The Giving Garden

30705558_10108570687704980_2455315584875757568_nOne thing I learned quickly as a teacher is that the best ideas and moments in a lesson are not the meticulously planned out ones, but the ones that present themselves in the middle of that well-intentioned lesson plan.   These are the opportunities that present themselves in class when you take the time to stop and listen to your students and be present in a lesson, noticing what is taking place right in front of you.  During my first year teaching 7th grade Life Science, I was conducting a controlled experiment in class during the first month of school.  We were testing whether soil types would affect the growth of corn seeds over a one month period.  I wanted to demonstrate the steps of the scientific method and never anticipated students being so eager to watch the seeds grow.  At the end of the experiment, I had a pack of leftover corn seeds that I was going to throw out.  I offered them to my students first and was surprised that they all began fighting over the seeds.  Because I didn’t have enough to go around, I went to the store that night and bought enough for each student to have two seeds.  Over the next few weeks, students came in with photos of their plants and told me stories of their experiences.  I soon learned that many of my students had never before seen a plant grow, let alone grown one themselves.  Seeing their excitement over the seeds stuck with me for the next months to come and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

In Life Science, students learn about plant cells, photosynthesis, pollination, and much more.  I felt strongly that the students needed hands-on experiences growing their own plants and seeing these processes take place first-hand.  As a new teacher, I wasn’t sure how to go about creating a garden at the school.  I wasn’t sure how to raise the funds, how to get it approved by the principal, or if it was even possible.  I held off for the remainder of the school year until we finally finished with state testing.  At this point in the year, we had a month left in school and could cover any topics we hadn’t had time to cover before testing or work on projects with our students that we felt were important.  I went to our principal with the idea of the garden and he loved the idea.  He gave me $100 to start our garden.  I was elated and set out to start our project.

I began to search the school grounds to figure out where I could place the garden.  After searching high and low, I found an abandoned area similar to a courtyard in between two hallways in the school.  There was a considerable area that was not being used and I had never even seen before stumbling upon it this day.  There was even an outdoor concreted area the size of a classroom that had not been used in ages.  I went to the principal and asked him if I could use this space and he agreed.  What started as a small garden, quickly grew in my mind as I saw what a large space we had to work with.  I went to businesses in our community to see if they would be willing to help us with our project and was extremely grateful when Lowe’s agreed to donate all of the materials we would need at cost.

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Each day, I would take students outside to the garden and we began cleaning up the area.  Students were incredibly excited about the project and very eager to help.  What I found out very quickly is that 30 students can accomplish a great deal in a small amount of time.  So much so, that I would run out of things for each student to do.  We began dividing up the work, building a chicken coop, preparing our 13 raised bed gardens, painting our outdoor classroom, and building benches for the classroom.  Over the next weeks, the once abandoned and dilapidated area was transformed into a now beautiful area that everyone in the school was suddenly noticing.  The garden began to gain interest and organizations at our school donated money to help fund the project.  Our principal even donated extra funds.

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We were finally through with construction phase of the garden when we hit a road block.  We had not been able to find anyone to donate the soil for the raised beds and did not realize how expensive this purchase would be.  With all of the raised beds ready to be filled and an empty bank account, I decided to reach out to the community for help.  I posted on social media photos of the garden and asked for their help in sharing our story and need.  Within 24 hours, we were contacted by a local nursery who said they would be willing to donate ALL of the soil at no cost.  The following day a delivery truck arrived at our school and my students quickly worked to fill the raised beds.  The generosity they showed our school was heart-warming and I can never truly thank them enough.

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With only a week left in the school year, we decided to have our students complete a garden research project.  Although I had planted a garden myself, I wanted them to work through the process on their own.  They were tasked with researching what fruits and vegetables we wanted to plant in the garden.  They had to find plants that would grow well in our climate, in raised beds with limited space, and would have a high yield.  As we built the garden, we had discussed we wanted to give back to our community as a way to thank everyone who had pitched in to make the garden possible.  We decided everything we grew in the garden would be given back to the community and eventually landed on the name, “The Giving Garden.”  Once students completed their research, we went to Lowe’s to purchase our plants and planted the garden on the very last day of school.  Over the summer, the science teachers checked on the garden and our chickens that we had hatched out in our incubator in class.  We took turns picking vegetables, watering the plants, and feeding the chickens.  When we were out of town, the custodians who work throughout the summer offered to pitch in and help check on it. When the students returned in the fall, we created a club for our 8th grade students to come back and work in the garden once a week after school.

