For the last year, I worked half-time as a teacher and half time helping manage Utah Microcredentials. What are Utah Microcredentials?
Utah Microcredentials are personalized, competency-based learning for educators.
The most common question I get about microcredentials is how long does it take to earn one?
The answer varies depending on the person. Microcredentials are not courses, and they are not based on seat time or assignments. For each microcredential, educators submit evidence of competency in that area. Evidence can look like lesson or unit plans, pre- or post- assessment data, video, screencast, observation reports, etc.
Once you put a microcredential in your “backpack” to start working on it, you can leave it there as long as needed. I’ve earned microcredentials in as little as a couple of hours (for areas where I knew I had evidence of competency readily available). But I’ve also had some microcredentials in my backpack for several weeks, allowing me the time to plan and gather the evidence I need.
What are the advantages of Utah Microcredentials, or why would you want to earn one?
Utah Microcredentials are a form of professional development that can be earned without ever leaving the classroom. Each Utah Microcredential is worth .5 USBE credits, which can be used toward salary or lane changes in many Utah school districts.
Microcredentials are a good way for teachers to show teacher leadership. Microcredentials can also be done in collaboration with professional learning communities.
One of my favorite aspects of microcredentials is that there are several Utah educator endorsements that are available in microcredentials. These include secondary math and ELA endorsements, PE, health, instructional coaching, elementary math and STEM, and others. There are more endorsements being built all the time.
I’m especially excited about the Utah Educational Technology endorsement microcredentials, which are currently in beta testing, but will become available to all Utah educators later this year.
There are more Utah educator endorsement pathways being built with microcredentials all the time. The goal is that any endorsement that could be earned through university courses will eventually be available through Utah Microcredentials.
Click on “microcredentials” from the menu at the top. (You’ll need to log in with your MIDAS account login before you can put microcredentials in your backpack or start working on them).
Notice the search option as well as the “stacks” on the left. The numbers in parentheses next to each stack tell you how many microcredentials are in that stack. You can earn one microcredential without earning the entire stack. Remember, microcredentials are personalized!
I clicked on the project-based learning stack, since PBL is one of my favorite areas. This stack currently has four microcredentials. The first to come up is called “Designing Authentic Questions.”
If you click on “More Info,” you can read all about the microcredential. You can also click on “Earn this microcredential” to put the microcredential in your backpack and start working.
When you’re working in MIDAS, watch for blue text. Blue text is a button you can click on, for example, to submit evidence.
Microcredential submissions currently require a $20 fee, which you will pay when you have finished uploading your evidence. The fee covers the cost of having the microcredential reviewed and approved by an expert in the content area.
Leave me a comment if you need more guidance or if you would like to share your experience with Utah Microcredentials.
I had lunch with a dear friend this week. We’ve known each other since junior high and have shared experiences ranging from editing our student high-school literary magazine, to attempting to sleep under the stars at church youth camp in what turned out to be a night of downpour and lightning, to helping our own children navigate school in spite of barriers and special circumstances.
Our careers have taken roundabout pathways, and we have both found our passion in teaching—especially in research-based, effective pedagogy.
Over lunch we started talking about Universal Design for Learning. I love this topic and wasn’t surprised to find that my friend had made it the topic of her master’s thesis!
What is Universal Design for Learning?
It’s easiest to understand if you think first about Universal Design for architecture. Remember the days before wheelchair ramps were readily available? Doors were not automatic. It was difficult for anyone with physical limitations to get where they needed to be.
The Americans with Disabilities Act changed things for the better. Older buildings had to be retrofitted with wheelchair access, automatic doors, etc. But sometimes that meant adding a wheelchair ramp on the back side of the building! Not very inviting to someone in a wheelchair.
Newer buildings are built with Universal Design—an idea that includes everyone and gives everyone equal access to a building and its amenities. Architects and interior designers plan from the start so that anyone, no matter their age or physical limitations, can equitably use a building. Ramps, where needed, are incorporated into main, front walkways. Doors are automatic. Sinks and paper towels are also automatic.
Once put in place, these accommodations have added benefits beyond social justice and inclusion. For example, automated doors and sinks limit the spread of germs.
