it up" signal for at least 5 minutes and I still had at least 6 more minutes worth of things to say.

I also felt like I was trying to have a discussion with people who were there to hear a lecture.

Did I convey my passion?  I had no idea.

Did I inspire ANYone?  I had no idea.

But then, when colleagues from my own school did not stop to talk to me after the conference was over, I thought, "I must've really stunk. Really, really stunk."

I reflected on it more and decided that I am just a better writer than a speaker.

I'm sure no one would be surprised by this.

But here's how I really knew I failed.

I had been waiting for the "talks" to be posted online on the WVIZ Ideastream page.  I checked it often.

Then, as I saw the other talks were posted, I scrolled down the page.

"Where's mine?" I thought to myself.

And then I remembered.

Before the "talks" started, I had said to the person in charge, "If mine is really bad, can you NOT post it online?"

And mine was not (and is not) posted online.

I failed.

I've been embarrassed about it since November....

But here's the good news.

Since then, I've given the same presentation again, ONLY it was a one HOUR time slot AND it was a discussion, a conversation, NOT a lecture.  (It was better.)

Then I gave it again, in a 90 minute window.  And embedded some of the "makers" activities.  (And it was even better.)

And so I failed.

But I also learned.

And I'm done being embarrassed.

So now, go to the WVIZ Ideastream page.  And see how my talk is not posted.  And don't wonder about it.  Know that I failed.

And then, know that I learned.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

How To Start a Makers' Club in Ten Days

Today I gave an "idea talk" at the WVIZ Ideastream conference. Unfortunately, I got the "wrap it up" signal long before I was close to done... Here's my speech with all "ten days." Not great writing, but I wrote as though I was speaking...

Hellooooooo.  My name is Morgan Kolis and I am a special education teacher, intervention specialist, behavior intervention specialist, reading specialist…Though, I am currently being disguised by my district as a reading intervention teacher.  This is my 13th year of teaching in Ohio and, I am also currently studying to take the Board exam to become a Board Certified Behavior Analyst.  My real passions, however, are special education and inclusive environments.

So, like I said, my district is currently utilizing me as a reading intervention teacher.  Reading intervention is important and crucial to students in elementary school and is… just not my dream job.  Again, there is nothing wrong with reading intervention. It’s just not what I believe I was made to be doing.

So, it was in this job as a reading intervention teacher that I have found my own need for more creativity and more fun in school.  You see, reading intervention is… well, a little dry.  Again, I truly believe that this is an important job and I’m sure there are people out there who love it. That’s just not, well, me.  By nature, doing interventions with kids is rote and repetitive and as engaging as we try to make it, it’s … a little lacking in creativity.

This is where the story really starts.

I started searching for something.  I wasn’t sure what that something was, but I knew something in my life was missing that used to be filled by my job as a special education teacher. And now it was gone.  

And in the way my life often works, there was some divine intervention and…I got an email.

I got an email from this guy named Sean Wheeler. Some of you might know him. He was the keynote here last year and he writes this great blog called Teaching Humans; and he’s now doing some incredible work at the Design Lab in Cleveland that everyone should be checking out immediately. I mean, after this talk, of course.

But I got this email from Sean.  At that time, Sean was working on starting a entire Makers’ School and got a grant to support that mission.  And Sean decided to ask a few educators he knew if we’d want to participate in a teacher makerspace to put ourselves in the place of our students, in order to remember what it feels like to be in a space where you’re not sure what you’re doing and you’re not quite sure what might come out of it.  He said “Let’s do a six week class where you learn to make some things and get to talk with other educators.”

Okay, I’ll bite.

Then he wrote “it’ll be a woodworking class at a woodshop.”


Okay, I don’t know about you, but wood has not really ever been my preferred medium.  I’m more of a canvas, clay, scrapbooking, really great creative lesson planning kind of person.  But wood?

This was NOT my comfort zone.  I really do not engage in stuff I am not going to be great at.

I was really not sure about this, but, here I was, searching for something. And maybe this could help me find it.  

So, about ten people said they would join the six week class and we all met at this amazing community woodshop right outside of Tremont called Soulcraft. It’s in this old, creepy, factory like building where they used to do meat -packing called the Hildebrandt Building.  REALLY out of my comfort zone. And these two guys, the owners of this “community woodshop” offered to be our “teachers.”

So, we met there.  Some of us knew each other from twitter but had never actually spoken and some of us were total strangers.  Even more awkward and somewhat uncomfortable.