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Since then, we have planted a winter and summer garden each year with our current students.  Every other Friday (when the weather permits) we take students out to the garden to work in it.  Students research what to plant in our garden each year and students also feed our chickens and collect the eggs each day.  The students get an opportunity to experience things first-hand and are always eager to go outside to the garden.  What started out as an experiment in class, transformed into something much, much bigger.  It always reminds me to take time each day to stop and listen to my students and look for those moments where opportunities reveal themselves.  We simply must take the time to stop and look for them.

I have always been fascinated by plants and animals.  I believe this fascination blossomed in large part due to my grandmother.  She was an avid gardener and taught me a lot of what I know about plants and how to care for them.  She always had a wide collection of plants throughout her house and beautiful garden.  She knew exactly how to care for each one of them.  She treated them as though they were her children and she certainly saw the beauty in each one.  She passed away last year and I keep a stone of hers on my desk that is inscribed with a quote that reads, “the seeds of today are the flowers of tomorrow.”  This could not be more fitting for us as teachers and something that we need to be reminded of each day.  It is the very work we do in each of our classrooms every single day that will create the flowers of tomorrow.

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Google Expeditions Virtual Reality – The Real Life Magic School Bus

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Last school year, I was extremely excited when I learned our classroom was receiving a grant from the Mozilla Gigabit Community in the amount of $10,000.  Mozilla awarded ten $10,000 grants to various schools and entrepreneurs in our city.  Some of the grantees hoped to develop virtual reality classroom experiences for their foreign language students.  Others wanted to develop robots that would allow teachers to observe other classrooms and transform the collaborative process among their teacher community.  For our grant, we hoped to bring virtual reality into our classroom and also connect with museums, scientists, and other amazing outlets to take our students on virtual field trips.

Google Expeditions is a classroom virtual reality set that allows a teacher to direct and lead students on a virtual field trip that can take them virtually anywhere in our entire solar system.  Teachers are no longer bound by their classroom walls and the opportunities they have available in their own communities or within their reach.  We are now able to create experiences for our students that were before unimaginable and even unattainable, at times.  With hundreds of virtual reality lessons to choose from, the teacher is able to conduct the field trip from the comfort of their own classroom using the Google Expeditions kit.  For my Life Science classroom we will travel to the Galapagos Islands when we discuss Charles Darwins’ finch observations.  We will travel inside an animal and plant cell and take a look inside organ systems when we learn about the human body.  As we cover biomes, we will take our students to a tropical rain forest, underwater on a scuba diving expedition to a marine ecosystem, and to the very top of Mount Everest as we see an alpine tundra firsthand.  To see what the full list of all of Expeditions available follow the link below:

Google Expeditions List

Before I tell you how much a classroom set of Google Expeditions costs, know that I provide options for as cheap as $15.00 to bring virtual reality into your classroom later in this post (so keep reading)!  It is also important to know that one set can be used by an entire school.  The Google Expeditions kit is in a travelling case that is easy to take from classroom to classroom and can be used by almost any and every teacher in your school.  It is possible to have technology bought out of Title One funds and one set could serve the entire school.  Other possibilities include creating a DonorsChoose or applying for grants to provide this for your school.

A classroom set (30) for Google Expeditions is roughly $10,000.  There are options to purchase a set of 10 and 20 as well, for a fraction of the price.  The kit comes with 30 virtual reality sets (phones, viewers, chargers), a teacher tablet that allows you to direct the Expedition, a wireless router for everything to connect to, and a rolling case that everything can be stored in that makes this a travelling set.  With relative ease, the teacher can search through available expedition lessons and each lesson downloads in a matter of seconds.  The teacher clicks on the Expedition they would like to direct and presses play on each scene.  Students follow along on their virtual reality set as the teacher guides and directs them through the lesson.  The teacher is able to see on their tablet the scene the students are viewing, along with information to share to the students about each scene.  The teacher can direct students to specific areas in each scene and is able to see what each student is viewing represented by a smiley face.