Universal Design for Learning is also inclusive. As the architect of my lesson plans, I can predict in advance what types of needs I will be trying to meet in my classroom. I know before I ever see my rolls that in a class of 35 students, I am likely to have about 4 students with an IEP, about 5 students with a 504 plan, 1-2 English language learners (that number would be higher in other schools where I have worked), and 1-2 students with food allergies (which is important, because I teach foods units). I will have kinesthetic learners, learners who don’t want to work with peers, and learners who need creative challenges, among others.
Because I can predict the types of students I will have in my classroom, I can plan beforehand to meet all their needs. I can offer accommodations to all students that help them feel safe, respected, and honored in my classroom. Students who don’t need or want accommodations don’t have to use them, but for those who need them, they never have to ask. These accommodations affect both the classroom environment and my lesson planning.
Flexible seating is one small step in classroom environment for Universal Design. Personalized Learning with lots of choice is important in lesson planning. Activities with a variety of ways both to access information and to demonstrate learning include all students.
Thinking in terms of Universal Design sounds at first like it makes my job more complicated, but in the long run, it saves me a lot of time and stress. My students are happier because they feel understood. They are more likely to be on task and engaged and less likely to exhibit behavioral problems.
I loved having lunch with my friend this week, not only because it’s great to catch up, but also because of the way we can provide positive support for each other as teachers. This is a valuable friendship to me.
I’ve noticed something over the last year when I’m on social media. Almost every time I’m scrolling through a feed, I see articles with titles like, “Teachers are Leaving Schools in Large Numbers,” and “Teacher Shortage Crisis Deepens.” Some of the titles hint at toxic positivity in schools or point to the things that are exhausting teachers.
And guess what?! I don’t need someone to point out the flaws in education. I think most teachers can figure out on their own what is sending them home each night exhausted. We know why we went into teaching. We know why we love it. We know when it’s hard. And it is hard.
Seeing article after article about why teachers are leaving can have a detrimental effect on teachers and the teaching profession. It sends this message to teachers: “Oh, people are getting out? Maybe I should look at getting out too.” That’s not a productive message to send.
There are a few things that keep me going as a teacher. One is having the opportunity to collaborate with other strong teachers. When we get together and share solutions, I feel like I can go back to my classroom better equipped to do what I need to do.
Another thing that keeps me going is the kids. I can see when I’m doing good for them, and it makes me happy. A few times every year, I get thank-you notes with sincere and specific messages. Sometimes they come from students and sometimes they come from parents. I keep those notes and refer to them when I need a boost.
I’m fortunate to have supportive administrators and good friends in education. I believe in what I do.
No doubt legislators could do more to support teachers and keep them in the classroom. Increase pay and benefits. Decrease class size and workloads. Avoid legislation that overburdens teachers.
The fact is that if nothing happens, there will not be effective and well-trained teachers in our children’s futures.
Meanwhile, I have a request for those of you writing articles about education.
Give me more positive education articles and stories to read about.
I remember sitting in a class for pre-service teachers when the head of student teaching asked us this question: “What do teachers dream?” Each of us in the class threw out our best, most sparkly teacher dreams: “I want to touch young lives.” “I want to have a big impact, especially on marginalized populations.” “I want to share content I’m passionate about.” Our list was optimistic and focused on shaping the future. The professor listened patiently, nodded, smiled, and then said, “What I meant to ask was, what do teachers dream about?”
Ask any teacher, and you’ll find that teacher dreams are outlandish, uncomfortable, and even frightening! Mr. Coray finds himself teaching in an L-shaped room where he can only see the front half of the class but not the students in the part of the classroom that faces the corner. Teachers dream of obstacles that prevent them from attending class or keep them from being on time. They dream of unannounced observations when things are crazy in the classroom. They dream of teaching in their underwear. They dream of being expected to present stellar lessons in spite of the impossible. Leave out the underwear nightmare, and many teacher dreams have truth on some level, which may be why they are so memorable and so haunting. Mr. Coray does not have an L-shaped room, but many CTE teachers have situations where some students are working in a lab while others are working in a classroom. Covid, quarantines, and other health-related issues may have prevented us from being with our students when we wanted to be there. Sometimes we feel like we have to make the difficult choice between meeting our own health needs and being present in class every day for our students. Observations rarely occur during our best teaching moments. As the list of demands on our time grows, we do find ourselves doing the impossible. No wonder our minds play out our fears in our sleep!