And there we sat on that first day at Soulcraft with all of these exhausted and inspiring and excited and terrified educators from all different districts and walks of life… educators like Tom Grodek and Julie Rea and Karen Wheeler and Jeremy Shorr and Vicki Turner, some of whom are even here today.

And then Peter and Jim, the owners of Soulcraft, started talking about the properties of wood.

And all I could think was “What in the hell am I doing here?”

So, long story short, it’s now been about 57 weeks since we started this six week course and about 5 of us make it back to the shop a few Saturdays a month to continue this experiment with “making” and talking. Lots of talking.

And I’ve gotten so much out of this experience that I was thinking, how can I bring this back to my own school?

And it was through this inspiration that I was able to start a “Makers’ Club” at our school where I currently teach… reading intervention.

So, during lunch time every Thursday and Friday, we host a Makers’ Club for the students at our school in second and third grade. And when I say “we,” I mean my awesome co-reading intervention teacher, Sharon Wiesler, who has graciously also given up her time to help me with this and has dealt with the great amount of “treasures” that we have collected for the club.  She really jumped in with both feet and I couldn’t possibly thank her enough for going with this...

And now I’d like to share with you How to Start a Makers’ Club in 10 days.

Day one.  Think.  What do you want your makerspace to be?

I knew immediately that I wanted our space to have very little structure.  Reading Intervention and special ed are VERY structured and I wanted a place that would be 100% opposite.

I also knew that I wanted to incorporate STEM activities, but I didn’t want the club to be solely based on STEM activities.  I wanted this space to be a place where kids make their own rules about what they create.

We have very few rules but we did need to set up a little bit of structure for second and third graders so they know what to expect.

First rule, you must share.  Second rule, be respectful.  Third rule, if you make a mess, you clean it up before you leave.  Last rule, be safe.  As the club has gone on, we’ve also made the rule that you may not create a weapon and if you do, it may not leave the room.

Day Two, get rid of your crap.  By crap, I don’t mean your physical crap.  I mean your own personal crap.  

Here’s an example of my crap: I was great at playing the game of school.  I could rock a test and loved to read.  But the other day, I was telling my friend about this “talk.”  And he says “Why are you worried? Have you ever failed at anything in your life?”  Okay, that’s exactly my “crap.”  I don’t typically put myself in situations in which I COULD fail, so NO, I DO NOT fail, I am actually TERRIFIED of failing. 

And I have to let that go for our club.  Because how dare I pass that on to our students?  Why would I give them my crap?  

Days Three and Four, start collecting crap.  Now you need actual junk.  Junk that people are about to toss away is perfect.  We collect popsicle sticks, toilet paper rolls, cardboard of every kind, leftover pieces from crafts that the class has done, scrap paper, plastic containers, straws, plastic forks and spoons, styrofoam… if you can think of it, we probably have it.  Ask for donations,  It’s amazing the things that parents will dig out from their basements to bring for you.

But PLEASE learn from my mistake here. Know where you will STORE these items BEFORE you start collecting them!  Currently, we have crap spilling from the reading intervention room out into the hall and down half the hallway...

Day Five.  Find a funding source. There will be stuff you can’t get donated.  Next week, we’re going to make “electric dough” also known as “squishy circuits.”  I needed to buy the items for this one.  At first, I didn’t mind just buying the stuff myself, but then I realized that between 40 and 60 students go through our room every single week, so I needed some funding source so that I didn’t end up broke.

Our funding source has mainly been our PSO and now our STEM department in the district.  I believe our principal also kicked in money from her principal’s fund as well. 

And just last week, we received a grant from our Schools Foundation for almost $2500 to buy items from LEGO education to introduce some LEGO Robotics.  Grants are all over the place, if only you can find them and write up a blurb about what you need and how it connects to learning.

Day Six.  Decide on some challenges.  You don’t need a hundred ideas, just two or three to get started.  There will ALWAYS be more ideas.  Someone will always share their thoughts with you, you’ll always have the internet, and you can always ask the kids, and I really don’t think Pinterest is going anywhere.

Day Seven. Decide on how you’ll share what the kids are doing.  This is crucial.  If you are doing great work in the classroom, that’s awesome.  But if you’re sharing what your kids are doing with the world, that’s even better. This is tough for second and third graders to do on their own.

One thing I try to do every week is remind the kids to keep “making” at home.  I let them take materials with them if they haven’t finished their project to be able to continue at home.  I ask them to take pictures at home and even send them to me.

I also take a million photos during the club and post them on our website and on our PSO Facebook page.  It seems like the parents really like this and parents comment that their children have already told them all about the project we did that day.