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Without fail, my students get so excited each time I bring out the virtual reality set in our classroom.  When I launch each lesson, the classroom explodes with excitement.  The students are able to travel to places around the globe, explore foreign lands, see microscopic organisms and even go inside the human body.  Google Expeditions not only gets students excited about learning, but provides a visual understanding of many complex topics.  Currently, I am teaching the human body systems unit in our Life Science class.  As we finished discussing the cardiovascular and respiratory system I was explaining to students how these two systems work together to get oxygen into the body and delivered to each cell in the human body.  It is one thing, to teach students, but an even better feeling to show them exactly what you mean.

With Google Expeditions, I was able to transport my students into the human body and show them how oxygen is transported from our respiratory system into our cardiovascular system.  We were able to view the inside of the lungs, where capillaries wrap around the alveoli and the exchange takes place.  The Expedition goes even further by taking you into the alveoli itself where you can view the oxygen molecules moving into the bloodstream.  There is zero doubt in my mind that my students have a much greater understanding of and appreciation for the amazing machine that is the human body after seeing it at work, first hand.  I always feel like Mrs. Frizzle taking our students inside the human body, except there is no Magic School Bus–only a Google Expedition set.

The exciting part about Google Expeditions is that it applies to all subject areas.  There are amazing lessons for all types of teachers.  Social Studies teachers can take their students to the Great Wall of China, to view Mosques of the Middle East, to ancient and modern wonders of the world, or to live as refugee for a day.  ELA teachers can view Shakespear’s roundhouse or take their students to a unique location and have them write about the setting, describe other cultures, or simply set the stage for a story that connects to one of the Expeditions.  There are career explorations, college tours, and all sorts of other neat experiences you could incorporate into a variety of classrooms.  As we have been realizing how adaptable these Expeditions are, other teachers have been using this in their classrooms.  Because it is a case with rolling wheels, it makes it very easy for the entire school to use as a traveling set.

Whether or not you would like to have a set for your school, even one virtual reality set could be a great addition to your school or classroom.  Cardboard viewers are available online and are relatively inexpensive.  Cardboard viewers allow you to place a smart device (phone, ipod touch, etc) inside and create a virtual reality experience.  Simply download apps in your app store, many of which are entirely free, and launch the app in your cardboard viewer.  This could be an excellent option for teachers to use for enrichment, rewards, or even a rotating station in your classroom.  For students in middle or high school, they can place their own phone in the viewer.  For elementary school teachers, you could simply use your personal phone or find an extra smart device that someone has retired to place in your cardboard viewer.  These options would all give you the virtual reality experience in your classroom at a relatively inexpensive price.  The link below is the official Google Cardboard Viwer sold on Amazon for $15.00:

Google Cardboard Viewer on Amazon

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I hope that you get to provide your students with this experience and witness the incredible learning opportunities that stem from this engaging and exciting virtual reality experience.  If you have any questions or need help getting started, please message me.  I would love to hear from you if you are using this in your own classroom and hear your experience!

My Teacher Journey: How My Journey Led Me Here

Welcome to my teaching blog!  I am very eager and excited to share my classroom with you.  My name is Ty Cook and I teach 7th grade life science.  This is my third year teaching science in the same classroom and I taught social studies at the high school level for one year prior to teaching science.  My teacher journey has not been a typical path to the classroom.  My first college degree was a Bachelor’s of Business from the University of Georgia.  I worked in finance and accounting for a few years (still unsure of what I wanted to truly do).  I truly value my first degree and work experience, but I knew deep down I was not fulfilled in that profession.  I had always dreamed of becoming a teacher and one day being able to inspire children the way that I had been inspired by so many incredible teachers along the way.

I went back to become a teacher and received my Master’s in Education Degree in 2014.  With the goal of teaching high school social studies, I set out in search of a job.  After many failed attempts, interviews, and countless rejections, I was approached by a former professor who had an opening at his charter school.  The position opened up during the last week of summer break at an elementary charter school.  Although I had never taught elementary school before, I was desperate for a job and interviewed for the 4th grade position.  Of all the positions I had interviewed for, I felt the least equipped and prepared for this particular one.  Naturally, I was chosen for the position and began teaching the following week.

I will never forget my first day teaching.  My classroom was located in the gym–construction for their school’s expansion had run behind and four teachers were placed in the gym with wall partitions as the only classroom “walls.”  The noise was unbearably loud and the conditions were not ideal.  I was given a classroom of students who had looped up with their teacher THREE years in a row due to their behavior.  She was a phenomenal teacher.  I on the other hand, was not.  I floundered in the classroom for weeks, unable to manage my student’s behavior, teach the simplest of lessons, or barely make it through the day without breaking down in tears.  My anxiety level had never been higher and I felt panic attacks coming on each day as I entered the school.