Yet sometimes I think our minds are simply working on solutions. I had been waking up from teacher nightmares for a few days straight as I planned some new lessons I’ll implement in the fall. As part of a team effort with the other CCA teachers in my school to strengthen our CCA curriculum, I decided to take on a couple of areas I haven’t taught before. I want those areas to be just as hands-on, dynamic, and personalized as the rest of my curriculum, and I wasn’t sure what direction to take things.
One early morning my teacher dreams were especially intense. I was teaching 3rd grade, which just happens to be one grade I have not taught in real life. We were supposed to be leaving on a field trip. I was wondering if we were really going to be able to make it on the train all the way across the Canadian border and back as planned before the end of the school day, and I suddenly realized that I hadn’t packed myself a sack lunch as I should have. That meant going from room to room in the school asking if anyone had any bread or peanut butter I could borrow. All the while, a third-grade teacher from my former school, and one I greatly respect, was following me around and asking me questions that all started with, “Don’t you think you should. . . .” I knew that I had left my own third-grade class unattended, and I felt apprehensive about that. And I kept running into my principal from the junior high where I currently teach. He is one of the most supportive administrators I have ever had, and in my dream, I didn’t feel he was judging me, but I was conscious that he would be disappointed if he knew I had left my class alone.
Crazy as that dream was, when I awoke, I knew exactly how to personalize the unit I was working on and turn it into a project, mostly by pulling in ideas from projects I have already done with students in the past. Having a source to draw from gave me a starting place. I put together that unit, and I haven’t been bothered by teacher dreams for a couple of weeks.
No matter where you are on the path to personalized learning or project-based learning, there has to be a starting place somewhere, and maybe even more than one starting place. There’s no shame in being at a starting point, and it’s ok to go through that door slowly. I hope that when you come to a door that opens to opportunity, you don’t pass it by in favor of a more familiar path.
Last week I promised to give more ideas in answer to the question, “What would you say to teachers who feel that personalized learning is ‘just one more thing’?”
First, I think it’s important to validate teachers’ feelings of exhaustion. In the last two years, we have been asked to do more than ever—to be more creative, more resilient, more high-tech, more compassionate—really to do more of the impossible.
Second, I think it’s ok to recognize that some teachers are not ready. Let them come to the door on their own timeframe.
However, many teachers are ready to take on personalized, competency-based learning, project-based learning, or a combination of PCBL and PBL. How can we make these possibilities feasible without burning out talented teachers who are already doing their best?
This is an exciting problem to dream about. Here are just a few ideas:
At the district level we need people who are connected to effective PCBL and PBL that is happening in classrooms within the district. Some of the best professional development I have ever attended has been taking the opportunity to visit other classrooms with district leaders who knew where to see what I was hoping to implement and to observe. I may not adopt every practice or project I see, but I can take back what works for me and adapt it for my classroom. This means having the opportunity for paid substitutes and time away from the classroom for teacher observations.
When small groups of teachers move successfully and excitedly toward PCBL in a school, other teachers will follow. Administrators can look for those small groups who will take initial steps forward and can provide resources and support at the school level. This could include the offer of time to observe in classrooms where PCBL is the norm. It could also include other paid time for professional development. Or it could include access to books or workshops geared toward PCBL and/or PBL. Most of all, it could include paid time and the opportunity to collaborate.
Collaboration could be the biggest key to unlocking our PCBL future. In CTE, we teach 21st-century workplace skills—communication, collaboration, teamwork, etc. Yet teachers often work in isolation, each creating their own lessons or versions of lessons. This independent creation and re-creation of the wheel is part of what exhausts us. To be fair, even when we’re handed lessons out of a box, it takes hours and hours to become familiar enough with what we’ve been given to be able to present it to others in meaningful ways. But what if we didn’t have to re-create what has already been done? What if we had sources to pull from—sources that gave us strong starting places or even a head start? What if we could all rely on team members to help make our jobs easier rather than harder?