I’ve started to use my twitter page to share out actual quotes and thoughts from the kids.  This is almost more important to me because then I can reflect on what the students are telling me they need or want each week.

Days 8, 9, and 10.
Figure out how to INCLUDE ALL KIDS.

One of the main reasons I wanted to give this talk today was to talk about including girls in technology education. Last year, during THIS conference, did you realize that every single speaker was male?  Include girls in making.  Include girls in technology. Include girls in robotics and coding and in EVERYTHING that boys are doing.  

And just buying pink duct tape is NOT what I mean.  

We had the high school robotics team visit and there was ONE girl.  Where are we losing them?

Surprisingly right now, girls are the majority in our Makers’ Club each week.

So PLEASE INCLUDE THE GIRLS!  Make an extra effort to get them in.  If one girl comes, tell her to bring two friends the next week.

INCLUDE them. 

PLEASE include them!

You will find out so many things about so many kids through this process. 

You’ll find your makers.  You’ll find the problem solvers.  

You’ll find the leaders and the followers and the kids who HATE doing projects like this, but HATE going out to recess even more.  

You’ll find the gifted kids who can’t problem solve but rock the “game of school.”  You’ll find the students who naturally help the kids with special needs.  

You’ll find the kids with special needs who stink at the “game of school” but who ROCK at making and problem solving.

But, realistically, how can you include ALL of these kids?  Well, some kids will need to come with their aides.  

And some of these kids will need a visual schedule.

And some will need to know about the project ahead of time.

You may have to put in a few extra minutes, but including ALL kids will make all the difference.


I’ll tell you a short story about one of my favorite kids on the planet.  His name is Luke.  He is funny and playful and smart and curious and empathetic (always saying “Miss Kolis, don’t be sad.” if he notices I am not over the top happy).  He’s brave and he’s amazing.

He’s in third grade, and he also happens to have autism.  He was my student for Kindergarten, first, and second grade and since then I’ve been tutoring him privately.  

He comes to Makers’ Club every. single. week.  His amazing parents talk about it with him at home the night before.  I tell him, during our Thursday night tutoring sessions, what the project is that we are making.  And one week, I needed to give him a visual timer so that he would know how many minutes were left in the club.

But, here’s the great thing about Luke.  Until he started coming to Makers’ Club, even after knowing him for 5 years now, I didn’t know that Luke cared much for other kids.  He never seemed to notice them and he certainly did not appear to care who was around.  He’s always been verbal, but he’s never necessarily been conversational about other kids without some kind of prompting.

Now?  Luke joins me for lunch before the club so we can chat about school and prep for the project.  Luke repeats “Hello everyone.  I’m waiting for the kids to come” over and over throughout the lunch.  He LOVES the other kids!  He can’t wait til they all get there! 

Every week, on Thursday, Luke asks “Makers’ Club on Friday?”  And my heart is broken if we ever have to cancel a session and I have to say no.

Luke is my proof that Makers’ Club is working.  He is the reason that I believe this club is successful.  Because every kid can get what they need from coming to our club.

Some kids need some freedom.

Some kids need to have an outlet during their week.

Some kids need to engage in the creative and problem solving process.

But some kids, like Luke, just need to be around the other kids.

And there it is, How to Start a Makers’ Club in 10 days!  You can do it too!

Please tweet me or email me if you do!

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Are You "My People?"

I'm frustrated. That's nothing new. I'm typically frustrated when I feel that others are not doing what's right for kids.

And when I hear the following statement, I know that there's people who aren't doing what's right for kids.

I also know that if you say the following, you are not "my people."

The statement is this:

"We are only responsible for providing the Chevy, not the Cadillac."

Regardless of your actual car manufacturer preference, this crap is just NOT RIGHT.

This is NOT what I believe about public schools. This NOT what I know about public schools.

And now I'm angry.

You're telling me that you don't have the time to differentiate because we only need to provide the Chevy. That's not right.

Students with special needs, students who are gifted, And students somewhere in between should be served together in elementary school. The kids are five. Six. Seven. Eight. And nine. If not now, when?

I know how to differentiate for different levels. It takes work. It might even take the Cadillac of your work. It might take more than the Chevy. No, it SHOULD take more than the Chevy (or Ford or VW or Chrysler). 

Because I'm better than average. I am better than the Ford model. I am a Cadillac of a teacher. 

And I believe that public school kids should get the Cadillac. The Ferrari. The Beamer. The Jag.

I'm not the freakin' Chevy. 

And neither are my services.