I am not a person who accepts failure readily or has found myself in the position of not being capable of a task I set out to complete; however, in this moment I came to the conclusion that not only was I not able to teach elementary school, I was also not the teacher these students so desperately deserved.  I felt like I was doing the students a disservice and turned in my notice the following morning.  This was a very low moment in my life as I felt I had made an absolute mistake going back to become a teacher.  I questioned if my dream of becoming had been just that–something that was merely an idea in my head.  Perhaps the idea would never become a reality.  Perhaps I was not equipped a teacher and what I hoped to become would never come to fruition.  Rejection, failure, and guilt were the things that weighed heavily on me as I was now at home, unemployed, and uncertain of the future.

A month or so later I received a phone call from my teacher idol, Mrs. Lane.  She was my high school social studies teacher all four years of high school and someone I deeply respected.  She is a huge part of why I became a teacher.  She let me know the department head where I attended high school would be out for many months on leave and asked if I would be willing to long-term sub at the school.  The class was AP US History and AP Economics and I jumped at the opportunity.  Still shaken and nervous from my recent experience, I knew if I did not get back on the proverbial horse that I may never actually follow my dream.

The first day of school, my second first day in one school year, had me in a state of panic.  I barely slept the night before, tossing and turning, worrying that I might have another tragic end result.  To my surprise, the next day was a teacher memory I will never forget.  As I interacted with each class and began to get to know the students, I felt my heart rising and confidence building.  The next days and months to come were challenging, as all new teaching experiences are, but I realized that my first experience would not define the rest of my teaching career.  I had not allowed myself to be defeated by my first failure and refused to give up on my dream.

While I was long-term subbing, the school asked me to co-teach one period of biology each day.  It was while I was in this classroom, that I realized my love for science.  The teacher in this classroom was phenomenal and a veteran teacher who not only knew her subject, inside and out, but was extremely passionate about teaching.  I quickly developed a new love for science and the hands-on learning that took place in the classroom.  As I continued my long-term sub position and it drew to a close, I constantly sought new opportunities that would land me a full-time teaching position.  I decided to add on a middle grades science certification, among many others, and was lucky enough to have a position open up at the middle school for the upcoming school year.

Middle school was an uncharted territory for me, once again, but I had very few options and was feeling more confident after my recent experience.  My first science interview was for a 7th grade life science position.  I felt more prepared and more experienced than I had before and I envisioned myself as the science teacher who would occupy that classroom.  I wanted the job very badly and had already began to run through my classroom setup, the layout, lesson plans, state standards, labs, and the vision of being my middle school teacher, Mrs. Travillian.  I still remembered her class as if it had just been yesterday.  Her classroom was always fun, upbeat, positive, and hands-on and she was a role model to her students.  I wanted this job to be the one and to be that teacher that students remembered years from now.

After an intense interview, I walked away feeling unsure if I had impressed the principal.  I received a call later that day expecting to be heartbroken, but was shocked when he offered me the position.  I immediately accepted the job and went to work.  My first year teaching middle school was one of the most memorable years of my life.  The year was not without its challenges, sleepless nights, or sheer exhaustion.  I reluctantly become a coach, and practiced every day after school and came home late from cross country meets.  I experienced so many firsts, learned from the teachers around me, and grew tremendously in my first year.  It was through this year that I realized that everything that I had gone through on my journey had led me directly to where I needed to be.  I fell in love with my subject, I explored new ways of teaching, I deeply cared for my students, and felt I had come home as I was teaching at the same middle school I attended.

I want to share my journey that brought me to this very moment with you for an important reason.  There were so many instances where my journey could have gone in so many different directions.  At the time, it was difficult, but I could not be more thankful or feel more grateful that my journey led me to where I am today.  For teachers that are reflecting on their journey, in the midst of it, or soon to begin it, I hope that my story inspires you to stick with it.  I hope that you believe, as I firmly do, that you will end up where you are meant to be even if you cannot figure out where that will be during those trying times.

My goal in beginning this blog is to share with teachers anything I feel may help you along the way.  I plan to share the good, the bad, and the ugly and to be as honest about my journey, as possible.  This is the beginning of my blog and the start of a new journey.  I hope that by me sharing my story, you will also return the favor and help those teachers in your own school, community, or that you connect with whenever you are able.