Building effective collaborative teams can be a challenge. I’ve seen this happen in our district, where we’re given time to collaborate and a content team to collaborate with, and every meeting is the same conversation as the last meeting, none of which has to do with PCBL. Yet I’ve worked with non-assigned, informal teams that have energized me and given me rocket-booster ideas for my projects. This year I ate lunch with English teachers, art teachers, and a special ed teacher. We all looked at issues from different angles, but because we shared students, we were able to help each other find useful solutions when needed.
After presenting about a foods project I do with my classes, the Spanish immersion teacher approached me to ask if I would be willing to extend the project so that shared students could learn relevant Spanish vocabulary within the framework of my project. How powerful is that? What if we could step out of our isolated boxes and figure out how to help each other succeed at the common goal of PCBL?
I love to create projects. Wrapping my brain around a project energizes me from first combing through the standards to figuring out assessments and grading to building activities in between. I know not everyone feels the way I do, but I am happy to brainstorm with anyone who wants to brainstorm. I would love to build, expand, and extend my own projects with cross-curricular activities happening in multiple classrooms. What if my efforts at teaching sustainability and helping students create “sustainability projects” were echoed in science classes? What if students wrote about their research and project results in their English classes? What if they had to perform grade-level math calculations to solve problems connected with their projects?
Organized, intentional collaboration could supercharge our PCBL efforts.
Sandwiches might be the most versatile food on the planet—easy to personalize. Start with the bread, for example. Do you want white bread, wheat bread, sourdough, focaccia, flatbread, pita bread, rye bread, or even a nice wrap? Maybe you’ve decided on the no-bread version. There are endless combinations of breads, veggies, meats, cheeses, and condiments. Each sandwich can be exactly tailored to the person eating it.
Projects are like sandwiches—easily customized. What are some other benefits of project-based learning? Besides personalization, projects allow for inclusion. I’ve seen students who normally struggle in school but who can thrive when a project is part of the equation. Projects increase engagement and foster collaboration and teamwork, creativity, critical thinking, and other essential 21st-century workplace skills, all while building student self-efficacy.
I’ve heard of several stumbling blocks or misconceptions connected with projects, and I’d like to address a few. First is that everyone completes the same type of project or creates the same type of product. If everyone ends up with the same or similar results at the end, that’s a recipe, not a project. Second—projects must be done individually. While projects can be done individually, they offer excellent opportunities for teamwork and collaboration. Teachers can grade individually as teams of students complete their work. Some worry that projects are difficult to grade, especially when each completed project or product may be different. Projects are not so hard to grade when there is a strong and clear rubric in place. Let students know exactly what elements you are looking for. You will be able to see those elements in a successful project no matter what form the final product takes. That might mean a mindset shift if you are used to grading with points—2 points for a solid introduction and thesis, 2 points for correct spelling and grammar, 2 points for turning in everything on time, etc. Most likely, the points aren’t really telling you what you want to know. Does the project meet the standards? Set basic criteria and let the students choose how to meet those criteria. Finally, I hear teachers say, “I teach a unit, and then we do a project at the end.” I find that my projects are far more successful and engaging when they are tightly woven into the unit. Projects may occur at the end (although they don’t have to), but the final product can’t really be separated from the whole, and all along, I’m letting students know how their product is connected to what we are doing and what we are learning.
What are the building blocks of effective, personalized, project-based learning? First, start with objectives connected to standards, and think about this carefully. You can get the most bang for your buck if you can incorporate multiple standards and objectives into one project. That should become clear as we look at the other building blocks, and it might be helpful to go back to our sandwich analogy. Think of your standards and objectives as the bun or the bread, and don’t go keto on this one! Knowing what standards you’re including is essential for you and for your students.
The other building blocks have no prescribed order. You can include them as you feel best and in the order that makes the most sense to you. I find it helpful to come up with a driving question or a big problem. Compare your problem to the onions on the sandwich. Does slicing those onions make you cry? That’s a sensation you notice. Be aware when something bothers you in your community or society at large. Usually, the ideas for the problems come to me while I’m away from school, maybe watching news, but more often just talking to friends or family, taking a walk, reading a book, or visiting a museum or local business. Students get more engaged in a project when it is connected to a real-world problem.
Next, you’ll want to include skill-building activities into the project or unit. This is where you bring in your standards and objectives. Compare skill-building activities to the lettuce. You can have as many lettuce leaves on your sandwich as you want. What skills do students need to have to be able to meet State or district standards and complete their project? Those skills can be incorporated at different times and on different days over the course of an 8-12-day project.
Offer students an opportunity for a “dry run.” I think of this one as the cheese on the sandwich. You could probably get by without it, but just as cheese adds unique flavor, a dry run is helpful in showing you whether the students have the skills they need to complete their project. For example, if their project is related to using the foods lab, it’s helpful to have them do a simple foods lab before completing their larger project so that I know that they know how to find their equipment, follow procedures, etc. If their project is more academic, or traditionally academic, an activity like a storyboard makes an excellent dry run. Be specific about using the same elements in the storyboard that they will use in their final project. Tell them exactly what you are looking for. You could even use a similar rubric to the project. Have them draw pictures and write text on a storyboard matching the content they will include in their project. You can see very quickly whether they have the elements you are looking for, and you can give feedback that will allow them to adjust for their final project before they spend too much time on it.
Projects are the meat of the sandwich, the heart of the unit. For full-strength project-based learning, every student or team will choose their own way to show proficiency with the standards and objectives. You might offer suggestions such as creating a video/commercial, marketing campaign, podcast, song, Power Point, children’s picture book or board game, Minecraft world, or formal letters to business leaders or legislators, etc. Then let students choose their product. Set parameters so that the product will meet the standards and be accessible to you. For example, I tell my students that if they build a Minecraft world, they must also walk me through their Minecraft world and show me all their signposts along the way. I don’t live in that world and won’t find the information on my own. Often when I offer suggestions, students will come to me with their own idea. If their idea meets the parameters, I know it will work, and that’s when things get exciting, because I know the students are taking ownership of their learning.
Presentation to an authentic audience: This is your tomatoes, and there are no rotten tomatoes here! Sometimes presenting to peers is enough. Sometimes you can bring in other classes, school leaders, or community members who could make decisions based on the project. Students are more engaged when they know that an authentic audience will view their work. They should also know that it’s ok if the project doesn’t turn out exactly as planned. I think it’s helpful to talk to students about engineering design, so that they recognize that having to readjust, revise, and sometimes start over is a part of the process.
Student self-reflection builds growth. If you’ve ever had a sandwich without any condiments, you know how bland that can be. You’ll eat the sandwich, but you don’t enjoy it. Giving students a chance to self-reflect adds flavor and improves the texture. Students benefit from meaningful opportunities to reflect on their growth and discuss what they would improve in the future.
How do I use these building blocks in a real classroom setting? I’ll give two examples from my CTE classes and then I want to share an example from Mr. Coray’s classroom (yes, my husband is also a teacher). CTE classes are made for project-based learning, but projects may seem less intuitive in traditionally academic settings, which is why I will include the third example.
“The Big Event” is a 7-day unit or project I do with my college and career awareness classes in 7th grade. If you teach CCA, you can find this unit on the Canvas commons, because I shared it as part of our FCS State Conference a few years back. Day 1 of the project is called “medical mysteries.” I give each of 8 teams a list of symptoms for a fictional family member. Teams research the symptoms (one of our standards is using relevant and credible sources) to try to find a diagnosis. We talk about using relevant and credible websites for research, and the students start searching. I give them feedback, letting them know if they are off track, and they can ask me questions to get back on track. By the end of the class period, teams have found 8 different diagnoses and learned about the various medical professionals who would diagnose and treat those diagnoses. As they compare what they have learned, they are able to identify what each of these 8 diagnoses have in common—they are all connected to diet.
That sets us up for the next class period when students learn about the role of a dietician, MyPlate standards, and research what their fictional family member could eat and what that family member should avoid. Over the next several days, students learn about food safety, foods lab procedures and expectations, and they make a healthy snack (the “dry run” for this project). Then I give them the “problem,” which is that 4 of our fictional family members will be attending a big family event. Each team needs to plan a menu that would accommodate for each of those 4 family members’ dietary needs. The menus must fit within budget constraints, and the time constraints for 1 class period. Teams present their menus to the class. The class votes on a menu for our “Big Event.” The winning team(s) send me their recipes. I go shopping, and the students get to make the menu they voted on. I never know for sure what they are going to come up with, and it’s exciting to see how many different ways my classes have been able to solve this problem. Often, students who are slow to complete traditional work are able to shine and even take leadership for their teams with this type of collaborative project.
“The Sustainability Project” is another CCA project or unit. Students learn about fast fashion and about how the way we create and consume fashion is not sustainable. They learn a little about textile science and why we don’t/can’t simply recycle used clothing. They learn about textile waste and how the ultimate end for any piece of textile is the landfill. Students participate in skill-building activities to learn to properly use the sewing equipment and follow safety standards. Then they bring in used clothing that would otherwise go to thrift stores and ultimately find its way to the landfill. Students take their used clothing items apart and turn those items into something else. I don’t give them any patterns. They figure it out. Many of my students make basic square pillows, but some of my students blow me away with the complexity of their designs. I often find this true for students who are typically not engaged in the classroom, but they wake up when they are allowed the creativity of a project.
Mr. Coray took on a challenging project this year. After many years of having taught other classes, he went back to teaching junior English, and he wanted to include Huck Finn, in spite of political conditions that struck fear into many teachers when it came to teaching this particular novel. Rather than narrowing the focus of the novel to one specific issue, Mr. Coray’s class looked at Twain’s theme of social conditioning vs. natural morality. In other words, what does society expect, vs. what do you believe? The project included a variety of skill-building activities, all required for junior English students, but when it came time to choose a project, they had already shown their skill with writing and mechanics in a variety of ways. Each student chose their own way in which social conditioning was at odds with their natural morality. And each student completed a 2-step project, meaning that they had to both research facts about their topic and then either collect data on a survey, through interviews, etc., or write letters or start some type of awareness campaign. Students could choose how to complete their two steps and how to show they had completed their two steps, whether with a poster, pamphlet, flyers, letters, annotated art portfolio, charts showing survey data, etc. The finished products he got were as varied as his students. Students researched numerous problems—many Mr. Coray would never have thought of. One of his favorite examples was from a student who spent most of the semester just trying to pass the class. When it came to this project, the student took charge. He researched the need of high schoolers to fit in with their clothing and then interviewed his mom about whether she still feels that she needs to fit in with clothing. She told him honestly how difficult and uncomfortable it is for her always to feel like she has to fit in, even in middle age. Her son, who rarely turned in assignments, was able to complete a successful project and improve his grade at the same time.
My husband and I presented our steps of personalized, project-based learning last week at our district summer conference. I was asked how we can make project-based learning not seem like “just one more thing” for teachers. With not a lot of time to think, I answered what I honestly feel, and that is this:
I must be joyful at work. Project-based learning helps my students be engaged and happy with learning, but it also gives me a lot of room for creativity, and it helps me be joyful. Because it helps me be joyful as a teacher, project-based learning is what I naturally want to do.
I recognize that my answer does not meet the needs of all teachers. So next time I post, I’ll try to share some other ways that we can make project-based learning not seem like “just one more thing.”
A week ago, I had the opportunity to attend one of the best professional
development conferences I have ever attended. Teachers attend a variety of
required trainings every year to maintain licensure. Some of the trainings are
mandated, and many are redundant. I’ve been at full-day trainings that go from
7:30-3:30, and teachers are counting the minutes after lunch until the training
is over. This training was totally different. It ended at 5 p.m. both days, but
few people left that early. The first day we stayed 45 minutes late; then
arrived an hour early the next morning with a large group of others all excited
to continue work on their projects. What kind of training would make us want to
put in so much of our own time? It was the annual USU Clothing and Textile Training.
I had been looking forward to this training for over a
month. I knew I was going to get a couple of mental health days at the
conference, even though I would be working at the same time. I was so excited
to attend the conference, that my substitute joked that she was going to tell
my classes that I was going to a sewing spa day.
I have long understood the mental health benefits of sewing
in my own life. There was an emphasis on those benefits for students at the USU
Clothing and Textile training. The subject came up during multiple workshops.
One presenter talked about research showing that there are specific mental
health benefits that go along with hand-eye projects, and that we have lost a
lot of those benefits in our society as young people rarely participate in such
In her young-adult novel, Sparrow Road, (Puffin Books,
2012) Sheila O-Connor describes a teenage girl named Raine, who is trying to
find the solutions to some difficult problems in her life. An adult mentor begins
to teach Raine to sew. After several days of sewing, Raine says, “I still didn’t
have an answer, but the steady act of sewing gave my heart some peace” (page
154). I love that line! I truly believe that creative activities have a healing
Creativity, and the peace that comes with it, is a gift we
can offer our students. Sewing, when projects are personalized, is
automatically engaging. There are adults who tell me that sewing stresses them
out, and I know there’s a story behind that. Actually, I’ve heard the story
over and over. I know it’s a true story because I saw it happen during my junior
high years. There were some sewing teachers who were so strict, they scared
their students half to death. I’ve had grown women who have faced difficult
life challenges tell me that they are terrified to try to put in a zipper
because of the way their sewing teacher made them feel when they were just 14.
We can alleviate stress in our sewing labs first of all by
helping young students understand that there will be mistakes. I make mistakes
every time I sew. Secondly, we must assure our students that when those
mistakes occur, we will be willing, available, and patient as we help them
understand how to fix those mistakes. We can also reduce stress by teaching
problem-solving skills and allowing students to take short breaks as needed if
their stress level begins to rise. Sewing should be joyful. When it is joyful, teachers
will naturally build their programs.
During the USU training we heard stories of schools that
have eliminated their sewing programs. Principals or districts may feel that
sewing is no longer practical or necessary, but when we take into consideration
the enormous need our current students have for mental health support, and when
we understand that sewing provides that mental health support, we recognize
that eliminating our programs is simply not acceptable. The critical-thinking
and problem-solving skills learned in a sewing lab are important academic reasons
to include sewing classes in our schools. I encourage both students and
administrators to see sewing classes as the perfect place to incorporate the
engineering design process. I also love to point out how sewing and clothing
design are all math; textiles are all science; fashion is communication,
history, and social studies; and fiber arts are art.
The USU Clothing and Textile training combined everything I
love about sewing and design. We had two fantastic keynote speakers. Carina
Gardner, who currently designs fabrics for Riley Blake, talked about fabric and
paper design and marketing, and how designers who understand the marketing
aspect can achieve financial success in the design field.
Melissa Clark, professor in the USU Outdoor Product Design Department, described the USU program for Outdoor Product Design. I’ve been watching this program since its inception. I love what they are doing, and I encourage young, aspiring designers to consider that program in their future.
Melissa was generous enough to let us try out her own outdoor product design by sewing a lightweight rucksack. This project was probably our most challenging project of the 2-day conference, and I was especially excited about this project, because my son has been telling me how much he needs something like this.
The patch on the backpack was not part of the original design. My daughter brought it home from a work-based learning experience at her own school, where someone from Hill Air Force Base had presented to her class about Homeland Security. My daughter didn’t feel strongly about keeping the patch, and my son loves everything about military planes of any kind. He hopes to become an aerospace engineer. I knew he would be excited about the patch, and it was a perfect match for this bag, so I couldn’t resist adding it on.
Besides the rucksack, we had opportunities for service sewing. This is just the beginning of the pile of mastectomy pillows we made for donation. You should have seen the way we worked together to get these done.
We made this lovely, lined travel jewelry clutch with pockets, zippers, snap-on attachments, and places for earrings, rings, and necklaces.
I was skeptical about learning to make macrame keychains, but this turned out to be a fun workshop.
We made swimsuit cover ups, and we did some hand sewing with
this cute “circles to hexagons” quilt block. I don’t do much quilting. I’m much
more focused on clothing. But I enjoyed the hexagon project, partly because it was
a great opportunity to feel the mental health benefits of hand sewing. Does it
have mistakes in it? Sure enough. Same as all my projects. But it turned out nice
One of the best parts of the conference was the opportunity
to visit and collaborate with a teacher from my own school and with teachers
from across the state. I loved to hear their stories and find out about the
projects they are doing and how they are finding success!
If you teach, I hope I see you at the USU Clothing and
Textile Training next year.
Flexible seating is just one way to help students feel safe, wanted, and respected in the classroom, but how do you make it work in junior high, especially when funding is limited? I’ve used flexible seating for several years, both in elementary and junior high school. If you want to try flexible seating I would say, just like with everything else, start simple.
One of the easiest ways to start is with a few yoga balls. Along with other items, these have gone up in price over the last few years, but you don’t need many of them to get a start on flexible seating. I get mine on Amazon. If you’re a Utah teacher, you can use “Class Wallet” money to buy them. Right now I have 6 in my classroom. They will need to be replaced from time to time, but having just a few makes buying and replacing them manageable. The 65 centimeter size is a great size for junior high school.
Not all teachers like yoga balls. The up-and-down or swaying movement makes some teachers dizzy. That’s another great reason to start small until you know if this option will work for you. If you are going to use yoga balls, you have to set up some rules, and you’ll also have to be careful how you present the whole thing to students. Junior high boys will snicker if you get the wording wrong. When I share my expectations with the kids, I always talk about “yoga seats.” That helps avoid problems. And here are the rules. Yoga seats are on a first-come, first served basis with no saving and no fighting. Yoga seats are seats, not toys. They should not be dribbled or thrown. It’s ok to get movement on a yoga seat, but it’s not ok to distract others. Yoga seats are not for doing the “Superman,” or rolling under the table and kicking your neighbor. If someone is sitting on a yoga seat, nobody else should kick that seat. If you are sitting on a yoga seat, you can’t bang it on the sides with your hands or otherwise make noise with it. If any student has difficulty meeting my expectations with a yoga seat, I will ask them to put it away. The kids understand my rules, and I’m consistent in enforcing those rules.
Not all students like yoga balls, which is another reason to start small. I have a handful of students in every classroom who can benefit from the movement that comes with sitting on a yoga ball, but many students are irritated by that movement. I’ve added other options to my seating to allow all students to find something that matches their personality.
Most of my students choose to sit in traditional student chairs at one of my 7 classroom tables where students work in teams. Each team usually has 5 students, but I have some larger classes where I have to have 6 students on some teams. I can lower the size of my teams by moving a few students to my soft seating area. I always have students volunteer for these soft saucer chairs, which are quite comfortable, and which I also found on Amazon. This is a great seating area for students who want less movement or want to be away from distractions.
The “tall table” is another option. I can almost predict the personality of students who will choose to sit at the “tall table.” Some will be rowdy or more likely to need redirection to stay on task. Often these kids are independent and creative thinkers.
For a few years my tall table was a regular classroom table on risers, just like the kind you could use to raise up a bed. The table was less stable that way, and even on risers, it wasn’t tall enough for me to use as a cutting table when I’m cutting fabric. This year my principal agreed to purchase a 36″ Nasco cutting table for my classroom. I absolutely love this cutting table! It saves my back when I have to cut fabric, and it’s a great surface for students working as well. The Nasco table has a larger surface area than the other tables in my classroom, and because some students naturally gravitate to that tall table, I often have 6 students seated on 24″ stools there.
I let students choose their seats on the first day of class with the understanding that if there is a problem, I will change their places. I also change their seating from time to time if I need to adjust teams for various projects. When I do adjust seating, I try to keep student preference for types of seating in mind.
Last week we started our third and last trimester of the year, which means that I am meeting four new classes of 7th graders for the first time. I have one student who came to class on the first day anxious and unsure about staying. I noticed how this student swayed and rocked while talking to me and asked the student if it would be more comfortable to sit on a yoga ball. The student lit up. Sometimes students have needs that I can easily meet by providing legitimate movement, and I’m happy to be able to do so. Every student can succeed. My challenge is to find a way to make that success possible.